The world as we know it faces two existential threats: environmental degradation and collapse of global society due to income inequality. It is disheartening to observe how neither one of those have elicited anything near the measures political leaders have taken to fight Corona. The reason for that is probably due to the upper-middle classes in society mistakenly believing that they themselves will be fine with respect to the environment and social unrest. Corona, however, is a different story. To quote Theresa May’s panicked tweet about her successor Boris Johnson’s hospitalisation:
Read that quote again. And again.
Let me translate: “Corona could hurt me! Help, this is frightening! I’m used to a discriminatory society where I’m privileged. Unlike those billions of poor people to whom emotional suffering is a way of life, I’m not used to living in fear and I don’t like it!”
This sentiment probably also explains why The Guardian, a go-to newspaper for the intellectual middle classes, has been fearmongering for months on end: its readers are genuinely afraid of Covd19, an emotion they were previously unfamiliar with. But I digress.
What is interesting is how our response to Corona has had completely opposite effects on the two true global challenges mentioned above. The environment is currently having a well-deserved reprieve: consumption, production and thus, pollution levels are way down in comparison to previous years. Air quality in industrialised countries is back to levels not seen since the 20th century. CO2 emissions are all of a sudden coming close to targets set by global treaties, something unthinkable only three months ago. It might even lead to long-term changes in how we manage the global economy. If you were a slightly psychotic environmental activist, Corona would be one of the best things happening to you this year.
Unfortunately, for every yin there is a yang. The existential threat of global income inequality is now more visible than ever. It was set in motion over 40 years ago when countries abandoned responsible economic policy making and embraced unbridled neoliberal capitalism. Thanks 1970s hippies.
This led to the creation of economic upper classes unseen since the 19th century, with the economic power of the middle-class stagnating and that of the economically vulnerable declining quite drastically. As a result, social mobility and quality of life has fallen in many developed countries. Moreover, global differences have been even more extreme: for two generations in a row, the poorest groups in sub-Saharan Africa have become poorer, while the top earners of the West are controlling an ever-larger share of their countries’ substantial GDP. To quote from a report by Pew Research Centre about the United States: “By 2016, the top 5% held 248 times as much wealth at the median. The median wealth of the poorest 20% is either zero or negative in most years we examined.”
Perhaps Theresa May and her friends believe that this will not affect them or might even be beneficial to cementing their positions. Perhaps some of our readers, coming from economically privileged backgrounds, believe the same. They’d be wrong. At some point society becomes so uneven, so weighted in favour of the “haves” and against the “have nots,” that the societal fabric that has been so good to the former group and so cruel to the latter will tear apart.
Disenfranchised groups will no longer feel that the social and political arrangements work for them, and slowly become a threat to global society as we know it. It begins with disinterest, then moves on to anger and eventually leads to proverbial pitchforks. This could be in the form of voting for revolutionary politicians or in the form of actual violence and social unrest. If anyone at the top of society believes that they can always control such dynamics, they really need to start reading up on human history. If current inequality trends continue, global society will radically change during this century, with potentially genuinely terrifying outcomes for May & friends.
Which brings us to the yang of Corona. Out of irrational levels of fear, the politically dominant classes in global society are throwing the most vulnerable groups down a cliff, accelerating those all-important inequality trends. They are exposing the extremes of the system they have so eagerly created these past decades. In the United States alone, 6.6 million people filed for unemployment benefits last month. This number is nothing compared to those who recently lost their jobs in the global south, of course, but even in the US, social services and support for the economically vulnerable is at a breaking point. The true, extreme poverty that already exists in many parts of the country will now explode. Further long-term social and emotional disenfranchisement will be the result. Even in a nation as patriotic as America, there are limits to how much people are willing to accept.
The winners of the neoliberal world order have been living opulent lifestyles much like Tolkien’s Gollum, dancing with his ring just before falling into the fires of Mount Doom. After getting closer and closer to the edge, Corona may well turn out to be the final push towards an irreversible plunge. There is some sense of twisted and cruel justice here: after enthusiastically sacrificing the poor because of irrational Covid19 fears, the rich and powerful will soon discover that they are also about to fall down that self-made cliff. They may not see it yet- visionary thinking is not necessarily the forte of those living in luxury- but if history is anything to go by (and it is), they should probably start preparing for a fiery landing.