Ringing in the new
Last month, Maria Branyas, the oldest woman in Catalonia and indeed in the whole of Spain, and possibly in the whole of Europe, hit the virtual headlines when she survived a coronavirus infection at age 113. (She had also got through the First World War – during which the ship taking her and her family back to Barcelona from the United States was almost bombed -; the 1918 ’flu pandemic; the Spanish Civil War; and, of course, Franco’s wretched four-decade dictatorship). This extraordinary woman, born in San Francisco in 1907 and now resident in the Pyrenean town of Olot, broke the isolation of quarantine by tweeting clear and coherent messages to all and sundry, in one of which she said, re Covid-19: “I believe that nothing will be the same again... You will need a new order, a change in the hierarchy of values and priorities, a new human era.” She’s by no means the only person to think that the post-virus world will be completely different from the one we used to be used to. For example, Xavier Farràs, a professor at Barcelona’s Ramon Llull University, also sees major changes ahead, such as the ascendance of Chinese-type methods of social control and a huge increase in the number of people working at home. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek agrees that there will be no return to normality, and foresees the emergence of “a certain form of communism”. By contrast, a good friend of mine in London thinks that hardly anything will change, except maybe a certain reluctance for people to pay a lot more for a coffee served in a café when they’ve got used to making their own at home for a sixth of the price (and the same goes for any other drink you care to mention). The French writer Michel Houellebecq has stated publicly that absolutely everything will go back to normal. For what it’s worth, I was firmly in the ’nothing will change’ camp until I stumbled across an article entitled ’Greed Is Dead’ in the Times Literary Supplement by the economist Paul Collier, in which the author points out that ’Economic Man’ – a term coined in the 1950s to describe the type of person who does well in capitalist societies by putting greed and selfishness to economic advantage – is on the way out and indeed, must be frog-marched to the door if the rest of us want to survive. Recent studies of the evolutionary origin of successful human communities have shown that homo sapiens sapiens is a uniquely social species that functions best when it’s able to weave a “vast web of kindness and mutual obligations” (Collier dixit). In other words, exactly the type of web in which the successful capitalists of today would be unable to avoid throttling themselves to death. In a nutshell, we are genetically programmed to be prosocial, to exchange information and assistance without a profit motive, and to thus develop the ’collective brain’ we call culture, which is essential to future human progress. Needless to say, any aberration from this ethical model based on mutual aid is precisely that: an abnormality, a deviation, a mistake. Our business model of the past couple of centuries is thus a freakish wrong turn along which those who take it are given a licence to be bad, with fatal consequences: wealthy capitalists, far from being social successes, are as impossible to integrate into a healthy society as are psychopaths. These recent discoveries are the result of an increased overlapping of scientific disciplines (by way of example, one of the scientists Collier quotes is a professor of ecology, biology, sociology, medicine, data statistics and biomedical engineering), which have now made it possible for us to take a much better look at the still fairly blurry Big (Human) Picture. It could well be that the impact of Covid-19 will finally enable us to see it so clearly, we’ll be able to detect the devil in the details – and deal with him.