The world is changed. I feel it in the water.
I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air.
There is a prevailing journalistic narrative that the COVID-19 emergency will prove to be the portal to a brave new world of increasingly powerless citizens and increasingly powerful governments. Human beings will find themselves standing alone, trembling and defenceless, before a new kind of tyranny that routinely sacrifices individual freedom for herd security. Authoritarian leaders in the mold of Victor Orban, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping will be the ‘new normal’. There is even talk of a new world order with China taking over the hegemonic position.
There is a more analytical narrative, however, that is quite different. It claims that we are, indeed, passing through a critical interregnum – transition, if you like – between what was and what will be. There will, indeed, be no return to pre-2020 “normalcy”. But the new normal looks like being much more normal than the old, because it will be based on radically different ideas about the world and the place (and the purpose) of human beings in it.
“History,” writes American thinker, novelist and musician Samuel R. Delaney, “begins as a field of active ignorance… All research can do... is inscribe that field with probabilities”. We are passing through a crucial period of historic transformation; let’s try to inscribe the field with some probabilities.
Less than 100 days into the COVID crisis, we can already see which ideas, dominant (or at least prominent) until a few weeks ago, have been swept away from the arena of the mainstream. These ideas can be placed under the umbrella concept of separatism. We can distinguish two basic strands of this separatism: the cult of the free-floating individual and the cult of identity groups (groupes d’origine, as the French delightfully call them). We can also discern, fairly clearly now, what is to come in their place.
The (mis)adventures of the free-floating individual
The cult of the individual can be traced, of course, back to the neo-liberal ideas of the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher’s ill-advised claim that “there is no such thing as society”. At its peak, just before the 2008 financial crisis, the neo-liberal ideological package went something like this.
People live as individuals. They do not form communities, linked by ties of loyalty, obligation or sacrifice. On the contrary, individuals clash against each other like snooker balls, while competing in the marketplace. What they are competing for is maximum gain for minimum outlay, which is the desired outcome and, indeed, the very purpose of the human being as such. Recognition and respect is owed to individuals who can demonstrate the attainment of maximum gain in terms of extraordinary personal wealth. The others are free to enjoy whatever modest gain they have managed to attain by engaging in consumption. In the end, whoever dies with the biggest mounds of stuff around them is deemed the winner.
This ideology produced a philosophy, under which people were held to exist only insofar as they were “agents” in the marketplace. Their function was to fit in with the “demands of the market”. Those who failed to fulfil this function were held to be non-existent. The role of government and politics was to ensure the most favourable conditions for the existence of the market and for the inclusion of all human beings into it. The role of education, even at University level, was to “produce cadres for the market”. “Market logic” was declared supreme and was imposed not only on government policies, but also on whole societies. If you were not engaged in maximizing gain and minimizing outlay, you were a defective human being.
This gross impertinence (as Roger Scruton once wrote of Louis Althusser) was peddled as common sense for a generation. Less than 100 days into the pandemic, it already sounds not only dated, but also Neanderthal. People actually believed this stuff?
Publics and governments around the world have now discovered, simply, that people are more important than the market. There is overwhelming empirical evidence for this. We are, as a civilization, sacrificing the “demands of the market” and, indeed, of the economy as such, in order to preserve the lives and safety of human beings, regardless of how they are positioned “in the marketplace”.
Publics and governments around the world have now discovered, simply, that people are more important than the market.
We have re-discovered something that all the truly great thinkers of humanity have always known: that recognition is due to human beings not because of their success in maximizing gain, but because of the fact that they are human beings and thereby – moral (not market) “agents”. We are on the point of re-discovering something else that these thinkers, even when labeled “economists” (such as Adam Smith) also knew: that it was people who invented the economy in order to improve their lives; it was not the economy that invented people to serve it as “cadres”. The economy is there to serve people and not the other way round. More: human beings remain moral agents as long as they do not allow the economy to become their master (something which, to a non-prejudiced reader of Adam Smith, should have been obvious from the start).
Once such basic truths about the human condition have been re-discovered, we enter into an entirely new phase of economic policies. Indeed, we are already in it. What happened to balanced budgets, austerity, tight money, cut-backs in public spending, restructuring, streamlining, debt? What happened to the entire architecture of fiscal and financial orthodoxy that has governed the lives of the post-baby boom generations? It has disappeared in the twinkling of an eye. Literally, one day, about three weeks ago, it was still standing; the following day it was gone and done with. Instead of a tightening of belts, the governments of the world’s leading economies are generating truly fantastic torrents of money, in which to drown the pandemic-related recession. All previous “Keynesian” periods have already paled in comparison.
