Geopolitical X-ray in times of pandemic

The current pandemic returns us to the meaning of words and gives us hope for a reconstruction of society at local and global levels. COVID-19 has forced humanity into an indefinite general strike[1]. It has exposed our shortages. In geopolitical terms, it has marked the lack of a global government. In its absence, we must consider the alternatives, both the bad and the good ones.

In our classic antiquity, the word “catastrophe” was reserved for the end of a tragedy. For the characters in a tragedy, it was the tergiversation of their lives in an indisputable end. For the spectators—for example the audience of 15,000 people at Syracuse amphitheater, in Magna Greece’s capital—it was another thing: a lesson regarding what should or should not be done.

In these difficult times, at the height of the pandemic when many people expected the worst, it is important to resort not only to the necessary hygiene measures but also to memory, remembering truths that are concealed or whisked away, to see more clearly than when we were in a hurry, things that truly matter.

Etymology is a form of memory, by making us remember the original sense of words. Faced with a serious and universal crisis, it is possible to suspect that we are on the edge of a precipice, living “the end of the world”—at least of the world we thought we knew. In sum, it is an “apocalyptic” situation. But then we are mistaken regarding the meaning. Let us be calm. In ancient Greek, αποκάλυψη (apocalypse) means “revelation,” the discovery of a reality veiled by custom (δόξα, doxa), that is, by a misleading “common sense.”

What does the current pandemic reveal? To answer this question, it is worth recognizing that the answer urbi et orbi has been to stop the movement of persons and transactions in the majority of cases (except for dishonorable exceptions, as Brazil’s government). It is something like stopping the world’s clock. This reaction is not new. In other large crises, for example during the French revolution, revolutionaries shot the clocks and quadrants that told the time in Paris palaces, to stop their hands and thus stop time (in the expression of that time “ils tiraient sur les quadrants”).  It is an interesting example: the symbolic attempt to paralyze everything in order to see well.  

Since the invention of photography, we can obtain the same effect by just pushing a button. Then we obtain an image that fixes a fleeting moment forever. When over the years we open a photo album, we realize that we have entered a funerary pantheon: every face, every gesture, every ambience portrayed there will no longer be or be there. Although I am still alive, the person that I was in that photo is no longer. That “me” is not my current me. To quote Garcia Lorca, in this album I have died forever, as all the dead people on earth.

Photography allows me to observe with attention the state of the world in this or that moment, revealing things that in the maelstrom of current times we usually do not see. All that at skin level. However, we can also portray the state of things under the skin, thanks to the x-ray, among other technics used in medicine, archeology, navigation, etc. today.

As in a photograph or an x-ray image, the answer to the pandemic has been the halt—of everybody and everything. In such image that the halt gives us, there is a revelation: apocalypse, αποκάλυψη, a photo and an x-ray of each corner of the world, in its culture, economy, and society. 

In this article, I will concentrate on just one x-ray plaque: the geopolitical skeleton of the revelation. When observing this x-ray image, I verify the fractures. First observation: No power in the planet is capable of acting to save the whole. Unlike the last postwar, there is no leadership of one power (then USA), nor the institutions destined to maintain a global balance (Bretton Woods, to give an example). Neither, can we see the traces of an agglutination of allies in a joint action (the first Desert Storm war in 1991), to give another example—maybe the last one regarding American hegemony). In the x-ray picture, only fractures can be seen—between East and West and within the latter, a serious fracture between Europe and United States. The issue goes beyond occasional leaders—in our time, almost all of them characterized by a dreadful mediocrity.

If we look zone by zone, it is clear that the division in the USA between blue and red states, republicans and democrats is insurmountable. This gap affects not only the ability to respond to the pandemic[2], but also shows the inability of that country to coordinate an international response. Geopolitical leadership is not immune to an internal fracture.

If we focus on the East, the other corner of the x-ray plaque, we can see that China—already perhaps the top world economic power—is also unable to engage in universal leadership. The structure of disciplinary control allowed China to address the crisis much better than the United States, but its centralized rigidity postponed the initial response and made it lose prestige as candidate for a regulating power. Recriminations regarding the origin and initial trajectory of the virus have just started, as well as the suspicion regarding the reliability of official data.

For its part, Europe has oscillated between uneven responses that show serious internal fractures. The United Kingdom is quite non-united. Boris Johnson is not Winston Churchill. In the European continent, neither France nor Germany agrees on a coherent and consensual response to the crisis. In smaller countries of the “Union,” we can witness a resentful and rabid nationalist enclosure whose clearest example is Hungry—a country that was able to close itself in a sort of self-concentration camp. It is followed by Greece and Poland and Italy is in danger of secession with the growing support of neo-fascist movements. Europe is not capable of agreeing on a common policy to address public debt, which was already large prior to the pandemic and will increase significantly during the sanitary quartering.  Europe considers itself more as a market than as political unity worth preserving.

