Pathways for the Post-COVID New Old World

Part 5 of 5 of the COVID-19 Series.


Some are openly proclaiming, “you don’t want to waste a crisis,” as they calculate how the crisis could become a series of opportunities to “change things”. We have to question whether strategic pre-positioning to shape the “post-COVID normal,” might end up even unconsciously shaping the authorities’ responses to the crisis right now, effectively tilting the scales one way or another and inevitably reducing the life chances of some. Note how already—effortlessly and without pausing to think even for a second—the assumption in the media is that younger generations will be the ones to pay the debts accumulated during this crisis. Why is that? How does that logically follow? If there is a debt to be paid, you can pay it by various means, including quite frankly printing more money, increasing taxes on the rich and on corporations, and leaving the mass of youth untouched. What is not logical is to pretend that there is only one path.

Instead we can already see the outline of three basic contending paths, three large camps jostling one another. They can be categorized as follows: (1) Restorationist–Denialist; (2) Liberal Reformist; and, (3) Revolutionary–Transformationist. If the contours of these camps seem predictable, it is because they are built on foundations that preexisted the pandemic. However, since there are tendencies for people to not follow some analyst’s neat categories, we will find the three camps bleeding into each other, producing at least seven distinct positions, some of which are particular to events of this crisis. See the diagram below:

At the point where all of the positions overlap—which is in area #7 above—that is from where we can almost certainly expect actual changes/actions/policies to arise, since such any moves from that camp will meet with wide agreement. One candidate for #7 could be de-globalization, since the concept of global supply chains has been severely delegitimized as a result of this crisis, such that none of the three main camps is espousing unchanged economic globalization. Likely to be minimal or overlooked is #6 (it could include some economic nationalists and some of those wanting economies to reopen for the sake of workers). Both #4 and #5 will tend to gain the most traction in the mainstream and alternative media, and in government circles. In #4 we would find the clearest and most assertive expressions of neoliberal positions; it is also where we find an overlap in terms of plans for a gradual reopening of economic activity, and where we also find plans for a new round of austerity measures post-COVID. Let us now look at the three main paths, which we might also think of as models or political camps (I will leave discussion of possible cultural outcomes for the future.)

The Restorationist–Denialist Path

Georgia, Quebec, and several others have been volunteered to act as the case studies of this path. The path has been best “articulated” by Donald Trump himself, along with libertarians, and by protesters in several US cities who have emerged in recent days from the inner folds of the Internet and Trump’s re-election campaign. Georgia is the leading test case, with about 15 other states close behind, including Texas, Alaska, South Carolina, New Hampshire, each apparently experimenting with somewhat more limited reopenings. Restorationism is also amply represented by Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and shades of it can be found in parts of Canada (Quebec) and the UK.

This path holds that a gradual and then full return to normal, the status quo ante, is not only imperative, it is possible. It is held to be possible even while the virus continues to roam freely, and there is no vaccine. Indeed, advocates of this path are quite explicit about putting people at risk, knowing some will die. They are frank about experimenting on cities and regions. There is not even adequate testing in North America to know who exactly is carrying the virus into various crowds.

The dream of this path is that one day soon there will be packed baseball and football stadiums, large restaurants packed to capacity, and millions of travellers filling airplanes, cruise ships and motorways. Everyone will be back to work, and there will be a massive and rapid economic recovery. This vision is shared not only by corporate leaders, but also by at least some strongly disaffected and desperate workers. Of course some want the lockdowns to end because they have not been supplied with any reasons for continuing them, all previous goals having been surpassed.

Skepticism about the virus, vulnerable to being (mis)interpreted as denialism, has not been in short supply. Whether intentionally or not, whether simply appropriated and coopted, a tendency to mix selective scientific data into advocacy and policy emerged from early on, and it provided fuel for Restorationism. For some, especially at the outset before the pandemic began to strike hard, there was the belief that the panic around COVID-19 was itself highly inflated, as seasonal flu each year kills many times more than COVID-19, so the arguments went. Seeing through “the fog of fear” went against the grain of the mainstream media, which actively sold hysteria to the public—according to these critics. Much like the many preceding mass-scare events that globalized hysteria, with dire predictions never borne out, while political authority reinforced itself, so the fear-mongering around COVID-19 started to come in for some rare, and sometimes highly insightful criticisms. Nevertheless, a veritable cottage industry of fear-building has sprouted online, with endless conspiracy theories, falsehoods, and crackpot cures. Mainstream media in particular were faulted for creating a culture of panic, with articles such as this one that told the US public that things would get much worse (and they did). Even well after the reality of the pandemic took hold, and millions had been infected and tens of thousands had died, there was a resurgence of anti-panic arguments in the service of reopening economies. It was argued the data showed that continued lockdowns were not only unnecessary, they were harmful. Others argued that the data showed that there never was any evidence that lockdowns had successfully saved lives. In response, some countered that advising “don’t panic” was terrible advice, yet there were also those who recognized the danger of the coronavirus but maintained that panic only made things worse. Restorationist reinterpretations have already bred some very sad consequences, not least for its own proponents. The not uncommon belief in the US that COVID-19 was a “hoax,” led to the virus killing some who believed this to be the case. Others are exclaiming that the “totally bogus” crisis is over (how a crisis can be both “bogus” and “over” is not explained). In terms of media, we see an overlap between Fox News, other right-wing media, and Russia’s RT with articles casting doubt on the severity of the pandemic, most frequently likening it to the seasonal flu.

