After Beforetimes: a New Year reflection

The word that sums up what has happened: beforetimes. Beforetimes, life, we supposed, was normal. Our lives moved forward according to the rhythm of the seasons, the way stations of birthdays and anniversaries, and the passage of Shakespeare’s seven ages of man. This was normality, and we recognised it was imperfect. In beforetimes there was injustice, but many of us knew where we stood: underdogs in a struggle against the self-interest of capital. We were aware our weakness. We were hampered by the deficits of actually existing democracy after the collapse of communism, after the war on terrorism, after the near-death experience of capitalism. We didn’t agree about how to go about improving things or even exactly what a fair society ought to look like, but some progress was made through fighting to enlarge what society understood to be normal, insisting on everyone’s right to participate whatever their sexuality, ethnicity or religion, and protesting the injustice of the economic inequalities which exacerbated these differences. The first thing to impinge on this sense of normality was the growing awareness of climate change, which made the question of a radical change in direction a matter of increasing urgency, but still we believed that another world is possible. That was beforetimes.

And now another world has come about, unbidden, and beforetimes is behind us. First of all, the coronavirus pandemic wrenched normality out of true by suspending our sense of everyday time and its interlocking regularities, a topic of great fascination to numerous scribblers (including this one). Our biological rhythms continue as before (as long as we don’t get infected) but outside our front doors, time faltered, and while scientists tried to teach us to count the passage of time in new ways as they modelled the propagation of the virus and its impact, in the corridors of power, which became ever more isolated and remote, the politicians vacillated like rabbits caught in the headlights of a car at night, not knowing which way to turn. Meanwhile, the entire global apparatus of material production began to seize up, as just-in-time supply lines were interrupted, and national economies collapsed as entire sectors shut down, from pubs and theatres to schools and universities, and countless precarious workers from baristas to dancers were thrown out of work, for whom time became all but suspended. Only one sector was immune and indeed prospered: the internet, the virtual reality that embraced a physical reality thrown seriously out of joint. Then, just over a year ago, came the miracle of a vaccine and time took on a new rhythm, the beginning of a race, but only for a new insidious injustice to emerge, as rich countries bought up the lion’s share of the supplies and poor countries were deprived and left unprotected. Ignoring the injunction that no-one is safe until everyone’s safe, the self-interest of big pharma has prevented the donation of their intellectual property rights to the public domain to help fulfil this target. Now, two years since the virus first appeared, the world suffers the consequences: a new variant, nurtured it seems in the global South, which even if milder in the illness it produces, has a much greater rate of infection. Hospital admissions again increased, even if deaths remain comparatively low. Almost nowhere, however, can it be said that the pandemic is under control, and the best the scientists hope for is that it eventually recedes to the endemic level of influenza, but that’s still a long way away. In short, there will be no return to the normality of beforetimes.

Secondly, with lockdown, new inequalities appeared in everyday life. Who was able to work from home? Which children had no access to online lessons? Who was exposed because they lived in overcrowded three-generation households? Who’s income disappeared overnight? As each deficiency came to light, it became clear that they were exacerbated by a decade of government-imposed austerity, and now government was caught on the hop, pummelled by the consequences of its own prevarication and incompetence, awarding contracts to their friends without due process, seemingly unable to do anything that didn’t go wrong – until the vaccine arrived and for once, they realised that only the NHS had the means to undertake a rapid vaccination campaign. I speak of Britain but there are very few places where the state has been up to the task, most countries lacking either the resources, or the political will of China, with its brutal authoritarianism. Or even more ironically, the small island of Cuba, at the other pole of surviving Communism, which has one of the highest rates of vaccination on the planet, using its own vaccines, the only country in Latin America to have developed one, where at the moment, infections are very low and deaths only intermittent. But Cuba is a special case. Perhaps the UK is also a special case, in which more people now think Brexit was a mistake than voted for it. As someone tweeted after the fateful referendum, ‘We had a headache, so we shot ourselves in the foot. Now we can’t walk and still have a headache.’ That was also in beforetimes, but the consequences are now playing out and the politicians use the pandemic as a smokescreen.

