Like the last century's world wars, the COVID-19 crisis is causing trauma on a global scale and opening the door to enticing but deeply dangerous political impulses.
The pandemic is not a war, but like wars, it raises big questions. What caused it? How do we come out of it? How to avoid its recurrence? Diagnosis and answers are connected here.
The situation also gives rise to an old dilemma: Will it impose a closed, or an open society? Will we be seduced by dangerous visions of a tight-knit tribe to protect us from the menacing ocean? There is enough trauma for the recoil instinct to prevail.
When history becomes a hostile place, and life a dangerous exercise, people begin entertaining thoughts of sterilizing the first and protecting the second, by shutting themselves in a familiar place. Utopias have accompanied humanity since Plato's Republic. The Platonic state or the City of God is an oft-recurring fantasy of the world kept in check. That is the yearning of populism and its collectivizing urges: a homogeneous people and a closed society, behind a solid door.
Conflict is life, change is the norm and recurring trial-and-error, inevitable.
The closed society triumphed after World War I. Not in all places, but almost. Nationalism was one of its main causes, as many believed they would find safety in its torrid embrace. Cultural uniformity, economic autarchy, autocracy, a sense of belonging, and pride in one's identity all seemed like umbrellas against history's bluster.
Those who chose more cooperation, democracy and free trade were defeated: The open society, exposed to the winds of its time and its own unpredictable, unstable and conflictive nature, survived only where it was born — in Anglo-Saxon countries.
Yet coexistence did not work inside, or between, closed societies. Internally, calls for unanimity stifled liberties and fueled the desire to recover them. Internationally they provoked another war. Nationalists hardly love each other.
At the end of World War II, the open society prevailed, at least in the Western world. Frontiers expanded, and later brought down the walls of closed societies. Then followed an extraordinary period of economic growth, social mobility, political participation and international cooperation. There were also ideological conflicts, social confrontation, the end of empires, sexual revolution, etc.
Like it or not, open societies are like this: Conflict is life, change is the norm and recurring trial-and-error, inevitable. While this dark side kept alive a vague nostalgia for closed societies, in eastern Europe and Latin America, decades of oppression opened the doors to the open society. Now these same societies are facing their own, nostalgic backlash: It's cyclical.
Evidently neither model of society exists in its pure state and each includes ingredients of the other. Like a good recipe though, the trick is in the proportions.
Commemorating COVID deaths — Photo: Diego Radames/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire
So, which type of society will emerge from the pandemic? Which is the most desirable? Is it better to take inspiration from the end of the First or of the Second World War? Some contend that dramatic social conditions and a sense of vulnerability have reached a point where the closed society seems destined to win. This is understandable. Everywhere, the apocalyptic party has the wind in its sails.
Nothing will be the same again, they claim (with scant historical sense). We must start all over. The apocalypse wants to be redeemed. It is impervious to the fact that evil exists in history. It always seeks scapegoats to blame, in spite of the dubious links it finds. And crises that encourage this mindset, be it the pandemic, global warming or local wars, are always out there.
The disaster party is quick to find its culprits: liberal globalization, plotting powers, greedy banks, corrupt politicians. And the solutions — a return to nature, native renaissance, worship "the people" and its purity. In other words, the closed society ...
The loftier the goal, the more horrors it justifies in the process.
It is not a sustainable narrative, though one may ask if it can provide at least a sensible, feasible solution. Like the thinker Karl Popper, I see it as a remedy worse than the ailment it would cure. The idea of eliminating evil by shutting out history and restoring the supposed purity of the past is a powerful illusion, but a dangerous one.
And the more powerful it is, the more dangerous it becomes. The loftier the goal, the more horrors it justifies in the process. What won't we do to "protect" ourselves?
That, after all, is what happened after World War I. The open society, with its modest pragmatism, isn't as seductive. It doesn't promise anything beyond its prerogatives, like identity, community and belonging. It rests on our responsibility, respects our freedom and gauges our civic culture.
All this may appear abstract but is, in fact, quite specific. The present vaccination campaigns finely illustrate the differences between open and closed societies. Those of the first are universal in character, and the latter, tribal. The more open the society, the more universal its vaccination criteria, and the more closed, the more discriminatory they become.
Open societies have ordered vaccinations beginning with those most at risk. On the other side, there has been jostling by sectors: firms, lawyers, teachers, professionals or trade unions. Not to mention cronies. It's best to tie ourselves to the mast like Ulysses and not succumb to the closed society's siren song. It is enticing, but deadly.
*Loris Zanatta is professor of Latin American history at Bologna University.