While nursing his gravely ill godson in the spring of 1876, Lewis Carroll wrote the 141-stanza absurdist poem “The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in 8 Fits”.
In the plot, a crew of ten sets out on a sea voyage chasing an elusive creature, a Snark – an allegory for the search of happiness. The venture does not pan out well – the Snark eventually turns out to be a highly dangerous Boojum who has the power to make things “softly and suddenly vanish away, and never be met with again.”
We watch, spellbound, as our elderly, our jobs, and our lifesavings softly and suddenly vanish in the spreading contamination. As we do so, we might ask: is this more than your typical natural disaster? Might this be the end of the way we live, of the way we produce, consume, and navigate our existence? In brief, can capitalism – a society that venerates private initiative and the pursuit of profit, a society that believes prosperity and happiness rest on “on buying everything in the cheapest market and selling in the dearest” (as the historian Eric Hobsbawm famously put it) – can such a society survive the coronavirus?
Here are two possible scenarios.
1/ Capitalism will survive intact
“Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.”
Under this scenario, the pandemic is a mega-financial crisis, demanding bold leadership best handled by key captains of industry and finance, whose savoir faire and personal good will are superior to any stale institutional infrastructure or cumbersome democratic decision-making. Throwing money at citizens to maintain consumption, bailing out handpicked companies and industries, and lowering interest rates to pump cash into the productive economy and the stock exchange are the cornerstones of political common sense.
Those who argue instead for public investment and public health care are duly countered by the observation that Italy has one of the best public health systems in the western world and yet, this did not prevent the health emergency from deteriorating into a tragedy. In this view a pandemic is an extraordinary event, a force majeure, nothing can prepare us for it. But it will pass. The disease will abate, the economy will recover, societies will return to their pre-crisis condition in due course, to be entertained again by spectacles like this year’s US presidential elections.
In this scenario, we draw on the wisdom of those who managed the 2008 financial meltdown. True, there were some difficulties; a rise of populism and of opiates, the religion of the people. But in the fullness of time a return to growth and employment, however menial, appeased the public discontent. Some redistribution, it has been agreed, would both enhance consumption, the engine of a healthy economy, and will alleviate inequality, thereby quieting the political unrest (as both the Socialist economist Thomas Piketty and the not-so-Socialist Head of IMF Christine Lagarde have urged)
In a word: It was the virus that did it. But epidemics pass, and once the crisis is over, capitalism will return to what it does best – generating prosperity. There will be a new stock boom for those who managed to sell while the selling was still good. While patiently waiting for history to resume its felicitous course, we take heart in stories of jovial resilience – of people singing arias on their balconies in Italy, or applauding with open windows at 20:00 o’clock in Belgium. In this scenario, capitalism is still just the place for a Snark – for pursuing the good life, as politicians, academics and pundits keep repeating. It must be, therefore, true.
2/ Capitalism could vanish
“In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.”
Under a second scenario, memory and common sense take a different path. We remember that the recovery after Great Financial Crisis still felt, for many people, like a crisis. The stable jobs that had been lost to automation and global competition were replaced by precarious, poorly paid gigs. Deaths from despair were on the rise. The pandemic came on top of an overwhelming feeling of unsafety and insecurity that defined the life of the 99 per cent in the early twenty-first century. Global capitalism had delivered great affluence to a very few, whose wealth translated into political influence and power. But the same capitalism created not just a precarious class, but a precarious multitude. For the sake of competitiveness in a globally integrated market, unprofitable services like education and healthcare had shrunk, while labour contracts and other income sources had become ever more insecure, even for the highly-skilled and some of the well-paid.
It was insecurity amidst apparent affluence that fostered the spread of ‘populism’ already in the ‘roaring 1990s’ – the most prosperous decade of the twentieth century. That insecurity already breeds death, in slow, almost invisible increments, even in normal times. But a pandemic, mismanaged, brings mass death, which transforms societies and human nature.
To this we add the increasing sense that urgent action to save the planet is also a matter of life-and-death, not of life-style. We note that many of the things we now forego, from travel to gadgets and ever-bigger houses, we can in fact do without. Instead we develop a taste for some rather un-capitalist things, such as paid sick leave, access to culture as a public service, and spirited acts of solidarity.
So we come to demand not tax cuts and corporate bailouts, intent to revive a decayed and disappearing culture of consumption, profits and growth, but the mobilisation of all our resources to assure both immediate survival and long-term wellbeing. In this scenario, we realize the Snark is in fact a Boojum, and we banish it, once and for all.
Is capitalism on the edge of collapse? It is, certainly, on the edge. Should it tip over or be brought back? Let us approach the question as a matter of choices, of choices we could make.
Back in my youth during the last years of the dictatorship in my native Bulgaria, a joke teased our historical imagination as it challenged the political common-sense of the day: Question: “Is communism in a single country possible?” Answer: “Yes. But is it worth it?” We tried then to defy what was politically thinkable – to overturn a whole social order. And we did.
In due course, through triumph or tragedy, the coronavirus pandemic will subside. Is a return to pre-crisis capitalism possible? Perhaps. But would it be worth it?
Image: The Banker’s Fate from Henry Holiday’s original illustrations to “The Hunting of the Snark” by Lewis Carroll. (1876) Wikicommons. Public Domain
See also: Capitalism’s triple crisis, Mariana Mazzucato, Project Syndicate