A Tale of Two Crises: Reflections on Bushfires and COVID-19

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PRESCRIPT: This article originally appeared (in a slightly different format) in the Winter 2020 edition of Zadok Perspectives, a journal of the Ethos Centre for Christianity and Society.

1. Comparing Apples and Oranges? Christianity and Capitalism

Within modern Christianity, two broad trends have emerged with respect to the question of how Christians relate the tenets of their faith with the ‘orthodoxies’ of capitalist theory – especially neoliberal capitalist theory, which, since the 1980s, has been the prevailing economic paradigm of the industrialised west.

One approach has been to seek a reconciliation between the two based on the argument that, since capitalism emerged within liberal democratic states in the 18th and 19th centuries, and has helped ‘spread’ liberal democratic values around the world, it is synonymous with the values of human dignity and the liberation of the human spirit that lie at the heart of the Gospel declaration[1]. The other approach has cast Christianity in oppositional terms to capitalism, emphasising resistance to what is often called ‘savage capitalism’,and casting Christian faith as an alternative framework for the formation of human and societal relationships[2].

The first approach has been criticised for conflating the spirit of Christianity with the spirit of consumer capitalism, thereby both facilitating the capture of the church to the ideology of modernity and enabling a blind eye to be turned to the social and economic injustices embedded within corporatist capitalism[3]. The second approach has been criticised for trapping Christianity within an oppositionalism that prevents Christians from meaningfully engaging with capitalism as a methodology for harnessing human desire, or from seeing Christianity itself as an identical methodology, albeit for radically different teleological purposes[4].

A middle ground between these two poles may lie in recognising that Christian faith is not a wholly oppositional force entirely unlike the ‘savage capitalism’ of the neoliberal ascendancy. Rather, in recognising that consumer capitalism exists as a suite of ‘technologies’ by which human desire is co-opted for consumerist objectives, Christians can identify the common ground that their faith shares with neoliberal economic structures: that is, Christianity can be understood as a ‘therapy of desire’ that likewise seeks to shape desire toward particular ends, as well as heal desire of the wounding it receives at the hands of ‘savage capitalism’[5].

One possible benefit of this approach may be that it enables Christians to understand how our society has responded so very differently to the two significant crises that have beset Australia in its recent history: the bushfire crisis of 2019-20; and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Viewing these events through the lens of both capitalism and Christianity as ‘therapies of desire’ may enable us to explain these different responses, and thereby highlight the different teleological frameworks within which Christianity and capitalism cast human life.

2. The great contrast

As the 2019-2020 bushfire crisis unfolded, Australians were roundly congratulating themselves on their response to the emergency. From church cake stalls to sold-out rock concerts, Australians donated vast sums of money to help those communities and individuals who had been devastated by fires that, at their height, seemed to engulf the whole nation.

This response was, we assured ourselves, proof-positive of the existence and substance of the ‘Aussie spirit’, and that the ethos of ‘mateship’ was not mere jingoism but a living reality in Australian society.

Little more than a month later, that hubris had vanished. We watched agog as the mainstream and social media were saturated by images of people coming to blows in supermarket aisles over toilet paper and pasta and hand sanitiser. When we weren’t brawling, we were frantically searching for the things we thought we needed as shelves emptied of bread and biscuits, soap and sanitary products, meat and milk.

More than once, our frustrations boiled over and we directed our aggression at hapless retail staff. The sense of being overwhelmed only increased as COVID-19 became the sole story reported by the news media, and as our governments began to take more and more drastic measures to curb COVID-19’s spread.

The starkness between these two realities might be shocking, but it also provides pause for thought. How could the nation that had responded with such generosity to the bushfires react with such panicked hysteria to COVID-19? And what does this contrast reveal about the underlying assumptions of our society and the predominant ‘therapy of desire’ – consumer capitalism – by which it is sustained?

