Deglobalisation in Pandemic Times: Theory and Practice

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Chapter And Authors Information

Lin Fan

College of Management, Sun Yat-sen University, Taiwan

Lavanchawee Sujarittanonta

Faculty of Science and Technology, Rajamangala University of Technology Phra Nakhon (RMUTP), Thailand
Deglobalisation in Pandemic Times: Theory and Practice
From the Edited Volume
Edited By:
Dr. John Walsh
Content

Abstract

In this chapter we are concerned with pandemics as historical turns in the history of capitalism. Under the influences of the Black Death, the Spanish Flu and our current Covid-19, the successive mutations of our world economy have reached a threatening point of no return. We provide a brief overview of deglobalisation in theory before delving into its diverse manifestations in practice. We conclude on the necessity to politicise the deglobalisation argument before it is too late.

How pandemics shape capitalism

It remains to be seen whether Covid-19 will trigger such far-reaching changes as the Black Death or the Spanish Flu. But a cursory look at the history of capitalism suffices to consider pandemics as turning points.

Black Death

According to Hickel (2020) our current economic system developed out of organised violence, mass impoverishment and the systematic destruction of subsistence economies. In the 1350s, the Black Death epidemic wrought extensive changes in Europe. Because labour was scarce and land abundant, suddenly peasants had more bargaining power. The balance of power tilted away from the nobles in commoners’ favour. Commoners began to realise that they had an opportunity to change the very foundations of the social and political order. They grew more hopeful and rebellions gained steam. By the middle of the 1400s, wars were erupting between peasants and nobles across Western Europe. The aim of the rebels was to end the power of the lords and break away from feudality. The movement ultimately succeeded in in destroying serfdom across the continent. Serfs became free farmers, subsisting on their own lands, with free access to commons: pasture for grazing, forests for game, rivers for fishing and irrigation. As feudalism fell apart, free peasants began to build a clear alternative: an egalitarian, co-operative society rooted in the principles of local self-sufficiency. The results of this revolution were astonishing. Rents declined, food became cheap, and nutrition improved. Workers were able to bargain for shorter working hours and weekends off.

Historians have described the period from 1350 to 1500 as “the golden age of the European proletariat”. These proletariat’s hopes, however, were short-lived. Nobles, the Church and the merchant bourgeoisie united to end peasant autonomy and drive wages back down. They forced peasants off their land in a violent campaign of evictions. The commons were fenced off and privatised – a process known as enclosure. Over the course of three centuries, huge swathes of Europe were enclosed and millions of people removed from the land, triggering an internal refugee crisis. People were left without homes and food. Adam Smith claimed that this initial accumulation was due to a few people who worked really hard and saved their earnings, which were necessary for the rise of capitalism. This tale, naively repeated in economics textbooks, hides an actual process of plunder. Karl Marx insisted on calling it “primitive accumulation” to point to its violence. But capitalism also depended on lots of cheap labour. With subsistence economies destroyed and commons fenced off, people had no choice but to sell their labour for wages in order to live (to quote one of our favourite book titles, by North Korean defector Park Yeonmi). This was utterly new in history. Those who controlled the means of production could get away with paying rock-bottom wages, and this new proletariat would have to take it. Any wage was better than death.

The period from 1500 to the 1800s, right into the Industrial Revolution, was among the bloodiest times in history. When Europeans began to colonise the Americas, they were not driven by the romance of discovery; they were seeking new territories for accumulation abroad, away from peasant revolutions. The Industrial Revolution hinged on commodities that were produced by slaves, on lands stolen from colonised peoples, and processed in factories staffed by European peasants who had been dispossessed by enclosure. These processes followed the same logic. Enclosure was a process of internal colonisation, and colonisation was a process of enclosure – growth has always relied on colonisation. More specifically, the engine of capitalist growth has been artificial scarcity. The scarcity was artificial in the sense that there was no actual depletion of resources… the same land and forests and waters remained, but people’s access to them was suddenly restricted. Capitalist thinking is therefore based on a well-known contradiction, namely the belief that it is necessary to impoverish people in order to generate growth (Harvey 2014).

