The Trio of Calamity

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By ALFREDO SAAD-FILHO*

The pandemic according to Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jair M. Bolsonaro

The spectacular failures of Brazil, the UK and the US during the Covid-19 pandemic provide valuable lessons about what can never happen again: wait for the virus to disappear, minimize the potential impact of a pandemic on public health and the economy , to delay inevitable confinements, in a vast list. Such failures also shed a strong light on the roots of the disaster.

The first step is to recognize the magnitude of the catastrophe (see Table 1).

Sources: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html(July 15, 2020), ourworldindata.org (July 13, 2020), https://www.ft.com/content/a26fbf7e-48f8-11ea-aeb3-955839e06441(July 15, 2020) and https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2020/06/24/WEOUpdateJune2020

In short, human disaster in the countries selected by us is unlikely to be offset by a milder economic downturn – on the contrary, they are much more likely to perform worse than average – thus dismantling the argument that protecting economy should be a priority and “a shame if it means some retirees die [as a result]” [1].

The cases selected by us (the “Calamity Trio”) share evident characteristics, essentially related to their “leadership”: they are all governed by arrogant, selfish, self-promoting, pedantic, rude and patronizing clowns, who demonstrate symptoms of histrionic personality disorder , if not psychopathy, openly holding authoritarian ambitions to break and remake the Constitution and state apparatus. Surprisingly, they aren't interested in building mass support movements, preferring to cultivate fawning but disorganized fans:

Donald Trump has hijacked the Republican Party but has no intended use for it other than the electoral machine and fundraising; Boris Johnson has no time for the Conservative Party he remade in the image of Brexit, and Jair Bolsonaro doesn't even belong to a party (his attempt to create the Alliance for Brazil stalled miserably). Next: they lie shamelessly and compulsively, claim merit from others, deny evident truths, proclaim the non-existent and promote violence against people who question them, fact-checkers, those with different points of view, scientists and women.

They are arrogant, impervious to remorse, and quick to claim that whatever they do is “the best in the world,” even when they fail or even when it backfires. Despite their authoritarian instincts, these leaders remain slaves to the electoral process: everything revolves anxiously around the next election. What's more, they engage in calculated struggles with the media, which ensures visibility even in the unflattering light of methodical criticism (which, paradoxically, tends to consolidate their fans' loyalty). Commentators have struggled to explain the popularity of such leaders, which persists despite daily transgressions against "civilized" politics.

This combination of characteristics proved lethal with the pandemic. Risks were downplayed because caution would look bad, suggest weakness, or hurt election prospects. But if riots, denials and lies were enough in the past, the coronavirus was irreducible to all of that. Public health actions were delayed because the state machinery stalled when faced with a challenge unrelated to the Leader's promotion. Playing defense didn't come naturally to our specimens in question, and they fumbled. Despite their telegenic prowess, they were unable to feign sympathy for the Other or express pity, shame, remorse, and were cruel; they could not expose the complexities of the pandemic [2], and they were ignorant; they could not guide a propositional institutional response, and they were lost.

Trump and Bolsonaro raffled off their own health experts hawking quackery, while Johnson's experts "disappeared" as soon as they distanced themselves from the official message [3]. Worse, accustomed to politics as war (Remain vs.Leave; tories vs. Corbyn; gun owners and white supremacists vs. gun control and Black LivesMatter protesters; Obamagate vs.Russiagate; Lula vs.Car wash; traditional media vs.startups evangelicals, and so on), and embroiled in battles against the “deep state,” our leaders found themselves unable to respond to Covid-19, an indifferent foe to the politics of division and resentment.

Such dysfunctions are not due merely to individual incompetence or ignorance; they reveal a deeper political malaise that particularly affected the three countries. The transition to neoliberalism has restructured economic and social reproduction in the UK since the mid-1970s, in the US since the late 1980s, and in Brazil since the late XNUMXs, creating a wide variety of economic and social “losers”. : millions of skilled jobs have been eliminated; entire professions disappeared or were exported, and employment opportunities in the public sector worsened because of privatization andtraces”. The stability of formal employment has declined, and wages, working conditions and pension protections have deteriorated for all.

The institutionalization of a neoliberal democracy fostered the alienation of the “losers”. Their concerns were ignored, and their resentments, fears and hopes were captured by the mainstream media, displaced into ethical conflicts between “good” and “bad” people, constrained by the common sense present in notions such as “dishonesty” at the individual level and, collectively, by views of “undue privilege” accorded by the state to the undeserving poor, women, minorities, foreigners and other countries.

