Among other dimensions of human vulnerabilities in the face of pandemics, the ongoing fight against the coronavirus has exposed the limitations of public services in the postindustrial world.
Sickening profiteering has destroyed the institutional capacity to protect citizens during natural disasters and epidemics. In our institutionally and politically disintegrated world, social distancing may not be as novel as the coronavirus itself is, but it lays bare our fragmented political personality.
With a weak and decrepit social security system, it will not be easy for the Western economies to cope with the increasing demand for protection of citizens. In the absence of vibrant public health services, private health practitioners may capitalize miseries to increase their profits. A weak and parasitic state will find it hard to regulate private health providers and hence the economics of the coronavirus epidemic will hit the poorest of Western societies the hardest. While states are in hibernation, private health providers will see a business proposition out of citizens’ miseries.
One must appreciate the efforts of the Chinese government whose strong state has come to rescue its citizens with universal coverage. In peripheral and underdeveloped economies like Pakistan, neither the public nor the private sector is equipped to deal with the likely surge in corona cases in the absence of proper screening facilities. In Western economies you can at least have the options to buy health services, here in Pakistan we do not have that option too. There is no contingency plan to protect the people other than leaving them at the mercy of either God or peoples’ own arrangement which means leaving them to die painfully. With each global crisis that hits us time and again, we are reminded that there is political, economic and philosophical regression in our post-ideology world.
There are many out there who argue that the age of enlightenment and reason has gone long ago and now our lives are being governed by what I call franchised wisdom. Franchised wisdom emanates from brands, logos and simulations of a fanciful consumerist world. Our wise men and women today must have all the required knowledge of brands, logos and e-commerce portals and those who do not have all this look like idiots.
This transition has really been painful for some but for those whose senses were numbed by an extravagant world of shine and glare it has been quite a smooth change. The glittering world of capricious and virtual realities has unsettled all logics, rationalities and certainties, giving birth to unpredictable, vague and fragile worldviews. One cannot blame people for being too frivolous about philosophy, politics, economy and art in this tyranny created by the corporate world. The corporate world has liberated humans from the burden of deep thinking without engaging them in this frivolity. This liberation from thought is not the product of human potential of creativity and transformation.
Thus there is an emptiness which may be enterprising for individuals as a change but it has dislodged the possibilities of building creative societies. In reality the myth of entrepreneurship of this fragmented world is not more than a tendency to transform human beings into sellers, buyers and consumers. The logic of profitability has penetrated deeper into our skins and entrepreneurship has become a driving force for success. While being enterprising is good as a key facet of human evolution, the notion of entrepreneurship as we use it today is only a figment of some poor person with big dreams.
Poverty of mind reduces human emancipation to individualistic enterprises but those who rise above such coarse ideals produce philosophy, art and politics. The power of emancipation does not lie in individualistic ventures. In fact it is a larger, collective, sociopolitical and philosophical goal which needs critical engagement with the world around us.
You will come across examples of successful entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and many others as if their journey to success has transformed 80 percent of poor people’s lives on our planet. How many of those billions of poor can become Bill Gates through an entrepreneurial accident? Perhaps we appreciate few successful people because we have failed to produce successful societies to live in peace and tranquility. Those who sell dreams by instilling the spirit of every individual as a potential Bill Gates, they propagate the dangerous logic of creating unequal societies.
The franchised wisdom of individual entrepreneurs destroys the very potential of individuals to act in unison with his/her co-workers and citizens to transform the world. Introverted entrepreneurs and their solo flights leave out millions of those who continue to suffer. In the United States we have both Bill Gates and Donald Trump, an entrepreneur and a silver-spoon fascist who is assigned to rule the people of America. We will see an increase in health entrepreneurs soon and they will make a mark on our history of miseries by charging some ‘opportunity cost’ in absence of public services.
Postmodernists advise us that idiots may have all the knowledge of world history, philosophy, politics, economy and literature but if they do not have franchised wisdom, they are just boring narrators. The boring narrators may have all those stories which do not make sense to a consumer of our contemporary world. Our tech-info savvy generations do not have time to know the long and complicated stories of the philosophical, political and economic foundations of life and its attributes like justice, equality, inclusion and liberation etc. They are so deeply engrossed in handheld devices that the world for them has become reduced to their palms that hold the window to franchised wisdom.
Our info-consumers of franchises have become the real drivers of the virtual global economy. They are the underpaid workers of global search engines like Google and Alibaba and their affiliates. This global virtual economy has redirected the human potential of transformation to a quasi-entrepreneurship of e-commerce with manifold profits to corporate giants. This info-based capitalism is more exploitative than the traditional commodity-based capitalism in many ways. The commodity-based capitalism of the industrial age was restrained by the workers discretion of going on strikes for better wages. There was a physical space of interaction between the workers and the owners of industry or their representatives which made it easier for the workers and trade unions to strike a workable deal.
The virtual economies of social distancing in the post-ideology world are even worse than the coronavirus outbreak because the latter is founded on an absentee exploitation. You can locate the coronavirus and try and treat it but you cannot locate and treat the exploiter of virtual economies distanced by miles both from its worker and consumer.
The post-ideology debate is only a myth that strives to create a fragmented society with franchised wisdom without assertiveness. The consumers of virtual information products have surrendered their free will to a capricious future of gadgets and a redundant data of disintegrated worldview.
There is meaninglessness or a puzzle in the datasets and our information systems are framed as leitmotifs of brands and patents. Those who strive to transcend these virtual realities are dubbed idiots but in reality they are the real transformers.
The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.