Republican Senator Ted Cruz

Good God. It’s really happened.

For years, those of us who believe in, y’know, science, have cursed the fact that climate change deniers would never be fully confronted with the consequences of global warming. Even as the horizon of catastrophic occurrence has gotten closer, you just know that mass glacial melts, sudden methane releases from permafrost thaws, sharp heat upticks in the tropical belt, etc, etc can all be dismissed as unprovable consequences.

If only, one thought, there was a way in which the consequences would be so utterly direct as to…

Well, last month, the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) staged its annual mega-conference at DC’s Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. It’s a Woodstock/Deadhead gathering for every right-wing loon in the country (it’s also where Donald Trump hugged and kissed the flag like it was a contestant in one of his beauty contests).

There, then-White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney chuckled for a fawning crowd as he told them that coronavirus was just another attempt by the Democrats to get Trump because “they couldn’t do it with impeachment”. Trump followed up later, calling it the latest hoax.

What could possibly happen next, at a gathering of thousands of people from across the US, many of them aged, in the sort of hotel air-circulation system that Legionnaires’ disease is named for?

Yes, yesterday it was announced that a CPAC attendee had tested positive for COVID-19. On Twitter it became clear that many in-the-beltway people knew who it was. He (it’s a he) was a lobbyist who had spent the weekend glad-handing attendees, including, of course, elected representatives.

The consequence is that several congresspeople have self-quarantined (including Senator Ted Cruz, 30 years too late), right-wing journalists are raising hell, and attendees are asking why better precautions weren’t taken. Yes, why on earth? 

The sequence of events — the blithe trust that it was all a beat-up, followed by the realisation that they might have got it — has been telling. Many on the right have spent so much time denying basic science that they lost touch with the idea of an actual external reality beyond politics.

They have multiplied their risk vastly, in the service of right-wing fantasy.

Now, the vast apparatus of that fantasy is coming undone. Though the most delusional rightoids are desperately trying to keep anti-Chinese sentiment going — witness the pathetic Alan Jones/Nick Cater double in the News Corp papers this morning — the general public isn’t having any of it. There’s nothing like a disease with a 2% mortality rate to concentrate the mind.

Indeed, there’s a congruence between what’s happening now and the sudden clarity that occurred at the start of World War II — right down to the initial flurry of fads and chaos, fits of the vapors and bog roll hoarding.

Suddenly quite a lot of people are asking questions that have gained little traction for years, like why is sick leave so inadequate and why is the workforce so casual?

Why has the state become so indifferent to the population it purports to represent that no plan is in place for an event forecast not merely by experts, but which went so deep into mundane popular culture that there are Rene Russo movies about it?

One of the reasons the China-bashing hasn’t worked is that many people can see that the defects of a totalitarian system in terms of information feedback are more than compensated for by the ability of a rational totalitarian system to take effective action, even if the measures are frankly terrifying.

The right tried to invoke against China the old Karl Popper argument that dictatorships eventually become ineffective compared to open societies, because they choose false good news over true bad news and can’t steer their own actions. But that presumes that such open societies have not had their institutions so undermined by capital that they are quasi-totalitarian in any case, and irrational with it.

It is Trump, not Xi Jinping, who is doing a good imitation of Stalin’s refusal to believe in Hitler’s Soviet invasion plans, and courting the disaster that followed.

But that’s the acid test of this disease. Nothing is going to get past it.

It’s now clear from the death toll in Italy — 463 and counting — that the number of fatalities in China was not a result of some inherent failure of their system, disregard for faceless masses, etc, but simply the toll from an initial outbreak. If the sheer numbers are not replicated elsewhere, it’s simply because everywhere else had more warning.

Now the big test is the US. It is the perfect conjunction of a weak internal central state, a trashed process of government, trashed public regard for science, inefficiency and lack of leadership at every level, religious immanentism which defaults to prayer and miracles, high internal mobility, the squalor of dilapidated public areas, a partial health system in which 20% of people don’t see doctors and an economy dependent on a penuriously-waged workforce who must turn up to live, and who have little solidarity with the people who buy the goods they prepare, carry, deliver, etc.

Even if the disease does have an arc, it has not hit the main curve yet. The “event” is yet to come.

When it does, the comparison to make will not be with China, but with northern Europe; a comparison with places which retain strong purpose government with high levels of trust, and an open society.

The comparison will make clear what has been happening in the US and the UK for years: that government has performed badly because it has been deliberately wrecked from within.

The stock market will presumably dip and rise, pushing recession closer, but also making visible the separation of the financialised economy from real life, and creating a vacuum in which other ways of running things will not only become visible, but will have to be adopted as market processes prove inadequate.

Many of the right who bleat about “free minds, free markets” will meekly fall into line. At the moment much of the Australian right doesn’t know what to say, because Spiked hasn’t published an article about it yet.

So as the disease vector widens, political and social struggle will move to interesting new areas. It’s clear already that the corporate world and its state apparatuses will try and use this as a pretext to extend control — witness the flurry of articles about how “dangerous” physical cash is, and how much healthier totalising electronic payments would be. Yeah, yeah.

Against this, and a lot more, we have to take the opportunity to push the idea of a reflexive and representative public state as the only real alternative to totalitarianism. When even *gasps* conservatives get hit (“how dare you infect me! I know Jesus personally!”) the opportunity is there.

This has happened and will keep on happening.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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