Signs and Wonders of a Collapsing Global (Dis)order
by Maximilian C Forte
https://zeroanthropology.net (April 26 2020)
Part 1 of 5 of the COVID-19 Series lasting from April 26 through April 30.
Corona – meaning: a crown. Travelling around the world, as if at full gallop. Firing off arrows into the air: vectors (the arrowheads: the infected) travelling via airplanes (the arrows). But is it the first stage of the apocalypse for which we have been trained to wait? If so, then I missed the three thunderous trumpet blasts that shook the walls. Is this the pestilence that weakens everyone before they are assaulted by war and then famine and death? Having been conditioned either by Christian teaching, or the apocalypse binge in popular culture, is this what you expected? To me it seems far too orderly, regimented, and subject to authority to be a true apocalypse – no scenes of smouldering wrecks of vehicles strewn along broken roads, looted supermarkets standing dark and windowless, roaming characters carrying makeshift weapons for who knows what purpose. (Then again, those are images regulated by Hollywood.) Instead, we get the daily televised address by the prime minister or president, and batteries of technocrats engaged in full-spectrum domination of all available bandwidth. Try roaming and you risk getting fined. What adds to the disorientation and confusion marking this crisis is the indeterminate character of this viral crisis itself. Lying closer to an apocalypse than a hiccup, especially when we consider its vast economic devastation and massive casualty count, it is still neither of the two extremes. Widespread confusion and anxiety, about a crisis which in our lifetimes is utterly novel, are possibly the reasons why so many have made bold assertions that sometimes confuse opinion with fact. The reassurance one derives from “sure thinking” is one way to regain a sense of control over the uncontrollable.
In my own case, I started writing this series in multiple and divergent drafts on Friday, March 13 2020 – the first day of my own lock-down as universities in Quebec were closed to physical access. Since then the essay, and then the series of essays underway, took so many different forms and adopted so many wildly conflicting approaches, that what became obvious is that there is much about this crisis that all of us simply do not yet know or understand – including where and when the virus emerged in the first place. If this were truly a “war” against the coronavirus, then as in other wars the truth would have to be the first casualty. In an attempt to arrive at some sort of balanced appreciation of the crisis, this series of articles was based on several weeks of reading from the widest possible variety of sources, and where opinion pieces were concerned they were chosen from across the political spectrum. Though parts of the series are firmly rooted in the Quebec case, I studied a very diverse range of news sources from Europe, Canada, the US, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
While this short series will end by presenting a matrix of possible future outcomes in the near- to long-terms, I will state the conclusion right here: I anticipate that the worst is yet to come. In the immediate context, I do not think we have “flattened” the “curve”, or that “the worst is over”. At the very most, all we might have done is to just begin to flatten only one of a series of bumps that form a succession of bumps on an uphill slope. In Quebec, we have not yet reached the peak in the number of infections, not even after several weeks of ascent, and thus anyone seeing a “flattening” might be imagining things. In terms of new cases per day, we see a succession of waves (the first image below); in cumulative terms, it has been a steady rise (the second image); and the third image shows the number of hospitalizations for COVID-19:
The plain fact of the matter is that until a vaccine is developed, and everyone on Earth has been vaccinated, the struggle against the virus will not truly be won. Anything less than that is merely a temporary, selective, and fragmentary means of approximating an end – something that is better than nothing, with each decrease in lives lost being something that is heroically gained by front line workers risking their own health.
Otherwise, anything short of total vaccination boils down to a way of indirectly apportioning the virus to some, while managing it for everyone else. Unnecessary deaths will not be rendered any less unnecessary, they will simply be confined and reduced in number, for a while. In other words, without vaccination it is absolutely inevitable that what comes next will be worse. The main issue now for public officials appears to be how to ensure that what comes next will not be as bad as it could be – making worse less worse.
