Covid has accelerated the decline of the West and rise of the East — why we should embrace it
Affirmation of the truth that it’s only in a crisis that you find out who you really are has been provided in pristine fashion by Covid19. It’s shown the world that it is those societies undergirded most by the anarchy of the free market that have seen two things, 1) body counts which refute utterly their right to boast of superior cultures and cultural values to their counterparts across the Global South, and 2) the alarming traction of conspiracy theory in denial of, if not the virus itself, its seriousness and the social obligation to adhere to basic public health measures in response — i.e. social distancing, track and trace, and wearing masks in enclosed spaces such as shops and supermarkets.
I’m writing specifically here of the UK and the US, those antipodes of neoliberal economics and values, which in simple terms amount to the embrace of the supposed virtues of individual selfishness and a rejection of the implied malice of social solidarity.
Compare and contrast China’s inordinately successful efforts in tackling Covid-19 with the shambolic and failed efforts of the UK and US. Whereas China has at time of this writing recorded 4,512 deaths from 91,170 cases, the UK has recorded 42,515 deaths from 544k cases, with US recording 212k deaths from 7.85m cases.
The huge differences in the aforementioned stats on Covid19 are no accident either. They demarcate the difference between social organisation, planning, and direction, and the near total lack thereof. They prove beyond peradventure that the cult of individualism that obtains in the US and UK translates in the context of a pandemic to a cult of death.
Yet despite this both countries are also home to a conspiracy theory industry that has burgeoned since 9/11. Its oxygen is social media and its premise is the lurid denial of reality in favour of magical thinking when it comes to getting to grips with a world in which crises have increasingly become the norm instead of the exception. Such a denial of reality you won’t find to any significant degree in China or Cuba, or Venezuela, or indeed in any society where either culturally or politically, or both, collectivism and social solidarity hold sway.
The underlying factor in all the overlapping crises that define our world — whether of climate change, global poverty, geopolitics, terrorism, religious extremism — is the crisis of late (late-stage) capitalism. It has sown dragon’s teeth and its morbid symptoms in the US is a Trump administration mired in white supremacy and dysfunction, and in the UK Brexit. Both constitute a hard right, reactionary response to the aforementioned crisis of late stage free market capitalism and how it has ushered in an era of US imperial and hegemonic decline.
This decline has been accelerated by Covid, with China emerging as the new game in town economically and geopolitically as it sets about building mutually beneficial partnerships across the Global South and beyond under the rubric of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Hark the grudging acknowledgment of the significance of BRI by the good folks over at the Council on Foreign Relations:
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), sometimes referred to as the New Silk Road, is one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects ever conceived. Launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, the vast collection of development and investment initiatives would stretch from East Asia to Europe, significantly expanding China’s economic and political influence.
The fact they say this as if it’s a bad thing notwithstanding, even Western ideologues are now unable to ignore the shifting tectonic plates of geopolitical reach and influence at the start of the third decade of the 21st century. And for people of a left wing or progressive bent in the West, this shift should be embraced rather than opposed. Consider here the words of Jude Woodward from her sublime work, The US vs China: Asia’s New Cold War:
Against [US hard power] China offers investment, trade and economic collaboration that can deliver win-win growth and stability for a similarly long-term perspective. While China strongly disavows any proposal to substitute itself for the US in claiming global leadership and rejects the allegation it is attempting to achieve regional hegemony, it does propose a reconsideration of the ‘international order and global governance’, and is increasingly critical of the US’s obsession with how it can remain the world’s preponderant power.
Jude Woodward, The US vs China, (Manchester University Press, 2019), p. 255.
Covid19 has further emphasised the centrality of interdependence and international cooperation when it comes to charting a sustainable future for the planet, with isolation and insularity the road to its ruin. The fading influence of Washington and London on the world stage and the growing influence of Beijing reflects this dynamic and has ushered in a dangerous period of interregnum between the passing of the old and the coming into being of the new.
Just as, per Camus, it is the job of thinking people not to side with the executioners, it’s the job of all right thinking people not to side with reaction, conspiracy theory lunacy, or those who would substitute the symbols and iconography of national particularism for reality.
While there is much reason to despair when surveying what passes for society in the UK and the US, the onward march of China provides reason to hope that from out a virus may well come the reconfiguration of the world away from ecological, environmental and free market perdition towards something approximating to stability, sustainability and cooperation.
The lack of democracy within states has hitherto been used as a pretext for imperialist aggression and intervention. Until we understand the problem as being one of a lack of democracy between states rather than within states, however, the huge imbalance in wealth and development between the Global North and Global South will continue to be justified on the basis of exceptionalism rather than rejected as the bastard child of Western colonialism.
Imagining a world different from the one we are currently living in has never been more critical than now, when it comes to charting a future beyond Covid. China’s expansive posture allows us a glimpse of this future, while Brexit and Trump represent futile attempts to resurrect the ghosts of the past.