Covid crisis and why our democracies are dangerously flirting with totalitarianism?
“I would prefer not to snuff it” said Boris Vian, repeating the eternal litany of human beings before their inevitable fate. Our eternal dream of a life without death. To live eternally while sipping ambrosia on the summit of Olympus, to return to the paradise of the origins, where life had neither end nor hindrance, except for this cursed tempting apple. And here we are, mortal, with diseases, with accidents and limited by the increasing old age until the end.
Life is precious, but it is punctuated by illness, accidents and ends in death. Death is inevitable.
Health is precious and must be protected and preserved. Illness is always cruel, often curable and sometimes lethal, we must die of something.
The madness has taken hold of our authorities by claiming to put life, its freedoms and joys, in parenthesis to preserve us from illness and death. They have denied what gives meaning to life: the freedom of movement, the freedom to say what one wants, the freedom to work, to undertake, the freedom to love, to share. Death is intrinsically linked to life. To deny it is to deny the very essence of life: its finitude is its spice.
Political leaders have justified their political measures by invoking the precautionary principle. But the question is on what basis they have done so. Why consider this disease rather than any other… Cancer and its 10 million deaths in 2020, why don’t we ban products that are obviously causing it or those about which we have doubts, this would certainly imply a fundamental questioning of our way of life… Obesity which is a major societal problem. According to The Lancet, in 2017, 11 million people died because of their overconsumption of salt, sugar or meat, but also because of insufficient intake of whole grains and fruits. Do the authorities force their population to eat without salt and impose quotas on consumers for the purchase of meat, or buy them fruit on a weekly basis. The decisions around Covid are totally disproportionate. The WHO tells us that 3.2M people die per year because they don’t do enough sport from the age of 60. Why doesn’t the State force the whole population, so as not to impose discrimination, to get out of their homes and move at the sound of a military march. The decisions around Covid are totally arbitrary.
I see two main causes for this health crisis: the first is an incapacity of our authorities to manage the crisis and a progressive slippage into self-conviction and self-justification; the second is the populist atmosphere, the need of humans to find themselves behind a simple, unifying and reassuring cause. This unifying factor leads to oversimplification and to a reduction of human society to a single unit of understanding and reading. A need to reassure oneself by making of humanity a great uniform whole, unique moved by a single idea (in this case the fight to preserve the life of the Covid against all odds); the very foundation of totalitarianism.
The Covid crisis is above all a crisis of politics. Politics as the Littré reminds us is “the science of the government of states”. When to the word government Littré, reminds us that it means “the art of reacting”. Politics, understood as the science of the art of state reaction, is in crisis with the state’s response to Covid. The sanitary crisis highlights a State unable to understand the stakes and to place them in their context, unable to react, as if blinded by a single idea, unable to find an ounce of a system, of a science to approach the crisis in its context. No method but a successive sly of microscopic answers, decontextualized, focused on particles of analysis and forgetful of the social, of the life, of the societal stakes. The science of reacting has shrunk in the contradictory opinions of experts in epidemics focused on their only object of study and forgetful of the rest, all the rest.
In general and since at least two decades, the national governments are exceeded by the globality of the challenges. What we perceive from them in the context of their response to global warming, an inability to respond to the issue whose depth of space-time exceeds them totally in their national framework and in their reduced temporal mandate. The global world and the time perspective require them to govern for all without any possible conception of borders and for the present and the future. They are only able to manage the here and now, while politics is the opposite of reductionism, of microscopism. The Covid crisis, rather than consecrating the return of the State, shows the dilapidated state of the prerogatives of our democratic governments; and shows their incapacity to project themselves into a global understanding of the world, and to decide and conduct public affairs for the good of all.
The Covid crisis represents an evil attraction because it has suddenly given them the impression that they are working to save humanity without geography and for ever. It gives them wings. But their answer is purely and simply to lock people down in their homes, to reduce the space to its home by confining the population and to stop the time. The Covid crisis reassures them because it puts an end to the idea of globalization and the very problem that reduces their work to nothing; but this is a false illusion, because international trade has hardly reacted to the crisis. The Covid crisis has exacerbated the differences even more. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting more numerous, as the Lockdown has wiped out almost 10 years of growth, more abandoned; and our children, the future generation is left with fear, without socialisation and without education since more than 12 months. And with a huge debt they will pay during their whole lifetime.
