Moments of social disruption are a valuable reminder that so much of what we take for granted — our sense of normalcy — isn’t necessarily normal at all.
The breakdown of the ordinary forces us to confront the ideas and expectations that lie at the basis of our understanding of the world in the first place.
So much of our thinking about how the world actually works is conditioned by what we have experienced and what we are able to anticipate based on that experience. Our ability to understand a government’s response to a pandemic — what the government should or cannot do — is affected by our collective sense of what is acceptable.
My research draws on post-apocalyptic literature such as Jeff Vandermeer’s novel Annihilation and N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth triology to explore how disaster and end-of-world narratives can be used to legitimate and restore power or, conversely, disrupt it.
Unprecedented and unanticipated
Right now, extraordinary and previously unimaginable responses are being taken to contain the novel coronavirus pandemic and lessen its toll. Families have been separated, public spaces shuttered, trillion-dollar bailouts announced. It’s a time of evacuations, quarantines and wartime hospital triage.
Such monumental and disruptive efforts are all being undertaken to counteract the tightening grip of a novel coronavirus, an entity not even visible to the naked eye. These extraordinary measures are evidence of our collective ability to reconstruct a new sense of normal, rearranging our lives to fit a shifting landscape of novel and emerging priorities.
And yet these actions also reveal how changeable the operations of the “normal” world can become in the face of new pressures.
The Canadian government has harnessed enormous political power and capital to help businesses, workers and families cope with current and anticipated financial stress.
Billions of dollars have been allocated for relief programs to support some of society’s most vulnerable populations, including Indigenous communities, the financially vulnerable, those fleeing violence or in need of mental health support.
Between the probable and possible
Like taking apart a mechanical device to see how it is made and view its component parts, the breakdown of the normal world reveals aspects of our reality and its social constitution not visible in everyday life.
The COVID-19 pandemic reveals what philosopher Isabelle Stengers describes as the hidden gap between the probable and the possible. The probable represents a history of thought that simply appears as common sense. Under the logic of a capitalistic paradigm, for example, it is not probable that governments would allow for the sudden suspension of student loan debt or the creation of a basic income subsidy for millions. But that does not mean such extraordinary measures are not possible.
In many ways, our shared sense of what is normal and probable is conditioned by both capitalism and our social histories. But these expectations, according to Stengers, prevent other possibilities, other realities from appearing, or from appearing sensible.
Putting the world back together
Yet important questions remain when the world breaks down, like: how should it be put back together?
Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine catalogues the way power operates in times of chaos, in order to capitalize on social harm and distraction to generate profit.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Canada’s largest oil and gas lobby, recently submitted a 13-page memo to Ottawa, requesting the federal government rollback environmental regulations and defer critical environmental monitoring for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.
Energy industry CEOs also requested relief from Canada’s carbon and income taxes.
Canada has already begun rolling out multibillion dollar-bailout packages to prop up the oil industry, which represents some of the wealthiest natural resource corporations in the world.
That executives are seizing upon the pandemic as an opportunity to advance corporate interests and lobby for the rollback of environmental regulations is an important reminder that moments of disruption can be seized upon to serve the status quo and society’s greatest powers.
Stengers helps us understand why the opportunistic behaviours of these multinational corporations seems completely normal. Appeals to help businesses, to stabilize the economy, to create jobs all seem a matter of due course in unstable times. A multibillion-dollar bailout for industry is floated as simply a matter of common sense.
It is, we’re told, what’s best for us.
But who and what is actually represented in that ‘us?’
The ‘best’ decisions
Marginalized communities and ecological systems share a common bond in that they represent interests and needs often not reflected in executive decision-making, in the arguments of lobbyists and the fine print of economic stimulus packages.
In these times, more than ever, it becomes an urgent imperative that world-building and decision-making “take place somehow in the presence of those who will bear their consequences,” as philosopher Donna Haraway puts it.
The advent of COVID-19 is a particular disruption, but one that points out to so many other disruptions at work in our lives: global inequality, the climate emergency, rampant species extinction and resource depletion.
By exposing the fragility of the normal world, the pandemic also offers us an opportunity to make lives less precarious and social institutions more robust and thinking more free to consider not the probable world — but the possibility of building the worlds we hope to come.