Ezra Klein was curious if political systems turn more authoritarian or anarchic during disasters. The editor in chief of Vox wondered whether there is any literature or historical research about it.
He needn’t look further than a classics aisle in a bookstore with “The Leviathan,” by a certain Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury. By the time Ezra was rediscovering this old wisdom, Europe, the United Kingdom, India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States went into lockdown, stress-testing society in a way unforeseen since the Second World War.
In Europe, it is certainly seeming like a return to a Hobbesian “war of all against all”: “Solidarity has been in short supply. Germany and France restricted the export of medical supplies, in violation of the European single market and Austria, the Czech Republic have banned travelers from Italy in violation of the principle of free travel.”
In Britain, new polls revealed “the public are prepared to see the prime minister seize draconian powers last seen in wartime to tackle the pandemic.” Germany tried to localize medical supply chains, and China coerced the rest of the world with their supply-chain monopoly. “The United States counts on receiving the vast majority of its medical supplies from China,” the Associated Press reported, yet “when Chinese medical supply factories began coming back on line last month, their first priority was their own hospitals.”
A Revival of State Propaganda
Meanwhile, the cold war in Europe heated up, with Chinese propaganda in full acceleration. For post-Cold War generations, or those who have never studied Soviet communication operations, this is a formative experience for what communist state propaganda looks like.
Compare a handful of random, underpaid clumsy Russian bots with broken English to China’s level of message discipline, gearing all the modes of a totalitarian one-party state towards maximum impact. China has so far blamed the United States and Italy, and supported Hillary Clinton in insinuating that the idea of supply chain diversification is akin to racism.
This could kill any goodwill China might have gained by sending equipment and professionals to Italy, but communists don’t really care about goodwill, as they understand blunt coercion better, and are philosophically inclined to drop their mask of humanity in times of crisis.
Accelerating the Rise of Nationalism
But what about broader trends? Grand strategy inevitably changes direction after external shocks. The British realized how bankrupt they are during Suez crisis, and that was the end of the post-war tripolar world and the formal end of British hegemony.
The Soviets did not abandon Afghanistan, but essentially lost even the choice to decide whether to stay or go during the late 1980s. Structural forces are more powerful than agency in international relations. But macro-trends are not just fundamentally narrow related to economics, nor are they relegated to one single country. They have domestic and social dimensions as well.
On this, a few observations are remarkably similar from the left and the right. For example, in these pages Ben Domenech argued that the coronavirus crisis will cause nationalism to make a renewed comeback: “I expect we are about to enter a period of the most sustained isolationism – true isolationism – we have seen in a century. The Chinese ‘it’s racist to talk about making your pharmaceuticals elsewhere’ message will not fly. Escalated trade war with China and a pullback of essential products to allied countries and America will accelerate.”
From a more left-ish perspective, Ivan Krastev argues something similar: “The coronavirus will strengthen nationalism, albeit not ethnic nationalism but a type of territorial nationalism. In TV reports and in governments’ announcements one can see that that co-nationals travelling from corona-infected areas are as unwelcome as any foreigner. To survive, the government will ask citizens to erect walls not simply between states but between individuals, as the danger of being infected comes from the people they meet most often. It is not the stranger but those closest to you who present the greatest risk.”
More European Union-lite institutionalists also understand that post-Cold-War institutionalism perhaps got a major thrombosis, ironically due to a virus from China. But these do not adequately elaborate the broader questions we face.
Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are not totalitarian countries. None of them locked down their economy like us in the United Kingdom and United States. Japan had an 80 percent voluntary compliance rate in wearing masks, which allowed their economy and cities to continue. South Korea and Taiwan also continued open movement and rolled out massive testing, so much so that Taiwan is now planning to take over mask supply to the United States after China bailed out.
Unmasking the Enemies Within
How to ensure a strong social contract in times of crisis? And what about hierarchy and stoic patriotism during stress? The great Chicom flu pandemic of 2020 has proved for the first time that the society couldn’t come together. There was no 9/11 effect, partly cause of the sporadic and slow peaking of the death toll and economic consequences.
