And afterwards?

The quarantine parenthesis is an opportunity for giving free rein to imagination regarding how to reorder the world.

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The phrase has been quoted a thousand times, but I believe until now it has not occurred to us to link it with the pandemic. I am referring to the well-known beginning of Leon Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” 

When the pandemic broke out at the beginning of 2020, with more or less delay, in various regions, the vast majority of countries adopted similar closure measures. Given the great ignorance regarding the reproduction rate of the virus, its effects on the human organism, and its incidence in different populations, measures were severe, with the only good exception of countries with a high degree of social discipline and previous preparation. There were also others truly bad[1]. With the exception of countries a bit better prepared for such emergency[2], in the majority of cases, the rapid dissemination of the infection found the respective public health systems scantily capable of handling large quantities of sick people in need of hospitalization. This deficiency also increased the number of severe cases and deaths, both direct and indirectly. As the infection spread, medical and social treatment became similar, which for lack of enough scientific and statistic knowledge, consisted in brutally closing the economy and enforcing social distancing.  Apparently, it seemed a contrary situation to what Tolstoy quotes: all unhappy countries were alike. However, this is not true.

As I pointed out in my April article, by paralyzing the economy and society in a vast enclosure, as in an x-ray, we could observe traits of the social structure previously concealed or disguised: the government paralysis, the inertia of some institutions, public mistrust, inequalities and conflicts. It was a huge and painful revelation: clearer regarding social gaps and the geopolitical map than about diagnosis and functioning of the infection.

The advantages and disadvantages of each political system became clear, as well as the very different vulnerabilities of countries and, within each of them, of different social sectors of the population, and also the governance deficit at national and global levels.

The so-called American “exceptionalism” revealed itself as very frail and in the end tragic. Various decades ago, in the USA the market economy invaded the rest of society, resulting in a market society, where absolutely everything can be traded, uninterruptedly and with very few exceptions. At the end of such sad journey, the country finds itself in the middle of the absurd dystopia celebrated by Margaret Thatcher: “society does not exist; only individuals exist[3].” Such staunch individualism denies the achievement of general wellbeing and ignores a growing inequality and an astronomical concentration of wealth[4]. Sooner or later, the neoliberal denial of society leads to a disaster. The inter-individual concurrence creates social neglect in an emergency as the pandemic. Without coordination and with a widely spread attitude of distrust in the government and institutions, the “every man for himself” ends up in that none will be saved, not even those who have hoarded privileges. Not long ago, I daresay that a majority of Americans thought that their country was a lighthouse for the world. Today, many believe that it is a model to avoid.

The coronavirus pandemic and the universal parenthesis to which it has guided us would be a good opportunity to think about how to reorder the world once the crisis is gone. I am afraid this adventure will not be the preferred activity for the majority of population in the majority of countries although I do not have reliable data regarding it. The fear of losing how much or little one has, tends to suffocate imagination and yearn for a soon return to the status quo ante

In minority sectors of the population of various countries—most of them of modest means—a protest against confinement spreads in the name of a poorly understood “freedom.” This idea of freedom without responsibility has been unveiled again and again, probably more eloquently by libertarian John Stuart Mill in his pamphlet On Liberty, who made it famous in the Victorian era and for some it was as inflammatory in his time as the Communist Manifesto of his  contemporary Karl Marx.

However, the opportunity for taking advantage of the existent parenthesis is the responsibility at least of “professional thinkers” to imagine good and bad exit scenarios, as a good or a bad exit there will be[5].

In the forced kidnaping of the pandemic, we should remember that watching television is not to contemplate, and the excess of information numbs reflection. In other words (those of Mercedes Sosa)

Adelante corazón, sin miedo a la derrota,
durar, no es estar vivo corazón, vivir es otra cosa.

Proceed heart, without fearing defeat,

Lasting, is not being alive heart, living is something else.

At the end of World War I, and in full 1918 “Spanish” flu pandemic, mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote about how to reorder the world. Most of his reflections apply today. It is worth reading him, in particular the chapter “How could the world be reorganized?” (pp. 37 and following from Siglo XXI edition, Mexico 1971): https://books.google.com/books/about/Antolog%C3%ADa.html?id=3v3QrGbLRzgC  [6]

Bertrand Russel was a genius: a mathematician and a first-class analytical philosopher, he found time to reflect upon society and politics from the point of view of human relations. As all his biographers point out, Russell greatly influenced analytical philosophy together with Gottlob Frege, his colleague G. E. Moore, and his students Ludwig Wittgenstein and A. N. Whitehead, coauthor of his book Principia Mathematica. His work greatly influenced mathematics, logic, set theory, the philosophy of language, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics and politics. In terms of origin class, he was the third Earl of Russell. His full title was Bertrand Arthur William Russell, Third Earl Russell of Kingston Russell, Viscount Amberley of Amberley and Ardsalla. It would be interesting to know how British aristocracy occasionally produces an individual of such quality. Unfortunately, for each Bertrand Russell it generates a hundred Boris Johnson. As it is said in those circles, Jolly sad…

To conclude this article, I would like to reproduce the beginning of Russell’s essay:

In the daily lives of most men and women, fear plays a greater part than hope: they are more filled with the thought of the possessions that others may take from them, than of the joy that they might create in their own lives and in the lives with which they come in contact.

It is not so that life should be lived. Those whose lives are fruitful to themselves, to their friends, or to the world are inspired by hope and sustained by joy: they see in (their) imagination the things that might be and the way in which they are to be brought into existence. In their private relations, they are not pre-occupied with anxiety lest they should lose such affection and respect as they receive: they are engaged in giving affection and respect freely, and the reward comes of itself without their seeking. In their work, they are not haunted by jealousy of competitors, but concerned with the actual matter that has to be done. In politics, they do not spend time and passion defending unjust privileges of their class or nation, but they aim at making the world as a whole, happier, less cruel, less full of conflict between rival (doctrines), and more full of human beings whose growth has not been dwarfed and stunted by oppression[7]

Kind reader, don’t you want to keep on reading?


[1] . The most disastrous example is Byelorussia.

[2] . These countries had faced epidemics in previous years and had experience in emergency management. That is the case of South Korea and some African countries such as Uganda In the case of Sweden it is about an experiment in social discipline “from above” whose results yet remain to be seen.

[3] . Statement given on October 31st, 1987, by Margaret Thatcher in an interview for magazine Women’s Own. The complete phrase was there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”

[4] . It is about the well-known “tragedy of the Commons” but at planetary scale.

[5] . There is a compilation of ideas of European philosophers that shows that even among them, and before the great expansion of the infection, ideas were not very clear and some even dangerous: https://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers/

[6] . T. N. Proposed Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism, and Syndicalism, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1918: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/690

[7] . T. N.: http://www.personal.kent.edu/~rmuhamma/Philosophy/RBwritings/ProposedRdFree/chap-8.html

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