Spanish Flu

The Spanish Flu (1918-1920) came in four successive waves and infected almost a third of the global population. The reduction of population fostered the development of capital-intensive industries, which relied more on capital and less on labour. Massive investment in factories and machines promoted technical progress in automobiles, electricity, architecture and so on. But while this expansion brought about prosperity, it also sowed the seeds of the Great Depression of the 1930s (Lee and Park 2021).

Covid-19

Crises can catalyse personal changes and bring people together. Between 2009 and 2016, many Greeks found meaning in cooperative projects ranging from urban gardens, time-banks, and collective art centres to solidarity clinics and food banks. The collapse of mass consumption and the crisis of the welfare state destabilised identities that were thought natural. Amid the Covid-19 outbreak and despite measures of physical distancing, mutual aid and care have exploded all over the world. Projects have supported the poor and the vulnerable, and provided low-cost solutions to hospitals (Kallis et Al. 2020). But another possible scenario is that this crisis will push the world economy into further intensification of digital technology. If it translates into “Uberised”, “gig” and “virtual” types of economy, and as humans in pandemic times are seen as threats to each other, then we’re on our way to build quite a dismal VirusWorld indeed. Dehumanising phenomena are readily observable everywhere in VirusWorld – people become so used to convenience of digital connection that they feel anxious when disconnected; people tend to expect constant and instant entertainment, and the so-called “multitasking” online reduces their attention span; information overload and “fears of missing out” create situations where more and more events seem like emergencies, etc. The Internet functions in this way a cage from which we cannot escape. Many are increasingly hooked on it escape seems unthinkable. While presented as liberating, algorithms decide what we see, suggest what we do, where we go, how we live. Social networks enclose us in bubbles infiltrated with advertising that exists to optimise profits.

Deglobalisation in theory

After the collapse of the Communist block, prescribing alternatives to capitalism has often met with skepticism and pejorative “utopian” qualifications. In recent decades however, in the wake of financial, ecological and health crises, the search for alternatives to capitalism has intensified. The confident “Tina” (“there is no alternative”) has lost some of its charm, shaken by the World Social Forum’s slogan: “Another World is Possible”.

Growthism

Illich’s (1973) warns that striving for more, bigger and stronger, sooner or later reaches a “counter-productivity threshold”. He calculated the average “speed” of a car in a more holistic way than is normally done. He took into account how many hours one might need to work to purchase a car, the costs of the public infrastructure, and negative externalities such as waste and accidents. In doing so, he reframed the car as a device that achieves an average speed of 5 km per hour… The counter-productivity threshold applies to almost everything we do. Thus people weigh up buying a cheaper dwelling far from the city centre where they work with evaluating commuting costs. Or take emails, which enable us to instantly communicate with colleagues and friends around the world. This incredible and apparently effective tool should free up our time. Instead, many people are snowed under emails and notifications they have no time to respond to, or at least feel extremely stressed about.

Such instances of “counter-productivity thresholds” are what Ritzer (2019) calls the “irrationality of rationality” (after Max Weber’s “unintended consequences”) and Liegey and Nelson (2020) the “rebound effect”. Those expressions mean that technical solutions transfer a problem elsewhere or even increase it. For instance, to reduce the environmental impacts of the standard car, we improved its design and created more effective engines so that cars became lighter and required less resources. The unintended consequences of these technical advances were not only more sales of cheaper cars, but also cars that promoted more optional extras such as air conditioning and other gadgets. Beyond functionality, such features have made certain models aspirational status symbols. Thus in the first nine months of 2019, Australians bought 50 per cent more new sports utility vehicles (SUVs) than they did standard passenger cars. Further more and bigger vehicles result in more traffic, more infrastructure for parking and roads for travelling on. More traffic translates to slowing the speed at which one can get to various places. So, instead of reducing environmental impacts, the lighter-car approach inadvertently increased the total environmental impacts of road vehicles. The capitalist obsession with calculation and prediction generate situations in which measures become the target (this is sometimes called “Goodhart’s Law”). An oft-quoted illustration of this sort of perverse incentives is nineteenth century French colonists trying to eradicate rat infestation in Hanoi. Authorities offered locals a bounty for every rat tail handed in. The result was mass rat farming on the outskirts of town and an impressive increase in the rodent population. In other words the capitalist agenda, through its cultural hegemony and pervasive media reach, deepens the catastrophes that the world faces (Klein 2007). Similar ironies have always shaped people’s lifestyles – for example they work more to earn more, before realising that they have missed out on what was most important. They do not experience a meaningful and enjoyable life, but life as rats in a wheel, running quicker and quicker for their income to buy more of the stuff that does not matter.

