In a lecture delivered in Vienna in 1935, the German philosopher Edmund Husserl expressed an anxiety concerning the contemporary predicament of European humanity in the times of science. Despite, and indeed in view of, the undeniable progress in the natural sciences, Europeans were becoming increasingly resistant to a sense of history as something other than an “unending concatentation of illusory progress”.
Before saying something further about this predicament, I want first to pick up on the major assumption in his discussion: namely, that overcoming this predicament requires recovering “a teleological sense” of the history of “man”.
Although I do not really think it is restricted to political liberalism, for reasons that will emerge, I will call the sense of history that Husserl regards as being lost to as one belonging to classical liberalism. Such liberalism draws on this sense of history in what can be described as a three step response to the question of human flourishing.
First step: a satisfactory account of the conditions for human flourishing must acknowledge the variety of rational interests, interests which are, that is to say, uniquely characteristic of “man” conceived as a rational animal: science, art, commerce, politics, religion, etc..
Second step: With this variety in view, just power should aim to organise the social world in such a way that each person’s capacity freely to perform in each of these domains is optimised.
Third step: human history is the movement of increasing progress in realising such a society; it is the movement of the emancipation and progress of “man” in time: from its origins in primitive human animality, human societies are moving in stages towards the optimal realisation of man’s rational capacities in a properly civilised society, with Europe at the head.
Husserl’s remarks about the predicament of modern European humanity suggest that what I am calling the classical liberal view is in crisis. Suddenly the movement of our history seems not to be taking the path we thought we were on.
I want to propose the following hypothesis. Hegemonic conceptions of human flourishing in Europe have rarely been classically liberal. Instead, hegemonic power has been established and held by more than one neoliberal community of ideas.
The thought here is that efforts to optimise opportunities for leading a life proper to “man” have given rise to movements that attempt to achieve the hegemonic domination of the norms that belong to only one of the domains of human life.
I define neoliberalism in general, then, as the outlook of a community of ideas that seeks the limitless extension of the norms of conduct of one domain of life to the whole of life. Its emancipatory claim is that it will achieve the optimal flourishing of the whole of life by co-ordinating and controlling it in terms dictated by the norms of that one domain.
Anachronisms are piling up. The liberal conception I am describing will have only recently taken that name, and the term neoliberalism is of even more recent vintage, and passes for many today as a kind of catch-all for ‘everything bad about capitalism’. However, conceptually speaking the two terms together are well suited for this discussion, particularly if we accept that behind the various appeals to the idea of neoliberalism made today, there is a basic conception of it as a hegemonic movement that seeks the limitless extension of the market model to all spheres of life. Proponents of it might say: the aim of applying market-orientated reasoning everywhere is to optimise the conditions for human flourishing in general.
However, there is a feature of our time that Husserl is alive to that fundamentally interrupts this a-historical conceptual contrast: namely, the absence in our time (unless we are Marxists) of the kind of substantive philosophy of history through which the classical liberal conception, in its third step, had understood our lives.
This is profoundly connected to the progress of science itself: in particular through the radically decentring blows effected by the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions. In our time, we are more resistant than Europeans of former times knew how to be to theological (eschatological) or metaphysical (teleological) conceptions of human nature and history.
And then into the space left open by the falling away of classic eschatological and teleological discourses of human flourishing the community of ideas that champions economic neoliberalism has been able to occupy the field virtually unchallenged. It all seems despairingly hopeless, making our existence fundamentally pointless.
But the situation only seems despairing if, with Husserl, you think that the only way our lives could be regarded as meaningful is against the background of a vision of human history as the progressive movement of our forms of social life towards distant, ideally just, condition. But one does not have to have such a vision in view to affirm that making the future better matters to us: one can simply want to make it so that what one makes of what has been passed down to us will have been some kind of (by one’s lights) progressive preface to what remains to come, without any vision of a distant final end.