To be clear, the most recent estimates are that a vaccine for COVID-19, which has not yet been invented, would – to be optimistic – become available within the next year to 18 months. Not only has a vaccine never been invented for any prior coronavirus (with previous research prematurely shut down), even discovering a vaccine before five years would be a record-breaking pace when compared with other vaccines. Experts think it would be unprecedented. Plus the coronavirus is apparently mutating profusely, which complicates efforts to develop a vaccine. Without a vaccine or effective therapy, the assessment from Harvard University’s T H Chan School of Public Health is that “prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022”, and that there could be a resurgence of the outbreak as late as 2024. Instead, from the UK to the US and Quebec, an understanding that is prevalent among officials involves foggy, even dangerous ideas about “herd immunity”, which assumes – with little conclusive evidence, and despite some contrary evidence – that, (a) immunity against COVID-19 can be acquired, and, (b) that the immunity is permanent or long-term. To make matters worse, some researchers think a vaccine for COVID-19 may never be found, and that the virus is likely not to be containable.
No matter which decisions governments take – whether to continue mass confinement and a closure of most of the economy, or to gradually reopen economic activity (though it was never fully closed) and loosen restrictions – it will seem like the wrong decision will have been taken. It’s not even a matter of choice between the “economy” versus “health”. Without health, there can be no economy. Without production, distribution, and consumption, health may be undermined. I will return to this apparent duality. But first, let’s revisit a little of what just happened to all of us.
The Pandemic Was in the Air
Perhaps the biggest surprise most of us have had is that what we have always been waiting to happen, actually happened. This is similar to the phenomenon of many people reporting having dreamed of planes crashing into skyscrapers (myself included), in the months, weeks, and days before 9/11 – and then they witnessed it for real.
All of us are constantly expecting the next big crash, and now here is the next big crash. It was almost on cue: we have been experiencing significant “crashes” (major crises, turning points) at least once every decade, since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc.
With reference to 9/11 it was Jean Baudrillard in The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays (2003) who commented that, “we have dreamt of this event … everyone without exception has dreamt of it – because no one can avoid dreaming of the destruction of any power that has become hegemonic to this degree”, and he understood that admitting this “is unacceptable to the Western moral conscience” (page 5). He argued that when it came to this “obscure object of desire” (the catastrophic event), “we wished for it”, and the fact that we secretly envisioned it, anticipated it, maybe even longed for it to happen, made us all complicit (page 5). It was “complicity” on this deep level that gave the event the resonance that it had.
Imaginings and expectations of an “apocalypse” were talked about so much, that some even started talking about all the talking about the apocalypse. Here is the meta-apocalyptic perspective being echoed, like in so many other places, in a recent and otherwise unremarkable film titled Arkansas:
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One could make the argument ten times over when it comes to COVID-19. It is an argument that if made bluntly can show brutal disregard for the tragedy of the millions who have been sickened, and the hundreds of thousands who have died/will die needlessly. It can easily be misunderstood – and those who want to misunderstand it, will. But on a more profound psychological and philosophical level, Baudrillard was of course right. We all anticipated this coronavirus – we all knew it was coming.
While there is nothing “good” that can be said for the virus and what it has done to human lives, and we must not even pretend to sing its praises, seen from a certain angle it is a crisis that was long overdue, if not very much needed. The global human situation had reached such extremes that something had to rise up and slam into it, in an effort to stop all of the world’s insufferable over-production and over-accumulation of total assholery, pardon my English.
A global pandemic has been in the air for at least the past two decades, at least since we experienced the SARS event of 2003. (I fully participated in the H1N1 outbreak, as an infected person, and it was the most debilitating flu I ever experienced.) When viewing almost any pre-pandemic television program today, whether it’s a sit-com, a cartoon, a made-for-TV movie and whatever else is standard fare, it is relatively easy to encounter sometimes direct, sometimes oblique, references to the need to stockpile food, to shelter at home, of facing a sudden contagious outbreak, and so on. The height of this has been the massive overproduction of zombie-themed films and television serials.
