Living in Irrational Times: 

MilitiaA militia group stands in front of the Michigan governor’s office. Photograph: Seth Herald/Reuters

a follow up of The Age of Unrest Published April 30,

There is a broad consensus calling the time we are living in today irrational, Some analyst goes as far as to think we are also living a revolution in slow motion. Some find it resembling situations described in Kafka’s classic novels, The Trial and The Castle. Others think of an Orwellian time about the dystopian world pictured in George Orwell’s famous book 1984 where, in an imagined world, the leader of a totalitarian country enjoys an extreme form of the cult of personality and citizens are trained to uncritically accept as only “truths” the daily broadcasts‚. The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears, Winston Smith, Orwell’s leading character, says. It is a chilling remark reminiscent of the prevailing party loyalty in the USA

Turning now into relevant recent non-fiction authors that can help explain the nature of our convulsive time, I will mention to start, Tony Barber article in Financial Times of April 22, Book Review Column Machiavelli and his enduring appeal as a man for all times, The Renaissance writer’s ideas remain relevant amid today’s troubles three new books explain why.

Among the three books Barber mentions, it seems that Machiavelli The Art of Teaching People What to Fear by Patrick Boucheron, a renowned French historian, places the Florentine writer in today’s complicated time. The Introduction opens with the following quote “Real Power ,” I don’t even want to use the word ”fear” This sentence quoted by the French author, could have been written by Machiavelli, but, it was spoken by Donald Trump in March 2016 when Trump was still only a candidate for the US presidency. Boucheron tells us that this statement is also used as the epigraph to Bob Woodward’s book “Fear”: Trump in the White House.

Boucheron’s book contains a series of lectures about the works of Machiavelli teaching him to see it less as a representation of power than as a machine for producing political emotions: persuasion, in the public buildings of the republican city-states; and intimidation, in the fortified strongholds that the princes built to keep those states in line. The book was written before our current health, and the economic crisis but shows Machiavelli having the power to sharpen our understanding of the present, which is uncertain, unbalanced, and has brought so much suffering in terms of loss of lives, unemployment, and further impoverishment in the world.

In one of the essays included in Boucheron’s books, he brings back the question about Machiavelli’s motivation to write The Prince and to whom he was addressing this famous book mentioning two possibilities. One by Diderot, the famous French Eighteen Century philosopher and editor of the Encyclopedie, who believes Machiavelli was giving instruction to the powerful, teaching them a detestable sort of politics that can be captured in three words, the art of tyranny. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his Social Contract, took the other side: This man has nothing to teach tyrants, they already know perfectly well what they must do. He is instructing the people on what they have to fear. Probably based on this premise, Boucheron thinks that reading Machiavelli is so current by showing not only what tyranny is but also which actions and situations should signal the people that there are dangerous times ahead.

We turn to our current time, on the May 9 issue of The Economist as an invited guest Margaret MacMillan wrote an article with the suggestive title On covid-19 as a turning point in history. The pandemic exposes our weaknesses and strengths. How the story unfolds will depend on leaders. 

Margaret MacMillan is an acclaimed historian teacher at Oxford University and the author of several books, particularly the War that ended Peace.  This book describes the events that led to the First World War, the small conflicts and tensions between superpowers and their different allies through the aftermath of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. This local event leads Europe to a war that ended the European empires and caused the worst chaos, death, and misery to millions of people.

Her work and experience as a highly qualified researcher of historical situations and events that have triggered serious conflicts that changed the world make her analysis of our time particularly relevant. With compelling arguments, she considers our time as a revolutionary moment that is “challenging the old order.”

She compares some aspects of the current health and economic crisis to what happened in France in 1789, Russia in 1917, and in the Europe of the 1930s. Her analysis focuses on current leaders that are weakening democratic institutions in the US and Europe supported by popular discontent that has facilitated the ascend of extreme-right, xenophobic, and nationalists movements.

She recalls articles by a series of several journalists like Paul Krugman, who warned us about profound social and economic inequalities that fueled movements like “Occupy Wall Street” or France’s “gilets jaunes”. But what Macmillan considers to be a turning point is the chaotic responses and blame games of certain governments have exacerbated divisions in and among societies, perhaps permanently. Pointing out at the troubling fact that America has withdrawn from moral and material leadership of the world, she adds the dangerous moment that represents an evident new type of cold war between China and the US that started with tariffs and continues with a destructive blame game, which feeds growing hostilities among the two superpowers, making rogue states such as Russia gleefully make more trouble and the United Nations is increasingly marginalised. 

Margaret MacMillan also mentioned the devastation that the Second World War produced in Europe, to highlight the fact that the societies that survive and adapt best to catastrophes are already strong. Britain rose to the challenge of the Nazis because it was united; France was not and did not.

The historian sounds the alarm bells contrasting the current leader’s actions. Angela Merkel, addressing the challenges and the steep road ahead, while on the one hand, demagogues as President Jair Bolsonaro are playing to fears and fantasies of their followers. In this category, Margaret MacMillan explicitly includes among the populists, President Donald Trump, who claimed he had “total” authority, demonstrating something about his instincts if not his knowledge of the American constitution.

