Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, August 3, 2020

The Corona Crisis: Fighting the Authoritarian Response

At least 20 thousand people (some say many more) marched in Berlin on August 1st 2020 to protest against the restrictions imposed by governments against the Covid-19 epidemic. Unanimously branded as "criminals," "neo-nazis," and "idiots" by the Western media, their presence is nevertheless an indication of a growing movement of resistance against the authoritarian crackdown in Europe.

As I am writing, the Covid epidemics has been over for at least two months in Europe. In the US, instead, the epidemic is over only in the large cities while it is still ongoing in the central states, only recently showing signs of abating. The result is a different perception of the situation. In the US, the progressive movement is still trying to use the epidemic as an anti-Trump weapon, accusing the president of not having been authoritarian enough and not having imposed even more draconian measures. In Europe, instead, the public is starting to perceive that nobody is dying of Covid-19 anymore and that their governments are terrorizing them about a threat that has ceased to exist. It is still an embryonic movement, routinely demonized and criminalized by the government propaganda machine, but it is clearly rising. The recent manifestation in Berlin of tens of thousands of people (perhaps many more) is a clear indication of this trend. Earlier on, we had seen something similar in Italy.

You will be probably baffled by this interpretation of the Berlin demonstration, especially if you live in the US, or if you routinely watch TV or read newspapers in a Western country. But there is a logic in everything that happens and the general perception of the coronavirus is rapidly changing. As an example of this growing interpretation of the situation, let me report, below, a few paragraphs from the book "The End of the Megamachine" by Fabian Scheidler, at present in press in the English version.

Scheidler is seeing well beyond the current epidemic crisis: he sees the disintegration of the whole system appearing, among other thing, as the loss of trust that derives from the routine habit of lying taken by the rulers of society. As I already noted, an empire of lies cannot stand, at least not for long. And the disintegration seems to be accelerating its pace: there are dark times ahead. I suggest that you carefully consider these thoughts by Scheidler. And if you can, do read his book: it is eye-opening.

The Structural Irrationality of the System
The corona crisis has revealed a structural schizophrenia of the system: While governments resorted to extreme means to contain Covid-l9 -—even a temporary shutdown of the economy -- virtually nothing has happened in relation to the climate crisis for four decades. There are no binding reduction targets that are even remotely compatible with the two~degree target, nor is there a serious plan for the rapid restructuring of infrastructure and the economy. This is despite the overwhelming  scientific consensus that accelerating climate chaos is many orders of magnitude more dangerous than the corona virus. Our political systems respond to short-term crises with panic and ad hoc measures, while long-term disruptions are de facto ignored -- apart from occasional soapbox speeches. The highly praised "knowledge society" proves in this situation to be a chimera: for it is precisely here, where prognostic knowledge is the most relevant for the survival of humankind, namely in the climate issue, that it remains politically inconsequential.

The end of truth and the Instability of Ideological Power
While it is evident that representative democracies in many parts of the world are becoming increasingly unstable, there is at the same time no reason to assume that the authoritarian structures that partly replace them would be any more stable in the long run. The constantly changing legitimization for the state of emergency also give them a certain volatility. Declaring war, sometimes against terror. sometimes against a virus, then again against migrants, wears off over time. Changing the enemy too frequently is irritating and exhausting -- especially since for most people, fighting all those enemies in no way brings about any improvement in their own living conditions. On the contrary, the social downward spiral continues on. Permanent political stability can hardly be achieved in this way.
Added to this is the growing fragility of ideological power. Many authoritarian governments that have come to power since 2010 have propped up their rule on the targeted dissemination of fake news, both through social media and through major television stations and newspapers that are in line with their political ideology. Now, lying is nothing unusual tor governments, even in relatively democratic countries. It is part of everyday political life, and it is always the task of a vigilant public and press to expose these lies. Dictatorships that violently suppress a critical public have always bolstered their power with propaganda. What is new about the current situation, however, is that the very concept of truth is being shaken. And this for several reasons. One is the established media's massive loss of credibility, and the other is the systematic attack on the sciences,
If it becomes apparent that this supposedly rational civilization is completely blind to the most important information essential for survival, then the governors of this system face a serious dilemma. either they have to attack the sciences head-on and deny their findings, thus exposing rationality, one of the foundations of this civilization as a myth, or they react appropriately to the research and immediately begin a deep socio-ecological restructuring of society. But since the second option seems too terrible, even unthinkable in the logic of the system, the only last result is to sacrifice the claim of rationality. And this is exactly what the political leaders of the new Right, such as Jair Bolsonaro or Donald Trump, instinctively do. The success of their attack on scientific authorities is fed by the widespread feeling that the majority of people have long been systematically lied to by the “establishment." This impression cannot be dismissed: didn't Neo-liberal economists spread false prognoses and promises with their pseudo-science for decades, thus exposing society to downright plunder? Have not many of the politicians and media who complain about fake news today themselves justified wars of aggression (for example against Iraq) with fake news? Hasn't mankind been steered into one economic and ecological crisis after the other by a self-adulating establishment that touts itself as having no alternative?
The deep insecurity that has arisen from these experiences in large parts of the population can easily be diverted into anger towards scapegoats. It is a politically extremely clever move by the new right to choose science for this purpose, because it kills two birds with one stone: on the one hand it can distract from systemic issues, and on the other hand it can remove obstacles to further expansion of the economic machinery. This is why scapegoating science is so attractive to powerful economic groups
But this strategy also means that there is no longer any foundation for truth. With the rationality viewed as a facade, any lasting trust in a firmly established order collapses. We know from history that a certain ideological stability, with a frame of reference generally accepted and not called into question, is essential for social systems to endure. But where is this stability to come from when more and more people feel that order in the world is eroding and that there is no longer any criterion for truth,, except the loudest megaphone? 
In this respect, the Corona crisis and the biopolitical state of emergency have replaced the war on terror, which had already lost a great deal of its power of persuasion as a reason for legitimizing authoritarian measures for a certain period oi time. The rhetoric in both cases is astonishingly similar: Heads of government such as Emmanuel Macron (France), Pedro Sanchez, (Spain), Giuseppe Conte (Italy) and Donald Trump have declared a ‘war against the virus". "The enemy", said President Macron, ‘is there, invisible, intangible, and it is advancing. This requires our total mobilization. We are at war." The pattern is familiar: The nation must pull together in the face of a treacherous and ruthless enemy, putting aside internal con´Čéicts, civil rights and all other issues in general.
It is not a matter of questioning whether states should take protective measures in the face of a pandemic like Corona. However, it is obvious that, beyond sensible strategies to prevent infection, the crisis has been used by many governments to reinforce the already discernible tendency towards authoritarian structures. The measures in 2020 have made it clear to all citizens that their democratic rights can be very quickly withdrawn by the state. For many politically sensitive contemporaries. it was as if a window had suddenly been opened through which the icy wind of a rising dictatorship passed for a moment. Even if this window is successfully closed again: We now know what it could feel like when our rights are suspended overnight (an experience that people in many countries of the global South have already had more than enough). The enemy to be fought, the catastrophe which makes any means legitimate, will probably be different. But the mode of shutdown has already been practiced, including house arrest, bans on assembly and demonstration, total surveillance, control of social contacts, and denunciation of dissenters.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)