Today, nothing is more urgent than controlling the two tsunamis—the public health and economic crises—that are battering the world. There is no guarantee that we will manage to achieve it. But if we fail, very dark years lie ahead. The worst is not certain. And to avert it, we must look both ways, far into the past and also ahead to understand what is at stake here.
For a thousand years, each major epidemic led to essential changes in the political organization of nations and the underlying culture of such organization. For example, (and sans wanting to reduce the complexity of history to nothing), we can say that the Bubonic Plague of the 14th century, (which we know reduced the population of Europe by a third) contributed to the radical questioning of the political place of religion. Furthermore, it contributed to the establishment of the police as the only effective protector of the lives of the people on the old continent. The modern state, like the spirit of science, was birthed as a consequence, a shock wave, of this immense health tragedy. Both in fact refer to the same source: the questioning of the religious and political authority of the Church, incapable of saving lives or giving meaning to death. The policeman thus replaced the priest.
Similarly, at the end of the 18th century, the doctor replaced the police as the most effective bulwark against death.
As such, in the span of a few centuries, we have transitioned from an authority based on faith to an authority based on respecting the use of force, and thereafter to a more effective authority based on respect for the rule of law.
We could also take other examples, which demonstrate that every time a pandemic ravages a continent, it discredits the system of belief and control, which failed to prevent the deaths of countless people; and the survivors take revenge on their masters by upsetting the relationship vis-à-vis the power in place.
Even today, if the powers that be in the west were to prove incapable of controlling the tragedy that has begun, it is the entire system of power and ideological foundations of authority that would be called into question, in favour of a replacement, after a dark period, by a new model based on another type of authority and trust in another system of values.
In other words, the system of authority based on the protection of individual rights may collapse. And with it, the two mechanisms that it had put in place: the market and democracy, both of which are a framework to manage and share scarce resources, while respecting the rights of individuals.
If the western models fail, we could potentially see, not only the implementation of technology-driven authoritarian regimes that will effectively use artificial intelligence for surveillance, but also authoritarian regimes controlling the distribution of resources (it starts in the least prepared and most unsuspected places: yesterday in Manhattan, no one was allowed to buy more than two packs of rice).
Fortunately, another lesson from these crises is that the desire to live is always the strongest; and that, in the end, human beings overcome anything that prevents them from enjoying the rare moments of their passage on earth.
Thus, when the pandemic subsides, a new legitimate authority will emerge (after a moment of very profound questioning of the legitimacy of authority, a phase of regression of authoritarianism in an attempt to keep the chains of power in place, and a phase of cowardly relief); it will not be based on faith or on force, or even reason (and not, without a doubt, on money, which is the ultimate avatar of reason). Political power will belong to those who can show the most empathy for others. The dominant economic sectors will also be related to empathy: health, hospitality, food, education and the environment. By relying, of course, on the major networks of production and the flow of energy and information, which are necessary in any case.
We will stop buying useless things in a frenzied manner and return to the essential, making the best use of our time on this planet, which we will have learned to recognize as rare and precious. Our role is to ensure that this transition is as smooth as possible, and not a field of ruin. The sooner we implement this strategy, the sooner we will emerge from this pandemic, and from the terrible economic crisis that will follow.