Corona and the Unbearable Lightness of Capitalism

Corona and the Unbearable Lightness of Capitalism

Eva Illouz

This article was first published in Le Nouvel Observateur and Sueddeutsche Zeitung 23/03/2020 and in Haartz ‘Weekend’ 02/04/2020

In Lars von Trier’s movie Melancholia, the spectator comes to slowly grasp, with a mix of terror and powerlessness, that the world is about to end after it collides with the planet Melancholia. At the end of the movie, the spectator watches, mesmerized and paralyzed, the planet on its course to crash on the earth. At first a far-away point in the sky, it becomes a growing disc, ultimately covering the screen, colliding with the earth.

As we are all engulfed in a world event whose magnitude we have not yet fully grasped, I was trying to reach for analogies, and remembered the closing scene of Lars von Trier’s movie.

I first read about a strange virus in the second week of January in the American press and paid close attention because my son was due to travel to China.  The virus was still far away, like the distant disc of a dangerous planet. My son cancelled his trip, but the disc continued on its inexorable course, slowly crashing into us in Europe and the Middle East. We now all watch, transfixed, the unfolding pandemics, as the world we knew has shut down. Corona virus is a planetary event of a magnitude that we are struggling to grasp, not only because of its planetary scale, not only because of the speed of the contamination, but also because institutions whose titanic power we never questioned have been brought to their knees in a matter of few weeks. The primitive world of deadly plagues erupted in the sanitized and advanced world of nuclear power, laser surgery, and virtual technology. Even in war time, cinemas and underground bars kept functioning, but the bustling cities of Europe have become eerie ghost towns, and their inhabitants have gone into hiding. As Albert Camus put it, « tous ces changements, dans un sens, étaient si extraordinaires et s’étaient accomplis si rapidement, qu’il n’était pas facile de les considérer comme normaux et durables » (‘all these changes, in a way, were so extraordinary and had occurred so quickly , that it was not easy to consider them normal and long-lasting’).

From air-travel to museums, the pulsating heart of our civilization has been shut down. Freedom, the modern value that trumps all others, has been suspended, not because of a new tyrant, but because of fear, the emotion which overrides all other emotions. The world has become, overnight, unheimlich, uncanny, emptied of its familiarity. Its most comforting gestures – shaking hands, kissing, hugging, eating together—have turned into sources of danger and anxiety.  In a matter of  days, new categories to make sense of a new reality emerged: we all became specialists in different types of masks and their filtering power (N95, FPP2, FPP3, etc.), of the amount of alcohol deemed effective in sanitizing hands, of the difference between suppression and mitigation, of the difference between Saint-Louis and Philadelphia during the Spanish flu pandemics, and of course, we became mostly familiar with the odd rules and rituals of social distancing. In a matter of days, a new reality, with new objects, concepts, and practices emerged.

Crises foreground mental and political structures and at the same time they challenge conventional structures and routine. A structure is usually hidden from view, but crises have their own ways of exposing to the naked eye unspoken mental and social structures.

Health, according to Michel Foucault, is the epicenter of modern governance (he called it bio-power). Through medicine and mental health, he claimed, the state manages, watches, and controls the population. In a language he would not have used, we may say that the implicit contract between modern states and their citizens is based on the capacity of the former to ensure the physical security and health of the latter. This crisis foregrounds two opposite things: that this contract, in many places in the world, has been slowly breached by the state, whose vocation has become to enlarge the volume of economic activity, lower the costs of labor, allow or encourage the offshoring of production (among others of key medical products as masks and respirators), deregulate banks and financial centers and support the needs of corporations. The result has been, whether by design or by default, an extraordinary erosion of the public sector. The second obvious thing for all of us to see is that only the state can manage and overcome a crisis of such scale. Even the mammoth Amazon can do no more than ship parcels, and even that only with great difficulties during such times.

According to Denis Carroll, a leading world expert in infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this pandemic is one among the many that have already occurred and which we can expect to be more frequent in the future. The reason is what he calls “zoonotic spillover” –the increasing contact between animal pathogens and humans—itself caused by the increasing penetration of humans into ecozones hitherto outside our reach. These incursions into ecozones are driven by overpopulation and by intensive exploitation of the land (in Africa, for example, there is more oil or mineral extraction in areas that typically had few human populations.). Carroll and many others (Bill Gates or Larry Brilliant among many others) have been warning us for at least a decade that unknown viruses will increasingly threaten human beings. But no one paid attention.

In fact, in 2018 Trump closed down the Agency responsible for Pandemics. The USA has the highest number of sick people worldwide. There is no doubt they are paying the price for Republican’s   lack of attention on the catastrophe many had been warning about. But they are not alone: all our societies were too busy relentlessly pursuing profit and exploiting land and labor whenever and wherever they could. In a post-Corona world, zoonotic spillover and Chinese wet markets will have to become the problem of the International community. If Iran’s nuclear arsenal is closely monitored, there is no reason why we should not demand an international monitoring of the sites and sources of zoonotic spillovers. The business community all over the world may finally realize that in order to exploit the world, there will need to be a world at all.

