Opening new horizons of what is possible has always been a crucial for social movements. While the leading actors assert the idea that “there is no alternative” to their world order, social movements challenge them claiming that “another world is possible”. They introduce dissents, debates and reflections into a world order that some have taken for granted, contributing to social change and to the ability of a society to transform itself, “to recreate itself” more conscientiously, as sociologist Alain Touraine would say.
This role is even more important in times of crisis. Crises break up routines and “business as usual”. They provide opportunities to reflect individually and collectively on our values and aims. The COVID-19 pandemic has deeply shaken our daily lives and many of the “certainties” of our geopolitical, economic and social system. The pandemic has shaken economic dogma that has ruled the world for decades. Forced us to implement a lockdown to limit the spread of virus, governments have framed the “return to normality” as struggle of “national unity” that gather policymakers, corporations, workers and the whole population in a common struggle against the COVID-19. Activists insist that what is presented as “normality” is not the only way and is actually part of the problem. “Nothing could be worse than a return to normality” claims Indian activist Arundhati Roy.
The main concerns and demands that have mobilized progressive activists and citizens in recent years have become even more important, visible and urgent during the crisis: less corruption and less power for the elite, more democracy, social justice and dignity. Many intellectuals and activists share a similar conviction: the pandemic has revealed the limits of the corporate capitalist system and the damage it has caused over the past decade through austerity policies in particular. They stress the need for a model that places more importance on people’s livelihoods, on addressing social inequalities, and on stronger public health systems.
In the heat of the pandemic, progressive movements have had some success in spreading some arguments far beyond the activist circles, at least in Western European democracies. After years of austerity in public services, governments are spending lavishly to mitigate the effects of the pandemic and of the economic crisis. State interventionism in the economic sector is rising, and several governments have argued for a re-localisation of the production of “essential goods”. Those who promoted budget cuts in public hospitals now take part in the clapping to support nurses and medical doctors. Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson have all said they consider the welfare state and public hospitals as crucial features of their country’s national identity.
Until early March, French President Emmanuelle Macron implemented austerity plans in public hospitals and refused to meet the demands of nurses and doctors who held the longest medical strike in France’s history. His ambitious “reform plan” aimed to decrease state intervention in the economy and limit spending in the public service sectors. By mid-March 2020, he considered nurses and doctors as national heroes. The State increased the hospitals' budget during the crisis, and the President swore that there would be major changes in public policy, explaining that "the day after the pandemic will not be the same as the day before".A fervent defender of free trade, the president now talks about “economic sovereignty”, provides massive loans to key “national corporations” and has even considered nationalisation. The pandemic may even succeed where one of the longest general strikes in French history has failed in getting rid of the neoliberal pension reform.
Lessons from the global financial crisis
This change of position echoes statements made by another French neoliberal president 12 years ago, during the global financial crisis. On October 23rd, 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy declared that “the ideology of the dictatorship of the market and public powerlessness has died with the financial crisis”. Anti-globalization activists could not have said it better. During the 2008 European Social Forum they celebrated the fact that "the [financial] crisis has proved us right. Now governments must take into account our proposals and stop their neoliberal policies".
No matter how large it is, a crisis in itself will not generate social change
We know what happened afterwards. A few years after the crisis, the dominant narrative put the burden of the economic crisis on European welfare states, paving the way to austerity policies across the continent. It led to a decade of social crisis and increased inequalities that lay the groundwork for historic rise of right-wing populists. In most European countries, austerity policies targeted public services and the public health sector, limiting its efficiency to cope with today’s pandemic.
Three lessons could be drawn from the aftermaths of the global financial crisis when it comes to social change.
The first one is that, no matter how large it is, a crisis in itself will not generate social change. The latter depends on the capacity of social actors to highlight the questions that appear because of the situation and to advance alternative political visions and economic rationality.
