“The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. This is the time of monsters.” Antonio Gramsci’s famous adage about the stormy 1920s is quoted often a century later to describe the world’s depressing current reality.
As we prepare to finally leave this disastrous year behind, many are relieved, however, that the world will be rid of at least two monsters in 2021 – Trump and COVID-19.
Indeed, Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election is about to deliver the world from the dangers posed by an authoritarian egomaniac occupying the White House. And with the invention of several effective vaccines, we are finally preparing to turn the page on the coronavirus pandemic.
So, there is reason to rejoice as this turbulent year draws to a close. And yet it is fair to ask: Is there a plan for when the monsters leave the world stage? What will replace the monsters?
With both Trump and COVID-19’s expected exit, we are faced with another, perhaps equally frightening threat: a return to normalcy.
Let us not forget: Donald Trump was elected on the back of Barack Obama’s allegedly progressive presidency. Obama came to power shortly after a global economic crisis and thanks to an extraordinary wave of public participation in politics. Many expected him to use this opportunity to break with a system in crisis benefitting just the privileged few.
But he chose to follow the old path. He appointed Tim Geithner and Larry Summers to the Treasury, the same individuals who, during the Clinton administration, had enthusiastically removed the last obstacles holding the financial sector in line and paved the way for the crisis that devastated the global economy in 2007-2008 This was no moral drama of penitence and redemption, but the reproduction of the same financial policies that had brought the world to the brink of the abyss in the first place.
As Tim Geithner put it, the primary aim of the state was to “foam the runway” for the banks in crisis. But the accumulation of inequalities foamed the runway for something else: right-wing populism.
After experiencing the unprecedented mayhem brought in by the Trump administration, it is easy to forget about these grave mistakes, look at the Obama years through rose-tinted glasses, and hope that Biden will bring competency and decency back into the White House. And yet, that will not be enough to fix a system that was in dramatic need of an overhaul even before the election of Trump.
After supporting Trump’s racist, xenophobic and divisive policies for four years, and most recently turning a blind eye to his efforts to undermine the integrity of American democracy through baseless allegations of election fraud, the Republican Party reduced itself to a clique of power-grabbing authoritarians with neither moral compass nor concern for decency. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party, or at least its leading centrist faction, decided its best quality is not being the Republican Party and standing for a return to “normalcy”.
But as we celebrate the Democratic takeover of the White House, we should be aware of the dangers of returning to a normal that paved the way for the Trump presidency and its many horrors in the first place.
And the same is true when it comes to our plans to rebuild our lives and economies after winning the fight against COVID-19.
“We do not want to go back to normal. Normal was the problem in the first place”, a slogan invented by anti-government protesters in Chile in 2019, gained popularity on social media after the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year – and for good reason.
We know that COVID-19 did not emerge in a vacuum. Climate change altered the way we relate to and interact with other species on earth and made conditions more favourable for the spread of infectious diseases. And yet, as we are finally nearing the end of this deadly pandemic, there appears to be a rush to return to a “normal” that paved the way for this public health emergency. In China, the first country to shut down and one of the earliest to start reopening, the dramatic improvements in air quality seen as manufacturing and transportation largely came to a halt in the first few months of the year have now vanished. As all other countries rush to return to economic growth to make up for the lost time, a free-for-all for polluters now risks being on the cards.
Faced with mounting deaths and personal disarray, it is easy to wish to turn the clocks backwards. And yet, there is no logic in trying to fix a problem by doubling down on the mistakes that caused it in the first place. This is as true for COVID-19 as it is for American politics. We cannot “fix” the damage caused by the pandemic by returning to our old polluting ways. And we cannot “fix” the damage caused by right-wing populism by returning to a normal that fuelled economic and racial inequalities, democratic backsliding and the erosion of the welfare state and paved the way for the rise of Trumpism.
“Bringing America together”, as Biden pledges, won’t be possible without identifying what, and who, stands in the way of the just aspirations for a better, fairer deal for the majority. And it won’t be possible to prevent the pandemics and other catastrophes looming on the horizon without embarking on a quest to build an economy not dependent on environmental destruction, pollution and unlimited consumption.
It is, for instance, just as well to bring back the environmental regulations torn apart by Trump. But there will not be a real green transformation without taking aim at the big polluters, including the fracking and shale oil industries. It does not suffice to hand out cash incentives for green energy: Carbon must be taxed.
There will be no green transition without reining in scandalous over-consumption, including meat consumption, and diffused car and aeroplane use. And that means not only governments, cooperations and industries changing the way they function, but individuals.
Again, it is welcome that Western governments are increasing public investment as a result of COVID-19, and moving beyond the failed ideology of austerity. But whatever investment may go to battered public services, this is dwarfed by the global increase in the income of the super-rich and of digital giants such as Amazon. While millions lost their jobs, billionaires increased their wealth in excess of $10 trillion during the pandemic, giving real meaning to the expression “disaster capitalism”. There will not be anything but cosmetic change without taking on Big Tech, closing tax heavens, and tackling the continued concentration of wealth in the hands of a few corporations and billionaires.
A return to normalcy will not cut it.
We are faced with the danger of missing the boat for systemic change and swinging between an unsustainable status quo and extremist reactions until a planetary catastrophe destroys our systems for us and forces us to rebuild from scratch.
This is something Gramsci would have been much familiar with. He faced a dramatically outdated and unjust world, with decaying European empires and a concentration of wealth without match except for… our time. He saw the failure of all attempts at reform by the liberal elites, and he saw the fascist backlash resulting from it. It took the tragedy of a world war to overhaul a system in crisis, defeat nationalism, and usher in decolonisation and the welfare state, thereby dramatically transforming relations between countries and classes within them.
The dizzying historical task of our generation is to find a way out from our present moment of crisis without waiting for its resolution in the form of a planetary catastrophe. This will not be achieved by turning back the clocks. It will not be delivered by a return to normalcy. It will require ambition, political conflict, and the courage to pick up a fight. For anyone wishing for a better future, normalcy is the enemy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.