In the short run we are all infected

Liam Stanley

In No Future (2004), Lee Edelman described the figure of the Child as ‘the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantastic beneficiary of every political intervention’. The Child makes the future imaginable – and hopeful. The future is for the Child.

The Child upholds social order and heteronormativity. If you put your energies into working hard and parenting responsibly, the nation-state will protect you. The Child manifests itself in the conservative idea that sex is only proper when aligned to reproductive goals. There is little place for queerness here.

The Child is a way of marginalising gay people. Niall Ferguson once suggested that Keynes’s economic philosophy is flawed because of his sexuality. His famous remark that ‘in the long run we are all dead’ implied to Ferguson that Keynes's childlessness meant he did not (and perhaps could not) care about future generations. Ferguson later apologised.

How do we live in a world where, in the short run, we are all infected? Even if we are not infected, and never will be infected, we must live as if we are infected. Every social interaction contains the possibility of death. Not touching your face in public is an act of self-discipline that can protect the nation. Wash your hands, again and again. The future has never been so risky.

Social theorists such as Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi and Mark Fisher have long argued that we were already living through the ‘slow cancellation’ of the future. By ‘the future’, they mean the idea, specific to the culture of progressive modernity, that we have only unending development and improvement to look forward to. This has been ‘cancelled’, they argue, because life seems only to get worse in a time of austerity, precarity and impending ecological disaster.

My mother – who is retired but dedicated to a full and packed social life – told me at the weekend that she dared not turn her diary page to next week. We are now living through a literal cancellation of the future, measured out in toilet rolls.

Thanks to epidemiological modelling, we’re constantly confronted with different depictions of the months ahead. The last time I looked, July is supposed to be the peak of the Covid-19 epidemic in the UK. I can imagine that. On the other hand, I cannot imagine what the worst economic crash in human history is going to be like. But there it is, almost visible on the horizon.

Economic action depends on imagined future states of the world. It is difficult to know whether Britain’s renationalised railways or Germany’s ban on most exports of protective medical equipment are a sign of the shape of things to come. As the economy and life slow down, a new world is being brought into existence at rapid speed.