A Corona Utopia in Three Parts

by | 25 Mar 2020

“This episode of Black Mirror sucks!” The slogan that briefly went viral in the United States after the election of Trump has now acquired an even more infectious, irresistible irony for many in coronavirus-stricken Europe. The fear of loved ones and ourselves getting infected by the inconspicuous threat that is Covid-19 has merged with confusion about the unprecedented, sweeping emergency measures that have been imposed in an increasing number of liberal European democracies, and with a vague sense that we cannot even begin to imagine the scale of this pandemic and its lasting consequences. If any of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episodes comes close to depicting current anxieties, it may well be the particularly dark and enigmatic “Metalhead”. Merciless robotic guard dogs chase Maxine Peake’s character through a barren landscape, inescapably closing in on her. In the last frame, it dawns on us that she was on a quest not only for essential medical supplies, but primarily for a box of teddy bears that might comfort the surviving inhabitants of these post-apocalyptic wastelands – which is a twist that one reviewer found at once “face-slappingly cheap” and “deeply humane”.

Being on the run from “cold, pre-programmed” and ubiquitous menaces in an inhospitable outside world seems not so far removed from the lifeworld of reclusive, face mask and glove-donning citizens in public spaces across Europe today. Unlike in China, Singapore, South Korea and other South East Asian countries, it appears that the threat posed by the virus itself has been further aggravated in Europe by the indecisive, eerily disinterested attitudes initially taken by most public authorities. Whether in denial, panic or pragmatism, we in Europe are all on the run. But we aren’t even on the run together; rather, we have largely been abandoned to sustain our livelihoods, develop new social forms that are appropriate to quarantined life, and imagine the other side of this pandemic all by ourselves.

Is there any silver lining, however fleeting or absurd, to be found in this moment? There may well be: Finally, thank god, the dystopian genre has outlived its vain purpose of trying to steer us away from imminent and highly plausible bleak futures. These futures have finally materialised in the here and now. Which means, finally, that we can venture a return of sorts to utopian thinking. When, if not now?

Jameson’s therapeutic utopianism

Indeed, in his essay “An American Utopia” published in 2016, cultural theorist Fredric Jameson sought to contribute to a “radical therapy for dystopia” by offering a particularly shocking, and at once epistemologically liberating, vision of a future society. Rather than succumb to the idea that a different, post-capitalist future is simply and absolutely impossible, for Jameson the task of utopia today is to function as “a psychotherapy of anti-utopian fears” and to “draw them out into the light of day”, where “they must be indulged” so that we can begin to see beyond the constraints of the societies that have shaped our thinking.

The monstrous centrepiece of his vision is the introduction of universal conscription into an army that takes over all manner of social services. Jameson goes on to suggest that this radically repurposed army — in which he sees the only potentially universal institution within the confines of US federalism — would be so unmanageably large as to rob it of its ability to stage either wars or coups. Jameson further envisages a “Psychoanalytic Placement Bureau” that will, with the help of “unimaginably complex computer systems … organize all forms of employment as well as all manner of personal and collective therapies”. Socially necessary work will be “felt and lived” in the form of “conspiracies”, which will sustain collective investment in those “projects” that will have replaced market-led economic production. Ultimately, Jameson insists, “this new world will look exactly like the old one, with but a few minor modifications”.

A corona utopia in three parts

A number of pragmatic but far-reaching political measures have already been adopted across Europe, often in ways that were unthinkable a month ago. Italy made a start by suspending all mortgage payments. Mortgage, VAT and credit card debt payments have now been suspended, and railways effectively brought into public ownership, in the UK. Spain has requisitioned private hospitals, while France has granted a rent holiday to troubled small businesses. Less modestly, all major European countries, as well as the European Central Bank, are providing unprecedented fiscal stimuli in an effort to stabilise companies and financial markets. Many governments have agreed to cover in part the wages of those not working due to the pandemic.