(Speaking of crackpot cures and snake-oil salesmanship, Donald Trump has been a gold mine of faulty and dangerous advice. He has insisted that heat and light can be used to stop the virus—without any mention of how the pandemic has spread throughout hot, sunny, tropical parts of Latin America, or the case of Singapore in Asia which also suffered a serious outbreak. In addition, he was curious about devising experiments that would inject disinfectants into human bodies.)

Restorationism can, at times, take on a “dissident” hue despite the fact that its highest representatives hold the highest political offices, and despite the fact that Restorationism is corporate-friendly. There are elements of Restorationism that nonetheless seep into adjoining dissident camps, especially when the positions being emphasized include the following:

  • a rejection of globalization;

  • economic nationalism;

  • distrust of political authorities, state power, and “Big Brother”;

  • hostility towards technocrats; and,

  • a desire for personal independence and citizen empowerment.

However, there is a strain of Restorationism which is “pure restorationist” and which keeps faith with economic globalization: it eschews any overtures to economic nationalism, and fully expects to continue doing business as usual by offshoring production to China. Right now, a majority of US firms operating in China have indicated that they have no plans of winding down operations.

Like the next path described below, the Restorationist one might lead some to believe it is viable since those in government who support it are already in a position of power. The problem with this assumption, where holding power is mistaken for the ability to keep power, is that Restorationism will immediately be challenged by the problems which it creates for itself. Already the Restorationist path is failing to win majority public support. In polls, a majority in the US disapprove of Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. With 72% of the US public opposed to a return to work in conditions where the pandemic continues, the Restorationist path is vulnerable to deliberate or de facto “national strikes”—where masses of people refuse to return because they are afraid, and refuse to do so on an individual basis; or people are organized to resist; or they are simply too fearful to resume shopping sprees. Such resistance/hesitance is not far-fetched: already many people are reported to have refused to go to hospitals when suffering heart attacks, or needing urgent cancer therapies, because of the fear of contracting the virus. In some places, their concerns have unfortunately been well justified (outbreaks in Montreal hospitals are a badly worsening problem as I write). If those having a heart attack are too afraid to go to a hospital, why would people be less afraid to go out for a meal or a haircut? Governments cannot force people to go out to restaurants, and in many cases, even before the shut downs, or even in the absence of shut downs, fear kept large masses of people at home.

Restorationism is a path fuelled by a combination of cabin fever, nostalgia, and grave economic desperation. There is not much more to say about it for now, except: let’s look at Georgia and Quebec. If these cases turn out to be massive and deadly failures, Restorationism will near its own extinction, and Trump could fare poorly despite his transparent attempts to walk on both sides of the street by criticizing Georgia’s governor, yet saluting early reopening efforts. Such cases can fail in two ways: the reopening provokes a massive surge in the virus and a renewed retreat, or most people choose to stay home. We should have some answers either at the time this is published, or shortly thereafter.

Note: showing where Trump’s priorities truly lie during the height of a pandemic, the only email the Trump campaign sent to supporters in this period, on April 20, amazingly asked for supporters to send money to the campaign during a staggering economic crisis. All Trump’s campaign promised in return was “the chance to win a signed photograph”. There was no mention of the virus or of helping workers who lost their jobs. There was no expression of concern for Trump supporters that had contracted the virus, no urging them to be safe, and no condolences offered to the families of Trump supporters who lost their lives to COVID-19. It was strikingly “business as usual”:

The Liberal Reformist Path

The Liberal Reformist path is the premiere ideological tendency in places such as Canada and Western Europe. The idea is that we will never fully return to “normal,” and there will be significant changes. However, society will still be essentially capitalist, but with a stronger state, maintaining the same basic class ranking that it currently possesses. Things preceded by the letter “e” will be more common: e-learning, e-commerce, e-whatever. Liberal Reformism emphasizes “resilience,” “dialogue,” “conversations,” “partners,” and “stakeholders,” among its repertoire of buzzwords.

