How the pandemic endorsed leftist politics

And what its exceptional and unexceptional exceptions tell us about the future.

Romanian workers
Seasonal workers heading to Germany wait at Bucharest Airport, during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Romania on April 17, 2020 [Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea via Reuters]

The urge to predict the post-pandemic future is irresistible and it seems to often accompany major outbreaks.

As scholarly and literary works on plagues are making a massive comeback these days, I decided to open up Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. At some point Defoe takes aim at the “plague prophets”:

“Nay, some were so enthusiastically bold as to run about the streets with their oral predictions, pretending they were sent to preach to the city; and one in particular, who, like Jonah to Nineveh, cried in the streets, ‘Yet forty days, and London shall be destroyed.’ I will not be positive whether he said yet forty days or yet a few days. Another ran about naked, except a pair of drawers about his waist, crying day and night, like a man that Josephus mentions, who cried, ‘Woe to Jerusalem!’ a little before the destruction of that city. So this poor naked creature cried, ‘Oh, the great and the dreadful God!’ and said no more.”

The genre of post-plague predictions may have shed some of its past dramatic expressions, but it persists. The vastly divergent scenarios put out there all share the same realisation – that the world will not be the same. Most fear it will change for the worse.

For example, the Bulgarian philosopher Ognian Kassabov fears that working from home will spell the end of the eight-hour working day.

Others, like British academic Philip Cunliffe, offer bleaker scenarios, as if taken from the typical dystopian anime about the world after thermonuclear war: a powerful corporation lords over an atomised citizenry which works and communicates from home, while a wretched underclass staffs the unvirtualisable professions (deliveries, farming …) and exposes itself to contagion. Such an order precludes mass organising for progressive ends, cementing an alienated capitalist future infinitely worse than what neoliberalism had on offer.

This hinges on an understanding of the lockdown and social distancing as both temporally and spatially complete.

Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben fears it will usher in a state of exception and permanent curtailment of rights. Some authoritarian responses to the crisis certainly lend themselves to such interpretation: Hungary, for one, just completed its transition to fascism.

The left worries that the consequences of the lockdown will extend far into the future. Leftist scholar Anton Jager augurs the postponement of history in words connoting finality and death: “We will see little to no mobilization, and probably no ‘counter-hegemonic’ subject. The death of face-to-face sociability is unlikely to give a fresh impetus to new organizations”.

I, however, beg to differ. It seems to me the “old normal” is very much still present in various pleasant and unpleasant ways. It is also too early to despair and conclude that the emergency will be a permanent fixture of our lives. The lockdowns are neither so sweeping everywhere, nor do the ongoing mobilisations allow us to speak about the “death of face-to-face sociability” – for now.

Except for the exception, everything is normal

Throughout March most countries in Europe enforced hasty and little-thought-out lockdowns, issued state of emergency declarations and closed the borders.

However, it quickly transpired that in some places the panicked and supposedly draconian state of exceptions is less than exceptional.

In my native Bulgaria, the lockdown is enforced by exorbitant fines for smoking in the park, but one can go to work, go shopping for food and stop by the pharmacy. As a friend of mine joked, “Isn’t that where the majority of working people go during normal times anyway?”

In some German cities, park usage more than doubled since the introduction of the lockdown. In fact, Germany has already started relaxing restrictive measures and so has Austria. Sweden, on the other hand, did not even impose a lockdown.

In April, the pre-corona normality irrupted even more forcefully and demanded open borders for cheap labour. Harvest times approached for asparagus and strawberries and Western European countries rushed to break travel bans.

On April 2, Germany announced it would fly in 80,000 agricultural labourers, mostly from Eastern Europe via emergency “green corridors”. Shortly after thousands of Romanian workers from the country’s worst-hit regions crowded into buses and boarded charted flights for various German states. Many had to face appalling work conditions and exploitative, sub-minimum wages, and little protection from the virus. At least one of them has already died of a coronavirus infection.

The UK has also made overtures to the East and its endless reserves of cheap agricultural workers. It has gone as far as calling Bulgaria “our little beacon” – a country in that same Eastern Europe with its pesky “Polish plumbers” and “welfare scroungers” which the Brits were so eager to break with in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Unfortunately, Bulgarians like Romanians are also eager to risk contagion, hard pressed by the galloping unemployment and the fact that the Bulgarian state hasoffered workers no social protection during the crisis.

Austria has also looked East to fill in its pandemic-induced labour shortages. It has alreadybrokered charter flights for Bulgarian and Romanian care workers urgently needed to fill vacancies in nursing homes. In the free European labour market, sought-after medical workers go to the highest bidder. Not even a pandemic lockdown can upend the competition. It makes it all the fiercer.

The problem is that the East has haemorrhaged medical staff for so long that its capacity to cope with the COVID-19 outbreak may be seriously diminished. In Bulgaria, where doctors and nurses receive their education for free before they emigrate, the median age of the remaining medical staff is so high that a large chunk of them falls within the “high-risk” category.

