A Paradigm Shift Accelerated by the Coronavirus

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PARIS, FRANCE - APRIL 12, 2020: A woman crosses the street at the champs elysees at sunset during lockdown. France will extend its nationwide lockdown put in place to contain the spread of the coronavirus for a second time, meaning it will run beyond April 15.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Robin Utrecht / Echoes Wire/ Barcroft Studios / Future Publishing (Photo credit should read Robin Utrecht / Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Even before the arrival of COVID-19, humanity found itself stuck in several crises at once. The current shock delivered by the coronavirus could accelerate a paradigm shift that was already underway. It may result in a better and more sustainable world.

By Ullrich Fichtner

I. The Crash

The world that we still considered to be “normal” back in February has collapsed in an historically unprecedented crash. Half of humanity is currently adhering to some form of lockdown protocols and every single continent has been affected – poor regions and wealthy regions, urban areas and rural ones. Huge portions of the global economy have come to a grinding halt and 180 countries around the world that just a few weeks ago were experiencing economic growth and rising prosperity have now plunged into a deep recession.

The collapse of tourism, the massive disruptions to the global transportation sector and the suppression of urban life has, in many places, affected the entire spectrum of human activity, crippling the retail, production and service industries in addition to bringing sports, the arts and cultural life to a standstill. The entire leisure industry has been paralyzed.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) estimates that global trade will shrink this year by between 13 and 32 percent – numbers that are so unbelievable that they leave one gasping for breath. Companies and entire nations will go bankrupt as a result, and the disruptions could trigger revolts and even revolutions.

In the United States, the labor market went from historically positive numbers to historically negative numbers almost overnight, an event with nothing even close to an historical precedent. Almost 22 million Americans have lost their jobs in the course of the last four weeks and economists believe that unemployment could reach as high as 32 percent this summer.

Adam Tooze, the economic historian at Columbia University, believes that if things continue on the current path, the U.S. economy could shrink by up to a quarter, similar to the crash in 1929 – with the difference that the plunge back then took place over the course of four years while the current implosion may by compressed into just a few months. “There has never been a crash landing like this before,” Tooze wrote in the magazine Foreign Policy. And it is an analysis that applies to the entire world.

Wealthy countries are currently slinging around trillions of dollars to cushion the initial consequences of the disaster and help keep companies alive. It is certainly the correct course of action, but the structural fractures that are currently opening up will ultimately be unavoidable. Many – a huge number, in fact – of the stores and restaurants that are now closed will never open their doors again. Many factories around the world that were producing at maximum capacity just a few weeks ago have shut down for good.

It will soon become clear that the question as to when restrictions should be loosened and production resumed is not the primary issue. It is very clearly one thing to enact a decree paralyzing entire industries, but a completely different one to restart them after weeks or perhaps months of stoppage. There is no switch that can be flipped. There is no proven plan that can be turned to. In the puzzle of modern-day manufacturing practices, the near future will see myriad instances where one small piece will be missing to complete the final product. It will take time to fill the gaps and it will become necessary to rethink entire production processes. In the globalized economy with its famously long supply chains, no country can restart economic activity on its own – not even if that country is called Germany.

Uncertainty has crept into the erstwhile so tightly planned business processes of global capitalism. The “black swan,” which became known during the 2008 financial crisis as a metaphor for an extremely unlikely event, has been transformed by the coronavirus into the new totem animal of the global economy. “Radical uncertainty,” which until recently was merely an abstract concern, has now become our constant companion, says Tooze.

One might even begin to believe that it would be better to start all over again from the beginning instead of trying to fix the old system one more time.

II. The Power of Inertia

Nothing is as it was any longer, as everyone is currently saying and writing. In the German daily the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer recently called it “the first crisis for humanity in the 21st century.” European Commissioner Thierry Breton, who holds the common market portfolio, believes that the closely networked continents will once again grow more independent of each other. The head of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgiewa, has spoken of “humanity’s darkest hour.” Pope Francis believes it is now time to turn away from what he termed “functional hypocrisy.” Blackrock CEO Larry Fink also wrote in a letter to investors that they must prepare for a new world of uncertainty.

