13 July 2020

Political Philosophy in a Time of Pandemic – Part I–II

 

Part I: Under the Impact of the First Shock, Mid-March*

 

Millennia of human history have shown that serious epidemics are often accompanied by political uncertainty: they can redraw political frontiers, realign priorities, or even provoke war and revolution. In recent decades, however, it had seemed as though we were escaping their clutches: ever since the Second World War, the narrative was one of progress in the fight against infectious diseases. So what is happening now?

 

PERPLEXED POLITICIANS AND CITIZENS

 

Epidemic has returned, and now rages as a global pandemic. The most probable explanation for the rapid spread of the virus is globalisation itself, as well as the concomitant issues of overpopulation, the unprecedented scale of modern urbanisation, fundamental changes in our way of life including the worldwide mobility of both goods and labour – and global mass tourism. It seems that when globalisation was being subjected to a cost-benefit analysis, this aspect was ignored: either conveniently brushed aside, or at least not afforded sufficient weight. Perhaps it was imagined that the cost could be passed on to others. Now the world must reckon with this oversight. The question is whether this hard-won lesson will be enough to halt the process, or whether it would require some further and yet more sobering calamity to alter the trajectory of the global economic and financial system.

In any case, at present, in the first stages of the emergency, there is a palpable sense of worldwide political indecision and perplexity. This is most apparent in the developed West, where neither politicians nor citizens have much experience of widespread and mortal danger. This crisis did not, however, arrive as a bolt from the blue. As early as the bird flu outbreak of 2010, it was apparent that sooner or later we would be faced with a true pandemic. In spite of this, it appears that few preparations were made. The mass psychological impact of an unexplained new disease could have been inferred from the wave of panic which accompanied the sudden appearance of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. In her memorable analysis of this phenomenon, Susan Sontag wrote about the counterproductive mythologies which public anxiety constructs in times of widespread illness, and of how detrimental the effects of this are on social bonds. It seems, however, that Western societies, including our own, were unprepared for the pandemic, and that, since the problem was too difficult, policymakers preferred to ignore it.

 

THAT WHICH IS DISTANT DOES NOT EXIST

 

For a long time it was unclear whether the news from China would have any consequences for us that is, whether an epidemic would truly develop into a pandemic. At that point, most people thought of these events as something happening to others elsewhere, with no relevance to their everyday lives. However, while China and other Asian countries have succeeded, with admirable efficiency, in curtailing the spread of the virus, it soon spread to us in the West, and now we stand before it in considerable perplexity. A worldview divorced from Christianity, based on the welfare economy, which has banished even the concept of death from public discourse, is of little help in explaining or simply narrating these events. People left without an explanation, however, quickly become unpredictable themselves, and in consequence increasingly difficult to govern.

 

BETWEEN SCYLLA AND CHARYBDIS

 

Nevertheless, some consequences of the pandemic can be predicted with confidence, and it is already clear that governments will have to find the golden mean path between two extremes. If they choose not to act in time, and instead leave public life, society and the economy to continue as before, they risk failing to contain the spread of the disease overburdening their healthcare systems and, in consequence, radically increasing the number of deaths. If, by contrast, they intervene early or too harshly, substantial economic risks will be incurred, and they may fall behind competitors who have adopted a more laissez-faire approach. In the worst-case scenario, a total shutdown of the entire economy may lead to economic and financial chaos, which itself entails unforeseeable political and perhaps further, through different public health consequences. European leaders must chart a course between the Scylla of protecting lives by freezing the economy and the Charybdis of safeguarding the economy but increasing the risk of excess deaths. Victory is impossible – this is a damage limitation exercise. Protecting people’s health is clearly the most crucial factor, and poor decisions could cost lives. What is more, even if they manage the impossible and successfully navigate the straits, it is still possible that some political leaders will be obliged to relinquish power due to unintended consequences.

 

MASS PANIC

 

The goal and guiding principle of political power is, now as ever, the maintenance of that power. For this, the relative calm of the population must be ensured, since otherwise the state would be unable to fulfil its most basic obligation, the maintenance and policing of order and security. Should the state fail in this regard, all human impulses would be unleashed, and the legitimacy of state power may be called into question. Mass panic and acts of desperation are rarely rational, and are difficult to influence or control. It is therefore vital to preserve public order and confidence in the state. If the public health situation becomes critical, this confidence will almost certainly be shaken. At present, there is nothing besides the state which can ensure order and security.

