One way to think about the 21st century so far is in terms of three successive waves of risk: financial, political, existential. In the years leading up to 2008, appalling risks were being taken in the global Las Vegas of deregulated casino capitalism. Anyone fretting about these risks was told: “We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” They didn’t and it wasn’t. Ordinary citizens then discovered that, while the rewards had gone overwhelmingly to a tiny elite, the risks had been borne all along, unknowingly, by the little people.
Many of those citizens responded by saying "Okay, if you want us to accept risks, we'll show you what risk looks like." They unleashed a wave of political risk, of Donald Trump and Brexit, of voters deciding that since the safety they had been assured was an illusion, they may as well gamble on grand gestures of rage and resentment. So what if your new ruler is a pathological liar and a buffoon? They all lie. They're all buffoons. Better, in his warped logic, to go with the liars who were honest enough to lie openly.
Who needs a politics of disruption when disruption on a global scale has been unleashed by an invisible virus?
In this second wave of risk, there is no such thing as trust, no such thing as information, no such thing as expertise. When Michael Gove told voters in the run-up to the Brexit referendum in 2016 that they had "had enough of experts", he was preaching to the converted. The whole notion of seeking reassurance had been mocked by deadly platitudes: "the fundamentals are sound", "soft landing", "this time it's different". A profound and pervasive cynicism about authority, expertise and even truth itself fed a politics of risk. When no one seems to know anything, why not throw everything up in the air and see where it lands?
But this wave of political risk-taking is now crashing on a drastically altered shore. The dominant risk now is existential – the vivid possibility of mass death. To put it bluntly: who needs a politics of disruption when disruption on a global scale has been unleashed by an invisible virus? Who needs to throw everything up in the air when the air itself is so pregnant with danger and anxiety? Cartoon politics is all very well but, to adapt a Paul Simon line, who wants to be "a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard"? The problem for both the United States and Britain is that they have given themselves outlandishly risky rulers but find themselves stuck with them in an era of existential threat. It is like paying to go on a roller-coaster ride of simulated danger only to find that the vehicle really is out of control.
The currency that was so catastrophically devalued in 2008 – reassurance – is now the one everyone needs to bank on. There may still be some people deluded enough to feel reassured when Trump says “We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” Or that “By April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” Or that “I like this stuff. I really get it . . . Maybe I have a natural ability.” There may be some who will rally round Trump’s nationalist war on a “foreign virus”.
Coronavirus has targeted political cultures whose immune systems have been compromised by clownish recklessness. It will kill off the politics of risk
There may be some people who find it charming when Boris Johnson tells them "I was at a hospital the other night where I think a few there were actually coronavirus patients, and I shook hands with everybody, you'll be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands." Or whose patriotic juices flow when he speculates on whether Britain might just "take it on the chin".
But their numbers dwindle as the death tolls rise.
The tricks that brought Trump and Johnson to power – shameless mendacity, self-advertising showmanship and contempt for competence – are no longer entertaining. The horses they rode in on – the trashing of good governance, the undermining of expertise, the brazen display of unpredictability and arbitrariness – have suddenly collapsed beneath them. Coronavirus has targeted political cultures whose immune systems have been compromised by clownish recklessness. It will kill off the politics of risk.
There is a certain irony here. We – meaning we human beings – really should be in a state of high anxiety because the climate emergency is an even greater existential threat than coronavirus. We really should be facing up to the need for revolutionary (and thus inherently risky) change in the economy, in society and in collective values. There is no real safety in leaving things as they are.
But right here, right now, we crave reassurance. We hunger for good authority. We need to be able to trust people who know what they are doing and who will do it for the common good. In this new era, we need to be able to hear, as we could not in the previous two periods, those soothing words – “We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” – without breaking into hollow and bitter laughter or taking to the hills in panic. Who can speak them with credibility? Not, surely, the brazen chancers, the amusing buffoons, the rampant opportunists who seem, all of a sudden, like dangerous infections of the body politic.