June 7, 2021 - 7:00am

Last Thursday, fifteen months into the pandemic, something happened that was suggestively, eerily, absurdly normal. A cruise liner, MSC Orchestra, floated into Venice. 

Catastrophic events like Covid-19 always summon prophecies. Throughout this crisis we have been told that the nature of work has fundamentally shifted, that there have been remarkable breakthroughs in medical technology, and that we are on the cusp of a revolution in green energy. Tourism was another industry in the process of being “reinvented” too — otherwise it was finished. 

Tech guru Peter Thiel argued for years that the world was trapped in a “Great Stagnation”. But in late 2020 he said that Covid marked the beginning of a new era: the 21st century had begun. 

And yet there is the MSC Orchestra, all 92,000 tons of it, rolling into the lagoon city, a buoyant riposte to the notion that the world has changed. 

Few objects are more evocative of the double-edged progress of the globalised late 20th century than cruise liners, or “really big white ships” as David Foster Wallace once called them. Historically, pleasure cruising had been a pursuit for rich aristocrats. But from the 1960s onwards the practice was democratised, suddenly cheap enough for ordinary people to live in a drifting bubble of luxury. We were all allowed in the same boat at last. 

But for those who toiled below the decks of these floating societies the experience was exhausting and uncertain. On many ships, thousands of employees worked fourteen hour days, seven days a week, for three or four dollars an hour, depending entirely on tips to earn a living wage. Employment laws that might protect them didn’t apply at sea. Meanwhile the companies that own the ships paid almost no tax. 

If the ‘End of History’ meant anything it was all there aboard these megaliners: millions of people in the West could live out a fantasy of affordable excess and gluttony, millions in more globally marginal areas were prepared to make their gin and tonics for a paltry wage. 

In Venice politics has long been consumed by arguments over cruise liners. Servicing the ships employed thousands, and replenished the city with flows of tourist money. Yet the same tourists, who seethed dumbly through the squares and alleys, were making the city unlovable and unliveable. Slowly, the liners were destroying the fragile lagoon on which the city was founded. The situation, like globalisation itself, appeared both permanent and unsustainable. 

Venice, for all it’s romance, tends to make thoughtful people anxious. “So we’ll go no more a roving/ So late into the night” wrote a melancholic Lord Byron after the Venetian carnival of 1817. As the site of a once-mighty empire reduced to a cockpit of limp and lifeless decadence, the city perturbed the Victorians. John Ruskin and Charles Dickens saw in it a prefiguration of what might happen to Britain’s Empire. The decay and degradation of Venice was an “awful” warning to England, Ruskin thought.  

Today, the return of the cruise liners to Venice suggests a different warning. Perhaps the world has not changed at all during the pandemic. Aboard the MSC Orchestra the restaurants, theatres, and miniature cinemas will endure, the passengers will pointlessly wash their hands more than they did in 2019, and the underpaid crew will be forced into hourly nasal swabbings. 

The pleasures and the pains of globalisation, like the crumbling palazzos of Venice, will shake and wobble, but they won’t disappear. Post-pandemic life, as Michel Houellebecq said a few months ago, will be exactly the same, “just a little bit worse.”