Early on, the coronavirus pandemic was experienced as a novel socio-viral jolt. The rush of closures and shutdowns, alarming as they all were, could equally be accompanied by a sense of giddy intrigue. Understandably so: as those of us lucky enough not to have been immediately designated “essential” hunkered down in anticipation of an interruption lasting perhaps a few weeks before we returned to something like normal, the interim prospect of staying in wasn’t so bad. If I recall, my plans at the time were to catch up on the novels I had been meaning to read, a nice break before a planned summer of intense archival research. 23 months later, the everyday “vibe” of the pandemic has changed entirely. To say nothing of the death and sickness that is constantly in the background, and sometimes the foreground, of pandemic life, novelty has given way to annoyed familiarity as we ride the wave of the “new normal.” Lockdown, quarantine, distancing, masking, vaccinations, boosters. Been there…
This sketch of the quotidian trajectory of the pandemic has a certain mirror image in political and ideological life. From within the novel stage of the pandemic, political possibility could be seen everywhere. Could the “essential worker” category prompt a broad reconsideration of work and its value in places where, for decades, labour had been under attack? Could the massive mobilization of state institutions across the globe induce a renewed look at state capacity and the ends to which it could be put? Could collective vulnerability to the virus lead to a questioning of the individualistic doctrines that have featured so prominently in the political arenas of capitalist countries at least since Margaret Thatcher informed us all that society does not exist? Could unequal vulnerability to the virus lead to a serious effort to combat the widening of the gap between rich and poor both within and between states? All these questions were, at various times in the last 23 months, on the table. And while it would be short-sighted to announce that all of these political opportunities have passed us by, they have run into familiar challenges and obstacles. The pandemic has not greased the wheels of an imminent revolution, that’s for sure.
In fact, if the early days of the pandemic were dominated by a sense that things might be about to change politically, the tide has recently begun to flow decisively in the opposite direction. Some of this can be explained by the still-dominant place of the United States within global capitalism and its discursive realms. Rightly or wrongly, and with robust evidence of imperial decline to hand, we still tend to think that as goes the United States, so goes the capitalist world. Accordingly, it might be argued that the peak moment for pandemic-political optimism came shortly after the faux-end of the Trumpist nightmare and the inauguration of President Biden. Touting New Deal-esque legislation that earned him widespread comparisons to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Biden looked poised to upend decades of austere policy orthodoxy by opening the fiscal floodgates (or leaving them open after a year of pandemic stimulus) and fundamentally altering the orientation of the American state. The end of neoliberalism and the dawn of a new social democratic era? These notions were seriously entertained in many corners, within and beyond the United States.
From the vantage of the present, this all looks naïve. Social democracy: meet United States Senator Joseph Manchin (D-W.Va.). But even acknowledging the folly of assessing epochal political-economic shifts based on legislative developments in a single country, it still seems as though it was mistaken to believe that the pandemic would, or in fact did, deliver a body blow to the existing order. Such thinking involved, it would seem, undue optimism about the relative power of ideas and interests in capitalist society. As the pandemic was laying bare the myriad irrationalities baked into our way of living, the interests served by those systemic defects were mounting an effective defence, and not just in boardrooms and government offices. In fact, the defence of the status quo has had a significant grassroots component. Every anti-vaccine or anti-mask rally, for example, could be read as a statement that normal is good enough, even if normal implies mass preventable death and illness. For all the progressive ideas that the pandemic has put on the table, there have been corresponding elements of reaction, and even if the agents of capitalism have not as a rule sided with the latter, the exigencies of managing reaction have been an obstacle for the former.
Is normal good enough? Perhaps it’s not the right question to ask. There is very little evidence to suggest that “normal” is an available option. Even as the same old ideas and interests doggedly persist, they do not seem capable of returning us to something that we’d recognize either as normal or as good enough. Resistance to this realization is currently, and will likely continue to be, a contributor to any number of political maladies, mistakes, and malignancies. Normality is a political dead end. While persistent global capitalism on the other side of this pandemic, if we ever get there, is entirely possible and probably likely, gone are the days in which capital could contain its attendant crises in a way sufficient to allow most people to go about their lives as usual. Normal? Goodbye to all that.