The Covid 19 crisis has weakened the United States and the European Union. For the most part, American states and European nation-states have retreated behind borders and reverted to a rhetoric of self-reliance and communal solidarity in the face of the virus.
This retreat was inevitable given the initial indecisiveness of the Federal and Euro level reaction to the crisis and the unevenness of the spread of the virus among populations. New York was left to fend for itself as the Trump administration vacillated between dismissal of the threat posed by Covid 19 and vacuous rhetoric about a war on the virus. Italy was left to fend for itself as Spain, France and Germany closed borders in a futile effort to stem the tide.
On the European side, this fragmentation will exacerbate the political crisis the union faces as it recovers from the various national peaks. The overall impression will be that, when push came to shove, the European union was rendered politically impotent. The decisive actors turned out to be Merkel, Macron and Johnson etc. and not the Euro politicians and bureaucrats who had played such a decisive role in the Brexit negotiations.
Much the came can be said for America where State leaders have come into their own, partly because the fight against the virus necessarily plays out at state and municipal level and partly because the planning and forethought necessary to ensure supplies of essential equipment (masks, protective gear, ventilators and hospital beds etc) is controlled, along with funding, at the federal level.
Thus state and municipal politicians have an opportunity to shine while Washington contends with the vagaries of international supply chains and the overall lack of preparedness of centralised administrations, not to mention the struggle against an ideological apparatus opposed to the massive public spending necessary to wage a war.
Unlike Europe though, the United states will have to confront the glaring disparities structured into it’s privatised health care system as the poor and the marginalised old go down in their thousands. Unwilling or unable to learn from the experience of the Italians, the American administration will end up presiding over an unprecedented health catastrophe.
It seems clear the there will be no return to so called normality for the populations of either the United States or the European Union. Instead we will linger in a limbo between the old and the new as power relations are recalibrated and new modes of discourse come into play.
One of the discursive preoccupations will be the proper relation between Governments and markets. What the massive state interventions have shown is that the old model – a two tier system of publicly funded state interventions and market driven enterprise – is as viable as it ever was and was only abandoned in the wake of an ideologically driven decision on the part of sections of the political class.
The question of intervention has been central to European and American politics for the last three centuries precisely because the anarchic and disruptive power of markets fuelled by apparently unstoppable scientific and technological innovation has continually disrupted social relations, producing cycles of depression and war followed by boom and relative peace.
The superiority of the Chinese model in comparison to the free market alternative has been all but proven thus far, despite the suspicion that the Chinese leadership may have cooked the figures. The west has in fact opted for the Chinese model in all but name, with the caveat that the state will relinquish the draconian power it has assumed when the crisis is over.
Whether there will ever be a clear cut end to the present crisis is a mute point.
Perhaps the future of western capitalism in the era of climate change will involve a mutation of the neo-liberal state. Might we see the continued imposition of practices of the atomisation of communal life under cover of a paternalism remodelled to suit a condition of periodic crisis in the relation between the social and it’s naturalised exterior?
The Covid crisis is a dry run for what awaits us down the road.
A trend that began with the election of Trump and the Brexit referendum has been confirmed. The ideology of the nation state is back in vogue. If such a trend is sustained it will play into the hands of right populism, offering proof that borders can indeed be closed, national identity is alive and well, and the nation state is a sustainable entity into the future.
In the European Union, anti refugee rhetoric will be reinforced by the addition of viral contagion to the list of alarmist scenarios used to justify a policy of internal and external exclusion. Scaremongering and scapegoating will be intensified by the presence of millions of refugees to the east of Europe trapped in vast camps lacking basic health facilities and the medical technology required to treat a population who’s immune systems have been shattered by years of war and undernourishment.
Again, much the same can be said of the United States, where the border with Mexico will become the source not only of alien caravans of the undesirable poor but also of viral infection.
Meanwhile, according to the united nations, three billion people across the world have no access to running water or soap, the most basic protection against the virus. They are equally deprived of political power. They can , however, exercise a form of passive power conditioned on sheer numbers, as happened recently in India. When the central government imposed a lock-down on millions of migrant workers their reaction was spontaneous and swift. They began to walk in the direction of their rural homes, shattering a consensus which had functioned up until then to exclude them from the body politic.
The stranded hordes of the south American poor and the poor of the middle east will likewise exercise a franchise of the feet and impose the might of their physical presence on our gated fortresses and walled states. As was proven immediately before the Covid crisis emerged, this will intensify the already heated discussion between those who envisage a globalised future and those who advocate an ideology of national interest.
One fact seems undeniable. No pseudo-science of the social, Marxist or otherwise, was able to predict the massive social and economic damage inflicted by the virus precisely because the possibility of a pandemic was largely perceived as an intrusion on the social from the outside or naturalised exterior of the social system.
In fact, as the climate crisis has already shown, the natural and the social are misconceived as a set of binary oppositions.
“Culture” is a mode of the “natural” over- determined by a system of anthropomorphic philosophical tropes. We can only ever use such bifurcated terms as useful fictions. Such concepts are enabled by a transcendental a priori structured into our mode of thinking. We must factor such a thought into our critical deliberations and re-conceive the idea of social liberation as an essentially ecological endeavour.
The real knows no division between nature and culture.
The first world war coincided with and partly enabled a pandemic. For Europe, the result of that crisis was the disappearance of the aristocracy from European politics and the rise of collectivist mass movements of the right and left. None of these developments was foreseen. It has taken a century for both the America and Europe to realise in practice all of the positive and negative outcomes that were made possible by the events that unfolded at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Perhaps we are at another crossroad.
As with everything under the rule of capital, there is an unequal distribution of misery. In the case of misery of course the numbers are reversed – more for the poor, less for the rich. For the poor at least, there is nothing new in the old dying off like flies. Even in Europe it was a sad reality not long ago. The old would succumb to pneumonia and die at home in the presence of the family.
Now the so called lucky ones are kept alive into their eighties and nineties with the help of drugs and operations.
Ideally, one should have the freedom, after a certain age, to exercise control over one’s continued existence. Why not? Given access to effective pain relief, most people in their seventies and eighties would choose to remain in their beds. A discussion about the right, especially among the elderly, to a form of voluntary Euthanasia, or at least to the right to refuse treatment, will, perhaps, be one of the many outcomes of the Covid crisis.