What COVID-19 tells us about capitalism

COVID-19 has made it apparent that some things are of no use whatsoever: the Olympics; cruise ships; millionaire sportspeople playing games to profit billionaires; blockbuster movie releases; mass tourism and a hundred-and-one other baubles and fripperies associated with a valorised bourgeois existence. The virus has done this at the same time as it has put the most marginalised Americans in mass graves, destroyed a swathe of precarious jobs, and set white media pundits dialling up the fascist rhetoric to eleven and suggesting that perhaps old people, the disabled and so on are disposable after all.

These simultaneous phenomena are not separate events of course. They are part of the same whole. We have poverty because we have billionaires; we have precarious jobs because we have cruise ships.

There will be no return to ‘normal’ life after COVID-19 because life was never normal in the first place. There will only be more crises, because crisis was always the state of our lives under late capitalism. We just tried to either pretend crisis wasn’t there or that crisis could be fixed.

When I read about strategies to manage my time in lockdown, I start to feel queasy. I feel like I’m on a hideous cruise liner, it’s going down with the klaxons blaring, and I’m being invited to ‘savour the moment’, to ‘slow down’, watch some Netflix in the lounge, develop a new skill, take up the trumpet, learn French.

But the thing about a crisis is that it can’t be fixed. That’s its nature. A crisis is an irruption of the Real, of the ruthless principles that govern our lives. We will not be ‘fairer’ or ‘kinder’ after COVID. There will be no heartwarming end to the story. That’s a Guardian fantasy, a comforting bourgeois fairy story, a white daydream of privilege and fear: We can make everything better; We will be nicer to each other; There will still be coffee shops, and holidays to Bali, and we can still work on building our careers. We will all just be a little more sensible of how fragile life is, its wonder, its brevity. Won’t that be good?

Jesus wept. Surely we can do better than that.


The Real is a reminder that caring for each other isn’t about being nicer, or looking out for the neighbours, or running some errands. It’s a little more eye-wateringly challenging than that. We have to understand where we are, and what we have become to be able to understand what is happening.

If a radical politics is anything, it is an attempt to imagine a world where cruise ships, jetting off for an overseas holiday, Hollywood blockbusters and being paid a few million a year for being able to kick a ball make no sense and so become impossible. You can’t have those things without sophisticated systems of exploitation, cruelty, appropriation, without vicious inequalities and oppression. And capitalism being what it is, the things we valorise, that we ‘entertain’ ourselves with, that we use to give ourselves pleasure, are solidly rooted in histories of racism, slavery and misogyny and the creation of demonised groups. ‘If the aim of a system is to create an outside where you can put the things you don’t want’, wrote the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, ‘Then we have to look at what a system (or a person) disposes of – its rubbish – to understand it’. And you have to look at what the ‘rubbish’ is too.

It’s a characteristic of capitalism that it produces incalculable amounts of toxic rubbish, has consistently and triumphantly promoted its own goodness and purity, and demonises anyone who challenges that purity. Australia’s desperate rigid clinging to whiteness as a key myth is a case in point, and it’s not surprising that what Australia regards as rubbish, as human detritus that keeps getting in the way of our displays of goodness, is black and brown.


For a long time, I worked in what is often bureaucratically referred to as the ‘community services sector’ or more cosily the ‘helping professions’. That’s the workforce that provides what is sometimes referred to as ‘social work’. The clients of the helping professions are people living with violence, poverty, racism, illness, disability, and so on. It is a sector notorious for burn-out, for trying to instil middle-class values in its clients, and for being ineffective or even inflicting further trauma. In other words, I concluded after I left it, it doesn’t really understand what it does or why.

The evidence is overwhelming that trauma, mental illness and marginalisation of all kinds are a result of the circumstances in which people are forced to live. To work with other human beings experiencing that trauma means acknowledging that you are basically just cleaning up capitalism’s mess, even as capitalism continues creating more. If you don’t understand that, you can only burn out and collapse, or begin to feel that you are a saint, or learn to despise the people you are supposed to help. What you are encountering is capitalism in its violent, bloody essence. You are seeing the world as it is, not as capitalism wants you to see it, as a series of ways to entertain yourself or opportunities for self-improvement or self-promotion. 