Once we have emerged from the delusion that the economy is the master of all humans, we will inevitably have to deal with its ideological basis – to wit, the idea that people live as isolated individuals and that their purpose is to clash like snooker balls in pursuit of maximum gain.
Even the most cursory glance at the history of humanity will reveal that human beings are animals that live in communities. They are, “by nature”, community-builders, as Aristotle pointed out as long as 2,300 years ago. Outside of the community, he continued, you can live as a beast or a god; but not as a human being. The great thinkers, from Aristotle on, have maintained that virtues are to do with working for the good of the community; there is no virtue that arises out of maximizing your own gain. From this follows that recognition is due to those who work for the common good, even at the cost of sacrificing their own; no recognition can be possibly due to someone maximizing their gain by sacrificing the common good. Indeed, that way ostracism lies.
This is all, admittedly, basic stuff, first-year student level. But one of the wonderful aspects of any true crisis is that we are suddenly thrown back on the basic stuff, instantly letting go of fashionable ideas that looked, just yesterday, like so much fine frippery…
The re-discovery that people live in communities is already resonating through the daily lives of COVID-stricken societies. Solidarity is suddenly back in fashion, as is voluntary sacrifice for the common good, mutual help, cooperation and sharing. Societies in lockdown demonstrate recognition, by applauding from their balconies, for people working for other people – not for successful billionaires. Were Donald Trump to stand for his first election in any of these societies today, he would be laughed out of court.
The emancipation from the mastery of the economy, and the overcoming of the myth that people live as isolated individuals, will inevitably undermine all efforts to establish tyranny under the guise of security. Isolated individuals are an easy prey to fear. People in solidarity with each other are considerably less afraid and are considerably less willing to hand over their freedom to some strong man.
This goes at least some way towards explaining why the strong men of yesterday look strangely diminished in the light of the new day. Victor Orban has remained alone in his success at abolishing due process and establishing indefinite rule by decree. This model has not been replicated elsewhere and is now highly unlikely to be. When the dust settles we will end up, more than likely, with a dictatorial Hungary being a single (and inexplicable) eyesore on the European scene, just as North Korea has long been an inexplicable eyesore on the global arena.
The more serious dictators have also shrunk to shadows of their former selves. President Erdogan has gone uncharacteristically quiet, no longer firing broadsides at the EU and, more generally, at the democratic West. It has been sometime since President Putin, with his oil-based economy disintegrating under his very feet, has been praised by anyone of consequence as a strong conservative leader bound to defeat, in the end, the weaklings of liberal democracy. Chairman Xi has taken a severe hit, on the international stage, for trying to hide the emergent pandemic from the world as well as, thereafter, for opening up a charm-cum-disinformation offensive against the West. As European and American companies begin to pull out of China – and as Western governments finally realize that Chinese “investment” is as pernicious to their security as is the Russian variety – Chairman Xi will increasingly be part of the walking wounded. When measured against this emerging reality, his aspirations to global hegemony are severely diminished.
Not least, since the return of the economy to its proper (subservient) place in human affairs, we have entered a new energy age. Within weeks we saw, with our own eyes (we will be telling our grandchildren of this and they will not believe us) the end of the coal and oil age. The end of the atomic age is around the next corner. The post-COVID world will be green to an extent envisioned, during the pre-COVID age, only by environmental radicals such as Greta Thunberg and the activists of Greenpeace. The experience of working from home, which we are currently accumulating, will surely result in the long-overdue de-concentration of the population away from the big cities, and towards the depopulated countryside. Cities are, after all, the province of merchants, officials, warriors, moneylenders, artists, courtiers and University lecturers; what is everyone else doing there?
The rise and fall of groupes d’origine
To their credit, contemporary thinkers of the civilized Left (Richard Rorty, Charles Taylor and a host of others) and of the civilized Right (Roger Scruton and… er…) have expended much effort, over the past quarter-century, to counter the ideology of the free-floating individual and to revive the concept of community and its values. The thinkers of the less-than-civilized Left and Right fared less well. They attempted to defeat the ideology of rampant individualism by dissolving human individuals in a primeval soup of “group identity”.
About a quarter-century ago, new thoughts began bubbling under the surface of American Left academia. A decade later, they burst to the surface as “identity politics”. This “politics” attacked the positive side of the ideology of the individual, i.e. the classic Liberal idea that every one of us can “better ourselves” through diligence and effort, becoming something different from what we were born as. (The above-cited Samuel R. Delaney is a typical case, starting out from Harlem and, after pulling himself up by his bootstraps, becoming Professor at nearby Columbia University.)
