Sorting Out the Debris of Modernity – When the ‘Old’ Becomes the New ‘New’
We inhabit the psychology of ‘betwixt times’. Instinctively, we know the world will never be the same again, but we cling to the familiar.
Covid tears down our familiar world. It has no logic. It spares neither the rich, nor the élite. It destroys indiscriminately, either through disease, or the collapse of the status quo – and its very precarity impels people, in their new solitude, to stare in the mirror and to ask: ‘Was that ‘life’, the best there was?’
The public already are tiring of physical ‘distancing’, and self-isolation. The discipline of physical separation already is fraying with the onset of fine weather. Watch the videos: there is no real distancing being practiced on many beaches, and in the streets, masks are rarely worn. To a significant extent, this outcome is a result of all the (fraudulent) mathematical models showing a peak of infection, to be followed by an equally exponential slide down, to a quick return to ‘normality’. ‘Talking heads’ go on about a collapsing economy being more lethal than the contagion, yet the public (rightly) are cautious – epidemics are always something to be taken seriously. It stirs remembrances at the deepest levels.
The point here is that, with the progressive opening of the economy and gradual lifting of restrictions on movement, there almost certainly will be further virus peak(s). The public is not psychologically prepared for this, but rather, has been conditioned to expect the scourge to be all over – in time for all to enjoy the summer at the beach.
We inhabit the psychology of ‘betwixt times’. Instinctively, we know the world will never be the same again, but we cling to the familiar. And for now, the future – our ‘new’ – cannot be construed intelligibly. It lacks a framing in narrative (old, or new). Even the ability to narrate our own lives, depends on our having narratives available, that make any one individual life-narrative, fit somehow, within the community’s ‘whole’.
But today’s ‘liberal’ order, with its assault on our stores of past culture, on gender, on identity – and on esteem for ‘difference’ itself – produces people incapable of living lives that have narrative coherence.
There is no evidence that the virus will abate in summer (although that is possible). The point is: Were there to be a further serious infection peak later this year – which is expected by medics – it is uncertain whether a second, government-ordered, lockdown would be accepted by the public. It may be rejected – especially in the U.S., where being ‘anti-lockdown’, and perceiving the pandemic more as a sinister ‘globalist’ plot against American ‘Rights’, is fast becoming a mainstream political movement.
In short, the evidence suggests a coming psychic crisis: i.e. the virus continues to infect another 50%+ of the population, disrupting the economy, and creating a class of an angry, cash-less marginals, (who in the U.S. will be armed). In fact, localised violent political backlash, already has erupted in Europe (Italy and France).
On the path taken by this unpredictable, shape-shifting organism, then, hangs our political future. The élites have not given up hope of a possible return to their privileged, status quo ante lives. The war narrative – ‘a war on coronavirus’; ‘time of war’ economy; ‘time of war’ surveillance and intrusion into all spheres of life – together with travel lockdown, and social distancing, of course, de-activates people politically, as well as socially: It represents the almost complete retirement of public life.
The élite hopes to ‘push-through’ this crisis with criticism suppressed, as a specific threat to the war effort (‘we are all in this together’). Whether they can will depend largely on the course of the Covid-19 crisis. But people are shocked by Nature’s unexpected revenge. The caprice of Life. Its meaning upended. People are finding that they are managing with less. They have less. They discover that they didn’t really need it: (they don’t have to summer in the Caribbean). They can survive without the consumerist ‘froth’.
Will these ‘discoveries’ embed?
Well, the U.S. (and UK) are ‘printing’ money – and are going to continue to throw trillions at the economy, in order to forestall – precisely – the prospect that these discoveries should embed. The élite wants to preserve the consumerist society (it represents, after all 70% of the U.S. economy). Other Central Banks have monetised, in co-ordination, all in all, an annualised $23.4 trillion (more than 25% of global GDP) to save it.
You can see where this is going. The markets desperately want to validate the recent index rise (itself a product of the Fed printing some $8 trillion) by massively inflating anything that might prove to be a ‘silver bullet’ for Covid-19, and to return to the world they understand, to normal. Meanwhile, the market is keeping its eyes tight shut to the economic reality.
This tsunami of liquidity however, may already be too late. The western economy was already in ‘critical state’ as a result of the 2008 global financial crisis, and has triggered cascading in other sectors, such as in Emerging Markets (see here for the reason why). The economic ‘black swan’, pairing (mating) with the biological ‘black swan’ is a ‘phase two’, not just of the virus, but a ‘phase two’ of cascading economy. Not everything can, or will, be bailed out.
The flaws and weakness of the ‘Open Society’ stand naked: Open borders, open airways, open off-shoring of labour costs, open exports of dollar credits, and free trade, has set up the West for a collapse. The inherent fragilities are too brittle, and systematically, too tightly-coupled. Just to be clear, the cascade in the complex, hyper-financialised, dynamic system is setting off fingers of instability affecting the wider liberal ideology of democracy, rights, borderless ‘cosmopolitanism’, migration and technocratic global governance.
Again, Covid-19 did not cause any of this. It just exposed the fractures that already existed. That said, the operators of this globalist project will look to lay blame anywhere else – China will do.
The Enlightenment model has revealed itself as a grand ‘pretence’, cloaking its ugly, predatory, dark underside. But here, there is a problem. Covid-19’s exposure of the flaws to the Open Society equally demands an answer to the question of what – and where – is the alternative? Well, the answer is plain in economic terms: “We’re going back to basics: You know – everything old is new again”.
