In media commentary on the extraordinary crisis response of governments, health care systems, and central banks to the COVID-19 pandemic, wartime analogies abound. Yet, as some commentators have pointed out, far from the mass mobilization of productive capacity and labor that characterized total war, the bulk of today’s workforce in Europe and North America is temporarily siloed, and production increasingly limited to those sectors necessary to keep the lights on at home, food on the shelves, and hospitals adequately provisioned.
Whilst healthcare professionals and other “key workers” are overworked and under strain as never before, for many of us, the standard wartime analogy doesn’t really hold — getting up and checking on yesterday’s death toll over the first cup of coffee may have a wartime analogue, but it’s closer to Robert McNamara’s daily routine during the Vietnam War than it is to the experience of combatants in the field.
To assist in filling the unexpected downtime, news sites have been chock-full of articles on suggested reading — from old favorites to pandemic-related dystopian fiction. For those who eschew comfort reading and prefer to lean in to their anxiety, Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 work of speculative fiction, Super Sad True Love Story, makes for excellent — if disquieting — lockdown reading.
Published during the early months of the post–Great Recession recovery, the novel is set in an imagined near-future New York City. No longer the global hegemon, Shteyngart’s United States has long since ceded global leadership to the People’s Republic of China. The dollar’s role as international reserve currency is now over, and it is pegged to the yuan. Europe — a relatively stable economic backwater in the novel — and China are threatening to “decouple” from the faltering US economy.
Ruled by the “Bipartisan Party,” American society is depicted as increasingly militarized and securitized (rumors abound of executions carried out at “secure screening facilities” at America’s land, sea, and air borders). But this is no orderly dictatorship on the model of Orwell’s Oceania, nor is it a repressive yet relatively stable regime like North Korea’s. Instead, the United States is roiled by mass protest and military standoffs between the National Guard and army veterans returned from a botched invasion of Venezuela. The already grotesque economic inequality of contemporary American society is ratcheted up in Shteyngart’s imagining, with society cleaved between “high” and “low-net-worth individuals”; those wealthy enough and with sufficiently high credit scores to be approved by the Canadian immigration authorities flee north to the nation now formally known as “Stability-Canada.”
The protagonist of the novel is Lenny Abramov, a thirty-nine-year-old resident of New York whose Russian parents immigrated to the United States during the collapse of the Soviet Union, only to find themselves unexpectedly living through the twilight of the Cold War’s other superpower. An employee of the “Post-Human Services” division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation — a nod to the sinister Weyland-Yutani Corporation of the Alien franchise — Lenny’s job is selling life-extension services to high-net-worth individuals. Lenny’s glib, management-platitude-espousing boss, Joshie, who sees only new business opportunities in the increased penetration of the American economy by foreign capital, is in his seventies, yet he looks years younger than Lenny thanks to the age-deferring technologies his workplace seniority grants him access to.
What makes Super Sad True Love Story such queasily apposite reading in the context of the lockdown and its unprecedented and extraordinary economic ramifications is that the novel depicts an identifiably neoliberal, post-democratic society — whose lineaments are easily discernible in the makeup of contemporary America — in the process of slow-motion collapse. Every facet of neoliberal governmentality and the dire social consequences of extending market logic into all spheres of life — including our most intimate relationships — is ramped up to the nth degree in the novel.
The hollowing out of America’s industrial base has gone so far that the only remaining dynamic sectors of the economy are “media,” “credit,” and “retail.” Advanced smartphones called “äppäräts” are ubiquitous, and citizens are constantly cocreating masses of data about one another — including “personality scores,” body mass indexes, and “fuckability rankings.” Perhaps inspired by China’s Social Credit System — trials of which were initated a year before the book was published — Shteyngart describes “Credit poles” hanging from street lamps, that display the credit scores of passersby for all to see. And, taking entrepreneurialism of the self to the next level, formerly private social engagements are live streamed by participants who namedrop corporate sponsors in order to monetize their social lives. (Doubtless, the lockdown has already seen its first sponsored group Zoom call.)
A New Global Hegemon
When the novel first appeared in 2010, its depiction of China as the new economic and political hegemon may have seemed far-fetched. And even now, an imminent era of Chinese supremacy is by no means certain. As in the crisis of 2008-9, the US Federal Reserve remains the major actor in the global economic firefight. Once the epidemic escaped Chinese borders to become global, terrified investors have still piled into the dollar. But there is much reasonable speculation that the United States’ failure to contain the coronavirus, coupled with China’s relative success at suppressing their outbreak, heralds a major step on the path toward the end of US dominance in the international system. Harking back to the British Empire’s post-WWII decline, some even speak of COVID-19 as America’s “Suez moment.”
On the economic front, many draw comparisons with the US experience of the Great Depression. Yet in the context of the persistent low growth in the world economy, and with the threat of future pandemics and climate breakdown (in relation to which COVID-19 will be little more than an amuse-bouche) on the horizon, it seems hard to credit the idea that the current economic crisis is, like the Great Depression, an unhappy prelude to a new wave of American economic expansion.
