The Bug is a Feature
We are in global lockdown. It's a human first – people across the planet staying home or curtailing work for the same reason. That's just a few months after humans and wildlife across Australia, the Amazon and the western United States lost homes and lives due to fires. One month we are forced to stay home and the next month forced to to flee. When nature knocks, you never know what you have to do.
But this isn't pure nature; neither the fires nor the pandemic happen in the absence of complex human systems that lashes every species together on this planet. If it's not climate change or the collapse of bee populations, it's the flu – tomorrow's disaster will be different from today's. And yet, we are high on the illusion of control.
Pardon my pun: the bug is a feature.
Complex systems fail in mysterious ways. Human beings – I know, not all humans – have cheapened nature, turned it into widgets sold as the fulfillment of our desires while making money for a chosen few. Looks like nature is striking back. A hundred plus years ago, unions arose as humans banded together to demand a better deal from capital. While they succeeded somewhat – hello five day workweek, hello collective bargaining – capital has only grown and grown since. This time, the protests will be led by a wilder menagerie. From microbes to mountains, the non-human world is striking against human-made systems. We have no clue how to respond. Put another way:
The single biggest challenge of the 21st century is planetary governance, of creating systems that help human and nonhuman beings flourish everywhere on earth.
I have written about planetary governance on other occasions – here and here for example – but it's been sporadic so far. The challenge requires consistent concern even to understand what we are facing let alone respond with wisdom. Being a nerd, my way of expressing concern is to read books in order to read the world. Here are some books I want to read:
D’Arcy Thompson, “On Growth and Form.”
Jakob Von Uexkull, “ A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Men”
Christopher Alexander et. al., “A Pattern Language.”
Tarthang Tulku, “Time, Space and Knowledge.”
Basho, Narrow Road to the Deep North.
Richard Powers, "The Overstory"
James Jerome Gibson, “The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception”
Eduardo Kohn, "How Forests Think"
Bruno Latour, "Facing Gaia"
and of course:
And not just them – there will be others shining a light further down the road. It's a deliberately eclectic list of compelling visions. They don't have a monopoly on the truth but I will be thinking with them and thinking through them. What's not in the list: the usual suspects talking about the end of nature or the climate emergency. Everyone knows what they are saying.
Goal: write an essay one or two times a week connecting the reading of these books to a reading of the world hoping the weekly meditation will clarify the question of planetary governance.
Week One: Infecting India
The WHO declared a few hours ago that the COVID 19 infection is officially a pandemic. Every pandemic lives in the shadow of the Spanish Flu towards the end of the first world war. That was quite the terror – killing between fifty and a hundred million people worldwide, more than the war itself, the bloodiest affair in human history until then.
There's a lot to be learnt from that sorry episode. For one, it's called the Spanish Flu not because the disease originated in Spain, but because Spain was neutral in the first world war and therefore didn't censor news about the disease. In contrast
President Woodrow Wilson was so focused on winning World War I that he would not listen to repeated warnings about the pandemic from the chiefs of the Army and Navy, or even from his own personal physician. The U.S. ended up losing 675,000 lives to influenza, compared with 53,000 killed in combat in World War I.
However, like much else, the impact of the disease was greatest in poorer countries, especially ones that couldn't control their destiny. The country that suffered the most was (British) India, where estimates of mortalities run from ~ 14 million to ~20 million. There are doubts about the higher end of the estimate, but even at the lower end the Spanish Flu killed about 5% of the Indian population a century ago.
I have been hearing since high school that the first world war was a turning point in the Indian freedom struggle, that soldiers returning from the killing fields of Europe wanted a nation of their own and when that demand was refused the mass independence struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi went from strength to strength. It's not as if we don't remember other incidents from that period: everyone has heard about the massacre in Jallianwala Bagh on 13th April 1919 and how that shook the legitimacy of the empire. I bet more Indians died of the Spanish Flu that day and every day for a few months before and after. We have also heard in more recent years about the famines that accompanied colonial rule, ending with the Bengal famine during the second world war.
In contrast, the Spanish Flu isn't taught in school history, it isn't part of our collective consciousness of colonial rule and its deep impact on Indian demography is mostly unknown. The brutality of colonial rule, its impoverishment of the Indian countryside, its racial and cultural hierarchies have all been assimilated into the folklore of independent India, but the pandemic that killed one in twenty Indians is not mentioned at all. I find that surprising. Not only did the Flu kill by the millions, it struck able bodied adults as much as the old and the young, which means it must have caused immense economic damage too. Chances are if I dig into my family history, there will be a death or two in it. Yet there's no public memory whatsoever.
I had no reason to think about the Spanish flu and its impact on India until two years ago, when the hundredth anniversary of the pandemic brought a flurry of media attention. Among the many pieces written then was this one by Laura Spinney in the Caravan. Spinney says in her article
When the second wave of the flu arrived in Bombay in September 1918, almost certainly with an infected troopship returning from Europe, the data revealed a big spike in mortality in the Bombay Presidency.
Jallianwala Bagh happened a few months after the most brutal phase of the Spanish Flu. Surely the spread of the disease must have stressed a British administration dealing with hundreds of thousands of returning soldiers who were asking for freedom and infecting the population. Was there a relation between the outbreak of disease and the intensification of authoritarian impulses in the colonial regime?
Spinney wrote a book on the Spanish Flu where she says
The flu resculpted human populations more radically than anything since the Black Death. It influenced the course of the First World War and, arguably, contributed to the Second. It pushed India closer to independence, South Africa closer to apartheid, and Switzerland to the brink of civil war.
Interesting. The modern world was made by epidemics, starting with the Colombian Exchange. Jung wrote about the "collective unconscious;"perhaps it's time to write about the viral unconscious – a deep link between bugs, guts, brain and society that shapes our views over time and space. Should be part of any exploration of the nonhuman background of the human world shouldn't it?
Let's place a bookmark there and get back to India and influenza.
It wouldn't be surprising if the Spanish Flu informed how British authorities approached colonial governance. Epidemics were a known spur for draconian behavior: as it so turns out, just yesterday Karnataka invoked the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, a British law created to address the plague of 1896. The British invoked the full force of the state to respond to epidemics, both to show they were on top of things and to strengthen their authority over the Indian population. China is doing the same thing today. Pale Rider sayeth:
As for the Indians on the receiving end of these measures, they came to see hospitals as ‘places of torture and places intended to provide material for experiments’. Indeed, in 1897, the head of the Pune Plague Committee, Walter Charles Rand, was murdered by three local brothers, the Chapekars, who were hanged for their crime
What's it about natural disasters that provokes political violence? What does that mean for our future? India is going through an authoritarian phase right now: will the fear of a pandemic be used as an excuse to tighten the screws on the populace? Will it work?
We can't answer these questions today but what we can say for sure is that the "real" epidemic is being accompanied by a virtual epidemic of fake news. Social media, especially YouTube and Whatsapp are playing an immensely harmful role in driving paranoid ideas about the Corona virus into the public sphere. The paranoid public sphere was in full display a week ago during the Delhi riots incited by 'viral' messages about Muslims. The COVID 19 outbreak is acting as a positive feedback loop for that paranoid outlook, which is in danger of becoming a generalized worldview.
No surprise there: the connection between disease metaphors and authoritarian politics is deep and what better when the two are juxtaposed in the real world?
I will turn to the deep and troubling relationship between virality in the real world and virality in the virtual world in my next essay.