Catching a glimpse of the American science fiction film Prospect, between the haze of Covid-19 news reports, the present situation transposed itself directly into it. The weird mismatched spacesuits around a campfire on a poisonous moon – a vision of how the Covid-19 shutdowns and later waves could look if they extended further into the future than currently expected. It paralleled the desperate provisional hodge-podge of homemade bin-liner PPE, 3D printed plastic visors and handmade cloth masks the government insisted would serve as substitutes in hospitals to keep the Coronavirus at bay.

I had originally intended to write about Poverty and Piety in an English Village to get a sense of the change of psychology that The Enclosures Acts brought and how we might return to the older spirit of England. I had wanted to also focus on the expansion and transformation of the commons into an influential role in 21st Century life. Envisaging constellations of new commons assisted by new digital platforms, and a further opening up of intellectual property in the sharing economy and the transformations of opportunity provided by 3D printing.

The Covid-19 pandemic requires a visionary capacity, as government shortcomings point to necessary transformations in the institutions of democracy. Beyond the Coronavirus are the still-unresolved structural problems of the 2008 financial crash and the turn towards right-wing politics, along with an expected post-Covid-19 crisis of acceleration of the market’s logic, A.I/machine learning, a social-media economy, big data and the automation of jobs.

As to the direction of the emerging politics – the sheer complexity of unfolding events is distracting. Vigilance is needed regarding policies, the misuse and squandering of volunteer efforts, civic organs and spontaneously banded private efforts. None of which have any of the political presence or authority that they should.

Politics now needs to evolve, the digital commons of the Zoom Parliament is just one example. While it will be interesting to see how campaigning platforms such as 38Degrees, the crowdfunded Good Law Project and online people’s assemblies, meetings, reading groups, and lectures will evolve to serve the needs of a new commons, I’m curious about Labour’s policy of continuous education and of the gestures by public thinkers to make books free to access. As well as the possibilities of Time Banking as a way of skill-swapping. In all this I am reminded of John Berger’s The Shape of A Pocket – “The small pocket of resistance formed when two or more people come together in agreement” – and the nature of projects of shared work creating commonality and points of connection.

It’s clear that this is the first time the world has been united in the face of one enemy. But various challenges ahead are only just crystallising and many are not yet obvious. There is the risk from far right populism if a new political consensus isn’t found. Economics Professor Richard D. Wolff on actdottv’s Youtube channel, points out that America’s present economy is built on 90-year-old policies – saying it’s time to rethink and renegotiate the social contract. He gives the example of depression-era politics: “In the Great Depression millions joined unions, and hundreds of thousands joined the two socialist parties and the Communist party to exert pressure on the political establishment. In the early 1930s the government established the social security system.”

I was stirred as I heard the neighbourhood light up with the Thursday evening Clap for the NHS. I was surprised by how alleviating the banging of metal pots was, a release from the intense focus of personal enclosure. As was the sudden appearance of a pleasant, previously unseen face of a neighbour across the road. Yet I was wary of the problem of using the NHS as a new rallying identity, with which to get everyone to forget the brutal austerity and underfunding of the NHS with vague Churchillian quotes in place of organisation.

We are used to the accelerationism of capitalist markets, as it places ever greater demands on work and personal lives. But what we see is in fact a slowness and how markets have impeded science. People quickly shared their own quick calculations and disbelief around the policy of herd immunity and then shared the model by Prof Neil Ferguson, director of the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial Collage. The University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation in early April gave an upper estimate of 62,500 deaths by August. The Labour leader Keir Starmer pointedly noted at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday 24 June 2020, that 65,000 deaths had been reached. [edit: today, 12 May 2021, the total UK Covid-19 deaths stands at 127k]

Why might the state lose further authority? The British public are more capable and more expert than ever before and could have actioned their own plans sooner. The government has yet to manifest the horizontality of a wartime economy. Unable even in these modern times to decentralise or crowdsource the best minds. While the spontaneous commons of the pandemic economy has seen many that have forgone credit and intellectual rights, working across national borders to get science done in just a few weeks that would have otherwise taken years.

