Facing an Ugly Truth: Dorian Gray meets COVID-19
There is already more than enough to read about the current crisis. But, more likely than not, there is a sense of fatigue for all of us about discussing yet again the steps and missteps of the global response to COVID-19. Therefore, this short blog will not be any such economic or political analysis. Instead, it will present a brief proposal to recast our discussion on COVID-19, from one that focuses on animal food markets in China, black swans and lockdown ghost towns to an altogether different picture; that of Dorian Gray.
On the face of it, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray would have little to say about COVID-19. But that’s pretty much the point. We need something that will get us thinking differently. We need not only to ask hard questions of others or of those in power with influence and budgets, but to ask hard questions of ourselves as consumers, citizens, caring friends and family. We won’t see genuine transformation or innovation without asking different and difficult questions and without seeking new answers. Wilde’s book is provocative and confronting. In many ways, it offers us a somewhat haunting image of the moment I believe we are in. Here, it is a springboard for us to ask some difficult and different questions.
Confronting hidden realities
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian, the protagonist, offers his soul in exchange for a life of perpetual youth and beauty. The exchange is granted such that his portrait, painted by his friend Basil Hallward, takes on Dorian’s bodily decay and moral destruction, leaving his body as youthful as the day the portrait was painted. Dorian proceeds to live a life where he indulges his every desire without regard for its effects on himself or others. The portrait is kept hidden away behind a curtain in a damp attic room. As Dorian’s sins grow worse, his representation in Basil’s portrait grows more repulsive. Dorian seems to lack any conscience at times, but despite his apparent darkness, he maintains a latent desire to repent. Ultimately, confronted by his moral crisis, Dorian must reconcile himself to the grotesque discrepancy between his pristine appearance and his inner destruction.
Our present economic system functions much like Dorian. On the surface level, we can extoll its beauty and splendour. After all, it has created wealth and prosperity for more people than ever before. Today, we experience a greater quality of life, higher levels of education and better technology than any of our predecessors. Voluntary exchange and free markets have certainly unleashed economic prosperity and progress. But at what cost? At a deeper level, billions remain in abject poverty, trapped by cycles of political and economic corruption and self-interest. Inequality is on the rise as the system continues to reward those who already have plenty with plenty more. Workers across the world are rising up against mistreatment and poor pay. Communities are splintering along populist lines that we thought had almost disappeared: ‘isms’ including nationalism, sexism, racism and anti-Semitism. Our planet is both rebelling and crumbling after centuries of abuse and degradation. Our economic system has a smiling, charming face, but a crippled soul. It is not so different from Dorian Gray.
‘An exclamation of horror broke from the painter's lips as he saw in the dim light the hideous face on the canvas grinning at him. There was something in its expression that filled him with disgust and loathing. Good heavens! it was Dorian Gray's own face that he was looking at! The horror, whatever it was, had not yet entirely spoiled that marvellous beauty. There was still some gold in the thinning hair and some scarlet on the sensual mouth. The sodden eyes had kept something of the loveliness of their blue, the noble curves had not yet completely passed away from chiselled nostrils and from plastic throat. Yes, it was Dorian himself.’
COVID-19 is certainly a health crisis, and increasingly an economic and political crisis too. But beyond this, I think it is fundamentally a crisis of meaning about our system, our institutions and ourselves. A recent Economist article talked about the crisis holding up an “unflattering mirror” to rich societies. I think that misses the point; the mirror actually presents an image that is too flattering. Few were of the belief that our pre-COVID economic and political system was fit for purpose, so what we see in the mirror is hardly surprising. The problem is that the mirror fails to reveal what is on the inside. COVID-19 has brought us face to face with our own hidden portrait. Now what stares back at us is not what we do, wear, or look like, but who we are. This is an altogether more painful meeting.
The pandemic-induced crisis has shone a bright and unflattering light on the often hidden, darker aspects of our economic system in a confronting way:
Least surprisingly, but still of note, we have seen many instances of self-interested corporate behaviour, such as poor and uncaring treatment of employees, continued excessive CEO pay, prioritisation of shareholder dividends and reliance on taxpayers to provide financial bailouts.
Those we have depended on most for our health and safety over the last 3 months are some of the least valued by our economy – least valued not only in terms of wages, but also in terms of status and stigma. These include frontline workers in medical facilities, from cleaners and porters to nurses and emergency services; our supermarket shelf stackers, shop floor and warehouse staff; our bin collectors; and our truck and delivery drivers.
Most severely, it is the many millions of poor and vulnerable people across the world with no means to protect themselves who have been hit the hardest, whether they be migrant workers in India and Singapore or the homeless in the US or Europe. We have known about the plight of the poor, but perhaps we had chosen to ignore just how precarious and vulnerable so many in society, whether in developed or developing countries, truly are.
Reconciling before it’s too late
The Picture of Dorian Gray provides a poignant analogy for the economic system that we have built. Have we not exchanged its purpose and soul for superficial gains – perhaps beauty and youth, certainly wealth and power? Have we not become more concerned with what we do than who we are, with market value than personal values, with GDP or income than well-being and fulfilment?
We are staring at a deep and dark irony: wanting to keep hold of what is temporary for eternity while, in the process, forfeiting what is of true eternal value. The tragedy of Dorian Gray is that though he ultimately desired reconciliation between his external and internal self, he never found it. It was too late. The moments that once brought joy to Dorian became “marred”, to use Wilde’s word, by the state of his conscience shown in the ever more repulsive portrait.
The danger we face at this time is not that we won’t see recovery; we will. It is that we recover a world and an economy that is still divorced from its soul. Amid our current crisis we have an opportunity in our personal and collective thinking to contemplate in a rather different way not only the economy we have built, but also the economy that we would like to rebuild. The quality of our future economy will be very much dependent on how exacting and profound a reflection we undertake now. Can we have an economic system that not only looks good and does good, but also is good? Without such change, I fear that we too will find today’s joys marred by both our conscience and a sense of missed opportunity.
At the Economics of Mutuality, we have a vision to invert our present economy from its current structure where people and the environment serve business, business serves finance and finance simply serves itself. We are working towards an economic system where finance serves business, business serves people and the environment and people serve each other. Such a vision is about reconciliation both of the self – between what we say and do and who we are as individuals – and of the systemic relationships connecting business, society and the environment. Until this point, realising such a vision has often felt unfeasible, but at this profound moment in history, the impossible might have just become possible. Our challenge is not to try and restore a painting that is damaged beyond repair, but to paint something new.
Alastair Colin-Jones, Senior Manager, Business Research Catalyst: Mars Incorporated