Presumably, you are aware that we’re in the middle of a disaster. That’s unpleasant – to say the least – but it’s also quite instructive. There is much we can learn from the ongoing disaster and humanity’s responses to it. But whether we can use those lessons to avert the even bigger disaster looming on the horizon is questionable. Rather, it seems that the most important thing that we can learn from the corona crisis is that we as a species may very well be incapable of avoiding catastrophy.
ignore and deny
For months, the general attitude of most governments and citizens was one of denial. Aside from a few governments in East Asia that took action (almost) immediately, all others just assumed that this – that is, the corona pandemic – is a problem for them and will not (or even cannot) happen here, to us. They refused to prepare. They refused to even acknowledge that something was happening that might also affect them. And this is as true for people as it is for governments – or actually, many people were even worse. When governments in Europe finally took action – much too late – many citizens still refused to change their habits. They went out and met friends, violating lockdowns or social distancing policies, and helping the epidemic to spread further.
The general attitude of governments and people early in a crisis is a form of self-centered denial. It is their problem. It won’t affect us/me.
Only when people are finally affected to such an extent that they can no longer ignore or deny the issue are some of them willing to consider changing their ways, but then it is too late. Most governments didn’t act until people started dying. Many people refuse to change their habits and follow necessary guidelines until people they know start dying.
It takes a shock for people and governments to acknowledge a crisis, but by the time such a shock occurs, the less visible aspects of the crisis have already developed into an unstoppable force. A significant increase in deaths lags about two weeks after an explosive rise in infections in the corona epidemic.1 And in case of the climate crisis, the lag between many of the most easily observable effects and their underlying causes is a decade or even several decades.
By the time people are finally willing to act, it is already too late, and the crisis cannot be averted. In case of the corona disaster, it may be possible to bring the crisis under control, although it seems more likely at this point that the virus is going to stay. In case of the climate crisis, the forces we are dealing with – the forces we have set in motion – are too great. There is no vaccine for an overheating planet or a dying ocean. There is no cure, no return to normalcy. If we act too late in the climate crisis, then it really is too late. And one of the most important lessons we can learn from the corona disaster is that we are predetermined to act too late.
We do not avoid crises; we ignore them until we can no longer ignore them, and then we try to fix the damage.
Unfortunately, when the crisis is finally acknowledged and people and governments start trying to fix the damage, they tend to be rather inefficient. Experts are ignored when they warn for an impending disaster, but experts are also ignored when they recommend policies to limit and/or repair the damage. Instead, people (including politicians) are guided by hunches and emotions more than by reason, and often the first reflex is to blame rather than to solve. The worst example of the latter tendency is the racist violence against people with an Asian background in the US and elsewhere. Additionally, conspiracy theories and other kinds of misinformation further hamper a proper response.
So, in times of a crisis, we act too late, and then our belated reaction tends to go off the rails due to incompetence, ignorance, and malice. If we’re lucky, our own stupidity doesn’t completely derail the crisis response, and perhaps luck will be enough in the corona crisis. Luck won’t save us in the climate crisis, however.
A particularly worrying aspect of the response to the corona pandemic (and one for which I warned before) is the rise of authoritarianism. Governments that acquire new powers in times of crisis rarely give up those powers when the crisis is over. But in this case, the addition of a breakdown of international cooperation, growing racism (partially due to the aforementioned blame game), and economic crisis create the perfect soil for that authoritarianism to grow into fascism. Hungary is already turning into a fascist dictatorship. Other countries may follow.
Moreover, fascism in response to crisis is not something new. In the contrary, the fascism that lead to the second world war originated in the economic crisis of the late 1920s. And there are good reasons to believe that the climate crisis will lead to a rise of fascism as well.
Perhaps, the most important lesson from the corona disaster is that you and me and our families are not a priority. People are not a priority. Rather, “the economy” is the priority. And even that is a lie. Jobs are not a priority. Small and medium businesses are not a priority. The self-employed are not a priority. Only large corporations and the financial (FIRE) industry are a priority. Policies that limit the spread of the coronavirus but that damage “the economy” are considered unacceptable and only implemented as a last resort (when it is already too late) because your sickness or death matters less than the cash flow of large corporations and the financial industry. And when measures are implemented to support “the economy” you and me might get a few bucks, while large corporations and the financial industry get billions. And then, after they received a bag of money, they fire you, because they need that money to pay off their stock-holders and nothing is left to pay their employees.
“Large corporations and the financial industry” is an abstraction, of course. Those “things” are fictional (or legal) entities, controlled by real people, and those real people are the real beneficiaries. Leslie Sklair called the people pulling the strings and raking in the money the “Transnational Capitalist Class” (often abbreviated TCC).2 Recently, Peter Phillips identified the 389 most powerful among them,3 but their total number is probably in the ten-thousands (especially if their families are included). The 389 people identified by Phillips (mostly white men) control the international financial and economic institutions, the mainstream press, all large banks and other financial institutions, and much more, and directly or indirectly also control the economic and financial policy of almost all governments. The TCC as a whole owns the planet – quite literally. We – you and me and the billions of other “normal” people – are the disposable masses, the serfs in a new feudal age.
All of this was already common knowledge to anyone who isn’t too blind to see, but the corona crisis has made this even more clear and may have opened many more eyes. Almost every aspect of the corona response of most governments is aimed at safeguarding the interests of the TCC. Your job doesn’t matter. Your health doesn’t matter. Your economic, mental, and/or other well-being doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the members of the TCC don’t stop raking in money, or at least don’t lose too much. (And when a member of the TCC gets sick, he or she will get the best medical care, while you and me can only hope that there’s anyone left to help us when the pandemic gets really out of hand.)
The TCC is thinning the herd, and we are the herd.
The exact same perverse priority can be seen in the climate crisis. We don’t matter – and certainly our children don’t matter. All that matters is that the members of the TCC don’t have to stop raking in more money. The corona crisis didn’t really expose this, but has made it more evident than ever. Capitalism is cancer, and the TCC is a malignant tumor.
inertia and hegemony
Our collective unwillingness to recognize an ongoing crisis and act while there still is time is one of the main pillars of social inertia. I don’t think there is anything that can change this. As a species we are just not capable of dealing with crises. It is for this reason that I think that climate disaster and global societal collapse are unavoidable. But of all the things I’d like to be wrong about, this one tops the list.
As long as the TCC remains in control – and that means as long as capitalism survives – there is no long-term prospect for the “survival” of civilization. The TCC will always prioritize their own short-term financial interests above everything else. And consequently, the choice is easy – profits for the few versus survival of the many. Capitalism versus mankind and the planet.
For the TCC, fascism is not a threat. In the contrary, a merger of fascism with key features of neoliberal capitalism into a kind of neo-fascism is the ideal solution. It keeps them in power, strengthens their hegemony, guarantees their profits, keeps the masses under control, and deflects attention by blaming others (such as foreigners) for the crisis. And because the TCC controls the press, they are in a perfect position to orchestrate a rise of neo-fascism.
This is a second main pillar of inertia: the hegemonic power of the TCC to prevent real change. The only way to destroy this power is to destroy the TCC and the socio-economic system that supports them. There is no future for our children – and even for many of us – under capitalism.
The future is war, but it can either be a class war to end the war of the few against the many, or it can be a fascist war in the service of the few and against the many.
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- See the graphs and explanations in this article as an illustration of this point.
- Leslie Sklair (2000), The Transnational Capitalist Class (New York: Wiley).
- Peter Phillips (2018), Giants: The Global Power Elite (New York: Seven Stories).