Deglobalisation is an invitation to acknowledge environmental limits as well as focus on key questions related to the meaning and enjoyment of life. As a result, deglobalisation advocates and activists call for a revival of debates around purposeful work, and resist false solutions such as so-called “smart” or “green” technologies. Some people lean on the hope that technology will save us – that innovation will make growth “green” without having to change anything about capitalism. Such “growthism” is one of the most hegemonic ideologies in modern history, for it has no empirical support. Companies are constantly finding ways to increase labour productivity in order to push down the costs of production. As productivity improves, firms need fewer workers. People get laid off and unemployment rises; poverty and homelessness go up. Governments have to respond by scrambling to generate more growth just to create new jobs. But the crisis never goes away – this is known as the “productivity trap”. We must get past the belief that all sectors of the economy must grow, all the time. We can decide what kinds of things we want to grow (clean energy, public healthcare, education, sustainable agriculture and so on), and what sectors need to radically degrow (fossil fuels, private jets, weapons, SUVs and so on). We can also scale down the parts of the economy that are designed purely to maximise profits rather than to meet human needs, like planned obsolescence and advertising strategies intended to make us feel that what we have is inadequate (Hickel 2020).

The problem with technique

Technique is used not to do the same amount of stuff in less time, but rather to do more stuff in the same amount of time. The steam engine, containerisation, air freight and other innovations have contributed so spectacularly to growth because they have enabled capital to bring they enable goods to be transported from the point of extraction or production to the point of consumption more quickly. In the same way, Facebook’s algorithms allow advertisers to get people to consume things they otherwise would not. As a result, energy and resource use keeps going up, not down. Innovation expands the extraction of resources and the production of things, and it makes little sense to hope that yet more innovation will magically do the opposite.

Degrowth

Deglobalisation and degrowth are not new ideas but the continuation of economic and sociological currents that analysed the effects of mass industrialisation, under the influences of Karl Marx, Karl Polanyi, John Maynard Keynes and others. Protests erupted around the world in the 1960s and 1970s to highlight international civil rights, anti-war, feminist and gay liberation along with a range of environmental and anti-consumerist issues. Protesters demonstrated against nuclear weapons, lower wages for women, laws against homosexuality, developments destroying nature, chemical pollution of air and waters, universities closed to the disadvantaged and so on. Ideas of “degrowth” (coined by André Gorz in 1972) were captured in concepts such as “frugal abundance”, “conviviality”, “small is beautiful” and the like. The link between widening inequality and globalization was confirmed by rigorous economic analysis, and deglobalisation regained impetus in the late 1990s and during the first decade of the twenty-first century. When the organisation “Focus on the Global South” first articulated it publicly in 2000, it was perceived as unrealistic; but by 2009 even The Economist asserted that the ‘integration of the world economy is in retreat on almost every front.’ Concerns about vulnerabilities of global supply chains were accompanied by a sentiment among among political elites that the process of transnationalizing ownership of firms had gone too far. Such a pursuit of narrow efficiency keeps destabilising social and ecological by-products. Climate change and the loss of biodiversity are symptoms of unsustainable lifestyles.

The trickle-down theory, which states that there is always extra to redistribute to the poor as the rich get richer, has proven to be a myth with the realities of recession and austerity (especially since the financial crisis of 2008). The last decades have rather been characterised, a recent bestseller argues, by an exponential growth in inequalities (Piketty 2013). Scientists around the world are therefore shifting their approach. In 2018, 238 scientists called on the European Commission to abandon GDP growth and focus on human well-being and ecological stability instead. For decades we have been told that we need growth in order to improve people’s lives. But this is just not true. Beyond a certain point, which rich countries have long surpassed, the relationship between GDP and well-being completely breaks down. It is not growth that matters, but the distribution of income and resources (Hickel 2020).