Everyone with power, money and reputation is currently saying that we are facing radical change, the beginning of a new world. But what do they actually mean? Do they really mean it seriously? Is it possible that death, the great equalizer, might somehow improve humanity? Is it possible that the virus may trigger a global moment of reflection characterized not just by fear and danger but also by new visions for the way forward in which we are able to distinguish the important from the inconsequential? Could this be the moment when we finally actually try to tackle the important tasks we are faced with?

Should that be the case, then the virus could emerge as a kind of salubrious shock leading to a new design for the 21st century. But are we ready for the realization that our lives must change and that the way our economy functioned until how was beset by too many shortcomings? Are we prepared for the recognition that the insanity of mass consumption and resource exploitation cannot continue?

Initial signs are far from encouraging. The head-butting between European finance ministers, who were only able to agree on a confusing array of aid measures after hours of contentious video conferencing, has not made it seem as though we are at the dawn of a new era. The decision forced through by the Netherlands – and not prevented by the Germans – to force conditions on struggling countries in exchange for financial assistance was a perfect example of long-festering deficiencies.

Even beyond that, initial impressions from the approach to this allegedly world-changing crisis are sobering. The ugly international competition for masks and equipment, the unilateral border closures, the lack of international coordination on aid packages – none of that has signaled the beginning of a new epoch, at least not a good one. More than that, the fact that some hedge funds in London earned billions in profits from the corona-induced stock market crash is reminiscent of the worst excesses of casino capitalism.

The nation-state has returned – in Europe, of all places – in all of its dark glory, and it has already served up nationalistic missteps. In her historic televised address on the eve of Germany’s coronavirus lockdown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel didn’t make a single mention of the European Union. There was no mention of Germany’s neighbors or international cooperation, and the word “Europe” didn’t make an appearance either. The chancellor’s focus was entirely on the Germans, and the same phenomenon could be observed across the continent. The French are taking care of their crisis, the Spanish are focused on theirs, as are the Austrians, the Swedes, the British, the Hungarians, and so on. There is no sign of joint action — and nor have many unified goals been identified. The view from the local church steeple in Europe is once again the extent of the global horizon.

Advice from international health experts and the plea from the World Health Organization (WHO) to refrain from closing national borders have been completely ignored. And now, the borders are closed, as though customs officials and border guards could stop pathogens the same way they can stop migrants. But the most important questions have gone unanswered: How much suffering might have been avoided if, for example, eastern France and western Germany had not seen themselves as peripheral regions of the nation-states to which they belong, but instead as part of the same region in crisis? What if they had understood the cross-border region as a single zone confronting the same problems and suffering from the same shortages?

The fact that in the Alsace region, critically ill patients were transported to distant – French – hospitals despite the fact that beds in nearby – German – intensive care units were available is a function of the bad habits developed in an old world whose disappearance would be anything but detrimental. It is shameful that Germany, the most powerful country in Europe, has again neglected to take any steps towards strengthening the union. It has once again become apparent that EU headquarters in Brussels has no power and that, in the opinion of EU member states, shouldn’t get any. Old, nation-state attitudes have deep roots.

These attitudes are reflected in small things, such as the fact, for example, that political maps are consistently used to depict the expansion of this virus – as though it were a national problem. The colorings used on the maps are meant to show how each country is doing in the fight against the illness, while diagrams are used to identify model pupils (South Korea) and problem children (the United States). Each country’s supply of face masks is carefully enumerated while national stockpiles of medical equipment are compared. It may sound cynical, but the daily tables showing the number of infections and deaths look almost like the medal counts from some macabre Olympics. None of it is particularly encouraging.

If coronavirus marks a turning point in human history, then it apparently hasn’t yet been reached. We apparently have to wait for the post-corona era. The general impression at the moment is not that plans for a better future are being laid. Instead, it looks more as though everyone’s energy is currently being focused on returning to what was considered normal back in January or February.

