Within the past weeks it appeared as if normality would be something fixed and valuable. But a quick look at the landscape of contemporary mainstream-thought shows that it is neither. And TINA (There Is No Alternative) has been substituted by TAIP (There Are Immense Possibilities.) By Daniel Plenge
In the 28th month of life someone asked “What is this, life?”. Although that someone lives in a tribe of atheists, the next day the little human wanted to know “Who is God?”. In this spirit of puzzlement, curiosity, honest concern and experimentation the What-the-Fcuk series asks classic and current questions at the intersection of the real world and public as well as academic thought.
In the last couple of weeks, everything has changed completely across the globe during the lockdown, according to some. They say that normality is gone or has been lost due to an external force, which unexpectedly struck its target via an instantaneous and shocking blow. What they call “normality” is already missed and they crave for its quick return. In relation to the recent past, the mood of thought has already been nostalgia, which is expressed in the call for “normalization.” If it were possible, they would simply rewind the tape to February.
Others implicitly or explicitly reply that much is the same within the ongoing lockdown that separates former normality from the present. There is said to be no real qualitative rift but merely gradual, though accelerated, change, which is the continuation of the recent and yesteryear’s past. They hold that what those call “normality” had already been quite unnormal or simply an abysmal societal state. They neither admire nor demand the speedy return of normality.
Both call what they witness at present a “crisis.”
In contemporary political and public parlance, a crisis is nothing more than something that is either bad or is at least believed to be bad by a majority. In its Greek original form, “crisis” meant a state which is decisive for the future, a turning point in the history of a system. If the system is an organism, then a crisis may be a “sudden change in the course of a disease, usually at which point the patient is expected to either recover or die.”
In the first of the above perspectives, survival means the return of the normal or something near enough. The normal equals the good, and the old times without disease. Transformation is believed to be unnecessary and what is at all cost to be prevented. Its proponents are self-styled realists who, standing on solid ground, don’t need visions but strategies. Within current media, crises are, accordingly, also associated with the short-term development of “technical and medical reactions.”
Whereas the mindset of the second group is dominated by optimism and the belief in future gains and beginnings, the first’s basic emotion within manifest crises is the fear of loss and endings. It may be temporarily hidden by hypocrisy or crisis humanism when, for instance, the editorial board of the Financial Times claims it’s now finally time for radical policy changes, universal basic income and wealth taxes: “The fear of the privileged, that they might lose everything, resonated between the lines.”
In the second perspective societal crises are seen as revelatory, not of the beauty of former normality, but of the structural properties of societies which are usually seen as bad or at least far away from an optimum. Whereas in the first view there is basically no reason to concern oneself because the crisis is seen as merely a temporary lapse within ongoing progress, in the second the lockdown is seen as a chance to think things completely over again. Here the endpoint of a crisis shall not be survival but speciation, the gestation of the new.
The fear of the conservatives is also nourished by the idea that crises “rip open the fabric of normality” and show that change can come about very quickly. The intended, though necessitated, reactions to the pandemic by those in power testify openly to the reality of unknown possibilities. The other side says now: “Oh, so it can be done. All those years you were telling us it couldn’t be done you were lying to us. It was complete bollocks.” TINA (there is no alternative) is factually ridiculed by TAIP (there are immense possibilities).
At first sight, normality seems to be rather strange a phenomenon. It is akin to paradise to some and “madness“ to others. The secretary general of the United Nations, António Guterres, framed the latter position more diplomatically: “A recovery from the coronavirus crisis must not take us just back to where we were last summer,” because there is not only Covid-19 but “on every continent and in every sea, climate disruption is becoming the new normal.” In Naomi Klein a more prominent figure twittered “We don’t need to go back to ‘normal’ when normal was a crisis.” David Graeber, of bullshit-jobs fame, concurs. In this view, not much changed because crisis is a permanent feature of society.
If we ask “What the fcuk is normality?”, then one of the further questions is how the substance behind that word can differ as enormously as it obviously does. Given that both perspectives hardly doubt their views, another question is why they are already known to be irreconcilable although they have only recently become manifest again.
There are definitely many reasons for those discrepancies. But one is that in the first perspective we are talking about the endpoint of history reached 30 years ago with the supposed victory of liberal democracy, whereas in the second what we are talking about is “this catastrophic shit called capitalism,” more modestly called “actually existing liberalism.” In a German newspaper we find the apt remark:
“Whoever is willing to talk about the future today does so on the basis of one out of two diverging assumptions: Before the pandemic we lived either in a functioning, satisfying normality or within shattered circumstances.”
