2020 has not been a good year for optimists. My book began by lamenting the poor timing of Christopher Lasch’s masterful critique of progress, The True and Only Heaven, in the year of peak post-war liberal optimism, 1991. My luck was much better. I could not have picked a more vindicating moment for the publication of my own than March 2020.
It is hard to think of a more dramatic and fateful month in recent human history. Certainly not since the guns of August began firing in 1914, when the world as they knew it then ended in the muddy trenches of World War I. When March 2020 began we continued to lead normal lives, hoping that the frightening new virus that had emerged in a Chinese city most Westerners had never heard of would be stopped in its tracks like every other disease that has emerged in our lifetimes. Pandemics, after all, were a thing of the past, the stuff of grainy black and white photos of ghostly nurses tending to flu-stricken soldiers in 1918, or medieval engravings of skeletons dancing around plague victims. Not something we are used to on 4K curved screens.
But by the time the month ended, a third of humanity was in lockdown, all the while we were treated with apocalyptic scenes of human beings on mechanical ventilators, refrigerated trucks carrying out the dead, and a deluge of statistics showing ever rising infection curves and death tolls. And for the unlucky ones living in countries like the US, UK, or Brazil, a daily display of government incompetence and citizen insanity, all the more tragic considering it has come from the most ardent supporters of the very regimes that care so little about their lives and livelihoods.
The plague that shouldn’t have been
According to the paladins of human progress that are the subject of criticism in The Glass Half-Empty, the pandemic should not have even happened. In Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker hardly made any mention of pandemics in his chapter on existential threats, praising instead the quick response to previous outbreaks like Ebola and SARS:
“An example [of advances in biology] is the Ebola vaccine, developed in the waning days of the 2014-15 emergency, after public health efforts had capped the toll at twelve thousand deaths rather than the millions that the media had foreseen. Ebola thus joined a list of other falsely predicted pandemics such as Lassa fever, hantavirus, SARS, mad cow disease, bird flu, and swine flu.” (pg. 307)
Johan Norberg was equally dismissing of the threat of a pandemic, citing the 2009 swine flu as evidence. It is bad enough that he describes it as “a totally new version of the virus of 1918” as if novelty equated to deadliness; the 1918 flu would be just as deadly today as it was a century ago although we would probably have found a vaccine at some point. What is worse is his description of how a modern pandemic would play out in Progress:
“The internet made it possible to track the outbreak and facilitated co-operation between institutions, scientists and health workers around the world. … gene sequencing was done in just one day. Within a week the full H1N1 virus genome was published online, for the whole world to use. … In June 2009 the WHO declared that H1N1 was a pandemic. Just three months later several manufacturers had already completed vaccine development and started producing it.” (pg. 59)
The assumption of course, was that any future pandemic would play out exactly as the last one. It didn’t because SARS-CoV-2 was a completely different virus from anything previously encountered, not least this being a family of viruses notorious for having no existing treatments or vaccines for. Additionally, this virus had peculiar combination of mortality and transmissibility that it was easy for many governments to dismiss it due to fears of unnecessary economic damage (which ended up being worse for those who avoided early lockdowns). For all the talk of irrational pessimism, this is a striking submission to what is known as the normalcy bias, the bane of all disaster planners since it leads to threats being minimized because they are so out of scope from what our conception of normality is. This was the equivalent of the French Army expecting to fight another war of attrition in 1940 until realizing the panzers had already broken through.
To his credit, the more radically libertarian of the optimist lot, Matt Ridley, took the virus seriously from the start, consistent with his previous writings that warned of the threat of pandemics. From a Marth 10th blog post titled “Coronavirus is the Wolf on the Loose” he wrote:
“[W]e have indeed cried wolf over so many issues, that it has contributed to us being underprepared. We should have seen that globalisation would cause such a risk to grow ever larger and taken action to prevent a new virus appearing.”
Unfortunately, Ridley’s well-founded warning on the virus is clouded by his discounting of climate change as a lesser threat. The above post ended with the following:
“Last week Greta Thunberg was still telling the European Parliament that climate change is the greatest threat humanity faces. This week Extinction Rebellion’s upper-class twits were baring their breasts on Waterloo bridge in protest at the billions of people who they wrongly think may die from global warming in the next decade. These people are demonstrating their insensitivity. They are spooked by a spaniel when there’s a wolf on the loose.”