 

POLITICS IN A STATE OF EMERGENCY

 

In light of recent experience, we can safely say that we are still living in an era of nation-state sovereignty, a point proved by the emergencies declared by governments across Europe. By Carl Schmitt’s memorable definition: “the sovereign is he who decides (Ausnahmezustand)” (Political Theology, The University of Chicago Press, 2006). It is the leaders of states who are presently making the decisions, though of course in consultation with the expert opinions of epidemiologists. They, in other words, have the last word.

But the legitimacy which secures power is by its nature a flimsy thing. It can be challenged from many directions, but in an age of democracy it is most likely to be withdrawn from those in power by the nation’s voters. They do this most often when they sense that the state is no longer in control of the situation. By its very nature, however, the pandemic is not susceptible to the usual tools of political control. It lies on the very edge of a state’s capacity for action. Furthermore, the behaviour of citizens must be monitored more closely than usual (precisely to safeguard public safety). This is why the pandemic has prompted national governments to declare a state of emergency: the rule of law must be relaxed in order to keep pace with events and ensure that the state has the power to act decisively, thus also to preserve order and (relative) security within its borders, by which means it can ensure its continued power and legitimacy.

 

NO SINGLE, MIRACULOUS SOLUTION EXISTS

 

Of course, the ultimate reason for declaring a state of emergency was precisely the crisis in which we now find ourselves. As matters stand, we can neither determine its scale nor predict with any degree of precision its future course. As a consequence, there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding possible outcomes – particularly since this is a global disaster affecting almost every country in the world at the same time. As such, states compete with one another in tackling challenges and developing comparatively good practices, both in terms of mitigating harm and keeping economic balance. Another important aspect, moreover, is that states are plainly not entering this competition from equal starting points. In some cases the political and economic strength of a state is characterised by a high degree of decentralisation, and is clear that the most appropriate response will not be the same in every case.

 

WHO WILL BE THE SCAPEGOAT?

 

If the number of bad decisions reaches a certain stimulus threshold, or if the spread of illness and loss of human life rises above a certain critical level, or if the proportion of the population seriously affected by the economic contraction grows too large, or if the desire for more self-expression among the population becomes impossible to contain, then the consequences are likely to be ungovernable. Of course, popular anger can be expressed in a multitude of ways, and the question of who, precisely, will be the scapegoats is of the utmost importance. If, for instance, the political leadership of a state is directly blamed for the situation, they might easily be swept from power as the pandemic subsides. But it is often difficult to predict where exactly popular anger will be directed during outbreaks of anger. It may fall upon employers (if they are deemed to have laid off too many workers) or upon banks (if they limit credit, or enforce punitive measures against those who fall behind with debt repayments). If the stock market itself becomes the scapegoat, a victim of popular hysteria, it will be difficult to remedy this situation by political means. Social conflicts may increase, even to the point of outright violence against certain groups. All these risks caution those currently in a position of authority against letting the reins of power go slack during the pandemic, and may even prompt them to take extraordinary steps to preserve both their authority and their room for political manoeuvre.

 

SOLIDARITY AND SHARED RESPONSIBILITY

 

It is also possible – as certain historical examples show – that an emergency, though severe, does not result in conflict between the governed and the governing within a given polity. It is conceivable that the majority of the population will not be led by their instinctive, passionate impulses, but rather by their “second nature” – that is, their learned culture – and will seek to work together to overcome shared challenges. For this to occur, it is necessary that members of a society feel constrained by a sense of duty, and that they are free to act in accordance with it. However, let us not suppose that in such a scenario there will be no need of leaders. Just as, in a war, a general commands and his army performs, it is necessary in a period of emergency to have a decisive leader surrounded by an experienced team capable of swiftly formulating policy on the basis of the latest advice and evidence, and of clearly communicating to the public the strategy which has been developed.

 

THE NATION STATE, THE EU, REGIONS AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS

 

The battleground on which the response to the pandemic is formulated is, then, that of the nation state. This is partly because their leaders are sovereign actors, in the sense of Carl Schmitt’s definition. It is also partly because in a representative democracy a state’s citizens elect the political elites which have power in their country, and can hold them directly accountable. It also stems in part from the fact that our political culture is primarily framed within the rubric of the nation state, and the successful implementation of social distancing the only tool available at present to slow the spread of the virus – depends upon the political culture of a given community.

