From the corona crisis towards a new Enlightenment

Guido Palazzo

Universitè de Lausanne

Why do societies collapse? Jared Diamond finds a rather simple but frightening explanation. When we are in a crisis and we do not know what to do, we tend to reinforce established routines. Sometimes, those routines make things worse. They might even be the driving force of the crisis and as a result, societies collapse. The dominating routine of the modern Capitalist society is consumption. This activity of modern human beings is so defining for our society that in moments of crisis, more consumption is perceived as the appropriate solution. In reaction to September 11 as well as to the financial crisis of 2008-09 politicians incentivized and motivated citizens to go shopping in order to restart the economy – and they shopped. The pattern holds also in the Corona crisis: In its Guangzhou flagship store Hermès made 2.7 million USD in sales just on the weekend of the reopening at the end of the quarantine.

Today, consumption is a dangerous default since it is the driving force of the much bigger ecological crisis that has been preliminarly eclipsed by the urgency of the pandemia. The climate crisis will not change our planet slowly over time but with a high probability it will arrive with the same cataclysmic and disruptive impetus as the corona virus. Why is it so difficult to change if our established routines are so obviously harmful? My proposition is very simple: Societies are guided by narratives in which values and beliefs about the world are transmitted, reinforced and enacted. The narrative of our pre-corona normality is neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is based on the idea that human beings are egoistic utility maximizers. Some economists like Williamson go even further and argue that we are opportunists who break contracts whenever they can and thus need to be kept under strict control. From a neoliberal perspective, society is nothing but an aggregation of those individual interests that have to be protected against the government and that manifest first and foremost in the freedom to own property. There is no common good.

Today, property owners are shareholders, whose right to maximize profit trumps all other rights. This simple interest in profit maximization should be considered the only social responsibility of corporations because free markets (as unregulated as possible by as weak governments as necessary) will transform those egoistic interests in welfare for everybody. Welfare will trickle down. Abracadabra. The “magic of the market”, as Ronald Reagan called it. On those markets, we engage in a Darwinian struggle for survival because competition is supposed to be the dominating human drive. In the neoliberal narrative, resources are endless and the ability of the planet to absorb side effects is unlimited. Infinite growth is natural. Progress manifests in a combination of always more efficient production processes and always higher levels of consumption with the latter being the key to happiness. Already in 1955, the economist Victor Lebow summarizes this narrative in an article in the Journal of Retailing: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats- his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.”

The end of the Socialist experiment in 1989 reinforced the impression of the superiority of those ideas and led to the globalization of the neoliberal narrative both for production (globally stretched supply chains) and consumption (globalization of Western mass consumption). As a result, globalization has aggravated our problems by contaminating the whole planet with the virus of the neoliberal narrative. Over recent years this narrative has begun to collapse in slow motion in front of our eyes in basically all its elements. The corona pandemia will accelerate the disenchanting of our belief system. There should be no return to normal since normal was the problem.


This blog aims to reflect the opinions, thoughts, and concerns of academics and researchers related to COVID-19. All views belong to authors and it does not represent the views of any organisation.