Emancipatory Catastrophism In Times Of COVID-19
COVID-19 has disrupted politics, the economy, and everyday citizens’ lives in major ways across the planet. Can - and should - such disruption be welcomed as an opportunity for progressive social change?
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‘Emancipatory catastrophism’ is Ulrich Beck’s thesis that points of crisis are also points of radical transformation. Indeed, says Beck, crises bring our most fertile moments of possibility for progressive structural change.
Naïve optimism? Not exactly. Beck wrote on global crises throughout his long career. His 1998 book World Risk Society explored the catastrophic side of whole world integrated systems. 2006’s Cosmopolitan Vision explored the human outlooks required to contemplate the global and to actualise planetary right relationships.
Shortly before his death in 2015, Beck wrote about ‘emancipatory catastrophism’, his optimistic hope for global crises. Written in the context of climate change, Beck celebrated the way horrendous events can cause ‘anthropological shocks’ that emancipate new social orders. Not revolutions, he says, but metamorphoses. Radical cathartic change; but built from already existing movements and projects.
We may not have noticed, argued Beck, but for the last few years we have already been living within a structural change towards a new social order – where the global outlook required to contemplate climate change has catalysed new systems of greater sustainability, justice, and cosmopolitan respect of otherness. In his final role, as principal investigator for a European Research Council project into ‘methodological cosmopolitanism,’ Beck argued that emancipation from our climate catastrophe was already underway.
What would Beck make of the COVID-19 crisis, unprecedented in its global reach and immediate impact upon billions of people’s everyday lives?
He died too soon to comment, but if Beck were here, he would at least not be alone in taking an optimistic approach to the crisis. From Russell Brand’s transformation of collective consciousness, to Jim Bendell’s deep adaptation ‘pandemic of love,’ or Sandrine Dixson-Declève et al.’s road towards a European Green Deal, among many others, the ‘crisis-as-progressive-opportunity’ call has resonated clearly through the past few weeks’ cacophony of COVID-19 memes, posts and commentary.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest things are indeed shaking up. Policy options are being adopted across the planet that only weeks ago appeared so far outside of mainstream neoliberal political possibility as to be laughable. Governments worldwide have mobilised massive social welfare packages. Spain and Ireland have nationalised their private healthcare providers. Germany is considering similar options for its pharmaceutical supply chain. Universal Basic Income has moved from fringe idea to mainstream imperative. Even the USA has passed a $2 trillion relief stimulus package expanding unemployment benefits (see more below).
Stories of individual altruism also abound, whether it is CEOs foregoing their own salary to continue paying workers, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party deducting their salary to donate to China’s virus response, or the countless everyday actions of concerned citizens helping each other. Rebecca Solnit’s observation that disasters inspire the greatest depths of human compassion – our ‘paradises built in hell’ – is alive and well, and gaining renewed publicity.
Indeed, when US congresswomen are quoting Kropotkin in their public service messages, and Britney Spears is calling for wealth redistribution and a general strike, you know things are far from business as usual. As Lee Jones puts it: ‘The coronavirus pandemic is killing off the neoliberal order in a way that the diminished left could not.’ And if nothing else, notes Mattias Horx, 2020 should at least mark the first reduction of human CO2 emissions in history.
Silver linings glimmer in these dark days? For ‘Apocaloptimists’, the glass is both half-empty and half-full. Catastrophe is upon us, and this may ultimately be a good thing.
(Estimated Read time - 10 mins)