Coronavirus and the political organism
There is now a hole where a superpower used to be, writes Daniel Lazare
We all know what happens when Covid-19 invades a human organism. Fever sets in, along with coughing, shortness of breath, muscle pain, loss of a sense of smell and, in the worst cases, pneumonia, leading to multi-organ failure.
But what happens when coronavirus invades a political organism? The answer is similar, as we are beginning to learn here in the United States: fever, economic pain and organ failure as well! While a few countries have reacted so vigorously that the vague outlines of a recovery are now visible through the fog, others - most notably the US - are on a different trajectory. Their response to the crisis has been so inconsistent and ineffectual that they are in danger of succumbing to the virus like a patient on a respirator.
In his excellent article, Mohsen Shahmanesh described what is needed for nations to turn the corner on the pandemic. One is “a unified command structure directing policy that speaks with one voice and provides accurate information to the public, as it becomes available. Here the unity of the message is the key.” A second is “a population that believes and trusts the message”. He added: “Both are vital in order to achieve compliance” (‘Coronavirus and capitalism’ Weekly Worker April 15).
Yet in both cases the United States comes up short. Instead of a single authority providing accurate updates at the top, it has Donald Trump taunting reporters at daily press conferences, quarrelling with medical experts and putting out misleading information about medications like hydroxychloroquine.
As for “a population that believes and trusts”, it has a growing number of people who pride themselves on distrusting whatever officials have to say. Mini-rebellions have thus broken out in Lansing, Michigan, and other state capitals, in which protestors block traffic with their pickup trucks and oversized SUVs and descend on government office buildings waving AR-15 assault rifles, the Stars and Stripes, and ubiquitous 1775 revolutionary banners showing a coiled snake with the slogan, “Don’t tread on me”.
It is a symbolic language that leaves foreigners confused and perplexed, but which Americans understand instantly. The SUVs stand for the lavish energy consumption that Americans see as their birthright, the AR-15s represent the second amendment’s claim that the right to bear arms is the ultimate protection against tyrannical government, while the American flags signify national belligerence. As for the coiled snakes, they represent anti-government individualism - the belief that all good patriots should view political authority with the deepest suspicion and demand that it stay out of their private lives as much as possible.
Protestors are thus nationalists who dislike national government. They think that tyranny is in the ascendancy, thanks to social distancing, and therefore believe that patriots should rise in revolt, just as they did against George III. That does not mean they should rise in revolt against America itself, since the word is still synonymous with freedom and independence. Rather, they should rise in defence of an America in which the right to rebel is constitutionally enjoined.
To be a good American is thus to wave military-grade weaponry against ‘big gum’mint’ and its message to stay indoors. It is an attitude that comics love to satirise on late-night TV, but one with more constitutional substance than liberals like to think. It is a right that Trump also views as constitutionally rooted, which is why he tweeted - all in capital letters - in favour of the protests: “Liberate Michigan,” he declared. “Liberate Minnesota!” With regard to a state in which Democrats are struggling to pass a watered-down gun-control measure, he added, “Liberate Virginia, and save your great 2nd amendment. It is under siege!” Trump favours staying indoors - except that he also favours going outdoors to rebel against a lockdown that must be tyrannical, because his government has imposed it.
One would have to go back to 17th and 18th century Anglo-American republican thought to figure out how such strange attitudes arose. But, centuries later, there is no doubt as to the effect. It is paralysing, which is why the US has gone from having one Covid-19 case to 800,000 in just three months and why Trump is now talking about a return to work, even though the result would likely be a second wave of infections that could be even worse.
So, to turn Shahmanesh’s dictum around, what happens when a country lacks both “a unified command structure” and “a population that believes and trusts” - due not only to incompetent leadership, but to constitutional principles that are pre-modern and undemocratic?
The answer is that it does not fall behind; rather, it falls flat - period. As other countries make tentative plans for an economic comeback, the United States can barely struggle to its feet, thanks to a public-health threat it cannot combat.
This is increasingly clear, as the corona pandemic ushers in a tidal wave of political change. The European Union is under growing strain, as member-states hoard ventilators, face masks and other equipment. Energy exporters who once made the world tremble by threatening to withhold supplies are now broke, as oil prices plunge into negative territory.
But the most important change involves the US - the former hegemon whose international profile is rapidly sinking, as it goes ‘missing in action’ in the international struggle against coronavirus. Whatever the World Health Organisation’s shortcomings, Lancet editor Richard Horton was absolutely right in calling Trump’s decision to defund the WHO “a crime against humanity”. Indeed, it was more - an indication that the US has given up all claims to global leadership in the midst of the pandemic and that its slogan is now Sauve qui peut - every man for himself. Trump’s decision to cut off all immigration, announced without explanation in a late-night tweet, is indicative not only of an erratic presidential style, but of the speed with which the drawbridges are going up. The more the US gives up the struggle against Covid-19, the more it withdraws into autarky and isolationism.
Domestically, Trump has been a disaster from start to finish, issuing meaningless bromides that everything will work out - “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control,” he said on January 22. “It’s going to be just fine.” And then he did nothing for weeks, as the virus raced through the population. The immigration ban, the China-baiting and the encouragement to rebels out in the hinterland are all indications of a style that is growing more erratic rather than less.
The system is increasingly erratic as well. America is not only at war with the world, but with itself. The problem is not just Congress and the presidency, which have been in a non-shooting war since the 1990s. It is also 50 states with their own gridlocked, tripartite governments and, below that, myriad local governments - some 90,000 in all1 - which are so autonomous and jealous of their ancient freedoms that their slogan might be Sauve qui peut too.
Getting this vast array to cooperate on Covid-19 is like herding a vast multitude of cats. Confusion reigns, rules fluctuate from district to district, while five rural states have not shut down at all for reasons no-one else can fathom.
The virus thus continues to advance. If Trump goes through with his ‘back to work’ plans, the upshot might not only be more infections, but a renewed economic shutdown. Americans will be left even more dazed and demoralised, while the country lags ever further behind its economic rivals. A pre-modern political structure will impinge not only on public health, but on economic competitiveness. America’s front-runner status will vanish.
Not that this should come as a surprise. After all, species rise and fall, as circumstances change, and, if Covid-19 is rapidly altering the political environment, then we can expect it to alter the political line-up. Some countries will advance, and others will fall behind. Instead of the ‘unipolar moment’ that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall, we can perhaps look forward to something more complex, in which China, Russia, Germany, etc all jostle for control.
But one thing is clear: America’s position in the front ranks will become increasingly tenuous. The “volcanic eruption of American imperialism” that Trotsky foresaw in 1940 has played itself out. There is a hole where a superpower used to be - which means that the struggle for power will be all the more tumultuous, once Covid-19 starts to abate.
. A 2017 ‘census of governments’ is available at census.gov/data/tables/2017/econ/gus/2017-governments.html.↩︎