What has(n't) changed?
Şafak Göktürk writes: This pandemic will surely have an abiding significance beyond its pathology. Yet, it will more likely be owing to its role in sharpening public awareness about our already existing afflictions. Of all the leaders, worst performers turned out to be the populists.
We are in a transfer room. The lockdown phase triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic is winding down, yet we are still languishing in the viral atmospherics. We are told of the need to strike a workable balance between our health precautions and economic activity. Politicians really have a penchant for this ‘balance’ thing. Their enchantment with the term is not necessarily due to the noble rule of “checks and balances” among separate branches of government, where balance involves the components of the same norm. They want to balance everything if political expediency so necessitates. It is as if our lives are like the annual budget (although even there, we know, balance is a rare exception). And, how do you establish a balance between a disease and, say, a car? Democratic societies may not be fully aware, but there are leaders outside their fortunate realm who also say they are working to balance freedoms with security. The moment you hear that “b” word in a political context, you’d better brace for the oncoming punch.
In social science, relationship among the norms of its different disciplines is one of interaction, rather than equation. If you are aiming to protect people from a contagious disease and get the economy running at the same time, you shouldn’t begin with experimenting less health measures with more activity in the economy. The focus should instead be on how the working environment adapts to scientifically warranted measures for as long as they are needed. If that means additional public and private expenditure even as financial resources dwindle, so be it. It is a worthwhile investment which will pay off down the road. It is obviously a better alternative to having sick people and a sputtering economy.
We are in fact in a larger transfer room. In my earlier article on the possible socio-political impact of the pandemic, I used “full dressing mirror” metaphor, to explain how it would help expose the true condition of our states and governments. Just two months on, ‘voila’. Now, I realize that even that metaphor was a bit on the cautious side. For not only have the states and their rulers been laid bare, but the underlying social and economic make-up of countries, with their associated behavioral habits, have also come to the fore.
Since the onset of the pandemic, we have kept hearing prophesies swinging from “nothing will change” to “it will be a new world”. The “nothing” camp assumes that the sense of vulnerability the contagion instilled in people has reinforced the stature of the central authority in their eyes, while rulers, the authoritarian ones in particular, capitalize on this new credit-line of approval and stick to their guns more tightly. The “everything” camp on the other hand variously predicts that this moment will prove decisive in changing our priorities, lifestyles, working methods etc.
A disease, however shattering it may be, alone cannot have the shock power to provide borrowed time for any ruler or else usher in epochal change. The magnetic attraction of and the unqualified submission to state authority in times of national distress are phenomena limited to its duration. Power, consolidated at such junctures, will require an all-consuming effort to maintain afterwards. Likewise, the existential challenge this deadly scourge has posed to the humankind may give us cause to contemplate more seriously on the meaning and purpose of our lives, but this contemplation will make true sense only if it is aligned with where we were in December 2019 and are still.
This pandemic will surely have an abiding significance beyond its pathology. Yet, it will more likely be owing to its role in sharpening public awareness about our already existing afflictions.
For starters, the virus was a common peril for all only to the extent that every human body "could" catch it. Yet, when it made its foray onto our societies, it became a matter of who ‘would’ catch it, and even worse, who ‘could’ successfully fight it. Its trail of devastation followed the broad pattern of inequalities and discrimination rooted in our societies.
All this happened as numerous states and governments across the world were humbled for their inadequacy and dithering in rising to the challenge. Of all the leaders, worst performers turned out to be the populists. They were either detached from the public or seen struggling to remain relevant to their folk. Either way, their exposed ignorance was phenomenal. Evidently, they were ill-prepared for this imposed challenge. It looked like a dismal away game for them.
All of a sudden, a white police officer in Minneapolis suffocated an African American to his death, his three colleagues looking on. As the footage of the homicide went viral, angry protests erupted and spread like wildfire across the U.S. It was not a unique occurrence of blatant racism in that country. However, this time white Americans turned out in bigger numbers joining the demonstrations led by their compatriots of African descent. The sustained nature of the ongoing street action in the U.S. may as well be a sign of growing impatience with endemic racism and discrimination. This resolve is now being embraced through major demonstrations across Europe and Australia.
This latest episode of racism has cut through the coronavirus context and accentuated it. African Americans have proven to be the utterly disadvantaged segment of the population hit by the epidemic. This corollary has not been missed by the wider public apprehensive of repression or discrimination for whatever motive.
What the experience of the coronavirus days for the people around the globe as well as this particular event with its contextual symbolism portend for the future remains to be seen. Yet, we can still make certain assumptions.
A deeper scrutiny of what transpired under the monopolizing agenda of COVID-19 reveals two potentially conflicting dynamics. The first one emanates from the want of ordinary people for self-security. Populist leaders and autocrats in fact always tap into this primordial impulse. Their entire legitimacy is predicated on the imposition of their version of order as the answer to that demand. If that order is upset, they claim, people will lose even the meager security and sustenance they have. Change is equated with chaos. A taste of unwelcome change has been offered by the pandemic. Its initial result has been a moderate boost in the approval ratings of these leaders.
But this is also where their marketing ends. The peak of the distress is now behind us. Yet, life will “normalize” into tougher economic hardships. And, second wave of infection remains a dreaded possibility. Having received little, if any, cushioning from the state when the economy all but stopped, more people, including those from the polarized constituencies of the rulers, are beginning to realize how they are casually left in the cold. So, this unwelcome change is already deconstructing the very order which has been seen as the buffer to uncertainty. The resulting vacuum is at once making the ruler more jittery and the public more resentful. This circumstance has the makings of a stand-off.
What transforms people from submission to rising against their ruthless rulers is a puzzle that keeps haunting social scientists. Maybe the answer is less arcane than we assume. It again has to do with the want for security – life security, livelihood security, dignity. We can liken an autocracy to a seemingly sturdy rectangular table, only that one of its legs is missing. The regime mobilizes virtually all its resources to keep weighing on the corner where the leg is in place so that the table does not topple. But it can do little when that weight proves indecisive. And, this is the moment when people realize that still investing trust in or remaining silent before a ruler whose own fortunes now seem questionable will in fact be putting their own security at risk in the longer perspective. It is all about crossing that psychological threshold which is more commonly described as overcoming fear. So, they walk to the opposite corner.
In one respect, history is about evolving processes punctured by acute events which helped humankind to see better where in the timeline they exactly were. We are at one such juncture.
When we gaze at the sky in a clear, cloudless night, we see sets of stars. What we actually observe is their past. Because even with the speed of light, the images of those stars reach our sight with long time lag. In a somewhat similar way, when we look at imperious regimes today, we see their retained profiles, belying the emptiness behind.
Şafak Göktürk is a retired Turkish diplomat and is 62 years old. During his career (1979-2019), he held numerous positions including those of First Secretary in Athens, Deputy Chief of Mission in Tehran, Consul General in Frankfurt, Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Deputy Director General for the Middle East, Director General for Policy Planning and Ambassador to Egypt, Singapore and Norway. He is married with two children and lives in Ankara.