To put it up front, this essay is not about relativization. I am sitting in my flat, trying to make ends meet between supervising my children’s chaotic homeschooling, my own home office, and maintaining social and supply relations, especially with more anxious elderly relatives. I am glad that the Austrian government decided in good time to issue severe measures, and so I am slightly optimistic that the pandemic, which I recognize as a serious threat, might not result in utter disaster here, as I fear it might occur in other countries. So whence my subtitle? Isn’t the use of “love” merely cynical in this context, as is the allusion to Dr. Strangelove and Armageddon? No, it is not, I reckon, and here is why:
Gaia, the world organism, fired a shot across the bow of humankind’s ship.
The world system with its increasingly neoliberal and technocratic control loops has been compared to “nature” and to “laws,” and divine entities like “the market” and “the economy” were instantiated to steer us like fate towards the one and only end.
On this ship, a couple of captains, officers, and administrators have been steering the course they deemed the right one, and the only one. The rest of the ship’s complement—passengers and those hidden in the depths working the machinery—tended to believe that “there is no alternative.” Oh yes, I remember Maggie Thatcher. The world system with its increasingly neoliberal and technocratic control loops has been compared to “nature” and to “laws,” and divine entities like “the market” and “the economy” were instantiated to steer us like fate towards the one and only end.
Because of Gaia’s well-aimed shot, the captains were forced to instantly slow down the ship and heave to the side, avoiding the fatal hit foreseen. We are steering a different course now, slower, elsewhere bound, and somewhat aimless. The captains and officers assure us that after the current crisis, we will, of course, step-by-step, return back to “normalcy.” Back on course.
It amazes me what is possible. China locked down much of transport and production, and airborne nitrogen dioxide significantly decreased during this phase. Austria’s chancellor waved his hand and four billion euro materialized to support the local economy. As this turned out to be much too small an amount, another magical gesture: And let there be 38 billion euro. Climate-change activists have been trying to convince people, companies, and governments to reduce flying, virtually without any result; and now, air travel is almost at a halt, globally.
The current course involving severe restrictions cannot be upheld for long; this is clear, as damage is unavoidable, mainly menacing small-scale enterprises, artists, McJob-workers, and similarly underprivileged. It should not be maintained longer than absolutely needed. We have to bring the ship back on course, but not necessarily on the old one.
However, no crisis has hitherto triggered such powerful responses in regulating general pollution, companies, transport, and trade, and even, hopefully, in social reorientation towards solidarity
Why I love the virus: The damage-impact-ratio is overwhelming. Many other crises, wars, mass migrations, global warming, and other health threats like Ebola and malaria, are much more dangerous and have caused, and probably will cause, many more casualties, deaths, and suffering; again, mostly among the underprivileged. However, no crisis has hitherto triggered such powerful responses in regulating general pollution, companies, transport, and trade, and even, hopefully, in social reorientation towards solidarity. I assume that this is due to a rather ignorant perception of threat: wars, Ebola, migrants, and the climate are commonly regarded far away or even neglected by the powerful. With the virus, though, politicians, CEOs, and top-level criminals are as affected by fear as the rest of the world: They all are either old or they have elderly relatives and friends, and neither money nor power prove reassuring at all. The virus crowns humankind democratically: Prince Charles tested positive, as did a child in my son’s school.
We witness that the ship can be steered on a course that is decided by the crew and not by destiny or the divine market.
When the ship will be back on course, we all will therefore know that “there is an alternative.” It is not the law of nature that locks us to neoliberal capitalism. We witness how powerful the state can be, backed up by democratic majorities. We witness that the ship can be steered on a course that is decided by the crew and not by destiny or the divine market. With this knowledge and trust in survival that we will have gained from the virus-shot-across-the-bow, many things become possible in our collective future.
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