Photograph: NTB Scanpix

CONTRADICTIONS: 'Corona has forced into stark relief the contradictions of the reward systems of late-modern capitalism, whereby there is little obvious relationship between contribution to society and the rewards for labour,' according to Senior Research Fellow Paul Beaumont. The image shows nurses demonstrating for better work conditions in Britain in 2020. 

Re-imagining the world after the pandemic

Published: 6 Jul 2021

Senior Research Fellow Paul Beaumont was invited by the European Studies Assocation to participate in a plenary discussion about the Corona's transformative implications. These are his opening remarks.

So I would like to thank organisers for handing me this poisoned chalice of question. Put bluntly, I think we are all too close to Corona to be able to make sense of its consequences now, let alone its transformative potential. But I am glad to have been given this opportunity reflect on the matter.

However, I want to make sure I stick to my lane; I study status hierarchies and status narratives, and so I will try to avoid speculating on global health implications and other areas beyond my limited expertise. Also, as researcher, living in Norway, working from the relative comfort in my home office, I recognise I come at this from an extremely privileged perspective. With those caveats out the way, I have a couple of observations or speculations related to the status implications of Corona that I hope can spark discussion:

First if all, plagiarising someone’s Tweet, I suspect that the post in post-Corona, will only be post- in the post-colonial sense. That is, whether or not Corona will prove transformational, Corona’s social and material inheritances seem certain to live on and live with us for some time.

Indeed, Corona’s first social inheritance is the global re-organisation of time, and the production of a new global temporal benchmark: Pre and post Corona. Notwithstanding the massive inequalities of effects across states, groups and individuals, Corona is uniquely global event. Barely a society exists that has not enforced and endured some kind of lockdown.

Spread out over two years and counting, It would be tempting to say there has not been a shared event - and soon memory - like it since the world wars, but actually the World Wars were parochial in comparison. Every generation in every place can narrate their peculiar experience of Covid. And comprehend and answer the question: how was your Corona?

This relates to status competition insofar that most governments seem to recognise the narrative significance of Corona, and hence we are currently witnessing a pretty fierce battle over responsibility and which states handled the crisis best and which states have “rolled out” most effectively. At the moment, these international status narratives are immediately relevant to domestic legitimacy, but they may have broader implications for the legitimacy of the global order too. That is, if the vaccines are not distributed among poorer countries, then it seems likely the Corona inspired green and red ordering of the international will become crystalized around older categories of developed and developing, and render even more explicit the pre-existing inequity of global mobility regimes.

Second, Corona and the discourse around it has proven extremely productive of new individual status categories. For instance, synonyms of the “essential worker” have popped up across Europe and beyond, namely those people whose jobs are deemed so crucial to the operation of society that they have had to keep working while all others had to lock down. In other words, the reward for being essential was to put oneself and one's family at risk for the greater good. What is noticeable about this category of worker - nurses, care worker, supermarket and gas station attendant - is how in ordinary times most did not enjoy high status and more often received lower pay than most, and poverty pay in many cases.

This fits bitterly well with Thorstein Velen’s observation that the further your job is from servicing basic needs, the higher the status in modern society. In other words, Corona has forced into stark relief the contradictions of the reward systems of late-modern capitalism, whereby there is little obvious relationship between contribution to society and the rewards for labour. 

My hope but not expectation is that we do not let the essentialness of these workers become forgotten again, and that Corona can serve as a reminder and discursive resource for calling for a transformation in how we comprehend societal value.