More importantly, there were two phenomena. First, the majority of the gate-keepers in media displayed borderline allegiance to a hostile foreign power in Beijing, very unlike in World War II, the Cold War, or post-911. From woke pandering about nomenclature to uncritically parroting communist propaganda, the majority of elite media opposed their own government.
Now, it is not the media’s job to be uncritical of their own government, and there are several valid criticisms of the Trump administration. But the media should not take the side of hostile powers either, especially in times of war or pandemic.
Second, videos after videos of teen-agers and youths displaying open narcissism, contempt, disdain for all expertise, hierarchy, or sacrifice, even when implored, must have long-term reconsiderations. An old British liberal lamented that there will never be a revolution in the U.K., and it will be evident to everyone if they take one walk during a Saturday evening in south London. Fair enough; no one wants a revolution anyway. But what if that is also the case during a great power conflict? Well, we are as close to a global great power conflict simulation as we have been in the last 90 years. The results do not fill one with optimism.
When Rudeness Becomes Dangerous
The effects of toxic higher education and unpatriotic identity politics have frayed social cohesion, as evident in the U.S. and U.K. in the last few days. That is not to say everyone is unpatriotic, and there has been incredible bravery, community service, and organizing displayed as well. People are volunteering in my locality to shop for the elderly, nurses and doctors have separate parking and shopping hours, coffees are on the house, and businesses have rallied to manufacture respiratory ventilators, like we are in wartime.
But there also seems to be a clear division among two groups of people, regardless of their race, age, or class. One cares about their country, and to use the old phrase, heeds the last call of the bugle. The others are, well, this guy.
Last week, Kingston Police, Public Health and Queen’s University urged students not to attend St. Patricks Day parties. Today, the university district streets are filled with students- many telling me they aren't afraid of COVID-19. @CKWS_TV #ygk pic.twitter.com/5ZPQlUl9fk
— Kraig Krause (@KrauseKraig) March 14, 2020
There needs to be a reconsideration of fundamental behavioural questions when such a significant section of the populace is either fundamentally stupid, selfish, or a combination of both. Add ideological gatekeepers in media and academia, and there is a perfect storm brewing.
It is the job of every sane conservative to relentlessly question every politician he encounters, regardless of party affiliation, about how to tackle China and diversify the supply chains, as well as how to counter the media blitz and propaganda, for lack of a better word, which has led to such a partisan atmosphere.
Renewing Our Memory of the Stiff Upper Lip
Conservatives are good at winning elections, and much better at losing everything else. For all the harrumphing, China is winning the propaganda war, despite being single-handedly responsible for all the deaths and job losses and global recession. In an earlier era, they’d be compelled to pay reparations.
That is unlikely now, and no one wants a toe-to-toe Cold War balancing with China, but it is delusional not to consider it a hostile power determined to hollow us from within. China’s economic and ideological power, influence, and reach need to be countered. But more than that, it is time to relitigate all the debates conservatives thought were worthless, or over and lost, including about ideological media, toxic and unpatriotic academia, and our frayed social contract.
For an entire civilization with no generational memory of what civilizational hardship, stoicism, great power rivalry, and total war looks like, this is as close as it gets. It’s an “indelible and poignant experience,” as a friend told me recently watching her kids trying to navigate this sudden global change, and a renewed appreciation for bellum omnium contra ones.
It is the original job of the government to unite and safeguard citizens during attacks from barbarians and plagues. There is no greater purpose for the state to exist than these two: the safety of the populace and defense of the realm. In short, during wars and pestilence, the government governs and the society unites, until normalcy returns.
As Hobbes himself warned, “before the time of Civill Society, or in the interruption thereof by Warre, there is nothing can strengthen a Covenant of Peace agreed on, against the temptations of Avarice, Ambition, Lust, or other strong desire, but the feare of that Invisible Power, which they every one Worship as God; and Feare as a Revenger of their perfidy.”
This too might pass, but under the next such social stress, weak leadership will be civilizationally fatal.