Public fear always puts institutions in danger (the political monsters of the 20th century have all used fear to strip democracy of its institutions). But what is new about this crisis is how much it is haunted by “economism.” The UK model (since then decried) initially embraced the least intrusive path of intervention and opted for the model of auto-immunization (that is, contamination) of 60% of the population, de facto sacrificing 2-4 % of its population for the sake of maintaining economic activity (the model has been adopted by Holland and Sweden). In the Italian region of Bergamo, the industrialists and the governing officials demanded form workers to keep working, even when the virus was already out.  Germany and France initially reacted in a way that was similar to the UK, ignoring the crisis as long as they could, until they couldn’t anymore.

As commentator Giano da Empoli put it, even China, which has an appalling record in human rights, did not use ‘economism’ as a yardstick for their fight against the virus as overtly as European nations did (at least initially and until it was almost too late). The choice that is unprecedented is this one: sacrificing the lives of the vulnerable or sacrificing the economic survival of the young. While this raises true and real dilemmas  and horrendous questions (how many lives is the economy worth?) it has also pointed to the ways in which public health has been neglected and constitutes the ground on which we can build the economy.

It is with no small irony that the world of finance, usually arrogant and so often unaccountable, was the first to collapse, showing that the unfathomable financial circulation of money in the world relies on a resource we all took for granted: the health of citizens. Markets feed on trust as a currency to build the future, and trust, it turns out, rests on the assumption of health. Modern States have guaranteed citizens’ health: they built hospitals, trained doctors, subsidized medicine and built welfare systems. This health system was the invisible ground which made possible trust in the future, in turn needed for investments and financial speculation. Without health, economic transactions become meaningless. Health was taken for granted and, in the last decades, politicians, financial centers, corporations converged in pushing for policies which severely decreased budgets for public resources, from education to health care, ironically ignoring the ways in which corporations had been enjoying the fruits of public goods they never paid for: education, health and infrastructures. All of these depend on the state and are the indispensable public resources without which economic exchanges could not occur.

Yet, in France, 100.000 hospital beds have been cancelled in the last 20 years ( at-home care does not compensate for ICU beds). In June 2019, Emergency room doctors and nurses protested against the budget cuts which were undermining France’s world-class health system to the brink of collapse. At the time of this writing, a group of French doctors are suing the prime minister Edouard Philippe and the Minister of Health Agnes Buzyn for their gross mismanagement of the crisis ( as late as March 14th, everything in France was functioning as usual). In the USA, the most powerful country in the planet, billions of masks are missing to help doctors and nurses protect themselves. In Israel, in 2019 the ratio of hospital beds to population  was at its lowest level in three decades, according to a report issued by the Ministry of Health. This ratio is one of the lowest in the OECD, if not the lowest.  In 2017 the number of Israeli hospital beds per thousand people was 1.796, compared to 1.913 in 2010, 2.224 in 2000 and 2.68 in 1988 ( In Germany it is 8.2).

Netanyahu and his successive governments have spectacularly neglected the health system for two reasons: because Netanyahu is in heart and soul a neo-liberal who believes in the redistribution of money from collective resources to the rich in the form of tax cuts, and because, as the coalition partner of ultra-orthodox parties, he yielded to their demands, creating massive shortages in the health care system. The mixture of gravity and amateurism  with which the health crisis has been managed in Israel was meant to hide its stunning lack of preparedness (lack of available surgical masks, respirators, protective suits, beds, adequate ICU units etc.). Netanyahu and hordes of politicians worldwide, have treated the health of citizens with an unbearable lightness, failing to grasp the obvious: without health there can be no economy. The relationship between our health and the market has now become painfully clear. In the Israeli context we may add the obvious: without health there can be no army either. The security of the country is predicated on the health of its citizens.

The capitalism we have come to know in the last decades –deregulated, which penetrates the state and its way of thinking, which benefits the rich, which creates abyssal inequalities– will have to change. The pandemic is going to cause unfathomable economic damage, massive unemployment, slow or negative growth and it will affect the entire world, with Asian economies possibly emerging as the stronger ones. Banks, corporations, and financial firms will have to bear the burden, along with the state, of coming out of the crisis and be partners in the collective health of citizens. They will have to contribute to research, to preparedness to national emergencies, and to massive hiring once the crisis is over. They will have to bear the burden of the collective effort to rebuild the economy, even at the price of lower profits.

