Should We Return to “Normal”?
What is the “normal life” politicians refer to when they mark the current crisis as a state of abnormality? Andrew Littlejohn raises the important question of whether we should want to return to our previous “normalcy”, or whether perhaps this normative order itself is deeply destructive.
On March 16, the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, gave a rare televised address to the nation regarding COVID-19. Against a growing chorus of international criticism, he reassured his more than 7 million viewers that the government was taking “sensible” and “necessary” steps to protect the lives of citizens. It was also doing everything in its power to ensure they would not lose their jobs due to these steps. “We cannot and will not ignore the economic impact of this crisis,” he said. But mitigating this impact, he continued, required “striking the right balance between taking measures that are needed and allowing normal life to continue as much as possible.”
In this speech, Rutte models a dichotomy common in COVID-19 coverage. He distinguishes between “normal,” pre-coronavirus life and a new abnormality characterizing our current state of “crisis.” Listening to his words, I recalled another political speech. In 2009, while giving his inaugural address in Washington, DC, Barack Obama told the gathered crowds “we are in the midst of a crisis.” These words form the starting point of anthropologist Janet Roitman’s penetrating analysis of crisis rhetoric, Anti-Crisis: a book written in response to the financial downturn, beginning in 2007, that formed the background to Obama’s speech. Narrators invoke “crises,” she writes, to mark out supposed “turning points”: historical events whose criticality emerges through their deviating from prior normalcy. Witness, again, Obama. The question, he said, dismissing leftist critiques, was not “whether the market is a force for good or ill.” Rather, “this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control”—that is, deviate from its normal and proper functioning, taking us with it.
We’ve seen many accounts in recent days locating responsibility for coronavirus in errors of governance. Just as poorly-regulated rogue trading supposedly caused the financial crisis, commentators often point to “unregulated” animal markets in China or errors of judgement by Western health authorities. These accounts are not unjustified. Roitman, however, argues they neglect, even obfuscate, the problems with “normalcy” itself. As Luke McDonaugh writes in an insightful review of Anti-Crisis, “it is not correct to view the ‘crisis’ in 2007-08 as being caused by abnormal ‘errors’ of judgment by policy makers, or by the inherent ‘corruption’ of bankers; rather, the crisis was caused by changes to the construction of the financial system—such as the availability of high-leverage debt ratios—which in the previous three decades had become thoroughly ‘normalised’. In fact, many of these aspects of the system remain ‘normal’ in the post-crisis world of finance today.”
Is our “normalcy” killing us?
Some of the best coverage of COVID-19, similarly, directs our attention to how the current “crisis” relates to “normal” ways of operating. How our ongoing destruction of biodiversity through logging, mining, and ranching—which produce the wood, minerals, and meat composing our “normalcy”—enables new viruses to species jump. How invisible infrastructures of persuasion structuring our political economies produce a politics unable to cope with coronavirus. How many companies may go bankrupt due to a debt bubble inflated by low interest rates following 2007-8—making current events not separate from, but a continuation of the last financial “crisis.”
If such accounts are correct, then as another anthropologist, Steve Caton, argued more than two decades ago, “we have to rethink our notion of the event. It isn’t a periodic or a cyclic phenomenon which appears in a moment of disruption, only then to be reabsorbed by the normative order; it is in a sense always already there, though under the surface or in the background, and then appears spectacularly for a while.” As the death toll continues to mount—deaths that, due to restrictions on gatherings, we often cannot even mourn normally—the desire for a return to normative order is understandable. But in conclusion, the idea that COVID-19 could be a symptom of trends cited above, and others, raises an uncomfortable question. What if that “normalcy,” itself, is also what is killing us?