The Utopian Moment of the Coronavirus Pandemic

covid-19 dares us to imagine a different future.

It may sound counterintuitive, but the coronavirus pandemic is a utopian moment, maybe even a revolutionary one.

In one fell swoop, the virus provides a clinical x-ray of society, of how it has been. Simultaneously, it also profoundly challenges the repeated insistence that the way things have been is normal, that they must be understood as inevitable. Suddenly, one could see the con. Supply chains stretched to the breaking point; so-called “essential” workers treated, in what can only be understood as Orwellian doublethink, as the most disposable among us; the enormously unequal impact of coronavirus on the most vulnerable populations, such as African Americans; prisoners, the elderly; ridiculous partisan Supreme Court rulings; absurd daily briefings from a delusional, farcical dictator; “how are you going to pay for that?” complaints about Medicare for All vanishing overnight, replaced by a massive, unprecedented federal relief package. One now sees the supposed normal of pre-pandemic world structures for what they were: a manufactured reality. Nothing inevitable about them.

So one wonders, why go back to that? What if instead of getting back to normal, we moved forward to a new normal? The temptation to “return to normal” is understandable, of course. We all long for some sense normality in our intimate relationships and our sense of safety, our feelings of finding community in face-to-face interaction and enjoying maximum liberty to move about and socialize.

Yet I, for one, have also found myself asking lots of shelter-in-place questions: why do we pay rent and mortgages, student debts and more? Why do we stick our money in 401Ks and private health insurance? Why have our schools, public services, arts, and infrastructure been underfunded, privatized, reduced, and gutted? Who really has been cashing in on those arrangements? To hell with them. What good were they really doing us? What other ways could we design the structures of our economic life and social reproduction for the common good and for individual liberty?

Quarantine makes one philosophical, but the abstractions suddenly seem immediate, real, and pressing. Quarantine clarifies. Suddenly history is alive, unfixed, uncertain. If we have been living in what amounts to a reality show in our politics these last few years—call it The Apprentice Goes to Washington—suddenly the plot is no longer canned or formulaic. What new reality, show or not, could we create?

Who, and what, gets saved from the fiasco of the response to coronavirus and who, and what, does not? On what terms? The powers that be have been scrambling to keep us believing that things should go back to how they have been, to insist that recovery looks like a return to the recent past. Gangsters and racketeers that they are, Donald Trump, the Trumpublicans, and their cronies seek to profit behind the scenes while they distract with chaos, outlandishness, and attacks before the cameras in the society of the spectacle. The pandemic, like all crises, is but an opportunity to enrich themselves and accrue more power while feeding one brutal reward after another (federal dollars, conservative judges, regulation rollbacks) to the minority coalition keeping them in place. Religious fundamentalists, Wall Street bankers, white supremacist Nazis, ideologists for conservative jurisprudence, and an aggrieved white petite bourgeoisie on the receiving end of their patronage will likely go along with this.

But even a solid hero of the pandemic such as New York governor Andrew Cuomo reminds us of the urgency to make things new, not retreat back to the way things were. When the unfolding pandemic made it clear that the norms that had been in place were breaking down, what did Cuomo do? He reasserted the carceral capitalism that we have been putting up with for decades now. No hand sanitizer on the market anymore? Where to turn? Why not to prison workers, forced labor? They might not be allowed to use the stuff themselves, even as jails become major hot spots of COVID-19, but hey why not exploit them? Cuomo even bragged about the pleasant floral scents their sanitizer could produce.

And who continues to work the fields, the grocery checkout counter, the hospitals, the public transportation (over fifty MTA workers dead of coronavirus in New York City), the Amazon “fulfillment centers” while the rest of us are sheltered in place? Those who were already being exploited, destroyed, being killed not only by the way things are now, in the coronavirus moment, but also by the way things were then, prior to the pandemic.

It’s easy to yearn for a return to normalcy. But that normalcy was insane. It was abnormal. Why go back to that? Coronavirus revealed the nightmare that has been reality. In response, it asks us to realize a different dream.


I owe some of these ideas to conversations with Robert Cantwell, Alissa Karl, and Ben Grant, among others. They may well disagree with what I have written, so blame any errors of fact or interpretation on me, not them.

In various tones of alarm, hope, dismay, and anger, many are noticing the theme I identify as well. Among them (just a sampling):

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