Covid-19 has turned our lives inside-out, upside-down. It has put capitalism in suspended animation. It destroyed lives. It caused a new tsunami of poverty, demonstrated the deep class and race divides as some of us are privileged enough to be in isolation while an army of people out there labour for a pittance and at risk of infection to cater to our needs.
But, as always, there are silver linings.
The planet is breathing more easily, now that we – humans – emit fewer poisonous gases.
Everyone has recognised, after decades of neoliberal sermons, that government is, and ought to be, instrumental in safeguarding our lives – and our capacity to reproduce our lives
Politics has become more real, more interesting, liberated for the first time from the media’s portrayal of the political game as sport in which teams, or parties, are scoring points against each other in search of winning the electoral championship. Now, under lockdown, and with governments flexing gigantic muscles that had atrophied for so long, the truth about politics emerges: It is about Who has the Right to tell Whom What to Do. Who Does What To Whom. That’s what politics always was. At least now we can all see this clearly, courtesy of a mindless virus.
But all these silver linings will mean nothing unless progressives do this time what bankers and racists did after the last capitalist implosion, back in 2008: Cooperate transnationally and effectively. Will we allow the masters of finance and the Nationalist International to emerge from lockdown triumphant once the epidemic recedes? Or will we succeed, this time, and against the odds, to change the world – as opposed to keep interpreting it?
Before we can even begin to coordinate so as not to let this terrible crisis go to waste, we need a vision of how we would like the world to be. The oligarchs, the beneficiaries of our current irrational system, they don’t need such a vision: they merely want to freeze things as they are, to ensure that nothing changes, that the status quo is preserved for their benefit – even if this means the end of the world.
So, what is our vision? What realistic utopia should we work towards so as to avert the dystopia awaiting if we fail?
This question has been puzzling me for a while, well before the pandemic. Danae Stratou, my partner in life, has been egging me on ever since we met to write up my vision for a post-capitalist, rational, humanist world. The truth is that I didn’t know where to begin. I made excellent excuses: That no human brain is large enough, has the processing power or the information to imagine an alternative world. That it is History which creates new modes of production and distribution – not the imagination of some feeble human mind.
Nevertheless, I must admit that, deep down, I knew that these were just excuses. The real reason why I did not attempt to put on paper a realistic vision for another society, for another now, was that it was too hard – too daunting.
Then, something changed. A couple of years ago my book ‘Talking to My Daughter About the Economy’ was published. It tried to convey to folks young and old how I understood life under contemporary capitalism. The book did well. Of all the reviews one hit a nerve. It was scripted by Ireland’s Finance Minister – a gentleman with whom we have huge ideological, analytical and political differences. His review was incredibly generous in that he endorsed, amongst other aspects of the book, my description of how money and banking works. His criticism, however, was even more useful to me. In effect he said: OK Mr Varoufakis, let’s agree that capitalism is problematic. What’s the alternative? And if there is one, are we not running a huge risk that, like in the past, the attempt to build a post-capitalist utopia will lead to something far, far worse?
The Irish finance minister’s question was what I needed as a jolt before deciding that Danae had been right all along: Analysing our capitalist now and agitating against it is not enough. Without a vision of a realistic other now we are either impotent or dangerous – in the sense that we may create a new social order that is worse than what we have.
And so, replying to my publisher’s urgent question “What will your next book be?”, I answered that I wanted to have a crack at penning a vision of a realistic utopia. But, because I just couldn’t sit down and write a blueprint of a world that does not exist, I planned to use the medium of political science fiction – a novel-like narrative in which three characters discover, accidentally, another now.
The idea was that the timeline bifurcated in 2008, due to the severity of that crisis. We live in one of the two trajectories – the one in which financialised capitalism reinforced itself courtesy of the 2009 bailouts. But, to the astonishment of my characters, they accidentally discover, in 2025, that there is another trajectory, another now. That other now also began with the Crash of 2008 but, however, evolved very differently. In effect, by 2013, in the other now, capitalism died and was replaced by a very different economic and political system. A system that my characters, and of course the readers, find out about by conversing with themselves as they evolved in that other now.
Why am I telling you all this? Because Covid-19 caught up with me as I was finishing the first draft of the book. With 7 out of 9 chapters completed, Danae and I found ourselves – like most of you – isolated in our home, in something that feels very much like, yes, Another Now. Not a post-capitalist other now but a strange another now in which capitalism is suspended, the difference from my unfinished book’s Another Now being that, today, here, while we are in lockdown, yes, capitalism is suspended but, no, an alternative to capitalism is still as unimaginable as it has been since 1991.
So, when I had to choose a title for my Monday night DiEM-TV chat program, I could not resist branding it… Another Now. My critics will say that I am doing this to advertise my next book. I can’t help that. What I can tell you is that I just could not think of a better title for this hour-long program – one that captures how this now feels as well as our duty to imagine its alternative after Covid-19 dies out.
Enough of this, however. It is now time to introduce you to tonight’s guest.
Johann Hari is a columnist with the Guardian, an author and an influential public speaker. I have been reading his splendid columns for years and have learned much from them, as well as from two books of his:
His 2015 book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs”
And, more recently, a pivotal book: “Lost Connections – Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions”
If you have not read this book, you should. And if you need persuasion, look up and watch his TED talk on the causes of depression and anxiety.
So, without further ado, good evening Johann. Welcome and greetings from the island of Aegina, just off the coast of Attika. I believe you are in London working as hard as ever in your flat…
CONTINUE WATCHING MY DISCUSSION WITH JOHANN IN THE VIDEO ABOVE