Death is never far away, and yet most of us survive.
We survive to think about the future after the pandemic, after the vaccine and the cure. What now is unimaginable will soon be clear. The world, so we hear, will change. We may be depleted in material wealth but richer in a renewed sense of social harmony and co-operative well-being. Social responsibility, a sense of obligation beyond the personal, has a chance to become the new political reality as well as the new social ethic. What has been a seemingly hopeless aspiration could become the undeniable course of history.
Could there really be a withdrawal from selfishness and cynicism? Could we see an end to everything discussed in terms of selfhood? Could we see an end to everything in society described in terms of contrast and conflict? Could there be a deepening of responses away from the trivial and the clichÃ©d? Might we hear more of the under- reported world beyond the West, and less about clownish nonentities whose claims to leadership are fragile and hollow?
Throughout the world for many years the idea of the public realm has retreated into the margins. As the Twentieth Century began to close the promise was of a new age of enlightenment, a new sense of freedom wherein the individual could develop without the hindrance of the oppressive state. The mechanism for this was the free exchange of goods and services in a global economy where race, gender and class would melt into a world community of personal ease, leisure and space.
Of course it was never going to work. Competition mutated into conflict. New empires of money overwhelmed nominally liberal landscapes. Corporations sought to dominate by demanding absolute loyalty. The choices were limited. The quality was cheapened. Economic worth became the measure of all things. In a pandemic the ‘economically inactive’ could be sacrificed. The burden of caring was a hindrance to the pursuit of the good life. Health, welfare, education and culture were not seen as necessities in the public realm but as services the individual might consume after purchase. There was little consideration and only minimal provision for those without the financial means. Poverty became evidence of personal failing and a source of shame.
This ethic of self-interest goes against the biological imperative of association and co-operation. Common interest takes precedence in the natural order of things.
Life progresses through shared purposes that enable the individual organism to fulfil its personal potential. Not every enterprise is communal, nor can anything be said to live truly in isolation from the patterns of nature. We are obliged to seek harmony with our inner voice of conscience that impels us to seek fulfilment through communication with others.
It has taken a lethal contagion to shake the world, especially in the West, from its torpor of individualism. The streets of the cities have been crowded with sleepwalkers addicted to gadgets that replace social inter-action. In the cafes and bars they stare at screens without talking to others. The lack of eye contact and conversation resembles the symptoms of psychosis. In place of society we have witnessed a madness of selfish ambition overtake a world that now needs to connect if it is to survive.
Quite suddenly the ethic of common interest and the coherent society has gained stature. Contrast Denmark’s response to the UK’s. What once passed for freedom in the Anglo-American polity now looks unnatural and irresponsible. The free market is not the mechanism to organize a world in need of medical, scientific, economic and social co-operation. The freedom of the West reveals its true nature as a directionless slouch towards barbarism.
Co-operation among a shared humanity is the only recourse now to overcome the pandemic of Covid-19.
Eventually the virus will be overcome. The dead will be mourned. And world leaders will express their gratitude. There will be a period of reconstruction, a time of many opportunities to redirect the world towards a new social ethic that advances our rich inheritance of commonwealth.
But it is more likely to be that once the dust settles false economic promises with unfathomable processes of financial enhancement will prevail. We’ll be back where we were, bruised and humble for a while until the money flows again. The Romanov eagle and the Stars and Stripes and cheap goods from China will reassure the world that things are back to ‘normal.’
Then another virus spreads. Isolated nations pursuing dreams of power will be as unprepared for the next crisis as they were for the preceding ones. The alternative assurance lies in a new sense of transnational unions of co-operation and peace. National resources, cultural, scientific and commercial, need the shared inter-action of public ownership. In the pandemic the free market has collapsed. Commonwealth is very possible if the world had the will. If we have the will to survive we ought to have the will to develop.
In place of self-interest or nostalgia for a lost community, in place of the phoney debate between various shades of liberalism, in place of the trite, the sentimental and manipulative we need to take responsibility in our own hands. A virus may devastate, but climate change and nuclear arsenals threaten to destroy everything. Peace is not simply the absence of war. There is no choice but to accept whatever unites the human race is the only credible future. To choose other is to invite disaster.
Categorised in: Article
This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall