Bad government or no government at all? A pandemic thought experiment
Updated: Jun 27
This mural depicts Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, whose book Mutual Aid presented cooperation rather than competition as the basis of evolution.
Which is worse in a pandemic: Bad government or no government at all?
As I have watched the disastrous Federal response to COVID-19 unfold, I find myself asking this question quite seriously. It isn’t a joke. There is no punchline coming. I am not trying to be snarky or ironic. I am willing to bet that some of you have asked the same question, maybe not out loud, but in that quiet place wherein you entertain your most heretical thoughts.
Imagine a scenario in which there is no federal or state government. I realize that what I am asking sounds like a lost verse from that famous John Lennon song, but indulge me (it’s easy if you try). As a citizen of this utopia, there is no strong central government, but you do have access to the Internet and all current forms of digital communication. There are centers of expertise—colleges and universities, think tanks, research facilities, etc.—and places to easily access good data and research-based information. A novel coronavirus breaks out on the other side of the planet and spreads to your continent. You live in a small town with a smart, responsive local government. Everyone in town is reading the news, listening to the experts, and preparing to confront the crisis that will inevitably arrive.
Let’s imagine further: This fanciful town exists within a larger social structure that is based on cooperation and mutual aid rather than social Darwinism, predatory capitalism, and the state’s ever-present monopoly on violence (call it an alternative community if you like, or an autonomous zone, or a pirate utopia...or something else). In this society, people who bring plates of hot food to first responders are not celebrated as heroes because mutual aid is practiced every day as a basic condition of the social contract.
Indulge me awhile longer: In this ideal society, there is no profit motive behind the distribution of essential medical supplies, vaccines, life-saving treatments, and medical devices (and before you jump to any existing or previously-tried economic system to say, but what about... or this is impossible because... or that has already been proved a failure.... remember that we are brainstorming here---using our imaginations, not creating an entirely new socioeconomic system from scratch).
One last thought: Imagine there are no police forces backstopped by the National Guard and a $721 billion-a-year military to enforce any rules related to fighting the pandemic. In place of these coercive entities, this society has invested heavily in education and supported its robust democracy. Consequently, when a crisis arrives, community leaders are able to make smart, rational decisions that make sense to smart, rational citizens. The public health advice is clear and unambiguous: Practice social distancing. Wash your hands often. Wear a mask when you are outside. Help your neighbors. Safety first, in all things.
Will this well-informed, well-governed local population fare better or worse than those who live in a country where the government fails utterly to respond? Fails to deliver on its promises for aid? Fails to deliver essential medical equipment to hospitals? Fails to provide solid, unambiguous advice about how individuals should act in the crisis? Fails to provide the kind of leadership that will mitigate the pandemic?
Of course, there is no way to answer this question because this society based on mutual aid is so unimaginable in the current world order, which is organized around large nation-states, neoliberal economic theory, and market economies. In our society, when crisis strikes, the “market” is already at the center of the response, with all of its baked-in corruption, inequality, and propensity for predatory behavior. It’s all about supply chains and systems that outstrip the individual’s capacity for understanding how they work, because nearly everything works that way now, from how you get your food to where your news comes from. Because community life has withered on the vine since the end of World War II, many citizens turn to the nation’s capital for answers and assistance in a big crisis.
The national experts say “we are all in this together,” but it doesn’t feel that way, at least not the way you know your grandparents felt when they sat up a little straighter to explain how the whole country pulled together to survive the Great Depression and World War II. That social cohesion and sense of purpose and willingness to sacrifice for the greater good are no longer social norms. What your neighbor thinks about his civic duty or the value of social distancing or the best method for protecting the community is almost irrelevant to the national effort. You may be following the CDC guidelines diligently, trying to educate yourself about the virus, and following advice from public health experts on social media while he is dining out in restaurants with friends every day, not ever wearing a mask, and posting nasty memes on social media about people who are wearing masks and avoiding restaurants.
Throughout the crisis, I have been following stories of mutual aid on social media—Americans shopping for the elderly, playing concerts outside of nursing homes, and cheering nurses and doctors as they leave the hospital after their shifts. None of this creativity, compassion, and resilience is a function of government. It is the spirit of unsolicited sharing and helping among individuals that is always present in this country, humming along under the surface until a crisis brings it out into the light.
All of this spontaneous cooperative action has a counterpoint in American culture: The ease with which Americans will blame the government after a disaster. This is because many Americans mistakenly believe that the state primarily exists to protect and defend people. To be sure, modern states are complex, and most of them support a wide range of social services, but it is the monopoly on violence that most defines a state—the size of its police forces, the number of people in its prisons, the number of cruise missiles in its arsenal, the massive piles of money funneled into black box intelligence agencies and surveillance systems, and so forth. In fact, states primarily exist to uphold the status quo, control populations, and protect the interests of elites, not to help the poor and disadvantaged or rescue people stranded on rooftops after a hurricane. They may in fact render these services, but you see the true face of the state when social unrest breaks out—as it has recently in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. In these moments, the militarized police and the National Guard show up in force to protect businesses and maintain ”law and order,” which is really just another euphemism for the status quo.
So when the big hurricane hits and everyone wakes up to drone footage of a flooded city and poor families stranded on rooftops, the questions and accusations fly. Why wasn't the evacuation order given earlier? Why didn't FEMA move quickly enough? Why were all of those people left to fend for themselves in that stadium for three days? Where is the caretaker government when we need it most?
But these are the wrong questions.
The question I ask in moments like this is, how is it that so many Americans live precarious, vulnerable lives in the first place? Why have we organized our society to make vulnerability to harm so unevenly distributed? Let’s again take Hurricane Katrina as an example. Why do so many people live in a hurricane and flood zone? Why are so many of these people poor and therefore vulnerable to the worst effects of a hurricane? Why is it that black and brown people are disproportionately the ones standing on rooftops and crowded into that fetid stadium praying for rescue? Why do we accept the vulnerability of so many people as a fundamental underlying condition of society?
Let me be clear: I am not preparing to make a conservative or libertarian defense of radical individualism and self-reliance. The family on that rooftop waiting to be rescued is not responsible for their situation because they made bad choices or didn’t work hard. They are living within a system that values them as less than. Vulnerability to harm is ultimately a social condition.
Americans organized an entire society around a social Darwinist, competition-based model, so we shouldn't be surprised or shocked by the hoarding and price gouging during the pandemic—states competing against each other for PPEs, for example. We shouldn’t be surprised that scarcity and shortages surround consumer items that suddenly become more valuable and sought after than they were a few weeks earlier. We shouldn‘t be surprised when some of our leaders are itching to get back to the “business of America” even as the death count soars. If large portions of the population find themselves more vulnerable to COVID-19 than others, it is because our society is organized around fundamental inequalities that make tens of millions of Americans more vulnerable than others on any given day of the year. The hurricane crashing into New Orleans and the pandemic crashing into America do not create vulnerability as much as they expose it.
Social Darwinism has a genealogy that can be traced back to the work of nineteenth century evolutionary biologists like Charles Darwin, but when you go there, you can also see what might have been, the roads not taken from this epochal moment of scientific discovery. Nineteenth century scientists and intellectuals debated the extent to which competition and cooperation defined evolution. Some were attracted to the idea that a competition-centric view of evolution could be applied to social and economic theory—thus “social Darwinism” was born. On the other end of the interpretive spectrum, anarchists, following the lead of Russian intellectual Peter Kropotkin, believed that the evolution-as-cooperation model better explained human behavior and could also be applied to social organization and politics.
In an article that seeks to resuscitate Kropotkin’s reputation as a serious thinker in evolutionary theory, Stephen Jay Gould outlines three basic positions in the debate among nineteenth century scientists. First, there was Darwin himself, who advanced a colorfully exemplified vision of evolution as a fiercely competitive “struggle for existence.” His work was applied to the social order by social scientists like Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest." The second strand flows from Thomas Huxley, who fully supported the competition-centric view of evolution, even using the word “gladiatorial” to describe the ethics of the natural world. But because of nature’s unsparingly cruelty, Huxley thought biological evolution was a poor foundation for morality. If humans followed the example set by the natural world, he said, there would be anarchy.
The third stream is exemplified by Kropotkin, who was an actual anarchist. Kropotkin was born of Russian nobility and later lived in exile in England. In his 1902 book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, which was a collection of essays written as a response to Huxley, he argues that the competition-centric view of evolution is wrong. Cooperation, sharing, and mutual aid are also key factors in reproductive success, he says. They arise out of the struggle for existence and are in fact “natural” and therefore worthy of serving as the basis of morality and society.
I find myself thinking a lot about Kropotkin these days, about what might have been if his interpretation of biological evolution had caught on instead of Spencer’s and Huxley’s. For him, cooperation is in the DNA of all humans. What kind of world would we have if cooperation was the intellectual foundation of the social order? As we rebuild the world—our communities and governments and institutions—in the aftermath of COVID and protests against police violence, we would do well to remember this question.