Capitalists have taken for granted resources provided by the state – education, health, infrastructures—without ever realizing that the resources they were squandering from the state would ultimately deprive them from the world which makes the economy possible. This must stop. For the economy to have meaning it needs a world. And this world can only be built collectively, by the joint cooperation of corporations and the state. While only states can manage a crisis of such scale, they will not be strong enough to get out of the crisis alone: corporations will need to contribute to the maintenance of the public goods from which they have so much benefited.

In Israel, despite the relatively low toll on human lives (so far), the corona crisis has exerted a profound shock on its institutions. As Naomi Klein has relentlessly claimed, catastrophes are opportunities for elites to grab bounties and exploit them. Israel provides a striking example. Netanyahu has de facto suspended basic civil rights, closed down the Israeli courts (saving himself by the skin of his teeth from trial). On March 16th, in the middle of the night, the Israeli government approved the use of technological tools developed by secret services Shin Bet to track down terrorists in order to track down and identify the movements of virus carriers. It circumvented approval of the Knesset in the process and took measures which no country, including the most authoritarian, has taken.

Israeli citizens are used to obeying quickly and sheepishly to orders received from the state, especially when security and survival are at stake. They are used to taking security as the final justification for infractions to the law and to democracy. Netanyahu and his cronies did not stop there: they stopped the formation of the new parliament, de facto conducting what Chemi Shalev and other commentators have dubbed a political coup, confiscating the parliament of its function as a check and balance to executive power and refusing to accept the results of the elections which would have made them a minority. On March 19th,  a lawful procession of cars with black flags protesting the shut-down of parliament was forcibly stopped by the police for no reason other than the fact that they were ordered to stop the procession.

Thucydides, the Greek historian of the 5th century BC, wrote about the plague that ravaged Athens during the second year of the Peloponnesian War: “[T]he catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law” (History of the Peloponesian war, chapter 2., 52)

Crises of this kind can generate chaos and it is in the management of such chaos that tyrants often emerge. Dictators thrive both on fear and chaos. In Israel, very respected commentators see in Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis just an example of such cynical exploitation of chaos and fear. Thus, Israel is going through a crisis that has no parallel in other places in the world: its crisis is at once a medical one, an economic one and a political one. In times like this, trust in public officials is crucial, and a significant part of the public has entirely lost trust in its officials, whether in the health ministry or in any other branch of the executive.

What redoubles the sense of crisis is the fact that the pandemic requires a novel form of solidarity through social distancing. It is a solidarity between generations, between the young and the old, between someone who does not know he may be sick and someone who may die from what the first does not know, a solidarity between someone who may have lost his job and someone who may lose his life.

I have been in confinement for many weeks now, and the love my children have showered on me has consisted of leaving me alone. This solidarity demands isolation, and thus fragments the social body into its smallest possible units, making it difficult to organize, meet, and communicate, beyond the endless jokes and videos exchanged on social networks. Sociability has become vicarious. The use of the Internet has more than doubled; social networks have become the new living rooms, the number of Corona jokes circulating on social networks across continents is unprecedented, the consumption of Netflix and Prime Video have decupled, students of the world are now holding classes through “Zoom”-managed virtual classes. In short, this disease, in which we have had to revise all known categories of intimacy and care, has been the high holiday of virtual technology. I have no doubt that in the post-Corona world, virtual and long-distance life will take on a life of its own, now that we have been forced to discover its potential.

We will emerge out of this crisis, thanks to the heroic work of doctors and nurses and the resilience of citizens. Many countries are already emerging from it. But citizens will have to ask questions, demand accounts and draw the right conclusions: the state, again and again, has proven to be the only entity capable of managing such large-scale crises. The bluff of neo-liberalism must be called out. The era in which each economic actor is out there only to stock gold in his/her pockets must end. The public interest must come back to front seat of public policies. And corporations must contribute to this public good, if they want the market to even remain a frame for human activities. More pointedly citizens will have to be uncompromising on the state of the health system.

This pandemic is a preview of what may lie ahead when much more dangerous viruses emerge and when climate change makes the world unlivable. Short of that, there will be neither a private nor a public interest to defend. Contrary to some predictions about the resurgence of nationalism and borders,  I believe that only a coordinated international response can help manage these new risks and dangers. The world is irrevocably interdependent and only a response in kind can help us cope with the next crisis. We will need international coordination and cooperation of a new kind, international monitoring of zoonotic spillovers, possibly new international sanitary tribunals (China’s silencing of the crisis until January was criminal, given that in December it was still possible to stop the virus); International bodies have to be established to innovate in the fields of medical equipment and medicine, epidemics prevention. Mostly, we will need  a part of the  vast wealth amassed by private entities to be reinvested in public goods. That will be the condition of having a world.


Eva Illouz is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology and, Anthropology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is the author of: The End of Love: a sociology of negative relations, Oxford University Press, 2019.