A virus named because it is shaped like a crown is painting the starkest picture in generations of how power operates now and how it might be different. Are we bold enough to follow where it’s pointing us?
So tiny we can’t see it without a microscope, yet it’s bringing the behemoth of the global economy to its knees. The invisible crown, inherited from our wild cousins thanks to our careless ecocide, is dragging down massive corporations, shuttering streets, and turning countless lives upside down.
Governments struggling to retain control are responding with a seemingly contradictory tangle of authoritarian over-policing, the biggest boost to social security since post-war reconstruction, and favours to fossil fuels, taking expert advice on the pandemic and continuing to ignore it on ecological destruction.
There are similar contradictions at the social grassroots. After the failure of governments during the bushfire crisis led community groups to fill the void, there’s been an extraordinary flowering of mutual aid in response to the virus. Neighbours are self-organising to support each other, finding their own collective power to determine their common future, and not waiting for governments. But we’ve also seen a tremendous resurgence of trust in government, as well as not just compliance with authority but a desire for stronger leadership.
It’s almost painfully poetic that, at this moment, a man named Neville Power rides into the story. A fossil fuel executive, Power takes a phone call from the Prime Minister, who offers him half a million dollars to chair the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission, the opportunity to shape post-pandemic industrial policy.
And, in one of the most flagrant displays of overt power in living memory, Power and his gas industry colleagues seize that opportunity with both hands, recommending that government pour billions effectively into their coffers with no regard to the consequences for the broader economy, the community at large or the climate, immediately getting their way, and thumbing their noses at scrutiny.
We’re not used to seeing this kind of naked power in Australia. Usually the entanglement of ecologically and socially destructive industries with politics is cloaked in a few layers of decency. The fact that the Emperor is now strutting about starkers demands we think about what’s going on with power in a time of pandemic.
Part of our problem is that we’ve been taught to understand power, like everything else in our post-Enlightenment, late capitalist world, in a linear, hierarchical, zero-sum, transactional way. Those of us working for change for the better have been inculcated with the idea that we have to fight the actions of those in power on their terms. We organise and mobilise in order to demand a different set of actions, or sometimes a different set of people, operating within the same system of power.
But power, in reality, is complex. Like everything else in our ecological world, it operates at many levels, in different ways, intersecting and interwoven, sometimes reinforcing each other and sometimes in cross-currents. Real power lies in the structures of the system. It’s at the level of those structures that we have to struggle. And it’s that level which the coronavirus pandemic has exposed.
One of the most important theorists in this space, Antonio Gramsci, developed the idea of hegemony—dominant power which is difficult or impossible to even question—as a combination of institutional power and cultural power. The control of institutions—parliaments, executive government, media, economic clout—exists in interplay with control of the common sense—shared understandings of how the world should be. If those who hold the institutional reins begin to lose control of the world-shaping narratives, the whole edifice can come tumbling down.
In the 21st century, we might add another layer: an extra-human layer of ecological power. When human powers butt up against ecological limits, both cultural and institutional power begin to crumble.
That’s where we are now.
Ecological reality is making itself felt, with fires, floods and plagues. The common sense of capitalism—that the invisible hand of the market will take care of things if we all follow our own self-interest; that eternal growth on a finite planet is possible; that we are separate from and superior to the natural world; that we are all individuals and there is no such thing as society—is collapsing in the face of that reality. Those whose power depends on that common sense are clinging to their institutional power as hard as they can, while also scrambling to adapt to the new common sense. Hence the seemingly contradictory responses of government.
This is what Gramsci describes as the interregnum—when the old world is dying and the new struggling to be born. It’s a time of uncertainty, filled with tremendous opportunity and risk. For most of our lives, the different streams of power have been mostly flowing in the same direction. Now the cross-currents open up new possibilities, but are also making us dizzy.
Hence, progressives can look at JobKeeper and feel like we’re winning, then turn to the gas-led recovery and know we’re losing; see Neville Power and consider democracy lost, and swivel to mutual aid and realise it’s being reborn.
We’re not winning or losing yet. It’s far too early to tell. But once common sense starts to change, it’s nearly impossible to snap back to how it was.
Apart from destroying the idea that uncontrolled markets work for the common good, the pandemic has also smashed the idea of human disconnection: from each other and the natural world. The fact that our lives are intimately intertwined with everyone else’s has never in modern history been so clear. Coronavirus reveals that our health is only as good as the health, and the behaviour, of all those around us. It teaches us that, far from atomised individuals in permanent competition, we are a social species, craving contact and cooperation. Our agency and liberty only make sense in relation to everyone else’s. It shows us that policy responses are inextricably intertwined and irreducibly complex.
And it exposes the abuse of power by the fossil fools for the omnicidal lunacy it genuinely is.
Similarly, well before the pandemic, people around the world were ready to reshape institutional power. The old ways were bursting at the seams. From the anti-capitalist Occupy movement to the pro-Brexit rallying cry of ‘Take Back Control’, from the rise of the populist right to the demands for citizens’ assemblies, people craving agency, craving the capacity to play a real role in determining their own future, were making themselves heard. It’s no wonder that, when Coronavirus appeared, the growth of mutual aid was so stunning.
It’s here that the true potential realignment of power lies. There is a real risk that the current chaos could lead to the collapse of democratic norms and the complete capture of the state for private profit, leading to mass extinction is short order. But at the same time, there is a tremendous opportunity to be found in the shifting of common sense towards connection and interdependence, and the cultivation of new democratic institutions from the grassroots up. And that points the way to what those of us working to confront the climate crisis, inequality, rising hate, and the attacks on democracy, should do next.
As our lives start to open up again, we should put our effort into projects and policy interventions which both help to embed that new common sense and also actively cultivate new, widely distributed power. Mutual aid groups provide one ideal focus for this work. These self-organised community groups can be the basis for local, decentralised democratic and practical projects from local food to community housing, shared transport and energy microgrids. The projects generate social cohesion, reduce environmental impacts, and become, over time, new spaces of collective power beyond both market and state. With so many businesses going under, there’s also space to rebuild with cooperatives, where the workers and customers collectively make decisions that are in their community’s interest rather than in the pursuit of profit. These grassroots initiatives open space in the political conversation for programs like universal housing, a shorter working week, universal basic income and mass job creation to flourish.
The structures of power which have led us to where we are—a troubled, deeply unequal society on the brink of ecological collapse—are weaker right now than they’ve been in generations. For those of us struggling for change, it would be a mistake that could set us back many more years to continue to seek that change primarily by asking governments to deliver it.
The evidence is clear that they simply won’t do what’s necessary. And, by turning to them, we’re actively buttressing their collapsing power and abdicating our own.
The crown-shaped virus has given us the opportunity to reshape power, to hammer the pyramid flat. It’s time we recognised our own collective power, and used it to build the world we so desperately need.
Tim Hollo is Executive Director of the Green Institute and a Visiting Fellow at RegNet, the Australian National University’s School of Regulation and Global Governance.