From this might follow what is to be expected of future politics. But what is on offer to substantiate the worldviews?
One first reason for the discrepancy is that there are different concepts of normality at play.
The statistical concept was at the centre of the daily news for a while and at some places the source of temporary unanimity across parties. The normal is what on average happens. If the counts of whatever can be assigned numbers differ significantly from that average in some time period, it is called “abnormal.” As long as there had been only predictions, it had, for instance, not been made out whether Covid-19 is to be ranked among the normal diseases or not. That it is not normal was shown by the abnormality of death counts, first in GB, then in Italy, France and across Europe. Le Monde wrote: “Until the beginning of March, mortality in the year 2000 could have been considered as ‘normal’”. But then it turned out that whereas usually in the same time period only 71.126 people die, this year the count is 93.324.
Another prominent figure has been the explosion of the unemployment figure in the USA, which is used for some to proffer nostalgia, or the fact that food insecurity quadrupled in GB to three million people, which is used to show that the state of the economy had been bad before (because of the already high basis before the new crisis) and that social security is abysmal.
While the enthusiast for normality also spread the myth (see Agathonia Media) that economic recessions would normally and as such lead to more deaths than coronavirus to promote the end of lockdowns by showing its dire consequences (the opposite is often correct), the critics of normality point to research by the WHO that suggest that 7 million people die each year because of air pollution across the globe. The number is 37.000 in a country like Germany. Another article claims on the basis of a study that merely the lockdown in China saved the lives of 1.400 children under 5 and of 51.700 above 70. If these accounts are correct, then some claims about normality are simply false. The last claim is at times formulated by saying that the normal economy kills while the others have it that the turn to economic abnormality would kill.
Another type of normality is not synchronic and comparative but processual. Put in different words, it is normal that some features of countries or the world change in a direction, either in the form of a persistent increase or decrease. The growing emission of CO2 is as well an example as the GDP growth in absolute numbers of either nations or the economic world system. Recently we could read that “to have no growth any longer, that’s the big denormalization, the loss of normality.” Of course, the apologists of normality will grab GDP growth as a positive sign for their estimate while critics choose CO2 emissions and connect them with GDP for their bad evaluation. Here the same facts are evaluated differently.
Furthermore, the phenomenological or mental concept of normality covers the experiences of ordinary people. Since there is nothing like an ordinary or “normal” person, it represents the worldview of differing social groups which confess to differing ideologies and ideas of what a good life is. As a consequence, there is a multitude of such normalities and whether something is normal or not cannot be decided by pointing to the world out there.
Some people may have noticed under lockdown that (public) parks and (public) playgrounds, (public) libraries, (public) museums and (public) schools and (even) churches are closed and national football leagues suspended, and that it is not allowed to see friends or – in some places – family any longer, whereas others normally don’t attend any of this or value something different. Watching professional football in Europe was said to be a “piece of normality” which government should give back to people, while obviously the majority of people doesn’t care.
Some may notice that they don’t go to work or that the desks there are standing further apart than usual. In the end, almost everybody might recognize something different as abnormal or normal.
The Guardian featured an example of a nostalgic kind of phenomenological normality with an ideological bias. Do you remember your February 2020?
“I have never been so nostalgic for ‘normal’. I have never longed so desperately for a dull day.
Just a few weeks ago, I didn’t appreciate how great my mundane life in Manhattan was.
Popping to a pilates class, grabbing a drink at a bar, going out for dinner: those were
unremarkable activities I took for granted.”
The “normal” in this view is what the ordinary person in its everyday activities takes for granted and permissible beyond dispute. Here that is consumption, which is at its heart making others work for oneself, and that not only everything but also everyone within the reach of one’s pocket is available. Critical articles mention among parts of this phenomenology the view that it is normal to fly around the globe on holiday at minimum once a year or even for a weekend escape from normality.
Before demanding the return to “normality,” the strategy to deal with societal crisis in this perspective is to turn to oneself and engage in memento mori politics. Again, in The Guardian we read: “When you are faced with a crisis this big, little things are more important than ever.” The lockdown is revelatory here too, but only about the me.
In a brilliantly provocative piece, this “normal” type of person was attributed the name Dieter and criticized harshly as stand-in of the majority: “Normality means that Dieter can go on as before being unmolested by responsibility such that everything stays the same.” That there is hardly any innocent consumption is a belief to be found variously within the press in our second camp. Some focus more on aggregate consumption and call it “ecological vandalism,” others on our (or their) “so called wealth,” or stress that Dieter’s consumption on a normal Saturday would be impossible without “child labor, exploitation of humans, pollution of the environment and consumerism.” For short, the normal way of life is neither the good life nor admissible for moral persons.