Minimally, it seems likely that China’s relative success at containing the outbreak (and the profound contrast with the Trump administration’s chaotic response) will serve to legitimate their authoritarian model of governance abroad. Its medical assistance to other states — including to Italy, where the Italian government (already signed up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative) has been furious about the lack of solidarity from other EU states — will surely enhance China’s global soft power in the medium term. And advocates of civil liberties will have good reason to fear that their arguments will have diminished purchase in a context where China’s draconian lockdown was so effective at containing the outbreak. (The demonstration effect of the technologically invasive approaches of South Korea and Taiwan — democracies, but ones with notoriously politicised security apparatuses — may further serve to undermine the US economic and social model abroad.)
In Super Sad True Love Story, it is the South Korean mother of Eunice, Lenny’s love interest, who presages a possible shift in power to East Asia. Making reference to witnessing the Gwangju uprising of 1980 — violently put down by ROK armed forces following the December 12 coup d’état of 1979 — she bemoans the fact that she and her husband had moved to the United States for a better life, only to witness South Korea become both richer and more stable than their adopted home.
Strikingly, at one point in the book, an official of the Chinese Central Bank is reported as publicly describing the United States as an “unstable, barely governable country presenting grave risk to the international system of corporate governance and exchange mechanisms.” We’re clearly some way from hearing such bald statements from existing PRC officials, but in light of its disastrous health and welfare systems, and its dysfunctional political system, the United States is undoubtedly inching closer to that designation it once reserved for the likes of Afghanistan, Iraq, or the former Yugoslavia: a failed state.
During the 1970s, the USSR was derisively referred to by some Western commentators as “Upper Volta with rockets,” a phrase meant to capture the contrast between its immense military prowess and its increasingly sclerotic economy. Similarly, the United States today seems ever more incoherent. It remains an immensely rich society, with no real strategic military rival, and the Federal Reserve is still the backstop of the world economy. Yet the mismatch between its pretensions as “leader of the free world” on the one hand, and its inability to provide minimal support for the welfare of its citizens on the other, is now palpable as never before.
Letting the Virus Rip
Economist James Meadway persuasively argues that in the UK, returning to the economic status quo after the worst of the pandemic is over is highly unlikely. Even under a conservative government, he maintains, we should expect increasing state intervention in the economy in ways that would have seemed unthinkable at the height of the neoliberal era. Though the Bank of England won’t continue to simply print money to finance government spending, the sheer scale of the post-crisis public debt, plus the exhaustion with austerian policy prescriptions, makes a straightforward rerun of the post-financial-crash years unlikely.
Meadway’s prognosis might be true for the UK, which, in spite of being more thoroughly marketized than many European states, has broadly converged on the same model of crisis fighting seen in mainland Europe. Yet, as Mark Blyth points out, the United States is profoundly and unusually ill-equipped to deal with a crisis like this one. The very nature of its growth model, which relies on highly flexible labor markets and domestic consumption as a key driver of growth leaves it particularly ill-suited to riding out the lockdown and may, for the same reasons, hamper it in the transition to a more state-interventionist economic model.
As some commentators have pointed out, there was a certain grisly realism to Donald Trump’s calls to end the lockdown by Easter and return to business as usual. Lacking the public-welfare systems and crisis-fighting capacities that have characterised the East Asian, and to a far lesser extent the British and European responses, Trump’s preference for letting the virus rip for the perceived good of Wall Street, reveals something of the twisted logic propelling the US today. In Shteyngart’s novel, we see just such a situation, where resolution of the political impasses and manifest weaknesses of America’s domestic socio-economic arrangements have been endlessly deferred until the contradictions finally tear the fabric of society apart.
One of the great ironies of the current moment is that the social-democratic program of Bernie Sanders might well turn out to have been the great missed opportunity for saving American capitalism. Promising a rather modest redistribution of wealth, a jobs program in the guise of the Green New Deal, and Medicare for All, the Sanders ticket — in spite of the political radicalism of many of his supporters — could have served to restabilize and legitimize the American system in the eyes of its citizens.
Alas, while reality may have endorsed Bernie Sanders, the Democratic selectorate — much of which still regards a politician as timid and beholden to corporate interests as Barack Obama as some sort of progressive hero — has not. Instead, the Democratic nominee will be Joe Biden, who during the primary debates cynically pointed to the coronavirus crisis in Italy as supposed evidence of the ineffectiveness of single-payer health care.
It is, of course, not impossible that Biden, were he to win the presidency in November (by no means a given, even in spite of Donald Trump’s criminally negligent response to the crisis), might be forced by events to adopt parts of the Sanders program. But it seems just as likely that, seen from the rearview mirror, the Sanders campaign will be understood as a squandered chance to save American democracy and shore up some kind of meager legitimacy for the American political and economic system.
It’s at the end of Super Sad True Love Story that America’s deferred economic and social collapse — “The Rupture” — finally happens. As a good disaster capitalist, Joshie lectures Lenny on the potential business opportunities to be found in this crowning moment of creative destruction. Finally losing his temper, Lenny rebukes his boss, flatly stating: “Fuck the creative economy, there’s no food downtown.” Watching middle-class homeowners join the lines at food banks in the shadow of Mar-a-Lago, and reading reports of mass graves in New York City, while state officials openly make the case for sacrificing lives for the health of the American economy, it’s a line that has run through my mind more than once during these extraordinary and frightening days.