In our memories of recent jolts to daily life, the 9/11 attacks, the 2008 financial meltdown, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people across 14 countries, the destruction of life and property by hurricane Katrina along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, and many others, stand out. COVID19 stands out differently. All the others were massive jolts to particular people in particular places. COVID19 is the only one that has swept up everyone on the planet. It is the only one that seems to be a massive jolt to the entirety of our modern way of life.
Some observers are calling COVID19 a black swan event, meaning that it is very rare, and try to reassure us that things will eventually go back to normal. In its particulars, COVID19 is a rare event, but it is best to see it as only the biggest so far in an accelerating wave of devastating events that is sweeping across the modern world. Each disaster in its particulars is a rare event, but they happen within and are shaped by the conditions of our modern way of life, conditions that have never existed on this planet before. The real black swan rarity is an earth that is dominated by a species (humans) with such enormous appetites for energy and materials and space, and with such enormous powers to feed those appetites that this species is undermining the biological and social infrastructures of its own existence. The wave of disasters that is breaking upon us is very much a part of this unprecedented black swan rarity.
COVID19 is revealing with great clarity that our capitalist world of work is all wrong for this unfolding era in human history. Over the last several centuries the modern world of work was created to serve two interlocked priorities: maximizing the comfort and convenience of an expanding middle class and maximizing the hoarding of wealth and power by the modern version of royal families. The global conditions in which those priorities were tenable are now gone. On a fully populated planet bound together by transportation and communication technologies into a single societal entity where a disaster for one people becomes a disaster for all peoples and with the juggernaut of climate change growing bigger and more menacing with every month, those work priorities are no longer tenable. It is no longer tenable to sacrifice the natural and human made infrastructures of existence in one part of the world, to subsidize the royal families and their middle class enablers in other parts of the world. It is no longer possible for the affluent and rich of the world to escape the consequences of the conditions that the feeding of their appetites creates.
The world that capitalism made has been moving deeper and deeper into crisis for decades. Efforts by the world’s rich and the world’s affluent to hold out for a return to better times, especially by Americans, have piled up weapons systems, piled up mountains of public and private debt, and underfunded the maintenance of vital infrastructures. These efforts to save the conditions of historically extreme comfort, convenience, and elite wealth are futile. Human history shows us many examples of peoples who have tried to resist the multiplication of forces that make a particular way of life no longer possible. Those efforts always failed. In fact, those efforts made the inevitable deaths of those ways of life more destructive and devastating and the construction of a new way to live more difficult.
The American version of capitalism, which is practiced in many parts of the world, is no longer tenable. The priorities that now drive the world of work have to go. They will go. In one way or another, they will disappear. The best we can do is to not resist the inevitable death of much of modern life, but to accept that it is happening and has to happen. The best we can do is to thoughtfully manage the death of the American version of modern life and replace it with priorities and ways of life that reconstruct and sustain the infrastructures necessary to human existence. Sacrifices will be made; they are already being made. Our task is to manage the forms and distributions of those sacrifices. Failure to do so will not prevent sacrifice; it will only make it more likely that annihilating wars for survival among groups organized along the classic dividing lines of modern life will determine who sacrifices and what they sacrifice.