This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis
by Steve Matthewman (Auckland)
… a loveless world is a dead world.Albert Camus, The Plague.
The world has ended before. Take Barbara Tuchman’s distant mirror, held up to the 14th Century. Familiar issues are reflected back: the end of prosperity, general precarity, popular uprisings, war, famine, religious conflict, and the onset of extreme climate change. Those in the late Middle Ages also had to contend with the Black Death, ‘the most lethal disaster of recorded history’, a pandemic that killed a third of the world’s population from India to Iceland (Tuchman, 1978, p. xiii).
The horrors of the plague are well known. The collective consequences and responses less so. Survivors could find no divine purpose in it. The power of Church and noble were challenged. The workings of God and the idea of a fixed feudal order were sharply questioned, ‘To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man’ (Tuchman, 1978, p. 123). Across Europe and beyond, agricultural workers and craftspersons leveraged the chronic labour shortages to agitate for better pay and conditions. Working hours grew shorter and wages increased. Most doubled, some tripled (Pamuk, 2007).
America’s first general strike of note took place in the Pacific Northwest in the aftermath of another plague: the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. War was over. So was the “Spanish flu”. Seattle’s ship workers, whose war efforts were undervalued, walked out first. Their ranks were soon swelled by demobilised soldiers, the unemployed, and ultimately the rest of the city’s labour force. But Seattle didn’t shut down. Workers ran it. A strike committee elected an executive to oversee its smooth functioning. Hospitals were provisioned, refuse was collected, streets were safe, people were fed (30 000 a day passed through the striker’s kitchens). ‘The vast majority [of workers] struck to express their solidarity… and they succeeded beyond their expectations… They learned a great deal more than they expected to learn — more than anyone in Seattle knew before. They learned how a city is taken apart and put together again’ (Strong quoted in Winslow). Though the strike did not last long, it left an important legacy: knowledge that the world can be run differently, and far more equitably.
While disaster capitalism narratives are well known to us, the bigger and more consistent story is its opposite. Sociology furnishes us with over a century’s worth of empirical evidence to show that communitas, the coming together of people for other people to secure a world together, is one of the most commonly made observations when disaster strikes (Matthewman 2015, p. 166). So it goes in this pandemic. We are seeing the rise of people power the world over, from the young volunteers in Hyderabad who are supplying the city’s precarious workers with food packages, to the helpers in Wuhan who are ferrying essential medical workers between hospital and home, to the programmers in Latvia who organised a hackathon to create optimal face shield components for 3D printers. ‘The shift is even more interesting than it first appears’, Monbiot writes, ‘Power has migrated not just from private money to the state, but from both market and state to another place altogether: the commons. All over the world, communities have mobilised where governments have failed’.
This outpouring of collective goodwill should not surprise. First, disasters are essentially social phenomena. Threats and experiences of such are public and shared. Collective adversity creates social solidarity. This bonds people, providing the basis for physical and emotional support. Second, coordinated action can further be encouraged as current power structures are nowhere near as robust as is commonly thought. The realisation that official assistance is seldom in the right place at the right time with the right resources gives civil society a boost. Third, we are essentially social beings. We cannot exist alone. We are products of culture and collective labour, and as such, to a degree unknown amongst any other species, we are remarkably altruistic. In disasters, then, a peculiar social energy emerges. Rendering assistance of all types gives new definition to life – a reason for being – which is being for others (on this, see Solnit, 2009). Indeed, global community responses to COVID-19 affirm the point Camus (1991, p. 150) made in the closing chapter his novel The Plague: ‘and to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in [people] than to despise’.
It may have been easier to imagine the world’s end than capitalism’s demise, but then the unthinkable happened: ‘the world as we knew it has stopped turning, whole countries are in a lockdown, many of us are confined to our homes facing an uncertain future in which, even if most of us survive, economic mega-crisis is likely’ (Žižek, 2020: 85). American conservatives have chorused their approval at the country’s $2 trillion stimulus package. The Editorial Board of the Financial Times has called time on the neoliberal project. Discussions of living wages, universal basic income, nationalisations, and the big state are back on the table. Disasters are social laboratories. They give us the opportunity to think the world anew. The Coronavirus pandemic tells us that the impossible happens, and that other ways of living are within our grasp.
Here in New Zealand, for Māori the pandemic brings to mind diseases brought by European colonisers, plus the disproportionate impacts of the 1918 Influenza epidemic (when fatality rates were eight times higher than Europeans). In parts of the country iwi (tribal groups) have exercised tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty) to self-organise to protect their communities, setting up roadblocks to stop outsiders. This “lawlessness” has sent the political right into fits of apoplexy, but it has been more than tolerated by the Police and the governing Labour Party who acknowledge their actions as care for the community. The Minister of Māori Crown Relations was quoted as saying: “Good on them”. This must count as progress of a sort. Post-9/11 the then-Labour Government had the dubious distinction of being the first in the world to map anti-terror legislation onto its own Indigenous population.
Other constituencies have also been pleasantly surprised by the Government’s COVID-19 response. Their immediate financial relief package was touted as “the largest in the world on a per capita basis”, prompting Justine Sachs to blog, ‘For millennials like myself, who have never experienced the warm embrace of the state intervening on our behalf, this is completely new. As a friend remarked: “It feels strange and alien, almost like the Government cares about me and wants to make sure I am able to live”.’ Benefits have risen by $50 per fortnight and the winter energy allowance has been doubled. In-work tax credit criteria have also been relaxed. Much to the chagrin of the Opposition, the benefit increases have been “baked in”. A Twitter user referred to it as “disaster socialism” (Rashbrooke, 2020, p. 24). And as we have observed elsewhere, even the pro-market, pro-business types are happy to see the state splash the cash. A prominent right-wing commentator wrote that ‘if you’re wanting to win a war, the system you’re looking for is effectively communism’ (Hooton, 2020, p. A17). Rob Campbell, chair of Tourism Holdings, SkyCity Entertainment and the Summerset Group, concurred: ‘there’s no one more socialist than a businessman who has had his business go bad. The hand goes out to government pretty quickly’ (Quoted in Fox, 2020, p. C5).
We live in interesting times.
Steve Matthewman is an Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand. He has teaching and research interests in social theory, STS and the sociology of disasters. His current research project looks at the rebuilding of Christchurch following the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Camus, A (1991) The Plague. United States, Vintage International Edition.
Fox, A (2020) It’s Time to Build the New Economy. Weekend Herald, 18 April, C5.
Hooton, M (2020) Tough Measures for Tough Times. The New Zealand Herald, 27 March, A17.
Matthewman S (2015) Disasters, Risks and Revelation: Making Sense of our Times. Basingstoke, Palgrave.
Pamuk, Ş (2007) The Black Death and the Origins of the ‘Great Divergence’ Across Europe, 1300–1600. European Review of Economic History 11, pp. 289–317.
Rashbrooke, M (2020) Smart Politics Helps Poor Permanently. The Dominion Post, 18 March, p. 24.
Solnit, R (2009) A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. New York, Penguin.
Tuchman, B (1978) A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. New York, Ballantine Books.
Žižek, S (2020) Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World. New York, OR Books.