This can be illustrated with reference to the unease that many feel about modern factory farming, intensive livestock rearing, and the extinction of innumerable animal species. Without presuming a substantive conception of human nature or history, the unease is that these developments show us modern men and women, as in a mirror, as at certain points akin to a form of life we might well think profoundly alien: akin, that is, to an animal with, as David Wiggins has put it, “no non-instrumental concerns and no interest in the world considered as lasting longer than the animal in question will need the world to last in order to sustain the animal’s own life”.
Such a life, “functioning” to such a destructive end, is not just depressing but runs totally against the grain of a participant’s sense that the temporal “here and now” of an ordinary human life is one in which “the dead and the unborn are also present”. The world in which we live out our lives is one which “connects us to worlds before and after us”. Our lives, our lived sense of who we are, is conceived out of and within that temporal stretch. “Functioning to no end” might describe, in objective terms, the infrastructure of a presently operational life-support system, but from the inside of a human life this “presence”, the milieu of our “spiritual worlds”, is already a “present” that is fundamentally linked to those who are not there.
Jacques Derrida has argued that it is only within this participatory sense of the deep connectedness of our “living present” to others who are not present (the essential historicity of our historical existence), and not in view of a distant horizon of an ideal end of history, that issues of justice, emancipation and progress can come into view in the first place:
It is in the name of justice that it is necessary to speak about ghosts, inheritance, and generations, generations of ghosts, which is to say about certain others who are not present, nor presently living… No ethics, no politics, whether revolutionary or not, seems possible and thinkable and just that does not recognise in its principle the respect for those others who are no longer or for those others who are not yet there, presently living, whether they are already dead or not yet born.
In the struggle to organise a response to economic neoliberalism today we may be inclined to think, like Husserl in the 1930s, that we need to rediscover a teleological sense of human history – a new grasp of and heading towards a form of social life that is finally (and objectively) proper to “man”. Emerging out of the Christian eschatological tradition and its hope for final redemption, political neoliberalism aimed to realise regimes without evil by forging a community of brothers, citizens, or comrades that would finally be, in a strong sense, one. Economic neoliberalism arrives in the wake of that dream’s ending in the horror of Stalinism and Nazism. However, as the site of (let’s not say an atheist but) an atheologised recognition of “the finitude of present functioning”, it also frees the space for a radically decentred, non-mystical and non-metaphysical, participatory vision of that finite presence. Derrida concludes:
In the same place, on the same limit, where history is finished, there where a certain determined concept of history comes to an end, precisely there the historicity of history begins, there finally it has the chance of heralding itself – of promising itself. There where man, a certain determined concept of man, is finished, there the pure humanity of man, of the other man and of man as other begins or has finally the chance of heralding itself – of promising itself.
The Need for Humanitarian Leadership and Global Solidarity during COVID-19
The coronavirus pandemic is a systemic human development crisis, affecting individuals and societies in unprecedented ways. It is also generating new humanitarian needs.
According to UN estimates, half a billion people, or 8% of the world’s population, could be pushed into destitution by the year’s end, largely due to the pandemic. If so, then the fight against poverty would be set back 30 years. The International Rescue Committee said last week that the virus could cause 1bn infections and 3.2m deaths in 34 fragile states, including Afghanistan and Syria.
The fourth annual Global Report on Food Crises highlights Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Nigeria and Haiti among the countries most at risk of widespread famines caused by the coronavirus pandemic. According to World Food Programme estimates, the number suffering from hunger could rise from 135 million to more than 250 million.
The International Labour Organization reported last week that almost 1.6 billion informal economy workers (representing the most vulnerable in the labor market)out of a worldwide 2 billion and a global workforce of 3.3 billion are in immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed.
COVID-19 has underscored the importance of humanitarian leadership and global solidarity. On April 2, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution, co-sponsored by 188 nations including Qatar, calling for “intensified international cooperation to contain, mitigate and defeat the pandemic, including by exchanging information, scientific knowledge and best practices and by applying the relevant guidelines recommended by the World Health Organization.”