The aid programs slapped together by national governments – the German one on its own has been funded with 750 billion euros – are aimed at a rapid return to the pre-corona age and its ultimate continuation. As though nothing had happened. Hopes are being nurtured that the damage done by COVID-19 can be repaired and that everything can then continue on as before. It isn’t likely that such efforts will be successful. But if they are, then the world will have learned nothing from this disaster.

Finance ministers and central bankers are currently shifting around unprecedented amounts of money: millions, billions, trillions. To try to get an idea of what is at stake, a comparison with the famous Marshall Plan, with which the U.S. financed the post-World War II reconstruction of numerous European countries, is helpful. It had a volume of around 13 billion dollars, the equivalent today of around 130 billion euros.

Berlin has now made six times that sum available – for Germany alone. Given that amount of quantitative assistance, are qualitative expectations allowed? Are they, perhaps, imperative? Should the state merely be a silent partner in many companies or should it not, perhaps, speak up here and there?

Helen Mountford of the renowned U.S. think tank World Resources Institute has described what is at stake. Governments and countries that are now looking at their options for surviving the crisis, she wrote in her blog, have only two options: “They can lock in decades of polluting, inefficient, high-carbon and unsustainable development,” or they can take advantage of the opportunity for a rapid reorientation.

Such hopes are being harbored by environmental activists. But there also a number of other rather large challenges at our door. After all, things were far from “normal” in the world into which coronavirus was born, the situation was far from optimal, despite our current hindsight skewed by a few weeks of crisis. COVID-19 crashed into a world that was already in crisis. Indeed, it was suffering from several crises at the same time. Or have we forgotten?

Democracies rooted in the rule of law were under attack both internally and externally – from international populists and domestic extremists.

The multilateral postwar order, with its many global organizations, was merely a shadow of its previous self, in part intentionally destroyed by the occupant of the White House, in part allowed to disintegrate by the disinterest of larger countries.

The international community of nations was unable to find solutions to crises and conflicts that continue to smolder in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Mali, Venezuela and elsewhere.

Vast numbers of displaced people triggered ongoing human tragedy on all continents and, in particular, between Europe and Africa.

The capitalist cycle of production and consumption seemed to have entered a late phase of decadence.

The internet, and the social media platforms it supports, had unleashed a destructive force that was corroding politics, societies and even families.

There are, in other words, plenty of reasons for resisting the urge to return to the era before the times of COVID-19 struck. The virus arrived in a world where there was already significant unease about the way things were going. It would be helpful to not lose sight of that now. Indeed, it would be advantageous if the changes we are now facing were so radical that simply continuing as before were no longer possible. That new perspectives were to open up. That a new opportunity for a different future was grasped. It is time for change.

III. A Glimpse of the Future

Throughout history, there have been numerous catastrophes that contemporaries saw as a turning point or, at the very least, as a wakeup call. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 marked the end of an era and can be considered as one of the triggers of the Enlightenment. The eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia in 1883 was, thanks to the advent of the telegram, one of the first apocalyptic global news events. Rather than wondering about the degree of humankind’s responsibility for large disasters, people tended to question how an omnipotent God could allow so much suffering.

The coronavirus could ultimately have similarly far-reaching consequences. Just as belief in an all-powerful God began to crumble in the 18th century, questions about the effects of human activity can no longer be ignored. It’s as if the shock of coronavirus is making more palpable the multiple crises that we, more or less unwittingly, have maneuvered ourselves into.

In light of the current situation, the WWF has issued a reminder about issues that are related to the virus and the illness it causes. Those issues include advancing deforestation, humanity’s encroachment on the habitats of wild animals and the sale and consumption of exotic animal species. All of them are practices that must finally be ended, says the WWF. It is, the organization says, the only way to prevent future pandemics caused by the dangerous transfer of viruses from animals to humans, so-called zoonoses. Hygiene at farmer’s markets and street markets, particularly in Asia, needs to be prioritized by public officials – and it is in their own interest to do so. It must be permitted to ask – without being lectured about cultural insensitivity – whether the highly risky consumption of certain wild animals necessarily has to be part of a nation’s culture. A critical gaze must also be cast on traditional Chinese medicine, which processes animals into pastes, powders and tinctures.

