[The following is the original English version of my recent interview with the French online publication, atlantico.fr. It has been lightly edited. Those who wish to read the French translation can find it here: https://www.atlantico.fr/decryptage/3589116/martin-gurri–pour-les-francais-a-qui-l-on-apprend-a-venerer-l-autorite-etablie-la-revelation-des-failles-de-leurs-elites-politiques-et-scientifiques-a-ete-traumatisante-emmanuel-macron-coronavirus-covid-19-analyste-cia-peuple ]
In recent years, we’ve opposed democrats to populists and often presented them as the two only options. However, was this the correct analysis? As neither Emmanuel Macron nor Donald Trump have handled the coronavirus crisis successfully weren’t we mistaken when opposing one political ideology to another?
I would say the opposition is between the elites and the public, with populism being a sort of weapon sometimes wielded by the public in democratic nations against the elites. Macron has taken his stand with the elites. Trump defines himself as anti-elite: so he is called (usually by the elites) a populist. Both play within the framework of liberal democracy.
More to the point, both preside over the monstrous and slow-moving machinery of the modern state. Democratic institutions today, including government, are a legacy of the industrial age, when it was believed that “science” and “rationality” in the hands of “experts” could cure the human condition, if enough power was applied. Salvation came from the top down, as if by divine grace. Presidents were expected to speak with Olympian authority. Every crisis was a “problem” to be solved, almost mathematically, by specialists deciphering the data.
The credibility of this model of organizing society has been destroyed by the digital age. There’s just too much information available. We know every falsehood, error, and failure of judgment that presidents and governments are responsible for. The public was promised salvation but is now condemned to elect persons with few divine attributes. So it is angry. The public was angry long before the pandemic.
Regardless of what Macron orates or Trump tweets, the French and American governments are very similar in their bureaucratic structure. Both function as if we are still in the 20th century, and not in the digital age. Such structures could never keep up with the speed of the contagion. Macron and Trump alike faced a health crisis with inadequate instruments at their disposal.
The question assumes that they have been unsuccessful. That reflects the anger more than any empirical measure of success. I tend to be more forgiving. Human knowledge has severe limits. The chief vector of contagion has been our ignorance. By global standards, France and the US have not been particularly unsuccessful in stopping the infection. The greatest failure of democratic government under the current circumstances has been a lack of humility: making proclamations as if from certain knowledge, when in truth they knew little more than ordinary persons.
The Chinese government seems quite confident that its time has come and that the West is currently imploding. Would you say that this is true? Are we currently witnessing the implosion of the West and its ideology?
Throughout the coronavirus crisis, China’s been exposed as a regime mainly based on propaganda and the West now seems much more vocal about it. The confrontation between China and the West seems to get more and more exacerbated. Is this an institutional issue or more of a civilizational one (Confucianism versus western civilization)?
I find it remarkable that, in light of the pandemic crisis, anyone would point to China as a model to emulate. To begin with, that regime isn’t really a system or model. Like Mao in his mausoleum, it’s a mummified version of the 20th century. The Chinese regime still believes they can subtract what is known from what is revealed, and, more seriously in the case of the pandemic, that they can control what is revealed from the top. Politics – pure power – is thought to command science, data, even reality. The consequence is an empire of lies: local authorities seek to deceive provincial authorities, who in turn seek to deceive the national leadership, who in turn hope to deceive their public and the world.
The reflexive action of the authorities in Wuhan when told of a new contagious disease was to detain and discredit the messenger: Dr. Li Wenliang, the doomed hero of the COVID-19 tragedy. In mid-January, weeks after the initial outbreak, the city of Wuhan held a festival for 40,000 neighbors. It is licit to wonder whether the pandemic might have been reduced or stopped if those in power there had possessed any sense of responsibility. The only question I have is whether the national leadership in China believed their own propaganda or were complicit in the deception.
Given the relationship between the regime and information, nothing out of China can be believed. Any statistics are bound to be distorted by politics. If one multiplied the number of coronavirus deaths in China by ten, twenty, thirty times the official number, this would not be surprising.
This is a universal weakness of authoritarianism. The democracies were confused and overwhelmed by the pandemic, but they have tried to serve their citizens. The first priority of every authoritarian is to stay in power. In Iran, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused Iran’s enemies of exaggerating the danger of infection. The deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, went public to downplay the dimensions of the pandemic, a day before he tested positive for the virus and was quarantined. The video of a sickly Harirchi uttering his denials can stand as a parable for the end of dictatorial illusions about information control.
Western democracies should not worry that their ideology has been superseded by China. But Western corporations, those in France very much included, will have to decide whether they wish to keep their manufacturing supply chains hostage to events in that country. When the present crisis is over, there is bound to be a broad reconsideration about the place of China in the developed world. The economic consequences are almost certain to be damaging to that country.
Europe already seemed quite weakened before crisis, do you think the political union can survive it and live past it?
I confess that I found it astonishing to see Angela Merkel, apostle of open borders, suddenly shut the gates to the entire country of Germany. Yet that was the reaction of every government in Europe. The EU was erected on the assumption that no existential threats remained in the continent. When the coronavirus crisis arrived, national governments immediately moved to protect their people: it was as if the EU did not exist. When Viktor Orban used the crisis to allocate extraordinary powers to himself, there was only silence from Brussels. When Italy desperately needed medical equipment, Brussels and the European nations looked the other way.
