Giorgio Agamben, Italian philosopher, spoke recently again about the “State of Exception”, term used for the first time after 9/11, to show the risks for Western democracy to go towards totalitarianism. Besides terrorism, the world connected with information technology that spy on us started to erode democracy and freedom. But today the pandemics, more than terrorists or the Big Brother, are creating permanent States of Exception. The Corona virus is just the first one. Twenty years after the terrorist threat narrative now states have a new one: pandemics. And will be a longer lasting one.
Donald Trump won the presidency with the motto “America first”, inaugurating the idea of new competition in the international system, as I wrote three years ago on this E-IR article. This started to erode the Western liberal order based on cooperation among Western countries and also with the rest, to see if it was possible to transit toward a new world order, after 30 years since end of Bipolarism and Cold War. In the meantime, China tried to launch its race in the competition for the new World hegemony, taking advantage of American retrenchment, with the Belt and Road initiative. But no American or Chinese presidencies can do for the international order what a small germ is doing right now.
Domestic level: threats to democracy
The State of Exception is when the states are applying unusual extension of power, with the potential to transform democracies into authoritarian states. Even if we are still far from that, Western liberal democracies are more and more eroded in the last decades, with a process that we could define of authoritarianization making them increasingly resembling autocratic national models.
This State of Exception is based on the process of “securitization”, that transform an issue into matters of “security”, to enable extraordinary means by the state, and to make the population more and more controlled. It is always accompanied by the propaganda machine, the idea that something has to be sold to the population, before to be realized, and by the persuasion of the masses by the state using psychological tools as a famous BBC documentary showed. The problem is that today, with the current technological power, the mass surveillance can have new tools to closely monitoring people’s lives, with smartphones, cameras, drones and even bio technological tools (like in the need for checking the coronavirus infection)
Securitization and State of Exception happens for many reasons: risks of mass hysteria in social media times, fake news that fuel nationalism and populism, but mostly because the threats and challenges to national security and social cohesion are becoming more and more global but also immediate. This means that there are no borders that can protect from them and there is no time to discuss in Parliaments for solutions to acute crisis, when the gradual escalation become an explosion. This can happen for big terrorist attacks as well as for pandemics, natural disasters or even a meteorite that fall in the atmosphere (that by the way is still a possibility in the near future for the planet Earth).
Threats like pandemics, nuclear risks or natural disasters happen suddenly and give nation states no time to think, or debate in Parliaments, and no space to defend, with the need of creating global norms, and in future even a world government. Artificial intelligence and climate change are more gradual, but they also will have tipping points and moments of explosion. With the Corona virus crisis this has been evident. And nobody was prepared, not institutions and less populations, as usually happens. Italy has been the political experiment this time, like the US had been after 9/11. Italians were the first to be forced to stay home, actually more than a quarantine, in a de facto curfew, suspending Constitutional rights as possibility to assembly or meet together. The government had continuous interventions, with executive power growing at the expenses of Parliamentary discussion and sharing of information (actually the lack of clear information about the lethality of the virus is functional to the acceptance of extreme measures by the population).
The same is happening now with the rest of European continent, again the place for political experiments for the future of the world: the regional unification is the first example, and now with the emergency of the virus there will be a stronger unification, with the closure of the borders and even if initially the nation states tried to recuperate their sovereignty (some states closing independently the borders in the Schengen Area) the European Union retook the power. Great Britain is the only one that to keep economic growth and democratic survival will not shut down a society completely, also because made just in time to go out of the EU in a real clairvoyant way. They announced that the strategy will be to increase immunity and to accept in the meantime more losses: tears blood and sweat again.
But the point is that this democratic erosion is not eternal, and will see a Renaissance from the population, that will demand a new “social contract”. A social contract where the people will pretend from the institutions to participate more in the social security, in a new Res-publica with stronger social capital and a new resilience of the population. Modern nation states actually will have to develop it through a new “Civil Defense” of national security (besides the military one) against these new threats for which the old national security institutions cannot do much.
This will make the Western democracy to adapt, transform and be born again, in a new style, more adept to modern times, where executive power is stronger because has the trust of the citizens, that will be able to control it with new tools.
International level: opportunity for new world order
At international level, the current international competition, after almost three decades of cooperation since the end of Cold War, is like a new war, but a nonviolent one. To make a winner it uses mostly economic power, but also soft power (and sharp one from the dictatorships like Russia and China). Until now China seemed to win. Now things will start to change.
China will bring more and worst SARS in future as they did in the past, losing its even small soft power of attraction (even if will try to regain it helping the countries around the world, like is doing now with Italy). To change a culture is not like to change an economic system: if Deng Xiao Ping was quick to open China to international markets, Xi Jinping will struggle to convince one and half billion of Chinese to stop eating and trading wild animals. But China is only one of the many countries from where viruses and pandemics could come in the future (as Ebola showed us). So, the international system will see competition among states, to make clear who will resist and react better to these new threats.
At the beginning the “natural selection” among countries with different abilities to survive and strive in times of crises will come out. Nevertheless, with the time the countries will try to create a new international order. These countries, the “winner” in the international competition in time of crisis (mostly economic but also social crisis, as the pandemics make people more depressed and less resilient) will be able to agree on a new international system, based on reciprocal support for the times of crisis. This initial natural selection will be based mostly on economic struggle.
The world economy with this pandemic crisis will create a gigantic shock that will force states to cooperate. With the virus there will be an economic crisis probably much worst that 1929. If we don’t freeze the system in the next few months, we will actually need a new Marshall Plan as weak countries will collapse, failing even in the West. We don’t have much time, unless we act soon 2020 will be remembered as the worst year of modern times in world economy, with the worst global economy and financial crisis until now. But maybe the renaissance could come from the green economy. Actually, with the virus for the climate change there are very good news: we had a big reduction in carbon dioxide and this will continue as more states are shutting down. This is good news also for the economy: we could come out of this gigantic crisis with new ideas for a green and sustainable economy.
Therefore, for global threats we will need international cooperation, even a new world government before the end of this century if we want the species survival, as the treats will be quite big (in particular pandemics, artificial intelligence and climate change). Actually, the human species will be able to survive probably only if it finds a way to deal with these global threats in a unified way, and the sooner the better, at least by the end of this century. Competition will make space to cooperation relatively “soon”.
Unfortunately, human race always come together only through real suffering. This virus will also make humankind more united, but much bigger pain will come. We don’t have to give up to democracy and international cooperation though, as they are the two pillars that made us come till here. We must continue this path. Will not be easy but we owe to our future generations.
 Civil Defense or Civil Protection is the protection of the citizens of a state from external attacks or natural disasters, following the principles of emergency operations like prevention, mitigation, resilience or emergency evacuation and recovery. It has never been really applied, even if the nuclear era made it a possibility, but today and in the future of our world will be more and more important, as the threats will not be military but more and more health crisis, natural disasters and maybe even spatial ones in the near future.