This process eroded two pillars of capitalism. First, the enlightenment commitment to science: universities were not only delegitimized ("Mickey Mouse" [4] degrees, "excessive salary managers", and high student debt - all in line with government policies - as well as the elements subject to repression, such as “left indoctrination” and “cancel culture”). Along similar lines, the neoliberal cult of the individual has fueled the individualization of truth itself: it is my right to believe that the Earth is flat and no CDF has greater authority than I do on any subject; no one can impose masks, vaccines or isolation on me; the coronavirus is a hoax because I say it is like that [5] etc., in a fire of certainties that, if unchecked, would consume geostationary satellites, long-distance transport, the internet, evidence-based medicine, water treatment plants and much more more.

Second, democratic politics lost both its legitimacy and its effectiveness because of the exclusion of economic issues from the debate: under neoliberalism, the superiority of the market and the imperative of controlling inflation could not be contested or even debated, and institutions of the State were readjusted with the aim of isolating neoliberal policies from the whims of electoral accountability. The law enshrined spending ceilings, inflation targets and privatizations, while a propaganda wall promoted financialization and consumerism as the essence of the “good life”. Alienation was an inevitable result and, considering the previous destruction of the left, a political vacuum was formed in which the opposition was dissolved, resulting in anomie, with this vacuum being taken over by “spectacular” authoritarian leaders, dominated by the extreme right.

These destructive trends were intensified by the Great Financial Crisis, which began in 2007, which culminated in a decade of “fiscal austerity”, justified by the need to pay for state policies in favor of financial health, but, in reality, amplifying the destruction of sociability and producing new waves of social reengineering. The rise of “spectacular” leaders is therefore neither a temporary aberration nor a reversible political outgrowth, but, above all, a by-product of the failure of financialization, the decay of neoliberal democracy and the delegitimization of dominant ideologies and modes of representation. of reality.

This unstable political dynamic has been crushed by Covid-19. Brazil, the UK and the US watched in horror as the coronavirus claimed tens of thousands of lives, immune to arrogance, riots and blatant denialism. Meanwhile, populations in these countries have been deprived of information about the various countries and regions that have successfully contained the pandemic; scandalously, the (relative) successes of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were glossed over by England as if they were trite or insignificant. As always, England snubbed smaller nations, starting with the closest.

Multiple successful experiences against the coronavirus are available. They show that different combinations of state capacity, rapid response, universality and capillarity of health systems, resources, technology and social control could contain the coronavirus: the disaster was not inevitable; every death must be accounted for. In contrast, the Trio da Calamidade demonstrated a deliberate lack of preparation, allocating insufficient resources to their respective health systems, promoting disorganized and contradictory policies, defining poor implementation strategies and prioritizing escalating corruption over the preservation of life. The pandemic not only shows that death is the price of arrogance, it also shows that death was the avoidable consequence of a decadent form of neoliberalism in three countries that suffer from long-standing suffering.

*Alfredo Saad Filho is a professor in the Department of International Development at King's College London. Author, among other books, of Marx's value (Unicamp).

Translation: Fernando Marineli

Notes

[1] Quote attributed to Dominic Cummings, Chief Adviser to the British Prime Minister (a title specially coined for him); later not only refuted as a position of Cummings, but it was even said that he would have guided the confinement in Great Britain (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2020/03/22/no-10-forced-deny-claims-dominic-cummings-said-pensioners-die).

[2] The counterexample is Angela Merkel's precise explanation of the pandemic; To see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/16/angela-merkel-draws-on-science-background-in-covid-19-explainer-lockdown-exit.

[3] See https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/05/05/exclusive-government-scientist-neil-ferguson-resigns-breaking/, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/coronavirus-chief-nurse-dominic-cummings-ruth-may-daily-briefing-downing-street-a9562741.html e https://inews.co.uk/news/politics/coronavirus-latest-health-experts-banished-downing-street-briefings-explained-dominic-cummings-445004.

[4] T. No.: “Mickey Mouse courses” in the original, UK term, refers to useless university courses.

[5] This does not always end well. See, for example, https://www.abc15.com/news/coronavirus/30-year-old-dies-after-attending-covid-party-thinking-virus-was-a-hoax.

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