Liberal Reformism also contains a strain of denialism however. It denies that people have a memory. It will require millions to forget who exactly played the role of essential worker during the crisis—whose physical presence in place was needed far more than politicians were needed in parliament. Another strain of denial is that Liberal Reformism will deny that people noticed the grave social fissures that exist, and the unsustainable nature of modern society. The third strain of denial involves evading accountability for how the dominant decision-making, and the dominant structures, helped to propagate the virus and augment its impacts. Liberal Reformism is premised on a denialism similar to Restorationism in that it expects people to happily resume an approximation of their former lives, with little question.

Liberal Reformism has to face some immediate challenges. Some of the cardinal rules of neoliberal transnational capitalism have to be sacrificed. States now need to take on a much bigger role, and specifically an interventionist role in the economy. The welfare state is likely to be revived to a considerable extent in this model. Public demands for stronger public healthcare, for enhanced public funding of health institutions and the manufacture and stockpiling of vital supplies, will be irresistible. Yet, ultimately Liberal Reformism will fail to deliver, because it has little motivation to deliver. A reactionary fallback strategy will be adopted for elections: “we are the least worst option”.

Liberal Reformism will involve a massive increase in public debt, a fact which it created. This in itself will lead to a dangerous fork in the road: either this becomes an opportunity for a massive taxation of wealth, and redistribution, consistent with demands that were validated and normalized during the crisis (thus opening the way to the third path below), or, we have the basis for a renewed neoliberal push toward even greater structural adjustment, thus taking Liberal Reformism up the path of Restorationism.

To save itself, Liberal Reformism will at least need to repair the social safety net, or the system puts everyone at risk once again. It will need to ramp up healthcare spending and provision of supplies and facilities. Workers will need more protections, health benefits, and sick leave—people can no longer be forced to go to work while sick. The gig economy is in for an overdue comeuppance.

However, thus far Liberal Reformism has already fallen flat, particularly in Canada. Canadians were left to fend for themselves: more than two weeks before the lockdown, Canadians were suddenly told by the Minister of Health that they should stock up on two weeks’ worth of essential supplies—which assumed that all Canadians were in a position to do so. There was little concern for how the statement helped to spark panic buying. After the crisis fully blossomed, Canadians were left to their own devices when securing groceries, regardless of their age or physical condition, or their ability to afford weeks of sustenance without an income. Told to access services by connecting from home, or working from home electronically, governments in Canada ignored the continued digital divide that exists in the country. Income support measures were limited, partial, slow, and complicated, favouring those who had recently lost a job and who had been working for a specific period of time and had already earned a certain amount over the past year. A third of unemployed Canadians were left without any income support. The wage subsidy designed to encourage employers to keep workers on the payroll, while seemingly generous, was of limited value: companies for which the payroll was not the major expense, and which anticipated bankruptcy, did not even bother to apply. Small businesses, which are the backbone of the Canadian economy, and which were forced to shut down through no fault of their own—were only offered the prospect of greater debt and no recovery of lost income, as the federal government only advanced a no-interest loan program. Many small businesses simply tossed aside the notion, rejecting the idea of going into debt as a non-solution. When it mattered most, Liberal Reformism has proven that it matters little.

Liberal Reformism will also be ambiguous and reluctant about letting go of a battery of restrictions and new powers gained under either a de jure or de facto state of emergency. Elected politicians will be wary of letting the guard down and exposing voters to risk by reopening economies before there is mass vaccination. A new spread of the virus will be as deadly to Liberal Reformism as it will be to Restorationism, and it would open the doors wide to the third path below.

If firmly reestablished in power for years to come, Liberal Reformist regimes are the ones most likely to exploit the narrative of hygiene as a substitute for “terror” in international relations and domestic politics.

The Liberal Reformist path has a high chance of immediately being implemented as the virus winds down (assuming it winds down), because it is currently already in place, just as Restorationism is in power in the US. The question is how long either will be able to keep that place after the virus passes. One or the other may face demise even before the virus has passed. An early boost in popular support for the authorities in the early days and weeks of the pandemic, may evaporate entirely after months have passed. The economic prospects look bleak, on several key fronts, including public and personal debt, unemployment, and immigration. In Canada, the ruling Liberals have had their power to confront banks and raise taxes cut back by parliament, reducing space for Keynesian options.

The failure to deliver effective solutions, to carry through the necessary sweeping reforms, and the weak provision of what are already half-measures, will stand as one of the most notable indictments of Liberal Reformism. This path is especially prone to ignoring the crisis of capitalism that significantly augmented the impacts of the pandemic.