Social actors play a major role in raising public awareness, proposing an alternative political and economic rationality, and pushing towards the implementation of different policies and behaviours. There is no pre-determined way to get out of the pandemic. Social agency during the crisis and in its aftermath may thus have significant impacts on society, economics and politics.
A second lesson is that good arguments and facts are not sufficient to shape the outcomes of the crisis. Sociologist of science Raymond Boudon demonstrated that the ‘truth’ of economic theories has more to do with their capacity to forge a provisional consensus than with their always highly debatable scientific validity.
Likewise, the events of the coronavirus pandemic are series of facts that no one can deny but the social reality of these facts are re-interpreted very differently by social actors. It is often encapsulated in a broader narrative in a way that strengthens previous convictions and worldview. Facts and sciences are not shared references anymore but subject to reinterpretations by ideologies and populist leaders who mistrust science. Habermas’ trust in a deliberative public space and an argumentative democracy is challenged at a time of a very fragmented public space, social media, fake news and populist leaders.
As a consequence, and as the third lesson, the battle over the meaning of the crisis is crucial. The actors who will shape the dominant narrative of the crisis may shape the policies to tackle the pandemic but also lay the ground for new policies in economic, social and democratic matters. As leading Latin American scholar-activist Arturo Escobar put it, “it is crucial at this stage to have narratives about other ways of lives, and to have them ready”.
Civil society organizations and networks of movements counterbalance the message of national unity from governments. Different popular or progressive movements frames the pandemic in its own narratives. Some show the pandemic from different standpoints, for example from the favelas in Brazil . Others develop gendered and intersectional perspectives on the pandemic, showing that women and minorities particularly suffer from the lockdown and cope with most of the crucial task of caring in families, communities and public hospitals. Women from minorities, bear a heavyweight in this health and social crisis and struggle to see their contribution recognize during and after the pandemic. All over the world, progressive intellectuals link the pandemic to the ravages of capitalism (“Capitalism is the virus” has become a trending slogan on social media) and with the ecological crisis.
Latin American progressive movements and intellectuals frame the crisis in their metanarrative that has surged from the confluence of indigenous, feminist, ecological and social justice movements over the last decade: “the crisis reveals the deep social, political and ecological crises we are in. Behind the health crisis, it is a crisis of civilization”.
Movements and counter-movements
Progressive movements are however not alone in this battle to shape the meaning of the COVID-19 crisis. They confront two kinds of “counter-movements”: the global capitalist elites and the reactionary movements.
The years following the financial crisis demonstrated the ability of the defenders of global capitalism to impose their narrative and the meaning of the crisis. Within a few years, they managed to shift the meaning of the crisis and focus of policy’s that paved the way for a decade of austerity policies.
Today, the actors who seem best able to take advantage of the opportunities opened up by the crisis and the breakdown of economic dogmas may be on the same side. In many countries, stimulus packages have channelled considerable amounts of public money to large companies. In the United States, the first coronavirus plan gave them $500 billion, five times more than public hospitals.
While activists claimed the crisis should be an opportunity to build a different economic model and reduce greenhouse gas emission, oil companies received their share of public money to cope with the crisis and governments set up massive bailouts and loans for the airlines. In a global capitalist logic, countries and companies also see the crisis as an opportunity to win new markets, and those willing to compete will have significant advantages.
Reactionary movements also draw on the pandemic. Racism has surged in all regions of the world, against migrant workers in India or China, against Asian-American in the US, against minorities and poor people accused of spreading the pandemic, and all over the world against refugees. The UN Secretary-General warned of a "tsunami of hatred and xenophobia, scapegoating and scaremongering" unleashed by the pandemic. “As speculation swirled about where the virus originated, Guterres said migrants and refugees have been vilified as a source of the virus and then denied access to medical treatment. And journalists, whistle-blowers, health professionals, aid workers and human rights defenders are being targeted simply for doing their jobs.”