From this side, not the little things and private problems become important within the lockdown, but big social issues, namely, among others, inequality and injustice, which are also hidden from the eyes because they are taken for granted as well. In the Tribune David Harvey writes:
“The contemporary working class in the United States — comprised predominantly of African Americans, Latinos, and waged women — faces an ugly choice: between suffering contamination in the course of caring for people and keeping key forms of provision (such as grocery stores) open, or unemployment with no benefits (like adequate health care).“
After a few days of ideological inclusion via the claim that the virus would not make hold before social differences and would have to be fought together, it turned out that, as The Guardian put it, “we are unfortunately not in the same boat. Most Americans don’t even have a canoe,” while not only the billionaires leave the battleground in their yachts. David Graeber sarcastically said that people might have learned now that staying at home doing nothing is beneficial for society while doing work normally does only benefit the rich.
For short, not only within the US the “essential” workers, those who not only within crises keep the ship afloat, in this view are structurally forced to keep on working while they pay the highest price. Of course, the position of the other side is simply that they should have signed different contracts on the free market.
Outside of the US, it has early on been noticed that the heroes within the crisis are heroines, underpaid, underappreciated and comparatively insecure, and that structural residues of patriarchic mindsets also show up in increases of domestic violence within the lockdowns across the globe (Germany and China, France, Ecuador, Armenia, world).
The most obvious all of this is, again, in relation to the USA, where racial differences in the death toll have quickly been revealed and are said to be due to front-line jobs, bad or no health care and poverty induced pre-existing medical conditions. In this view the old “normality” also grabs over into abnormality or the “new normality” by pre-determining it.
In this perspective the crisis reveals that 40% of Italians have at most 1000 Euro of savings at their disposal to meet the most severe economic crisis since World War II. The same holds for 25% of the Germans (see Agathonia Media). In relation to the richest country in the world it is stated that “[m]uch of the US population — perhaps as many as 50 percent of all households — have no more than $400 of surplus money in the bank.” And in the “West” it is better not at all to talk about other parts of the world, where the decline in tourism and the sudden end of gas-guzzling up North is bound to turn out to be catastrophic in a different dimension.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that in Africa and North and South America the total income of the informally employed declined by 81% and that 1,6 billion of 2 billion people in that “sector” lose their jobs and income. A summary states: “Without alternative sources of income these people and their families will have no prospect of survival.” Almost half of the global workforce is at risk of losing its “means of existence.” Unnormal is that the “West” or “North” is hit with almost similar force so that it is named in one paragraph or sentence together with the “South.”
Thus, there is hardly any doubt that these numbers reveal the hidden visage of global capitalism and its “progress,” where social decline lurks behind every corner every day and might meanwhile mean hunger or worse even in “the West,” as many of the so-called “self-employed” – a terminological absurdity – have to experience. David Harvey wrote about the millions becoming unemployed in America and elsewhere: “These people are likely to be hitting the streets very soon, with starvation staring them and their kids in the face.” At the same time US-farmers are destroying food because of “lack of demand.”
In summary, the critical perspective points to, among others, a health crisis, an economic crisis, the ecological crisis and an upcoming private debt and financial crisis, right-wing populism or worse, gender inequalities, the „normality“ of racisms, international injustice etc. to substantiate their view of normality. Thus far, not much has been found to licence the position of the apologetics within the media, although some of them are so fond of former normality that they either would love to sacrifice their own lives for it (e.g. a Republican in Texas) or, more commonly, would like to let others in thousands die in order to save or recreate it (one of the Greens in Germany). If this is not expressed this explicitly, it is implicit in many utilitarian arguments around the globe (see Agathonia Media). A series of recurrent claims is merely the old tale that growth is good, capitalism produces growth, and that this wealth would trickle down to all the people, which would be shown by a decrease in absolute poverty worldwide in the 20th century and beyond. If the question is about evidence, the case for the critical view is perhaps not perfect, but made anyhow, because the crisis reveals again the absurdity of its opponent.
Although irreconcilable, both of the above perspectives have their grain of truth at the moment. Not seeing this results in blatant ideologies (in the negative sense of “ideology”). The apologetic perspective would be correct if it didn’t point to more or less arbitrary features of everyday life as abnormal, but to the actual fear, frustration and anxiety of hundreds of millions of people. That academics, often tenured, recurrently write that the lockdown would be a nice occasion to decelerate life or to read books and cultivate oneself is not untrue for the privileged in some regions of the world, but it threatens to transgress the verge of arrogance and won’t convince anybody who is not already convinced that change might not only be necessary but desirable. What was normal within the phenomenological mode is, for the time being, all that people have, and the not-so-privileged are perfectly right to wish (and demand) it back. That’s why these times are perfect for rat catchers of all sorts who stated before March that a big crisis might be their historical chance.