We should not forget, however, that the supranational institutions of European integration (the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Bank) are also able to respond to such an emergency, within their own legal framework. Likewise, certain groups of nations within Europe may be capable of working together in the formation and implementation of a common response, especially if they have a history of regional cooperation. Accordingly, the organs of the EU, and these forums of regional cooperation, are currently examining their available options. The highest level of this challenge is a question of international relations, and whether a global response can be formulated. This pandemic will bring with it unpredictable consequences from a mass psychological perspective, and the collapse of even a few states can shake the international order, provoking increased instability which may even reach the level of armed conflict on a global scale.

 

THE GLASS CEILING OF GLOBALISATION

 

Lastly, one final open question: is it possible that this shock, experienced more or less simultaneously by so many political communities, might result in progress with regard to our other shared, global issues? For instance, might we realise that we have reached the glass ceiling of globalisation, and that precisely for reasons of global responsibility, we ought to move back towards our local communities? Of course, this is a question that can be addressed only in the future; our first task is to overcome our invisible, insidious enemy. To what extent our society – and in particular its younger generations – will be enriched by this, which looks certain to be their defining, shared experience, as well as a potential breaking point, depends upon the outcome of the struggle. It will be a test of strength for us all.


 

Part II: After the First Wave, Early June



ASSESSING
THE DAMAGE


 

The evidence indicates that Hungary – like the vast majority of Europe – is now over the first wave of the pandemic. Hungary has experienced by now a little more than 500 deaths. First, we ought to express our sincere condolences, and of course not merely to our compatriots, nor only to who are the direct victims of the coronavirus. Everybody possesses individual dignity, every death is a loss and every loss deserves mourning. The world of statistics, of course, operates quite differently, dealing as it does with large numbers and orders of magnitude. In light of such figures, however, it appears that Hungary – like Central Europe more generally – has come out of the crisis relatively well. Of course, when it comes to the number of victims, it is difficult to give precise explanations for figures, ratios and trends. Experts will examine these at length, and we leave the task to them. What is beyond doubt, however, is that Hungary escaped the third phase of the pandemic that of widespread, localised transmission – and for that we can all be extremely grateful. It also seems clear that alarm bells were rung somewhat more loudly than they needed to be, though this is, of course, infinitely better than the reverse. Only one thing could have been worse than mass alarm following the declaration of an emergency: mass panic following the uncontrolled spread of a deadly disease.

 

SCHÄUBLE, THE THINKER

 

Many tried to move with events and, as it were, reflect on what was unfolding in real time. What was most surprising, however, was that while I am only familiar with a small proportion of the worldwide public utterances about the pandemic, it is in the remarks of a politician, Wolfgang Schäuble, where in my view the most insightful commentary is to be found. One remark, in particular, warrants close attention: “When I hear that everything must be subordinated to the protection of life, then I must say: that is not true as an absolute […]. If there is one absolute value in our Basic Law, then it is the dignity of the person. This is inviolable. But that does not mean that we don’t have to die.” Schäuble is a member of the governing CDU party, a former finance minister of Germany, and is currently the President of the Bundestag, so his words carry considerable political weight. The point he raises, however, is also one of considerable philosophical importance. He likewise emphasises that during the pandemic it is for politicians rather than scientists to make the key decisions, at least in democratic countries, since it is they who have been invested with authority by the electorate. He also stresses that in addition to advice from epidemiologists and virologists, politicians must likewise take into account economic, social and psychological factors when making their decisions. In his view, the narrative that we must first prioritise the saving of human lives, and leave economic questions for later, is a false one. Economic turmoil also puts lives at risk, and if a myopic focus on treating coronavirus patients hampers the day-to-day operation of our general healthcare systems, this too will have measurable consequences in terms of lives lost. Lastly, he cites a very apt remark made by Alexis de Tocqueville in his book on American democracy: the critical phase always comes when the pressure is relaxed a little. The way out of a crisis is always much longer and more difficult than the crisis itself. Thus, in his view, finding the best way out will be an art rather than a science, particularly since decisions made by humans are never perfect in an absolute sense.

