This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.
No-one quite imagined it would turn out this way: a world segregated between Isolationists and Openers. But they were not divided by nation state borders – one nation state for the Isolationists, another for the Openers. Rather the demarcation emerged within and across nation states.
Not content with their control of the state apparatus in the early 2020s and the entrenchment of neo-nationalism, the Isolationists forcefully advocated further self-withdrawal. The shape this took varied across the globe, but overall patterns were similar. In Europe, it was the New Diggers’ movement during the C-crisis to occupy private land — golf courses, country estates, and grounds of private schools and corporations — which provided the trigger. The Isolationists responded by unilaterally declaring exclusive zones, whose borders were heavily policed and whose citizenries were stringently tracked on the MorbApp. The Preppers, Survivalists and Social Hygienists had come into their own. Their gated communities were sustained by a measure of circulation of goods between Isolationists’ and Openers’ spaces, in tightly controlled and sanitised CrossZones. Much work was automated in Isolationist areas, but some workers from Opener zones were hired, with heavy MorbApp monitoring. But it was unclear how viable such an arrangement was in the long term.
Bizarrely in retrospect, many Openers had clamoured for isolation and distancing in the early stages of the C-crisis, and had got them. But the stringent socio-political control that inevitably followed was hard to get rid of. So was the impoverishment as the stymied economy tanked. After enduring several years of total then partial enforced immobility, Openers had concluded that the price of isolation and of economic and social regression was too high. In the spaces outside the Isolationists’ zones the Openers sought to maintain and extend connections and mobility, at the cost of putting up with a degree of continuing infection. With them were those who did not have the resources to isolate even if they wanted to. The Openers were helped by a level of immunity built up several years after the outbreak, and the growing availability of partly effective BatShit™ vaccine. As they saw it, there was a trade-off between physical or social death and what they viewed as an imperfect but open life. Mobility among open spaces and across national borders was welcomed, and monitoring by way of the MorbApp for incomers was preferred but not compulsory.
Openers were also helped by rethinking the basis of social organisation. New ways of organising based on mutual aid groups and other neighbourhood initiatives that burgeoned during the C-crisis had developed into a form of governance in parallel to local and national structures, and sometimes a preferred alternative to them. Much wasteful consumption and useless work – which had become obvious during lockdowns – was done away with. In addition, Openers had reassessed the value of different kinds of useful work. During the C-crisis, labour designated as KeyWork had by popular accord become the most highly remunerated as well as being rewarded generously in terms of working conditions. RiskWorkers were the most highly rewarded. This new setup was consolidated after the peak of the C-crisis. The transition had nevertheless been hard. Many of those whose work was formerly labelled professional (especially academics) at first protested at the relative diminution of their pay, but afterwards saw the point and accepted it. They could undertake KeyWork to top up their incomes, and anyway Universal Basic Income was there as a backup. Most eventually conceded that this was fairer than the BC era. Inequalities in standards of living evened out a bit. And as a consolation socialising was possible in Cove Caves, if you were prepared to take the risk of infection.
Openers and Isolationists in uncomfortable segregation: perhaps it could only be this way. Intractable, entrenched and impervious to persuasion, neo-nationalists had gone for full isolation: for them self-isolation had its counterpart in territorial isolation, social distancing was reflected in territorial distancing. Openers could not live in such a world, and were reconstructing a different one. Maybe something good could come from it. The notion ‘never waste a good crisis’ had in the past been co-opted by the neo-nationalists and their financier backers, but now it was being called upon to reach for a better world.
Nick Van Hear is a senior researcher at COMPAS. With his colleague Robin Cohen, he ponders another social science fiction future in the recently published book Refugia: radical solutions to mass displacement