By Jacob Taylor
"When unchallenged and unmitigated capitalism leaves us so vulnerable to a crisis like this, then it’s an indicator that a system which delivers efficiency and promotes human well-being has begun to slip."
As with any major crisis, this pandemic presents a disruption to our current political reality. Just as with the major economic crashes of the past, or at the end of the Second World War, we are faced with a moment in which the curtain is pulled and current political ideology is laid bare, and as with these past crises, what will happen next is anything but inevitable.
Let’s think about the World Wars, the culmination of centuries of European powers fighting over expanding their territories – a whole continent built on aggressive imperialism, and finally, the chickens came home to roost. The logic of imperialism, of aggression, had come to destroy the continent it had helped to build. Those who had most benefited from the empires and wars of Europe, ruling elites who often held their places by birthright, invasion, usurpation or some combination of them all, had sentenced millions of their citizens to death.
At the end of two lengthy, bloody wars, the political reality which for so long had been taken for granted as the only reality was unable to stave off its own contradictions. It was no longer able to survive unquestioned when it’s destructive force came to such a visible crescendo. The ideas that were taken for granted, that were simply accepted as reality – as commandments brought down by a divine being – suddenly became so obviously artificial.
It is only upon waking from a dream that we realise it is not reality. It is only the piercing light of sunrise which allows us to see the absurdities and inconsistencies in an experience we once accepted as real. Large events in human history sometimes act as an alarm clock that wakes us from slumber, like a rising sun that shines on all the ruling political ideas which exist in imperceptible shadow.
Through our modern eyes, we can look back and see the obvious immorality of the socio-political ideas and institutions of the recent past and say we would never repeat them. We often think that to sufficiently live up to this promise we need only to not repeat the actions that we see in textbooks, in black and white film. But what is meant, or at least what should be meant by never repeating the mistakes of history is to never continue believing that there is only one political reality.
This is a mistake that has haunted us since the beginning of human civilisation – an unshakeable belief in the political reality in which we currently live.
Žižek believes that “the ideology that presents itself as empirical fact or (biological, economic … ) necessity” – in other words, the ideology that disguises itself as non-ideology – is the most dangerous, and the type of ideology we should be most alert to.
“There is no alternative” - famously proclaimed by Margaret Thatcher and a sentiment somewhat echoed by Francis Fukuyama when his book suggested that we had reached The End of History, there appears to be no greater explication of this type of ‘non-ideological’ ideology. Perhaps never before had there been such an open ceremony in which a new political reality was welcomed in – making it’s quick and cement-like adhesion to the public psyche as the only possible reality all the more bizarre. Having just witnessed the ceremonial arrival of a new political reality, replacing the old, it was accepted as if it were the only reality to ever have existed.
The rules of the market are now the rules of the Matrix, having enough food to feed the world a few times over cannot solve world hunger, because the rules of capitalism rely on the distributive mechanism of supply and demand – and these are rules written on stone tablets.
The situation that we are now in is perhaps another moment in history when the cruelty and inconsistencies of the accepted reality are brought into question. When unchallenged and unmitigated capitalism leaves us so vulnerable to a crisis like this, then it’s an indicator that a system which delivers efficiency and promotes human well-being has begun to slip. When the stark, deep inequalities of society become such an obvious point of vulnerability in the form of huge death tolls, when we have a political reality which not only creates and exacerbates these inequalities but insists on them as a necessity for its own survival, it starts to look more like a bad dream upon waking – its nonsensical rules and narrative becoming upsettingly clear.
"The rules of the market are now the rules of the Matrix, having enough food to feed the world a few times over cannot solve world hunger, because the rules of capitalism rely on the distributive mechanism of supply and demand."
As I stated at the beginning, it is all but inevitable that this crisis will result in a change of political reality. The financial crash of 2008, despite showing an existential crisis of capitalism, only reaffirmed its position as our reality. Banks were bailed out through unthinkable sums, austerity measures were imposed across the world – causing untold damage and misery, only deepening divisions and inequalities – and in the end, these measures also made us far more vulnerable to this pandemic. Countless lives were made worse, the general living conditions of most of the world were made worse, and it was done so because it was taken for granted that capitalism is reality – rules we must obey as if laws of physics.
What is real is the virus, the lives lost, the people helping to fight it and those of us locked up in our houses. What isn’t real is capitalism, and political reality more generally. As soon as a political reality comes into conflict with what is real, makes worse what is real, then it must be abandoned and from it the emergence of a better reality.
Jacob Taylor is a recent graduate in political philosophy from Leiden University in The Netherlands. His main areas of interest within politics are social justice and equality.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.