In the case of Canada, decades of cutbacks to welfare, social services, and healthcare, produced a large population rendered susceptible to the virus either because this was the same front line of workers in essential industries, or their poor health weakened their bodies and opened them to the worst effects of the virus. Canadians were further endangered by the diminished, fragile, or non-existent national supply chains for basic goods.

Even before the pandemic struck, Canada with a population around 37 million, had over a million schoolchildren experiencing hunger; income inequality reached unprecedented extremes; a housing bubble developed across the major metropolises; the average Canadian household carried a debt that was 176% of income—the entire system was already extremely fragile and just waiting for even a small shock to cause the house of cards to tumble.

Now that the pandemic has acted as a catalyst generating a new recession, if not an economic depression (which is most likely), the situation for Canadian workers has worsened further. One third of all Canadians expected to miss a rent or mortgage payment. Two thirds of Canadians reported that they had either lost their jobs, or were in the process of losing them. Only 22% of workers reported not losing any work. Liberal Reformists—stuck between protecting health and financially supporting demobilized workers, or reopening the economy—have already proven where their priorities lie. The chosen path is to gradually reopen the economy, despite the many risks and the likelihood of a second wave, and the fact that economists and industry leaders have warned that a second shut down would be even more disastrous economically.

The Revolutionary–Transformationist Path

“Turning point” is a weak term for what is essentially a revolution. One benefit of memory is recognition of the fact that pandemics make history. Pandemics hold up a mirror to the values of a society, the relationships which humans have with both their natural and built environments, the relationships humans have with each other, and the extent to which a social structure produces the kinds of fissures that are exploited by diseases. This path addresses itself primarily to those that have lost the most thanks to the other camps holding power—they are what Robert Reich calls the forgotten, the unpaid, and the essentials.

The term “transformationism” was added here because serious, radical change may not be “revolutionary” in the sense of a socialist revolution, but it may still involve a complete restructuring of the social, economic, and political order. The concept of a “New Old World,” where what comes into being is a combination of already familiar elements, reshaped and repurposed for new conditions, could be an example of non-revolutionary transformationism—but it also depends on one’s philosophical paradigm of “revolution” (i.e., a return to the past, which was revolution in the classical sense, or a radical new break in the more modern sense).

One of the main reasons that more will turn to this path as an urgent and necessary response will be widespread recognition of the undeniable failures of neoliberalism to prepare societies for a crisis such as this one, and for having produced multiple layers of socio-economic inequality that transformed a pandemic into a massive social and political crisis.

In this mode, and to a degree not even thinkable in either of the two modes above, the state will be paramount and maybe exclusive in its power. Here the state not only “looms large,” it will play a central role in organizing production, overseeing circulation/distribution, and regulating consumption. We will realize how badly private sector “solutions” failed us during this pandemic—not even grocery deliveries could be reliably handled by the private sector, and they were vital to many. American libertarians will predictably scoff that “the government cannot be trusted to manage the post office, let alone healthcare,” and yet they trust it to manage something far larger and more expensive than the post office: the entire US military. Any state that can manage a vast military-industrial complex, can certainly manage food prices and grocery deliveries. If Americans did not want the state to loom large in people’s preferences, they probably should have stopped it from growing to imperial proportions.

In terms of the organization and provision of basic goods—such as groceries—we also need to devise safe and reliable modes of processing and delivery. One could envision large publicly owned warehouses, completely staffed by robots that locate items using scanners and bar codes, assembling supplies into containers, and sending the containers out for delivery using unmanned vehicles. In some respects, we have already taken steps in this direction, except for the major obstacle that is represented by the private, corporate ownership of food production and supply.

Access to information needs to be respected as a right, and one that is a necessary component of the right to healthcare. Both information and healthcare are fundamentally intertwined throughout this crisis. If people are told they must rely on Internet access to get important government information on social services, health provision, and support payments, among many other things—then Internet access should be provided to everyone in the society, regardless of their ability to pay for it. In other words, Internet access should no longer be a commodity that is rented out by private corporations, and the same holds for the technology required to access the Internet.

In all cases where climate and topography permit, governments should distribute a wide range of seeds to citizens, and perhaps even small farm animals (chickens, goats), and mandate that everyone who is able should contribute something toward national food supply. Even public spaces should be planted, such as the land that stretches beside highways, or public parks.

National food security has at least been revived as a key priority, in some of the places where it matters most. Neoliberal economists in academia, who did great damage by scoffing at food sovereignty as a “mere” question of “honour,” and not as a vital and practical tool key to survival in global crises, will themselves be laughed off the stage in the months and years to come, one must hope.

One could also envision a home-based distributed economy of different sizes and shapes. What was previously known as a gym, could be distributed over a neighbourhood (one machine per home), which would also help to bond that neighbourhood together. Parts of some industrial production processes might safely and realistically be done in homes. Office work can certainly be done from home. The home, and the neighbourhood, could thus become the new centres, the new engines of the post-COVID economy. Day care would no longer be an issue for most working families. A space could open for new cooperatives to form.