 

JOHNSON, THE VICTIM

 

While the German response to the crisis was characterised by a drastic and perhaps overly cautious shutdown, the British seem to be moving according to a very different rhythm, closing down late, reopening as soon as possible. Not for nothing has “an Englishman’s home is his castle” become axiomatic of Anglo-Saxon political thinking, and in a legal system founded on the protection of individual liberties, any restrictions placed upon ordinary private life are extremely cumbersome to implement and enforce. Particularly when it falls to a Conservative government to do so. Moreover, the necessity to shut down the country came in the middle of a series of negotiations surrounding Brexit, a historically transformative moment for the country. In the circumstances, it is no surprise that in the early stages of the pandemic the British Prime Minister appeared reluctant to act. Critics argue that this delay cost lives, though others contend that it is difficult to estimate how many lives a shutdown actually saves, and at this point it seems likely that what is gained on one side of the ledger may easily be lost on the other, precisely as a consequence of the shutdown. In any case, it seems crucial that the British Prime Minister himself suffered the effects of the virus, to the point of spending several days in intensive care, where in essence he was fighting for his life. When he once more took the helm of government it was with an entirely different attitude, as though a broken man had returned to the pinnacle of political power.
 


INTERNATIONAL
ASSESSMENT OF THE HUNGARIAN STATE OF EMERGENCY

 


The Western press has been essentially silent on the successes of the V4 countries,
and indeed Central Europe more generally. This is incomprehensible, since in principle we are talking about a group of fully enfranchised EU states. Even if this were not the case, it would still be inexplicable that the eastern half of Europe has been scrubbed from most comparative diagrams. The European political situation is, in fact, tawdrier still: during the pandemic, a campaign of coordinated international criticism was launched against the legal steps taken by the Orbán government to ensure governing authority in a state of emergency.

Managing a global pandemic is, from a political as well as a medical standpoint, no easy task. The executive is forced to take a number of decisions which would, in normal circumstances, require parliamentary approval, but the pace of events allows no time for this. It is therefore necessary to adopt, for a limited period, some form of government by decree. In order that all this should take place within a constitutional framework, it is best if the constitution makes allowance for such situations. The Hungarian Basic Law provides a detailed list of those circumstances which warrant the adoption of an extraordinary legal system, and the government applied the constitutionally specified definition of a natural disaster to the present emergency. In order, however, that this should not require parliamentary reapproval every two weeks, Parliament passed the so-called Coronavirus Law. This law did not specify the precise duration of the state of emergency. Critics of the Hungarian government both near and far – even as far as the Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States, as well as the usual EU figures – launched a joint attack on this measure. The attack from the European Parliament was particularly vehement, and a special hearing was held to debate the matter. However, the Vice President of the European Commission, Věra Jourová, found nothing unconstitutional in the text of this legal measure, and neither did the EC legal experts or the Venice Commission.

What was the cause of this false alarm? True, the government did pass certain regulations relating to the pandemic at the same time as the Coronavirus Law, but its primary purpose was as a failsafe, and as I write, the government has already submitted a legal amendment formally suspending the state of emergency. It is true that certain measures will remain, and critics will argue that the rather lengthy statute leaves open the possibility that the government can reapply the state of emergency at any time. In truth, however, this assertion rests on the flimsiest of conjectures, and ultimately there is no need for a government with a two-thirds majority to impose a long-term state of emergency in order to rule with convenient ease.

 

WAS THE WORLDWIDE MOVE TO WORKING FROM HOME A MISTAKE?

 

Hungary and the Hungarian government had already priced in these attacks. One of the reasons a large part of Central Europe elected to coordinate their activities within the Visegrád Group was the knowledge that they could expect support and protection at a European level only from one another. These European political tensions are a holdover from the international situation before the crisis, and they are likely to remain after the pandemic has passed.

A much more interesting question is this: what justified the confinement orders issued by policymakers around the world? Many argue that such lockdown orders have not shown a measurable impact in terms of lives saved – the curve appears to have flattened regardless. Others, of course, maintain that such measures were necessary to protect vulnerable groups and prevent healthcare systems from being overwhelmed.

But nevertheless, what explains this almost universal worldwide overreaction to the pandemic? How can it be that, upon instructions from our governments, we abandoned our workplaces en masse and retreated to the intimate seclusion of our homes and apartments? Presumably the forecasts were so terrifying that governments around the world felt unable to risk a policy of “business as usual”. In particular, it appears that in Europe many were alarmed by the situation in Italy, the first European country to suffer substantially from the virus, which seems to have found it especially difficult to cope with the high number of patients, and the reports of many deaths.

It is, of course, unnecessary to stress the level of responsibility the media has in a crisis of this magnitude. It is clear however, that the world was swept – and not merely because of the media – by a wave of panic. Of course, depending on the situation, dire consequences could have followed a decision not to shut down the everyday life of a society, but it is also conceivable that in the long run, the world has not gained as much by reducing the spread of the virus as it has lost through the shutdown. If it is one day established that the latter is in fact the case, then and only then will it be possible to say that the total lockdown of the Western world was a mistake. Until then, all that can reasonably be said is that the world’s leaders almost unanimously chose the less conspicuous of two risks.