We are likely to see a return to hard borders; more control of immigration; greater self-sufficiency in terms of domestically-produced component parts (i.e. less off-shoring); more emphasis on self-sustaining agriculture; less dependency on export markets; more reliance on tariffs; and a return to the real economy.
A simpler, largely national economy, in other words, with a sovereign financial sector. Maybe gold, which was an international money in the past, could become money again, in the future. It’s the ‘old’ as the new ‘new’. It is not that there is no alternative – it has been written about for the last 200 years. In 1800, Johann Fichte published The Closed Commercial State. In 1827 Friedrich List published his theories of national economics which took issue with the ‘cosmopolitan economics’ of Adam Smith and J.B. Say. In 1889, Count Sergius Witte, an influential politician and Prime Minister in Imperial Russia, published a paper titled National Savings and Friedrich List, which cited the economic theories of Friedrich List and justified the need for a strong domestic industry, protected from foreign competition by customs barriers.
Call it ‘old’, but really it is nothing extreme. It is simply the flip-side to the coin of Adam Smith. Russians, such as Sergei Glazyev, have been thinking about such things for years, but especially since Russia was expelled from the G8. Alternatives for Russia have both been thought about and developed. But western élites have demonized Russia so thoroughly amongst their publics, that any alternative paradigm has been pushed out – far beyond the boundaries of ‘accepted discourse’.
This means that it will not be possible for the West simply to step out of the Covid-19 crisis, into some ‘waiting’ alternative paradigm (however much the situation warrants it). The world faces the prospect of a profound shift: a return to a natural – which is to say, a self-sufficient – economy. That shift is the very opposite of globalisation.
It is a crisis that may be extensive, but can be only faced ‘head on’ – and worked through, to its far side (absent a solution waiting to ‘step-into’). The outcome may be obvious, yet there will be no shortcuts in reaching it. Why? Because the neo-liberal era has hollowed out and ‘neo-liberalised’ almost everything: Academia, the judiciary, the media, governance, culture and ethics. The shift away from globalism thus is not inevitable in the short-run, because the institutional and cultural structure is captive to the élites, and because the theme of universalism also touches on a sensitive Judeo-Christian nerve (Redemption). Apocalyptic universalism is particularly strong in the U.S..
If the élites can manage it, they will try a return to the global world order – albeit with some of the assumptions that undergirded it (for example, very taut production chains with just-in-time deliveries) being revised. All depends on the path pursued by the pandemic, and on the process of economic cascade colliding with complex societal systems – i.e. on the risk of wider disintegration. Those who are left hopeless, jobless, and without assets could easily turn against those who are better off – and should these people become desperate and angry, societies could begin to disintegrate.
On the other hand, should the crisis continue with aspects of ‘distancing’, with borders closed, and an ethos of doing-with-less remaining as the order of the day – without breakdown – the more that state of affairs will come to seem the new ‘normal’ and embed itself as change.
The direction of political travel in Europe is likely to be sovereigntist and nationalist in the wake of Covid-19. This would beg the question of the nature of this future nationalism. Western ‘populism’ has not really sedimented into a compelling system of practice, or yet been able reach back to any compelling wider ‘logos’.
Why? Because of a deeper fault line: the ‘live rail’ of western discourse. At bottom, this contagion exposes – beyond the economic fragilities – the failure of the Enlightenment project. People in the modern liberal world talk as though we are engaged in moral reasoning, and act as though our actions reflect such reasoning; but in fact neither of these things is true. Ordinary people are working today with bits and pieces of philosophies which are detached from their original pre-Enlightenment settings in which they were comprehensible and useful. Current moral and political philosophies are fragmented, incoherent, and conflicting, with no standards that can be appealed to, in order to evaluate their truth or adjudicate the conflicts between them.
Today, we live in the ‘Enlightened’ world as a fragmented society made up of individuals who have no conception of the human good; no way to come together to pursue a common good; no way to persuade one another about what that common good might be; and indeed most of us believe that the common good does not, and cannot, exist. What kind of politics can such a society have? “Politically the societies of advanced Western modernity are oligarchies disguised as liberal democracies”, wrote Alasdair Macintyre.
Sorting out the debris of modernity: ‘That’ is the magnum opus.
In one respect, the character of the coming era already has been set: The economy and financial markets have been effectively ‘nationalised’ (but with no ownership taken) in the U.S. and UK, through massive bails out. It is ‘time-of-war’ command economics, and a social interventionism that is quasi-totalitarian. Possibly this has been necessary to lower the velocity of the infection-rate to relieve collapsing health systems, but it is nonetheless a worrying omen – given Europe’s long dalliance with the Frankish and Carolingian models of society that spilled over, after the Fall of Rome, into Europe, during the last century. Frankish politics, of course, is the very opposite of libertarianism, or indeed, of Burkean 19th century conservatism.
It is not easy to say where the pendulum in Europe or America might come to rest. The ‘Enlightenment’ was the start-point to an extended decline of western thought, practice and imagination. All these fragile, extended complex systems were children of our conceit that we controlled Nature. That humans had dominant agency. Ego writ large. Now, post-Covid, we know we don’t.
We, ‘complicated humans’, have introduced separate economic, social and political complexities – through the systems we built, largely in disregard for the wider natural complexities and forces of the ‘world around us’. In so doing, we set up those fragilities that now are cracking apart. That interplay between our microcosm systems, and the macrocosm, formerly understood, was pushed aside from European consciousness.
Is there a way it can return?