The key debate goes beyond whether we want to pursue deglobalisation, and asks how we can implement its inevitability. Uncontrollable natural disasters, pandemics, and economic woes call for a dramatic cut of carbon emissions and a reduction of overall consumption. Even if development is routinely referred to in one-dimensional ways as positive, sounder perspectives have clearly shown that development is neither necessary nor desirable. The fact that a minority of plutocrats captures the lion’s share while the vast majority of the global population gains little or none galvanises critiques of capitalism. Capitalism has increasingly outstripped its regenerative capacity for the last 50 years. By 2019 this meant exploiting natural resources as if there were 1.7 Earths (Liegey and Nelson 2020).

Deglobalisation in practice

Deglobalisation invites us to rethink our values with respect to socio-cultural impacts from technique. It does not call for the abolition of the market, but for the subordination of market efficiency to the higher values of community, solidarity, and equality. It calls for “effective economics”. How might deglobalisation look like in practice?

Deglobalization to contain widespread diseases, outbreaks, pandemics

Whenever a contagious disease happens, even if it first emerged at a certain geographic area of a country, by nature of a spreadable disease, it has the potential to become globalized. All the more thanks to logistic springboards of the modern day, helping it to conquer the world by stealth or sabotage, even more efficiently than any human army could. As it has been shown in the news all over the world, the COVID-19 virus very innocently is very global, similar to a world traveler but incognito without a passport or visa. This is indeed a great cause of concern for every nation, leading to deglobalization measures to restrict global movement of the virus through import bans, such as China suspending the import of frozen seafood from five Indian seafood firms, having found traces of COVID-19 on the outer packaging (Chan, 2021). All the more worrying given how religion, tradition and custom inadvertently helped to boost global panic, as COVID-19 victims are disposed of in the holy Ganges river (Pandey, 2021), with unlimited potential of cruising into the great oceans of the entire world. Evidently, imposing travel bans on living humans to contain the spread of the virus has been shown to be helpful in reducing the daily number of new cases, leading to the airline businesses and travel related industries going out of business; but there are still many other modes for the virus itself to utilize in its quest to conquer the world, besides rapidly mutating itself against vaccines.

When it comes to vaccines, however, multinational pharmaceutical giants enjoy global hegemonic advantages, as governments spare no expense in their struggle to buy vaccines for their citizens. First shot, second shot, and then now requiring 3rd, 4th and annual booster doses forever into the future, thanks to the inexhaustible creation of new and improved variants of the COVID-19 virus. The dominance of the few existing types of vaccines is certainly a monopoly situation.

For Universal Basic Income

Any individual can decide to adopt a life of voluntary simplicity, which will reduce his/her environmental impact whenever possible. Of course, we are not all equal in terms of available choices. We live with economic and social constraints that can make it difficult to take this radical step toward a simple life. Not everyone can refuse to use cars and rely on a bike or walking; not everyone can eliminate or even cut down on their use of mobile phones. Action in the individual sphere can consist of consuming less and working less yet enjoying a better quality of life. I can choose to reduce my consumption of gadgets, clothes and digital devices, modify my travel habits and, ultimately, find myself less reliant on income. I can quit or reduce my working hours at my “bullshit job” and re-appropriate in this way free time for meaningful activities, such as caring more for others. I can play games, hike, read and engage in such pleasurable activities. Suddenly, another world opens up. The deglobalised individual embraces voluntary simplicity or “happy sobriety” on the basis of “frugal abundance”. Frugal abundance means letting go of work, consumption and environmentally unfriendly activities to enjoy instead a more meaningful lifestyle. Frugal abundance is only achieved if we decide to liberate ourselves from the frustrating “always more” dynamics of growth.