But surely the scale of this crisis should be matched by our efforts to imagine a different society. Why not suspend household payments to landlords, banks, utility providers and tax authorities for everybody in Europe entirely, not just for the citizens of individual countries or for those who have in fact been tested (!) positively for the new coronavirus? “Stopping the clock” on these payments will allow households to spend their often scarce disposable income on what matters most to them right now, which is likely to include hygiene and medical supplies and staple foods. At the same time, it will even provide much-needed stimulus to those parts of the so-called real economy that have critical systemic importance right now; It’s not banks anymore that are too important to fail (if they ever were), it’s producers of precisely these basic goods.

While stopping the clock on these payments will free up a substantial share of disposable household incomes for a few weeks, a different effort is needed in a second step to sustain European societies throughout the protracted phase of slowing the spread of the virus that we are facing. The time has come — not for the ultimately individualistic and monetary idea of a universal basic income, but for its wrongly neglected cousin by the name of universal basic services (UBS).

Providing hygienic and medical supplies, essential foodstuffs, possibly even free meals such as in Thailand, as well as housing to anybody in need of them is at the heart of the idea of UBS. These measures will at once reassure the public that their physical well-being will be guaranteed during this crisis, for however long it might last, and create a bond of solidarity within and across societies that is worthy of its name – initially within Europe, given the continent’s particular indecision in addressing this crisis.

Of course this second proposal begs the question of who will be implementing it and how. In normal, pre-pandemic times, the large majority of the workforce was bound up in all those hugely important (and at times actually important) tasks that they engaged in to sustain their livelihoods; hardly anybody seemed available on a regular basis to dedicate their time to such noble causes as handing out food and medicine to those in need or finding them a safe place to stay. But suddenly, with entire countries ground to a halt in the hope of slowing down and containing the spread of the virus, finding people who are capable and bored enough to deliver such services to society won’t turn out to be such a problem after all.

I therefore propose, thirdly, a compulsory community work programme – because real solidarity cannot be built on the sand of bourgeois voluntarism. Adults trapped at home might not even be the hardest hit by the social isolation to which we are all subjecting ourselves. For children and teenagers whose schools, playgrounds and hangouts are closing for the foreseeable future, and perhaps for university students too, this will often be an even more arduous and confusing time. In the collective spirit of adventure and conspiracy that Jameson conjures up in his essay, symptom-free young people and adults will be strongly encouraged to contribute a small number of hours per week to the coordination and distribution of, at the very least, basic foodstuffs, medicine and safe housing.

For obvious reasons, the new social habits relating to respiratory hygiene and interpersonal distance will be strictly enforced during community work. Once they have undergone an advanced induction, small teams of community workers will also track down and test all those individuals with whom confirmed coronavirus patients have recently been in contact, which has reportedly played a key role in lowering the rate of infection in China and Singapore.

In one of nine critical comments on Jameson’s essay that were published alongside it, Philosopher Frank Ruda rightly notes the comic undertones of Jameson’s proposal, elements of which are “just hilarious”:

“[For instance,] the idea to place all pacifists in control of arms develop­ment and arms storage; the charming idea of the Psychoanalytic Placement Bureau …; and maybe even the idea (which provoked a lot of laughter when presented [at CUNY in 2014]) that the state will wither away into some enormous group therapy where we will all constantly confront our own fear toward the others and our symptoms resulting from it — a constant therapy that is constant because we can simply not escape it.”

It is already the “authentic laughter” elicited by a vision like Jameson’s that can help us overcome the anti-utopian fears of the past decades, and begin to see the unexplored possibilities of the present moment.

Yes, this episode of Black Mirror sucks. But to make it suck a little less, we urgently need to accept that we are in uncharted territory – and therefore need to think beyond our go-to political analyses and demands. If we fail to do so over the coming weeks and months, teddy bears might indeed be our only solace.

Moritz Neugebauer is a PhD Candidate at Kent Law School, University of Kent.

Twitter: @Mo__Pop


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