One new transformation (though not revolutionary), will be widespread recognition of the need to stockpile. It is now clear, with pandemics being a firm part of history, recent experience, and likely recurring in the future, that the average person or family needs to have a year’s worth of supplies of food and basic medicines. Ideally, that would be accompanied by enough savings to cover costs of living without an income for a year. If people save more money, that means less money in circulation in the economy, less spent on consumption, and decreased demand. The more radical option would be a centrally organized, public stockpile of basic goods, medicines, and a national emergency fund that provides a living wage to all during a crisis (assuming there is no universal basic income in place already).

To tackle new challenges, it will be incumbent upon the Revolutionary–Transformationist path to, once and for all, solve the problem of extreme income and wealth inequalities. The fact of such vast inequality has produced some particularly harsh, sad, and even perverse outcomes during the current pandemic, and few can tolerate it continuing. It is this path which will openly acknowledge and seek to address the crisis of capitalism that fundamentally reshaped the pandemic.

The most important solutions are ultimately political, yet hinging on facts that are fundamentally biological in origin. In expanding the role of the state, we are speaking of an expanded public sector. Centralized organization is good for ensuring coordination during national emergencies. However, the top-down model of governance is also extremely vulnerable to shocks—any crisis at the very top threatens to paralyze the entire system. It is therefore important to ensure a distribution of power throughout the public sphere, so that a wide-range of everyday political and economic decisions, policies, and structures are in the hands of communities throughout the national society. All of these models have already been developed, many have been tried, and it is simply a matter of updating or adjusting those which seem best suited for a particular society.

Significantly enhancing democratization in this model would be bringing to justice those parties which acted to either aggravate or propagate the crisis, or which sought to profit from it. Sitting politicians that rushed to push people into reopened economic activity, immersing them in life-threatening danger; government leaders that knowingly failed to prepare for this crisis and ignored repeated warnings; entrepreneurs that engaged in price-gouging; activists that protested and sought to counter life-saving regulations; and, propagandists that fulminated against stay-at-home orders as if this were all some evil, “socialist conspiracy”—this would be a sample of those held to account.

The point is that large, centralized, bureaucratic structures are going to be necessary to prevent another deadly pandemic from producing the same degree of carnage as this one has done. The Revolutionary–Transformationist model can be defined by:

  • national supply;

  • large centralized bureaucratic organization;

  • massive social spending; and,

  • the radical elimination of inequalities in wealth distribution.

De-Globalization: the need for strategic national supply, and the rejection of unnecessary dependency on foreign sources, will be critical components of this path. It’s also possible that Liberal Reformists will borrow from this agenda to some degree, which will only accentuate de-globalization once its former ideological upholders depart from the side of globalism. No centrally managed social system under a commanding state can afford to be vulnerable to external events and foreign hijacking.

It is also important to note, however, that national solutions are not the same as nationalist solutions, even if in actual practice they can produce the exact same economic outcomes. In other words, if we are speaking of any kind of nationalism at all, it is an economic rather than an ethnic or cultural nationalism. It would be an economic nationalism that is inclusive of all residents, and not a nationalism that favours only particular types of citizens.

There will be divisions in this camp about the nature or extent of desirable de-globalization. It may well be that neoliberal economic globalization is the only, and perhaps most important form of globalization that does not survive the pandemic and subsequent plans to restructure societies. Some will be wary of the thin dividing line that exists between national self-reliance and national solipsism. There will also be heightened awareness of the fact that a contagious outbreak that occurs even in a tiny, remote, and poor part of the world could ultimately spiral out of control and afflict the whole planet—a fact that was true even centuries before what we call globalization was even conceived. There is thus a natural limit to what national solutions can achieve.

However one basic point will now be harder to miss, which is that self-supply is self-governance. Any state that is shown to be incapable of feeding and caring for its citizens, particularly in a time of crisis, is a state that demonstrates a lack of capacity for self-rule.

The Revolutionary–Transformationist path comes closest to autarky, but without an unnecessary degree of provincialism and closure to all foreign contacts. This is self-reliance where essential goods and services are concerned…plus the Internet.

The working class will be the number one priority of this model. If there is one thing that this pandemic crisis has proven, it is the absolutely essential nature of the working class, down to workers in what were previously seen wrongly as the most “menial” of occupations. Education systems could be revolutionized as a result, but the so-called “knowledge economy” will not be erased. Expect an extensive amount of automation (which may also result in decreased immigration), and the creation of a universal basic income coupled with direct access to productive resources in this model. Economic citizenship, favouring the working class, could or should be one hallmark of this path.

