Coronavirus and the Return to Reality | Henry George
We’re living through extraordinary times. Extraordinary because while many are living, others are dying in huge numbers of a disease that we feel should not exist but does. Coronavirus is ripping its silent way through Europe’s population, leaving a trail of death and shock in its wake. I say silent, but the sounds of grief already echo through our societies and will only grow as time goes on. The fact of life’s tragic nature is one many have forgotten. We are now being made to remember it.
We have grown used to a world that conforms to our desire for comfort. We are used to the idea that our wants will be met and hungers sated. The idea of limits itself has grown less and less fashionable as our technical mastery of life and nature has increased with our knowledge. The idea of limits is seen as a barrier to the highest good of our society, the realisation of the will of the autonomous individual.
The belief in the life to come that under-girded the worldview of what was known as Christendom was replaced with a belief in an end to History in this world, revealed by the philosophers who became the clerisy of this world. The completion of the arc of progress has been taken for granted by intellectuals from the Enlightenment on, from Montesquieu to Kant to Comte.
Even accounting for the variation between their systems of thought, they all believed in a universal system of ideas, grounded in human reason, that provided the template for the improvement of mankind everywhere for all time. This is particularly so for the Positivists like Comte, who believed that scientific thinking and technique was applicable everywhere and would guide man towards a better tomorrow. This tendency was captured perfectly by Barack Obama, with his hideously complacent statement that “the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.”
In our time we can see this thinking embodied by our class of intellectuals and experts, many of whom labour under the delusion that humanity is on an endless upward curve of improvement. The epitome of this is Harvard’s Stephen Pinker, who in books like The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now uses acres of graphs and other data sets to prove that life is steadily improving in every way for nearly everyone and that the only reason we dissent from this good news is that we’re too blind and blinkered to realise how lucky we are.
With our negativity bias and our propensity to ignore enlightened experts like Pinker with their beautiful theories and ideas in favour of empirical experience that we see in front of our eyes we simply need to be lectured into thinking, and therefore behaving in a better way. Better being an imitation of the rationalistic, progressive, liberal, open and optimistic way that Pinker and his fellow philosophes embody.
We in Britain also see this tendency, with those like Matt Ridley encouraging us to be rational optimists and ignore the warning signs that suggest not everything is as good as it seems. So it was with interest that I read Ridley’s column in the Spectator on the Coronavirus. In it, Ridley admits that he had thought something like this could never happen again. He thought our medical mastery of nature was such that disease would never again lead to mass death, and that it would be a case of managing nature, not coping with it. He does have the good grace to admit his error, and to his credit, he was calling for stringent measures against the virus for some time before the government took the actions it did to effectively shut down British society.
However, it is people like Ridley and Pinker in the intellectual sphere who bear a hefty portion of the blame for where we are today. Intellectuals do not, on the whole, communicate their ideas to the masses who digest, brood and then act on them. These ideas matter because they are imbibed by the political class who take turns at ruling us with our democratic consent.
The quote from Obama above is testament to the idea among our leadership that everything was getting better. Tony Blair’s campaign song from 1997 was literally ‘Things can only Get Better.” This belief in the inevitability of progress was encapsulated in Frank Fukuyama’s essay and subsequent book The End of History, where he argued that all ideologies that could direct human life had failed, leaving only liberal democracy and free-market capitalism standing. As such, while there would be bumps along the road from dissenters and laggards, it was impossible for rivals to this Hegelian triumph to derail the onward march of the liberal-democratic order.
This belief that humanity was marching towards a universal civilisation, grounded in liberal-democracy, human rights and free markets was believed in by the neoliberal left of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, and by the neoconservative right of George Bush. In the end, these were distinctions without a difference. Both sides held that the world was heading towards convergence on the Western standard that was really a universal standard. Those who hadn’t got there yet were just the slow ones in the class, and those who declined to join the new global order could always be encouraged to get their affairs in order by military intervention or economic strangulation.
The self-confidence on display, that the world was experiencing a convergence was nothing more than hubris. Over the last 10-12 years, hubris met nemesis and this worldview was shown for the arrogant dream it was. The financial crisis destroyed the economic dreams of ever freer markets and unregulated financial systems. The Eurozone crisis destroyed the dream of ever-closer political union of an entire continent. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and China’s aggression and expansionism destroyed the dream of global convergence. Failed interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya destroyed the dream of making the world safe for “democratic-capitalism” by force. The migrant crisis of 2015-2016 destroyed the dream of endless altruism towards the stranger once the impact was felt in terrorism, sex attacks, gang warfare, rising populist nationalism and general dislocation.
