One of the first casualties of COVID-19 has been largely ignored in the current crisis. Ideology has ruled the world since the end of WWII and has been almost untouchable in the last 75 years. It has played diverse roles in world events—the fundamental touchstone of the Cold war; the reason for globalisation, anti-globalisation and, both pro and against climate change responses.
Although created by humans, it was special.
It’s strength comes from being intangible and incommensurable. As such, any argument for or against any of its roles always remained undetermined, debatable and open. It was ideal.
And still, it brought about certain realities. That is, statements that produced effects as ideology drove individuals’ thinking and actions, making possible the construction of a reality that reflects the utterance that created it.
The secret of the longevity of ideology therefore, can be explained by its composite nature—ideology is made up from both ideas (e.g. ‘individualism’) and matters (economic success)—one supporting the other.
COVID-19 quickly brought down ideology. Because of the imperative of physical and economic survival, most governments started to give money to individuals and private companies, to make possible the physical survival of individuals and the economic survival of companies. There was no choice. Death of ideology was instantaneous.
This process however, evolved differently across the world. In Scandinavian countries, giving away money to individuals for their physical survival and the preservation of their economies was not a shock as their welfare state policies have been doing this (successfully) for quite some time. Similarly, in places like Taiwan and Singapore, border controls and economic stimulus packages did not come as a surprise in light of the SARS lessons learnt and, the hands-on approach to public policy in these countries.
In other countries, such as Australia and the UK in which neo-liberal ideology have strengthened in the last 30 years, ideology died suddenly. The Australian government adopted a pragmatic ‘whatever it takes’ principle and provided cash to individuals and companies. No complaints from the usual suspects— right-wing think tanks, the mainstream media, large banks and other financial institutions. Conversely, they applauded the quick reaction of their government. Australia is somewhat successfully on the brink of the other side of COVID-19.
But applying pragmatism in highly developed economies is different than in developing countries. In Indonesia, for example, material demands to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is directly pitted against the just-as-practical needs to ensure people’s material welfare – and this resulted in numerous policy backflips over the recent weeks. After all, protecting people’s health by locking them down is all well and good, but if measures to do so literally starve those in abject poverty, then they present both a philosophical and a practical dilemma.
Yet in another group of countries, ideology is alive and kicking. In Brazil and to some extent in the United States, for example, ideology continues driving governments’ decisions and actions. This involves making misleading choices between Health and Economics. Because of efficiency reasons, health and economic were artificially separated. This is an error category one—health and economics are one thing only, made up of relationships among humans and, between humans and objects, machines, micro-organisms, rules and symbols. The same individuals that require medical attention are the ones that create value in their day-to-day jobs through the production of goods and services and, spend their income generating what we call markets. Then, countries in which ideology is alive, are attempting to save the economy leaving in second place the health of individuals that create economic value, endangering, simultaneously, peoples lives and the survival of the economy.
Whether ideology is dead or alive the future will tell. At this crossroad of history it is only possible to speculate. As human beings need ideology to live meaningfully, it is likely societies will develop new forms and types of ideology to sustain their political projects. Marginalised ones like ‘buying local’, or ‘virtual connections’ are now gaining momentum as they are aligned to health advice (isolation) and, simultaneously, support the creation of local jobs, consumers and services. Construction of new ideology though, will depend on the ongoing pragmatic actions of governments and their citizens since ideology and matters are the outcome, rather than the departing point of social actions. This is about how humans choose to associate with fellow humans and non-humans (e.g. products, food, machines, viruses, environment) to construct both a feasible and resilient new economic system and, new ideology to sustain it.