Note that while there appears to be some superficial agreement among certain sectors of Liberal Reformism and Revolutionary–Transformationism on the question of a universal basic income, they do not agree on the important details. The former camp is likely to use it as a watered down form of welfare. The latter is about redistributing wealth significantly, and not about managing poverty.

Speaking of the kind of economic production that might prevail—note which areas did the best during the pandemic. In Canada, “more than 40 per cent of businesses in each of the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and the utilities sectors reported either no change or an increase in revenue”. Hunting, fishing, farming? That sounds like the place that existed even before it was called Canada, far from the “innovative” and “next generation” models cooked up in university cafe-labs today.

In the Revolutionary–Transformationist path there might be a push to “capitalize” on the current low demand for oil caused by travel reduced to a degree not even prescribed in some of the most radical Green agendas. A pattern has been broken; a horizon has been reached; what was previously “unthinkable,” is now not only thinkable, it is quite real. Many believed that rapid change could only happen by a drastic, total reorganization of society that would require a maximum of authoritarianism. Rapid change has indeed happened, sooner and by means not always imagined by the proponents of various Green agendas. Symbolizing the wider consciousness that has risen from this event, are the countless stories by citizens obviously charmed by sights of various wild animals moving into city streets, or who noticed that the air is fresher and skies are clearer. Jellyfish gently gliding through the crystal clear waters of Venetian canals is a sight not soon to be forgotten. It is inevitable that some will justifiably want this to be the new normal. Others are far more skeptical that environmentalist agendas will survive the economic destruction caused by this pandemic.

Yet, just the fact that tele-work (working from home) is likely to become the new mode of operation for a wide range of industries, this would mean far less road traffic and gas consumption, and other reduced costs. Tele-work—where applicable—should be an immediate, urgent, and first demand for those whose preferences can be located in this model of change. Tele-work on a wide scale could also free up space that can be converted into housing, thus increasing supply and reducing housing costs for workers. In university settings (possibly discussed in a future article), online education ought to translate into significantly reduced tuition fees, and possibly reduced living expenses for students who previously had to move to the places where their universities were located.

However it is likely that in all three paths, oil and gas will be the primary sources of energy, now being the cheapest. Where economic recovery is paramount, resistance to widely available reserves of fossil fuels could be quickly and easily shoved aside—probably more so in the Restorationist and Liberal Reformist paths. Canada’s immediate future looks like one riven by a vast web of oil and natural gas pipelines. There may be so many pipelines that for the ordinary family the question will be on which side of the pipeline to place the bed.

The latter might well be the case, but it is not necessarily commendable. The real test to each of the three models will be how they address the need to radically rethink our relations with the so-called natural world, of which we are firmly a part. Those paths that involve a continued imperial gobbling up of every creature and every ecosystem, will face demands for their utter destruction.

Further tests to each of the three main camps will revolve around greater democratization, enhanced economic citizenship, and public healthcare. One writer put it this way: “If this economy must collapse, perhaps we could build something better, fairer, more sustainable in its place”.

The coronavirus may not be the first horseman of the apocalypse, but it might be the first trumpet blast. A path premised on societies reduced to individuals, with individuals whose lives are reduced to the dedicated life-long accumulation of shit, is a path laid for the four horsemen.

15 thoughts on “Pathways for the Post-COVID New Old World

  1. Maximilian C. Forte

    Hello everyone,

    Obviously this could not have been written under the best circumstances–in fact, I was both very worried and tired while writing it. Those facts alone would be enough to generate various blind spots, exaggerated emphasis here, diminished attention there, missed questions here and there. I am hoping to get some critical feedback from readers. That applies to the previous parts of the series too, even though the series is now at an “end”.

    * What is missing that you would have added?
    * Which trends do you think will be the most important ones?
    * What do you see as the most likely outcomes?

    It’s open.

    Thanks to all readers during this time. Stay safe.

    1. Lorraine Cook (@Lorrain99345051)

      Thank you for this very perceptive analysis. Though you did touch on it to some degree, my thoughts roam to the new world order post COVID-19 and what it will look like. As you point out, the role of politicians and government will be questioned by the citizens during/after the crisis. We are already asking what purpose politicos serve other than to act out the role of Red Cross Quarter Masters doling out supplies and subsidies. Each and every one of them are also experiencing this crisis in a very personal way. There is no longer a protective shield that will keep our political/economic/celebrity influencers safe from its effects. Such is the democracy of a pandemic, I suppose.

      1. Maximilian C. Forte

        Thanks very much Lorraine (and sorry that your comment, like a few others, was automatically misdirected by WordPress).

