A year ago, if I had said that the leader of the world’s oldest democracy would reject the advice of the best global minds killing 220,000 of his countrymen, over a third of whom would still revere him, you’d have called me mad. Now we call it Donald Trump.
In a pandemic, fact isn’t just stranger than fiction, it’s deadlier, and if a cytokine storm does not steal your humour, funnier. Yet even as we laugh at the shenanigans of Trump and supporters, what we do not see are its chilling repercussions on democracy, liberalism and human rights.
Without perhaps meaning to, Trump has put the very idea of liberal democracy at stake.
At the core of liberalism, is the idea that each human is precious and an in-dividual i.e. indivisible, unique being with rights. This new concept is antithetical to all previous ones that gave a family, tribe, society or nation, more rights over an individual.
The world was so out of sync with the future that barely 150 years ago duelling to avenge slights were common (good luck with Twitter then). Even as some anti-individual ideas continue to be practiced like say – female foeticide, honour killing, racism, patriarchy, casteism etc. – they have been outlawed with laws protecting every human equally – at least in principle.
This liberal heaven has been made possible by a web created by scientific progress, capitalism and globalization. Despite mere five odd decades of global dominance, liberalism has been accepted so wholeheartedly that it’s even become the base upon which both right-wing and left-wing politics stand, notwithstanding each vehemently opposing many aspects of it.
Even as right-wing nuts abuse human rights defenders as libtards or libturds, they do so under free speech granted by liberal democracy. On the other end of the spectrum, the left-wing lot decry evils of capitalism forgetting that concepts like democracy and human rights were birthed by liberal capitalism (read Yuval Noah Harari's Homo Deus for reference).
Right-wing, religious supporters of Donald Trump refuse to wear a mask saying they’re asserting their liberal right of free choice, missing the irony of refusing the same to women wanting abortions, dark-skinned Americans or immigrants.
It is this liberal paradise where not only does every individual have inalienable rights, but can also legally exert it (without being called to duel) and fight for those who do not have them, that has been endangered by a combination of three things - Trump, technology and a tenacious virus.
The nation where the virus struck first or at least was noticed first (turns out SARS-Cov-2 was perhaps circulating in Europe as early as March 2019) - was China. After struggling tremendously, the first 3 months, China contained it so effectively, it set a precedent.
Sadly, most of the world failed to copy it effectively. Some who created and vehemently implemented early models like Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam and Japan fared well. Some others did well over time.
The worst failures have been some of the biggest nations of the world: economically, politically and landmass wise - USA, Russia, Brazil and India. Together they make up 25% of the world’s landmass and 27% of its population. Yet their share of recorded coronavirus deaths (despite faulty reporting) is nearly half of the world.
Three of them - USA, India and Brazil are ruled by far-right governments who in the best of times have decried science or in India talked of the greatness of ancient Indian science while defunding it in the present. Russia - though technically not a right-wing state, espouses many characteristics of one – hyper-nationalism, hatred of religious and sexual minorities, racism, projecting false strength and anti-democratic nature.
With right-leaning governments failing to stop the pandemic and left-leaning ones doing well, might this seem a victory for liberalism? It is a sleight of the present hand that would be exposed when the history of the pandemic is written.
This is where the third factor of the Trump, technology and tenacious virus troika comes into play. While Trump's handling of the tenacious virus has undermined liberal democracy, technology has undermined the very idea of the preciousness of the individual that is the basis of liberalism. The two technologies leading the charge: Artificial Intelligence (AI) and CRISPR.
The Nobel prize this year has finally brought the gene-editing CRISPR technology some attention. Truth is that while our attention was focused on digital advances, the giant leaps in biosciences in the last three decades will leave a much more direct and physical impact on the planet. While AI will change humans, CRISPR threatens to change everything on the planet and beyond.
From a liberal perspective, both AI and CRISPR make humans as we know it – redundant, impractical and to a large extent - useless.
The danger from AI is not killer robots, but intelligence made so cheap, replicable, adaptable and evolvable, that it'll make biological intelligence obsolete. Today it takes nearly a decade of expensive and focussed study to make a good specialist doctor. Almost the same amount of specialisation can be taught to thousands of AI for a fraction of the cost and time.
In the past, biology and intelligence went hand in glove - impossible to think of one without the other. AI has separated these conjoined twins and its repercussions will be felt on liberalism.
CRISPR on the other hand makes any kind alteration of biological beings possible, threatening to upend millions of years of natural selection and evolution. Want to create a biological intelligence minus a body like the controversial KFC chickens without feathers? Why not make chicken communicate, or designer dogs that talk to us? CRISPR makes dystopian science fiction crisper.
Does this mean we’ll make superhumans to compete with AI? Would AI and CRISPR combine to fuse artificial and biological intelligence? It is technically possible now making us even biologically not so unique anymore.
A friend said the coronavirus vaccination drive would be used to implant tiny surveillance chips in humans. Another thinks the whole virus is a hoax. Exasperating, isn’t it, that despite being surrounded by so much intelligence, data, science and technology we have people who refuse to wear masks in a pandemic, or refuse vaccination.
