In Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, 10 friends escape from the city of Florence when it is shut down by the Black Death and hole up in a villa in the hills, where each night for a fortnight they tell one another stories of love and tragedy. Something of the same spirit animates this collection of conversations that occurred in the strangest of fortnights in our own times: the weeks at the end of March and the beginning of April last year when the whole world was first forced behind closed doors by Covid-19.
The conversations, conducted over Zoom, are mostly convened by the Croatian activist and writer Srećko Horvat who, along with Yanis Varoufakis, is the driving force behind DiEM25, a radical initiative that aims to more fully democratise the EU. The storytellers in this case, isolated in their studies and sitting rooms across the world, include leading figures of the intellectual left such as Noam Chomsky and Richard Sennett; critics of surveillance capitalism like Shoshana Zuboff and Evgeny Morozov; artists, musicians and actors including Brian Eno and Gael García Bernal; and, inevitably, contrarians like Tariq Ali and Slavoj Žižek. Their subject is the opportunity presented by the pandemic to reshape society, to “build back better” as the politicians’ phrase goes.
The moment seems to spark a sort of dreamy optimism among many of the speakers
The interest of these conversations is partly their content and partly their tone. They capture that sense of alarm that characterised the first weeks of the crisis, but also the slightly giddy initial novelty of isolation – quiet streets, upended timetables – a sense that revolution might be in the air. Horvat, author of The Poetry of the Future: Why a Global Liberation Movement Is Our Civilisation’s Last Chance and The Radicality of Love, is the perfect facilitator of these discussions. An old-school idealist, sentimental about the possibilities of communism – though his father had been an exiled dissident from Tito’s Yugoslavia – he introduces them with a studenty zeal: “Nothing of the old system must stay, and everything of the beauty and humbleness and determination of our common struggle must be cherished… less work, more love; less monologue, more dialogue; less ego, more compassion – and again, lots of organisation!”
The moment seems to spark a sort of dreamy optimism among many of the speakers, as a counterpoint to their default one-upmanship in dystopian despair. Long-forgotten news items from the beginning of the pandemic – Cuba sending doctors to Italy; Boris Johnson temporarily nationalising the railways; Britney Spears proposing a general strike; China sharing details of the virus sequencing – are seized on as unlikely evidence of a new collectivist reality. Clap for Carers is either greeted as a “horror” in which “royals and celebrities were clapping like seals to celebrate NHS workers” or, by Brian Eno, as the beginnings of a revolutionary acknowledgment of who exactly are the “essential workers” in our society.
Most of the speakers are friends, united both in their faith in international socialism and their desire to liberate Julian Assange. To reach a more utopian “new normal”, it is generally agreed that first we must negotiate the escape from lockdown. Some solutions to this problem are more doctrinaire than others. Žižek proposes a “one-time communism” in which those who have recovered from the virus must be co-opted to do the frontline jobs of those who have not yet caught it: “it seems crucial today to have a list of people on whom we can rely and who should be ruthlessly mobilised. We are out of the economy of the market and money and are entering something else,” he says.
Sennett, more thoughtfully, sees the spontaneous seeds of a new community spirit, “a localised sociability” that can be encouraged by redesigning cities with the principle of decentralised “walking density”; recreating village-style communities that have all amenities, from grocery stores to schools to gyms, allowing people “not to take public transport”. He imagines Zoom “de-privatised” as a public good, using tech to “build solidarity”. “It is assumed that solidarity comes out of anger at injustice. But that’s not true; solidarity is a craft.”
Not all contributors are convinced that they should give up their class-warrior credentials quite so lightly post-pandemic, of course. Ali persists in making the argument that a vote for Joe Biden, say, would have no different effect for working people than a vote for Donald Trump (the pandemic at least, would argue otherwise). Roger Waters, of Pink Floyd, sees himself, without apparent irony, living like anyone else below the “i-cloud” of moneyed elites, “in a netherworld of fucking misery… where you never have more that $20 in your pocket and are desperately wondering what you are going to do at the end of the month”. That netherworld, often conjured in these pages, can sometimes appear like one other far-off abstract in a behind-closed-doors project that is, by its nature, either a call to arms in organising realistic futures, or an entertaining distraction from current realities, depending on where you are sitting.
• Everything Must Change! The World After Covid-19, edited by Renata Ávila and Srećko Horvat, is published by OR Books (£19)