Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Globalisation and the Corona Virus

Joel Evans

The Covid-19 pandemic underscores an already-existing, more general tension in our current world-system. On the one hand, disease – like capital – is now fully globalised; it knows no boundaries, and ruthlessly weaves its way through networks of human interaction. On the other hand, the consequences of and solutions to the problems generated by the pandemic come largely under the remit of the nation-state, which is again the case with world-encompassing financial crises and also most dramatically in the ever-intensifying threat of global climate collapse. Global problems, then, are left to nation-states to deal with; they will shore up economies, attempt to stop the spread of disease and ensure (with degrees of enthusiasm and effectiveness) the continued well-being of citizens during this pandemic.

The three global phenomena outlined above – the pandemic, financial collapse, and climate collapse – are all inter-related, with a global system of capitalism providing the framework for each crisis to enter into a global dimension itself. The tension outlined above appears all the more contradictory when we consider the variant of capitalism most still agree we are in the midst of: neoliberalism. After all, this is the doctrine of global capitalism, touting as it has done for years now the erasure of borders and the weakening of nation-states in favour of large-scale, technocratic institutions. What the current pandemic starkly exposes, however, are the limitations of this aversion to states; under the neoliberal system these are in fact fundamental in underwriting losses (whether pandemic-generated or otherwise) and maintaining balances of power. The neoliberal vision of the end of the nation state is purely economico-disciplinary, and so the scope for collaboration during a pandemic is severely limited, notwithstanding the rhetoric of global cooperation. It’s clear – without invoking the horrors of ICUs in New York, London or Lombardy – that the system is inadequate.

Another way in which disease and world-encompassing capitalism are linked is through the establishment of this system itself via the European colonial project. It’s well known that European colonisers spread disease to the point that it contributed to the near-extinction of many indigenous populations, particularly in North America. At the dawn of international markets, then, we have networks of disease which shadow emerging networks of accumulation and appropriation. Laila Lalami’s recent novel The Moor’s Account – which narrates the adventures of the now-famous slave Estebanico during the Spanish colonisation of North America – is an outstanding example of a complex aesthetic rendering of this inter-relationship between disease, capital and colonisation, which sheds light on both the past and by extrapolation the present-day world-system. I mention this as it allows us to begin thinking more broadly about the function of fiction in the time of pandemic.

I want to outline two, quite traditional, general (non-exhaustive) functions here, whilst indicating how they relate to our current predicament. The first is Aristotelian: fiction, and art in general, can give us a glimpse of the truth of the world, which can also be cathartic. The Moor’s Account is a good example of this in that it reveals a truth about the interconnection between early forms of capital accumulation, slave labour and disease. This truth in turn allows us to ruminate on the historical conditions of our own situation. Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, currently enjoying a new-found popularity, conforms to this also by providing a contemporary, fully globalised vantage-point. Or there is Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, which again tackles the topic of (man-made) pandemic, but also allows us to view this through the lens of an exaggerated version of our own neoliberal societies. Again – catharsis here is made possible not merely through the treatment of pandemic, but also through the inter-relations shown between this and socio-economic factors.

The second function I want to mention here as almost a counterweight to the Aristotelian one is that of the utopian. And indeed, this can sometimes be located alongside any potential Aristotelian function. The Moor’s Account is again a good example here, in that it does carve out a utopian space in the unexplored areas of North America, whereby hierarchy is done away with, and the Westerners become healers of the natives, rather than super-spreaders. Atwood’s trilogy too offers a couple of utopian visions of society that build on the ravages of pandemic a more equitable society. The counterweight of a utopian impulse would actually appear to be a recurrent figure in pandemic fictions, from Shakespeare’s King Lear (written during an actual pandemic) and the vision of unaccommodated man on the heath, to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and its positioning of the theatre as a utopian idyll during the plague years.

The utopian impulse can thus offer a glimpse at an alternative to the current (bleak) truth of the world. But this impulse is always localised, just as More’s island of Utopia was. Perhaps what is needed today is a spirit of utopia that extends to the globalised networks that make pandemics a possibility in the first place. It is just such thinking that would pave the way to imagining alternate social forms that escape the contradictions outlined at the start, and that allow us to build a better future after the pandemic. Such endeavours were common in the early 20th Century. They are long overdue a revival.

Conceptualising the Global in the Wake of the Postmodern by Joel Evans

About The Author

Joel Evans

Joel Evans is Assistant Professor in Literature at the University of Nottingham. He has published articles in New Review of Film and Television Studies, Textual Practice, and Novel...

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