It is perhaps Ridley and Pinker’s determination that only serious existential threats be considered worthy of concern although it’s hard to imagine anything more serious than climate change (and nuclear war) in terms of its disruption to nearly every aspect of human life. Pandemics may not be an existential threat per se: even the Black Death did not wipe out Europe, much less the human race. But this is not mean that lesser threats should be shrugged off. Or that we simply see the coronavirus tragedy in function of the death toll alone, much less the death toll relative to the global population which in the grander scheme of things is still minuscule. The hardship caused by the economic and social fallout of the pandemic must also count.
With this in mind, we are facing an economic crisis that dwarfs that of the Global Financial Crisis and is second only to the Great Depression. The figures by now are no longer shocking to our jaded minds but would have appeared as absurd or even more than the “fat tail” risks that banks naively discarded as the subprime crisis built up. Most countries will face recessions twice as steep (or more) than in 2009, and with public coffers still not recovered from the previous crisis, may be an impetus for further austerity and withering away of the state.
In no other country has the human, economic, and social impact of the coronavirus been more severe than in the United States. This is all the worse considering that the US has typically been among the most resilient countries to pandemics, on account of Americans being historically healthier and more affluent than their European counterparts (to say nothing of the rest of the world), neither of which is the case anymore. Although the country’s plutocrats have been suitably pampered by a trillion-dollar bailout with nary a string attached, its working and middle classes have been left to manage with the most feeble income support granted by any government in the Western world, all the more egregious considering it’s also the only country in the West without universal healthcare. All of this with full complicity of the Democratic Party, confirming the book’s argument that both parties are far too ideologically similar for comfort.
One other event is worth mentioning, for the way it has upended the progress narrative. The outbreak of protests and unrest following the police murder of George Floyd on May 25th appears as an almost inevitable result of the anger and helplessness of a country whose social fabric has been eroded after decades of laissez-faire to which much be added the litany of racial grievances that the country’s non-white population has been subjected to even before independence. Again, the progress narrative misses the plot when it comes to understanding why these protests are so relevant. African-Americans may have it “better than ever” if one simply takes Pinker and company’s favored linear approach of time series comparisons of incomes or unemployment rates, the latter which Trump never ceased to boast when the economy was not in freefall.
Instead, what we have been reminded off has been the decades of relative stagnation of the African-American community compared to their white counterparts. Blacks are, today, as likely to be unemployed relative to whites as in 1970, have a lower share of family wealth relative to whites as in 1983, and largely the same difference in household income since 1967 (all dates when the first such statistics were compiled ). So strong are the structural gridlocks in 21st century USA that these inequalities persist even after eight years of a black president and with more black members of Congress than ever. Nothing reveals the near-uselessness of electoral democracy without ideological pluralism, the central political thesis of The Glass Half-Empty, than that.
A missed opportunity
In Pinker, Norberg, and Ridley’s world, humanity has an answer for everything. Not too long ago, economists also predicted with similar hubris that “the main problem of depression has been resolved”. We have since witnessed the near collapse of the global banking system and were forced to shut down the world economy because of a virus that was unknown to man just a few months earlier. As it turns out, you only need one correctly predicted pandemic to make you look like a fool for discounting all the falsely predicted ones as progressophobic fearmongering. But even as we’re left reeling from the very visible threat of disease, climate change continues unabated, the fortunes of the global plutocratic class remain decoupled from the immiseration of the working classes and the poor, and impervious to any crisis except the imagined reign of redistributive terror that would ensue should any truly progressive left-wing government come to power.
With that in mind, the immediate human tragedy of the disease is made so much worse by the missed opportunity for substantive political and economic change from the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders in the US and UK. To think that the countries that invented the current laissez-faire capitalist order would be governed by openly socialist leaders would be a watershed moment, no less revolutionary than when Thatcher and Reagan came to power. And were they to have succeeded, this have been possibly the only way in which to delegitimize and defeat the far-right authoritarian populism that liberal centrists have no answer to, and which shows no signs of retreating back into the abyss of human hatred from where it came from.
We leftists should not fool ourselves: their loss is an unquantifiable setback for coming closer to the type of progress that any reasonable human being should aspire to. Not one based on false promises of infinite GDP growth and unrestrained individualism but one that is conscious of our social and environmental needs and limited resources to meet them. Once the nightmare that is 2020 is over, we must dream it possible again.
The Glass Half-Empty: Debunking the Myth of Progress in the Twenty-First Century, by Rodrigo Aguilera is available here.