Brave New Coronaworld? COVID-19 and the Future of Open Society
17 March 2020
The fact that Slavoj Žižek sees the end of global capitalism coming, should probably be read more as a sign of normality than a reason for undue alarm. After all, he’s done it many times over the last 20 years. But looking at global developments over the last couple of weeks, the Sars-CoV-2 pandemic is not only changing our daily lives on a global scale. It also has a political fallout with at least three main dimensions: the relations between China and the West, the authoritarian temptation in the West itself, and the renewed calls by the Left for Big Government. They are strongly interlinked because ultimately, they are all about the different forms of organising our societies and the relation between the individual and the collective. While it’s early days to outline political implications, some things can already be said.
The systemic rivalry between China and the West
From the very beginning, when the spread of the virus had barely exceeded Hubei Province, Chinese soft power was at stake, first referring to time-honoured Chinese practices of selling wild animals in unhygienic markets. This likely produced the outbreak, and the cult of cowardice and secrecy in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) allowed the virus to spread initially. Then came the first pushback by CCP spin doctors, with a nationwide war declared on the coronavirus, the shutdown in Hubei Province and beyond, pictures of marching doctors but also a brutal suppression of criticism, epitomised by the fate of the early whistleblower Dr Li Wenliang.
Externally, CCP propagandists quickly began to send two messages to the rest of the world: First, that the Party is not only firmly in control, but also that Chinese authoritarianism is better suited to combat the virus – the famous time-lapse video of the ‘hospital built in 10 days’ comes to mind. Secondly, on social media, Chinese trolls began accusing the West of racism because of travel bans and quarantine for travellers from China –knowing full well that in most Western countries, the racism card plays well, at least with liberal audiences. Of course, these accusations were highly hypocritical in themselves. Imagine for a moment that the virus had truly had its origins in a Western or African country. Anyone who has ever been to China knows how the CCP would have exploited racist tropes in such a situation.
Since the beginning of March, in parallel to the first signs of an easing of the virus spread in China itself, a more ominous phase in CCP propaganda began. Travel bans and quarantine were now pronounced on non-Chinese, the blame for the virus was increasingly openly shifted to the West, and more or less open threats were made by Chinese commentators that for pharmaceuticals, the rest of the world depends on China, and China’s ‘goodwill’ might end. The generous delivery of masks and equipment to Italy in early March won’t make up for the big hit that China’s soft power has taken, together with its image as the selfless force for the good of humankind as it has been impressively cultivated in the Netflix Sci-Fi drama ‘Wandering Earth’.
Accordingly, even when we move back to global economic growth, the West as a whole, not just the US, will want to reduce economic and technological dependency on China. Some soft decoupling will become inevitable. But the mother of all systemic questions is indeed whether the future belongs to societies that are technologically best capable to harness the forces of nature, irrespective of political ideas (i.e. to China, as Bruno Maçães subtly suggests); this stance is highly questionable because it disregards cases such as Taiwan or South Korea.
The authoritarian temptation and the end of European solidarity?
As a general rule, authoritarians love emergencies, in the West as well. Of course, some could not withstand the temptation to conflate the migration crisis with the virus threat. What is more ominous is the quick breakdown of the initial determination of governments in the Schengen zone to keep internal borders open. Within two weeks, this was overtaken by an escalating wave of border closings. Certainly, any return to more national or even regional self-sufficiency as a result of the corona crisis will only reinforce already existing conservative and populist trends criticizing globalisation as such. What may eventually emerge is a new equilibrium between self-reliance and a global division of labour, but the costs of truly reversing globalisation are unlikely to be tolerated by Western societies even after this emergency.
It remains to be seen to what extent this crisis will really be a boon to the West’s new authoritarians, not only because their US idol, President Trump, has performed so dismally in the unfolding crisis in the US, but mainly because Central Europe’s autocrats may show some of the CCP’s dishonesty in dealing with the public while lacking the technology and efficiency to come to grips with the crisis. This is bound to backfire.
To draw a direct correlation between authoritarianism and effectively fighting a pandemic is surely simplistic. Of the two best performing Asian countries in dealing with the pandemic, one is mildly authoritarian – Singapore – and one is a vibrant liberal democracy – Taiwan. Iran, however, one of the worst-performing countries so far, is highly authoritarian.
Return to Big Government?
The Corona pandemic also reinforces authoritarian tendencies on the left. First, there is the classical infatuation of Socialists and Social Democrats with big government and a strong state that are not only able to set tough rules to private behaviour, but also provide high-quality universal health care. Secondly, there are the Greens, asking why tough measures strongly impacting individual behaviour are possible at such short notice in the pandemic, while they are so hard to bring about in the climate crisis – which is, according to the Greens, much more lethal than Coronavirus.
Both trains of thought make the same mistake: They confuse an obvious exception with the rule. People are willing to accept quarantines and lockdowns because they know these are temporary. Big state socialism has failed in the 20th century – catastrophically in the East, and slightly less catastrophically in Western Europe, but failed it has there, too.
We will get over this. In the upcoming weeks and months, some of our ugliest and some of our best behaviour as humans will come to light. Some of our daily routines may well change for good. But the big exception will not become the new normal. Authoritarianism – Chinese or ‘Western’ – will not be the automatic winner. The West will seek new ways of reducing dependence on China. But globalisation is not coming to a grinding halt. And Open Society is far from finished.
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