22 MAR 2020 – 01:05 CET
woman protected with a mask and sanitary gloves makes purchases during the
sixth day of the coronavirus alarm state, in Madrid. Óscar J.Barroso / AFP7
I belong to the first generation of Europeans who do not know a war, at least – I do not forget that of the extinct Yugoslavia – a war between the great powers. It is possible that this astonishing fact inoculated in us the intimate conviction that, once freed from certain obstacles of the past —the ETA terrorism, for example—, we were going to live sheltered from the calamities that struck our ancestors. This baseless optimism began to crack on September 11, 2001, when radical Islamism presented its unexpected business card in New York, and became much more fragile with the no less unexpected 2008 crisis; but what no one could hope for is that a plague of Biblical resonances that has confined us all to our homes for an indefinite time will finish sinking it. I wrote it in this newspaper just a few weeks ago: the only predictable feature of the story is its unpredictability.
Ivan Krastev claims that the coronavirus crisis will reinforce nationalism in Europe. It does not seem like a risky prediction: the great crises of the last two centuries have had this effect; so did the one of 1929, and of course the one of 2008, the only one of our century comparable in magnitude to that one. The reason for this phenomenon is obvious. A deep crisis generates fear, and nationalism is presented as the ideal antidote against fear, insofar as it offers, in the face of uncertainty, the refuge of a community tied with blood ties; the problem is that this refuge is, in addition to being irrational, illusory, and that it does not protect us from anything or it protects us much worse than the rational refuge of citizens, built with the ties of law. The blatant proof of this is that, in Europe, any reinforcement of nationalism has unleashed much worse conflicts than those that spawned it. It happened with the crisis of 1929, which led to World War II, and it has not happened entirely with that of 2008 because, although the EU is not what some of us would like it to be – a federal state -, at least it has slowed the resurgence of nationalism, which is what it was founded for. Will it be able to keep doing it? If the coronavirus crisis takes on the economic dimension of that of 2008, as feared by Christine Lagarde, president of the ECB, will the EU be able to withstand two consecutive crises of such caliber, given that the previous one was about to get rid of the Euro? That’s right now, for me, the million dollar question. Because there is no doubt about one thing: the great problems of today are, as this crisis teaches again, transnational companies, but we almost only have national instruments to solve them, which is more or less equivalent to trying to open a safe with head butts. To make matters worse, politicians make depressing use of our few transnational instruments, as the slow, hesitant, stingy, unsupportive and timid reaction of the EU to the pandemic has once again demonstrated. Since it was declared, moreover, I often hear it said that the worst crises bring out the best in ourselves. Here is another display of unfounded optimism. At least, that is the conclusion I drew from the 2008 crisis, and above all from that of Catalonia, which was essentially a consequence of that. In fact, as a result of the latter, I can’t stop repeating a phrase by George Orwell, which in Spanish sounds like this: “Where are good people when bad things happen?” This is of course a rhetorical question: Orwell, who had waged war, knew that when bad things happen, good people are, with very few exceptions, hidden or quiet, if not doing bad things. This is not an optimistic statement; hopefully we show that, for once, it is false.
Walter Benjamin wrote that happiness consists in living without fear. These days, with the state of alarm recently declared, in Spain you cannot live without fear (at least without fear for the lives of many people); nor should you: courage does not consist in not being afraid —that is recklessness—, but in mastering it, doing what needs to be done and moving on. Right now, that’s what it’s all about