I have lost count of the days since I went into quarantine, after losing my sense of smell. Camus writes that in a plague there’s ‘nothing to do but mark time’ but marking time is harder than it sounds. Is it Monday or Tuesday? (Does it matter?) Lately the most reliable method of counting the passage of time has been not in days or weeks but in deaths. In New York City, more than seven thousand people have died, more than twice as many as were killed in the 11 September attacks.
Most of my friends aren’t leaving their flats. Since recovering my sense of smell, I’ve been taking a walk each morning. The other day I sat in an empty park near the Brooklyn Navy Yard when a city worker came up to tell me it was closing immediately. The next day a makeshift fence surrounded it. ‘Baudelaire loved solitude,’ Walter Benjamin wrote, ‘but he wanted it in a crowd.’ Today any area that might attract a crowd has shut down and Governor Cuomo frowns on walks. You can still find ‘crowds’, but they’re made up of people you already know but can’t risk seeing ‘in real life’, brought to you by Zoom or FaceTime.
This is my second experience of quarantine this year. In late December I visited Beirut. Shortly after my arrival, the US government assassinated Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike at Baghdad airport. American citizens in the Middle East were advised to leave; taxi drivers warned me to conceal my American identity. I spent most of my time reading, writing and cooking – pretty much what I’m doing now. Among the books I read was an essay by Amin Maalouf, Le Naufrage des civilisations (‘The Shipwreck of Civilisations’), published in 2019. Maalouf is a Lebanese-Christian novelist who, for the last two decades, has been warning of the threat posed by ‘identitarian’ political movements. Le Naufrage is both an elegy for the Levant in which he grew up, and a reflection on the violent fragmentation and political malaise of globalised capitalism. It begins:
I was born healthy in the arms of a dying civilisation, and throughout my existence, I have had the feeling of surviving ... while so many things around me were falling apart; like characters in a film who are crossing streets where all the walls are crumbling, and who come out somehow unscathed, shaking the dust off their clothes, while behind them the entire city is no more than a pile of rubble.
New York City today isn’t a pile of rubble but its emptiness is still shocking. Even more shocking – though not surprising if you know anything about the state of healthcare in the US – are the images of overburdened hospitals without enough ventilators and surgical masks, and the tent hospital set up in Central Park by Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian relief organisation headed by a fundamentalist preacher. As Trump and Jared Kushner ‘manage’ the response, many of us have the sense that we’ve reached a point of historical rupture: any talk of returning to ‘normality’ feels not only risible but irresponsible. Of course, we still try our best to feign normality: ‘meetings’ and ‘parties’ provide ephemeral relief from confinement. So do Cuomo’s daily briefings: lucid, sombre presentations of the facts that counter the hallucinatory ravings of Trump’s press conferences (and make otherwise sensible people forget that, while clamouring for federal relief, Cuomo was looking to make $400 million in cuts to New York hospitals).
At the same time, I wonder if the real winner of the ‘war’ against the pandemic won’t be the ‘virtual life’. The moguls of social media have never been averse to keeping us indoors; and neither have authoritarian leaders. When Bill Gates suggested that large public gatherings may be wiped out for the foreseeable future, Viktor Orbán, Binyamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi must have been smiling. ‘We heard the sirens of the Palestinian security forces wailing away,’ a friend in Ramallah wrote to me, ‘and I thought they must be having a kick out of enforcing curfew (which was just starting) after they suffered from Israeli-imposed curfews. Yet it seems the right thing to do.’ Even if it weren’t, who now would dare go to the barricades?
Bill Withers died at the end of March aged 81. His best-known song, ‘Lean on Me’, had become an anthem for healthcare workers treating Covid-19 victims. After his death was announced, a version performed by a doctor in New Haven did the rounds on social media. But one question those of us who live alone have had is ‘lean on who?’ Certainly not your neighbour, much less your parent. Touching is now taboo. Two people I knew have died: Maurice Berger, an art critic, curator and civil rights activist; and Michael Sorkin, the radical architect and critic. A friend at the Whitney told me of a staff member in his late forties, a father of two, who had died of the virus.
The pain of social distancing and isolation isn’t negligible, but neither is it lethal, and in America ‘sheltering in place’ counts as a privilege, even a luxury. For those working on the frontlines in hospitals, or delivering food, or performing any of the essential jobs that the ruling elites hardly noticed before, every day is an endless confrontation with the risk of contagion. Many of them are still riding the subway because they have no other way of getting to work. At 7 p.m. we open our windows and applaud them.