Thus, when we do a post-mortem of the pandemic, we’ll realise that individuals can be a danger to themselves and others. We abandon fundamental live-saving facts for absurd conspiracy theories that can kill us. And that far from being logical creatures who make decisions after analysing all possible data, we are emotional beings who use scraps of facts to justify our feelings.
And worst of all: we have the power of language to attack even those who know better, thus putting everyone in danger.
The dangerous irony is that this illogical human – who in the liberal universe was all-important either for labour or as a consumer – is no longer so. Robots with AI can do almost any human job far more efficiently and cheaply. And if a human has been laid off because of AI, he can’t even afford to buy goods, thus becoming a burden on a capitalistic economy.
This is where the Chinese model of governance – a totalitarian, authoritarian, surveillance, capitalistic state – ends up seeming enticing despite its obvious dangers.
In China, people are literally at the whims of the Chinese Communist Party of China (CCP). It has already implemented a Black Mirror style Social Credit System under which everything from a train ticket to jobs to loans, depends on your social rating. Survival thus depends on following the diktats of the Party (dissidence, rebellion, bye-bye). Yet, this dystopian method is precisely why China did so well in the pandemic even when every other populous nation failed.
But what about individual happiness? Turns out China’s suicide rate is nearly half that of the USA. Hundreds of millions have been pulled out of poverty in the nearly five decades since Chairman Mao’s death and citizens are not complaining.
Compare that to Donald Trumps democratic USA. He inherited a booming economy and a fairly decent and gradually improving social structure but has been trying to run the latter to the ground while the former was grounded by the pandemic. He has divided the nation internally and externally people laugh at them. Parts of the world aggrieved by past shoving of ‘democracy’ and ‘free-market capitalism’ down their throats by the USA have rejoiced at its decline.
Whether he leaves in January 2021, or January 2025 (or not at all as he’d like), Trump leaves a nation fighting a civil war, socially, culturally and if you look at the protests since George Floyd, perhaps even literally. People’s trust in each other, in basic human decency, is at an all-time low. Micro-targeting on social media has them in their own ideological and thought bubbles in which they think their version of reality is the only correct one possible and others do not deserve sympathy.
The battle for the soul of USA could take to the streets with renewed vigour after November 3, like India since December 2019. Russia, Brazil and many other parts of the world were already at a boil, with the pandemic and ensuing devastation and inequality making it much worse.
Trump, thus, is the most dangerous virus to infect liberalism. Pandemic historians will note how one imprudent, self-righteous man with little education, knowledge or wisdom was given power over things that took decades – sometimes centuries - to build. Don’t give the monkey a gun, they said and handed the nuclear codes to a chimp.
Why should one man be given so much power when so much is at stake? How can one man’s puny brain, even if he were the most expansive one, compute all that there is in the world? We don’t even let two pilots on a plane these days to compute all the data to fly a plane anymore and we let one man decide the fate of the most powerful nation in the world and thus the globe itself?
Socrates famously hated democracy, stating it would soon devolve into majoritarianism aka intolerant mobocracy like in India. Yet, Socrates had no new model to propose. Perhaps because one wasn’t possible then.
Today, we have a new aspirant to the governance model that is a mix of Chinese autocracy with a rule via data analysing algorithms. 95% of the times, planes fly themselves by analysing the multitude of data it receives. Humans merely supervise these extremely intelligent, complex and efficient algorithmic machines. Why can’t governments be like that?
Today, no human or even a large group of humans can analyse all the data a government needs to run a nation efficiently. Algorithms can. The future could see the evolution of a model of government where humans will elect politicians akin to pilots to run their governments, leaders who’ll supervise these algorithms and make corrections. Besides being law-makers, ministers of the future will also be algorithm-shapers.
Now add to the mix the dangers of future pandemics, catastrophes like global warming and such a technocratic autocracy would seem inevitable. Such a government would ask people to lay down a large part of their rights like in China today. Rebels would be monitored using AI surveillance like in Xinjiang today, unable even to board a bus and thus get out anywhere due to low social credit.
Already technocrats like Elon Musk are talking about universal basic income or free cash. This is a bit of liberalism injected into technocratic autocracy. Citizens availing this right would need to be subservient to these systems, obey rules. And what if such a government model decides that the only way to bring down population explosion is to limit childbirth?
Do you want proof of human dispensability? Compare behaviours of nations initially and in the later stages of the pandemic. In the early days, every human life was precious and nations went into lockdowns. But when they realised how lockdowns affected the ‘greater common good’, they gave up the idea of individual-preciousness, pushing for reopening. Ironically, the nation that gives some of the least rights to its citizens - China - did much better.
In exposing flaws of liberal democracy – the most major being its inability to prevent and later fire a bad leader like him (a janitor would be fired in a week for much less) - Trump might unwittingly be bolting the nails on the coffin of liberalism. By making the present and future so dangerous and unpredictable, he is preparing the world for a technocratic autocracy.
Such a governance model would never allow a million death from such an easily preventable pandemic. That would be good. Yet, the bad could be worse. In such a world there will be no scope for either democracy or human rights. The human individual will no longer be the centre of anyone’s universe.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)