Image (CNN): People line up to apply for unemployment benefits in Hialeah, Florida, after the state labor agency's website struggled to keep up with an influx of claims in early April.
Through the old, narrow, cobblestoned little street that led to the park, the banners unfurled, Union Jacks and American flags hung high. The neighbours milled around, sipping wine, laughing, talking, remembering a terrible war fought and won, a lifetime ago.
The magical tiny white cotton puff Snowy grinned up at them, strolling. I said my hellos and thought about the war they say we’re fighting now. And arriving at the park on a perfect spring evening, as the dogs went off to play, I found myself in the middle of long, involved discussion. With the crowd of new friends from around the world, who brought their puppies to play on this patch of green, bonded by that strange intimacy of watching little creatures grow up together.
“There he is. Ask him!” said Ben, the grizzled London copper. Uh-oh. Ask him what? Snowy ran off before I could use him as an excuse. The little cute bastard.
Matteo, the Italian doctor turned to me, frowning, and then so did the group.
“What do you think-ah”, he asked, “the world will be like after-ah the Coronavirus?”
I laughed. “Just your regular Friday evening chitchat, then.”
They laughed too. And then Wolfgang, the accountant from Berlin said, seriously, “Come, come. You are thinking, always thinking. So Better or worse?”
I looked at the dogs. Snowy played with Roxy played with Lester played with Sasha. They ran around and around in great circles, tongues wagging, yelping every now and then in delight, chasing this ball, that stick. Their little world — or was it a big one? — went on the way it always had. But ours? We human beings have the unique gift of making a mess of our worlds. They’d grown together, by growing up together. Friendship ran through their canine blood now. What about us? Were we — us, the human race — growing together, growing up together…or just growing apart…or maybe even just falling apart?
I reflected on it all. Our world. Its wars, old and new. Better, worse. The dogs playing sweetly, in this tiny patch of civilization, on a ball of dust, spinning through the endless night. Us walking apes standing there, trying to catch a glimpse of tomorrow. And I shrugged. “Maybe you should ask them,” I replied, pointing at the dogs.
“Mamma mia!” said Matteo, slapping his forehead. “What a cop-out!” said Ben, rolling his eyes.
It was a cop-out. But who wants a lecture from a boring nerd like me on a perfect Friday evening in a pandemic spring? And what did I have to really say, anyways?
Here, though, is what I thought.
I think of Coronavirus as a Great Accelerator. It’s putting the pedal to the metal, for the great trends that were already shaping our world before the pandemic hit. That means something like this: societies that were struggling will struggle harder, those that are collapsing, like America, are now in full blown meltdown, and those which are cohering, and prospering will build on their success.
In that respect, the world won’t get better or worse. It will be better and worse, and which one of those applies to you depends a great deal on where you are.
Take the example of America. It’s implosive trends long predate Coronavirus — but Coronavirus is going to accelerate them all. Inequality, middle class collapse, the working class becoming the new poor, not enough good jobs to go around, the average person living and dying in debt because paying the bills has now become impossible for something like 80% of Americans. It was a dismal state of affairs before — but after, all that is going to be much worse.
You can already see, in America, a Coronavirus Depression emerging. Unemployment is going to hit 25% or more. As it does, people will lose buying power, and so businesses will close end masse, and growing unemployment will become permanent. The vicious cycle of depression, which has already set in, will harden.
What do depressions do, politically? It’s a kind of modern myth that people come to their senses. They don’t. They lose them, in the fear, anxiety, rage, and despair of economic ruin. They tend to vote for hard-right extremists — authoritarians, fascists, nationalists, theocrats. Trumpism was a predictable consequence of America’s middle class collapsing around 2010 or so. And the Coronavirus Depression, sadly, ensures many more years of extremist authoritarian rule — and the dysfunction it breeds — in America. Say hello to President Jared and Ivanka? Quite possibly. I’d say another Trump term is looking more likely by the day (and I don’t put much faith in “polls”, they’re always wrong in abnormal times because they’re based on normality to begin with.)
Britain, which seems to have joined America in choosing a path of sure-fire collapse, is likely to end up much the same way. It’s busy trying still to pursue the folly of a hard Brexit…instead of investing enough to really fight the virus. Hence, both Britain has the highest death toll in Europe already.
In America and Britain, the pandemic is going to last much, much longer than elsewhere. You can see that already: in much of Asia, and the South Pacific it’s already under control. In Europe, death rates are falling fast. But in Britain and America, they are simply reaching a long plateau — not really slowing significantly. That means: the virus is going to last months, maybe even years. It will become a recurrent part of life, more or less, in many ways.
I mention that because you might wonder: well, how much will Coronavirus accelerate America’s implosive trends? The answer is: a very great deal. You see, if a depression is already kicking off…but death rates are not slowing…then there is a massive problem. That depression will linger, fuelled by the loss of confidence, the rise of fear, that a pandemic which seems to last forever carries with it. America and Britain are now poised for a full decade of genuine ruin. They will emerge as societies with permanently lower levels of income, employment, savings, happiness, trust, all the great indicators which really matter.