The pandemic reveals the true state of international relations of XXI century. There is no longer bipolarity or unipolarity but rather a true vacuum of polarity. This vacuum will last for a time that is hard to estimate, but no doubt, it will generate a new power configuration with different actors but still without a central program.

Let us make a bit of history. In the distant past, the main system of geopolitical coordination was the pre-industrial empire. Two thousand years ago, 80% of the world’s population was subject to two empires that barely knew each other: the Roman Empire and Imperial China. These empires fell when there was a serious health or food crisis, given their agricultural foundations. The difference between East and West was that after each Asian fall or decomposition a reconstruction of the same empire followed under a new dynasty. In a very simplified way, that was the tilting and secular history of China. In the West, the fall of the Roman Empire was not succeeded by a re-composition of the same system. Unlike China, the imperial system imploded and fragmented in many localisms from where eventually (after several centuries) a new type of economy and society emerged. The issue was addressed most thoroughly by great thinkers, such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Henri Pirenne, and then by all those who followed them until today[3].

If my reading of the x-ray is not mistaken, we are facing a similar type of collapse, though we call it with different names (“end of globalization,” “terminal crisis of late capitalism,” etc.). If this is true and we did not exaggerate with the analogy, in the geopolitical disarrangement that will follow the crisis, we will see a withdrawal of social organizations towards local communities. For example, the replacement of large productive units by a series of smaller and local initiatives and enterprises, the replacement of the concentration of workers in the same place by a home dispersion of work, and the replacement of the known suburban surroundings by new type of “villages.” The interconnection between these dispersed points will be achieved through the new communication and information technology. The same will happen with the modular e-learning and with new ways of transportation. The mass production of material goods will be done through tele-production and largely automated technologies[4].

Many of the cultural, technical, and intellectual achievements from the previous global period will not be lost, but rather they will be maintained and help sustain another type of civilization. They will keep on functioning but reconverted. Let us remember that Rome’s fall was not followed by the wrongly called “dark ages” of medieval times, but rather its knowledge and techniques survived in latent status, in the refuge of monasteries and archives until they could revive. In our case, they will not be in latent status, but rather very active in the reconstruction of our world.

I would like to emphasize a motto that I have iterated in previous articles and that is no less than a warning about a possible anarchy after the crisis. The motto is from Andrade’s novel Macunaima:  “everyone for one’s self and God against all.” The title is a summary of feudalism, that is, of a mafia-like anarchy. This does not need to happen if we find creative ways for getting out of the impasse[5], as was tried, in another epoch (the last postwar), by the Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim in the last book he wrote before dying, which is actually a collection of six essays: Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction [1940]). In a general sense, Mannheim’s queries are still current: how can we conciliate the need for planning with actors’ freedom? How can we recognize the importance of the State with the need for accountability to the population? How can we subdue to a necessary international coordination of public security but with respect for different and local cultures[6]?

Many of the remedies that authorities practice today under exceptional duress should be generalized and institutionalized. If the British Chancellor, who belongs to the conservative party, can say “the government has to pay salaries to the unemployed,” we cannot fail to take seriously several proposals regarding a minimum and universal income, as integral part of a public social protection net together with health, education, and housing. The same applies to different proposals regarding a new distribution of wealth and opportunities.

In this way, we will honor the etymology of the word apocalypse that points not only to an end but also to a beginning, not to death but rather to a new life –vita nova. We are facing a change in civilization. Perhaps a catastrophe was not necessary for us to realize what has to be done and what has to be avoided. However, that is how it happened. The amphitheater of a hospital school today has turned into a Greek amphitheater for us to learn. Let us be enriched by the lessons.

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[1] . The British worker William Bellow was the first one in using the term general strike as a political weapon in a book tilted The large national vacation and the congress of productive classes. It was the origin of English socialism in 1832. It is very suggestive to revisit the issue of general strike as large universal vacation, that is, as an opportunity for reforming society.

[2] . Warning: there is the risk of serious regional divisions within USA.

[3] . For a more recently and simplified version see the book Escape from Rome. The failure of empire and the road to prosperity, Walter Scheidel NJ: Princeton University Press 2018. I owe this reference to the Brazilian sociologist Anna Jaguaribe.

[4] . I enthusiastically recommend a not so well known book.  Gar Alperovitz, America Beyond Capitalism, 2005. It analyzes already existing initiatives in the own heart of late capitalism.

[5] . I developed this topic in my book Strategic Impasse, London: Routledge, 2017.

[6] . To see how a version of these questions in one of the most serious articles I have read about the period that will follow the pandemic read Yuval Noah Harari, “The world after coronavirus,” Financial Times, March 20, 2020.

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