A man in protective gear disinfects a bus. The disinfection consists of washing the exterior of a bus, dry sweeping and wet cleaning the inside and aerosol spraying. (Artur Harutyunyan Tass via Getty Images)
One of the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic is a crisis of our political imagination. We are struggling to imagine what sort of world could emerge — a world that could well be dramatically different to the one we knew before the outbreak.
Literary theorist Fredric Jameson, referring to comments made by H Bruce Franklin about JG Ballard, wrote in Future City: “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.”
To modify this statement, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than a change to the system we know in terms of the way in which our economic resources are organised and distributed and the political power is manifested. As the Communist Manifesto says: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
The Covid-19 crisis has also shined a light on the structural problems in society, from the division between rich and poor, both within and between nations.
While the poor are certainly worse off in terms of healthcare and having to spend the lockdown in cramped dwellings without Netflix or other such distractions, the virus has also shown its capacity to infect the rich and powerful, from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to actor Tom Hanks.
We still do not know what type of society will emerge from this crisis, but we can hazard a guess that it will be dramatically different from the one we knew. The role of the state will have changed, as well the way in which borders are policed and crossed. The way in which the economy is organised as states will also change. Perhaps even the way in which we deal with the effects of climate change will change.
I am not as optimistic that our future will necessarily be better, for things can always get worse, but it will be different. But now is the time to place a collective wager on hope for a better future that opens our horizons instead of confining them within the restrictions imposed by pessimism. We should hope that together we can create a better society than the one that helped bring about the crisis we find ourselves in.
A feature of our current social order is the way in which success and failure is conceived and how individuals seek to project an image that can be marketed. Think here of the Instagram influencer, one of the most degenerate creatures to have emerged during this decayed age. The influencer seeks to project the image of success and having influence in a particular field. The food influencer has to invest money in being seen as being important enough to have exclusive access to the hottest restaurants, until they get the exclusive promotions they need to reap the financial rewards of such an investment. Many a trust fund has been squandered in pursuit of the influencer quest.
Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, in his three-volume opus, The Principle of Hope (1954, 1955, 1959), described this phenomenon as “the appeal of dressing-up, illuminated display belong here, but then the world of fairytale …”. For the influencer, success translates the projection of influence; it’s an aspiration for people to live like the person they follow. To own the tiger, to parachute out of the plane, to squander your savings on a ticket to the Fyre festival. Fake it until you are perceived to have made it is the spirit of our age. It even brought Donald Trump to the White House.
The theology that best represents our age is that of the prosperity gospel, which has captured millions of souls from Brazil and South Africa to the sunbelt of the United States. According to this theology, your financial success is linked to your devotion. If you are righteous the Lord will reward you with the German made SUV you desire. Your relationship with God is as an individual and is represented by your individual success and not by the wider fortunes of a community. The pastor is an influencer; he has to project the requisite level of financial success and prosperity to aspire towards. Aspiration serves as a spiritual currency that translates into actual currency for some church leaders.
South Africa is defined by race and class inequality. Political leaders use the language of change to defend their own aspirational lifestyles brought about either compromise with capital at the expense of the people or through the systematic looting of resources meant to serve the people. Collective hope has been superseded by individual aspiration. One aspires for individual success and then portrays it as the realisation of collective change.
I don’t have the answers for what type of society should come out of the Covid-19 crisis and how this will happen, but neither do the politicians, plutocrats, the International Monetary Fund, the Kardashians or anyone else. People around the world are living under lockdown to thwart the spread of this coronavirus. Many of us are distant from our loved ones, our usual lives and the social involvement that defines us. Some are confined to shacks others to mansions. Those lucky enough to still have a job and one that can be done from home are having to adjust to the tyranny of Zoom. Many are worried about their next pay cheque.
The crisis forces us not only to reimagine work, but the way in which we do politics. In South Africa our conception of political activity has in large part comes from the memory of the struggle against apartheid as collection actions or performances of resistance often on the street. Political activity involved mass meetings or taking to the streets, neither of which are possible under lockdown regulations.
Lockdown is isolation from the normality of collective life. For instance, it was telling that immediately after the government announced a lockdown civil society organisations called for mass meetings. I’m not criticising these calls. I am calling attention to the limitations imposed by this crisis. Political organising through social media is not up to the job.
The challenge facing us during this crisis — aside from the more immediate tasks of finding ways of keeping the economy going and saving as many lives as possible — is to discover effective forms of political organisation — in acts such as rent strikes and setting up mutual aid funds. I have another proposal, one that appears simple, but on closer inspection requires pushing against the limits of our imagination: I propose that we embrace a collective hope for a better future as united subjects rather than isolated individuals.
To return to Bloch, “Everybody’s life is pervaded by daydreams: one part of this is just stale, even enervating escapism, even booty for swindlers, but another part is provocative, is not content just to accept the bad which exists, does not accept renunciation. This other part has hoping at its core and is teachable.”
Nobody has lived without daydreams. We should try at the very least to hope and strive for a society not based on individual aspirations, but for one based on a more egalitarian distribution of resources and arrangement of power.
For Bloch, “only in times of a declining old society” does our ability to imagine futures run towards the worst possible outcomes. It is probably easier to imagine a Mad Max-like future than a more just and egalitarian society. The challenge for us during this dark time is to find a collective hope, a shared daydream of what type of society we want to emerge out of this crisis, not only in South Africa but across the world.