This kind of individual journey, “identitarians” told us, was neither possible nor legitimate. If you are born black, you are and remain part of a group identity that is “black”. Whatever you do as an individual, you can only be a representative of a collective “black identity” and should only be heard as such. What you are as an individual does not count. This, of course, went for all other “identity groups”: whites, men, women. These groups were ranged along a hierarchy of moral inequality according to the nature of their group identity. White men were deemed to be, “by nature”, oppressors of all other groups and therefore morally contemptible. At the bottom were black women, oppressed by everyone else.
We were also told that no identity group could possibly enter into a meaningful dialogue with any other identity group, because their “life experiences” were just too different. With the option of dialogue thus closed, what remained were the politics of grievance, resentment and victimhood – all of them pregnant with conflict.
As time wore on, infinite variations were added to this, but the message remained the same: the only thing you can do with your life is to be a representative of the identity group you were born into.
The great humanitarian and historian Tony Judt once wrote: “…lacking a common “community of destiny”, so to speak, we are all too frequently tempted to fall back on communities of origin, the besetting sin of nationalism and “multiculturalism” alike”. Communities of destiny are the communities that we, as individuals, choose to become part of and are accepted into when attaining certain applicable standards. Communities of origin we can do nothing about; to them we are doomed.
All communities are, of course, “imagined communities”. Imagining communities of destiny provides individuals with the motivation to “better themselves”. Imagining communities of origin removes this motivation. In an imagined community of destiny, you attain recognition for your own achievements and sacrifices as an individual. In an imagined community of origin, recognition comes to you without effort, simply for being born “one of us”.
The communities of origin, imagined by the extreme Left, proved too intellectually arid for most people to swallow. When the extreme Right realized this, and joined in the game, it achieved infinitely greater success. What the extreme Right offered were imagined communities of origin that had long been part of the human experience: nation, ethnicity, faith. Unlike the communities imagined by the extreme Left, these were able to quickly take root in nation states and would-be nation states, leading to the separatism that coloured the opening decades of the twenty-first century.
Every nation state, falling into this trap, re-imagined itself as unique, morally superior to everyone else and therefore deserving of enhanced recognition. This, of course, severely undermined the liberal international order, built on the assumption of equality between states, as was the liberal democratic order built on the assumption of equality between individuals. Russia declared itself unique and started biting bits off other people’s states. The British followed suit and decided to leave the EU in order to pursue their uniqueness; Donald Trump’s “America First” followed. In the EU, newly-fledged xenophobic regimes demanded “illiberal democracy” and a “Europe of nations”. Scotland, Catalonia and others attempted to split off their existing national communities and strike out on their own.
Less than 100 days into the pandemic – do we hear any of this? Just before the end of the old “normalcy”, on the Left there was a scandal brewing between feminists and trans-people. What happened there? On the Right, there were confident predictions that the disintegration of the EU was nigh. What we see today are nation states clamouring for a degree of solidarity and integration unthinkable a couple of months ago. Today, any politician appealing to his nation to leave the EU would find that (to paraphrase the great Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov) politicians are mortal and sometimes – suddenly mortal.
In the eye of the crisis people and, increasingly, states behave in the good old liberal-Kantian mode – as equals. The storm of the crisis has blown away all predicates in order to reveal human beings for what Kant always knew they were, in their essence, once all particularist characteristics have been stripped off: equal members of what used to be called “the human race”, deserving of equal respect for their equal dignity.
Not least, we have all come to appreciate the inter-connectedness of everyone with everyone else, across the globe. No separation, no isolation, nor the highest of walls can create security for some while leaving everyone else insecure. After all, how did this all start? Someone ate an undercooked bat in China and thousands of people started dying in Italy…
The momentum towards the new is a fact.
There is a real, tangible probability that the post-COVID “new normal” will be infinitely better than the old “normalcy”. The old vested interests will resist; they will probably put up a fair fight. But the momentum towards the new is a fact. We can feel it in the water. We can feel it in the earth. We can smell it in the air.
We would really have to be terminally stupid to let this opportunity pass by.
 Samuel R. Delany. The Motion of Light in Water. Paladin 1990, p.577
 Scruton, Roger (1985). Thinkers of the New Left. Harrow: Longman. p. 186
 Tony Judt. Reappraisals. Reflections on the forgotten twentieth century. Heinemann 2008, p. 155