3. The comfortableness of generosity

The first thing to note is what the present situation reveals about the nature of the ‘generosity’ displayed during the bushfire emergency. Australians were appalled by the devastation and loss inflicted by the bushfires, and troubled by the seeming inability of our government to recognise that the ferocity and duration of the fires was directly linked to climate change. The wave of donations that followed was undoubtedly a genuine and spontaneous response to the suffering of our fellow citizens, as well as a rebuke to a government that was widely viewed as out of touch and too slow to respond.

But the sheer scale of the response also indicated the comfortableness with which the majority of Australians faced the bushfire situation. Despite the fact that some of our major cities had to endure days or even weeks of fire-borne pollutants that temporarily made their air quality worse than Beijing or New Delhi, the truth is that most of the residents of our major urban centres were never under direct threat from the fires. For them, the fires were always somewhere just over the horizon.

This is not to deny the sincerity or generosity of their response; it is simply to make the point that this response was also a product of security. For most Australians, the bushfires affected someone else;in this context, being generous cost us nothing. It didn’t put us in danger or disadvantage, it didn’t demand anything difficult of us. To be sure, there were those who did more than give money; but their exception demonstrated the rule. Australians gave generously to the bushfire appeals because it was easy for them to do so.

The situation with COVID-19, however, is altogether different. This time, everyone is under threat. What is more, we could be under threat from those who are nearest and dearest to us; those whom we love most could be the very agents of our becoming unwell. Like all pathogens, COVID-19 doesn’t distinguish between individuals on the basis of race or gender or religious or political affiliation. It certainly doesn’t respect the ties of family, friendship and community. COVID-19 only ‘sees’ the human individual as a potential host, to be infected in order to provide a suitable medium through which it can reproduce and then pass on to other potential hosts.

With COVID-19, there are no comfortable majorities that can watch, with whatever feelings of empathy and sorrow, the suffering of a minority. In the present crisis, no-one enjoys the privilege of security. And yet it is this very reality of shared experience that produces, not empathy and solidarity, but a mad scramble for seemingly scarce resources. It is the absence of security that is the dominant factor at play in this crisis. With COVID-19, to be generous is to place oneself at risk – with potentially lethal consequences.

And so, the question of whether to grab a whole trolley-full of toilet paper, or give even one packet to the person pleading for it, is not merely a question of ‘greed’ or ‘panic’ – it is a question of what price we are prepared to pay for the sake of being generous to others.

What COVID-19 has done is reveal another inequality within our society: the inequality, not of economics or gender or race, but of security. COVID-19 has revealed that our much-vaunted generosity is actually the privilege of security, of those who can afford to give precisely because it will cost them nothing to do so. It will not threaten the status quo. It will not undermine their foundational assumptions. It will not have potentially dire consequences. What COVID-19 has done most starkly of all is to reveal that what we often think of as the ‘Aussie spirit’ is, in fact, a hugely contingent paradigm: we are prepared to be generous so long as our generosity doesn’t adversely affect ourselves.

4. Neoliberalism: the illusion of agency

The second reality unmasked by the contrast between Australians’ response to the bushfires and the COVID-19 outbreak is the fragility of the underlying assumptions of modernity. For the last forty years, our social, economic and political framework has been dominated by the so-called ‘neoliberal ascendancy’, which stresses a minimal role for government in regulating the corporate sector and financial markets, while simultaneously promoting conspicuous consumption and personal productivity as the key virtue and authenticating marker of the human person. In the neoliberal paradigm, there is a clear circle of logic in which unfettered corporatism gives rise to increased employment, which in turn promotes consumer spending, ultimately leading back to increased corporate productivity. The primary virtue and chief goal of human life is to become a consumer: to participate in the labour market, and thereby generate an income that enables one to purchase consumer goods and thus perpetuate the cycle of production and consumption.

