Is this crisis a turning point?

With all its talk of freedom and choice, liberalism was in practice the experiment of dissolving traditional sources of social cohesion and political legitimacy and replacing them with the promise of rising material living standards. This experiment has now run its course. Suppressing the virus necessitates an economic shutdown that can only be temporary, but when the economy restarts, it will be in a world where governments act to curb the global market.

Gray is certainly right about the return of the nation not the international order as the site of power and decision making. In the US it may even be the individual state government where the leadership emerged to deal with this situation. (Think Cuomo vs. Trump.) The crisis will not lead to localism so much as nationalism. The state has had to take back powers it was relinquishing to a global market in order to fight the virus and may well keep those powers to build more resilient systems. Supply chain rules that previously only applied to military acquisition (that there be in-country manufacturing capacity) will now be applied to all sorts of areas from medical supplies to food.

In a perverse way we are seeing the limits to global neoliberalism. It is turning out to have some of the same problems as centralized state planning – it isn’t resilient and in the name of efficiency it discourages variety. We end up with one big just-in-time bookstore, Amazon, rather than many different bookstores. When that stores supply chain fails, there is no one left to get us books. What we need is a balance of efficiency and resilience and it will be the nation states that develop and enforce different versions of this balance.

It is worth asking what we lose if this new order emerges? We will probably lose some of the wealth we in the 1st world dreamed of. This may be a good thing as it may mean a lessening of the sickening inequalities that came with the dreams of efficiency and wealth. But it won’t be only the wealth we lose, it will be the availability of everything everywhere. We may not get all the fresh produce in the middle of winter in order to protect farming here. We may lose the ability to travel anywhere and consume other cultures. The cruise business is certainly going to suffer as will cheap flights.

Perhaps the question to ask would be what industries will not be considered of national importance and therefore subject to resilience legislation? What industries might continue or even expand in global reach? The arts and culture industries could see a dramatic transformation as governments worry less about protecting local culture and tourism revenue drops. We could see local arts from theatre to museums being sacrificed to global digital culture. Cultural products that one can consume safely anywhere could dominate at the expense of any live site-specific arts. Video games and Netflix series could dominate even more than they already do especially as the elderly don’t dare go to the opera any longer.

I’m guessing the surveillance industry will also thrive, a point Gray makes about China. Now we have two reasons to let our states watch our every move, terrorism AND viruses. Medical data, which used to be ethically sacrosanct, at least in the West, will become a tool for governments to keep us “healthy.” Likewise anything virtual will do well, if only because it can easily monetized safely, but also because it can be monitored and nudged. We will see all sort of previously physical phenomena virtualized from weddings to tourism.

There may also be a moment of futurecasting where we think seriously about all the possible existential crises that could destroy our comfort. Potential crises range from planet busting meteorites to nuclear war. I would like to think that this moment of “what if” reflection might spur nations to take global warming seriously. We have certainly seen how nature, in the form of a tiny virus, can rapidly change our lives; perhaps we can now imagine how environmental changes could similarly threaten our societies in short order.

Alas probably not. I think the loss of global systems and re-emergence of selfish nations will mean that local environmental issues will dominate. Global warming caused by our lifestyle but affecting others will get little attention as nations try to do anything they can to spur the economy. There will probably be less of an appetite for international cooperation. Who can afford it? Nations will happily sacrifice others to keep their peace.