Covid-19 has placed the United States and the United Kingdom, the countries that held absolute cultural power in the world, in their (new) place. ‘Ideas’ advances an excerpt from’ Bland fans. Liberals, Race and Empire ‘, the new book by the prestigious Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra
“The abyss of history is deep enough to contain us all,” wrote Paul Valéry in 1919, when Europe was in ruins. These words reverberate today as the coronavirus is turning the world upside down and also brutally exposing the United Kingdom and the United States, main promoters of modern civilization, proud victors in two world wars and the Cold War, and that even recently they were presented as examples of enlightened progress and of economic and cultural models worthy of being emulated around the globe. “The true test of good government,” wrote Alexander Hamilton, “is your aptitude and your penchant for creating good administration.” During the current crisis, the United States and the United Kingdom have crashed that test. Both countries had several weeks of warnings about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan; they could have adapted and applied the strategies employed by nations that did respond early, such as South Korea and Taiwan. But Donald Trump and Boris Johnson preferred to consider themselves immune. “I think everything is going to be fine,” Trump announced on February 19. On March 3, the day the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies warned against shaking hands, Johnson bragged after visiting a hospital treating coronavirus patients: “You will be glad to hear that I have shaken hands with everyone and that I will continue to shake hands ”.
Epidemiologists have become the idols of a frightened society, and scientific rigor has gained new recognition in many regions of the world. But the current regimes in the United States and the United Kingdom had seized power by fostering hatred of experts and knowledge. Several British ministers, chosen for their devotion to Brexit and their loyalty to Johnson, have been revealed as dangerous bots. Trump, an advocate of family, sycophants and conspiracy theories, has forced his administration’s scientific authorities, Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, to tiptoe around his volcanic ego. The joyous passivity and ineptitude derived from ideological vanity have resulted in tens of thousands of deaths that could have been prevented, a disproportionate share of them among ethnic minorities. Meanwhile, rage against white supremacism is raging on the streets of America. Whatever the outcome of these protests, the largest since the 1960s, we have a period of devastation ahead of us. Tens of millions of people are likely to lose their livelihoods and dignity.
Now that a general insurrection against America’s founding inequalities has erupted, and the British national identity underpinned by imperial fantasies is cracking, it is not enough to lament the “authoritarian populism” of Trump and Johnson, or to blame “the identity politics ”or to the“ intolerant left ”, or claiming moral superiority over China, Russia and Iran.
The early winners of modern history now appear as its biggest losers, with their delegitimized political systems, grotesquely distorted economies, and shattered social contracts.
This narcissistic intellectual tendency that bestows moral virtue and political wisdom on countries like India will have to be put aside, just because they seem to have taken up Anglo-American ideas of democracy and capitalism. And more attention will have to be paid to the historical experiences and individual political traditions of Germany, Japan and South Korea, countries that have been described, and condemned, as authoritarian and protectionist, and also to the methods they have put in place to mitigate the problem. suffering caused by both human intervention and sudden catastrophe. It is therefore necessary to examine the idea of strategic construction of the State, historically alien to the United Kingdom and the United States. Covid-19 has highlighted that the largest democracies in the world are victims of damages that have been self-inflicted for a long time; it has also shown that countries with a state with a large capacity to intervene have been much more successful in containing the spread of the virus and appear better equipped to face the social and economic consequences of the epidemic.
Germany, which successfully launched a very basic test and trace program, is reintroducing the Kurzarbeit (part-time) system, which it had first used at the beginning of the last century and which proved especially useful after the financial crisis of 2008 South Korea applied a mobile booth testing system across the country, then used credit card history and mobile phone location data to track the movements of infected people – a tactic that the UK He has failed to master even after several months of trying. Other East Asian countries like Taiwan and Singapore are also doing much better. Vietnam quickly defeated the virus. China managed to contain its spread and has since shipped medical and clinical supplies around the world. Anglo-America’s bleak situation has long become apparent: deindustrialization, low-paying jobs, underemployment, mass incarceration, and weakened or exclusionary health systems. However, for some it has been a shock to discover the moral, political and material misery of two of the richest and most powerful societies in history. In a widely read article by The Atlantic, George Packer claimed that “in the endless month of March, many citizens woke up each morning to the discovery of being citizens of a failed state.” In reality, the State has been with “unjustified absence” for decades, and tasks that many countries reserve only to their governments had been left to the market: health, pensions, social housing, education, social services and prisons. In 1986, Ronald Reagan put it this way: “The most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the Government and I’ve come to help you.” (…)
Now that the United States and the United Kingdom face mass deaths and the destruction of the livelihoods of many, it is no longer possible to continue to ignore the increasingly insistent alarm signals that absolute cultural power causes provincialism or even corrupts, by increasing ignorance of the political and economic reality both abroad and at home. Covid-19 has shattered what John Stuart Mill called “the deep sleep of admitted opinion” by forcing many to accept that they are living in a broken society, with a state that has been painstakingly dismantled. As stated in May Southgerman newspaper, unequal and unhealthy societies are “a good breeding ground for the pandemic.” It does not appear that individuals and businesses seeking to maximize profits can be trusted to create a fair and efficient healthcare system or to include those who need it most in social security.
Pankaj Mishra (Jhansi, India, 1969) is a writer and essayist. This excerpt is an editorial preview of his book ‘Bland fans. Liberals, race and Empire ‘, by the Galaxia Gutenberg publishing house, which is published next Wednesday, September 30.