In this context, forced employment is not necessary to fulfil the basic conditions for a dignified life. Solidarity can deconstruct alienation, offer hope and develop trust via an unconditional basic income. The usual objections to this unconditional (or universal) basic income can be easily countered if we understand how essential deglobalisation is. The first objection is that “we can’t afford it”, and indeed money has to come from somewhere. But wait a minute… We’re used to governments spending billions to no effect. Once again, the problem is less about the amount of capital than its distribution. Even in the context of a country that traditionally abhors ideas of “communism” or “socialism”, such as the United States, none of the money would be wasted because it goes to citizens. No one regards dividends to shareholders as a waste of money, because the shareholders are supposed to be the “owners” of the company. Are US citizens not the owners of their country? Besides the world, and the United States in particular, are quite simply loaded. Of course, they can afford it. The other classic objection is that a basic income will destroy incentives to work. But data shows that work hours stay stable or at most decrease modestly with a basic income. People often hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously: first, work is vital and the core of the human experience; second, no one will want to work if they don’t have to. These two statements are at complete odds with each other. Either we’ll desire to work even if we don’t have to, or work is something we do only to survive. Getting money to live independent of work will enable us to figure out what work we want to do, and this is a much deeper question than survival. This leads us to the third objection, namely the fear that people will spend the money on “stupid” things like alcohol. Again all the data available does not support this claim. If anything, an improved sense of the future motivates people to design a plan for how to improve their lot. Poor people tend to be much more careful with their money than rich people. The idea that poor people will squander their money is not tenable. Rich people tend to dismiss the poor as weak-willed children with no discipline. The evidence runs in the other direction (Yang 2018).

The cooperative spirit

At the collective level, alternative activities can be based on fair trade and transparently run local production of high-quality organic goods, on non-speculative local currencies and barter, on smaller-scale economies that take impetus from reciprocity, gift-sharing and solidarity. Such vision encapsulates second-hand practices, recycling, DIY workshops and repair cafés. Repair cafés undercut trends to take away, throw away and planned obsolescence by offering fixes and, more significantly, training people to develop their own skills. Cooperatives can upgrade dwellings with insulation and renewable energies. Many collaborative housing projects feature intergenerational solidarity, say through mutual caring, hosting alternative learning workshops, engaging in sharing schemes and disseminating alternative ways of living and exchanging. Community supported agriculture, for instance, links farmers with food eaters through direct exchange networks. People sign up to pay in advance or even purchase farm shares, in return benefiting from the farm harvest via regular deliveries. Within such farming communities, knowledge, skills, goods and services are shared across a range of agricultural pursuits. Globalisation has created scarcity and inequities through private and exclusive enclosure. Deglobalisation stands for the opposite: equality and openness through sharing, while maintaining environmental sustainability (Liegey and Nelson 2020). Alternative organisation models exist in a wide range of areas, in the form of co-operatives and family businesses. Thus the Mondragon network of 256 co-operatives represents, with its 85,000 worker-owners (mostly based in Spain but with branches across the world) the biggest and most successful effort of its kind. It has developed global brands such as Orbea bikes, which won gold at the Beijing olympics, Brandt ovens or again Fagur fridges. Top management is not allowed to earn more than six times the lowest pay scale (compare this with the average gap in transnational corporations – 202 times and rising). Mondragon’s elected Congress supervises operations and prohibits offshore manufacturing, pushing it to keep climbing the engineering ladder. Profits are reinvested or sunk into research and development, while worker dividends are paid into retirement accounts (Bello 2013: 251-69).

Paul Virilio has widely commented on speed and acceleration before instantaneous communication, social networks and mobile applications were all the rage. Complaints about the “cult of speed” have been addressed through the “Slow Movement” (Honoré 2004) that suggests ways of adapting your lifestyle to degrowth, or making your habits and behaviour “deglobalisation-ready”. Slowness means being present to you and to others, not wandering in cyberspace, communicating with your virtual network. It means choosing “slow food” over fast-food and human services instead of McDonaldised or Uberised or automatised ones. Life is what is happening right here, right now. It should not be postponed, wished away, accelerated or “optimised” toward some hypothetical future. The modern workplace forces us to work longer while technique encourages us to do everything faster. Speed is often an instrument of denial, a way of avoiding deeper problems such as existential angsts, fears of being alone with our thoughts. But we believe that boredom is good for you, and constant distraction extremely nefarious. Slowing down allows us to reflect on the big questions: What is my purpose? What sort of life should I be leading? Successful companies all over the world are looking for ways to help their staff slow down, by giving them more control over their schedules so they can work at their own pace; by limiting working hours; or by creating quiet spaces for doing yoga or even take a short nap during the workday.

