Five reasons to be cheerful about the future

Covid-19 has turned the tide against right-wing nationalism and ‘strongman’ leaders

This turned out to be entirely untrue – even early on, democracies like South Korea and Taiwan were clearly dealing very well with the crisis. And as the pandemic has unfolded, it has created, along with all the suffering, five reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the prospects for progressive politics.

1. The nation state is alive and well

The militant right in Europe promulgates the idea that “Brussels” has usurped the role of national governments and undermined the sacred idea of the nation itself. But the pandemic has demonstrated the obvious truth that the first place citizens look for safety in a time of threat is the nation state.

It is not that people are in any doubt about the global nature of the plague – how could they be? Transnational and international bodies, from the EU to the World Health Organisation, clearly matter. International comparisons of death and infections rates are central to national debates about how well or badly individual governments have performed. Those governments, in turn, have succeeded or failed largely to the degree to which they have learned from the experience of other countries.

Yet none of this diminishes the utter centrality of nation states in dealing with the pandemic. It is not just that the EU has very limited power in relation to health care, which remains a national competence. There is something deeper than these legalities.

When citizens think “we are all in this together”, the “we” is still, in the first instance, an imagined national community. This is not a lack of compassion for the suffering of people in other countries. It is merely that the power to mobilise a sense of collective purpose – and, crucially, the ability to generate consent – still lies primarily with some idea of “the nation”.

It may be ambiguous, contradictory and inadequate, but it’s what we have to draw on when we need solidarity and mutual responsibility. The nation state is clearly not a sufficient condition for our survival, but it remains a necessary one.

2. The strongmen are weak

With the bizarre exception of Sweden, it is striking that the governments that have performed worst under the pressure of the pandemic are headed by right-wing populists who came to power by presenting themselves in one form or another as the embodiments of “the people” and fulfillers of national destiny: the US, Brazil, Russia and the UK. They have all proven to be completely useless at the most basic task of keeping their citizens safe. Donald Trump’s increasingly demented ramblings and idiotic quackery resulted in the US having the highest number of deaths. Jair Bolsonaro, Trump’s imitator, has had to resort to literally hiding his homicidal record by erasing the statistics of death. Vladimir Putin has almost disappeared from view. And Boris Johnson’s Churchillian pose as the saviour of Britain in its hour of danger has become simultaneously farcical and tragic. In this death-ridden circus, the strongmen have been revealed as clowns.

3. Reality bites

President Donald Trump and PM Boris Johnston.

The dominant mode of right-wing politics in the new wave of nationalism has been performative, hyper-exaggerated, ironical. The value of any statement made by Trump or Johnson does not lie in any truth content it may (or more often may not) have. It lies merely in being “not politically correct”.

Johnson did this with humour, Trump with outrage, but the point was the same: to disrupt any sense that there is or ought to be a relationship between what is being said and reality. Their supporters collude with this disruption: they have replaced the idea of believing in a leader with the theatrical notion of suspending their disbelief. They go along with the pretence.

But the pandemic is not a performance. The suspension of disbelief has to be replaced by actual belief, which is to say by trust in the literal truth of what we are being told. There is, after all, such a thing as information.

The problem with the virus is that it does not know or care about this game. King Knut (Canute), in the old story, demonstrated this to his subjects by ordering the tide to retreat before him, in order to show the limits even of royal power. Trump and Johnson, without Knut’s self-awareness, told their supporters that the viral tide would retreat merely because they wished it so. It did not comply. It is an objective reality – indeed a terrible reminder that reality exists and will always impose itself.

4. There is, after all, such a thing as society

There has been a great deal of pessimism – some of it justified – about the fragmentation and atomisation of society. The loss of community, the diminution of social capital, the replacement of a common public sphere by social media algorithms that deliver only the news we want to hear – all of these phenomena are real.

The resurgent right has exploited them to tribalise politics: patriots versus traitors, “the people” versus “the elites”, true citizens versus “citizens of nowhere”. But the great paradox of the coronavirus is that, even as it has provided a physical correlative of this division – driving us into literal isolation – it has also shown that an old-fashioned sense of commonality is alive and kicking.

It is not just that huge numbers of people have continued to put themselves at risk to help others. It is that the vast majority of us have accepted serious privations for the common good. As always, the noisy idiots get more attention. But even in the US, the fact is that most people have obeyed the lockdown restrictions.

In all democracies, even the ones that are currently subjected to catastrophic misgovernment, citizens have not needed to be forced to comply. They’ve tried to do the right thing. This is why the Dominic Cummings scandal was so potent – it turned the “people versus elites” trope on its head. The people are largely behaving responsibly. The real elites don’t see why the rules should apply to them.

5. Big government is back

Behind so much of the reactionary energy of recent years has been the desire of hugely wealthy vested interests to prevent governments (and transnational institutions such as the EU) from regulating them. They have poured vast funding into an ideology of “freedom” that is much closer to a right-wing version of anarchism than to traditional conservatism.

At its heart is a desire, not just to control government, but to trash it. The more incompetent a Trump or a Johnson turns out to be, the better: malgovernment is better than an effective state. The right will continue to push this agenda, but it will have to do so in an environment in which neither personal safety nor economy recovery is possible without massive and well-directed government.

None of these factors guarantees the end of the reactionary phase we have been living through. Those who front the right-wing movements, and those who fund them, will double down on paranoia, phoney patriotism and the culture wars: Trump, under siege from the Black Lives Matter protests, is already doing so. Things may become very ugly indeed, especially in the US.

But circumstances tend to shape history, and the circumstances have taken a decisive turn against the right-wing disruptors. The big question is whether democrats can seize the opportunity this gives them to change the agenda.

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