The Coronavirus changes everything. I’ve read this in headlines and stories over and over again. How the British government will no longer be able to pursue its agenda. How Brexit will be delayed. How the NHS will now be untouchable. How immigrants will be valued as they are seen working in essential frontline occupations. Our social lives will be dramatically changed. Pilots, CNN tells us, will be out of practice. Our addiction to flying, the Guardian reports, will be cured. Capitalism will fall. The world will be rewilded. Dolphins in Venice canals: goats taking over playgrounds. Get ready for the new New World Order.
But let me offer a counter-argument. This will change nothing. Any student of history is repeatedly faced with humanity’s stubborn inability to learn lessons from history. Look at how the mistakes of the Korean War were repeated almost exactly during the Vietnam War. Or note how financial crisis after crisis has led to a brief anger at bankers followed by a slashing and more lasting attack on welfare provisions and the poor. The pandemic is already becoming partisan with the right interpreting the success of social distancing as showing that social distancing wasn’t needed in the first place. People who have lost their jobs armed with a skepticism of science that has been fermented for years will make a ready audience for such narratives. It’s like a tennis game. Black lives matter (pok) all lives matter (pok) we clap for the NHS (pok) we clap for Boris (pok) lockdown (pok) herd immunity (pok – OUT!)
Even the anti-vaxers with their usual brand of lunacy proving unpopular have moved to blaming 5G towers for the neverending conspiracy of everything that’s shit having been decided in a room in Davos by people who might or might not be Jewish. It’s as if stupidity is a constant and no sooner do we get rid of one idiocy than another one appears, cosplaying as alternative radical thought. I love Thomas Pynchon’s line on conspiracy: if they get you asking the wrong questions, then they don’t care if you find the answers.
Of course, there will be some changes. We’ll probably wash our hands more and shake them less just as AIDS made people practice safe sex. There will be a depressing explosion of podcasts and blog posts. Many, many, many bad novels will be written and awful sourdough bread baked. Memes proliferate like germs and the depths of Netflix will be plumbed until we’re all rewatching Making a Murderer. Meanwhile Priti Patel slouches towards parliament with a points based immigration system that will exclude precisely those essential workers we were applauding the other night.
But anyone waiting for a reinvention of capitalism, or a revolution even, are going to be sorely disappointed: especially as they assume it will occur and let their guard down. The left and liberals, and centerists for that matter, look at the world as it is and see that now, look, it is self-evident that our system has systemic failings, our leaders are culpable and inept, our values require an overhaul. And because this is so self-evident and obvious, we don’t make the argument: because we see it as transparent ‘reality’ we don’t make it into a narrative. The 5G towers idea isn’t appealing because it’s true: it’s appealing precisely because it is a story that is sexier than reality; sexier than not having a story at all. As Yeats once wrote in The Second Coming: “the best lack all conviction and the worst are always on Fox and Facebook.”