If the pandemic was in the air of popular culture for most of us, it was very much in the planning books of officials in the US who have no right to today claim that they did not expect this and were caught unprepared through no fault of their own. Here too Baurdillard was provocative when he remarked that “even those who share in the advantages of that [global] order have this malicious desire in their hearts” and that an “increase in the power of power heightens the will to destroy it” (pages 6, 7). Put differently, there is no way that those at the height of power cannot be imagining the collapse of their power, and some might secretly even wish for that collapse.
On January 13 2017, during the transition, Trump and his cabinet were taken through an exercise designed to prepare for an outbreak almost identical to the current one, with documents from the session recently being published. The slides from the presentation describe what is now happening almost exactly. Even after the transition exercise, during which the incoming Trump administration was warned and allegedly prepared for the possibility of a global pandemic, in January of last year the Office of the Director of National Intelligence itself ranked a major outbreak of disease as one of the top global threats. The year before, it was the same Trump administration which released the “National Biodefense Strategy”.
The ODNI offered the following warning in 2019:
We assess that the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support. (page 21)
The first page of the US’ Biodefense Strategy, published by Trump’s own White House in 2018, states the following at the very start:
Biological threats – whether naturally occurring, accidental, or deliberate in origin – are among the most serious threats facing the United States and the international community. Outbreaks of disease can cause catastrophic harm to the United States. They can cause death, sicken, and disable on a massive scale, and they can also inflict psychological trauma and economic and social disruption“. (page i)
Nevertheless, the Trump administration still decided to cut back on its administrative abilities to deal with such a crisis. It was not a matter of being unprepared, but of deliberately under-preparing for an event which the same administration warned could happen. In addition, the Trump administration slashed a key CDC unit operating inside China itself, leading up to the coronavirus outbreak. On top of that, state and local officials across the US have for years made sometimes drastic cuts to investments in their front line of defense against pandemics.
Arguably we in North America have made many serious “mistakes” (this is, deliberate policies and ideological mandates) along the way for the past 40 years that have created the perfect conditions for this disaster to be born and mature. Among those “mistakes” were:
* inadequate public funding of healthcare;
* the insufficient preparations for a pandemic even with several precursor events already in the rear-view mirror;
* excessive offshoring and dependency on foreign imports, especially when it comes to personal protective equipment and pharmaceuticals, and in the cases of many countries the list grows with the addition of food, fuel, and manufactured goods;
* a failure to admit that viruses “do not respect borders” but only when the authorities themselves failed to respect borders, when all travel should have been shut down immediately and all ports and borders closed; and, among other “mistakes”,
* a common failure in assessing risk, by repeating early on that “the risk remains low” – when that is exactly how such a crisis always looks at the very beginning: risk is low until it is not.
Perhaps the key feature of the impact of this virus is that poverty and inequality are perfect incubators for spreading the virus: the poorest are among the weakest in terms of health, and the vast number of people in the US who could little afford an emergency costing more than $400 well before this crisis, found themselves having to crowd into packed trains and buses to go to their jobs (if their industry had not been shut down) especially as many had no right to sick leave and risked losing their jobs if they failed to show.
As we have already known for a very long time, disasters, including natural ones, reveal the true depth and extent of social cleavages and can help to unleash new conflicts and crises in turn. This pandemic is no exception. Just one of countless examples, close to home: Montreal has suddenly “discovered” that it needs to do something urgent to properly house the city’s considerable homeless population. Otherwise, for decades, they were ignored, scorned, and abandoned, that is until the media and the authorities began to fearfully imply that the homeless were akin to roaming vermin who were spreading COVID-19 beyond control. After years of pretending generosity, of “welcoming” others to the self-declared “sanctuary city” that was Montreal, of faking concern and posing as altruistic when it came to foreign asylum seekers – all while ignoring desperate need that has long been right under their noses – Montreal is now paying a dear price for its hypocritical missionary posturing. To prevent infected homeless persons from wandering off while awaiting test results, or being beyond reach if, in need of treatment, the homeless are now housed in hotels and stadiums.