In an interview on the television show Soul! in 1971, Withers was asked why he’d said his former job installing toilets on commercial aircraft was a ‘more revolutionary act’ than singing. ‘A guy that picks up garbage,’ he replied, ‘is needed more than a guy that plays baseball. He doesn’t receive as much notoriety, but I would rather see my garbage gone than see some cat hit a ball 500 feet. And I would much rather not sing for a month than not go to the bathroom for a month.’
I like to think Marx would have approved of this downhome explanation of the labour theory of value, and the last few weeks have provided an unusually cogent demonstration of its force. (They’ve also provoked a backlash against celebrities who have posted photographs of themselves trapped in their Hollywood mansions.) But there is another dimension of Marx’s thought that helps illuminate the Covid-19 crisis: his awareness of capitalism’s environmental hazards. ‘Man lives from nature,’ he wrote, ‘and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.’ ‘Let us not flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest of nature,’ Engels warned in Dialectics of Nature. ‘For each such conquest takes its revenge on us.’
It would be a mistake to call Covid-19 nature’s revenge, except as a metaphor. As Susan Sontag argued, illness has no ‘meaning’, and interpreting it runs the risk of stigmatising its carriers – particularly if they can be depicted as in some way ‘other’: foreign, sexually ‘deviant’, non-white. Trump’s fulminations against the ‘Chinese virus’ have provoked hate crimes against Asian-Americans. A group of young Orthodox Jews coughed in the face of a young Muslim police officer, who now has the virus.
While the illness may be meaningless, the violence it has unleashed, and the patterns of its infection, could hardly be more meaningful. The elderly are especially vulnerable, but so are the poor, and people of colour. African-Americans and Latinos, already victims of America’s medical apartheid, are dying at an alarming rate; the New York Times columnist Charles Blow has described the virus as a ‘brother killer’. The fact that it has struck the United States with such shattering force is evidence not only of the denial, mismanagement and sheer amateurishness with which the Trump administration has responded to the crisis, but of the country’s infrastructural decay. America increasingly looks like a failed state.
I spoke to a friend from Pakistan who told me that her mother in Karachi, no stranger to America’s behaviour abroad, has been shocked by the images coming from hospitals in the US. She’s not alone. The ravaged state of our healthcare system, the gutting of federal government, is hardly news to us, but it’s startling to many abroad that the world’s most powerful country has proved more vulnerable to the virus than any other. It may not be a ‘paper tiger’, as Mao said, but it has been far less effective than South Korea, Taiwan or Germany – or even Spain or Italy – in confronting the virus. While Trump was threatening to provoke a war with Iran in early January, he was warned of the danger posed by the coronavirus, and chose to ignore the information. America’s Covid-19 crisis is in part self-inflicted, like the other humiliations it has suffered since 11 September: the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, the financial crisis, the Trump presidency.
The death toll will be further increased by the erosion of public trust, fuelled not only by extreme right-wing hucksters such as Alex Jones but also by Trump, who has been praising the untested ‘miracle’ cure of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine (which turns out to be manufactured by a company in which he invests). No more embarrassed by incoherence than its beloved president, Fox News has promoted both the idea that Covid-19 is a plot (by the Chinese, or George Soros, or the Democrats, or all of them together) and the idea that it’s no worse than the flu. Religious fundamentalists have joined the chorus of sceptics, dismissing the need for social distancing. An Evangelical woman interviewed on CNN said she had no hesitation attending services because she was ‘covered in Jesus’ blood’. An ultra-Orthodox man said he felt protected by his shofar.
A global crisis ought to elicit a co-ordinated, global response. But such co-ordination has become unthinkable with the revival of authoritarian nationalist rule, which Washington has helped foster, and so each country has suffered, and tended to its victims, largely on its own. Covid-19 arrives at a moment when the ‘global village’ is a financial reality, but the faith that underpinned (or sanitised) it has crumbled. The interdependence of the village is a fact, but so are the cruel and immense disparities that allow it to run. The village’s ‘liberal’ features, such as elections and a free press, are mostly a privilege – a vanishing one – of those who happen to live in Western Europe and North America. Now half the village is indoors, the skies are empty of aircraft and clearer than ever, and the entire system is ‘on pause’.