        That is an important point–having a system that could potentially fall apart if those at the top of the decision-making chain (in a top-down system of power), themselves succumb to an illness. This is one of the problems I found myself facing when describing the third path, and I did not resolve it. On the one hand, one can see the value of a centralized, expansive, bureaucratic structure that coordinates all aid and relief. On the other hand, such a structure is potentially vulnerable to collapse–which would imply that the better alternative is a society organized into self-sufficient “cells,” but then they might not be able to command the resources necessary for large-scale event. So, I am stuck.

  2. Brad

    Hello Maximilian,

    I’ve been visiting your website for several years, and was delighted when I found that you’d put up such substantial series of posts after something of a hiatus. My first comment, then, should be to thank you for sharing your insights in such a generous and public way.

    I’m a former polytechnic tutor but now run my own business, which has been closed for six weeks now. My interest during this time has been in the dissemination of information by governments and media, and the public’s response. I’ve also been rereading a lot of classical Greek literature, in which plagues, democracies under stress, and factional politics play a prominent part.

    The main aspect of your latest pieces that I notice, in contrast to your usual writing, is fear and anxiety. Even when emotionally charged, your works generally are rational, trenchant, and factual. What I could not find after reading this series was evidence that you’d done much research into the actual virus. On the other hand, like much of the general public, you manifested an obvious terror of it. This interests me because while the virus is dangerous, particularly to the already sick and elderly, it’s overall fatality and spread rate are only slightly higher than seasonal influenza. This assertion is supported by data provided by the very governments imposing lockdowns on their populations, as well as analysis by a variety of prominent epidemiologists. Further, such information was available as early as mid March, and has been confirmed by recent antibody studies in Santa Clara, New York, and Stockholm.

    You are right to point out the obvious ideological blindness toward the very real dangers of the virus by motivated groups, but it also seems to me that you are overreacting emotionally to the actual physiological danger that the virus poses. This is especially poignant given your relatively calm response to a very real health danger that you shared in a piece months ago. It is this visceral overreaction that undermines the credibility of the series as whole.

    Thank you again,


    1. Maximilian C. Forte

      Thanks Brad,

      Not being an epidemiologist, to say that I have not done much research into the virus is far too generous. I have done none at all: I have no training in the area, and am not part of any research group conducting surveys and experiments. As for what published research there is–and it is not vast, being a novel virus–I did link to a number of studies at different points, from medical journals and magazines. A large part of it is incomprehensible to me, as it would be to most people who lack the necessary background training. Therefore, for the most part, I rely on reports of research as published in the media. I am thus familiar with all of the studies to which you alluded, as they were reported for the general public. What I definitely decided against doing was what I see too many other instant experts doing online: playing epidemiologist, and declaring certain conclusions with an air of certainty and authority. For me, that is the one trait that undermines credibility.

      The big problem is identifying what one means by the “already sick”. All sorts of people potentially have complicating conditions, and the range of such conditions is actually quite broad–and still not entirely understood. In fact, when one hears from nurses and doctors, with first hand experience with the virus, a common reaction from them is that this virus is not like anything they have seen before. Do you find that reassuring?

      At any rate, understanding this pandemic has to go well beyond epidemiology. I am more concerned with supply chains than protein chains. I was worried that only health practitioners and biologists would dominate the discussion, because the pandemic is as much social, economic, political, and cultural as anything else, if not more so. Your focus is on the damage the virus might do to bodies, and that is fine. My focus is on the damage it does to social “orders”.

      Fear matters: it is a crucial dimension to the way the entire pandemic is unfolding socially, and it plays a key role in survival. To understand fear, one has to get inside it, which means letting it get inside you. Thus I am doing what any anthropologist would normally try to do. The emic perspective is a critical part of our research. Perhaps then my interpretation and representation was too credible, to the point that it made such an impression on you. However, to balance things, I also present or link to a considerable number of contrary pieces, which in the extreme will even diminish the significance of the whole phenomenon almost to the point of non-existence. Interestingly, some of the wrongest predictions so far have come from the side that argues that this virus (if they acknowledge its existence) is really not much more significant than the seasonal flu, and it should not trouble us unduly.

      Anyway, I already know that different readers will read things differently, which is why I wanted to hear from them. On another site a commenter is remarking that these articles are filled with “black humour”–some will focus on aspects that attract them to begin with. Funny for one, grim for another.

  3. Brad

    Hello Maximilian,

    Thank you for the reply. I think that there is much that we could agree on if our correspondence was not conducted via typing. My assertion regarding the severity of the virus does not imply that one should focus only on the medical side of things, and not other, social, economic, political aspects. Those other aspects are precisely what we should be discussing, which is another reason why I was pleased to find that you’d published this series.

