If the current pandemic has been good for anything, it has been kindest to the act of reflection. So many people were trapped inside their homes, physically separated from key aspects of their lives and livelihoods. Being stuck forces one to look within as well as without – increasingly people appear to have become aware of the negative ways in which society has hitherto been organised, and much value has been placed on the opportunity for idealistic introspection. But on the minds of many, one practical question persisted throughout the lockdown: when will things return to normal? This call seems entirely reasonable. As pragmatists never tire of pointing out, the long-term effects of a so-called “90% economy” could be disastrous. What’s more, the rhetoric of both the powers that be and the average citizen often centres around this idea of normality, and in particular how to rediscover it. But I’m not so sure about the reasonableness of these calls, no matter how intuitive they appear – what I do think is that their frequency offers an opportunity to talk about why.
Perhaps the most striking thing about calls for normality is how normal they themselves have become. Before the coronavirus pandemic much of global politics was seen to be going through a strange period; from the victories of “outsider” populists like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro to the increasingly volatile relationship between the East and West, there were no shortage of calls for a return to a normal world order. Before that even, who didn’t wish they were back before the Great Recession? And, wow, wasn’t life a lot more normal before 9/11 – when will I be able to board a plane normally again? It seems that there is nothing more normal than abnormality.
Of course, much of this can be understood under a rose-tinted lens. More often than not, people will look back and see greener grass, and there is nothing surprising about that. But what’s interesting is how this rhetoric so effectively reproduces ideology: indeed, it has a deeply political character. In the repeated framing of global issues as deviations from a normal social order, the latter is effectively petrified – it becomes entirely ahistorical. After all, if our only metric of success is rooted in similarity to the past, how can we ever hope to reach the future?
This analytical angle cuts deeper too. When Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history after the fall of the Soviet Union, he stressed that such an end could never apply to culture, but we appear to be trying to force one nonetheless. Consider the precipitous rise in film and television remakes in recent years – in 2018, 80% of top 20 grossing movies worldwide were based on unoriginal material. From fashion to advertising we tend to place an ever-higher value on retro and vintage aesthetics. In effect, our culture is littered with simulacra of a dead past. We can therefore not only understand normality as naïve sentimentality, but also as a sharp ideological tool keeping us from looking too far forward. The rhetorical and aesthetical vocabulary of late capitalism haunts us with nostalgia for a past that never existed, and so keeps us suspended there. The normal is simply a ghost in the machine.
Given this predisposition to look backwards, it is perhaps no wonder that (in wealthy countries, at least) people are so pessimistic about the state of things. A 2017 Ipsos MORI study on the “Perils of Perception” found that, despite objective material improvements in global poverty and child mortality rates, a large majority of people think that these things are at an all-time high. A similar survey by YouGov found that only 4% of Britons think the world is getting better. Such sentiment serves only to reinforce a regressive mindset. So, what is to be done? First, we need to recognise the autonomy that humanity has over its condition and celebrate the successes which it has brought about. Perhaps more importantly however, we must use this celebration to motivate greater faith in our ability to continue this historical progression. We should reflect upon, but not dwell within, our past, indeed within the old normal – we should seek to build a new one.