Now, plague has returned in the form of COVID-19, a virus that originated in China but which spread around the world, using the arteries of globalisation to infect the planet. The idea that these arteries could also pump pathogens around the world was realised by scientists long ago but was ignored by politicians and our commentary classes. In our society of the spectacle, they were more concerned with the decadent politics of identitarianism and palace intrigue. We participated in the drama played out on cable-news theatre through the online Coliseum of social media. It was the political theatre of impeachment that distracted American in January from what was happening in China.
Legitimate questions over whether the system of global trade erected in the wake of the Cold War was as beneficial as endlessly claimed were either ignored or denigrated. Never mind the offshoring of crucial manufacturing of things necessary for our national military and medical defence, a move we are now sorely regretting. This was all needed to make us conform to the liberal dreams of ever-expanding individual freedom believed in by our punch-drunk politicians.
Never mind that this freedom manifested itself in slightly cheaper plastic rubbish from China. Never mind that this slightly cheaper trash didn’t compensate for the loss of steady, well-paying jobs that sustained lives and communities. Never mind that the freedom from bonds of meaning this supported resulted in the freedom of hundreds of thousands in America and Britain’s rust belts to medicate themselves to death as a way out of their hell-scapes of meaninglessness. No, all this was necessary, not to mention inevitable, and the only thing we could all do was get on board and enjoy ourselves.
Of course, this has all been shown as the lie it was. Pathogens do not care about these grand dreams. They are almost designed to demonstrate the overconfidence of civilisation and to put pressure on its weak points. The problem being that our globally interconnected world leads to globally interconnected weak points. The dream that we could surmount our human nature and push back mother nature from impinging on the eternal party that was our due as History’s Last Men has been ripped away.
We are back in reality. Reality means that disease and death are ever-present facts of life. History did not end, and it was the height of stupidity to pretend that it ever did. While we in the West went on holiday, splashing the cash and bombing countries as diversions to our existential boredom, nature and real-life was simply waiting for its chance to make its appearance again. It is a supreme irony that the system we designed to give us mastery over the world is the one that made the shut-down of that same system and that same world necessary.
The reaction to the crisis that we are currently living and dying through demonstrates that it is not only governing elites who forgot the lessons of history and who were living in a dream world of their own making. The panic on show across Britain portrays a society increasingly heedless of the reality of life, one that held until the yesterday of our history.
It is only a short time ago in the span of our civilisation’s existence that the world seemed on the precipice of annihilation, during World War II and the height of the Cold War. The Spanish Flu of 1918-1919 pandemic killed 55 million people when the world was not as intertwined as ours. Why should our time be immune to disasters like these? Why are we, and why is the world we live in, any different?
People seem to have forgotten the fragility of life and the tenuous nature of our existence. Although, maybe forgotten is perhaps not the right word. Denial may be more appropriate. With the decline of religion in society, we have become cut-off from its core messages about life and death that permeated our culture even if some or most of us were sceptical of its messages. This connection to the realism about existence that religion provides has been denied because of its uncomfortable lessons.
Having a severe, life-limiting disability means that all this is clear, whether I like it or not. It is hard not to see that life is fleeting, and that the unpredictability of it is impossible to banish completely. There is always an awareness that the layer between our stable society and the chaos of most of our history is thinner than many would like to imagine. The tragic sense of life reminds us that while we may wish to live in heaven, hell is never far away and can be brought into existence by our hubris of commission or omission only too easily. This is a harsh message for harsh times. Life is short, and while we may not wish it so, is filled with pain and suffering born of our flawed human nature, alongside the whims of mother nature.
There will be time for a reckoning: on our globalised world, our relations with China, on the primacy of the nation-state and the unreality of both neoliberal and libertarian anthropology. It is to be hoped that our intellectual class will engage in a period of introspection, and perhaps approach the new, post-Coronavirus world with a degree of humility. Even so, I won’t hold my breath. The delusions of the old world of yesterday are being torn away and the world of tomorrow is being revealed. Really, it is the world we inhabited all along. We ignored it as long as we could. But, as Kipling wrote:
“And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!”
It is a lesson that we are relearning, and one that we would do well to remember.
Photo by Chad Davis on Flickr.