Since we were forced to make all our social interactions virtual, things have felt more real than ever. It turns out it’s not that difficult to tell the difference between the outside world and a screen. Far from an acceleration towards virtual reality, COVID-19 has felt like the return of something real. The dissolution of a fantasy.
After all, what exactly is real about the world of unlimited air travel, kaleidoscopic economic development and an infallible commodity supply chain that we have inhabited until very recently? What sort of fantasy world were we living in where an empty supermarket shelf marked a traumatic intrusion of the real? The idea that online experience represents an escape from reality into a virtual reality presupposes that we were living in reality to begin with. However, the spectacular products of globalised capitalism and the economic abstraction that creates them have always been their own kind of fantasy world, and that world is starting to dissolve.
French filmmaker and Marxist cultural theorist Guy Debord formulated an initial theoretical account of this fantasy world in the sixties. In Society Of The Spectacle Debord describes a contemporary condition whereby the products of industrial capitalism have coalesced into an absurd spectacle – a carnival of commodities and media forms that simultaneously gives our social life its entire meaning and controls the productive activity of our economies. For Debord, the spectacle ‘is the stage at which the commodity has succeeded in totally colonising social life,’ and is thus ‘the heart of this real society’s unreality.’
Much as Debord described, the contemporary Western experience is dominated by the creation and satisfaction of pseudo-needs that both arise from and can only be understood within the pantomime of advanced capitalism. The need for a new phone. The need for a Thermomix. The need for a memory foam pillow. Each commodity represents an improvement on what came before it and promises some satisfaction; and though real satisfaction always remains elusive, the products of capitalism nevertheless become more and more impressive. They become impressive to the point of being spectacular (an iPhone); spectacular to the point of being absurd (a personal drone); absurd to the point of being grotesque (a cruise). They occupy our entire field of vision and they come to constitute the predominant animating force for the individual and society. It’s a testament to the dream-like seduction of an advanced economy that we ever forget just how fantastical it all is.
With the simultaneous economic crisis of supply and demand brought by COVID-19, we are watching this fantasy fray at the edges. Almost every industry supply chain around the globe has been disrupted by government lockdowns, shipping delays and financing failures. While very few supply chains have stopped altogether, we are, for the first time in a long time, forced to look under the hood of capitalism and re-associate the commodity existence we take for granted with the vast systems of production and distribution that enable it. What we find is what we already know to exist, a system of just-in-time production built around the hyper-exploitation of workers in the global South, and prone to sudden failure. In the case of masks and ventilators, the failure of the supply chain to meet demand has been deadly; it’s a stark reminder that capitalism optimises systems of production to maximise returns on consumer commodities at the expense of the world’s poor, and not to provide for ordinary people in a time of crisis.
When such a crisis does force us to disengage momentarily from our commodity fantasy and try to take stock of where we are headed, all we encounter is another fantasy; a dream within a dream in the form of highly financialised market abstractions that seem to determine our destiny. It was the failure of finance capital in its abstract form that precipitated the last global economic crisis in 2008. Wall Street ground the system to a halt with unstable finance assets and market speculation. Even though conditions were largely unchanged ‘out there’ in the real world, value was gutted from the economy. There’s a common refrain that the economy is just an abstraction and so we shouldn’t prioritise it over real people’s lives, but what 2008 made clear is the extent to which we had already made real people’s lives entirely dependent on the functioning of the spectacular abstraction that is a financialised economy.
This is not 2008. In 2020, we face a dual crisis of the abstract and the real. In the abstract, we face a financial crisis not unlike the GFC. The Federal reserve and the European Central Bank have moved quickly with buyouts and stimulus packages in an effort to stabilise markets and avoid a sovereign debt crisis. In the real world, whole industries can no longer operate as they used to due to a viral pandemic. Real people can’t go outside. Real hospitals are overflowing. A crisis of finance is amenable to government bailouts, but this is also a crisis of production, distribution and demand irrespective of the finance capital that funds them. It’s no surprise, then, that markets have been ambivalent even in the face of government bailouts. A corporate stimulus won’t change the fact that people can’t congregate. Amid the biomedical reality of a pandemic, financial markets must contend with their own unreality – their ability to cause crises of abstractions but not to solve crises of the real.
In this sense, COVID-19 is only a prefiguring of what is to come in the twenty-first century as we face a deeper crisis of the entire Earth system. The capitalist growth imperative demands that industry extracts resources from the earth and returns them back as waste products without regard for the biospheric processes which are interrupted in the process. Fossil fuels have provided the cheap energy necessary to do this at scale for long enough that we are starting to surpass the ability of the biosphere to withstand this metabolic rift. Rainforests are disappearing. Oceans are acidifying. Minerals are becoming more difficult to mine. In short, the state of ecological abundance that has fuelled our economic activity is over.
Silicon Valley ecomodernists imagine a future of consumer luxury driven by green energy and invisible labour, where ‘green growth’ allows market abstractions to continue to govern real economic development. What this fantasy ignores is the extent to which our continued extraction is depleting Earth’s resources and destroying the natural systems we rely upon for our activity, irrespective of how much carbon this extraction emits. As John Bellamy Foster put it, ‘We cannot escape the long-term ecological consequences of capitalist development through the Faustian bargain of building more and more nuclear power plants…’
No matter what happens with this pandemic, future pandemics, or the climate, eventually the supply chain and the material luxuries of contemporary industrial capitalism are due to unravel. The quixotic financial abstractions that governed the production of these luxuries are losing their legitimacy. The natural abundance that produced these luxuries will not be here forever. The supply chain that hangs over us like Borges’ map on a scale of one to one – the one invoked by Debord, and later Baudrillard – will begin to fray. For those in the Global North, these luxuries are so fantastical – from year round supplies of seasonal foods to submarine hotels in Dubai – their disappearance marks the slow dissolution of Debord’s Spectacle and the return of the real.
Debord’s argument wasn’t an adolescent rejection of the aesthetics of consumerism: it was an appeal to recognise the way that advanced capitalism totally defines our social relations. The commodity spectacle and the economic system that creates it are perhaps the only codified set of values against which we have ever really been able to judge ourselves; Where do I work? How much do I earn? What sort of car do I drive? What set of tastes do I possess? From the vantage point of a citizen in an advanced economy, it is almost impossible to derive a system of values that is not related in some final way to our dual roles as both workers and consumers.
That is why so many reactions to COVID-19 have had the tenor not just of dread, but of excitement. It’s the excitement of expanded possibilities. The unconscious relishing of the restoration of gravity to our relationships. The soft hope that our lives might have some meaning that is decodable outside the cipher of consumer capitalism. And while it’s understandable to be excited by this, new meaning can only be made for us on the back of new political-economic structures. The Morrison government has already confirmed its intentions to dismantle the welfare reforms it has introduced once the crisis is over – a return to poverty for the 1.3 million people on Jobseeker. If the fantasy of advanced capitalism is starting to fade, then our new reality will be constituted by what we are willing to accept in its place.