27 March 2020

Living through history: coronavirus and the world tomorrow


It’s the dream that fires revolutions and hot-takes alike: tomorrow everything will be different. Sometimes it is; more often the dawn breaks while everything else remains largely intact.

In the midst of a global pandemic moving at bewildering speed, it can feel as though there’s little to hold on to. Easy therefore to give up trying, to sink into the happy certainty that ‘this changes everything’ (probably in the way you always imagined). And indeed, it could. Perhaps tomorrow everything will be different. But while there will clearly be a strong impact on things like the way we work and the function of the state, as the historian Glen O’Hara noted on CapX last week, other pandemics have failed to reshape our world in the way we expected. Coronavirus could be a revolutionary moment, but it could also be ‘a turning point around which history failed to turn’.

Change is more often incremental than explosive. Instead of being a particular point, or a moment of rupture, it’s just as likely that coronavirus will feed into pre-existing debates and societal fractures, accelerating some trends and providing argumentative ballast for others, with the example of the crisis marshalled on either side of the trench.

Take the environment for example, clearly a live issue well before coronavirus.

The water of Venice is now a still, rare blue. Nitrogen oxide and CO2 levels have dropped dramatically, air quality has improved; in many major cities you can now breathe safe in the knowledge you’re only knocking weeks rather than years off your lifespan. All of this is wonderful news. At the same time, thousands are dying, millions have lost their jobs and future generations are saddled with unbearable debts. This is rather less wonderful.

How to read such a world? For many in the environmental movement the crisis will prove that with significant action we can make a difference in a short space of time – look, all is not lost. The imperative for dramatic change now is made all the stronger by coronavirus because it proves it can be done. Their calls for stricter targets and more draconian government intervention will grow louder.

But resistant voices will grow bolder too, pointing out the massive damage to the economy and living standards – not to mention public health – that have led to such (limited?) improvements. If this is the cost, are our targets even viable, let alone reasonable?  And given the largely ignored existential risk of disease, shouldn’t we be focusing our energy on a global crisis closer to home?

Double down or duck out? The argument, as it was before coronavirus, is about balance and speed. And it will remain that way, but with better photos of the benefits and costs attached.

Take another live debate – that between advocates of ‘open’ and ‘closed’ societies, or more narrowly between free-traders and protectionists.

For some, coronavirus is evidence of an overreliance on China in our supply-chains, evidence that our globalised, interconnected world was fatally flawed after all because it made it easier for contagion to spread, and harder to react once it did. Better to disentangle supply chains, emphasise self-reliance, and erect stronger physical, social and economic borders.

But spin things around and the crisis could be framed to show how much we rely on others and – given that a vaccine will originate in one nation and (hopefully) spread rapidly round all nations – what a good thing that is. What we need is to become more integrated, more connected, more comprehensive in our public care provision and more open in our trade in order to restore a devastated global economy.

Stronger borders to protect us or more open borders to save us? Take your pick, you’ll find in coronavirus an ally if you look hard enough.

And how about the tussle for global supremacy between America and China (and, by extension, between liberal democracy and authoritarian capitalism) – will coronavirus be seen as a decisive moment in a long-forecast changing of the guards? Again perhaps, but the crisis is as likely to exacerbate a struggle that predated it, and provide evidence for whoever wants to look. As Muqtedar Khan and John Hulsman have outlined, while this is a moment of opportunity that China are exploiting  – churning out propaganda to shift the perception of them from ‘secretive source of global pandemic’ to ‘global benefactor’ – coronavirus presents a fresh opportunity for both America and the EU to reform and assert themselves, if they choose to take it.

In other words, the ’historic moment’ provides no answers, only arguments and opportunities in a world whose geopolitical fundamentals – geography, population, natural resources, networks – will remain largely unaltered in the short-term at least.

We do not know what will happen next. But, some commentators speak as if coronavirus was an end to history. It is not. Things have and will change, possibly dramatically over the coming years. But just as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was not ‘the reason for the First World War’, so coronavirus will not be the sole culprit for what is to come. Yes it changed things, but things were ready to change. In that sense coronavirus is clearly historic but may not be a turning point.

Nor is it conclusive proof to be marshalled exclusively on one side of an argument or worldview. This is because coronavirus is not an inherently meaningful event – it is random, indiscriminate, nihilistic. It has not come to deliver us from capitalism, herald the dawn of socialism or set light to a bonfire of regulation.

Rather the crisis is a process out of which lessons will – hopefully – be drawn, slowly, and after the fact. In the meantime it will be used as ammunition in the battle of ideas for tomorrow’s world, a world, I suspect, where everything will be different, and yet somehow the same.

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Frank Lawton is Deputy Editor of CapX