We Don’t Want a Post-Pandemic “Return to Normal,” We Want the End of Capitalism

In 2022, we limped out of the pandemic frying pan into the fire of resumed capitalist crises. Popular yearning to “get back to normal” is a desire for the good life — and making such a desire a reality will require fighting for socialism.

A member of a mobile vaccination team from the Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund (ASB) draws up a syringe containing BioNTech/Pfizer's BA.4/BA.5 vaccine against the Corona virus (SARS-CoV-2) at the vaccination center in Hanover Zoo in Hanover, Germany, on December 29, 2022. (Michael Matthey / picture alliance via Getty Images)

This was supposed to be the year of getting back to normal. By spring 2022, fully two years since the coronavirus pandemic had arrived, it was clear in North America — and much of the rest of the world — that our collective journey through the worst of it was coming to an end. We were more exhausted than the virus was, but we told ourselves what we needed to hear — that “normalcy” was returning — in order to “end” the pandemic.

In the spring, I wrote about the pitfalls that attended the ascendant politics of normality. Even in the first few months of the year, it seemed, we could see the political ambitions that had emerged alongside the pandemic receding far into the background. And so it was that those ambitions — for instance, a broad reconsideration of work and its value in light of “essential workers,” and a renewed hope for state capacity — were replaced by the most basic desires: shopping sans mask, say, or traveling without COVID tests, entry apps, or quarantines. In Canada, the “Freedom Convoy” of early 2022, which was later emulated in other countries, was arguably sustained in some measure by the fact that so many people were sympathetic with its ostensible goal of ending pandemic restrictions. Of course, the convoy was at its root a flare-up of political energy on the far right, but even so, that did not stop some 46 percent of Canadians from sympathizing with the aims of its participants.

The pandemic was a shock — it was without precedent in living memory and the precedents that did exist were poor comparators. (There were no smartphones or internet in 1918 — try to imagine COVID restrictions without those!) COVID’s apparent suddenness disguised its deeper causes. As scholars like the late Mike Davis have shown us, zoonotic pandemics have been a live threat for some time. This is largely because of the extent to which our collective relationship to the natural world has been deformed by more than two centuries of life under conditions of industrialized capitalism. In that sense, the window of opportunity for meaningful normality is, for now at least, as good as nonexistent. Ultimately, the only viable solution for a world in which people — and the natural world — flourish rather than merely survive is socialism.

Irreconcilable Norms

Even if we take 2019 as our reference point, our year of returned normality has surely been a disappointment. The key debates and developments of 2022 were decidedly abnormal — from the fate of neoliberalism to the return of war to Europe, from the politics of inflation to the energy crisis affecting much of the globe, and from US-China geopolitical rivalry to the continued and rightful ratcheting up of climate alarm. If this is what we mean by “normal,” we’d be better off with a different term.

The question of neoliberalism is a good place to start a balance sheet of the year that was. As we roll over into 2023, the intensity of this debate has fizzled a little, but certainly in the early part of the year, there was plenty of energy devoted to figuring out whether the pandemic rang the death knell for global neoliberalism, aged roughly forty. There were plenty of people writing obituaries; indeed, one got the sense that majority opinion was inclined to pronounce neoliberalism dead.

Still, the task of saying “not so fast” was dutifully taken up by skeptics. In the end, neither side is — or even can be — entirely correct. The debate deals in absolute pronouncements — or absolute headlines — that obscure nuance. But epochal political-economic forms do not disappear to be replaced whole cloth overnight. If neoliberalism is dying, it is also still very much alive, even if it is in poor health. We appear to be stuck in an unresolved interregnum.

While the war in Ukraine may have renewed geopolitical solidarity among NATO-aligned nations that condemn the invasion, that solidarity is not necessarily stabilizing. If neoliberalism benefited from the sense that there was “no alternative,” especially after the final collapse of twentieth-century communism, the division of global loyalties vis-à-vis Vladimir Putin’s invasion makes a singular geopolitical trajectory from here seem impossible. Should we be thinking instead about getting back to normals, plural? Narratives of “decoupling” and “deglobalization,” which have been heightened since the war began, may better describe the present global stage. But they also suggest an effort to prepare for an enduring state of affairs that isn’t recognizably normal.

The Chaos of Normal Under Capitalism

The pandemic introduced stunning state intervention in economic affairs, with many countries overseeing the obliteration of existing fiscal and monetary orthodoxies in order to provide the stimulus that sustained the pandemic economy. However, the end of that stimulus has given rise to economic intervention of other kinds, less stunning if no less abnormal. In late 2021, central banks decided, with what seemed to be very scant evidence, that inflation was not as “transitory” as they had presumed. They then began raising interest rates from the absolute floor to rates, now, of between 4 and 5 percent. The era of easy money is over.

The cost of energy, over the course of 2022, had much to do with the inflation that consumers experienced. To the extent that the year’s monetary policy action was on interest rates, those at the helm of fiscal policy switched from pandemic stimulus to efforts at keeping the cost of energy down for consumers. Success has been limited, and these policy efforts have been varied across the globe. It might be challenging, for instance, to convince someone in the UK with an energy bill for as much as eight times the usual amount that things are back to normal. The cascading crises of the pandemic era continue to pile on even as they mutate and change. The energy transition continues to pit the present against the future in a sometimes-impossible dilemma, as Germany, for example, found out the hard way this year.

Perhaps, the endurance of the interregnum is owed partly to uncertainty about which geopolitical powers would lead the world through its period of limbo. As the US-China rivalry has intensified over recent years, the contours of the global political economy have become more difficult to apprehend and predict. The end of Donald Trump’s administration and the trade wars it initiated was meant to reintroduce stability, but those trade wars have only morphed into Joe Biden’s “chip wars.” Most recently, the generational protests over China’s austere pandemic policy have seemed to threaten political stability in the Communist Party of China and thus further destabilize the global politics of superpower rivalry.

Seizing the Future

Finally, the crisis of crises — climate — continues apace. Among the bad climate news this year, there has been some good news — depending on how charitably you define “good news.” What is certain is that the task before us on the climate front continues to be immense. The magnitude of the problem dwarfs all the items listed above. Whether we address the climate crisis adequately or not, its present effects and presumed future intensification portend nothing but abnormality.

For anyone that bet big on returning to normal this year, the coming of 2023 is surely a marker of hopes dashed. But that is because “normal” is simply a naive stand-in for “good.” While the quotidian facts of daily life have normalized, they have done so alongside recurrent capitalist crises. The point, then, is that the bet on normality was wrongheaded in the first place, a vague hope floating on air rather than a demand based in reality. If there is a silver lining here, it may be that the future is yet to be made. The possibilities are not endless, but the interregnum is still to be seized.

We need a real ambition, but the ambition to return to normality within capitalism is surely no ambition at all. To be politically salient, the desire to return to “normal” has to be seen as an expression of desire for the good life — for us to escape hardship. “Normal” is used as shorthand because, whatever the miseries forced upon us by capitalist depredations, the memory of small day-to-day pleasures from pre-pandemic life contains hints of broader freedoms. Rather than yearning for normal, we should insist on the good by insisting on socialism.