But this is no blame game and assigning such is a waste of time. Only the question of one’s own individual responsibility will actually get us anywhere. Should studies produce reliable data that heavy air pollution has contributed to significantly higher COVID-19 fatality rates, then cities and industrial regions around the world suddenly have quite a few more urgent items on their to-do lists. There are a lot of enormous questions currently in need of attention. But they no longer have to do with God. They include: Why are humans so destructive? Why are we, eyes wide open, destroying the very foundation of human life? Why have we – at a global level – been so unable to stop doing the wrong thing and start doing the right thing?

In a shock like the one we are currently experiencing, such questions are lent a great deal more urgency. Changes already underway accelerate and previously complicated knowledge suddenly becomes so obvious that even a child can understand. That is currently the case with the charts and graphs showing the significant reduction in air pollution as a result of the coronavirus lockdown. They won’t simply be forgotten again after the crisis is over. They will become part of our broader awareness. The colorful charts and images tell us a lot. First and foremost, that its not all in vain, that action can in fact lead to results. It also shines a new light on the excuses employed by politicians when they claim – at least on environmental questions – that they are unable to take the steps that are required.

The images from this global lockdown – the empty cities, the quiet boulevards – will have a lasting effect on politics. How will world leaders, after placing entire nations under house arrest, explain to their citizens that a rapid ban on plastic bags is unfortunately out of the realm of possibility? That it is impossible to push through stricter regulations for this or that chemical? Who will believe in the future that there isn’t a simple way to stop industrialized animal cruelty, pesticides, noise pollution, dirty air and substandard food products? Who will re-elect politicians who do nothing to protect our climate?

IV. Paradigm Shift

COVID-19 will change the world because even before the pandemic, it was already in the grips of a far-reaching transformation. The best evidence for that transformation is the book, published in October of last year, two months before the appearance of the novel coronavirus, called “The End of Illusions.” The author, German sociologist Andreas Reckwitz, describes how societal upheavals take place, how collective thought shifts and how useful, decades-old paradigms suddenly disintegrate and are replaced by a new one.

According to Reckwitz, our Western capitalist societies had arrived at just such a moment in history last fall. His book shows that at least since 2010, following the financial crisis, globalization had entered a “crisis of extreme dynamism” that was producing an increasing number of unpleasant consequences. And now, in 2019-2020, this “late modern” period was reaching its end – something that would have happened even without COVID-19, it just would have taken longer. The virus is merely speeding up a vast cultural shift.

We contemporaries have frequently sensed that shift, that something was ending, in recent years. Radical globalization, the “neo-liberal competitive state,” to us Reckwitz’s term, lost the attraction that they exuded back in the 1990s. Growing social inequality, the scandalous gulf between the poor working class and the fabulously wealthy ownership class became a source of gnawing dissatisfaction in an unsustainable environment. The arguments and the rage of social movements such as Occupy Wall Street, the World Social Forum and Fridays for Future managed to trickle into the mainstream, despite widespread skepticism directed at the activists.

The point, though, is not to cast aspersions within the right-left political schema solely on the evils of neo-liberal globalization as conceived on the right – as Reckwitz masterfully demonstrates. The era now coming to an end was defined by much more than economic radicalism. It also produced significant advances in individual freedoms. It raised awareness for the sufferings of minorities and achieved recognition for marginalized cultures.

The paradigm that is currently struggling for survival didn’t just liberate the economy, but also society at large. It wasn’t just labor laws and job protections that were deregulated, but also links to cultural traditions and the straitjacket of gender determinism. A new middle class developed that transformed the shaping of one’s own biography – from career to leisure time to family – into a fulfilling challenge. The fact that protecting resources was not a priority can be seen in the globally expanding fleet of SUVs or in the comically low prices charged by budget airlines. Airbnb and Uber became symbolic brands in a world were socioeconomic and socio-cultural winners went hand in hand. The political right celebrated its – economic – liberation while the political left profited from new – cultural – freedoms.