Imagine if, at the first shot of a battle, every member of a battalion ran away and tried to save himself, even at the cost of the others. That is no longer a military unit, and could never be one again. How do you erase the memory of mutual selfishness and cowardice? That is the situation that will confront the EU when the present draconian measures are lifted. A tremendous burst of political pressure – anger, resentment, uncertainty – will be released, I suspect, at that moment, aimed at anyone who represents the hypocrisies of the past.
In the US, the government has also in many cases been inadequate to the crisis, and the states have stepped in to fill the vacuum. But we are, by design, a decentralized country. The pandemic merely forced us to live up to that ideal. Looking forward, Europeans are going to have to decide what kind of European Union they want. The current system is a bureaucratic superstructure with little connection to the democratic process. It adequately represents the governments and the elites, but not the public of Europe. Yet the public today is the leading actor on the political stage. To ignore this is to invite more populism and more revolts in the style of the Yellow Vest movement.
Nothing is predestined. Europe will survive in some form. But I would be surprised if fundamental changes were not in store for the EU, even in the short term.
With the coronavirus crisis people seem to have further lost faith in experts and institutions. Would you say the ongoing crisis of authority is becoming more severe? What could be the outcome of such a crisis? Should we now fear the rise of political nihilism more than ever?
The crisis is not simply political. I have been fascinated by the drama surrounding Dr. Didier Raoult and his claims for hydroxychloroquine. Dr. Raoult is probably the top expert in infectious diseases in France, yet I have seen the term “medical populism” attached to him. This accusation is worth a moment of reflection.
The experts are divided. How is that possible? We believe science to be the great oracle of nature, and scientific experts to be the priests and sibyls attending the temple. There can only be one truth, one answer to every question. Yet, like the oracle at Delphi, science is now offering us ambivalent answers, and we are watching the experts fight like politicians over who gets to decide the truth. It is a profoundly revealing spectacle. For the French, who are taught to worship established authority, the revelation has felt traumatic and disorienting. The wild COVID-19 conspiracy theories now circulating among the French public are an act of faith that someone, somehow, must be in control of the situation.
We are suffering through a “post-truth” era. Nature has not changed. Truth is still one. But our perspectives have fractured, and there is no one who speaks with authority, no one who can provide a persuasive story about the virus and the cure.
So I return to an observation I made above. There are severe limits to human knowledge. Even our experts are blinded by ignorance. Modern science is a magnificent attempt to push that ignorance back, one centimeter at a time. Science is an exercise in humility, not an oracle in communion with the gods. If elected officials make it a practice to speak as if they possessed an Olympian omniscience, they will be unmasked as frauds, and the public will be driven to despair of democracy – and, ultimately, to political nihilism.
But there is an even more dangerous possibility. If scientific bureaucrats make it a practice to speak as infallible prophets, their imposture will also be found out, and post-truth will degenerate into a sort of anti-science nihilism. Movements like those that today reject vaccines will then prove to be precursors to a long night of willful ignorance.
The current shutdown of social and economic activity is unprecedented. How can we resume both once the pandemic is under control? How do we restore faith in a system that many now question even more than they did before?
The news coverage of the pandemic has made it the biggest story in history, what are your thoughts on this unprecedented media noise? Would you say that it is proportionate to the health crisis itself?
The two questions are closely related.
There has never been an affair in the information sphere like the pandemic story. The numbers associated with the actual disease, COVID-19, are not unprecedented, either for a contagion or as a cause of death. The uproar caused by talking about the disease, both in mass media and in digital media, makes it indeed the biggest story in human history, completely overshadowing every other subject. Sometime in March the US bombed pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. A Russian court gave Vladimir Putin permission to remain as president until 2036. Nobody cared. Nothing could penetrate the giant noise of the pandemic story.
Agenda-setting studies show that an event appears significant to the degree that it dominates public discussion. The unprecedented din of the story made the disease seem like an equally unprecedented catastrophe. Much of the discussion was a panicked and angry search for scapegoats, for sacrificial victims that could be offered up to appease the plague. The questions constantly repeated were: Who was to blame? Who had failed to protect us? In this information environment, governments were stampeded into treating the virus as an absolute, unparalleled evil. A prosperous global economy was destroyed in a few weeks.
The death of thousands is a horror, a tragedy. But it is relative to other forms of evil, such as the destitution of tens of millions. And it is not unparalleled. At present, COVID-19 does not rank particularly high as a global cause of death. Human life consists of an endless series of trade-offs: between immediate desires and long-term happiness, for example, or between necessary risk and the comfort of security. None can deny that the possibility of infection from the virus is frightening. But the roar from the information sphere has propelled that fear over the edge of panic, where any discussion of trade-offs is now considered unthinkable and inhumane.
As I said before, I believe we should be forgiving of those in places of responsibility, who had to deal with a contagion that moved faster than their ability to react. COVID-19 was the first existential threat of the digital age. Democratic governments and health organizations have made their decisions under very difficult circumstances. The impulse to blame and rant, at the moment, is both futile and sterile.
But we must keep in mind the distinction between the pandemic and its story as we move forward to reopen economic and social life. We must treat COVID-19 with rational caution, and not react to the bedlam noise of panic rising from the information sphere. We have learned enough about the progress of the disease to make intelligent trade-offs. We know who is at risk. The death rate has been highest among those who are over 60 or suffered pre-existing conditions. We must do everything possible to protect this at-risk population. The rest of the human race must, in the near future, come out of shelter and once again meet, love, play, worship, and work. We must resurrect society and rebuild the battered economy.
What choice do we have? Maybe I am limited in my imagination, but I can’t think of any set of conditions that will allow us to hide forever.