Thanks to this crisis, governments finally feel that they are governing by focusing on and handful of small numbers that are scrutinized daily: the reproduction rate of the virus, the number of people infected with Covid, the number of hospitalized cases of Covid and the number of deaths of Covid and that they finally have a grip on the global scale… But their response is more local than ever, more caught up in the present than ever. Everything has been turned upside down.
Crisis of meaning and totalitarian temptation
Since the first hours of the sanitary crisis, the national governments have taken the dangerous gamble of comparing their results to those of other countries by setting totally arbitrary degrees of risk, while the figures only reflect the age of their population and the quality of their health system. They have particularly devoted themselves to comparing themselves to the Chinese dictatorship, and particularly by adopting its brutal methods. The option of stopping all life forms to preserve life is essentially totalitarian. A single idea, a single goal cannot be the bet of a democratic government. Locked in its own contradiction, its erratic responses have grown like a snowball with constant self-justification of the measures taken, an overkill of measures punctuated by fallacious arguments and justified by a single, overly simple idea. The very definition of the politics of the worst, blowing in parallel restrictions and hopes, measures and countermeasures, truncated truths and lies.
Toni Negri, in Empire written in the mid-90s, presented the concept of multitude to describe the contemporary social body: our new multiple identities are an integral part of the domination of the disarticulated society of the globalized world. According to him the Nation-State has lost most of its power to mobilize the multitude driven by the contradictions of its multiple identities, by fear those contradiction generate, by a growing feeling of deep nostalgia for a unique identity, of the reassuring native village that the Nation-State cannot provide anymore. The world is complex, the answers of politics only scratch the surface of people’s lives because of their multiple interests and multiple belongings.
Finally, with Covid, the governments seized the opportunity it represented to mobilize people behind a supremely simple idea: “to save life”. It was bread and butter to claim back their role in the global world. The terrible contradiction of the situation is that by embracing a single idea and making it an absolute principle of government, by opting for a totalitarian policy, they left the democratic field to the populists and fascists, who became the defenders of democratic values. This crisis of meaning and the confusion generated by this new front line between the defenders of life at all costs and its opponents, represents a terrible threat to our democracies. When the debate should have focused on the best way to preserve the lives of the people at risk, governments have seen an opportunity to unite their people under a simplistic banner of pro-life advocates, pretending falsely all were equal before the sickness. The tragedy is that the majority followed them without flinching, bringing back the monsters of the 20th century. The reassuring ease of a single idea is the pitfall of our complex and multiple world. Totalitarianism is back at the surface of human societies, be they democratic models. Paternalism is the eternal tentation of the political leaders. Ostracization and political correctness impose the margin of debate and the simpler the idea, the greater the attack on freedom. Fear, the enemy within, the invisible threat are the trappings of totalitarian rhetoric, and our leaders have jumped on it without even taking the time to think about it. All their decisions have been dictated by the old recipes that were thought to be too foul and stupid to have any chance of resurfacing in our critical and informed world of the 21st century. The illusion of an increased critical capacity thanks to a generalized access to information made possible by the Internet has fallen since the beginning of the pandemic into a management of information dictated by fear and sensationalism, dictated by the constant excess of the decontextualized fact. The capacity to read and analyze information seems to have diminished with the availability of information.
Democracy lives on information and on the capacity of its citizens to read it, to criticize it and to build their opinion on their basis. Without these three skills of citizens or the media to digest it for us, democracy sinks into populism and the inherent temptation of populism is oversimplification and totalitarianism. The pandemic puts the finger on our democratic failings: the obsession with the immediate, the short termism reduced to the day and the obvious incapacity of critical thinking. Our politicians, as never before, have rushed into the abyss without the slightest doubt and they continue to keep us prisoners for a year at the cost of arbitrary, improvised decisions. The media have also played the mercantile game of sensationalism. From the still hot ashes what will be born? What new deformed and atrocious Leviathan will be born from the systematic destruction of the very principles of democracy and the tools that allow us to move forward? The new normal will tell us, but it already promises to be very dark.