MacMillan ends the article questioning how this difficult time will be judged, by future historians, if there are any who can still research and speak freely, particularly the actions the leaders of individual countries and their citizens..

There are many books published before the health crisis I consider particularly relevant to understand our current situation, How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky, a Political Scientist and a Harvard University Professor and Daniel Ziblatt, the Eaton Professor of the Science of Government also at Harvard University. As the title indicate, the authors consider that in the past democratic countries fall into a dictatorship by “Coups d’ Etat”, which are easy to identify. They used the case of Chile when Salvador Allende, the Constitutional President in 1973, was assassinated and with him, also, the Chilean democracy. The military took control, subjecting the country to a brutal dictatorship that lasted for decades. The authors also present the tragic consequences of the Cold War era when coups d’ Etat accounted for nearly three out of every four democratic breakdowns. Democracies in Argentina, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand, Turkey, and Uruguay all died this way.

With this context, the book focuses on modern times when democracies slowly die paradoxically by democratically elected leaders, which by design grab power, bend and erode the rule of law and weaken the democratic institutions that made them possible to be chosen. The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy ”gradually, subtly, and even legally” to kill it.

What makes this book relevant in the time of Coronavirus Cov-19 is the fact that we can see an erosion of democratic values and the rule of law as a normalized situation in the US and many other democracies. Many will have difficulty passing a ‘democratic’ test, particularly Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Mexico Brazil, etc.

Gillian Tett, a renowned financial analyst of the Financial Times, published on May 8, 2020, an essay with the suggestive title Is it safe to go to the shops, see a friend or get on a plane?..on how to assess risk in the age of coronavirus. Her note opens with a widely reported situation that, many consider, to be unimaginable only recently last month. She quoted the following tweet by Michigan State Senator Dayna Polehanki, who posted it from the Capitol building: “Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us,” she texted. To provide context and show the unthinkable situation in a democratic society, the Senator posted a picture of armed protesters standing in the building, demanding an end to the Covid-19 lockdown in the name of “freedom” (see photo on top).

Gillian Tett rightly thinks it is naive to think that in today’s circumstances, the US continues to be built on the principle of individual freedom and an ideal of the individualistic management of risk, adding that, ..most individuals recognise that pandemics are a group threat. That is why the majority have accepted State’s mandatory lockdowns, travel bans and other controls,…by the high levels of compliance. 

She considers it is even more striking to see the rise of egalitarian risk management in the US including the use of masks, emulating Japan and China, and many other Asian countries following their collectivist traditions.

Following the same type of conclusions made by the authors previously reviewed regarding the revolutionary character of time we are living today, Gillian Tett ends her article with an idea which I think will be challenging to find on her past article in FT: Where might this lead? She rhetorically asks, My own best guess is that in countries such as the US and UK, we are heading towards a future with more emphasis on egalitarian risk control but within social boundaries; keeping our “tribe” safe will be the new mantra..  

There are many books directly related to past pandemics and articles with lists of classic fiction and non-fiction dealing with historical pandemics and situations similar to the one we are now living. Particularly, Albert Camus The Plague, now popular historical Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, and even Shakespeare, who was born at a time England was facing a serious pandemic.

Many books with updated visions about the current pandemic and the human, social and economic effects produced by lockouts of countries and cities will be coming soon to the bookstores, virtual libraries like Apple Books. One of the first is Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present by Frank M Snowden published by Yale University Press, in May 2020.

The human toll of the deadly decease is unprecedented for the speed it affected millions, overwhelmed hospitals and health services, tragically claimed dozens of thousands of deaths around the globe. Also, the economic situation provoked an increasing number of unemployed, reaching almost 40 million only in the US.this week. It is difficult to foresee a fast, recovery, and many sectors will take longer or will never fully recover. Airlines are not yet scheduling flights and have scrapped or indefinitely postponed orders of new airplanes. Businesses, large and small are declaring bankruptcies, delinquent mortgages and unpaid rents are rising. Most industrialized nations’ governments have approved packages to support their economies as the pandemic threatens a global recession, creating enormous deficits of trillions of dollars. Also, central banks are pumping an enormous amount of cash to the system to keep interest rates low, affecting the income of the commercial banks, which are already weakened by growing unpaid debt. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund will have to pledge funds to support countries in need. to diminish the impact of a broken international economy 

.It is too soon to have a real sense of how the future will be once the pandemic is under control. There are multiple scenarios, including the optimistic presented view by Gillian Tett.As we mentioned before, she thinks that the US and UK, are heading to a future with more emphasis on egalitarian risk control. Other analysts see a revolution with millions without jobs or income, as a result of a deep recession like the one in the late 1920s, greater state intervention, reduced freedom, an increase polarization, nationalism, increase international tensions and conflicts and the end of an interdependent world as the one we know it today. Finally, a cynical view of the future, like in the famous novel The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa which is a story of the passing of feudalism with a decadent and dying aristocracy threatened by the forces of a Italy in 1860 which ended with the following motto, Changing things so everything stays the same


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