And COVID-19 has brought us to the same place. If there is chance for anything while we sit locked up in our homes, it’s to be able to see what a repulsive system of violence and mayhem we collude with, that it in fact constituted even the pleasurable nature of our reality. And it is all falling down around us.

The arts have not exactly distinguished themselves in describing the way that capitalism builds our subjectivities. A few years ago, I remember a flurry of excitement among literary types as some kind of research somewhere had supposedly demonstrated that reading fiction promoted empathy. I nearly spewed into my tea.

A few of years after he gave up public performance in 1964, the pianist Glenn Gould interviewed himself for the journal High Fidelity. A nit-picky, po-faced, arts-journalist ‘g.g. ‘ interviews ‘G.G’. who says:

It’s only cultures that, by accident or good management, bypassed the Renaissance which see art for the menace it really is. I feel that art should be given the chance to phase itself out. I think that we must accept the fact that art is not inevitably benign, that it is potentially destructive. We should analyze the areas where it tends to do least harm, use them as a guideline, and build into art a component that will enable it to preside over its own obsolescence.


Art as menace. Discuss. In the recent French TV adaptation of War of the Worlds, an astronomer learns to her horror that the aliens who have murdered most of humanity are also broadcasting Nick Cave’s Into My Arms, a song that she had placed on a probe sent to the stars, and that the song may in fact be what the aliens used to locate Earth. It’s an interesting and illuminating image. A sentimental ballad about love written by a millionaire becomes the vector for our doom.

What is obvious about COVID-19 is that we are no position to deal with it. I’m not just referring to the eviscerated health systems, the destroyed safety nets, the ubiquity of poorly-paid precarious employment, the general poverty, but the fact that we are bereft of any sense of social cohesion; that we exist for each other and that there is no other way to meaningfully live. All we have are sentimentalised understandings of love – all the ways one can iterate Into My Arms – and reified understandings of the self, a sense that there is a world ‘out there’, innately hostile, dangerous and gruelling to function in. We keep trying to push the rubbish outside, and capitalism keeps generating it within us.

In her essay ‘Brexit, the body & the politics of splitting’, the Black scholar and psychologist Guilaine Kinouani begins: ‘When I think of Brexit, I think of a White man’. Psychological splitting, she maintains, the ‘split between mind and body and its associated epistemic disowning of the body’, is a Eurocentric phenomenon – we might also say it’s therefore a phenomenon of capitalism – a distinguishing feature of white subjectivities.

Splitting ‘does more than just sustain white ignorance’ writes Kinouani. ‘It is a vehicle for whiteness and thus white violence’. Whiteness splits a person not only from their own embodied experience, ‘but also from that of others, including the pain and violence you inflict upon them.’

‘It is splitting’, she continues, ‘that allowed White people to hang Black bodies on trees and take selfies or have picnics on lynching sites. It is splitting that enabled slave masters to cherish Black children ‘as their own’, then inflict the most horrific sexual violence and torture upon them for the most minor of ‘infractions’, seconds later’. And it is splitting, concludes Kinouani, echoing Kev Carmody’s song Thou Shalt Not Steal, ‘that meant colonialists could hold onto the bible in one hand and a rifle in the other.’

We can only function under capitalism if we remain split ourselves. Australia is a split, haunted country, capitalism is a haunted ideology, and white Australians are haunted by everything we have split off and disavowed: child removals; massacre; destruction of the sacred sites; environmental degradation on a cataclysmic scale. We do not understand where we are or what we have done. Even our responses to cataclysmic climate change become activities of white heroism.

Splitting, at which capitalism is so adroit, always and inevitably invites a re-encounter with that which you have split off, some spectral part of yourself that haunts you. Splitting keeps something about yourself perpetually invisible by disowning it. It is as if you become your own ghost. So many of the events in the life of white Australia, our most premeditated decisions, even the very structure of our innermost subjective experiences are driven by things we have little awareness of, as though we are animated by shadows or speak languages we barely understand.      