 

WHAT ARE THE EXPECTED ECONOMIC CONSEQUENCES?

 

The short answer is that it is still impossible to say. It is, however, worth considering carefully the economic and social consequences of a two-to-three-month lockdown, and the attendant mass-psychological impact. Evidently countries with differing levels of development can expect different outcomes from the lockdown. No less apparent is the fact that within each society the consequences will not be shared evenly – those from poorer socio-economic strata are likely to feel the effects of an economic crisis both earlier and more keenly. In other words, the same crisis can result in quite different scenarios, even between two neighbouring countries, but also within one region, between different social or cultural groups.

We have already seen very sharp divergences in terms of the effects of the virus. In trying to explain these, we will have to consider such demographic concepts as relative age distribution with particular reference to the proportion of elderly people –, the level of immunity within a given population, and the care capacity and quality of a nation’s health care system. It is also possible that even greater variance is to be expected from the different approaches nations take to the crisis, and the measures they take in response. The level of development in most European states means that the number of victims is unlikely to be as high as in developing countries. It already appears, however, that even a relatively mild pandemic may prove a severe test of the EU’s tensile strength – and that is even before we examine the likelihood of a second wave. North, south, east and west have once again failed to agree on a common approach, this time concerning the best approach to the pandemic. Even the strongly Europhile Euronews concedes that the EU response to the pandemic has been a failure. What is more, its most powerful constituent elements are also in trouble: it is still unclear what direction Germany will take after the departure of Chancellor Merkel, and Eurosceptic voices are growing louder in President Macron’s France – around 50 per cent of the population describe themselves as disillusioned with the EU. Then, of course, there is the challenge posed by the V4 countries, in particular Hungary and Poland, to the vision of a left-liberal, federalist Europe. While it appears that some sort of economic rescue package is slowly taking shape, it remains doubtful whether this and similar mechanisms will prove sufficient in the medium term to overcome the EU’s internal tensions, which have only been sharpened by the impact of the pandemic, and which the looming economic recession seems likely to exacerbate.

At present, it appears ever more difficult to see how the United States can extricate itself from its current political situation. The available data suggests that so far the US has suffered the highest number of coronavirus victims worldwide, while the soaring unemployment figures are also cause for alarm – all given even greater significance by the fact that this is an election year. At stake is the re-election of a President who divides popular opinion – even within the American Right – perhaps more than any of his predecessors. Meanwhile, the violent protests which have erupted across the country in response to an inexplicable act of police brutality suggest that at least some on the Left are unwilling to trust in ultimate victory by traditional political means, but rather, by making a cause célèbre of this incident, seek to rally a critical mass of voters to their side, and thereby make the President’s situation impossible.

 

LESSONS

 

It may appear strange to seek political lessons in a pandemic. All reflections of a political nature must, however, take reality as their starting point, and in across the world the reality of 2020 has been determined by the pandemic, as well as by the almost equally universal “lockdown” imposed in response. The global economy was frozen for a short time, politics stopped, and people waited. For more than sixty days. This, we may confidently assert, is a state of affairs without precedent in modern history, and its effects remain impossible to predict. One thing bears noting, however: the very fact that it was possible to implement such a lockdown suggests that the majority of people across the world still listen to their governments.

It also transpired that the ultimate custodian of political legitimacy remains the state, even in Europe. What is more, we have seen that the leaders of different states, and their government institutions, have achieved very different results in the face of a very similar challenge, which draws attention to such traditional political virtues as character and statesmanship. There is one final inference to be drawn: it is virtually impossible to conduct real-time analysis of the true effects of a global crisis while still in its midst these thoughts may be of interest only as free association of ideas based on first impressions, as unexpected events cannot immediately be scrutinised in any useful depth. In a time of unexpected, global challenges, even the theorist prefers to act, and leaves conclusions to be drawn later, that is, unless reflection is necessary to decide upon the right course of action. Could it be that, even in times of strife and alarm, and even if it is an imperfect instrument, philosophical reflection remains invaluable?

Translation by Thomas Sneddon


* The first part of the article was published in Hungarian on 26 March in the journal
Országút, while the second part was written specifically for Hungarian Review in June.

 




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