A few days ago when WHO officially declared the COVID-19 a ‘pandemic’ a Rubicon of consciousness and global governance was crossed. Hundreds of millions of individuals around the world are coping physically and mentally with what that word never before used in my lifetime means for themselves and those they care most about. The mental dimensions of self-isolation may turn out to be a big challenge almost as big as the disease itself. For once, government officials seem to be heeding the warning of health specialists rather than dutifully than scurrying about to address market signals of distress with public funds. At least this is the public face we see on our TV screens, although in Trump’s case even the appearances are mismanaged, considering the corporate smirk at his Rose Garden press conference when several CEOs pf prominent companies received better free PR that not even their most energetic publicist ever imagined attainable. There is a silver lining: if the American elections are actually held in November, we should see the fall of Trump, and as importantly, the end of Trumpism, that is, unless there is a quicker return to normalcy than now seems possible. Although one thing we might learn from how our lives changed overnight is to stop trying to outguess the future. Economists and future studies consultants may have their super-sophisticated models and graphs, but some of the most significant surges of history have a will of their own that often makes the most mathematically advanced computer models seem out of touch with transformative social forces that remain hidden until a shockingly unexpected eruption occurs.
If nothing else, COVID-19 reminds us of the perils and possible promise of radical uncertainty. As this mysterious deadly mutation of the Coronavirus suggests, our powers of anticipation are not much more impressive than those of our brothers and sisters in the jungle, and I am referring mainly not to tribal peoples looking up at the sky for signs of what is to come, but also of elephants and lions roaming freely on the savannas and grasslands of the world, yet suffering mass killings when wild fires rage out of control. What this uncertainty mandates above all else is preparedness and the acceptance as a matter of urgency of the Precautionary Principle as the long overdue Eleventh Commandment of our civilization. The Precautionary Principle should guide us to take steps to avoid known thresholds of irreversibility or curves of rising risks. The message is this. Don’t wait until the predictable crisis is at hand, and don’t build on or near the known fault lines of the planet.
COVID-19 also suggests something else that is both instructive and worrisome. We as a species react to crises when their impact is immediate and lethal, and sometimes compensate for earlier complacency by over-reacting when widespread fear spirals out of control to produce panic, and in the process lurid memories of past failures are dredged from the depths of collective consciousness. The Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918-19 is a current example of a past event I never heard discussed during my childhood, or throughout my adult life, but now is on the lips of many. While still a child this earlier flu pandemic was almost as recent then as the 9/11 attacks are now. We forget quickly past urgencies until replaced by new urgencies.
Another lesson here is that we cannot afford to treat climate change as we are treating this pandemic. Once the concreteness of climate change is revealed so that none can plausibly deny, or escape, or turn away from what happens at a distance, or be explained away as an anomaly of nature, or a danger that technology will address before the great collapse will occur, it will be probably too late to halt the downward trend. For now, despite the fires, floods, and droughts the sky above remains as blue as ever in most places, the stock market showed no abiding concern about global warming, and the whole societal ecosystem lurches forward, producing the latest digital device and AI advance, without blinking. Even Brazil and Australia, scenes of catastrophic fires, seem to view these occurrences as one-time events that should not in the first instance interfere with neither sovereign rights nor with profit-making deforestation and cattle ranching, and in the second, with expanding coal production and exports. The short-termism of how we live our ordinary lives and how political leaders and corporate moguls are judged, makes it difficult to combine democracy and accommodating the global and the long-term, especially if its destructive impact can be imagined as always occurring to others far away or in the distant future. When we read of the ordeal of those living in prolonged subsistence confinement in Gaza or in the misery of refugee camps and border assaults, we may lament the news, and even sign petitions and make donations, but our nighttime sleep is rarely interrupted the way it would be if a next door neighbor or a loved one was so severely infected by the virus as to be carried off to a hospital, hopefully one with enough beds and ventilators, which in a matter of weeks might itself become a vain hope for many older infected people.
COVID-19 also further tears at the fabric of democratic governance. Israel reveals that it has elaborate secret files for the surveillance of all mobile phone users in the country, supposedly to help with counterterrorist efforts, but now to be used in identifying, locating, and confining those believed to be infected or having had recent contact with carriers of the disease. When Orwell imagined a tormenting Big Brother, it was read as an indictment of totalitarian systems of governance, specifically the Soviet Union, or at most a warning of a world in the making, an imagined dystopia that would hopefully never become actual. What the imagination could only worry about the technologists have now achieved. Are we safer, more secure and content when all of us have become suspects and our lives transparencies subject to the discretion of unaccountable bureaucrats?
As with the delusions of the militarist, excessive investments in weapons brings insecurity, not enhanced security. America is the best example in all of history. While our military arsenals grow, we shackle ourselves with more and more restrictions on our freedoms, which has been translated by our minder into electronic monitoring, long lines, and countless hidden cameras. Instead of improving lives by investing in social betterment through health, education, culture, parks and natural preserves, we spend public monies collecting meta-data and insist on a military capability that is dominant globally, able to strike catastrophic blows anywhere on the face of the earth from land, air, and sea platforms, and even from space. China, with all its imperfections, demonstrates to the world that the way to gain power, prestige, and influence is to manage clever fusions of state and market, taking advantage of soft power opportunities wherever they are found. By way of contrast, America is demonstrating that the way to lose power, prestige, and influence is to rely on geopolitical muscle through threat and coercive diplomacy, sanctions, and intervention. The result has been repeated frustration by striking its blows in dead end misadventures, yet learning nothing from each failure because the whole edifice is militarized, paralyzing the moral and political imagination, and the high-priced gurus offer tactical adjustments that misinterpret past failures, and thus prepare the way for new failures..
