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  • Writer's pictureMiguel A. Fernandez

Is covid-19 a political problem?...

In his book, “The Political Illusion” Jacques Ellul proposed a radical thesis on the nature of modern politics, especially by addressing the decisive influences that propaganda, technique, mainstream media and the characteristics of public opinion have on the political arena. Ellul presents us with many different cases where the definition of a political problem by State-nation governments is extremely dependent on the ideological assumptions implicit in their public opinion, and that in such context, political success is extremely linked to the persuasive ability of politicians and governments to provide to the public opinion of their country a public solution which has a specific discourse that is framed under such ideological assumptions. According to Jacques Ellul, the key nuance here that renders modern politics into an “illusion” is that politicians are addressing only the problems that are affirmed in the public opinion. In other words, we are referring here to the problems that appear in the headlines of mainstream media, and any problem presented in such headlines immediately demands a response from the politicians because such problems are then considered by the public as political problems.

Such is essentially Ellul´s main thesis. And another key aspect that the French thinker points out is that there are countless problems that directly affect people which are never present in the public opinion, or in other words, such are the problems where that the people are not asked to vote for. This type of problems mostly involve complex technical issues present in the military, corporate, industrial and financial domains which can´t be assimilated by the national public opinions, first because the complex language of such problems can´t be framed in simple ideological or journalistic terms, and second because their international character overcomes the national fixation that characterizes public opinion. So how does Ellul´s thesis apply to today´s global covid-19 virus outbreak, especially after about six decades since he wrote “The Political Illusion”?...

Any virus implies first a health problem for a given population, and secondarily an economic one. The geographical range of a virus like covid-19 is clearly of an international order due to its powerful spreading capacity, so these elements oblige us to address the specific role of national governments in order to cope with both the health as economic risks of such problem. At the most basic level of analysis, a biological problem implies a biological solution (in this case a vaccine) but as long as such biological solution is not available, from an epidemic perspective the available solution is to minimize contagions in order to not reach a high epidemic peak that severely risks the health systems. So here the problem is no longer restricted to biologics but to a technical problem of population organization, control and logistics.

Recently, Korea and China temporarily succeeded in challenging the covid-19 epidemic peak by resorting to extremely draconian quarantine measures that implied mobilization of all their industrial and military capacities. It must be noticed that public opinion in Korea and China has a very different nature than the public opinion present in the nations of the West, mostly because the ideological contents of such public opinion in these Eastern countries are produced from the State, whereas in the West they are mostly produced from an array of the most diverse partisan forces, economic influences, and sociological trends. By confirming Ellul´s thesis, in the case of the covid-19 outbreak in Spain and Italy, national politicians prioritized the presentation of a political solution which addressed the anxieties of the public opinion, and such solution was basically about providing a message of calm. In Italy and Spain, mainstream media took into account the reported cases of contagion and death, but the reported cases are lower than the real un-reported cases which yet have a decisive effect in the rate of growth of the epidemic curve. China and Korea faced this crucial problem by massive production of tests, in order to better track and control the un-reported cases. And yet at this stage of the issue, the Spanish government has not taken any action in regard to massive test production, and the reason for this –again confirming Ellul´s thesis- is because the focus of the Spanish government is only in the reported cases presented in mainstream media. So essentially we can perceive here a rather perverse posture, since the Spanish government is more interested in solving the problem as reported in mainstream media and as assimilated by the public opinion, than the real problem as affecting the non-confirmed cases. The fact of adopting this perverse posture is clearly due to partisan and electoral agendas, since the only legitimacy of a government relies in the fact that such government is supported by the public opinion, and in this case, Spanish politicians apparently prefer to maintain political prerogatives, at the expense of severely risking the health and economy of the nation they claim to govern.

More than ever, Jacques Ellul´s thesis is becoming more than evident. National politicians are constantly handling a “double-edge sword” in which they can chose to address the real problems and easily risk their political career, or rather focus in satisfying the mediated demands of the public opinion and potentially emerge as heroes who “are doing something” and who then deserve to be reelected by their voters, even if such voters end up in precarious health and economic conditions due to the incompetent political handling of the real situation.

In practice, the minimization of the epidemic peak of covid-19 in all countries demands an international coordination of efforts, due to the fact that this virus has already trespassed all national frontiers. And in this global scheme of things, all those governments that are more concerned about their national public opinion than about coping with the effective problem are only political obstacles to the attainment of any feasible solution. People ought to keep in mind that the concept of “public opinion” is relatively recent in History and dates back to the times of State-nation centralization in France and Gutenberg´s print, around the 15th century. At that post medieval time, public opinion was an informative tool for developing such centralization, but it ought to be questioned to what extent such media concept is practical in a world of today characterized by a completely different configuration of global power.

Like in the case of individuals, most nations shall also be infected by covid-19. And as in the case of individuals, this virus shall severely affect the lives of those countries that already suffer from weaknesses, at the political level. This virus shall test the strength of each nation, the power of their government, and if such governments are only concerned about the control they define upon their public opinion, they are definitely doomed to fail in this endeavor.

Only political action that does not surrender to the illusions of public opinion can defeat this menace.

Buddha once said that “Opinion, O disciples, is a disease; opinion is a tumor: opinion is a sore. He who has overcome all opinion, Oh disciples, is called a saint, one who knows” (majjhima nikaya 2.38).

Maybe it is time to consider that public opinion is also a public disease.

Article written by Miguel A. Fernandez

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