Every now and then we get a chance to decide some things about the way we want our world to be. Such chances are always rare, since the established way of the world only comes to be established, by definition, through means that discourage decisive challenges to the order it upholds. If things are to change then something must disrupt this order, and over-power the powers that preserve and reproduce it.
Needless to say it would be naïve to characterise the present moment as revolutionary, or as heralding some kind of imminent systemic collapse. But like it or not, some immediate decisions are being forced on us, with exceptional urgency, and the way we take them will have far-reaching consequences.
On its own, of course, the direct threat posed by global contagion may eventually do more to reinforce the existing order than undermine it. The response to Covid-19 may well stretch the capacities of the existing world system to their limits, not least since this system still hasn’t recovered from the 2008 crisis. The immediate economic fall-out is already incalculable, and the last few months have already done a good deal to accelerate the ongoing shift in the balance of power, from the US to China and from one version of authoritarian capitalism to another. For the time being though, the response is led mainly by established state actors, in conjunction with private corporations (from big pharma and big retail to logistics and IT) that are already well placed to convert traumatic crises into profitable opportunities. Both sets of actors, obviously, aim to preserve the existing order of things as best they can, at minimal cost and to their maximum benefit. So long as we experience the threat in terms of life and death, most people can still be trusted to defer to the authority of such actors and to rally around their flags, however invasive their protective and surveillance measures might become.
It’s also all too easy to see how such measures may reinforce rather than undermine the differences that already divide populations, within and across nations, between those who are more or less exposed, more or less vulnerable, constrained, marginalised or disempowered. The mass protests that shook so many parts of the world last year, from Haiti and Chile to Lebanon and Sudan, have largely been put on hold, leaving all of the profound grievances that inspired them to fester and deepen.
However harrowing and urgent its immediate effects, everyone can further see that Covid-19 doesn’t yet figure as the most serious of the many problems confronting the world as a whole. The various politicians who have seized the occasion to ‘declare war’ on the virus seem to have forgotten what it means to be at war. The short-term economic disruption may be unprecedented and the rate of contagion overwhelming, but in the longer term this virus still doesn’t seem to pose the same sort of existential challenge as the grimly familiar list of structural problems that have been confronting us for so long -- excruciating levels of inequality, exploitation, precarity, and destitution, all compounded by catastrophic climate change, reckless militarisation, resurgent chauvinism, and so on.
What is immediately at stake in our present, though, is precisely a matter of immediate decisions, shaped by immediate priorities. Confronted by a threat that may affect almost every person on the planet, directly or indirectly, how will we respond?
For perhaps the first time in history, such a question isn’t abstract, or projected into an expansive future. Unlike measures taken (or that should have been taken) to confront the results of climate change, or to react to local emergencies, or to wage actual wars, for the first time vast numbers of people are caught up in something approaching an instant global response to an instant global problem. The sense of compression, in both time and space, is again without precedent. One national government after another has reached, more or less quickly and more or less reluctantly, versions of the same conclusions as those earlier reached by other governments, for the same reasons and following the same patterns. In each place, after exhausting our ability to deny, delay or deflect, and in response to growing public pressure, our governments start to take at least some of the steps that the situation requires. However glaring local failings might be, however inexcusable the delays and hesitations, however inadequate the forms of international coordination and preparation, still never have so many actions in so many places been so synchronised and so convergent. Never have so many minds in so many countries been so focused on a single set of concerns, across research groups, across health care systems, across the media, across places of work and community. And rarely has there been such widespread agreement about the uncomplicated measures required to address such a complicated problem -- on the one hand, masks, tests, ventilators, distance, isolation; on the other, universal access to adequate levels of income and support. For perhaps the first time, talk of things like ‘global capacity’ or ‘global priorities’ is starting to sound like something more than hot air.
The problem is clear. The solutions are clear. What’s clearest of all, then, is that we live in a world ruled and dominated by people who are unwilling both to prevent such problems and to implement such solutions. If to treat this illness everyone needs to be masked, tested, and kept at a safe distance from others (as well as housed, fed, and supported...), then this is what needs to be done. If it needs to be done here then it needs to be done there, and everywhere. The clinical criteria are everywhere the same, and what’s essential in one place is essential in every place, it’s as simple as that.