While it is doubtful how much will be learned, retained, and acted upon from admitting these mistakes, we are now in the process of making new mistakes.
Our next big mistake revolves around falsely framing a duality (health-economy) as a dichotomy. We are at an impasse, and it is unwinnable under current conditions. Nothing can be done right now to ameliorate conditions, without a vaccine and a mass vaccination that is total in its reach, which also means it is not a matter that can be left in the hands of private, corporate interests. If this too becomes a matter of affordability and profit, then the disaster will be replicated. This is also not a question about testing alone – testing is not vaccination; testing is not treatment. Testing is only about figuring out which parts of the population to exclude from loosened restrictions and gradual economic reopening. Testing is therefore something that can only be understood as a means of trying to stage-manage a crisis such as this one. Testing is a containment strategy. Testing is about reducing harm, not eliminating harm. It is tiresome to hear the constant mentions of “testing” as if “testing” had now become synonymous with a treatment or a cure. A test is only good for telling you if you might have the virus (if the test works), at a specific moment in time. Even if tests were 100% reliable, is the plan to test everyone, every two weeks? We also do not even know yet if people can become immune to this virus, and whether any immunity gained is short-lived. However, without a vaccination, this viral crisis has no off switch, no stop button. Already the projections are of a deadly second wave to come in the autumn.
We may soon remember the days of panic-buying of toilet paper as happier, more innocent times.
Signs and Wonders of a New Old World
Not since September 11 2001, and then 2008~2009, has the world witnessed a crisis as phenomenal as this one. The UN Secretary-General went further, characterizing it as the worst crisis since World War Two. This is most certainly a major turning point, and we will be registering its effects for many years, if not decades to come. COVID-19 is, I would argue, far broader, more significant, and a much more profound global crisis than 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis put together, even if COVID-19 in some respects builds on foundations laid by both previous crises. Even if nominal, COVID-19, and 9/11 share airplanes in common, airplanes being the icons of globalization: in both cases, airplanes were the vectors of international destruction. Materially, COVID-19 has reproduced elements of the financial collapse of 2008, even if for different reasons, while adding an economic shutdown. All those condominiums built throughout cities, snatched up by over-ambitious investors looking to make a killing with AirBnB rentals, can now kiss their investments goodbye. They will be lucky to find buyers even at fire-sale prices. It is not a matter of “business not returning to normal overnight” – business will not return to normal, period.
COVID-19, even more than 9/11 and 2008, is the closing crisis of globalization, and particularly neoliberal globalization. Forms of economic nationalism are no longer optional – it is now once again demonstrated to be the only viable, practical, and safe agenda. We have arrived at a New Old World. “Global order” is untenable: it has been proven to literally make people sick. There can be, as others have already said, no “return to normal” when it is precisely the normal that was the problem.
We will need to invent new economies, new ways of producing and distributing, while reforming consumption patterns. We should think about ways of distributing production itself locally while maximizing economic citizenship. And clearly we need to radically rethink what is “essential”, and how we value certain forms of labour as “skilled”, and how we remunerate accordingly.
These are not knee jerk reactions. Nobody can justifiably accuse me of rushing to comment on the coronavirus outbreak. For many weeks there has been absolute silence on this site, while others have been pouring out massive amounts of sometimes idle speculation, fanning the flames of fear, or exploiting the crisis for either self-gain or to advance a partisan political agenda – all of which is incredibly interesting. My own approach was to linger a little longer, watching, listening, and learning. However, like everyone else, I too write as both a participant and an observer, subject to the same extremes of fear and apathy (lately it is more of the former and less of the latter).
