There was a kind of thrill to watch liberals start losing elections a few years ago, to hearing the unsayable said, to witnessing the mandarins of a complacent consensus, gone weak in the unchallenged years since 1989, suddenly realize that they were no longer in control: or where they had still held onto the reins, that they were required at least to give a defense of themselves. To enjoy this spectacle it wasn’t necessary to believe that one had personally been vindicated, even if those who enjoyed it most often persuaded themselves they were participants in the victory. The thrill of watching such events did not have to be the pleasure of personal triumph; even from the opposition benches one could enjoy standing witness to the first crumblings of a decadent, corrupt, bootless, and superannuated order. One did not need to be an embittered outsider or to hope for spoils for oneself to see a kind of justice in this disruption, and one did not have to be an admirer of those doing the disrupting. Those with strong stomachs may have felt a similar thrill while watching the tanks of the Islamic State roll merrily over the colonial treaty lines; they may barely have begrudged their admiration of a black flag that proposed to disregard all the norms of diplomatic procedure and international law. As the complacent rulers of Washington and of the Ivy League and of Brussels and of Davos realized that their grip had weakened, I like to think that even many of them could see this too, that they could see a kind of justice in the breaking up of what had become sclerotic, that if they were moved to panic they were moved also to reflect. Rough beasts indeed were being born — but new beasts, interesting beasts. “History has begun again!” — anxious liberals and jubilant reactionaries could agree.
History had begun again! For a moment one might believe it; for a moment one could see hints of the crack-up of exhausted alliances and the possibility of new lines of battle. A chorus of new voices (or old voices hastily retuned) arose to announce an age of populism, of nationalism, of a politics of the working man, of a politics of the common good. And for their part the liberals too decided that a line had been crossed and an age of fascism unleashed. But beneath this endless discourse of rupture and political transformation, life for just about everyone went on about as normal. None of the main institutions of American life were disrupted, the poor remained poor, the trade deficit with China continued to grow, the financialization and deskilling of the economy proceeded without inflection — apart from a few tax cuts to remind us of a political mode we’d been promised had ended, none of the reasons one might have had to be dissatisfied with our way of life had been altered or relieved. A bit of personnel change had not created a new world.
What did create a new world was the disease. Hardly anyone took it seriously at first, and hardly anyone could have been expected to. We know the players and most of the moves that are possible in the games of politics, of economics, of culture — while a development might dismay us, the forces at play are those we’re used to responding to, mere rearrangements of well-known pieces on a well-known board, and the roles and stances with which we respond are equally predictable. And at first discussion of the coronavirus had to be understood in these terms: it was dismissed as a mere trifle, exaggerated by the xenophobia of the government or the press; it was a proof point for those who had been calling for reduced trade with China; it was scorned as the latest outlet for liberal well-off white people’s insatiable drive for hand-wringing. Disguised in these familiar categories of politics or of culture war, it was conceivable, or manageable.
But the plague was rather something from outside, something not generated by any of our ongoing arguments or rivalries or desires, but for once genuinely exogenous. It arrived (by whatever vehicle) from the animal kingdom and displayed itself in hideous challenge not to this or that tribe or team within our familiar squabbles, but to the entire social world. There is no mind behind it, no design, no steering; it is implacable, undeterrible by any punishment and unpropitiable by any concession. It selects its victims impersonally, statistically: if it pursues the poor and the old with particular viciousness, there is nevertheless no logic in the individuals who are slain or spared. Even the mechanisms by which it spreads and kills are obscure: the only sure sight we have of it is in the trail of bodies it leaves behind.
There is a great desire to reduce this disease to the terms we understand: to say that this or that state or statesman has unleashed it, or even to insist that the danger and the offense arises not from the disease — or the supposed disease — but from the stratagems adopted by the liberals, by the “laptop class,” by the New World Order, to remake the world as they would like. How else to explain why those who had made themselves populists in 2016, who had appointed themselves the tribunes of the people against their elite enemies, so quickly and so uniformly agreed to look away from the plague, and to redirect their rage and fear at the architects of the response? Those who had imagined themselves the masters and heroes of a new historical age recoiled from the thought that chance and nature could surprise them as they themselves had surprised the world. An enemy hath done this — one could think that, and imagine a plague that would wither only the tares.
But in the disease and in its symptoms (which are spiritual as well as social, adding a persistent fear to the pains of illness or of unemployment or of confinement) — in this plague history has begun again, not as a recombination of human affairs but as an irruption of the inhuman. This virus has resolved none of the merely human struggles of our times, which may well continue in stagnation or in mindless tectonic evolution the moment the quarantine is lifted. Nor can one conclude — and most people have had better sense than to hope — that this entrance of an antagonist of the whole human race might inspire some springtime of solidarity. The plague cannot teach us that we are all on the same team; it has shown us only that there are forces we did not see that are outside all of our teams, and that love none of them. History has begun again — though there is no lesson to be learned from this, and no scoreboard on which to mark one party’s advantage. If, imagining ourselves the protagonists, we had hoped for a disruption of the order of things, we have learned that the horizon of historical possibility includes scenes not only of heroic victory or noble defeat, but also of impersonal horror.