This all points to a systemic cultural failure. The ubiquitous phrase ‘lessons must be learnt’, cannot be relied upon, if we know anything lessons are never learnt, such ‘lessons’ must be made into law, into procedure and practice and – memorialised into a ‘public image’. This is certainly a momentous shift in power that alters our public myths and images and laws.

In January I gave a lecture on how artists were understanding and representing the new politics and systemic failures that had led to and were emerging from the aftermath of the post-crunch, post-Trump, post-Brexit landscape, and how politicians and the media were failing to address the fall-out. Thinking of a post-Corona world I think again of George Shaw’s desolate empty streets that chart demolished industrial estates as locals attempt to assert nation and identity, seem to eerily foretell our present fate. Huma Bhabha’s alien life forms standing in for the horror of the foreigner. Lives untethered from meaning and gravity in Dexter Dalwood’s painting Laid Out inspired by a cabin window view on the Gilets Jaunes surrounding the The Arc de Triomphe in Paris now has the tint of the billionaires escaping the pandemic to their private islands. Frank Bowling’s transforming the conceived boundaries and ordering of countries now seem in their shift and slippage to be prophetic and hopeful. Tim Shaw’s linking of abstract forces of economy, terror, oil on the human body – literally mocking humanity – these forces, as if looking for something real, provoking the human figure until a point of resistance is found. Organisationally, artists are banding together; any artist-led project worth it's salt is on some level operating as a collective.

The pandemic did not happen in a vacuum, as organisational failures came out of a political culture. Holding to account the government and the market logic of corporations. For instance the government has taken to copying for-profit companies with their just-in-time supply chains rather than pay for stockpiles of PPE and warehouse storage. It was clear Cakeism (having your cake and eating it) was taking place, where the Prime Minister (Chief Spaffer) and cabinet were beholden to markets first and people a distant second.

This has been no Dunkirk moment where the nation turned to its small ships and trusted the professional offers from independent laboratories to carry out testing. This attitude of not trusting the small ship of civil society is pervasive. It comes from not knowing the commons, from having no practical experience of the range of talents on offer, from not knowing just how much things have moved on. But it also comes from a want of clutching onto power as an instinct. This psychology is repeated in the newspapers – frozen in a pre-internet, pre-credit crunch patrician world, and the public has shown its disinterest in being talked down to by turning away from them in droves.

Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek Minister of Finance, said in conversation with Brian Eno during an Intelligence Squared panel titled 'Money, Power and a Call to Radical Change':

The individual is defined in economics as a bundle of preferences seeking satisfaction... all these models are predicated on the assumption that the economy is founded on Robinson Crusoe and his clones, they have no relationship, except through the market mechanism, so buying and selling, there is no influence... You cannot not have money without a community, it’s like language without a community – remember what Wittgenstein used to say – there can be no such thing as a private language. Language is something we create together.

Yanis Varoufakis


The historian David Olusoga wrote in The Guardian, “The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue is not an attack on history. It is history”. Reflecting on George Floyd’s death the novelist and poet Ben Okri spoke to BBC News and wrote in The Guardian, that it had become a “...crossover protest on a universal scale.” Because everyone had been doing their bit by staying at home, a sense of ownership developed. “The pandemic itself is about the very issue of breathing. I think that helped to strike a chord in people.”, 'I can’t breathe' resonated with the constriction of social, political and economic life, the lack of room to breathe. s



  Giuseppe Marasco is an artist and art writer based in London.

   
giuseppemarasco.com
@giuseppemarasco

This is an edited version of a piece Giuseppe wrote for Sluice magazine in the first few months of the pandemic. The issue was focused on the idea of the commons and how artists navigate the commons and how the pandemic has brought the commons into sharp relief. Giuseppe Marasco's work appears in the Spring/Summer 2020 edition of the Sluice magazine. The magazine is available to buy in both print and digital, here.