How is the aftermath of COVID-19 crisis being imagined in different settings? How is this shaping beliefs, practices, and policies?

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April 16, 2020

UPDATE April 30

Itty Abraham's article (2020) on The India Forum on "Four Future Scenarios". Professor Itty Abraham is a political scientist and STS scholar who works in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. Abraham talks about the "universal, uneven and endless" moment of COVID19 pandemic, positing four scenarios dominated by:

(1) pro-state progressive optimists: those who see this moment as end of neoliberalism and belief in the capacity of to learn. He gives Korea as an example of a successful public health system resulting from years of popular struggle that wore down authoritarian infrastructure. 

(2) end-of-globalization pessimists: those who believe international cooperation is at an end, the future of "relative international autarky". Gramsci's concept of the interregnum, a state of turmoil, bringing a new world polarity

(3) disaster capitalism pessimists: reinforcement of capitalism during crises exemplified by 9/11 and 2008 financial crisis. Relevant for US specially, close to "living with the bomb" scenarios of WWII. Lessons from the global anti-nuclear movement?

(4) techno-optimists: view this moment as latest challenge to human ingenuity, Whiggish reading of the past, learning from victories over diseases of the past. What lessons from HIV epidemic? 

Original Post April 17

Pedro's and James' responses to this question show the many ways in which thinking about the future post-COVID19 is resolutely tied to thinking about the crises of neoliberalism and sovereignty. They ask critical questions: How would political organization and mobilizing shift in response? Is it possible to imagine a "left-leaning" economics that is not nationalist? I want to respond to and build on these responses by asking one question: For whom is a non-neoliberal future possible?

I ask this question because I want to be attentive to people who have been thinking and practicing non-neoliberalism long before COVID showed how fragile neoliberalism of the global North is. I want to build on those who have long before realized how the logics of neoliberal capitalism were: (1) constituted in the global North through testing and experimenting elsewhere; (2) built on ongoing racial capitalism projects globally; (3) resisted in multiple ways globally. By asking this question, I want to build upon the work of scholars who have shown that neoliberalism was, and continues to be, a transnational project. And that the ways of resistance and organizing would therefore be transnational too. Is it possible to think about a future without stitching the past? In my response, I provide links to the works I have read before, or I am currently reading, that ask similar questions. 

When I hear and read about how COVID-19 has disrupted neoliberalism in an unprecedented way, I am reminded of the tendency to exceptionalize Trump, analysed in an exceptional way by Jonathan Rose and Yarimar Bonilla (2017), who point to a crisis of liberalism that the election of Trump brought upon many public intellectuals and scholars. They ask, "Has anthropology produced the kind of knowledge about the United States as a settler state that is required to understand the current moment?" Can we invoke an inclusive United States that never was? I am reminded of one of the CENHS podcasts I listened to, where Kyle Powys Whyte talked about "settler apocalypticism" in thinking about the Anthropocene and climate futures, in thinking about conceptions of time, morality and responsibility in times of crisis. His words will stay with me:  "What does it mean to think of an indigenous futurity when we don’t take today’s world for granted, but actually look at it as a apocalyptic and dystopian world?". Do we take today's world for granted when we think about how COVID has disrupted neoliberalism? For Whyte, the world at present is dystopic.

What vocabularies do we have to talk about crises when we live in a world that is a palimpsest of crises? I think we could look elsewhere, places that have been exceptionalized as places of ever-unfolding crises. Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nutall, in their article on "Writing the World from an African Metropolis" (2004), contemplate how to write about African cities in a way that doesn't portray them as failed projects of incomplete modernity arising out of colonial European encounters. When we talk about African cities, they ask, why is it that we are left with images of decay and breakdown on one hand, and survival and velocity against all odds on the other? Why are we left with images of weakened or ineffectual state, even in scholarly conversations? These questions are important because precisely these images were used as justifications for testing and experimenting neoliberal policies in the structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s-present, which would replace a weak and inefficient state in the global South.

I point to Mbembe and Nutall's line of questioning also because they recognise that crisis-thinking is epistemological, it points to the "limits to the capacity of epistemological imagination, to pose questions about what we know and where we know that from”. How do we talk about African cities like we talk about other cities? They argue that the first step would be to recognize that African cities are already fully located, and have been, even before trans-Atlantic trades, in global circuits of finance, labor, and capital. This does not mean that we don't talk about failure, but that failure is not exceptionalized in a way that feeds Africa's representation as "intractable, mute, abject, other-worldly”. The challenge is to think with subjects and places that cannot be easily located. This bibliography on how migration/borders is intersecting with COVID-19 is one example where we would need vocabularies that neither exceptionalize nor provincialse. 