The cycle of logic at the heart of the neoliberal ascendancy synchronises closely with the principle cultural myth of modernity: the myth of the autonomous individual, the self-realising ‘superman’ who is able to bend their circumstances to conform to their preferences and prejudices. This synchronicity exists through neoliberalism’s capacity to fuse the identity of the ‘virtuous consumer’ with that of the ‘autonomous individual’. The one who achieves ‘gainful employment’ and who is able to consume the outputs of the corporatist economy is also the one who can define their own self and create their own reality. By making employment, income generation and consumption appear to be means to the end of individual autonomy, neoliberalism has colonised the individual in order to make human beings the means to the facilitation of its own ends. It has created the illusion of agency; we believe we are free, but we are simply ‘units’ in the cycle of production and consumption.

It is this synchronicity that reveals the true nature of consumer capitalism as a ‘therapy of desire’. It takes the human longing for meaningful and purposeful existence and directs it toward the end of consumer spending. Desire, which is normally directed outward toward the other, is interiorised by such mechanisms as advertising[6]; this is then turned into the desire to possess the other, to take the other into the self[7]. Consumer capitalism disciplines human desire by harnessing it for the purposes of acquiring and consuming goods. The telos of desire, instead of being focused on the other as other, becomes instead the consumption of otherness, its incorporation and subsumption[8].

Seen in this light, the panic buying we witnessed in our supermarkets can be understood as the fear-driven acts of individuals attempting to re-assert the ‘security’ of their individual agency in the face of the teleological threat posed by COVID-19. This is also why the panic seen on our stock exchanges mirrors the panic playing out in our supermarkets. In the teleological project of consumerism, Armageddon occurs when we succumb to the terror that there isn’t – or may soon not be – anything left to consume. Panic buying, hoarding and the mad scramble to sell stocks before they become worthless are attempts to forestall the ending of the illusion promoted by neoliberalism: that in and through consumption, we can exercise the sovereignty of our individual selves and the facilitation of our most heartfelt desires. While we have enough stuff in our freezers and fridges and pantries and storerooms, and while our investment portfolios continue to grow in value, we can continue to consume; but when the stuff runs out, and when our investments are worth less than what we paid for them, so our agency – and meaning – as individuals evaporates.

The universal precarity that COVID-19 has imposed upon us has broken the nexus between our capacity to consume and the investment we make in consumption as the primary manifestation of our self-understanding as autonomous, self-fulfilling agents. We realise all too clearly the sheer lack of agency with which we confront this virus. We can take measures to ‘flatten the curve’, to slow and ultimately stop COVID-19’s spread. But the very fact that ‘flattening the curve’ also involves the almost entire shutdown of our economy starkly illustrates both the illusion of our ‘autonomy’ and the extent to which corporatist capitalism has harnessed human desire to the task of consumption. This time around, it is COVID-19 that is calling the tune, and we who are being forced to dance.

5. Life after the end

The word ‘apocalypse’ (Greek ἀποκάλυψις) means ‘revelation’ – a disclosing of a truth or knowledge previously unknown. The text known to Christians as The Revelation According to John is often given the shorthand title ‘Apocalypse’ precisely because that is what it is: a revelation to the persecuted Christian communities of the time of the abiding faithfulness and love of God, even during periods of suffering and hardship. Even those passages that might be described as depicting the ‘end of the world’ are, in fact, not about destruction, but about restoration and fulfilment. The message of Revelation is not a declaration about how God will bring an end to everything; rather, it is a proclamation that God’s faithfulness will restore the whole of creation to the fullness of its dignity in accordance with the purposive end (telos) with which creation was instituted. Some things will cease to be; but that ceasing is not an ending but a beginning, a new future of fullness connected to and emerging from the latent promise residing in the heart of God’s creation as it presently exists.

In the wake of COVID-19 and everything it reveals about corporatist capitalism as a ‘therapy of desire’, what will happen now that the world as neoliberalism declares it to be has ended? There are two scenarios, one likely, the other unlikely. These scenarios reflect the teleological difference between capitalism and Christianity when considered as ‘therapies of desire’.

