17 May 2020

Weekly briefing: The coronavirus counter-revolution


Much in the way we lived before the virus is already irretrievable. Probably a vaccine will be developed along with treatments that reduce the virus’ lethality. But this will likely take years, and in the meantime our lives will have altered beyond recognition.

This was the rather glum assessment of the philosopher and author John Gray earlier this week, in a piece arguing that we are living through an apocalyptic moment, where the old world gives way to something entirely new.

In that sense, Gray contends, this crisis is not unlike events a century ago – though rather than the obvious comparison to the Spanish Flu, he argues this pandemic is actually “analogous” to the wanton brutality of the Russian Civil War. For the dispossessed bourgeoisie and aristocrats of Imperial Russia, read the soon to be unemployed Western white collar workers, whose world is “evanescing before their eyes”.

There’s a certain amount of ‘well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?’ about all this, coming from a thinker who has long railed against the deleterious effects of globalised free market capitalism. And Gray is hardly alone in thinking that his big idea about the state of the world has been vindicated by the Covid crisis. Equally, some of the phenomena he describes, such as automation rendering certain jobs obsolete, don’t really have anything to do with the pandemic at all.

Still, given the bleakness of the economic picture, a dollop of negativity is entirely understandable. Just looking at the UK, public sector net borrowing looks likely to top £300bn this year, while millions are in a kind of employment purgatory, supported by the state but with no guarantee they will have a job to return to when the furlough scheme eventually ends.

But it still feels like quite a leap from a deep recession, a surge in borrowing and all the other juddering economic effects of the pandemic to claiming that whole aspects of our lives are “irretrievable” – to go from saying ‘things are different now’ to ‘things will never be the same again’. The more prosaic truth, I suspect, is we go through a period where many economies operate at perhaps 75% or 80% of their usual capacity before we get back to somewhere near pre-crisis levels of activity.

There are many problems with that analogy to the Russian revolution, but the most important is that the Bolsheviks wanted to create an entirely new world, whereas all our efforts now are concentrated not only on protecting lives, but preserving as much as we can of our way of life.

And it’s not just the massive splurge of public money from our governments. Just look at the lengths people are going to to try to get back the things they have recently been deprived of. The three-hour queues to get to a recently re-opened McDonald’s in France, or the sight of German restaurant-goers wearing foam noodles on their heads to maintain appropriate social distancing.

If the pandemic is a would-be revolutionary, the global counter-revolution, however costly, is in full swing.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX