O wonder!/ How many goodly creatures are there here!/ How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world / That has such people in’t! (William Shakespeare, The Tempest)
OUR SOCIETY MISTRUSTS intellectuals, even though at times such as these it closes the eyes and from the less discerning of them commands beauteous evangelical messages. Prophecies that the mainstream press, acting as the system’s attentive sentinel schedules to make the public opinion trust that “when all of this is over, the world won’t be the same” . And what world that will be the literati are ready-and-willing to tell. A whole different one in which we’ll know how to handle “irresponsible politicians” who made us lose confidence in science, authorities and the media . The keyword to make the difference shall be ‘solidarity’, for “if we choose disunity, this will not only prolong the crisis, but will probably result in even worse catastrophes”. If otherwise “we choose global solidarity it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all future epidemics and crises that might assail humankind in the 21st century”. And how are we going to do that? In normal times confidence gone astray can’t be restored, but in times of crisis we can “suddenly discover a hidden reservoir of trust and amity, and rush to help one another”.
Stratagems are by and large at the bottom of prophetic solutions. In this particular case the trick is to ‘naturalize’ the outbreak as something intimate demanding harsh measures – such as changing lenses to see things differently. To our prophets it means to revive “people’s trust in science, in public authorities and in the media”, whose intercession during “the greatest crisis of our generation” will certainly be more in tune and solidary with our misfortunes. Provided of course “irresponsible politicians” are kept under control mediators shall “empower citizens” and enable everyone “to make more informed personal choices and hold government accountable for its decisions”. The final decision will remain ours, so the coronavirus crisis can be the “tipping point” – considering that “when people are given a choice between privacy and health, they will usually choose health“. But again, what about politicians, the incorrigible “egomaniacs” that should take all the blame for our lack of confidence in go-betweens? At this moment precisely the prophets’ arguments collapse.
Science, the most neutral ‘demiurge’, source of probity and veracity, is in a critical state for a very long time, not because of politicians but of bad practices. Namely (I) poor reproducibility – not long ago, one hundred experiments described in three well-established journals of psychology were replicated and the “replication effects were half the magnitude of original effects” ; (II) abusive dependence on metrics, targets and indicators, which instead of supporting qualified assessment oppress consciences, distort behaviours and corrupt careers; (III) peer review, still the best form of academic governance although not infrequently haunted by complaints and scandal. All of this was exposed in a classical book (Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems, 1970) by an American sociologist, who with Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend envisaged the problems of science not in its epistemological foundations, but in practical flaws. Half a century later, the same Jerome Ravetz denounces the “corrupting pressures” of an “industrialized science”, whose “perverse incentives” of the absorption of research work by a ‘gig economy’ in which scientists are subjected to short-term jobs on contracts without any rights of security, and to the favours of principal investigators. Which is why, he adds, ‘quality’ became instrumentalised, ‘excellence’ impractical, and ‘impact’ is now the name of the game. Predicaments aggravated by science-based technologies of warfare, financial manipulation and environmental predation, which increase the “possibilities of a civilisational catastrophe” but at least show that “the king is naked” . Not if it depends on literati diverting attention from the causes and the real agents of bad practices.
In administration, public and private, there is also an evil jinni, corruption, “inherent in the mining, oil and gas, construction and engineering industries, all of which are at high risk and subject to investigation worldwide” . So it is not so much the country or government as the sector, whose companies must be held responsible. The same goes for multilateral organisations – the World Bank, for example, which in 2011 proudly announced that the International Finance Corporation, its arm in the private sector, had opened a $50 million credit line for Norberto Odebrecht, a giant Brazilian construction company. Funds immediately transformed in shares of 250 million, as guarantee for contracts for public works projects. All dully documented but soon deleted from the bank’s database: $30 billion “public-private partnerships” in Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Mexico, joining Odebrecht and four more contractors that received a few billions from a state development bank for operations in Africa and Latin America. To this, ‘contractual renegotiations’, a notorious breeding ground for corruption immediately followed. Whellings-and-dealings that, in the words of Christopher Sabatini, of Colombia University, were “known to everyone” – meaning that “Odebrecht was handling corruption” with the World Bank’s approval. But IFC and the Bank had nothing to fear; they were not at risk “because corruption investigations do not reach other countries involved, and Bank representatives are shielded from lawsuits in client countries” .
The last, actually the one and only ‘mediator’ of the brave new world are the media, whose “satanic role” (in Bauman’s words) is “to revolutionize the mechanisms of perception of the world” and manipulate them. A consciousness-manufacturing industry, it pervades all social sectors assuming functions of guidance and control – not exactly thanks to the worth of the information it conveys, but to the ‘content’ (seeing by McLuhan as the “piece of meat” the thief brings to distract the dog while he loots the house). An industry in a deep crisis, again not because of politicians but of structural factors related to a drastic drop in sales of the printed media, and to market saturation, that have forced mainstream journalism to compete with much less formal and professional modalities. So they move heaven and earth to keep clienteles and market shares by exploiting sensationalism, concocting news unceasingly, discovering ‘enemies’ in politics and anticipating their punishment. They have been in crisis throughout history, since the times the Catholic Church – the great producer and disseminator of news the medieval world – began to lose its monopoly of the pulpits. A dependence on structural factors (technology, market and organization) not on politicians, made the Church lose its status of supreme authority as ‘source’ which ‘everyone’, rich and miserable, listened with reverence thanks to well-elaborated messages, convincing, undifferentiated and spread in an irreversible way, virtually impossible to respond.
Early social soothsayers were ‘prophets of doom’ who announced Jehovah’s punishments to the people – specifically to unworthy leaders (‘politicians’ of yore). Our ‘futurologists’ are more attracted to Buddhist ‘renouncers’ bringing news of ‘the good life’. Laicized, but always hostile to the language of democracy, their slippery metaphysics overflow the strictly religious context and invade the realm of personal intimacy, whose subtleties can be understood only through the unlimited resources of literature. Immersed in the perfect storm unleashed after the First World War, Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) did just that ninety years ago. He chose stability as the “primal and ultimate need” of our civilization struggling to survive the multiple crises of a failed social, economic and political model, now miserably taken by surprise by a submicroscopic infectious agent. Crises aggravated by overpopulation and the means of control employed to subdue it – among which Huxley highlighted drugs and subliminal suggestion. He firmly demanded resistance to defend democracy from authoritarianism, once again at our gateways.
“The perfect dictatorship would have the appearance of a democracy, but would basically be a prison without walls in which the prisoners would not even dream of escaping. It would essentially be a system of slavery where, through consumption and entertainment, the slaves would love their servitudes. “ (attributed to Aldous Huxley)
 Francesca Melandri. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/27/a-letter-to-the-uk-from-italy-this-is-what-we-know-about-your-future;  Yuval Harari. https://www.ft.com/content/19d90308-6858-11ea-a3c9-1fe6fedcca75;  https://osf.io/ezcuj/wiki/home;  Jerome Ravetz. https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2016/jun/08/how-should-we-treat-sciences-growing-pains;  Andreas Pohlmann. Folha de S. Paulo, Sept. 22, 2015;  Roberto Bissio. Leveraging corruption – How World Bank funds ended up destabilizing young democracies in Latin America, http://www.socialwatch.org.
Pedro Scuro is senior researcher at the Talcott Group (São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Luanda and Rome), director of the International Society of Criminology (Paris) and the author of General and Legal Sociology, whose eighth edition (The Era of Captive Law) is published by Saraiva, Sao Paulo.