Revue de Presse: April 5

5 April 2020



As William Davies declares in the London Review of Books, “we are all Durkheimians now.” In the age of Covid-19, we are all looking to averages and aggregates to distill what Émile Durkheim called the “social fact” of society. But what kind of society are we prepared to defend with this data? Our local community? The state? Economic networks? Internet connectivity? Davies thinks we’re more unsure than ever.


As everyone obsesses over Covid-19 data, it’s hard to avoid forms of cost-benefit analysis, or the weighing of public health against the economic fallout. In the TLS, moral philosopher Regina Rini points out that epidemiologists (not just economists or politicians) often “think in implicitly utilitarian ways.” Yet Regi cautions against embracing utilitarian assumptions, at least this early on in the crisis.


Some are speculating that the Covid-19 pandemic will “kill populism” with demagogic leaders like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson finding themselves punished at the ballot box after downplaying the threat of the virus. But Cas Mudde, a noted scholar of populism, warns against such predictions. While Trump, Johnson, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro have dithered, right-wing strongmen in India, Israel, and Hungary have seized the opportunity to strengthen their grip on power.  Still, the pandemic seems to be hampering the rise of populist movements in countries like Italy and the Netherlands, where populism’s success recently looked inevitable. In short, there is no single “populist” response to the crisis.


But what of left-wing populism? In Damage Magazine, Tocqueville 21 contributor Anton Jäger notes that, aside from Spain’s Podemos movement, nearly all prominent left-populist movements in Europe find themselves on the sidelines during this new politics of pandemic. How did we get here? As Jäger explains, left populism was an attempt “to rethink mobilization for an age of demobilization.” If neoliberalism killed the old institutional supports for mass politics—trade unions, mass-membership parties, and the like—left populists tried to reorganize new, looser coalitions, leaving behind old class-based social categories. These efforts were largely unsuccessful in re-mobilizing politics before the outbreak, and their prospects do not look good going forward in a world of shelter-in-place orders (a world of “Houellebecqian” nightmare, as Jäger puts it). Neoliberalism may be dying, as states re-discover their capacity for coercive action and forms of social provisioning. But contrary to left-populist ambitions, something other than popular agency may kill it.


In an interview with L’Humanité, Tocqueville 21 contributor Sarah Rozenblum explains how the United States’s decentralized and privatized healthcare system puts its residents at a unique risk during the Covid-19 pandemic. While some states have done their best to restrict social interactions and provide healthcare and economic support during the crisis, the federal government’s response has been inconsistent at best, and criminal at worst. While support for a universal healthcare system is growing in the US, Rozenblum explains that past social crises have failed to produce such an outcome, even when presided over by more effective leaders than the likes of Donald Trump.


Meanwhile, in AOC, the sociologists Olivier Borraz and Henri Bergeron discuss some of the failures of the French state during this crisis. The French response has in a sense mirrored that of the Americans. While the Trump Administration has at key moments ignored the advice of scientific and medical experts in federal agencies, French leadership claims to justify its decisions on the recommendation of a newly- created council of experts (despite the existence of plenty of agencies capable of providing guidance). The result is a largely ad hoc Covid-19 response that nonetheless projects an image of competence. AOC‘s coverage of Covid-19 in the last week also includes contributions by Adam Tooze, Judith Butler, Bruno Latour, and others.


In n+1, Nicholas Mulder argues that critics of the European Union have failed to grapple with its intergovernmentalism. Many associate the EU with supranational bureaucracy on the one hand or German national dominance on the other. But Mulder thinks the real problem is that, since its founding, only neoliberals have mastered the EU’s intergovernmental structure. Protest parties on the left have focused too much of their efforts on victory at the national level, without coordinating a pro-European but anti-neoliberal bloc.


The philosopher John Gray, however, wonders if the EU is bound to go the way of the Holy Roman Empire. If it survives, the EU will be like “a phantom that lingers on for generations while power is exercised elsewhere.” For Gray, writing in the New Statesmen, the coronavirus marks the end of “peak globalisation.” For better or worse, nation-states remain the most plausible entities to respond to health emergencies, coordinate collective action, and build up secure economies.


David A. Bell considers an earlier chapter of globalization in his review of Matthew Lockwood’s To Begin the World Over Again: How the American Revolution Devastated the Globe. Drawing on a range of individuals and their travels, Lockwood’s book traces ways the American Revolution rippled across the world. But Bell, writing for the New York Review of Books, is not so sure about this style of global history. In Bell’s words, “far more than one large stone landed in the sea of eighteenth-century history.” Bell wonders if Lockwood attributes too much to events in America, while excluding  other global conflicts, like the Seven Years’ War and French Revolution.


Bernie Sanders has almost certainly lost the Democratic primary, but his influence will outlast his campaign, writes Tocqueville 21 contributor Michael Behrent in an article for Esprit. Behrent recounts the intellectual journey of the fiery Brooklyn-born Senator from Vermont, while drafting a kind of obituary for Sanders’ campaign. Behrent argues that Sanders’ brand of socialism is throughly American, though Sanders’ first victory as mayor of Burlington in March 1981 has sometimes been described as a harbinger of François Mitterrand’s election two months later.  Another postmortem for the Sanders campaign comes from Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in the New Yorker. Taylor argues that the the present pandemic proves Sanders was right to decry the structural problems at the heart of America’s healthcare system.  


Advocates for “originalist” interpretations of the US Constitution have been arguing against a “living constitution” since the 1980s. But has originalism outlived its usefulness? Adrian Vermule writes in the Atlantic that originalist jurisprudence has developed into too rigid a “creed” in conservative legal circles. Yet Vermule is not against political dogma as such. Indeed he calls for replacing originalism—which he thinks still cedes too much to liberal and individualist accounts of the law—with a “moral constitutionalism” capable of respecting tradition, hierarchy, and “parental” guidance toward good habits. Vermule labels this “common-good constitutionalism,” or more provocatively, “illiberal legalism.” Needless to say, his piece is stirring a lot of debate. As part of the Atlantic’s “Battle for the Constitution” project, the libertarian law professor Randy Barnett counters that Vermule’s proposal amounts to little more than “conservative living constitutionalism.” As Barnett sees its, Americans across the spectrum should be nervous when scholars like Vermule read their political or religious proclivities into the law.


It will likely be a while before New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art reopens its doors. But we can still read about this spring’s exhibits. In the New Criterion, Karen Wilkins reviews “Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925-1945,” which showcases the exchange between Mexico’s post-Revolution muralists and their American admirers. “Vida Americana” pays special tribute to Los Tres Grandes—José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Diego Rivera—along with a variety of lesser-known Mexican and American artists who found inspiration in a style of sturdy formalism and public art.


Photo Credit: Varun Gaba, via Unsplash.


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