Rafael Gómez Nieto, the only surviving member of La Nueve, a unit of France’s Second Armoured Division that helped liberate Paris, died of Covid-19 on 31 March, at the age of 99. A Spanish Republican, he said he volunteered for La Nueve because he ‘wanted to fight for the good of humanity’. How quaint such sentiments have come to sound. ‘The sorry paradox of this century,’ Maalouf writes in Le Naufrage, is that ‘for the first time in history we have the means to rid the human species of all the plagues that assail it and to lead it serenely towards an era of freedom, progress ... planetary solidarity and shared prosperity; and here we are, however, launched at full speed in the opposite direction.’
For much of the 20th century, left-wing movements of varying stripes – communist, socialist, social democratic, Third Worldist – promoted visions of international solidarity. But, as Maalouf suggests, globalisation has been ‘accompanied by the weakening of all the movements and doctrines that fight for the same universality’. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, no movement has emerged with a project for transforming society along egalitarian lines – no ‘moral equivalent’ of proletarian internationalism. Even social democracy, a moderate attempt to combine the market with social protections, was ‘contaminated’ by communism’s failure, the principle of equality itself devalued. The state, which ‘possesses a subtle, elusive and yet irreplaceable role’, became an object of corrosive distrust, not just among conservatives but among liberals who embraced the market and came to rationalise the disparities it produces. The world, Maalouf writes, is à la dérive, ‘adrift’, its inhabitants déboussolés, ‘deprived of a compass’, and increasingly susceptible to various kinds of ‘magical thinking’, from religious fundamentalism to faith in the ‘invisible hand’. ‘We think we are advancing, when in fact we’re drifting.’
How did we come to lose the compass? When did the ship begin to sail off course? Maalouf places emphasis on 1979, the ‘year of the great turnaround’, when Thatcher and Reagan declared war on social democracy and the welfare state, Khomeini came to power in Iran, Deng Xiaoping opened China to the market, and the Soviet Union launched its ruinous invasion of Afghanistan. Disparate as these events were, Maalouf believes they all form parts of the same historical shift, as free-market ideology and religious fundamentalism not only prevailed over communism, but led to the weakening of social democracy, secularism and other universalist ideals. (Maalouf imagines the end of the Cold War as a boxing match between the US and the Soviet Union, refereed by China, which finally declared the US the victor by itself embracing capitalism.) ‘Conservatism became revolutionary’ while the left became conservative, forced to defend the gains of the past. The result today is clear: a ‘world in decomposition’ in which ‘most ... have ceased to believe in a future of progress and prosperity.’
Maalouf isn’t the first to make this argument. But he grounds his analysis in a remembrance of the Middle East he knew as a child. For Middle Easterners of his generation, the loss of a world is nothing new. And in Le Naufrage, he suggests that what the world is now experiencing – the hardening of differences into rigid, antagonistic identities; the spread of religious fundamentalism and conspiracy theory; the intensification of distrust, fear and surveillance; the unravelling of social safety nets – is something that the people of the Levant know all too well. He pays generous, elegiac tribute to the Levantine model of multiculturalism, in which Muslims, Christians and Jews lived side by side, respecting one another’s differences. Eclipsed, and then buried, by nationalist passions (pan-Arabism, Zionism), it was a fragile experiment, and Maalouf knows that he risks sounding nostalgic. Still, he insists that it might have worked, and that it might have provided a model for the rest of us.
When I first read Le Naufrage, this seemed a leap to me, if not an act of magical thinking. Yet as I re-read the book last week, after one of my solitary walks on Brooklyn’s abandoned streets, I found myself even more struck by the pertinence – or the allegorical resonance – of Maalouf’s arguments. The Levant’s loss was the world’s loss, and what we’re witnessing today reveals a comparable logic of disintegration, in which national, ethnic and religious differences are being ‘tribalised’ on a planetary scale. The United States, which long claimed to be the ‘captain’ of the ship, has embraced this logic of disintegration without a compass under the banner of ‘make America great again’. In Maalouf’s portrait, the world in which Covid-19 made its calamitous appearance is disoriented and dangerously unequal, fragmented into identity-based groups, at war with one another yet all beholden to the market. ‘I hardly dare imagine,’ he writes, ‘what the behaviour of our contemporaries would be if our cities were struck tomorrow by massive attacks involving non-conventional weapons – bacteriological, chemical or nuclear.’ He no longer has to imagine.
April 20, 2020
Adam Shatz is a Visiting Professor at Bard College, Berlin, as well as contributing editor at the London Review of Books, where this text was first published on April 16. His planned stay at the IWM from April to May 2020 had to be postponed due to the coronvirus.