Thursday 9 April 2020

On exponentials and the return to normality

I have avoided saying anything about the Covid-19 crisis in my capacity as an anthropologist, because I think that anthropology is an empirical discipline, and if we have anything worth saying about the world it should be based on fieldwork, not some smart theoretical exercise. I was supposed to be on fieldwork now about the search for stability and a normal life among Egyptian migrant workers, but I had to cancel my fieldwork with migrant workers in the Gulf because of the pandemic. I would be there now, but instead, I’m gardening and writing up work based on past research that is not related to epidemics. But now messages keep coming from friends here and there and they add up to something I would like to tell.

A friend working in the customer service of a big company is in Dubai tells that everybody’s contracts are cancelled, no new contracts have been given, and nobody can leave. Everybody is waiting to see if after the end of the travel restrictions they will be deported or given their job back. Another friend works in a shop selling luxury products in a mall. The shop is closed and he is out of work and salary, has to pay for expensive Gulf rent and food but has no income, would return to Egypt but can’t because there are no flights. Yet another was in Kuwait looking for a job, the company that offered him a job had problems and he had already been waiting without salary for months. So he is already in debt, and he will be deported to Egypt, where he will have to pay himself the fees of obligatory quarantine. Other people I know in Italy are now not securing sports events because they are not taking place, and not selling flowers because the shops are not open. And no work means no salary. Migrant workers often have less or no access to unemployment benefits, they are already extremely frugal so they can’t really cut their spending anymore, and entire families depend on their incomes. Many would like to return to their homelands under these circumstances if they could, but they can’t.

Others, among them many academics, and among them myself, have a privileged experience of shutdown and lockdown. We can work from home, the salary arrives every month, and it’s a comfortable position from which to criticise consumerism and capitalism, and to imagine socialist and ecological post-Corona alternatives in which everybody consumes a bit less and we are more focussed on essential things. Now that even hardcore neoliberal governments are doing Keynesian anti-cyclical policies of large-scale debt-based public spending, it looks like all kind of radical changes could be possible in the future.

Here comes the bad news I have to bring. For my friends in the Gulf and Italy and all the other migrant workers who are out of work and facing the threat of deportation at the moment, it is imperative that affluent people start spending on stuff they don’t urgently need. They need to buy outrageously expensive perfumes and fancy flowers and fly around the world and buy overprized tickets to sport events so that the poor folks at the bottom end of the machinery get their jobs and and salaries again. (And in the process, because this is capitalism, some other people will again get richer who really don’t need any more money than they already have.) We all need to contribute to a growth of the economy again so that there is enough tax income to serve the debts that are currently taken to soften the economic standstill caused by Corona, and that will cause major pressure on public budgets for years to come. Something that critics of consumption tend to forget is that the most likely and easily available alternative to migrant and other workers being paid bad salaries under exploitative conditions, is that they are out of jobs.The more sympathetic alternative, which is better salaries and humane working conditions, takes time and struggles and effective labour movements and at least somewhat democratic politics in order to be realised. And most importantly, it also requires economic growth.

So no return to normality without growth, and no increase of justice without growth. And that is the really bad news. Because if the Corona crisis has done one good thing, it has hopefully taught some among the general public what exponential functions are. Here in Germany at least, the serious media are all busy explaining doubling rates and the difference between exponential (steeply accelerating curve, like in 1, 2, 4, 8, 16...) and arithmetic (steady increase like in 1,2, 3, 4, 5..) curves.

When I was a kid my father taught me chess. I never became a good player of chess, but as a little extra my father also taught me exponentials. He told the story of the man who, so the legend goes, presented the game of chess to a sultan in India. The ruler was impressed by the simple yet complex game, and offered to pay the inventor whatever he wants. The inventor asked to receive a grain of rice on the first square of the chess board, two grains on the next, four on the next, and so on, doubling the amount for each square. The Sultan though that he woud be getting away with a bag of rice and granted the wish, only to afterwards realise that even if he sold his whole realm he still couldn’t deliver. The amount of rice grains on the 64th square is greater than all the rice in the world.

The gist of it is that if you have an exponential curve, it means that the situation is out of control.

This is how our economy works. It provides the constantly increasing surplus that keeps migrant workers earning modestly, allows some few to become extravagantly rich and richer, and allows academics like me to live from the surplus in order to think and teach critical ideas. There is no stability. When things slow down, like they do now, it’s a crisis, and the livelihood and even survival of poorer people is at risk. When things accelerate again, we say that the economy has recovered, or even more paradoxically, that it has stabilised and that normality has returned. Both our capitalist consumerist way of living, as well as the socialist and other alternatives that some of us propose and imagine (and which I do sympathise with), need growth. We can imagine de-growth for the wealthy section of our societies who, like me, already have more than we need. We can share, and we should share. It is imperative that we share. But even if we share, there is no known form of degrowth (or at least none that I know of) that would not result in the perfume store and customer service workers in Dubai, and the security guard and florist in Rome going unemployed and hungry, their children sick and uneducated. Without the consumption and investments by others that pay for their salaries, they would be back to their villages trying to live from subsistence farming, and because the population is so much greater than it was in the days when subsistence farming was viable, they would go hungry and millions would die. (Oh yes, and universal basic income also requires growth to finance it, a lot of it in fact.)

The current concern with the virus has somewhat deflected attention from another, much greater disaster that is going on at the same time, slower but far more dangerous. In parts of northern Europe, last winter was the warmest ever recorded. In eastern Germany, where I’m staying in comforrtable rural self-isolation right now, this spring is extremely dry, following two already extremely dry summers. A forest fire warning is in force for the state of Brandenburg, which would not be unusual in July, but in April it is. In my lifetime, which in terms of climate and ecosystems is an extremely short time, the climate has changed noticeably, and the change is accelerating. This is going to kill a lot more beings - humans and other species alike - than any single virus can. And for our economies to recover from the Corona crisis, for poor people to have food on their table again, we have to get back to work and speed up the ecological disaster.

Some scholars call the situation we are in “the anthroposcene”, the geological era marked by humans. It may turn out to be too short to be a geological era, however. If we translate what we consider normality and a stable economy into a curve, it looks quite a lot like that of a pandemic out of control.

As a collective, we are not acting so differently from a virus, and I do not know how to help it. It is common that people want to believe in the more hopeful scenario, because they feel better about it. That socialism and degrowth will fix it. That capitalism will fix itself. That technology will fix it. That there is no problem. Maybe a combination of the first three will work, and it is important to recognise the many efforts that are being taken by various people around the world at the moment. But I prefer to believe in the more troubling version until it’s proven wrong: That we don’t know how to fix it, because the processes that allow us to make our and others’ lives better on the short term, are the same ones that will destroy us and lots of other species on the long term, and we genuinely don’t know what to do about it.

Warnitz (Uckermark), 9 April 2020