COVID-19 is laying bare the split within us – the narcissistic capitalist-coloniser mind in crisis. While being exhorted to use our lockdown time productively, we are also tacitly being asked to continue the work of capitalism at home and paper over the split, the bleeding obvious: that life pre-COVID was full of junk (cruises, football finals, Star Wars movies, billionaires, celebrities, shopping) built from ruthless exploitation and brutality on a planetary scale, and that the stuff we have all leaned on now has no function and has left us bored and empty and somewhat panic-stricken. It has all burst like a bubble.


The internet has not stopped me fossicking in boxes in ops shops for old books. And old books are always full of surprises. Last year, I came across a brief 100-page book entitled English Fiction of the Second World War, by Alan Munton (1989). One of Munton’s theses is that, as far as the British working class were concerned (therefore, nearly everyone on the country at that time), the War was being fought for socialism. That is, for a world utterly unlike the one that existed in the UK prior to 1939. Churchill was dumped as PM in 1945 because he was very unlikely to deliver it once the fighting stopped.

It is an interesting idea, and not without evidence. In essence, I took Munton to be saying that people become socialists in spite of themselves. These days, I work with very young children and a three-year-old is quite capable of understanding that if we all make a cake, we should all share as equally as we can. I don’t want to trivialise anti-capitalist understandings or the thinking of young children, but you don’t have to have read Gramsci to be able to understand that capitalism is cruel, violent, murderous and destructive and breeds a ruthless competitiveness in all its subjects.

At the end of his life Jean Genet said, ‘I am closer to what I wrote, I am truer in what I wrote, because I wrote it in jail and was convinced I would never get out’. I love this statement. I feel like I should engrave it in stone, or burn it into a slab of wood and nail it above my door. I have often thought, and sometimes said, that one should write as though one’s death were imminent (which of course it is). However, getting an existential sense of one’s own mortality in this absurd capitalist hellscape is not easy. That’s the nature of the splitting Kinouani writes of. What Genet encountered in jail was the belief that imprisonment at the behest of the bourgeois state was now his natural existence, and so he had no choice but to speak as truthfully as he could. It’s not as if life would get any worse if he did. Prison mimicked the walls of capitalist reality and the routines of mundane life in all its hideous violence – the world now being revealed by COVID-19.


Photo by Philippe Bourhis

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

More by Stephen Wright ›

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  1. yes, and negativity has its own chains too – it’s called stalemate in chess – and with SARs-CoV2 you drown in your own perspiration

    1. the twist would have to be the dumbest dance craze ever

      so, to put the point more pointedly (and famously)

      The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.

      now that’s the hard bit, which goes beyond description and requires action, bodies on the line etc., as they are with covid 19, and particularly so for carers et al.

  2. Brilliantly written article Stephen and a very accurate depiction of Australia as a capitalist consuming incohesive culture. Many thanks.

  3. I remember a flurry of excitement among literary types as some kind of research somewhere had supposedly demonstrated that reading fiction promoted empathy. I nearly spewed into my tea.

    Made me laugh, thanks :))

  4. You seem to say that all the things a lot of people like – exciting movies, high-grade sports, the Olympics, emotional pop music – wont be possible under anything resembling a just economic system.

    To which many will then say, have said, ok then let’s stick with capitalism.

    Leaving aside unsustainable things like frequent o/s travel and cruise ships, why would or should a just economic order exclude the things above, which give the mass of working people pleasure?

    You’re just disguising yr elitist preferences – life as a Genet seminar – as some form of progressive politics.

    No wonder Marxists lost the 20th century, and are losing the 21st, even as capitalism falls apart around them.

  5. A brilliant essay, that succinctly describes the quicksand we have found ourselves in as a nation.

    Our white ancestors during the Industrial Revolution that brought capitalism to the shores of this country condemned its indigenous people and the descendants of European diaspora to the dysfunction that is modern Australia.

    Thank you for your insight.

  6. Wonderful clarity; thank you. Depressing, but you have helped me understand: thank you.

  7. So, if there’s no room for art, that includes literary pursuits as well, and hence no career path to journalism. So then, it your post-COVID world, this sort of article wouldn’t exist. We have that much to be thankful for, while we watch Netflix tonight.

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