Saturday, 24 October 2020

Do We Really Want To Go Back To Normal?

If 2020 can be summed up in a question, that question would probably be: 'When can we get back to normal?' The problem is that 'normal' as is often imagined hasn't existed in a long time, if ever. The internet likes to declare the present year the worst ever and the COVID-19 pandemic alone has provided plenty of ammunition for that argument. The problem is that the issues of today make it easy to forget the issues of yesterday.

As devastating as the pandemic has been, it either subsumed or replaced much of what was complained about in 2019. To name but a few: the creeping ascendancy of the far-right in politics and far-left in culture; governmental incompetence in the UK and US; China using an extradition bill to crush the autonomy of Hong Kong; mass shootings in New Zealand and the United States, and a massacre of protesters in Khartoum. Just as every US election is declared the most important in US history (hint: it never is), so too does the freshness of recent disasters and controversies make it easy to convince ourselves that the present year is the worst ever and to long for a state of normality which exists only in our minds and disguises a refusal to seriously engage with the issues of the present.

I indirectly challenged this idea of 'normality' in an article in February, The Case Against Centrism. In this case, replace the word 'centrism' with 'normality'. Just as the yearning for a return to political consensus reflects a willingness to ignore how the flaws of a previous status quo caused the instability of the present, so too does the urge to return to normality demonstrate our discomfort at confronting the flaws in the structures we have come to depend on.

In the current US election campaign, Democratic candidate Joe Biden is being presented as the candidate to return America to a state of normality, in contrast to the human embodiment of chaos that is Donald Trump. It's an appealing pitch, yet conveniently fogs how the 'normality' which Biden represents was the same environment in which support for Donald Trump and the extremist positions he represents began to grow. Some of that was deliberate calculation - the FOX News-promoted 'birther' conspiracy against President Obama, among other things - but it was also a growing frustration at the perceived corruption, dishonesty and contempt for regular voters of the political and corporate class.

It has been argued that, in the case of the US election, Biden may not be the right candidate for radical change, but it is worth voting him in to get rid of Trump and build from there. This is an appealing notion, assuming that the desired 'radical changes' are those you, rather than the other side, wish to make. Radicalism won in 2016, it was just the radicalism of the far-right rather than the far-left. The normality that Biden purports to represent is, at best, a short-term illusion disguising that the issues which caused the abnormality of today continue to go largely untouched and unresolved. No matter how many reasons to consider him the preferable candidate, but a vote for him on the basis of 'returning to normal' is a vote to push back consequences being experienced in the present to return momentarily to the ignorant safety of the recent past.

In the UK, one might assume that the longed-for 'normal' represents a time before the Conservatives first returned to power, then in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, in 2010, or a little further back to before the financial crisis of 2007-08. Unfortunately, as with Donald Trump, neither the financial crisis nor the Conservatives emerged from a vacuum. The financial crisis was in large part a consequence of the deregulatory zeal of the Clinton administration in the US and the Blair ministry in the UK, itself with roots in the free market economics pioneered by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Before then? A US enduring a severe economic downturn and the UK in fief to the unions and forced to beg the IMF to stave off impending bankruptcy - not to mention the pesky Cold War and frequent IRA terrorist bombings in the UK. No 'normal' there.

Even when it comes to more isolated incidents, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the urge to return to normal is as much a desire to avoid difficult questions for which we do not yet have answers as a desire to return to a perceived time of comfort. A pandemic may be the outcome of a less specific chain of cause-and-effect as, say, Donald Trump or the financial crisis, but nevertheless exists in the context of the rise to power of Communist China and its increasing encroachment into the values and standards of Western liberal society.

Contrary to the conspiracy theories, China may not have intended the COVID-19 pandemic or designed it as a weapon, but as the Chinese economy returns to growth while much of the world remains locked down and on economic life support, this pandemic should be the spur for a reassessment of our willingness to accept the creep of Chinese technology and cheap goods - notably the defective PPE they're selling the West to combat a virus caused by their dismal safety standards - into our everyday lives and how ready our governments and corporations are to mollify a genocidal, totalitarian regime. If we do not, there is every chance that the pandemic will only accelerate existing trends in China's favour: in other words, more of the 'normal' so many are now clinging to.

Closer to home, lockdown has forced many to work from home and many more to fall out of employment altogether. Instead of yearning for a return to how things were, perhaps we should instead be questioning how we got to a position where employment has become so precarious and so much of our lives are taken up with simply trying to survive, rather than actually live. It is of course imperative to ask the right questions: those calling for working from home to become a widespread practice risks deepening the devaluation of the worker through corporate exploitation of the gig economy. An employee who does not have to come into the office can be employed from anywhere, which would almost certainly mean more outsourcing to the cheaper labour of countries like India and, yes, China. While there are undeniably benefits in working from home - I've done it most of my career - there are serious risks in encouraging it to become the new normal.

The belief that periods of difficulty should be treated by hunkering down and waiting for normality to return represents a refusal to accept the necessity of hard times to make us confront our failings. At the root of the call to return to normal is Western society's increasingly engrained penchant for viewing itself solely through the lens of suffering rather than overcoming. It is easier to beg for the return to a time of imagined comfort and willing ignorance rather than do the work to adapt and make things better than they were. Ignorance is bliss, but only for a little while. Perpetual stability is a myth and change, no matter how challenging, is healthy and essential. Sooner or later, we have to either open our eyes or blindly accept destruction.

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