Together, though, the capitalists and the hedonists ultimately produced too many losers, which is why the dominant paradigm finally slid into crisis. If it is true that we are at the end of an epoch, and everything indicates that we are, then our lives in the pre-corona era were long in a phase of decadence. Neo-liberalism was not able to cushion the social inequality that it had created and was very clearly in the process of digging its own grave: A society in which inept bankers are allowed to shower themselves with multimillion-dollar bonuses while hundreds of thousands of retirees are threatened with old-age poverty cannot avoid eventual instability.

But the leftist, progressive current produced losers, writes Reckwitz. As an insulated class of urban, generally well-educated elites, they produced a kind of cultural exclusion, subtly devaluing those who felt threatened rather than enriched by the multicultural, environmentally focused society. Right in the heart of the general cosmopolitanism, an old middle class was lost, one that “fluctuated between maintaining and losing status all while facing cultural degradation.” The fact that members of this group have proved particularly susceptible to the polemic offerings of right-wing populist rabble-rousers isn’t difficult to comprehend. The fact that their fears were undervalued by the ruling culture of comprehensive globalization was a significant factor in the crisis that had ripened just before the appearance of the novel coronavirus.

A new political paradigm is necessary, a new “foundation for political thought and action” that better matches the challenges we face than the old one. Societal values the “utopia of the desirable” changed, unnoticed at first, but then hard to ignore. And now, we are trending away from opening and liberalization and self-realization – and back toward restraint, to a more clearly defined state, to security, moderation, docility and the desire for order. “Embedded” liberalism is the future, Reckwitz wrote six months ago – a time that seems from today’s perspective like a completely different time. But even then, it was the same world in which we now live – and even then, it was deep in the grips of change. The virus has merely made the transformation more visible, thus speeding it up. It won’t, however, make things easier.

For as long as the crisis lasts and nobody is able to predict when it will end, there will be a competition between a variety of apocalyptic scenarios that we are already familiar with. On the right of the political spectrum, the collapse of the Western world is invoked, while leftist critics of capitalism are collecting arguments for the collapse of capitalism. Greta Thunberg, in her environmental niche, will not suddenly stop talking about the climate collapse.

But mainstream society has also always had its own apocalyptical fantasies and is yearning for deliverance. The undiscerning internet-euphoria had already come to an end before the arrival of COVID-19, with the worldwide web long seeming to have been corroded by fears of cybercrime and constant surveillance by large companies and national governments. The political campaigns, filter bubbles and constant online bullying that infused the social networks belied the erstwhile digital promise that the internet would produce liberty, equality and fraternity. The flood of fake news in the corona crisis has further intensified doubts about the benefits of the World Wide Web. Here, too, stricter, not fewer, rules will be the consequence.

Again, our modern, Western, capitalist societies were already in deep crisis when corona arrived on the scene. And they knew it. “What began as a welcome, emancipatory empowerment of responsible citizens,” Reckwitz writes, “ultimately threatened in the culture of late-modernity to transform into individual self-interest against the institutions.” He wrote that back in October. In April 2020, this sentence already seems like a product of a past era. With just a few strokes of the pen, the state eliminated individual self-interest. And hardly anybody seemed to mind. Because the world is undergoing fundamental change.

V. On the Other Side

Epochal theories are always subject to chance. Claims of a fundamental shift are, despite all the arguments presented, little more than a game. In his tome “Cultural History of the Modern Age,” the both brilliant and enjoyable Austrian Egon Friedell made the observation that humans have always been unable to understand the times in which they live. Contemporaries, Friedell wrote in the early 20th century, are never able to see the entirety of an historical event, but only seemingly arbitrary pieces.

