The New Normal

A common refrain for developing post-coronavirus discourses is the idea of the “new normal”. This has become a mantra of both anti-authoritarian sceptics and conspiracy theorists who see the expansion and grounding of state power during the pandemic as indicative of an authoritarian turn as the surveillance state becomes ubiquitous. However, it has also become an epithet amongst the forces many in the former group see as constructing this post-COVID dystopia, particularly the WEF and their Great Reset project.

The idea of a new normal is of course nothing new. The banality of its cliché underlines that actual predictions of the new normal are usually just slogans for either desired or feared outcomes (many of which already exist at some level). The specific epidemiological response to COVID-19 was itself presaged by similar recommendations in the face of swine flu by Neil Ferguson[1] (including school closures and regional travel restrictions). And the continuing expansion of land use policies for agriculture and resource extraction has created predictable conditions for animal-to-human transmission[2]. Such responses and preconditions suggest not so much a new normal, but evolutionary developments endogenous to the pre-existing “normal” system. Even in the case of the expansion of state surveillance and tracking, this simply foregrounds what has already existed in the background for decades. The extent of metadata trawling and backdoors to private servers in the Snowden revelations shows a background surveillance infrastructure straddling the public-private divide. Vaccine passports and contact tracing are simply public-facing parts to this.

In contriving a new normal as negative, this harks back to an established normality that becomes fetishised. Changes in work patterns or social relations are seen as unnecessary or dangerous deviations from a pre-established situational field where things, while being far from perfect, were well understood. But this betrays a status quo bias that fails to recognise the inequities and failures of such a status quo, failures that helped lead toward the current pandemic. Crumbling healthcare infrastructure and limited time horizons (around emergency planning and contingency protocols) were as much a part of the norm as the so-called freedoms we are losing. This has been my criticism of Agamben’s neo-reactionary turn[3], as he longs for a past that will neatly link into a future where the state of exception is quelled by a sense of community solidarity. But the grounds of such a solidarity that is being destroyed by school closures, recreational activity curtailments and restrictions on movement have already happened, they are already part of the norm Agamben wants to preserve.

“More fundamentally, the phrase assumes there’s such a thing as normal in the first place—a sort of blanket status quo: parameters outside of which everything is a bit strange”[4]. The incongruity between the established norm and those outside of it is telling. Restrictions of movement were already ever-present in the refugee crisis, with the erection of border fences in Eastern Europe and the expansion of Italian security far out into the Mediterranean. That these have been turned in on the internal population is not a power grab – that power already existed but was externalised. Equally, the poverty of education outcomes across Western countries and the selling of recreational facilities and public commons, those that Agamben sees as an egregious outcome of COVID restrictions, were well-established issues that have been encouraged through austerity measures and the dispersal of governing powers across a number of unaccountable public and private systems, from private school networks with ambiguous funding obligations to inadequately funded social care services that are outsourced to firms like Serco.

This is not to say the increasing use of opaque state and police powers that restricts movement and limits our social lives should not be criticised or resisted (particularly where the public health benefit is incomprehensible, as in outdoor mask mandates or exercise limitations), but in criticising these things we should not reify the pre-existing status quo. The primary problem of a new normal as that it doesn’t critique modernity far enough, content to play around at the edges but leave much intact. The Great Reset, for all its sloganeering around building back better or owning nothing, is little more than a continuation of the property relations and regulatory regimes that have existed since the collapse of Bretton Woods. The inequity in capital or property ownership already means most people don’t own anything (in the strict capitalist sense), and reforms concerning stakeholdership and greater automation are part of trends that have existed since globalisation increased in the 80s and 90s. Global value chains are premised around these very concepts.

The new normal doesn’t appear much different to the status quo it succeeded. The emerging trends seem to at most exacerbate what Grove calls homogenisation or de-differentiation[5] by using new surveillance and control techniques to maintain limits on the acceptable forms of life. The state of exception coronavirus entails was always there in the background rather than emerging pre-manufactured from the crisis. In constructing a critique, it should focus on constructing new modernities concentrated on differentiation and experimentation, centrifugally moving away from a centralised structure toward transversal forms that can connect individuals and groups at multiple scales. This is the intersection of folk politics with transnational and international structures. The conspiratorial and limited nature of current anti-lockdown protests show little appreciation for the endemic future of coronavirus, instead presenting a pre-crisis world as an attainable goal. It neither answers the question the virus has raised nor presents an alternative to the foregrounding of authoritarian powers that remain. There is no way out of a crisis by going backward. We can only go through it.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neil_Ferguson_(epidemiologist)#Swine_flu_%E2%80%93_2009

[2] https://monthlyreview.org/2020/05/01/covid-19-and-circuits-of-capital/

[3] https://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers/

[4] https://www.forbes.com/sites/josiecox/2020/04/22/covid-19-corporate-cliche-why-we-need-to-stop-talking-about-the-new-normal/?sh=2e2276eb159e

[5] Victor Jairus Grove, Savage Ecology

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