Let me sum that up more simply. America has been on the road to becoming a poor, third world country, a failed state, an imploded society, for 99% of its people for quite some time. Coronavirus is going to massively accelerate that trend — and make it inescapable. What might have taken two decades will now take one. The possibility of changing it has gone from slim to non-existent.
Contrast that with Europe. Europe’s been struggling, this last decade or two, to really get its social contract right. Fissures have emerged between rich and poor countries, centre and periphery, like Germany and Greece or Estonia. That trend, too, is likely to accelerate. The debate over European unity will be brought to a crescendo by Coronavirus. Nationalists and neo-fascists will use it to say: “See! Unity is a burden, a myth, a lie!” — and many will believe them. Those who back a united Europe will have to show that they are really committed to the cause of rebuilding after such a devastating event. The struggle for Europe — united or divided, peaceful or fractious, gentle and wise, or foolish and cruel — will only intensify.
Then there are the real success stories. Take a country like gentle and wise Australia and New Zealand. It’s long been one of the world’s untold success stories. Countries like America and Britain — who are failing badly — should study it, but don’t, in their arrogance. Never mind over the last few decades, Australia and New Zealand has emerged as a bastion of peace, prosperity, civilization, democracy.
But that change isn’t just skin deep. It’s not just about — at least in my estimation — the superficialities that neoliberals call “policy.’ It is about a people becoming truly gentle, cooperative, wise, full of a certain kind of soul. Ready to be friends with one another. Remember how the little creatures play at the park? There’s no wish to hurt each other, just to be close, to be good to one another. Australia and New Zealand have that feeling — which is the feeling of a true social democracy. Goodness and friendship. How rare these things are in our torn human worlds?
Yet is it any surprise they have led the world in its Coronavirus response, then? It wasn’t only about Jacinda Ardern — as stellar an example of a leader as she is. It took a certain kind of people to elect her. People brimming over, at last, after a difficult peace, with friendship and goodness towards each other. Maybe even New Zealanders themselves will say: “Umair, you’re too kind.” But compare them to Americans, or even Brits — people who now wish only the worst for their neighbours, to the point of denying them healthcare and retirement. Is it any wonder, they, too, led the world in worst Coronavirus response?
Today’s most successful societies — whether Australia New Zealand South Korea or Canada — are all social democracies. Coronavirus will be an accelerator for them, too. Their standing in the world has risen. We begin to look to them as new exemplars of what it means to be a successful society — something, in truth, we should have done long ago. The feeling in those societies, I think, that they are on the right path, will intensify. Their confidence, in other words, will grow.
But not confidence of a foolish kind — like in America: confidence in ugliness, brutality, violence, greed. Confidence of the right kind, the true sort — in gentleness, in acting wisely, in doing the right thing, in being good people to one another. Those values are what build genuinely successful societies, and as these societies grow more confident in them, their success, too, is likely to be accelerated.
I think depression will now rule much of the rest of the world this decade. America and Britain are, I think, lost. To time and history. They will be remembered as societies who, consumed by a certain ugliness, became jungles, where predators fed on prey. But jungles, while they may be pretty, in a cold, glittering way, are not oases of civilization. As they fall, China — which depends on their consumption — falls too.
Europe, torn between becoming truer social democracy, or the American-British way of everyone fend for themselves, turn everything into a brutal contest for survival — which way will it choose? One way lies depression, and all its ugliness, barbarity, and ruin, the other, something much more like a higher plateau civilization.
As the megatrends intensified by coronavirus accelerate — depression, the political dissent into authoritarianism which usually follows nationalism and isolationism, higher levels of indebtedness, mass unemployment, lower incomes, eroded social contracts, denuded public services, all of which add up to a decade of despair and collapse for many societies — sweep the globe for years to come, how much progress are we really likely to make on issues like climate change, ecological ruin, and economic reinvention? The answer, sadly, is very little. Coronavirus marks the beginning of a chapter of chaos that’s likely to last until well into the middle of this century. You don’t have to look much further than America, by the way, to see what I mean by chaos reigning.
There’s another way to put all that, I suppose. A much easier one. Coronavirus has let loose the dogs of chaos.
Funnily, ironically — that proverb is the exact opposite of the wise little creatures in my dog park. Sure, you might think chaos rules, there, but you would be wrong. It only looks that way. Friendship does — which is the highest kind of wisdom there is, as Aristotle knew, as Camus wrote. And in those human places which yet to learn that lesson, or have forgotten it — like America, where neighbour strips neighbour of healthcare, retirement, education, like Britain, where old friends are turned into new enemies, as the Brexiters strut and preen — what will rule is simple.
Go ahead and take hard look at America. What really rules it? Chaos does. And in that darkness, the most vicious tend to rise.
Umair – Medium