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Coronavirus: The "Age of Anger" Is Upon Us

Coronavirus: The
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

The spread of the epidemic has generated fear in our societies, which have become remarkably vulnerable in the face of the virus. But Dominique Moïsi reckons that another sentiment could take over: that of public anger. This anger is all the more toxic because it draws on resentments that, fueled as they are by a sense of inequality in destinies, predate the current crisis.

The small kingdom of Bhutan, landlocked between China, India and Nepal, is not only a mecca for tourism. It is also the country of GNH (Gross National Happiness), a notion that is, according to its architects, far more sophisticated and modern than the infinitely more "banal" GNP (Gross National Product).

As the "alarm bell for unemployment" (le tocsin du chômage) starts to ring - to use the title of a recent column by Jean-Marc Vittori - it may be time to consider creating a third index: GNA, for Gross National Anger. Why should we not measure the stirrings of the human soul, as we do for the Earth’s entrails, using a Richter scale of emotions? "We are at a 7 on the anger scale; we must react before it is too late", one could say in echo of Cavour, the Italian statesman for whom "reforms made on time weaken the revolutionary spirit".

Fear and humiliation

The Age of Anger - the title of a book published in 2017 by Pankaj Mishra, an Indian essayist based in London - is upon us. Anger no longer affects only the peoples of the Global South. It has become universal. It has taken hold of all those who feel that they are no longer "in the running", if ever they have been.

Unless we are hit by a sudden and as yet possible second wave, the peak of the coronavirus epidemic may be behind us in public-health terms (at least in the majority of affected countries). The peak of social, economic and political anger, however, is most likely ahead of us. And some countries, such as France, are more vulnerable than others.

The more power is centralized and embodied in one person, the more fragile it is.

The more power is centralized and embodied in one person, the more fragile it is. The greater the extent to which mistrust of the state, and those who represent it, feeds on previous experiences that were perceived as negative, the more likely fear and humiliation are to result in anger.

In the age of coronavirus, the primary indicator of anger is the sense of inequality regarding the risk of infection. The vulnerability of the elderly is accepted as a fact, provided that it is not presented as a form of social Darwinism in which "woe to the old" replaces the vae victis ("woe to the vanquished") of the Romans. But when those who are most at risk are told, by people who are less exposed and in positions of responsibility, that the protection they demand is not necessary and may even be more dangerous than useful, anger explodes. A suspicion of dishonesty is added to one of incompetence. "The feud of the masks" in France is a most apt illustration of this phenomenon. How dare "white-collar workers", often protected by the ability to work from home, tell "blue-collar workers" who may be "white coats" and who are at the frontlines of the crisis, that their fears are exaggerated? It is true that "powerful and wealthy" people have also died from Covid-19, but this is not enough to create a sense of justice.

A perception of "fate inequality"

Asking citizens to "work more" in light of the exceptional circumstances we find ourselves in is not in itself shocking. In 1998, when Asia was facing a serious economic and financial crisis, the response of a country like South Korea was to work much more (just as France was embarking on the 35-hour workweek). But how can we ask some to make an extra effort, when trust and a sense of equality in the efforts to be made are lacking? How can we call for collective responsibility, if the sense of "fate inequality" is too strong and the sense of solidarity too weak? This is all the more true when the public’s anger precedes the epidemic.

The second indicator of anger could, de facto, revolve around the concept of accumulation. Anger, like fear, adds up. Today’s anger at the increase of unequal suffering breaks open the scars of yesterday’s furies. It is all too easy to lapse into anger when one is already torn between fear and humiliation.

Unlike anger, happiness - so dear to Bhutan - cannot always be explained. It is often the product of a natural disposition, a personal aptitude, even if it is easier to be happy when you are rich and healthy. Anger is not only explainable; it finds blame, if not scapegoats. Like the virus itself, it seeks to "hang on" to something, and, regardless of matters related to visibility or flamboyance, some political leaders are more vulnerable than others.

How can we ask some to make an extra effort, when trust and a sense of equality in the efforts to be made are lacking? 

A comparison between France and Great Britain is particularly interesting in this regard. The majority of British people can find Boris Johnson "incompetent" in his management of the public health crisis; they continue to find him "sympathetic". His personal fight against the virus provides only a partial explanation for this phenomenon. This may be profoundly unfair, but it is a fact. There is no objectivity when it comes to anger.

Solidarity between citizens

The Covid-19 crisis first aroused fear. This will continue so long as there is no vaccine (if any is developed). But anger is now taking over from fear. In France, it has even found an unlikely face in that of Eric Cantona, the soccer player turned actor. In a successful mini-series that recently aired on TV network Arte - "Inhuman Resources" (Dérapages) - the former soccer star is anger personified in the role of an executive who has been unemployed for six years. If the French unemployment rate explodes in the months to come, there are likely to be many Eric Cantonas.

France does not just need - as the United States did in the 1930s - a New Deal. In the face of anger, the only safeguards are tangible demonstrations of solidarity between citizens.


Copyright : Christophe SIMON / AFP

Courtesy of Les Echos (published on 25/05/2020)

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