Problems, Questions, and the Things to Come
Fear, how it is mobilized, how it is capitalized, is one of my first interests. The final aspect I want to get to at the end of this series is an exploration of what are the likely outcomes of this crisis, and I mean enduring, transformative outcomes.
How will COVID-19 reorient geopolitics? Will states be willing to give up the additional powers which they have granted themselves? How will domestic political affairs be altered? What does the crisis mean for the future of poverty, precarity, marginalization, and unemployment? What has the eruption of the crisis revealed about the dominant culture in any given nation-state? Do different state responses to the crisis matter, and if so, why? What meaning can be derived from these differing responses, and how does one measure, describe, or characterize a “response”? Is the management of this crisis in the heartland of neoliberalism utilizing these new conditions as part of a gigantic social experiment? Are we being tested for our “resilience”, for our ability to comply with orders even when under the greatest stress? Are we willing to let self-interest drive us into the deepest individual isolation, or do we ignore the rules and recommendations? When it comes to China’s process of becoming the premiere economic power in the world, will China now face an economic backlash, even if just out of strategic necessity and not because of accusatory calls for reparations? Is the US exploiting the crisis to obtain greater leverage against China? What happened to “American exceptionalism”? What does the crisis teach us about the value of national self-determination and local self-reliance? Where are shifts likely to occur when it comes to automation and digitization? There is no end to the questions.
There is also no end to reversals and contradictions, and more are in the process of forming. After years/decades of budget-cutting and austerity, of gravely reduced social spending, plus the abandonment of the working class – now, suddenly, governments have untold and apparently limitless financial reserves to rush to the rescue (how much of a “rescue”, and the rescue of what, or whom, is not always either clear or convincing). Suddenly, we see the most essential and valued workers as including some of those you looked down upon as failures and “losers” in the everyday snobbery of the past: the people who bag groceries, stock shelves, and stand at the cashier at the supermarket. Truck drivers are something like heroes now. Some of those who were last in the past, are now those that are first – until we forget them again. Then, after decades of massive spending on endless wars – we find out that most hospitals lack even the basics to handle a serious emergency. A hospital unprepared for an emergency is almost by definition not a hospital; it’s a parking lot. We could not shut down borders, our neoliberal leaders insisted, but we can shutdown society and confine individuals behind the borders that are the walls of their apartments and houses. We said we could not do here what they did in China, because China is authoritarian; then we became more authoritarian. We lay blame for not getting out of this crisis right now at the feet of those afflicted by a virus they did not create. We judge those on the receiving end more harshly than those who created the conditions for the crisis, and then fanned its flames wildly.
“Thank You for Your Service”
One of the undoubtedly welcome benefits of the pandemic is that it has appropriately shifted social values and priorities, such that there is popular acknowledgement of the fact that the “true heroes” are nurses, doctors, grocery store workers, food processors, drivers, and so on. In recent years, in Canada just as in the US, the public was repeatedly told that the “first and best citizens” were soldiers – the military monopolized society’s “hero” category. In Canada, we had a “highway of heroes”, dedicated to the military.
The military, as an engine of death and destruction, clearly represents the opposite of production and saving lives. With the coronavirus those that are truly needed, and whose work is genuinely about saving lives, have finally come back into focus after years of warped priorities and misplaced concerns.
“Thank you for your service”, was until recently a statement reserved by some “patriots” for those who were in the armed services. Outside of Fox News, it is hard to imagine that from now on “thank you for your service” would or could be said of anyone who is not a nurse, doctor, or other front line worker. “Thank you for your service” is what you now say to your pharmacist and to the person packing your groceries.
The focus of my interests regarding this crisis ranges across the following subjects: the role of the state; the working class; shifting power dynamics; neoliberalism, globalization, and nationalism; geopolitical turning points; our relationships with the natural world; and, what might result from this crisis that will stay with us for months, years, and maybe decades.
Part 2 of this series continues by opening up reflections on risk and borders, and what could be some of the impacts of what has transpired.