And after beforetimes? Are we not now in the times already described by Gramsci? ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ In this perspective, perhaps the virus itself should be seen not as an accident but also a symptom – of a leaky ecosystem prone to zoonotic diseases, of which there have been several in recent years. The morbid symptoms now appearing are not just physical, nor psychological, but also economic, social, and political, and emerge from the deep cracks which appeared in the old when fictitious money collapsed in an avalanche of bad debt, and as Paul Mason succinctly put it, ‘When the banks collapsed, the system collapsed because nobody knew who was carrying how much bad debt. The reason for that was they created in the short space of ten years an almost secret and opaque system of what we call now the shadow banking system.’ The crash of 2008 was not a surprise for such as marxists and their fellow travellers, though no-one could predict its timing, and while seasoned economists argued about causes, what the capitalist class now discovered was that the system was catastrophically damaged below the water line, and growth in the capitalist heartlands was stalling. But this is fatal. Capitalism depends on continual growth, it can’t stand still, if it isn’t growing it’s contracting. This is the logic that marxism discovered hidden within the system, but now another contradiction has emerged, because the system that destroys its environment destroys itself. The growth celebrated by the ideologues of capitalism is accumulative and expansive, driven by a culture of consumerism in which everything, whether we need it or not, and even the dreams we don’t know we have, becomes commoditised, with the single purpose of fleecing the consumer. Ecological consciousness demands that we remember that biological growth is different. Biological growth is cyclical and seasonal and replenishes. Capitalist growth operates through Schumpeter’s ‘creative destruction’ and the environment which is destroyed is not infinite. We have to stop growing because there can’t be infinite growth; there is no Planet B.

In the months following the crash of 2008 numerous articles by pundits declared the end of neoliberalism, but it has a very long death rattle. The state, in hock to financial capital, and unable to control the forces which it invited into being in the 1980s, added to its own debt, feeding the banks with more fictitious money, wilfully allowing inequality to grow instead of borrowing to engage in productive investment, and this is what globalisation began to mean to increasing numbers of people, even at the same time they become ensnared by the global communications apparatus of the internet and mobile telephony. Global corporations, which overarch the state and are richer than many an underdeveloped country put together, remain out of the reach of any individual state, even the most powerful. Some say that capitalism has mutated, but it hasn’t changed its spots. Now we’re coming up against the limits of growth, and a new clamour is being heard, a new fear, a new spectre come to haunt us, called the anthropocene, especially after COP26 turned into what Greta Thunberg called a ‘global north greenwash festival’.
The seasons no longer come and go with quite the same regularity as beforetimes. Last year brought a growing tally of extreme weather around the globe – wildfires, heatwaves, floods, cyclones, droughts, melting ice. Now, as we enter the third year of the covid pandemic, another new temporal shift is in the offing, a new economic rhythm, as energy costs go up and inflation returns. The brave faces of the politicians are masks which hide their consternation at the thought of catastrophe occurring on their own watch. Many people are still in denial, a paralysis fed by a mixture of every kind of misinformation and disinformation, fake news, alternative facts, mendacious claims by vested interests, delaying tactics. People whose basic attitude to living a miserable life is a mixture of resentment and paranoia are fed on a diet of disaster movies, while international conferences debate percentages of carbon-dioxide in the air. It is difficult to be optimistic.
There is no aftertime in view. It’s too soon to ask. It has no name. All we can see at the moment is a fog. It may be too late to avoid irreversible deterioration. I’m afraid that in that case there will be no aftertime until either we have overcome our worst selves to bring about radical concerted change, or else all normality has disintegrated, societies have come apart, and a new and different, more humbled human spirit emerges from the ruins to rebuild and reinvent itself.

Meanwhile, let’s make the best of the new year.

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