It’s a point of view that is difficult to argue with. The events of this dramatic pandemic are inconceivable, with our focus fluctuating wildly between the global crisis and the urge to panic buy toilet paper, between images of suffering and Italians singing from their balconies. How will the narrative of this era ultimately be written? When did the story begin? How many chapters have already been completed? What are the pieces that will ultimately become part of the completed work?

French economist Jacques Attali wrote a dictionary for the 21st century already in 1998 called “Dictionnaire du XXIe siècle.” From A for activity to Z for zen, Attali – known as a kind of intellectual adviser to a number of French presidents – let his imagination run wild, thus securing his reputation as a futurist.

Attali was right about a lot of things. He recognized “nomadism” – the free movement of people, goods, information, institutions and factories – as a significant characteristic of the future world, an idea that wasn’t completely a given at the time. He felt that a new, precarious civilization was on the way, one that would find itself confronted by new dangers. He even included an entry for “epidemic.”

Globalization could boost the return of huge epidemics, he wrote. Viral illnesses, he added, could prove just as dangerous as the Spanish Flu epidemic in the winter of 1918-1919. In the new millennium, he predicted, pandemics would be triggered by the destruction of the habitats of certain animal species. “A mass-extinction event is to be expected in the south,” Attali wrote, and it will be necessary for global measures to be implemented to combat new diseases – measures that could call into question the entire culture of “nomadism” and even democracy itself.

That is where we currently find ourselves. Our primary concerns are still reserved for those who are sick and dying, with fear and mourning the dominant emotions in regions that have been hardest hit. Thousands of people are dead, tens of thousands are still getting sick each day, and nobody can say with any degree of certainty how the pandemic will evolve and when a vaccine might be found. It is possible that we will see a second, or even a third wave. A new round of lockdown measures. Reports from South Korea that recovered patients may be vulnerable to coming down with COVID-19 again are cause for deep concern.

It is quite likely that this pandemic marks the moment when constant health concerns become a dominant element of our daily lives. The desire for a return to the insouciance of the pre-corona era will likely remain nothing more than a dream. From now on, the risk of a pandemic will constantly be hanging over our heads. Just as humanity used to live under the constant threat of nuclear war, as Bill Gates said in a speech five years ago, we will have to live in fear of a deadly virus from now on.

We will, in any case, take the danger more seriously than we did until recently. That alone will have clear consequences: Goods will no longer flow around the globe as they have because supply chains and industrial production will be set up differently. New food safety norms will be introduced, with agricultural production, animal husbandry and the handling of fresh produce being subjected to new regulations. The preference for local over international, the familiar over the exotic, will become stronger.

The EU, and what remains of it, will become more protective. United Nations agencies will search out new roles and will remind us that the blueprint for a better, fairer, healthier and safer world has already been produced, in the form of the Millennium Goals. International corporations will have to reorganize. The traveling circus of conferences and meetings will have to become smaller, with video conferencing taking their place.

Internet companies will grow into new areas of business and play an even larger role in our working lives than even now. Company executives will have to carefully consider whether they want to relocate factories abroad, and if they do, they will perhaps prefer five smaller production sites in three different countries over a single vast factory in China. That will drive up costs and sacrifice efficiency, but it will minimize risk and make production more sustainable. And sustainability is good. Sustainability will be a keyword in the new era that is dawning with the coronavirus.

The word will be broadly understood and will be applied to all human activity, even at the private level. If the U.S. doesn’t rein in its exorbitantly wasteful lifestyle, it will soon be treated by the international community as a rogue nation. Europe and China will grow closer as partners on environmental protections.

It will be exciting to be part of this new world. It will beneficial to put a stop to harmful developments that have been with us for too long. It will be fascinating to watch the development of a new paradigm, to see old ideas die and new ideas take their place. It will feel good to finally surmount the pre-corona era. It had reached its end. In his Easter speech, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier put it like this: “Perhaps we believed for too long that we were invincible, that we could continue to go faster, higher, farther. That was a mistake.” The time has now come to fix it.

Der Spiegel

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