COVID-19: The 21st Century Begins Now

by Jérôme Baschet

Historians readily accept that the global 20th century began in 1914, with the onset of the cycle of the World Wars. One day it will no doubt be said that the 21st century began in 2020, with the introduction of SARS-CoV-2. The range of scenarios to come remains, of course, very open; but the sequence of events triggered by the spread of the Coronavirus offers a preview of the disasters that are bound to intensify in our convulsive world, marked as it is by the effects of a global warming well on its way towards an average increase of 3 or 4 degrees. What is happening before our eyes is an increasingly tight intertwining of multiple crisis factors, which it suffices for a random element, both unforeseen and widely announced, to activate. The collapse and unravelling of life, climate disorder, accelerated social decomposition, the discrediting of governments and political systems, the unbridled expansion of credit and financial fragility, failure to maintain a sufficient level of growth (to mention only a few): these dynamics all reinforce one another, generating an extreme vulnerability that derives from the fact that the world system is now in a situation of permanent structural crisis. Henceforth, any apparent stability is merely a mask for growing instability.

Philippe Sansonetti, a microbiologist and professor at the Collège de France, recently remarked that Covid-19 is an “Anthropocene disease”. The current pandemic is a total fact, in which the biological reality of the virus is inseparable from the societal and systemic conditions of its existence and spread. Invoking the Anthropocene — a new geological period in which the human species has become a force capable of modifying the biosphere on a global scale — invites us to take into account a threefold timeline: firstly, the recent period in which, under the pressure of perceptible evidence, we became aware, albeit too slowly, of this new era; secondly, the decades after 1945, which were those of the rise of consumer society and the great acceleration of all the markers of humanity’s productive (and destructive) activity; lastly, the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries which, by setting in motion the cycle of fossil fuels and industrialization, caused the curve of greenhouse gas emissions to take off, thus marking the beginning of the Anthropocene.

The virus that afflicts us has been sent by the living, who have come to present us with the bill for the turmoil that we ourselves have caused. The Anthropocene means: in whatever befalls us, human responsibility is involved. But whose responsibility is it exactly? The three timelines mentioned above allow us to be more precise. On the most immediate horizon, our attention is monopolized by the staggering affair of the evaporation of mask stocks since 2009 and by the indolence that has failed to replenish them urgently as the epidemic approaches. This is merely one more aspect of Europe’s overwhelming lack of preparation. In this inability to anticipate, we bear witness to another disease of the times, namely, its presentism, that force by which everything that extends beyond the immediate disappears from our view. The coldly calculative neoliberal methods of hospital management took care of the rest, with its persistent lack of resources, reduction in the number of beds, on top of a shortage of staff and personnel who are already exhausted during normal times. Care workers have been howling their despair for a long time, without being heard. Today, the criminal nature of long-standing policies has been proven to everyone.  As Philippe Juvin, head of the emergency department at the Pompidou Hospital in Paris recently stated, “careless and incompetent people” have caused us to find ourselves “naked in the face of the epidemic”. And if Emmanuel Macron wanted to set himself up as a war chief, he should not overlook the fact that this same rhetoric, invoked by so many rulers these days, could also one day one day turn (metaphorically?) into an accusation of high treason.

Glancing back over the second half of the twentieth century allows us to identify several of the major causalities behind the multiplication of zoonoses, those diseases caused by infectious agents that are able to make a species leap from animals to humans. The expansion of industrial livestock farming, with its despicable tendency toward concentration, led to the sort of deplorable health consequences we now know far too well (swine flu, H5N1 bird flu, etc.). Meanwhile, excessive urbanization and metropolization have shrunk the habitats of animals, pushing them into closer contact with humans (HIV and Ebola, in particular). These two factors may not have played a role in the case of SARS-CoV-2, although more still needs to be known about the entire chain of transmission. On the other hand, it is clear that the sale of wild animals in the Wuhan market would not have had such consequences had Wuhan not become one of the world capitals of the automobile industry. The globalization of economic flows is indeed at work; and this is the third causality to be invoked, all the more so as the senseless expansion of air traffic was the vector of the rapid planetary spread of the virus.

But we can’t stop there; we must also look back two centuries and give the Anthropocene its real name: Capitalocene. For it is the result, not of the human species in general, but of a specific historical system. The principal characteristic of this system, capitalism, is that the bulk of production is based, above all else, on the imperative of turning a profit from the money invested (capital). Although its configurations are variable, the world is ultimately organized according to the imperious demands of the economy. The result has  been a civilizational break with all previous human experience, in which private interest and competitive individualism now reign as supreme values, the obsession with pure quantity and the tyranny of urgency opening up a void in being. The result is also and above all a deadly productivist compulsion, one which lies at the origin of the overexploitation of natural resources, the accelerated disorganization of living things, and climate change.

When the current quarantine and health emergency ends, nothing will be the same as before; that much has been made clear. But what will change? Will our self-examination be limited to a short-term temporality, as is to be feared, or will we take into account the full cycle of the Capitalocene? We have now reached the threshold of the twenty-first century. The real war that is about to be waged will not have the Coronavirus as its enemy, but will be fought between two opposing options: on one side, there will be the continuation of a world in which the fanatical drive for merchandise reigns supreme and whose compulsive productivism will only lead to the deepening of the ongoing devastation; on the other side, there lies the invention, already being explored in a thousand places, of new ways of existing that would break with the categorical imperative of the economy, in order to lend priority to a good life for all. Preferring the joyful intensity of the qualitative to the false promises of an unlimited impossibility, the latter would combine an attentive concern for inhabited milieus and the interactions of the living with the construction of the common, mutual aid, and solidarity, and the collective capacity for self-organization and self-government.

The Coronavirus has come to sound the alarm and stop the mad train of a civilization hurtling towards the destruction of life on a mass scale. Shall we let it continue down its course, once again? That would only guarantee new and unprecedented disasters, which will make what we are experiencing now look pale in retrospect.

Paris, March 27, 2020

Translated by Ill Will Editions

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Jérôme Baschet is an historian currently teaching at the Autonomous University of Chiapas in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Author of several books on medieval history, he has also published Défaire la tyrannie du présent. Temporalités émergentes et futurs inédits (2018), La Rébellion zapatiste (2019), and Une Juste colère. Interrompre la destruction du monde, on the Gilets Jaunes.