The Covid-19 pandemic is a battleground for alternative futures
Social movements are not the only actors striving to shape the meaning of the current crisis. The Nation-States have portrayed themselves as the key players in the pandemic. Governments are scrambling to sustain their legitimacy and defend the way they have been dealing with the crisis. They massively invest the battlefield over the meaning of the crisis to impose their own narrative and advertise their management of the pandemic. China’s Communist Party carefully monitors its image as an efficient government to deal with the crisis and control the pandemic and arrest anyone who dared to challenge this narrative or criticise the crisis management by Xi Jinping. In Hungary, the freedom of speech has come under further threat by coronavirus “emergency measures” that allows prime minister Orban to rule by decrees and threatens authors of “false information” with up to five years in prison. In Brasilia as in Washington, populist leaders defend a clear and a strong world vision that seems able to reinterpret any social fact, even when their failure to act early and swiftly to tackle the pandemic has resulted in dozens of thousands of additional victims. This power game to shape the narrative is not exclusive to authoritarian states and populist leaders. The French government is particularly vigilant about public discourses on its crisis management. On April 26th , woman spent four hours in police custody for hanging a banner "Macronavirus ” at her house. Mediapart reported a series of police interventions in five cities across the country to intimidate citizens who hung banners that criticize the president.
Many governments sought to hide their failures to manage the pandemic during its initial phase by blaming the spread of the virus on citizens who did not comply with the rules of lockdown. In terms of biopolitics and social control, democratic regimes sometimes adopted measures that challenged the rule of law. The policies adopted during the pandemic could pave the way for a new, more authoritarian era, with biopolitics based on new technologies and artificial intelligence and increased control of citizens by the police.
A fragmented battlefield
The battle over the societal meaning of the pandemic crisis is taking place all over the world. However, it is a highly fragmented debate. for expression and the dissemination of opinions, information and interpretations of the crisis. However, they fragment public space. Each political orientation floods its followers with news and analysis that strengthens their view of the world. The mass media, and in particular television channels and newspapers (now through their websites) continue to be major players in the "consensus factory" and the elaboration of opinions. In most countries, the pandemic has decreased political conflicts, as the population have united against a common threat. But the opposite has happened in Brazil and the United States.The pandemic strengthened the polarization of society, as each pole interpreted it within the framework of their own world view.
Second, this battle over meanings is taking place on different bases in each country and world regions. The experience of the pandemic is very different in countries and neighbourhoods where a majority of workers depends on the informal economy compared to European countries with welfare states. Social movements and intellectuals in each region have interpreted the crisis in terms of the meta-narrative they built up during the previous years. For example, Latin American social movements have framed it in terms of the "crisis of civilization", a narrative that is less widespread in the Global North. International networks of social movements and activists aspire to overcome these divisions by promoting the exchange of experiences and analysis, opening up spaces for a "global dialogue for systemic change".
Third, the outbreak takes place in a tense geopolitical context that redefines diplomatic alliances and the relations between governments and their citizens. This comes with consequences for social movements. Liberal democracy is far from the only regime or a common horizon. Activists engage in this battle over meaning in very different circumstances and very different risks in authoritarian or liberal regimes. However, the COVID-19 arrived after a decade of increasing repression against protests and movements, both in authoritarian and liberal regimes.
Will social movements and activists succeed today where they failed a decade ago in the wake of the financial crisis? How humanity will emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic will depend on science and research to find a vaccine. It will also be the result of a struggle over the social, political and geopolitical implications of the pandemic and the worldviews that should emerge from it. There is no easy road that will us lead from the pandemic to a better, greener and less unequal world.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a battleground for alternative futures. Progressive, capitalist and reactionary movements are competing to impose their narratives and shape policies and society.
Meanwhile, governments urge a return to pre-pandemic "normality" and seek to spread their own narrative of the crisis. Interpretations of the crisis may seem like intellectual debates far removed from people's experience. What is at stake, however, is the opportunity to reshape the economy and society, which will undoubtedly have a considerable impact on the daily lives of millions of people and on the environmental crisis.