As a ‘new normal’ unfolds within the ongoing Covid Pandemic, it’s important to reflect on how compensatory ways of living have become normalised after past crises.
My book Rebranding Precarity: Pop-up as the Seductive New Normal explores the glamorization and entrenchment of precarity after the 2008 crash; offering timely insights into how what begin as emergency responses can end up as lasting ways of living.
2020 has seen a radical reshaping of public and personal life. The ways we work, socialise, conduct relationships and inhabit cities have been shaken up by the Covid 19 pandemic and the restrictions put in place in its name. When lockdown was first imposed in the UK in March it was broadly anticipated to be a pause; a strange interlude in the rhythms of life as normal. But as the severity of the crisis and our government’s ineptitude at managing it became clearer, a key point of discussion became what shape the ‘new normal’ would take.
I spent the early days of lockdown finalising the proofs of my book Rebranding Precarity: Pop-up as the Seductive New Normal. Written between 2014 and 2019 it explores the reshaping of London after the 2008 crash through pop-up culture; a trend for temporary and mobile place making. Re-reading my description of the ‘new normal’ pop-up created in cities during this period was a surreal experience as a new, new normal took shape around me. I wrote the book to capture how our – at the time - current ways of imagining and producing cities came to be.
But, merely a few months later, it read almost like an account of a historical period. That’s not to say that the logics I describe in Rebranding Precarity don’t inform the Covid zeitgeist, but, for sure, the structure of feeling is now radically differently. However, the development of this new, new normal makes the book’s arguments even more pertinent.
Rebranding Precarity explores how pop-up in normalized and glamorized ‘compensatory’ ways of living and working in cities after 2008. In London, as across the world, the impacts of the crash were visible in the urban fabric in its aftermath. Buildings and sites were left vacant as businesses shut down and developments ground to a halt. At the same time, funding cuts left charities, creative groups and small businesses without capital or opportuni¬ties. The now ubiquitous ‘pop-up’ culture emerged from this state of affairs. Mostly, pop-ups are in the creative and hospitality industries and include temporary and mobile bars, restaurants, galleries, work spaces, cinemas, theatres and shops. However, pop-up has also come to include sites of welfare including medical services, council libraries and emergency housing. We’ve also seen pop-up responses to Covid, including pop-up hospitals like The Nightingale and pop-up bike lanes to encourage alternatives to public transport. While it started as a second best solution, pop-up has become a much celebrated form of place making; codified into urban policy and utilised by big brands and local and central Government, as well as by grass roots creatives and small businesses.
Rebranding Precarity argues that the ‘success’ of pop-up lies in its development of logics that rebranded markers of insecurity after the 2008 crash so that, rather than needing to be repaired, they were reimagined as desirable conditions. For example, ‘flexibility’ normalised precarious forms of labour within the craft economy; making working in a shipping container with no sick pay or holiday pay securities seem like an optimal career move. Likewise, ‘the micro’ branded diminished housing conditions so that flats below minimum space standards became aspirational places to live. Flexibility and the micro are two of seven logics (patterns of thinking and feeling) that the book explores – the others of which are immersion, interstitiality (in-between-ness) secrecy, surprise and the meantime. I examine how each logic works to normalize and/or glamorize precarity in London’s leisure, labour and housing cultures in the post 2008 era.
The book’s central argument - that compensatory ways of living emerging from a crisis can become accepted (and desired) ways of life, even while they reproduce the insecurity they stemmed from – provides an important perspective on the current crisis. Life under Covid is, as we all well know, defined by compensatory ways of living. This makes it crucial to trace which of these are becoming engrained in our new normal, how that’s happening, what the stakes are and for whom. Will working from home become as routine as anticipated? If so, how will the implications of this be differentiated by gender, race, class and other inequalities. And how will this change in rhythms and mobilities of labour impact the organisation of cities? Equally, will the new meanings of ‘household’ and the idea of a ‘bubble’ reshape how we think about, relationships, families, networks of care and their boundaries? Will the retraction of funding for ‘non-viable’ industries including the arts persist long-term? If so will this radicalise critical creative voices? Or result in the little funding left going only to more ideologically compliant productions? And will we further solidify the supremacy of capital under neoliberalism through the idea that financial profit is the marker of how necessary a human interaction is? Will governments finally recognise that cramped, overcrowded housing is destructive to mental and physical health? Or will there be a normalisation of living in individualised, small spaces, as the rise in demand for Tiny Homes in America at the moment suggests?
As I argued in Rebranding Precarity, it’s vital that we examine the development of new normals before they solidify, before we forget that they were contingent, historically constructed modes of organising life and lose site of the conditions within which they were formulated. However, a key difference between now and the post 2008 context is that society under the Covid crisis is already much more attentive to this contingency. I suggest in Rebranding Precarity that a key function of pop-up was to disguise the contingency of urban and financial systems that the crash (nearly) exposed. Where dereliction could have been evidence of the failure of those systems and their ability to be made differently, pop-up filled up the physical and conceptual gaps with sanctioned activities, babysitting sites until ‘business as normal’ could resume. In contrast, the restrictions imposed during the pandemic have made people very aware of the contingency of the systems we normally live by.
My latest research explores the class politics of conceptions of freedom during the lockdown. I’ve found that being told to live differently overnight as lockdown was imposed reminded people that our normal routines are equally as conditional; that ways of structuring our private and personal worlds are always, hypothetically at least, open to recreation. In this sense lockdown is an Existential situation that reveals our inherent, radical freedom to produce the world and its meaning according to our own choices. Yet, at the same time, lockdown and other Covid restrictions exposed our unequal abilities to mobilize this definitive existential freedom in practice.
We’ve seen how freedom from the infection itself is harder for BAME people who are more likely to work in front-line jobs and live in overcrowded housing. Together with the intensification of the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd and the disproportionate policing of lockdown restrictions on black communities, a heightened awareness has formed of how non-white groups have their freedom more severely curtailed.
We’ve also seen the false promises that young people are free to determine their own futures exposed, as the A Levels scandal starkly illustrated the deliberate reproduction of disparities in academic attainment according to social class. Equally, there’s now more appreciation of how our freedoms are restricted by engrained myths around employment. The fact that millions of people could be furloughed from their jobs with no dramatic consequences exposed how many jobs are, in the words of the late David Graeber, ‘bullshit’ (Graeber, 2013); existing predominantly to keep us tied to a routine that precludes free thought and activity rather than for the social value of their outputs.
During lockdown we recognised collectively what Graeber argues we’ve long known individually, that many jobs don’t need to exist at all or could be done in a fraction of the time we’re contractually obliged to sit in offices for. And, that many of the jobs that aren’t bullshit – that we’ve relied on during the pandemic, such as cleaning, delivery services and shop work, are structurally undervalued and underpaid. Possibly –hopefully- a greater appreciation that, to quote Graeber again, the “hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently” (Graeber, 2015) will be a definitive characteristic of our new normal. Already we’re seeing a different approach to the significance of law, as distancing restrictions given legal force are routinely disobeyed by millions of people, including by those making those rules. This is of course nothing new, but our collective awareness of it has probably never been as acute.
I hope that Rebranding Precarity’s account of the production of a new normal after a previous crisis provides resources needed to trace the development of life under and after this one. I’d like to think it gives tools for anticipating how new compensatory cultures could become permanent, puts focus on how dangerously diminished ways of living can be rebranded as aspirational, and encourages a recognition that the ways we’re coerced into living are contingent and always open to contestation.