12 April 2020   Leave a comment

Kyle Harper has written a fascinating essay for Foreign Policy on how previous pandemics have led to social and political change in human societies. He starts off by introducing the idea of Ibn Khaldun, a 14th century Arab scholar, who wrote a book entitled Preface which laid out what he regarded as a universal pattern in human history:

“The most original contribution of his Preface was the concept of asabiyyah, or group solidarity. For Ibn Khaldun, the basic pattern of human history was the dynastic cycle, the rise and fall of civilizations, and asabiyyah—the sense of common purpose and social cohesion—was the source of power that allowed collective action during the growth phase of a dynasty or civilization. Yet, in turn, success and prosperity acted to undermine the sense of solidarity that had allowed one group to rise to power. Thus, civilizations corrupted inevitably and from within.”

For Khaldun, who wrote against the backdrop of the Black Death, a pandemic forced societies to appreciate collective solidarity in order to survive. The crisis need not be natural. In US history, the Great Depression was the crisis that created the sense of social connectedness that propelled American society into a dynamic economic and cultural powerhouse. In China, the humiliations imposed on China by Western powers during the 19th and early 20th century, also created the sense of common purpose that underpinned the Chinese miracle of the late 20th century.

Harper analyzes the possible effects of the COVID-19 pandemic:

“Frankly the virulence of the pathogen could be much worse, and perhaps the next one—and there will be a next one—will be worse. But it is already clear that this disease, which will cause a much smaller relative mortality than history’s great pandemics, is going to have major reverberations. The social, economic, and possibly geopolitical impact of COVID-19 will overshadow the much deadlier 1918 influenza pandemic. This new disease strikes at the heart of our interdependent global order. It is breaking new ground: It is the first global pandemic of the social media age, our age of cultural and political polarization, and consequently, it has its own aesthetic, its own feel. It is a novel economic challenge in so many ways. Our hyperefficient labor markets, so reliant on gig jobs; our long, intricate, and just-in-time supply chains; our highly leveraged economy with extreme dependence on consumer, corporate, and sovereign debt—none of these systems have faced a disruption like the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The effect is to accelerate and amplify the reasons for “success” into causes of “decline”. The very success of the American economic model in the 20th century is the basis for the growing economic inequality in the 21st century which may undermine US prosperity. COVID-19 offers the opportunity to see this negative process and to perhaps address that inequality before it leads to a serious economic crisis. There is perhaps no better way to understand this paradox than to view this TV screen shot which portrays the incredible discrepancy between rich and poor in the US.

Simon Tisdall has written a devastating critique of how US President Trump has damaged the reputation of the United States globally. Tisdall quotes Stephen Walt, a Professor at Harvard whose analyses I have often found to be quite compelling:

“‘The Trump administration’s self-centred, haphazard, and tone-deaf response [to Covid-19] will end up costing Americans trillions of dollars and thousands of otherwise preventable deaths,’ wrote Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard.

“’But that’s not the only damage the United States will suffer. Far from ‘making America great again’, this epic policy failure will further tarnish [its] reputation as a country that knows how to do things effectively.’

“This adverse shift could be permanent, Walt warned. Since taking office in 2017, Trump has insulted America’s friends, undermined multilateral alliances and chosen confrontation over cooperation. Sanctions, embargoes and boycotts aimed at China, Iran and Europe have been globally divisive.”

Tisdall goes on:

“To a watching world, the absence of a fair, affordable US healthcare system, the cut-throat contest between American states for scarce medical supplies, the disproportionate death toll among ethnic minorities, chaotic social distancing rules, and a lack of centralised coordination are reminiscent of a poor, developing country, not the most powerful, influential nation on earth.

“That’s a title the US appears on course to lose – a fall from grace that may prove irreversible. The domestic debacle unleashed by the pandemic, and global perceptions of American selfishness and incompetence, could change everything. According to Walt, Trump has presided over “’a failure of character unparalleled in US history’”.

The essay is cogent and well-argued. I doubt that it will persuade many who support Mr. Trump, but Tisdall’s analysis deserves a direct response by those who would disagree with him.

Posted April 12, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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