Solidarity is a matter of both morality and long-term vision. Failure to pass this test would leave deep psychological wounds in left-behind countries, paving the way for all manner of extremism and new crises—from pandemics to conflicts—that would threaten everyone. By rallying around science and solidarity today, we will sow the seeds for greater unity tomorrow.
The coronavirus does not respect borders. Nor does it discriminate. It brings into stark view the imperative for humanitarian leadership. This crisis has revealed variations in state capacity to contain the spread of the virus.
Many governments either lack adequate capacity to respond, or in some cases, the necessary political will to provide for their citizens. For example, the most developed countries – those in the very high human development category – have on average 55 hospital beds, over 30 physicians, and 81 nurses per 10,000 people, compared to 7 hospital beds, 2.5 physicians, and 6 nurses in a least developed country.
One can readily imagine that if the COVID-19 response has been dire in the developed countries, it is going to be infinitely more devastating for governments that have only a fraction of the financial and medical resources.
Despite the blockade, the State of Qatar stands out as one of the most actively involved in global humanitarian responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Qatar has provided significant humanitarian aid to 20 countries so far, including assistance in the field of medical supplies, building field hospitals, and contributing USD 140 million to multilateral organizations working to develop vaccines or ensure the resilience of healthcare in other countries.
To date, Qatar has sent substantial aid to China, Iran, Palestine, Italy, Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia, Nepal and Rwanda. In addition, the representation mission of the Qatar Red Crescent Society (QRCS) in Turkey has recently distributed supplementary food aid to around 110,000 families at internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps in Idlib and Aleppo Governorates, northern Syria.
In the age of COVID-19, protecting the most vulnerable among us is not just a moral imperative but also an urgent public health objective. The health of one is the health of all.
COVID-19: More than a Biological Weapon
While the biological virus is a common enemy of humankind, the political virus born out of certain American politicians is equally detestable, for it has damaged the global anti-epidemic cooperation and impeded the long-term development and progress of human society. The virus in the political world has done even more damages than the virus from the natural world.
What are the sources of this political virus then? It is rooted in the selfish interests of a handful of American politicians. Not long ago, the American media revealed that senior US officials had handed down documents to a number of federal agencies requesting all federal employees to speak consistently about the pandemic and blame China for everything. The document was practically a confession of the US government on how it implemented the buck-passing. As 2020 is America’s election year, some American politicians are so crazily intent on fabricating all kinds of fallacies about “holding China accountable,” attacking the WHO for being too “China-centric,” and even criticizing some state governors for poor epidemic response, all to keep the epidemic from affecting the election. Such unscrupulous “political shows” reflect how desperate these politicians are to cover up their misconduct both in the decision and execution of their response, with a purpose of deflecting the public grumble.
The political virus is a tumor stemming from racism. After the WHO and the scientific circle named the novel coronavirus COVID-19, some American politicians deliberately ignored the new nomenclature and insisted on calling it the “Chinese virus”. It is an international consensus not to label a virus with a region, state, or nation, which is also a universal principle that the international community should uphold. Yet these American politicians are determined to defy the world by intentionally steering public opinions in the direction of racism and xenophobia, and practicing racial discrimination. The use of the term “Chinese virus” for coronavirus laid bare the absolute absence of common sense, conscience, cooperative spirit, and morality in those politicians infected with the “political virus”.
The political virus derives from the Cold War mentality. A small group of American politicians have been obsessed with political maneuver and slandering China, especially the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been busy fanning flames and spreading rumors. The “political virus” ingrained in their mind is the hotbed of all their vicious intentions. They have the wishful thinking that accusing China of the so-called “mask diplomacy” would offset its influence; vilifying China’s aid to help build the African Center for Disease Prevention and Control as an attempt to “steal genome data” would drive a wedge between China and Africa; and egging other countries to claim reparations from China would pin the “original sin” of the virus on the country…. These whimsical whoppers are nothing but Washington’s attempts to curb China’s development.