Ricardo Semler (2004), for example, has detailed how he created an environment where employees could thrive. At Semco Partners, new employees are interviewed and hired by the Associates. Twice a year all employees evaluate themselves. While the evaluation is done anonymously, the results are displayed openly in the company. Each business unit is split into autonomous small teams of around five to ten workers. Each team is responsible for manufacturing the product from start to finish, and the team leader arises naturally among them without being imposed by top management. Workers also choose their own working hours, set their own schedules, and come to work whenever they want. They do not need a manager to tell them what to do. They do what they must do in a way that fit them. Even the working environment is structured according to their tastes – factories are designed and decorated according to democratic suggestions. Employees even set their own salaries at Semco Partners. Semler convinced his partners that workers would choose fair salaries if they had access to all the information. Accordingly, it was decided that the financial situation of the company, including everyone’s salary, would be displayed to all employees. Such politics of transparency incited workers to determine a reasonable salary linked to the amount of work accomplished. Finally, important and corporate decisions are taken collegially. Workers have the power to challenge decisions and submit them to public vote. Between 1990 to 1996, the company’s sales were propelled from $ 35 million to 100 million. But the best manual about working less while getting richer remains, in our opinion, Tim Ferriss’ (2007) 4-Hour Workweek. This gem of a book has the potential to relieve you from unnecessary work, so that you can join the exclusive clan of the new rich.

Our point is that we all need to pause and reflect on how we lead our lives and how our lives affect people around us. Take our own jobs in higher education – technical tools bring about the trickiest challenge to pedagogy. The proliferation of images in the 20th century led to our current civilisation of mobile screens, i.e. perpetual and ubiquitous distraction. Entertainment is as much a necessary escape of our condition as an annihilation of thinking. Mass images compete in the attention economy to get us spending time on them. And as these commercial images that we haven’t produced squeeze their way into our minds, we stop producing images ourselves. Prison sentences and other experiences of boredom tell us a lot about the conditions under which, and the extent to which imagination may operate. Die unendliche Geschichte (The Neverending Story) is a German best-seller that pictured in 1979 this disappearance of imagination, through the endangered world of Fantasia.

Impressions of a deglobalised lifestyle

For reasons mentioned in the above sections, an increasingly high number of people aspire to “the good life” away from the buzz of cities and their stressful jobs. They retire from the frenzy of global targets, evaluations scores and pointless meetings to a peaceful world in which they can reclaim time for meditation and self-development. Hippies, monks and hermits withdraw to remote forests, isolated temples or simply quiet countrysides. Among them Henry D. Thoreau (1854/2006) wonders what life really is about, and what to do with it. He is lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you see it) to witness the rise of modern capitalism in a “new land” where the steam engine is speeding up a “progress” that he eyes with suspicion. And indeed what kind of romantic soul would simply forget about nature and embrace instead the steel and fumes of industry? Thoreau spends two years at the Walden Pond and promotes the virtues of a simple life, away from the lures of money, fame or status and closer to natural wonders. Influenced by Indian and Chinese thinkers, he writes in his cabin about the economy, reading, solitude and even “brute neighbours” or “winter animals”. “Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage”, he muses in conclusion. “Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts. God will see that you do not want society” (Ibid., 356).

Sometimes however, solitary pursuits and utopian dreams can turn sour. But we suggest that only human stupidity and the random character of adventure can account for (or be blamed for) any failed or painful experience. Jim Jones and his “Peoples Temple” sect made the news in 1978. Members of the socialist community established in “Jonestown”, near Port Kaituma in Guyana, had signed for a life of spirituality and harmony, of love and healings, far from the evils of capitalism. They ended up working like dogs under the leadership of a deranged polygamous prophet. Building on an atmosphere of collective paranoia, he convinced almost a thousand people to commit suicide. Accounts of this event reminds us that reality always “beats” fiction, and we’re not always sure what to make of such grotesque and sickening scenes. We laugh and cry, and the aesthetics of this kind of performance are like the music of Beach House (one of our favourite bands), which as a YouTuber cleverly put it, “make [him] happysad”. Imagine a massive and uncomfortable sort of campsite awkwardly settled in the jungle. The heat, the mosquitoes, babies weeping here and there. In the final death scene, an old man cries into the microphone: “Dad, we’re all ready to go. If you tell us we have to give our lives now, we’re ready—I’m pretty sure all the rest of the sisters and brothers are with me.” A round of applause in the crowd. Meanwhile a dark purple liquid has been prepared. It contains grape Flavor-Aid, potassium cyanide, Valium, chloral hydrate (used to put patients to sleep before surgery), and potassium chloride (used in lethal injections to stop the heart muscle). Nurses are dipping syringes into the deadly punch. What follows deserves to be quoted at length (Scheeres 2011: 243-4):