All over the world, but most obviously in the most crowded and impoverished parts of it, the fate of countless numbers of people now hangs in the balance. Thousands of lives and many millions of livelihoods are already lost, mostly in places with few or no safety nets. No-one yet has any clue about how bad things might soon get in places like slums, detention camps or prisons. We have no idea what the virus may do or how it might mutate when it infects large numbers of people whose immune systems are already compromised by things like malnutrition, tuberculosis or HIV, as may soon prove the case across parts of Africa, India and many other places where running water and ‘social distance’ remain relative luxuries. But rather than anticipate the likely outcomes and act in a situation that brooks no delay, instead the more privileged parts of the world stand poised, with quasi-Malthusian dispassion, to allow those living in its less privileged parts to be subjected to the most brutal mass culling of our species since the great flu epidemic of 1918-19 – with the difference that, this time, those of us with the capacity to do so could greatly mitigate the effects, if we wanted to.
Do we want to? Do we want to live in a world in which some lives seem to be more worth protecting than others? It’s a simple question, and a simplifying one, but to confront it invites others. Do we really want to live in a world in which questions about who dies or survives are decided in large part by where you were born, by the wealth of your family or nation, or by your own ability to pay? A world in which the main sources of such wealth are extracted from the many by the few? A world which a relatively small number of people thrive at others’ expense?
First and foremost, do we want to keep living in a world in which we deprive ourselves of our very capacity to make such decisions – to work out what we most want, and then act on it? Do we want to keep living in a world in which we have largely yielded control over the way we live to the ‘unaccountable private tyrannies’ (to use Chomsky’s terse description) that dominate our corporate economy? Do we want to continue to hand over our political capacities to governments that mainly represent these corporations and serve their particular interests? Do we want fundamental decisions about treatment, healthcare, pharmaceutical research, and so on (and with them decisions about the division of labour, about the way we work, about how work and workers are valued...), to be taken by these corporations and their shareholders, rather than by public actors concerned with public goods? Do we want to keep living in a world, in short, that systematically puts profits, and the full price of profits, before people?
The questions are familiar, and of course we won’t be able to resolve them during the states of emergency provoked by the virus. Of course we can’t and won’t settle them in a matter of a few months or years. The ‘we’ that might respond to them at all is still emerging, and re-emerging, in uneven and complex ways. But the urgency with which these old questions confront us today is itself new, and after the long decades of ‘there is no alternative’ we now have a chance to begin answering them more directly, right away. The clock is ticking, and the stakes are clear. What are we going to do?
I don’t pretend to have a tidy to-do list, or a blueprint for a future that we cannot predict. But to draw on some of the suggestions Mike Davis has compiled in an incisive series of recent interviews, in a place like the UK we could start, or re-start, by recognising matters of health, education and welfare for what they are and have always been: matters of public and thus universal concern, and we could start funding and engaging with them accordingly. We could begin to oblige private economic means to serve collective social ends, rather than vice-versa. We could take (or take back) into public ownership essential services and quasi-monopolies, in the way previous generations nationalised utilities and railways. We could restore more equitable levels of taxation upon wealth and profits. We could recognise all workers as ‘key’ workers, and reward them appropriately. We could prioritise workers, the environment and animal welfare over intensive farming and the industrial production of meat. We could begin to measure what we owe people living in those parts of the world that our predecessors exploited in the past, and that we continue to exploit in the present. We could prepare ourselves for the tactics required to pursue such things, in the face of the resistance they will provoke. And meanwhile we could re-start the process of working out what our longer-term priorities are, and what we’re prepared to do about them.
 Noam Chomsky’s 28 March 2020 interview on the pandemic is posted at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-N3In2rLI4.
 See for instance ‘Mike Davis on Pandemics, Super-Capitalism and the Struggles of Tomorrow’ (30 March 2020), https://madamasr.com/en/2020/03/30/feature/politics/mike-davis-on-pandemics-super-capitalism-and-the-struggles-of-tomorrow/, and ‘Capitalism is the Disease’ (31 March 2020), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xOp9G5hoQnM, as well as ‘In a Plague Year’, Jacobin 14 March 2020, https://jacobinmag.com/2020/03/mike-davis-coronavirus-outbreak-capitalism-left-international-solidarity.