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9 September 2021

How to survive an apocalypse

Bruno Maçães believes Covid has shattered the world order. But states are coping with the “end times” better than he thinks

By Simon Jenkins

Apocalypse makes good news. Life is boring most of the time, so I was always cheered by the Oxford Street doomster telling me the end of the world was nigh. Likewise the college porter who bade me a fond farewell during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, or our office secretary refusing ever to have a baby as it would just die in a nuclear holocaust. I admire certainty.

Bruno Maçães is a jet-setting think-tanker and former Portuguese minister who seems to make a living scaring audiences with perfect storms and “end times”. I expect they love his visions of temperatures soaring and forests burning as swarming viruses kill millions round the globe. Will the assembled CEOs suffocate before they fry?

[see also: Bruno Maçães’ ​Afghanistan Diary: The fall of Kabul was predictable – if you were there]

Yet the gist of Maçães’s argument is serious. He regards the pandemic as “a radical and uncontested change to collective life” in our times. It has upheaved geopolitics by testing to destruction the diverse responses of states and ideologies. Asian and authoritarian regimes reacted to Covid by imposing near intolerable disciplines on their peoples. The Chinese locked their cities and nailed up the doors of infected victims.

The liberal individualism of the Americans and British delayed their response, convinced that their health services were “world-beating”. The Americans pretended Covid did not exist until their president caught it. The British went dotty, banning sea-bathing and mountain climbing but cramming their Tube trains and supermarkets. They forced their health minister to resign for kissing his girlfriend. This was more soap opera than “end time”.

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As science was called to the front line, both statist autocracy and competitive capitalism brought vaccination to the rescue with speed. International bodies were dilatory or near useless. To Maçães the EU in Brussels “cannot but remind us of the glory that was the Holy See”.

A drawback in all this is that Geopolitics for the End Time appears to have been written – and its conclusions drawn – between Covid’s second wave in late 2020 and its third in mid-2021. Maçães lives in Dubai, which he blesses as “a free city where pandemic exiles can congregate” and where, as in Israel, people can live “in the open air freely to breathe again”. That was in 2020. Today Maçães’s account reads like a history of the First World War ending with the Battle of the Somme. We now know far more about Covid, and one thing we know is how little we know.

I find it hard to fully take aboard Maçães’s apocalyptic view of coronavirus as a global supernatural agent, forcing “state after state [to] gladly submit” to its power, “not only as a brute force but as the arbiter of [its] actions and decisions”. The disease has certainly found polities of all persuasions wanting. The disruption has caused two years of economic recession and the premature deaths of millions of people. The personal suffering has been awful. But states everywhere seem to be muddling through, each after their own fashion and without collapsing.

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[see also: The Covid-19 lab leak hypothesis proves it matters what – and who – defines a conspiracy theory]

As with most disruptions, muddling through has had salutary consequences. The pandemic may radically change attitudes to work and to travel, mostly for the better. For many people it has shrunk their world, reinforcing the local and the communal at a time when the digital is fragmenting so much of society. We are told that people have become nicer to each other. This is not Armageddon.

That said, Maçães’s analysis remains refreshing. He sees this as the climax of a Great Pause, a moment of technological stagnation as we accustom ourselves to a new robotic and digital age. Old forms of conflict seem past. In discussing great power rivalry, Maçães never talks of military supremacy or defence spending or nuclear confrontation. Iraq and Afghanistan seem of a former age. So too do Nato, the Soviet Union and the UN, hoary relics of 20th-century politics.

The superpower armouries of today are financial and regulatory, their weapons digital, informational and pharmaceutical. The new battlefields are “belt and road” projects, lithium mines, vaccine labs and quarantine pens. Nations still vie with nations, but their generals are technologists and computer hackers.

To Maçães, the Enlightenment view of humans as “masters and possessors of nature” is now under challenge. The age of human supremacy may even be coming to an end as “spaceship Earth” hits a rocky patch that its masters cannot control. Mutant viruses are one sign and the next is global warming and climate change. Nature, the very fabric of the globe, will be not just the battleground but increasingly the arbiter.

As nations argue over vaporous emissions, carbon sinks and renewable energy sources, Maçães asks whether the political ideas and institutions that served us over the past century will be fit for purpose. The Covid crisis has repatriated capitalism to nation states, subordinating market economics to domestic security. The state has returned – not least in Britain – at the expense of the market. National treasuries have had to think as in wartime of stockpiles, supply lines, multi-sourcing and import substitution. Will this all be dismantled with the end of the pandemic, or morph into a wider authoritarianism?

***

Much of Maçães’s narrative turns on China. Its power projection is not military or political. Revelling in the apparent efficacy of the collective over the individual, Beijing pursues a policy of “dual circulation”, the ambition being to reduce China’s dependency on the world and increase the world’s dependency on China. No part of the globe seems immune to its perceived sphere of influence, as once was the case with the US. The difference is that the tools of outreach are commercial rather than military – and probably more effective for it.

[see also: Why there is no solution to our age of crisis without China]

The historian Fernand Braudel advised historians always to pause and respect the passage of time, the longue durée, and see it as also the agent of change. Do not obsess with conflicts, invasions and calamities; watch power slowly evolve as it alters the course of history. Recent events have left the West bemused, its democratic institutions battered and its pride and self-confidence bruised. It has watched with alarm as China has bound dictatorship to capitalism and achieved the greatest socio-economic advance in modern history, but nothing even in China seems to undermine the ideology of muddling through.

Like many apostles of apocalypse, Maçães is better at questions than practical answers. It is not clear how Covid’s lessons apply to climate change, which is handled rather cursorily. Warming is not an extraneous calamity, but a systemic one. As a “crisis” it may be like the frog in hot water, not noticing until the water boils. While climate may be a greater long-term challenge than Covid, it is susceptible to the same pressures: those of science and technology, of public pressure and international collaboration. They worked on a minor scale with CFCs and the ozone layer.

These are mighty issues. Maçães wisely accepts that “civilisations might now be too distant to share a common set of values”. He rightly points out that “they do share a common environment, too vast and too dangerous to be ignored”. But before we reach his next end time, I suspect the world will again have found a solution. It is called muddling through.

Geopolitics for the End Time: From the Pandemic to the Climate Crisis
Bruno Maçães
C Hurst & Co, 240pp, £18.99

This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Eternal Empire