Learning from Corona?

[Ralf Michaels] Tuesday, 7 April, 2020

Perikles, killed 429 BC by the plague in Athens, now being disinfected
Picture by Stavros Papantoniou (facebook)

James Meek, author of a recent novel about the great plague, predicts history will “bifurcate: in one version the epidemic will have changed everything – social histories – and in the other it will be an awkward sidenote interrupting a narrative of wars, national rivalries, rulers and dynasties.” But we should not leave meaning-making to future historians, much depends on the meaning we make now.

Arundhati Roy, in a characteristically beautiful and widely-shared recent essay, suggests we will be forced to rethink everything: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew”. But then she immediately backtracks: whether meaning changes is a matter not of necessity but of choice: „We can choose to walk through [to the next world], dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.“

As of now, if we look at theory, hardly anyone sheds any luggage, or enters any new world. To an astonishing degree, the coronavirus crisis reconfirms, for everyone, that they were right all along. Trump supporters still see the crisis as an attempt to bring Trump down. Nationalists celebrate the closing of borders (and argue it should have happened earlier).  Cosmopolitanisms can demonstrate why the closing of borders changes nothing. And so on.

The worst reluctance to learn seems to exist on the right. Take Richard Epstein’s disastrous back-of-an-envelope prediction of 500 (later 2500, later 5000) deaths in the United States, which apparently has been influential on US politics. He has been widely, and appropriately, criticized for talking about epidemiology although he knows little or nothing about. But the worst problem may be that Epstein does not write from ignorance. Instead, he derives his predictions entirely from something he does know something about—a certain libertarian ideology, a certain understanding of equilibrium theory—that he is unwilling to change, or at least question, in the face of the pandemic. The problem is not lack of knowledge, the problem is knowledge that remains unchanged in the face of new facts.

But the tendency to see the crisis as nothing more than confirmation of prior beliefs is not confined to the right. Some on the left suggest that the crisis demonstrates little more than what they already knew before, namely that universal healthcare is necessary. (Though not perhaps sufficient: Italy, a country with universal healthcare, has still been hit hard). And they take the growing support for free coronavirus testing as proof that cancer treatment must also be free. They thereby ignore the obvious difference that covid-19, unlike cancer, is highly contagious, and so testing and treating the infected matters mainly not for the patient herself and more for the rest of society. And their suggestion seems surprisingly modest in view of the enormity of invent. In using the virus only to reinforce prior convictions, they thereby belittle the current crisis. And in proposing the same policies as before the virus, they also belittle the range of options that we should have. Does coronavirus really not provide new and better arguments for universal healthcare? Does it not provide an opportunity to update to update leftist theories, now that they are more important than ever?

If all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. If all you can see in the crisis is confirmation of your theory on the state of exception, you do not have a theory, you have paranoia. The public takedown of Agamben’s intervention (discussion here) is only one example; if Slavoj Žižek’s earlier naive pronouncements are any guide, his already announced book on the pandemic will be another.

How can we imagine a new world if all we have are old theories? Data statistician Rex Douglass, in what is the best detailed critique of Richard Epstein, suggests learning in view of new information, curiosity instead of contrarianism. The natural sciences are modelling this for us: they are, out of necessity, learning fast – about the coronavirus and its infection mechanisms, about proper treatments, about triage. I think that we have a lot to learn from them. Like in the natural sciences, there is no need to completely abolish our prior theoretical presuppositions, in view of the crisis. After all, we held those convictions in the expectation that they would also help under changed circumstances. We need not start from scratch. At the same time, what we should remember is that a theory, or an ideology, that remains completely unmoved, unaltered, unaffected even by events as devastating as those currently happened, should not be trusted. It is probably not a theory about the world we live in. In all likelihood, it is not a theory at all. It is an ideology.

So, perhaps, the first step of learning is one of unlearning. Roy’s suggestion that we drop our baggage of prejudices and hatred may not go far enough. Perhaps we must also, at least for the moment, at least as a thought experiment, drop our traditional understanding of what constituted prejudice and hatred in the old world – not because there will not be prejudice in the new world, but to make sure that we do not have the wrong concepts and theories to combat it. Certainly the closing of borders is in many ways a return to old nationalism, but quite likely it is not the same nationalism that we criticized before. Certainly, the way that Americans and Chinese are currently blaming each other for the pandemic displays elements of racism, but that racism is likely not the same that we criticized before.

The second step is learning. One thing we observe is an astonishing mix of incompatibles. Life slows down dramatically for some of us (who sit in home offices or quarantine, or have been laid off) and accelerates dramatically for others—those fighting the disease, as doctors and nurses or epidemiologists and statisticians, those trying to finetune economy and pandemic through regulatory measures. Extreme nationalism with closed borders coexists with extreme globalism of scientific exchange and a global run on PPE. This is a challenge for theory, but perhaps also an opportunity?

The third step is small proposals. One promising suggestion comes from Bruno Latour, whose long-developed theories on the inseparability of scientific inquiry and scientific practice, of observers and observed, of man-made and nature-made events, may need somewhat less updating than others. Latour asks us to name one concrete suspended activity that we think should not come back. The focus should be on precise, small practices, not great world views. That seems a promising way to develop theory (and praxis) from the ground up, to use our current exceptional circumstances to learn about what is possible and desirable in the new normal.

Only the fourth step, then, will be the beginning formulation of theory. It will need to be humble, open to correction and criticism, risking to be wrong in order to help all of us get right. Grand events invite grand theory, but grand theory is particularly ill-equipped to deal with them. Small, updated, theory, may be better, at least for now. This Coronajournal, in asking us to note in concrete terms what we observe, strikes me as a promising site for such projects.

Ralf Michaels | Hamburg | April 7, 2020

Published by pzumbansen

law professor.

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