Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Panic, Economics, and Pandemic

Paul Crosthwaite

A viral pandemic is spidering across the globe, and so too is an emotional one. Fears and anxieties spread and mutate in whispered late-night conversations and flashing updates, working their own damage on bodies and minds. There is deep fear of the virus itself, of course, and fear as well of its economic impact. The current crisis has rendered the economic laws that govern our lives newly palpable in the very process of suspending them. Even the most economistically-minded public figures have been forced to acknowledge the claims of forms of value other than those of the market – most fundamentally, the inherent value of human life itself. And the crisis has prompted state interventions to support citizens and businesses that are anathema to decades of free-market dogma. Yet in terminating, halting, or at the very least transforming the ways in which people the world over earn a living, it has forced individuals to reassess their value in economic terms. How “essential” or “expendable” am I? Will there still be a market left for whatever it is I have to sell after “this” is over? Such individualized anxieties can surely only be meaningfully addressed at a collective level. The key political question of the coming years will be whether the kinds of economic safety nets that governments have been obliged to put in place in this “exceptional” period can be entrenched, expanded, and reinforced as permanent protections against the dizzying precariousness that Covid-19 has laid bare.

The magnitude of the economic disaster we now face has quickly drawn comparisons with the Great Depression, and with the New Deal that brought crucial (if partial and uneven) relief from it in the United States. As Covid-19 threatens to wreak economic devastation on a scale not seen since the 1930s, I’m struck by how the writing of that decade describes a strangeness that has become unexpectedly familiar. During the Depression – as now – financial and economic crisis was complexly intertwined with contagious disease and public anxiety. In the past weeks and months, a viral outbreak has been the trigger for a sharp economic contraction; in the 1930s, growing poverty created the conditions in which communicable diseases could flourish. As John Marsh recounts in his recent “emotional history” of the Depression, the polio epidemic that struck New York City in 1931 thickened the miasma of fear that already hung over the nation. Commentators also drew on a long rhetorical tradition of figuring economic disorder as a pathology of the body politic – a tradition still clearly audible today in talk of the “financial contagion” that, like the virus itself, threatens to radiate unstoppably across the planet. According to the Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, in the run-up to the 1929 Wall Street Crash “the people [got] an inflation brainstorm,” which entered their “blood,” like a fever, and now – in order for the nation to recover – it was necessary to “purge the rottenness out of the system.”

In March 1935, the verse drama Panic by the American poet Archibald MacLeish had a three-night run at New York’s Imperial Theatre. The play portrays the Banking Panic of 1933 – in which bank failures spread over the land from city to city and state to state – as a psychic and emotional epidemic, a “plague of the soul.” Unlike “pestilence” and other “plagues of the flesh” familiar from the “old days,” the symptoms of this outbreak aren’t visible on the surfaces of people’s bodies – yet “still they’re sick of it: still dying.” Voices representing a street crowd capture a sense of intimate, insidious threat that is all-too recognizable now: “The thing comes pursuing us / Creeping as death creeps in an / Old man … What shadow hidden or / Unseen hand in our midst / Ceaselessly touches our faces?” These voices testify, too, to the eerie beauty of a world in which the routine rhythms of industrial and urban life have seized up:
Silent. The swifts nest in
Stacks that for generations
Flowed smoke. The patience of
Hawks is over the cities:
They circle in clean light where the
Smoke last year frightened them.
Just as resonantly, MacLeish has a prophet figure, identified only as the Blind Man, insist that – while the wealthy and powerful may wish for a speedy return to “normality” – the crisis has exposed levels of suffering, exclusion, and inequality that cannot simply be put out of mind, but rather demand future remedy. As this latter-day Tiresias tells the plutocratic financier McGafferty (played in the original production by a nineteen-year-old Orson Welles):
Once the need has left you you’ll forget.
Men forget in good years with the grass green.
Men will say “That’s done now” – but it’s not done:
Say “That’s over” – It will not be over.
The injunction to “keep calm in the Crisis” is an ironic refrain in MacLeish’s play. That may be as difficult now as it was then, but we might recall that the very term “crisis” derives from the vocabulary of illness, where it signifies the decisive “turning-point of a disease for better or worse,” the moment when – suspended between life and death, hope and despair – everything hangs in the balance.

The Market Logics of Contemporary Fiction by Paul Crosthwaite
The Market Logics of Contemporary Fiction by Paul Crosthwaite

About The Author

Paul Crosthwaite

Paul Crosthwaite is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh....

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