    The above comment reflects my perception of the mental and emotional state of the author of what I was reading. I have clients and friends across the world on “the front lines” dealing directly with Covid 19 patients, some of whom die. Their responses to my queries have been uniformly reassuring without downplaying the hazards. I have cared for a client dying of respiratory illness, and watched it kill family members: it is harrowing.

    It would be irresponsible of me to pretend that I could assess what risk a virus poses to anyone. Nor do I have any authority to advise others how to respond to information. I can only tell you that when I read or hear the opinion of any scientist, social or physical, and it seems fraught with reactive emotion, I become wary of the content. That may be unfair in this instance, but I thought it might be helpful for you to know.

    I should also say that, although I do not know you, I have read your articles here and developed a respect for their author. Your recent writing showed signs of personal suffering to me, which I hoped could be partially alleviated by an awareness that for many doctors and researchers, this virus, while serious, is not considered worthy of the massive dread it has aroused.

    It is my considered opinion that the response to the virus, left right and centre, is far more worthy of dread.

    I hope that you are well,


    1. Maximilian C. Forte

      Thanks again Brad,

      I am very well, and also hoping the same for you. Your message was useful, and it will likely help me make decisions about what I may write, or rewrite in the future.

      Best wishes,


  4. HRH Smith

    What if those that do not have comorbidity issues that succumb to covid-19 have an autoimmune disease. What if through evolutionary processes viruses are the tools that remove genes that cause issues like autoimmune diseases? What if humans, if they were rational, were able to see this?

    My entire life I have been taught evolution. It appears the same people who taught that are trying to potentially stop it.

    All my life I have been taught, including by anthropologists in my elective courses at university, that the world was overpopulated and that depopulation was required to live sustainably. Now even those same anthropologists are trying to reverse nature or evolutions way of reducing population.

    I think the biggest lesson I learned from this experience is the hypocrisy of the social sciences and the hypocrisy of academia.

    1. Maximilian C. Forte

      HRH, I can be quite critical of academia, and hegemonic anthropology as well–but I think you are confusing Social Darwinism with Anthropology. The kind of anthropology you seem to be speaking about, has not been dominant since the early 20th-century. Most anthropologists today are critical of race, class, and gender inequalities…and say virtually nothing about “overpopulation”. I can’t speak for Physical Anthropology, with which I have had only minimal interaction (i.e., a couple of courses), but even there I cannot recall professors hammering away at the need to reduce populations. In addition, in North America the main problem is depopulation if anything–with ageing populations and a low reproduction rate. You have a vast area like Quebec, with half the land area of Europe and yet barely over 1% of the population of Europe–where would I find overpopulation here? Anyway, I don’t like these neo-eugenicist arguments about letting people die, because they should, there are too many of them, or they’re already sick, or they’re elderly, it’s quite gross and smells a little Nazi to me. I really hope that I misunderstood you…but if I haven’t, then please stay away.

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  7. Peter Gose

    Thanks for this series, Max: I particularly like this last installment and agree that the parallelogram of forces strongly points towards de-globalization. Many of us hard at work inside the revolutionary-transformationalist camp would do well to articulate a compelling version of de-globalization and make it central in what we advocate to put pressure on the restorationists and liberal reformers, who can no longer take globalization for granted.
    So let’s start with a few of basic points: (1) Globalization was always about labour arbitrage and a global race to the bottom that locked every lost class struggle into a trans-national capitalist system. Re-localizing and partially de-commodifying supply chains will degrade that system and disproportionately benefit the working class. Economists who go on about trade and prosperity always look at aggregate figures and never at its negative effects on the working majority. (2) Globalization is an environmental catastrophe that demands massive use of fossil fuels to service just-in-time production across unnecessarily long supply chains. Re-localizing and slowing down are necessary conditions of decarbonization and restoring the conditions for life on earth as we have known it. (3) Globalization by definition negates food and health security, intentionally putting them beyond political control. Those decisions will be very hard to defend as this pandemic/economic collapse continue to unfold.
    Stronger states and increased national sovereignty are definitely on the agenda: let’s push them in an ecosocialist direction.

    1. Maximilian C. Forte

      Three excellent points Peter–thanks very much for the contribution. My apologies though, for the system misdirecting your comment (I am glad I found it).

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  9. Mikel Itulain Irurita

    In my opinion, this Covid-19 crisis is an opportunity for change. As workers are asleep, masters are going to take advantage of this moment. We can see States indebted and much more power for private financial system, and this is not a good thing for people majority.
    World hope is now in China, Russia or Venezuela, but not in Western countries. I hope Biden defeat and France change, and finally the European Union institution fading.

    Thank you Maximiliam for your work. Your book Slouching Towards Sirte is the best to understand Libya, Africa and neocolonialism.

    Best regards,
    Mikel Itulain

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