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.





18 comments:

  1. The essay holds an uncommon perspective and is exceptionally good. Thank you for it, Ugo.

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  2. "In Europe, instead, the public is starting to perceive that nobody is dying of Covid-19 anymore"

    Because the government response worked... right? This would make Europe an empire of truth. Should I be praising people who are confused over simple cause and effect relations?

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    1. Quite right! I do feel Ugo has lost the plot a bit here.

      It's quite clear that govts that acted quickly and decisively with even draconian measures in some cases have fared better that the neolib inspired laissez faire govts such as US and UK.

      In the UK it was our so-called world-class modellers that provided wrong and/or conflicting info that was then poorly interpreted by govts. Those countries advised by public health officials with practical experience did much better.

      You can't have it both ways Ugo, what are you really trying to say?

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  3. In short: I am definitely confused. Help!

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  4. Solidarity is now authoritarian? And paranoia is lucidity?

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  5. Yes, Scheidler does present an insightful analysis.

    Still, now matter how thorough an "Ain’t it awful?” explication of the bars of the cage — this one is thick, that one is old, and we’ve been in here for “x” years now — may be, it has limited utility.

    I hope your next post continues with his suggestions for “Now what?”

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    1. That's the basic problem of catastrophism. It is weak on "solutions". Scheidler's book is great, but in the end it has a slim chapter on "what to do now" -- which is not just slim, but not at the same level as the rest of the book. It is because interpretation is easier than prediction and the future is always surprising.

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  6. the Covid epidemics has been over for at least two months in Europe

    Words that I fear will come back to haunt you, especially if the people like the marchers in Berlin get their way.

    Here in the US we get both the authoritarian crackdown and the pandemic. At least Europe has had a nice respite from the pandemic. Be thankful for small mercies. It probably won't last.

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    1. Don't you think it is a bit of a strange comment? How could it happen that having noted something that's true could come back to me to haunt me? Maybe the epidemic will restart after the summer, but nobody knows and I never said that it won't come back. Instead, those who are sure that it will return might turn out to be the ones "haunted".

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    2. I now see that I misunderstood your intended meaning. When someone says that something is "over" they usually mean that it has ended, i.e., it is "past or beyond (something), done with and no longer experiencing" as in "the storm is over" or "the worst of the fever is over". I don't think most people would say that something is "over" if they were uncertain as to whether it had truly ended. In that case one might say, "There has been a lull in the Covid epidemic for at least two months" or "The worst impacts of the epidemic have waned at least for now". Saying it's "over" means it won't come back. At least that is how I understood the sentence I quoted. I just wondered how you could be so definitive that the epidemic had ended in Europe two months ago.

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    3. Well, I think that when you say "it is over" you mean "it is not here anymore." I used this term to mean that for two months we had essentially no victims in Europe. Maybe I should have specified "at least for now". Surely, if I had wanted to say that it is over forever, I would have cited Shakespeare and said "it is past and gone"

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  7. Registering as a visitor in bars and restaurants has become mandatory in Germany for the sake of public health. It transpired that the police has had a grip on the data for "investigations of crimes". So if we want to protect the public from evil, why not protect them from crimes. It can only be goot for you, so do not worry. Nobody is intending to create a police state. The police is only here for your protection, does that not feel good ?

    MM

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    1. Of course! And we'll protect you from those subversives who torched the Reichstag!

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  8. While you are fighting,bolster yourself with some good Pickles! They keep well while out on the street facing down the Gestapo and the Tear Gas.

    http://www.doomsteaddiner.net/blog/2020/08/02/collapse-food-preservation-from-cucumber-to-pickle/

    RE

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  9. I don't know about Europe but in the U.S. the average daily mortality rate of deaths/new cases in the last week has been 1.3% - 1.7%. Cumulatively, since the beginning of the pandemic, we're still over 3%. This is almost exactly what the epidemiologists said it would be after our death rates dropped a lot because doctors have improved their treatment protocols. This is compared to a .1% mortality rate for the flu. People are dying and I trust the epidemiologists. For some reason they are getting lumped in with our woebegone leaders. Not sure why.

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    1. The issue with the official death rates is that they do not take into account asymptomatic or very mild cases that aren't tested for. One German virologist, Hendrik Streeck, puts the infection fatality rate at around 0.24%-0.36%. Higher than the flu to be sure but also not nearly as deadly as we once thought.

      Here's a link to the study: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.05.04.20090076v2

      He also did an interview with UnHerd on Youtube which is worth a listen. Just look up UnHerd on Youtube and they've got a bunch of fantastic interviews all about covid.

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  10. "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."

    What a patently absurd statement. Trump's misguided actions and lack of action have resulted in the US, despite representing less than 5% of the global population, having more infections and deaths than any other nation. During times of national emergency, the role of the president is to unify and galvanize the citizenry to come together and overcome the collective threat. Instead, the president offered no leadership and Trump used the occasion to divide the people in a failed effort to score political points. Consequently, each state was forced to respond individually. Republican states subscribed to the Trump perspective that the pandemic was fake, addressed the issue only casually, and opened up far too early. Now those states are paying the ultimate cost.

    Trump's response during a recent interview regarding the increasing death toll, "It is what it is." Yeah, you're right, criticism of Trump's handling of the crises is being used as a "anti-Trump weapon" - lol.

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  11. Oh my, what happened to the USA. Begging for authoritarian measures. The point to think about is that this is an ongoing process. With draconian measures you have less deaths until today, that is simple but we do not have the "end results"! All these speculate that we can have a short "experiment" because we will get the vaccinations early. It is absolutely not clear if vaccination works and if not this "live event" will have to go on for much longer. Only AFTER all is settled and done, we can compare the draconian measures with no measures. Slowly numbers are emerging from the dust that viewed in a longer perspective both aproaches yield the same death rate. An ICU bed is no guarantee at all that people over 85 will not die. Not infecting them means to completely spereate THEM but not me. If that is what the elderly people in the nursing homes want, put them in a box and lock them up. I imagine even "they" do not want that. If you are not prepared for death at 85, nothing can help you, I fear.

    MM

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Who

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)