Denis Semenov

At the beginning of the pandemic, COVID-19 was perceived not only as a threat but also as a factor posing a real challenge to the global neoliberal system. Even in the most gruesome moments of the first wave of the pandemic, the discourse of necessary and urgent change did not fade, and the COVID-19 looked like an almost perfect antithesis to neoliberalism. In the spring of 2020, the casting for the role of the Alien in the show of modernity—the same one where neoliberalism traditionally had the role of the Predator—was assured.

Today the situation looks very different. The first round of the “Alien vs. Predator” battle is played. The pandemic is still strong, and it is taking more and more lives, mutating and spreading faster and faster. But neither is neoliberalism dead, nor does it show signs of weakening. Rather, it is the opposite.

The stock market, contrary to expectations, has survived the first wave just fine, and it shows growth. As McKinsey consultants write: “[T]he stock market is no longer guided by economic fundamentals but is instead leading a life of its own—one detached from reality”. The fortunes of billionaires grew by a trillion between March and August 2020. Optimism has begun to prevail in the corporate sector’s sentiments since July 2020. And The Economist predicts global productivity growth due to the investments into digitalization of processes and of organization of remote workplaces in 2020. The discourse of radical change was no longer dominant by the end of the “bad 2020” year. The alternatives proposed by Klaus Schwab as “big reset” and by Pope Francis as “universal brotherhood” are politely but unflinchingly ignored. And even Žižek speaks of a “new normality”, the words that mean quite different things from neoliberal ideas, but which have surely received silent applause from the global elites.

That is, this situation is not even a stalemate. It is rather a strange symbiosis of the Alien and the Predator. As of now, neoliberalism has not only survived the battle against the pandemic, but has even managed to capitalize on it, and it persists as an uncontested and alternative economic model. Neoliberalism, albeit not completely, has absorbed the pandemic in the same way as it did with the counterculture, with the Soviet “real communism”, and with the leftist liberals.

Yet not a single neoliberal practice (whether in the economy, politics, or social life) has undergone any significant revision. Even the protests against lockdowns and social distancing—at least in the optics of conservatives—looked like a mass desire for a return to the pre-epidemic neoliberal status quo, against which almost half the world was protesting just a year ago.

Of course, there are losers in the “battle between the Alien and the Predator”: those who died, who survived with complications, who lost their jobs, who were kicked out from their rented apartments, or who were threatened with such eviction. But these losers have nothing to do with either side of the fight. If we apply Habermasian famous System-Lifeworld dichotomy, we can say that the System has adapted to the pandemic by shifting all the costs entirely to the Lifeworld. COVID-19 is no longer a Heideggerian Angst, but the part of a business plan that simply needs to be factored into the calculations for the risky investments.

In my opinion, the key to understanding this paradoxical situation is provided by Wendy Brown, who calls for viewing neoliberalism not as a set of economic procedures and political practices, but as a particular type of rationality that “economizes” all spheres of social life, and which subordinates them to market values, practices, and indicators. Such rationality views the improvement of education and medicine only as a means for economic growth. It subordinates all human activities to the goals of commodification, monetization, and capitalization. Within the neoliberal optics, both people and states are modeled on the corporation, which must strive to maximize capital, self-development and attract investors—or otherwise face bankruptcy, collapse, or even life.

This understanding of neoliberalism helps to explain what happens with us today. First, it becomes clear how the possibility of shifting the risks of a pandemic from the System to the Lifeworld arose. Of course, the COVID-19 was, and still is, an emergency. But this emergency caused restrictions on civil liberties, degraded access to jobs, and banned certain activities. However, these restrictions did not affect basic neoliberal motivations. No one took away responsibility for personal capitalization, commodification, and monetization. No one wrote off debts, and the moratorium on evicting rent debtors in the same states was the subject of months-long cross-party bargaining. The result is a paradoxical situation: the neoliberal imperatives are in effect, but the opportunities to meet their demands in the same way as before (that is, by overstretching our own forces) are much less. This is what provokes the social protests of 2020, and not a desire to sit in restaurants and jump in discos.

Second, it becomes clear that the dominance of neoliberal rationality does not lead to the development of the economy as a whole but preserves and develops those sectors that operate with abstractions, and that are least related to materiality. Even if the real sector of the economy is stopped, fintech retains the ability to extract value. This is bad news for the whole “real sector”. But it is also bad news for the world at large. It means, by and large, that the fintech sector does not just generate “bubbles” (which has been a common practice somewhere since the mid-1990s)—it is itself becoming a bubble detached from reality. And thus, it hides against any criticism and revisions. And if in the near future we will witness an urgent bailout of fintech with taxpayers’ money—don’t be too surprised.

Third, if we consider neoliberalism as a type of rationality, we have to admit that it will be very difficult to achieve a revision of its foundations by government decisions alone or, as Klaus Schwab suggests, by raising the social consciousness of businessmen. And it is certainly not worth relying on pandemics as something that can defeat the neoliberal paradigm. The solution to the problems lies not only in the plane of economic or social organization, — it is directly related to the creation and diffusion of a different kind of rationality.

In any case, the fight between the Alien and the Predator is far from over. After all, the COVID-19 is unpredictable, adaptive, and labile, and the symbiosis of the Alien and the Predator within neoliberal juncture may end as abruptly as it began. What matters is that we who live in the Lifeworld have to confront both. — And it is unlikely that we have any allies in this fight. However, the worst-case scenario for us is that we would accept this symbiosis—which the System tries to sell us in some beautiful packaging—as a “new normality”. This is the scenario we must avoid in the next round of the fight.

In the design, we used a cadre from the movie “Alien vs Predator: Requiem” (2007).