The question of political organizing and mobilizing in times of crisis therefore needs to build on movements and organizing that have resulted out of long histories of exclusion. How does movement-building look like from those who have learned to organize in a state that was to them mostly oppressive and withdrawn? Corinna Mullin and Azadeh Shahshahani (2020) reflect on what a transnational perspective on movement-building and organizing looks like. Their excellent article points to early Black radical internationalism and organizations, indigenous internationalism, the international peasant and ecological movement of Via Campesina, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, Black for Palestine and The Red Nation movements, for example. In short, we have much to learn from responses by ongoing anti-imperialist movements during COVID-19 which have called for cancellation of neocolonial debt, land repatriation, reconfiguration of gig and hustle economies, just to give a few examples. 

In thinking about future and learning, I also found reading Guilberly Louissaint's (2020) article “Hygiene” is the Future: Lessons from “Post”-Cholera Haiti quite refreshing. Reflecting on the aftermath of COVID-19 responses, he notes: "the haunting of the COVID-19 epidemic will remain, not just in the memories of the things and ones that have been lost, but also in a haunted public. Governments will be consumed by the constant effort to manage our new enemy by implementing rigid, authoritarian policies, in which hygiene predominates and the invisible world becomes a target... I depart with the wisdom of Clyde Woods’ “Haiti is the Future.” It is poetic to think that worlds that were seen with no future, but ruins have lived the current reality of COVID-19 time and time again."

James Adams's picture
April 8, 2020

The COVID moment makes me think, among other things, of Gramsci’s critique of Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of the general strike. Gramsci argued, convincingly, that the general strike is no longer an effective means of disruption because of the level of development of the capitalist nation-state and world market. Well, COVID has disrupted everything more than any sort of social mobilization ever could. Except, perhaps, mobilizing for a war between nation-states, but even that is debatable. We all know that war is good for business and also the status quo.

I am wondering how the COVID crisis might be destabilizing formerly entrenched power relations, or at least rendering them more tenuous and ambiguous? On the one hand, it has certainly intensified certain forms of structural violence, such as the many LMI communities and people of color who are more susceptible to COVID complications because they have already endured years to decades of deadly levels of air pollution. On the other hand, the crisis also appears to be leveling out some of the more extreme asymmetrical power relations, like those between environmentalists and the oil and gas industry. For instance, the working conditions of both oil rigs and coal mines are uniquely susceptible to COVID outbreaks, which is prompting politicians to consider all their options as far as shutting down or reducing personnel and operations. There was also Virginia’s House Bill 528 that passed both the Senate and the House of Representatives and is currently awaiting the governor’s signature. Amid the COVID crisis and without much attention, a junior legislator pushed the bill through quietly, allowing greater state regulation of Dominion Energy’s monopoly over the region’s utilities. This victory is being interpreted as “a good start,” inspiring progressives in the state to act towards a more comprehensive set actions with “the imminent passage of the overarching Virginia Clean Economy Act.”

On another front, the COVID crisis is intersecting with Vladimir Putin’s price war, causing his plan to backfire to the degree that he and the leaders of other oil producing states are presented with very little means or options for raising the price of oil back to the pre-price war levels. The economic slow-down from quarantine mandates (along with the oil price war between Russia-Saudi Arabia) is also opening a new space for organizers along the gulf coast to fight against pipeline and refinery projects. Renewables, by contrast, are surviving COVID much better than fossil fuels and are on track to continue to outpace oil and gas development after the quarantines subside.

That being said, this depreciation of oil and gas prices isn’t necessarily a bloodless victory for environmentalists. Rates of natural gas flaring have increased significantly in 2020 and environmental watchdogs expect even more in response to the low prices of oil and natural gas. Furthermore, due to COVID-related labor shortages, many operators are having a hard time keeping these flares lit and yet continue to emit pure methane into the atmosphere, taking a far heavier toll on public health and the environment.

The cumulative impact of these developments has me questioning how the COVID crisis might be shaking the foundations of neoliberal hegemony. I am currently researching efforts to transition to renewable energy in Austin, Texas. Texas is unique in the energy world in many respects, none moreso than the state's level of committment to deregulation. However, this article in the Houston Chronicle discusses how Texas' deregulated electricity market complicates efforts to secure people’s access to electricity in a dramatic economic downturn (like COVID). In these situations, electric cooperatives and municipally owned utilities can simply run at a loss to ease the financial burden of electricity on their customers. They can then recover these losses by appealing to their regulators during their next rate case. The same does not go for retail energy providers, who have no mechanism to recover such losses. Thus, if left to their own devices, Texas’ recent state-wide moratorium on disconnecting people from the grid (due to job/income loss from COVID sanctions) would likely force small retail electricity providers out of business. This could then force other consumers to make the switch to more expensive providers that they may not be able to afford, causing a chain reaction of default and bankruptcy.

The Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT) was therein forced to come up with a new solution for electricity customers in the state's deregulated areas, which includes the majority of Texans (70%). What the PUCT decided upon is reminiscent of what authors Wainwright and Mann describe in their Climate Leviathan scenario (2018). The PUCT declared a state of emergency to establish its sovereignty and determine who shall pay for electricity, how much, and for how long, all in the name of keeping Texas’ the “deregulated” market alive.

To be more precise, the PUCT came up with an emergency fund that charges all ratepayers an extra .033 cents/kilowatt hour that will be used to compensate retail energy providers. Qualified rate payers would receive a 4cent/kilowatt hour credit on their bills that will go to the retail provider and keep them afloat. Most customers, however, pay more than that rate (almost double). These customers will be set up on payment deferment plans and will be prohibited from switching energy providers until this debt is paid in full. This effectively nullifies lower-to-moderate income families’ ability to switch providers to keep their cost of electricity as low as possible. Ironically, this feature was part of the fundamental rhetoric behind the deregulation of the Texas energy market back in the 1990s, a rhetoric that is embedded in the PUCT’s often praised Power To Choose tool.

Admittedly, this particular example is not one of revolutionary change, but one of containment and eventual re-integration into the status quo. It does, however, also show that the contemporary hegemony of neoliberalism is at least under stress. To the contrary of the expectations embedded in nearly every strategy of resistance, the political economic effect of quarantine is such that it is almost as if "the general strike" has been imposed upon us by the state in response to the threat of COVID-19. And as a result, free market ideologies are being challenged like never before. I am left wondering if and how different environmental/social justice groups are thinking about this disruption of traditional modes of production, distribution, and finance and rethinking their political strategies accordingly. Progressive movements springing up like The People’s Bail Out (PBO) suggest that many are aware of this moment of simultaneous need and opportunity.

 

Here is a quote for the PBO website:

“Policymakers and the administration have put forward plans that attempt to return the economy back to a status quo where safety and security are promised only to corporations and the wealthy few. Gambling trillions of tax dollars on stimulating the stock market can't fix the shortage of hospital beds, or the pollution in our skies. Only workers can. 

In this moment of crisis, we need to change the rules. Let’s pull together, as we've done in times past, to demand our government provides money and care to those who are hardest hit by this crisis.”

Pedro de la Torre III's picture
March 28, 2020

In the US, many public intellectuals on the left have been discussing how this pandemic has challenged the seemingly inevitable dominance of neoliberal governing regimes and ideologies, and has expanded the conditions of possibility for social democratic or socialist ideas and policies. However, the imagined post-neoliberal era is no necessarily concieved of in the same way.

A couple of helpful examples include:

  • In a widely shared video (2020), Naomi Klein draws on her previous work on disaster capitalism in the Shock Doctrine (2007) to argue not only that “Coronavirus Capitalism” must be resisted, but that there are many social democratic ideas “lying around” that are both crucial to responding to the current public health and economic crisis, and made possible because of the shock to the system. These ideas include the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, canceling student debt, guaranteeing paid sick leave, and providing permanent shelter to the unhoused.


  • Marxist geographer David Harvey wrote an article (2020) for Jacobin magazine that examined the pandemic through the lens of Marxist theory of crises, examining the mutation and transmission of the virus through neoliberal globalization’s production of nature, the failures of neoliberal healthcare systems to respond, and the crisis that the pandemic and its response pose to most forms of consumer capitalism. He contrasts the current COVID-19 economic crisis with the Great Recession, and argues, among other things, that:

…the burden of exiting from the current economic crisis now shifts to the United States and here is the ultimate irony: the only policies that will work, both economically and politically, are far more socialistic than anything that Bernie Sanders might propose and these rescue programs will have to be initiated under the aegis of Donald Trump, presumably under the mask of Making America Great Again.

All those Republicans who so viscerally opposed the 2008 bailout will have to eat crow or defy Donald Trump. The latter, if he is wise, will cancel the elections on an emergency basis and declare the origin of an imperial presidency to save capital and the world from “riot and revolution.”

At least in these articles, Klein is essentially issuing both a warning and an optimistic call to action while Harvey seems to be arguing neoliberalism’s incapacity to deal with this kind of crisis may lead to an embrace of at least some aspects of a “left-leaning” economic policy regime, but one that may well be represented and enacted through a nationalistic lens, likely at the expense of left movements, civil liberties, democratic participation, internationalism/transnationalism, marginalized populations, and migrants.

Harvey, David. 2020. “Anti-Capitalist Politics in the Time of COVID-19.” Jacobin, March 20, 2020. https://jacobinmag.com/2020/03/david-harvey-coronavirus-political-econom....

Klein, Naomi. 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Macmillan.

———. 2020. “Coronavirus Capitalism — and How to Beat It.” Online Video. The Intercept. https://theintercept.com/2020/03/16/coronavirus-capitalism/.