The coronavirus stress test for the political establishment
This op-ed was originally published in Dutch in the Volkskrant on 30 March 2020.
A lot of attention is being focused on the potentially disastrous economic consequences of the coronavirus crisis, but the need to consider what type of society will emerge after the crisis is at least as urgent. The coronavirus crisis is reinforcing a shift in values that was already under way in Western society. If we are not vigilant, we will creep steadily towards a surveillance state. Look at the current situation in Hungary, where the corona virus killed its first democracy.
There is currently a lot of speculation about the world that will exist after the coronavirus crisis. Some people assume that there will be an explosion of humanitarian compassion, that the coronavirus crisis will automatically give rise to an ‘All Men Will Become Brothers’ virus. According to the historian Yuval Harari ‘humanity must follow the path of global solidarity’. Others predict that the coronavirus will herald the end of the globalised world economy, as we know it. It is still much too early to make such far-reaching statements about the consequences. A lot will depend on the further course of the pandemic and the ability of experts and authorities to bring the virus under control.
"The coronavirus crisis will attack the Achilles’ heel of the contemporary US socio-political model: political polarisation plus incompetent presidential leadership"
The initial indications are bleak. The United States in particular looks set to be hit hard, with all the ensuing geopolitical and economic consequences. The coronavirus crisis will attack the Achilles’ heel of the contemporary US socio-political model: political polarisation plus incompetent presidential leadership; a sick healthcare system and a vast number of vulnerable citizens. The Chinese party-state, by contrast, is successfully promoting the narrative that it was the state-led authoritarian model that enabled it to bring the virus under control. In Europe, meanwhile, the crisis is deepening the existing dividing lines between North and South concerning financial and economic emergency measures and between East and West concerning civil liberties. And what if the virus hits Africa or Latin America? How big will the humanitarian disaster be then? How deep will the economic crisis be? Everything remains uncertain.
"Socio-psychological research shows that countries that suffer pandemics often give rise to more collectivist, authoritarian and inward-looking systems."
While there is already a lot of discussion about the economic backlash from the coronavirus crisis, less attention is being paid to the shift in social trends that threatens to emerge. Socio-psychological research shows that countries that suffer pandemics often give rise to more collectivist, authoritarian and inward-looking systems. This is due to the logical human reflex of self-protection in the face of a collective threat. ‘Inhabitants of areas that have witnessed a large number of lethal infectious diseases in recent centuries impose stricter social standards, are on average more introverted, less open to new experiences, less tolerant of different forms of behaviour and have a strong preference for authoritarian leaders.’ That is according to the evolutionary psychologist Mark van Vugt of the Amsterdam Free University, quoted recently in De Volkskrant (23 March).
Coincidentally we ourselves have recently found empirical evidence of this shift of values in an area affected by the coronavirus. The research agency Glocalities conducts international surveys on values among the population and was coincidentally involved in research in China during the coronavirus crisis. It was therefore possible to compare the situation before and after lockdowns brought the country to a standstill. In this research among the Chinese population we see precisely the trends predicted by socio-psychological observations: an increasing intolerance (even by Chinese standards) of individualistic behaviour; growing importance of collectivist values and increased risk aversion. Glocalities hardly ever encounters such major shifts in values at the collective level in its global research. Such value shifts only arise after severe shocks. This looks set to apply to other countries after the coronavirus crisis.
"The Western values agenda that started in the 1970s and reached its climax in the 1990s is one of self-determination and ever greater individual liberties."
What is interesting about these value shifts is that in Western countries they appear to reinforce a trend that has been evident for some time. The Western values agenda that started in the 1970s and reached its climax in the 1990s is one of self-determination and ever greater individual liberties. This was reflected both in the economy (market liberalisation) and in culture (individualisation, self-sufficiency). International research shows that in the 21st century this long-term trend has increasingly been replaced by a new focus on security, certainty and community spirit.
"With the plague of the coronavirus set to pose a collective existential threat to the West, the call for protection, security and belonging will only grow stronger."
The shift is fueled by the experience of existential threats: terrorism (9/11), the banking crisis, demographic shifts (refugee crisis) and the climate crisis. With the biblical plague of the coronavirus set to pose an even greater collective existential threat to the West and cause great human suffering, the call for protection, security and belonging will only grow stronger. This will further exacerbate tensions in a society that has been under pressure for some time, dealing a fatal blow to the hyperindividualism and market fundamentalism that have been the basis of our social order in recent decades, while ‘Big Government’ stages a comeback. This process is taking place rapidly. But watch out: such a powerful government may take on very different guises during these times.
Will Trump’s own-country first model prevail? Or Xi’s Chinese model of state-led authority? Will the EU break down into fragmented national interests or will European cooperation provide the answer to deglobalisation? Will today’s leaders be able to unite their nations behind them or will this be the ultimate breakthrough time for their populist challengers?
"The coronavirus is hence primarily a stress test for the broad political centre that is still in power in most European countries."
The coronavirus is hence primarily a stress test for the broad political centre that is still in power in most European countries. How can they answer the call for greater security, belonging and collective protection without sacrificing civil liberties? How do we prevent the creeping emergence of an authoritarian surveillance state, like we are witnessing today in Orbans Hungary?
As well as a health crisis and an economic crisis, the coronavirus crisis must not also turn into a destabilising social crisis.