The end of the year is a good time to reflect. The devastating pandemic marked a year few of us would ever forget.
This was a year of deep anger with ourselves, our fate, with other people and with the government. We were angry for good reasons, but more so with reason itself. Instead of the Age of Science and Technology, which could conquer disease, prolong our lives and remove social injustices, we live in a world where nearly half the people do not believe in masks, sound medical advice, vaccines or even the daily news.
Science therefore doesn’t provide all the answers. If rationality succumbs to irrationality, emotion and anger will shape our choices for the future. We have been here before. In 1637, amidst the horrendous Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and outbreaks of European plagues, the French philosopher Rene Descartes and his generation despaired over religion and human fate. They embarked on logic and science that transformed Europe to master technology. Specialization in logic, mathematics and knowledge became successful, because science stripped emotion and humanity out of the search for “objective truth”. The discovery of steam and fossil fuels created industrial power. Power generated wealth. Wealth and technology generated concentration, inequality and more power.
By 1776, economics had become the leading social science, with Adam Smith finding laws that revealed truths about the Wealth of Nations. Economics emulated the physical sciences. But politically, the French and American revolutions promised liberty, equality and fraternity. Ignoring the politics, economics became more and more quantitative (scientific) so that economists offered mastery over development and growth. Neoclassical economics assumed that with perfect markets the economy was self balancing, giving order, efficiency and stability.
The current neoliberal order was founded on democracy, free markets, rule of law and technology, entrepreneurship and innovation. Francis Fukuyama’s End of History (1990) assumed that these self-evident truths would lead to a better world. What we got instead was the Revenge of History – that inequality, crime, corruption, political decay, monopolies, distrust and anger came back to haunt us. By 2020, the pandemic confirmed the worst – that technology reinforced concentration, that the rich were more protected against the pandemic and that the poor were most exposed to death and disease because they did all the essential jobs.
Trust was lost because the pandemic unveiled injustices where justice was promised. To regain it, politicians now beat the drums of war to avoid being blamed for their own incompetence of restoring order.
In 1981, the American inventor Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) argued that humanity must tread along the Critical Path between the existential threats of nuclear war and climate change. For a while, the nuclear threat faded because of the demise of the Soviet Union in 1989, but today, that critical path remains as relevant as ever. We cannot ignore the fact that the pandemic is the interactive result of climate change, globalization and human interaction with bats and other viral hosts.
With more deaths from the pandemic than during the Second World War, the United States is both angry and hurt. The Democrats and Republicans alike are pushing the “Reset” button, but with major differences. Both hark back to a “golden age” that may never return, but with starkly different visions. Without explicitly saying so, the Republicans appeal to a return to white supremacy in power, whereas the Democrats call for a return to the values of liberty amidst diversity. Across the Atlantic, Brexit also represented an emotional response to national sovereignty over European economic integration.
Thus, the centrifugal forces of tribalism are tearing nations apart, creating more disorder than order. Protests, rebellions and polarization have risen throughout this decade, according to the global unrest index. This is a dangerous time for all.
What is the solution to our current existential condition? The central thesis of neoliberal market economics is Hayek’s political observation that “markets have self-order” and that authoritarianism leads to serfdom. US President Reagan cast that as “government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem”. In other words, the solution is a political choice: either more government intervention or market-driven forces.
After the pandemic, however, most business leaders at the World Economic Forum have judged government intervention positively. Very few are against governments increasing their role because of government bailouts. Hence, the concentration of power is increasing, rather than decreasing.
But there are fundamental differences in world views on how to deal with these power concentrations. The American approach is that democracy will act on technological monopolies through anti-trust laws. Surprisingly, it is the Chinese government that is the first to act against monopolies on tech platforms.
Impatience over quick fixes also push preferences for vaccines and resets, hoping for “silver bullet” solutions that fix everything quickly. But Asians know from experience that the virus will mutate faster than vaccines can be discovered. Vaccines themselves are not 100 per cent effective, so we can never eliminate disease, only live with i t . Therefore, vaccines are less important than social distancing practiced widely.
Anger and reason are two sides of humanity that cannot be separated. Competition and cooperation co-exist simultaneously, just as crisis and opportunity are inseparable. In that sense, economics, politics, philosophy and technology are deeply entangled with each other, so to assume that a part can explain the whole is fallacious. Humanity and science are not binary opposites but are part of the whole eco-system of life.
In short, our future depends not just on science and reason, but on our values. If we value human life, then we should cooperate for the future, even as we compete. The glass is always half full or empty, and 2021 promises as much hope, as well as anger or despair.
As the poet, Alexander Pope (1688-1744) wrote, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.”
The writer is a former central banker and financial regulator. The views are entirely his own. Special to ANN.