The likely scenario is already manifesting itself. The observant will have noted that, between each plunge in the stock exchange index, there have been days when it has rallied sharply. Despite recent ‘recoveries’, the overall trend for a long time was downward; but every now and then there was an unexpected – albeit temporary – peak.

These peaks are indicative of the moves that the ‘top 10 per cent’ are already making to secure their position in the post-COVID-19 world. In every stock exchange ‘crash’, the wealthiest sections of society have used the opportunity of spiralling share prices to suction up large parcels of premium shares at bargain basement prices. This doesn’t prevent or slow the downturn in share prices; but that is not the point. The point, from the perspective of the ‘top 10 per cent’, is to position themselves to take advantage of what they regard as the inevitable recovery of the markets. By playing a ‘long game’ and banking on the eventual return of the status quo, those buying in at the bottom end of the market are setting the foundations for their future profitability.

This profitability rests on the expectation that, sooner or later, the share market will stabilise and then recover. And once the recovery starts, those who have bought in after the market tanked will start selling to returning buyers at vastly inflated profits. This will be touted as the return of security and stability – but, in reality, what it will embody is the further entrenchment of the wealth and income inequality that characterises the control the ‘top 10 per cent’ already exercise over global resources.

Ironically, this will be made possible through governments enacting the kinds of protective measures that, under the normative conditions espoused by neoliberalism, are strictly taboo. Under the ‘Keynesian consensus’ that dominated economic thinking in the middle of the 20th century, and that largely underpinned the post-WWII economic boom, government had a direct role in regulating the economy in order to ‘even out’ the boom-bust cycle and thereby protect the most vulnerable sectors of society. This included, in times of crisis, governments doing the kinds of things we now see them doing in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis: using public funds to inject ‘stimulus packages’ into the economy in order to protect business and employment.

The irony of this situation lies in the fact that one of the hallmarks of the ‘neoliberal ascendancy’ has been its discrediting of Keynesian economics as part of its self-justification. This discrediting has been bought into by government because it has enabled the justification of government withdrawal from welfare and community service provision in the name of ‘efficiency’. Now, however, governments are activating classically Keynesian policies in order to respond to the economic damage wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. However – and this is what the ‘top 10 per cent’ who are now buying into the bottomed-out market are also banking on – what will not happen in a post-COVID-19 world is government enacting the other side of Keynesian economic policy: namely, the implementation of redistributive tax policies that close off tax loopholes for corporations and wealthy individuals, thereby funding strong social safety nets for the vulnerable and the marginalised. Indeed, in a sign that the political consensus created by the COVID-19 pandemic may already be fracturing, there are hints that the conservative side of politics may push for ‘reforms’ to company tax and industrial relations in order to ‘kick start’ the post-COVID-19 economy.

A likely scenario for a post-COVID-19 world already exists: the UK in the decade after the Global Financial Crisis. Declaring that ‘we are all in this together’, successive British governments have implemented a policy of ‘austerity’, on the one hand ‘pump priming’ the economy in order to protect business while on the other hand slashing spending on social and community services. The result has been steadily increasing corporate profitability counterpointed by stagnating wage growth, accompanied by the wholesale devastation of the public National Health Service and services for the homeless and the aged. As a consequence, the UK is now home to 6 per cent of the world’s millionaires, while also being the fifth most unequal country in the OECD, and the fourth most unequal nation in Europe[9].

