I remember the first weeks in lockdown being a strange dream. I closed down my office on March 10th and told my co-workers to stay home and safe, a day ahead of the Austrian government’s announcement to close schools, universities and ultimately all public life five days later, on Monday, March 16th. I would spend the weeks with my 8 year old daughter at home constantly adapting the precarious rhythm that we had designed for ourselves, in order to balance homeschooling, my work (I had imposed on myself), cooking and cleaning, as well as caring for our psychological well-being.

Some weeks into the lockdown, during a phone call, a friend suggested the pandemic to be a nightmare. Yet I disagreed with her. I personally did not and still do not experience it as a manifestation of my fears. I experience the pandemic as much more uncanny, as incomprehensible. On a societal level, however, the COVID-19 crisis could indeed be considered a nightmare. The pandemic and its direct effects make visible long repressed issues, as well as fault lines of our dominant economic system, its current power networks and pseudo discourses all circling around issues of labour, the central characteristic of modern society (Arendt: 1958).

The most obvious association in relation to the virus is a fierce and resurgent irruption of nature into global consciousness. Having been latent in discussions on climate change and especially in the predictions and calculations on the tipping point of devastating and irreparable destruction of our habitable sphere for the last couple of years, COVID-19 represents an unprecedented event that makes distressingly visible the limits of human design and control of our habitable sphere. Yet climate change is only an implicit aspect in my argument here, since I want to point towards the logics of our predominant economic system that are at the root of what has been affecting our climate (in all its senses) and that the virus has made visible in all its shortcomings.

One could argue that humans have a very old dream to overcome tedious labour. The dream is to be free of drudgery, to be free of not only the necessary activity to reproduce our species and to control nature insofar, as to no longer experience famine or other devastating natural events. The dream (in workers discourses) also includes to overcoming the industrial regime, and to no longer need to get up every day to go to work in the factory, the office, or wherever. At least in Western industrialized discourse, this dream, it seems, became realizable after the Second World War with the introduction of cybernetic machines (today’s computers) and the acceleration of automation in all sectors of the industry. It was the arresting promise of the end of labour and its accompanying narrative of a coming leisure society, in which we all could make machines our slaves.

In these post-War years, with a social market economy in place, and industry still owned by the states in Europe, all efforts were geared towards this promise, making us work more than ever. Collectively the workforce would adapt to routines making them more efficient, that is, routines executable by calculating (digital) machines, with efficiency’s side effect, that the volume of paid labour decreased significantly (for example: between 1960 and 2000 by 30% in Germany), while at the same time more people would populate the labour market (as a consequence of emancipatory discourses), leading to increasing unemployment rates in official statistics.

In a society whose (apparent) ultimate fetish is full employment, this of course produced a problem that needed to be tackled, that is, disguised with a series of strategies since the late 1980s. Non-standard work arrangements, so-called independent contractors (many of them being pseudo self-employed), the function of the prison-industry in the USA, or the Dutch „polder-model“, a consensual agreement between unions to accept lower wages with simultaneous reduction of standard weekly hours, are just a few examples of such strategies.

And, of course, the Western-industrialized development and its strained perpetuation cannot be abstracted from the dirty industry, no longer complying to environmental standards, that were outsourced to faraway countries, where the labour force was and is cheaper, but also where the smouldering chimneys would no longer be seen, producing cheap products that could be consumed by the masses in Western-industrialized societies. This all created a tightly woven global network of production and consumption whose surplus, since the decoupling of the virtual financial markets from material economy, increasingly gets absorbed by global enterprises and their share-holders, with ever more sophisticated tax-avoiding strategies, leaving the global communities with no assets to invest in alternatives, and making them dependent on charity of the super-rich.

Well, the irruption of nature, as I have been calling the COVID-19 pandemic is a forceful and uncontrollable interruption of global capitalist flow. It is quite similar to the antagonistic strategy the French anarchist collective Tiqqun had laid out in their text The Cybernetic Hypotheses (2015, original: 2001), as well as having called for in their text The Coming Insurrection (2009) under the pseudonym The Invisible Committee. Yet it is not the anticipated interruption through people’s sabotage, but the unprecedented sabotage of the capitalist system by a virus gone wild. Suddenly we were all actually free for a moment, no longer needing to go to work, and juggle our daily lives between parenting, business meetings, doing sports, working late night shifts to meet a deadline, hastily going for a coffee with a friend in between, and so on. Our lives were indeed interrupted. Put on pause. And, I would argue, that the interruption as such, substracting the fear about the invisible virus, as well as the panic to become unemployed, etc., needs be seen as a potential opening: The shutdown has been showing us the lunacy and un-sustainability of our live-styles.

It is only for the dominant economic model, and its different local peculiarities (with Austria, for example, being highly dependent on mass-tourism, or a significant part of the industry being dependent on the German automotive industry), that the virus indeed represents a nightmare. A nightmare, that some want to forget as soon as possible and repress its apparent symptoms. It seems that despite the many voices calling for a radical change now, mainstream’s teleology is to not only going back to business as usual, but to utilize the crisis to correct aspects that they have not been content with.

The first glimpses of such a pandemic, or post-pandemic, regime could be caught already during lockdown, when politicians would refer to ‘experts’ advising them. Not only were these experts (and I speak about Austria here) pre-dominantly male, above 60 years old, and with a background in conservative catholic circles. But as we know now, the advice given differed significantly from what the actual policy had been. Finally, if one expert would critically address in public the actions taken, he would immediately get sacked. It is, as well, striking how all the rhetoric, the actual policy during the lockdown, and particularly since the gradual opening (here in Austria) prefers a prevalent conservative, heteronormative world-view and favors big old industry as well as the rich, following their menace that society and their economy won’t survive without them, over alternative approaches. A long-needed financial transaction tax, or generally taxing the very rich, remains unimaginable. Emancipatory achievements seem to get reversed, not explicitly, though, but implicit in all the measures being taken.

The German and Austrian government’s bail-out of Lufthansa (and Austrian Airline) is just one tiny example. Only a few days after the deal was set (without any significant terms for climate protection, nor an active role of the respective governments in the business) Lufthansa announced that it will need to cut its workforce by 20%. Another example comes from the building industry, or the publicly funded housing project I am currently designing. After being stopped for over five weeks, I should make up time that we have lost. Any proposal, no matter how sound it is, changing the initial mix of layouts in order to produce more, larger flats, or more spacious collective spaces, and any attempt to use alternative, more sustainable materials than concrete has been wiped away with the argument of costs, literally cementing a dubious status-quo.

Still, I think it is important to think of the pandemic as a wonderful dream that showed us that life is not ending when we pause for a second. It is a nightmare for the dominant economic system and its protagonists. And the more these protagonists repress their fears and symptoms, the harder they will come back. We just should not let the nightmare of others become ours.

  • published in: Volume Magazine #X, 10/2020