The political virus is rooted in the obsession with “great-power competition.” The US government labeled China and Russia as the biggest challenges to US national security in its latest National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, and declared the reemergence of great-power competition. During this global crisis of COVID-19, certain American politicians, going out of their way to make “ammunition to win the great-power competition,” have gone all out to oppose China in every possible way and tried hard to cover up America’s embarrassment of ineffective epidemic control measures by smearing China, rather than focus on preventing the virus spread. As we can never wake up someone pretending to be asleep, perhaps the best way is to leave him alone and “not even turn our eyes in his direction,” as the famous Chinese writer Lu Xun once said.
The disease has seeped down into the skin and should be treated before it gets worse. The world is still struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, and all countries need to join hands in defeating it. We advise the American politicians with ulterior motives to stop the misdeed and change course before its too late. We also call on the international community to stay on high alert and take strong measures to prevent the American political virus from spreading to do more harm to the global anti-epidemic efforts and the normal international order.
Spanish Flu and COVID-19 – are there lessons for the world of work?
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many look to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918/19, which killed an estimated 50 million people, or 2,5 per cent of the global population. Are there lessons to be learned from the world of work perspective?
The Spanish flu did not start in Spain but was called that because Spanish newspapers were the first to report about it. From its presumed origins in a World War I military camp in the state of Kansas, United States, it washed over the world in three waves. The first, mild one in spring 1918, was followed by a second, more deadly outbreak between September and December 1918 and a third one at the beginning of 1919.
All countries were hit, although unequally. Samoa lost 22 per cent of its population, Spain 12,3 per cent and the US 6,5 per cent. In colonial India, the flu killed 6 per cent of the population, amounting to 18 million, roughly the number of victims of the First World War.
Similar patterns, similar measures
COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu both have struck a highly globalized and interconnected world where viruses easily travel on ships, carriers and trains, or – today – on airplanes. As 1918 was the last year of the First World War, the movement of troops and refugees was a significant factor in spreading the virus. In 2019/20, business and leisure travellers have been the main carriers.
The only measures to control the spread of the disease back in 1918 just as in 2020 were better hygiene, quarantine of the infected, “social distancing” and shutting down much of public life. This implied massive restrictions of civil liberties and paralysis and disruption of the economy.
In 1918/19 as well as today, the poorest and most vulnerable, who often lived in crowded conditions, with low paid work and little or no access to health care, were much more exposed to infection. They also suffered most immediately from drastic lock down measures, and were at a particularly high risk of losing their lives and their livelihoods.
The Spanish Flu happened at the tail end of the First World War, in a context of widespread chaos. The response to the crisis was uncoordinated, mostly local, with a high mobilization of civil society groups.
In industrialized nations, the economic impact was rather short lived. Eventually, the economic boom of the “Roaring Twenties” got many people back to work.
In other parts of the world, such as India and sub-Saharan Africa, the consequences were deeper and longer lasting. A shortfall in labour affected harvest and sowing. Food prices spiked, causing widespread famine and an increased flow of migrants into urban centres. This led to social unrest, strikes and rebellion against colonial powers.
What we can learn
Although the world is very different today, we can learn from the events in 1918/19 that a pandemic increases poverty and inequalities; this carries a social and human cost, which can have long term destabilizing effects.
Today, states have more possibilities to react, including through fiscal and labour market policies and tools, and the opportunity for international cooperation through the United Nations and their international partners.
Policies in response to the COVID-19 crisis need to address inequalities and ensure that poor, rural and marginalized communities are not forgotten. ILO’s labour standards such as Recommendation No. 205, on employment and decent work for peace and resilience, provide the necessary framework.
The global economic and labour market problems arising out of the COVID-19 crisis suggest looking also at the economic crisis of the 1930s and reconstruction policies after World War II.
As a response to massive unemployment and destruction, the ILO promoted comprehensive social protection, including health care, and a variety of employment promotion policies based on the conviction that poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere.
These past responses can be an inspiration for recovery policies which have to be fair and – compared to the past – much more sustainable.
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