What, then, is the unlikely scenario for a post-COVID-19 world? It is that the sheer scale of the crisis generated by the pandemic will shock us into an awareness of both the intellectual and moral bankruptcy, as well as the existential fragility, of the ‘normality’ articulated by neoliberalism. Twice in the last twelve years, that ‘normality’ has been shattered; after the first occasion, our response was to get back to ‘business as usual’ as soon as possible. Now, after this second occasion, we can hope that perhaps the destruction wrought by COVID-19 will prompt a reflection, not just on the relationship between the citizen and the state, but also on the relationship between the corporate sector and humanity as a whole. The question that Jesus asked the Pharisees – ‘does the Sabbath serve humanity, or does humanity serve the Sabbath?’ (Mark 2:27) – is especially relevant: does our construction of work and economy serve humankind, or does humankind now serve the construction it created?

Reflection on this question need not involve the ‘overthrow’ of capitalism. But it must involve a reflection on the nature and purpose of capitalism as a ‘therapy of desire’. This in turn necessarily generates a discussion about economy: what is the economy exactly, and what are the terms upon which it operates? This discussion will similarly require each and every citizen to reflect upon what they understand to be the basis of human life: is it a construct of culture and society governed by regulation and statute, or is it a network of relationships in which our shared humanity is the overarching reality? Does capitalism need to be relentlessly and inevitably destructive and exploitative, or are there modes of capitalism that point to a relational basis upon which our economy might operate?

Unfortunately, it is more than likely that the shock caused by the explosion of our illusions will prompt a desperate desire to return to our previous condition. This desire will be driven by the need to feel secure, even when our experience tells us we are incredibly vulnerable. It was the feeling of security that enabled our response to the bushfire crisis; it is the feeling of insecurity that drives panic buying and share market plunges. In just the same way that universal precarity prompts, not the solidarity of shared experience but the ‘competitive spirit’ of panic buying, so the knowledge of insecurity prompts, not a response geared toward a reimagining of human life and institutions, but an attempt to recreate the security we once felt, however illusory it may be.

6. Christianity and crisis: the call to vulnerability

It is in the likely rush to return to ‘normality’ and the feeling of security that we can see the stark contrast between capitalism and Christianity as ‘therapies of desire’. Whereas the craving for security is indicative both of the persuasive power of capitalism to capture our desires for its own purposes and of its ultimate failure to attend to our deepest longings, Christianity calls humanity into a teleological project in which the aim is not subsumption of the other by the self, but the engagement of self and other in covenantal co-existence. In doing so, Christianity invites humans to see their deepest need not as security but as relationship – as belonging to a network of relational interchanges whose superstructure forms the foundation for human dignity and flourishing.

The call to Christian discipleship, moreover, is a call to embrace the insecurity and vulnerability of human life. In sending his disciples out to proclaim the Gospel, Jesus not only instructed them to be reliant on the hospitality of others, he warned them of the possibility of rejection and hostility (Matt 10: 5-15; Mark 6: 7-12; Luke 9: 1-6; Luke 10: 1-9; Matt 10: 16-23; Luke 21: 12-17). But this embrace of precarity doesn’t just come through the proclamation of the Gospel; it is the Gospel itself. Christ’s Incarnation is an act of radical solidarity through which God fully embraces the precarious nature of human existence; indeed, through which God makes God’s-self vulnerable to human brokenness. The injustice of the Cross is God’s unconditional immersion in the reality of human suffering; and the Resurrection is God’s decisive declaration that this reality does not have the final say in human affairs. God, in the life and person of Jesus, opened God’s-self fully to the contingency implicit in human existence; and in embracing the insecurity of human life God declared that we need not be afraid (Matt 10: 26-31; Luke 12: 32-34; John 14: 25-31).

This is not to say that our faith is some sort of security blanket that will make us invulnerable to the vagaries and injustices of existence. Faith is not a quid pro quo in which we exchange protection for obedience. Rather, in embracing vulnerability and insecurity, we likewise embrace the love of God that makes itself vulnerable for the sake of the other. This is not a nihilistic embrace of self-destruction, but a self-offering in the interests of relationship. In making ourselves available to the other, in seeking to embody God’s love for the world, we seek to give voice to a relational and covenantal understanding of human life and flourishing.