Thus, these very partial lockdowns, under relentless (and successful) attack from capitalists, have left enough space for exploitative practices from the status quo ante to continue unabated. Radical changes after corona are not (yet) the problem; the rapid return of pre-corona normality is.

Exceptional exceptions

Be that as it may, it will be a massive simplification to claim that everything is going on as before between our porous lockdowns. But those who mourn the death of organising fail to register that a lot of organising has been going on already.

New terrains for class-based intervention are breaking open to address the abysmal failure of states not only to prepare for but also handle the pandemic.

In the US, workers in a General Electric plant walked off the job and demanded to make ventilators. In France, McDonald’s workers occupied their workplace and turned it into a free food distribution point.

Tenants facing eviction are organising, too. (See Kim Moody‘s excellent compilation of successful instances of class struggle.)

Polish women staged a pro-abortion protest from their cars – an ingenious way of protesting without breaching lockdown restrictions.

Even in self-isolation, some organisation is still possible. Macedonians and Serbs have turned their homes into factories and make personal protective equipment (PPE) with their 3D printers and distribute them for free to hospitals. A pizzeria in Chicago rekindled its ovens to make medical helmets.

Such practices reveal the extent to which the lockdown depends on mobilisation and consensus from below, which disproves a lot of the totalitarianism-inflected theorising.

The crisis has also upended the limits of the possible in neoliberalism. While austerity was the preferred “solution” of the previous great economic crash, today staple items from left-wing recipe books like direct monetary transfers, unlimited spending on healthcare, temporary debt freezing, rent and mortgage caps compete with traditional fiscal conservatism.

Socialist solutions are unceremoniously imposing themselves. Britain effectively nationalised the rail. New York City put an abrupt end to years of helpless hand-wringing that not much can be done about homelessness by housing thousands of homeless people suffering from COVID-19 in hotels.

Portugal suspended the byzantine asylum categorisation regime and afforded its refugee population residency benefits. California set up a disaster relief fund for undocumented migrants.

US cities are restoring water access to households falling behind on their bills. And who would have expected that Donald Trump, of all people, would roll out a variant of universal basic income for a few months?

Countries that are highly dependent on global trade like Singapore are starting to produce food locally. The staggering shortages and PPE bidding wars have made it abundantly clear that globalisation and free trade have failed us.

Developed countries realise they must bring the production of essential goods back from cheap labour destinations. The global reach of COVID-19 has incidentally imposed natural limits to neoliberal globalisation. Will this result in its rollback? It remains to be seen but the free trade regime, previously invulnerable even to the threat of climate change, has never seemed more dented.

So even though we lost important electoral battles over the past few years, to paraphrase American writer Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, reality itself has endorsed our agenda.

Capitalism has never looked more vulnerable. A few weeks of work stoppages proved enough to trigger a crisis which makes the Great Depression look like an economic upturn. Unemployment is at a historic high while the price of oil has tanked into unprecedented negative realms.

Capitalism is obviously ill-prepared to deal with external shocks which was hardly the case with state socialist countries’ efficient elimination of infectious disease. A temporary pause in a publicly owned economy could not trigger the cascading crisis of credit crunch, stock market meltdown and historic unemployment.

Despite its monarchist name, this coronavirus is a rapidly growing argument for socialism.

“Social class” – a vilified category of analysis is making a comeback, thanks to the outbreak. After decades of being told that we are self-help entrepreneurs and human capital, suddenly class categories such as “essential worker” become the main way the lockdown gets operationalised (while actual entrepreneurs ride it out at home).

Meanwhile, the violence and inequality created by the capitalist system has transcended obscure social theory seminars to become a major discussion in mainstream media and urban policy.

The Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev has argued that the crisis is wiping out nostalgic populism and is forcing us to confront the future. It is ironic that at the precise moment the neoliberal consensus takes a tumble globally, a leftist scholar like Jager prophecies the non-return of history while the liberal political scientist seems excited to see a crack through which history slips back.

I am tempted to indulge in the fantasy that the coronavirus “war economy” could dethrone the citizen-consumer and “ordain” the warrior-citizen, and thus embolden them to make demands on a state that explicitly admits how dependent it is on their labour and sacrifice.

This is not to sugarcoat the ugly reality of heavily pro-business skewed stimulus packages across the world’s major and lesser economies. It is not to deny that the coronavirus response can enormously buttress the repressive arm of the state.

But alongside the digital surveillance state arises the spectre of renewed class politics that puts welfare and healthcare centre stage. I doubt that healthcare budget cutbacks will be palatable any time soon.

All told, some progressive solutions have become possible in the pandemic, even if to shore up capitalism. And these new possibilities are the true exception in the state of exception. They are welcome exceptions to neoliberalism, if even in potentia. Can the left seize and make them more permanent? Can we radicalise them?

It is time to fight for food sovereignty which alone can loosen the chokehold of multinational agricorporations on food production and supply, and simultaneously end their role in proliferating deadly zoonotic viruses in the process.

As Walter Benjamin said a propos fascism, “the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule […] It is our task to bring about a real state of emergency.”

In the mobilisation against COVID-19, Benjamin’s injunction has lost none of its relevance.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.