At the front of the pavilion Maria Katsaris stood before the mic and told residents to form lines.
“You have to move, and the people that are standing there in the aisles, go stand in the radio room yard. Everybody get behind the table and back this way, okay? There’s nothing to worry about.”

She asked mothers to bring their babies forward. First in line was Ruletta Paul, whose husband, Robert, hiked out that morning, leaving her and their three young sons behind. As the stunned audience watched, Ruletta picked up a needleless syringe from the table and squirted it into the mouth of one-year-old Robert Jr. before using another on herself. Her actions were calm and deliberate. She walked out of the pavilion and sat down in the adjacent field, rocking her baby.

This feels cinematographic, and could be mistaken for a fantasy or science-fiction story (our favourite mass killing isn’t real, but vividly shown in Paul Verhoeven’s (1997) Starship Troopers). There’s more:

Poisoned parents, weeping, carried their poisoned daughters and sons into the muddy field, cradling them as best they could, as their children began to convulse and froth at the mouth. They watched their kids die before beginning to strain for air themselves. The odour of burnt almonds—the telltale sign of cyanide ingestion—hung in the air.

In the pavilion, McElvane continued to tell the living how appealing death was: “It feels so good. You’ve never felt so good as how that feels.”

A woman came to the microphone and chastised those who were afraid.

“This is nothing to cry about,” she said. “This is something to rejoice about. We should be happy about this.”

Other residents began coming up to the microphone to say their goodbyes, but Jones interrupted them.

“For God’s sake, let’s get on with it,” he reprimanded the crowd. “Let’s just be done with it. Let’s be done with the agony of it.”

Another tragic ending, even if it concerns only one individual, is that of Christopher McCandless whose hike into the Alaskan wilderness in the early 1990s inspired Jon Krakauer’s (1996) Into the Wild and Sean Penn’s adaptation into a film of the same name (2007). McCandless pursed a Jack-London kind of enlightenment by losing himself in the great outdoors; unfortunately his hermit life ended in an abandoned bus as a consequence of malnutrition and possibly (involuntary this time) poisoning from a root he ingested. Stories of isolation in the desert or on desert islands abound, providing material for meditation on what it means to be human, on what humans really need and so on. From Robinson Crusoe to Lord of the Flies and science-fiction classics (Dune, Planet of the Apes, etc.) people’s relations to their peers and to nature are constantly explored. Ted Chiang’s (2019) short stories examine for example the possible impacts of technique in a more or less distant future, the way in which this chapter attempted to outline some of the challenges that deglobalised strategies would entail. Thus “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is concerned with our relations to artificial intelligence, “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny” with unintended consequences of technical innovation (we included such warnings about a naive fascination with technique above), “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” with the externalisation of memory, etc. No wonder philosophers have always used thought experiments, simulations and conceptual characters to probe into human nature.

Conclusion

Both academics and “self-development” essayists have insisted on how deglobalisation-friendly lifestyle changes will have a positive impact on ourselves, on our immediate environment and on the world. From urges to adhere to the “slow movement”, to “reclaim conversation” (Turkle 2015), to adopt minimalist habits (Sasaki 2017) or “resist the attention economy” (Odell 2019) many steps seem to be made in the right direction. In a global situation of emergency however, with a pandemic aggravating an ecological crisis that the paradoxes of capitalism brought about, what we need are the political incentives, “nudges” or enforcements that could turn the tables. In other words, the cooperation of an entire planet is required, especially taking on another meaning during global pandemic times. And when diplomacy is everywhere so fragile, when so many nations are on the brink of war, when flows of refugees and unpredictable terrorist attacks destabilise people’s beliefs and hopes, all that remains for us to do might be to… hope for the best. Thank you for reading us.

References

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