It is the very vulnerability of human existence that enables us to be fully and creatively human[10]. It is vulnerability that becomes the dynamic agent that makes relationship possible; and it is relationship that expresses and upholds the essential dignity of human personhood. The desire not to be exposed, and to avoid the hurt that comes through exposure, is understandable; but it is a desire that, while it might enable us to create a fortress for ourselves, also ensnares us in the prison of our fear[11]. Herein lies the ultimate failure of capitalism as a ‘therapy of desire’: it facilitates our superficial desire for safety while leaving our deeper longings unattended.

The embrace of vulnerability implicit in the call to Christian discipleship necessarily results in a life in which tragedy and sorrow are inevitable; but such a life also gives voice to God’s solidarity with human suffering. The call to covenant is also a call to prophetic truth-telling: a call to make ourselves vulnerable to the self-interest of the powerful or the privileged in order to articulate God’s ‘No!’ to those facets of human life that undermine human dignity and alienate us from one another. Where the structures and forms of our social, economic and political institutions cause injustice or deny human dignity, Christians are called to give voice to God’s prophetic cry for justice.

All of which can make life even more precarious and difficult than it ordinarily is. But that precarity reflects the vulnerable love of God that, instead of trying to subsume the other in order to control and take them under our own power, commits to being exposed to wounding for the sake of the other. It also reflects God’s unwavering call to repentance, to ‘turning around’ so that human life is re-oriented to the relational and the invitational. It is the vulnerability that, in the face of the indiscriminate threat of COVID-19, calls us to abandon the fear-induced response of panic buying, as well as the desperate temptation to re-assert the illusory security of ‘business as usual’. It is the vulnerability that calls on us to recognise our comfortableness – and to abandon it in favour of a truly relational co-existence that attends to our deepest human longing.

Whether or not Christians will be able to do this is a vexed question. And yet this very vexedness points to the possibilities that lie within Christianity’s similarity to, and radical difference from, capitalism as a ‘therapy of desire’. Perhaps, as congregations and faith communities scramble to find new ways to give expression to their life together in the face of the disruptions caused by COVID-19, the possibilities of vulnerability and precariousness will give birth to new forms and ways of being. There is no guarantee this will be the case; the church and individual Christians are as embedded in the cultural norms and assumptions of neoliberalism as the political class and the corporate sector. We are all of us, to greater or lesser degrees, captured by capitalism’s appropriation of human desire. But the fear and vulnerability we now experience could, if we are willing to be open to the movement of God in our lives, open us up to the possibility of a resurrection that lies beyond the death of corporatist capitalism as we have known it; and which, if we are prepared to be vulnerable and exposed, could likewise bring a new understanding of what it means to be both Christian and Church.

[1] See, for example, R.H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of the Capitalism, 1966, 179-196, for a discussion of how the Christian Church participated in the rise of consumer capitalism

[2]Daniel M. Bell, ‘After the end of history: Latin American liberation theology in the wake of capitalism’s triumph’, Journal of Religion & Society 2, 2000, 7

[3]Brendan Byrne ‘Work and faith: the prophetic imperative. A response to Graham Hooper’, ethos.org.au, 10th April 2019

[4]Daniel M. Bell, Liberation Theology After The End of History: The Refusal to Cease Suffering, 2001, 144

[5] Bell, Liberation Theology, 144

[6]See, for example, Alain de Botton’s excellent discussion of the way in which advertising ‘sells’ goods and services by linking them to the interior existential desires of human ‘consumers’ (The Consolations of Philosophy, 2001, 65-67)

[7]Mark C. Taylor, Erring: A Postmodern A/theology, 1984, 26-27

[8]Bell, Liberation Theology, 144

[9] The Equality Trust, ‘The Scale of Economic Inequality in the UK’, 2019

[10] Kerry Walters, Jacob’s Hip: Finding God in an Anxious Age, 2003, 7

[11]Walters, Jacob’s Hip, 7