The democratic fabric of many countries was fraying badly long before COVID-19 added to the wear and tear. The end of the Cold War brought with it the expectation that the material and political benefits of democratic forms of governance would become so obvious to everyone as to produce a global tsunami of democratization, and to some extent it did during the 1990s. Bill Clinton spoke of ‘enlargement’ by which he meant that more capitalist democracies would emerge, and that this would be good for both economic prosperity and world peace as democracies do not make war on one another, especially when trade and investment are robust. Then came 9/11, the counterrevolutionary moves after the Arab Spring that caused severe civil strife and mass displacement, refugees and asylum seekers, ultra-nationalist reactions to neoliberalism, and now COVID-19 comes along. A mixture of alienation, scapegoating, and identity politics gave rise to the still bewildering phenomenon of societies freely electing, and even reelecting, autocratic demagogues that take away basic liberties without disguising their acts or intentions. A leader as regressive from the perspective of democratic values as Rodrigo Duterte enjoys an 80% approval rating in The Phillippines despite being responsible for as many as 20,000 extra-judicial executions, as well as numerous flagrant violations of human rights standards and disregard of constitutional limitations on the exercise of state power. Modi remains popular in India despite his crude and cruel encroachment on the autonomy of Kashmir coupled with inflaming attitudes toward the large Muslim minority.
It is to be expected that there are no real democracies during wartime or in the midst of crises that give governments, regardless of ideology, a free hand to do whatever they proclaim as helpful in the name of national security, and now public health. During World War II the United States Government interned its West Coast Japanese minority without the slightest attempt to proceed in accord with the rule of law or even due process, and yet a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court had no trouble upholding this repressive undertaking as a reasonable security precaution given wartime apprehensions of disloyalty among Japanese citizens and residents. At least, the decision was controversial at the time, and there were dissenting opinions in the high court. Later on official apologies followed, especially 25 years after the end of the war when wartime fevers had dissipated. Now the U.S. government seeks to expel rather than intern, to keep the poor and unwanted out whether by erecting walls or imposing anti-Muslim bans and the like. Instead of global democratization, the recent international experience has been one of the previously unforeseen popularity of radical forms of de-democratization, proliferating ultra-nationalist outlooks, and the erosion of respect for the UN, international law, and global cooperation when such instruments of good order are more needed than ever. Also present in this anti-democratic ‘perfect storm’ is the penchant for undermining independent journalism and academic freedom, banishing free expression of ideas to private conversations among dissidents.
The cumulative effect of these political tendencies to weaken trust, and even draw the possibility of truth into question, making governance into a series of opportunistic fabrications. When scientifically backed opinions and unwelcome evidence can be dismissed as ‘hoaxes’ and ‘fake news,’ we no longer know what to believe, and most of all view skeptically what the government and its leaders tell us. Democracies depend for their legitimacy and effectiveness on trust as well as an atmosphere of normalcy, and when neither exists, there is confusion and chaos, and demagogues comes forth with self-confident and often malicious propaganda that is swallowed whole by large sectors of the population, however divorced from reality is the promise of rescue. One transcription of the message is this: making America ‘great’ again is being achieved at the price of inducing planetary collapse. This is the dark logic of our time that needs to be countered by a dialectic of resistance and transformation.
Interestingly, COVID has temporarily restored the stature and influence of the expert, at least for this current state of emergency. Can you imagine a future Trump press conference on climate change featuring the head of the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, and having Greta Thunberg share the platform with the experts. However absurd such a. musing, this seems more or less how the American president seeks now to reassure the public that despite some early stumbles, citizens can now have confidence that everything recommended by the best experts is being done to minimize the harm resulting from the global virus. Trump no longer appears in front of the TV cameras and assembled journalists as the preeminent know-everything leader. Instead he is flanked by health experts, corporate managers, and cabinet member to whom he regularly defers whenever a question by a journalist raises a technical issue. In this ironic turn, the supreme leader has become the novice, and hopefully will soon receive a pink slip of the kind he so gleefully issued while weekly performing on The Apprentice.
Of course, experts have their limits as well, and relying on the authority of the measurable is not a humane path to the future. Ethical sensitivity, especially empathy, is more important than following the evidence as interpreted by many experts, who are often hiding their own questionable policy agendas or career ambitions behind a flurry of numbers and graphs. So somewhere between banishing reality as fake news and worshipping the dapper expert as our supreme guide we need to find the courage, wisdom, and humility to reach difficult decisions that move humanity forward. Yet we are a long way from generating the political choices that include such constructive voices. So far what opposes the entrenched autocrat seems an improvement worth supporting, but It doesn’t even pretend to transform the system.
Without overdoing it, the real lessons to be learned are well depicted in a fine essay by Bruce Franklin, an admired friend and long one of the most perceptive and humane interpreters of the political scene, whose virtues have unfortunately automatically relegated him to the outer margins of public awareness. His piece, https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/03/13/what-is-covid-19-trying-to-teach-us/ stresses the idea that continuing to rely on state-centric world order and transactional geopolitics is to choose a doomsday destiny not only for country, but for the human species. If we cannot learn from the COVID-19 experience of our dependence on global cooperation, and a win/win approach to global problem-solving, the human species is far along on bio-ecological death march. As Franklin makes clear, in responding positively to a pandemic we help ourselves by helping other, and we hurt ourselves when we refuse to do so. His crucial point is that climate change, extreme poverty, biodiversity, global migration, nuclear disarmament, demilitarization are essentially the same: challenges of global scope that will not be resolved except by global win/win responses on a comparable scale.