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For critics the problem, and probably the biggest problem, is to be convincing in claiming that something better should be wished for and, furthermore, is in fact achievable, because this concerns the question of the good life which is alien to phenomenological normality.
In this respect, David Harvey hits the right key. He clearly states the sort of catastrophe that, to different degrees, is happening to millions:
“The latest data suggested that, in the United States, something like 26 million [meanwhile more than 30 million] people have lost their jobs. Now, normally one would say this is a catastrophe, and, of course, it is a catastrophe, because when you lose your job, you lose the capacity to reproduce your own labour power by going to the supermarket, because you have no money. Many people have lost their health insurance, and many others are having difficulty accessing unemployment benefits. Housing rights are in jeopardy as rents or mortgage payments fall due.”
Here we might remember Marx’ saying that the more developed country shows the less developed its own future, because, while the collapse within the US is remarkable, the same just takes longer elsewhere, for instance in relation to 10 million German “Kurzarbeiter” (state sponsored short time work or furlough), but may in substance boil down to the same in the long run – and people know it.
Harvey goes on proposing that it would be worth considering for the newly hit and the permanently exploited not to act as well-socialized neoliberal subjects and blame themselves or God for their misery, but to organise for collective action and to use what is worth it within “normality” to get over it:
“In other words, do we want to come out of this crisis by simply saying that there’s 26 million people who need to get back to work, in some of those pretty awful jobs they may have been doing before? Is that how we want to come out of it? Or do we want to ask: Is there some way to organise the production of basic goods and services so that everybody has something to eat, everybody has a decent place to live, and we can put a moratorium on evictions, and everybody can live rent free? Isn’t this moment one where we could actually think seriously about the creation of an alternative society?
If we are tough and sophisticated enough to cope with this virus, then why not take on capital at the same time? Instead of saying we all want to go back to work and get those jobs back and restore everything to the way it was before this crisis started, maybe we should say: Why don’t we come out of this crisis by creating an entirely different kind of social order?
Why don’t we take those elements with which the current collapsing bourgeois society is pregnant — its astonishing science and technology and productive capacity — and liberate them, making use of artificial intelligence and technological change and organisational forms so that we can actually create something radically different than anything that existed before? […] In fact, the lineaments of a new socialist society are already being laid bare — which is probably why the right wing and the capitalist class are so anxious to get us back to the status quo ante.”
Well, this is all fair and well. But the big problem is obviously that it is at least highly questionable that anybody has anything near a blueprint of such a kind of social order or society (call it as you like) or a systemic approach to politics in his pocket, and it is almost beyond doubt that after 40 years of capitalist realism there is no pandemic of critical thinking or utopian visions to be expected in the word’s population which could easily be activated. Probably most of us are well-socialised Dieters. The result of the last crisis is well known. For this reason, the current dearth of positive, eutopian and at the same time popular ideas is lamentable (see also Agathonia Media).
Furthermore, the crisis has led to a polarization concerning normality, but this is for the most part a media phenomenon thus far, not one of practical politics. Here the critical view demands a sustained political reaction. However, its parliamentary representation is doubtful.
And the lockdown may have shown that there are possibilities: But has it shown which? To normal people it may have primarily shown the possibility that everything can get much worse.
David Harvey claims with Marx: “Any major project to change the world will also require a transformation of the self.” The problem will be whether many people will want to try it (or will by necessity be made to try it) because they become more than suspicious of (their) normality and retain hopes for their futures. Recently this happened within the Fridays for Future movement.
This may be the only chance for a project that is envisioned by the critical side. It could be strengthened as soon as protest hits the streets again. The year 2019, that of normality, is said to have been the year with the most manifest protests across societies within the history of the world. Covid-19 paused or even stopped it.
Perhaps another was indicated by the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, who claimed that new ideas within science would usually not win because they persuade those in power within universities but because those in power in the long run leave their chairs due to their natural death. The Fridays for Future movement should be warned. This will simply take too long. And it is highly likely that those in charge, usually grey-haired men, will in the name of TINA try to stage as post-crisis politics what has been called “an end-of-the-world party” in order to bring back normality. A significant part of the media are already promoting it so that it may turn out to become a festival.
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