What Politics Will Look Like in a Post-Virus World
Tl;dr: the pandemic will be a spark for dictatorships to become democracies.
Yuval Noah Harari, Ph.D., is an Israelian historian. He wrote the widely acclaimed books “Sapiens” and “Homo Deus” (among other things).
He popularized the explanation behind humans’ capacity to build incredibly complex societies that no other animal has ever built before.
According to Harari, our capacity to cooperate and work together on a worldwide scale is due to shared imagination and meaning.
Let’s take money as an example: money has no practical value.
You can’t eat it, can’t drink it, can’t wear it.
Money only has value because we agreed that it would have value.
If you receive a million dollars, you will be happy as you know what you will be allowed to do and buy based on conventions everyone agrees with (prices).
If you received a million Indonesian Rupee, you’ll be less impressed because you know it is worth far less than dollars, simply because…everyone agrees so.
So the value of money exists only in human’s minds.
If one day everyone decides that this green piece of paper isn’t worth anything anymore, it will in effect become…worthless.
The value of money is a social convention and only exists as long as the majority believes it exists.
Hierarchical structures are based on this principle.
Let’s take an example.
In the UK, the Queen is at the top of the structure. She didn’t apply for the job, didn’t have to study a certain course to access it nor took an IQ test.
Yet, she’s at the top and will remain there as long as the rest of the country agrees that she can.
There is nothing that biologically or practically sets her apart from you and me, besides the fact that everyone agrees she is the Queen and treats her as such.
That is the general convention and as long as no one changes it, it exists and applies.
All political and hierarchical structures are built on this principle of conventions (understand: they only exist as long as everyone believes they do).
Some structures are more or less flexible than others.
The most common political structures are democracies, dictatorships, and everything in between (communism didn’t make it, sorry but not sorry).
Democracies are flexible structures: social conventions that make them work are less strict, collectively agreed upon and open to negotiation, which means people can enjoy more freedom and flexibility.
Democracies, with their free and open systems, can absorb shocks and crises.
If people are not happy, they can easily change their leaders, protest, riot, or simply move out of the country.
The system adapts itself to the events of life, which makes it more likely to overcome them.
In dictatorships, the entire system is based on people vouching for the system: divergent opinions or beliefs are not permitted, there is no negotiation, no room for adjustment.
If people have complaints, they have no right to voice them and must simply move on.
The costs to carry conventions in a dictatorship are therefore greater than in a democracy.
Dictatorships are more rigid and demand more effort from citizens.
In North Korea for example, citizens must come to cry in the street when the leader dies. Those that do not cry enough go to prison.
Citizens must believe and repeat that a star was born in the sky when the great leader was born. They must believe and repeat that North Korea is the best place on earth with the happiest people.
Whatever people are not happy with, they must bear it and move on.
Until one day, when the weight becomes too heavy, a single spark propagates fire to the entire system.
Sparks can take the form of self-immolation in Tunisia, the increase of the metro ticket in Chili, a new extradition bill in Hong-Kong, a yellow vest in France, a fake presidential election in Algeria, or the police shooting the wrong person.
And what has this to do with the virus exactly?
Well, pandemics have always reshaped the course of history.
Viruses from settlers have decimated aboriginal tribes, the Black Plague ended serfdom in Europe, and the Spanish flu left a considerable mark.
Pandemics are heavy to live through; they are invisible and nearly impossible to fight.
Family members die, kids get sick, parents feel powerless.
Life, already heavy in dictatorships, gets heavier.
And in the desperation of false promises, the people start waking up to eventually riot their way to freedom.
Protests and change come when there appears a need for change.
The virus is currently testing the resilience of the entire political and economic system worldwide.
The systems that are the least resilient will fall, and these are the dictatorships.
While Iran could not deny for long the catastrophic effects of the virus, both Venezuela and North Korea have declared that their country was not infected, despite chances of the opposite.
A pandemic in these countries risks to inspire rage and desperation from people, strong catalysts for protests which would eventually throw the system away, something leaders don’t want to see happening.
So, the virus does not exist in these places.
Nope, it is not there. Move away now.
To conclude, this virus is an evident tragedy for the entire world.
Yet I am one of those who believe that a good crisis should never go to waste and that extraordinary things happen in extraordinary times.
The stock market crashed, planes don’t fly, cities are empty.
And I am willing to bet that for the worse political system in the world, the virus is the beginning of the end.