For example, based on the model used to guide the UK’s Covid-19 strategy, the nation’s Chief Scientific Advisor Patrick Vallance told a Parliamentary Select Committee at the start of the pandemic that 20,000 British deaths would be a ‘good outcome’. At the same time, others have written post-mortems on the UK strategy before all the bodies have been counted. The critics often make life easy for themselves by denying at once the validity of the target and the government’s strategy to reach it—typically by pointing to the example of Germany, which is expected to have many fewer deaths. So even if Vallance’s ‘good outcome’ is met, the critics might still claim victory—and indeed, accuse the UK government of having ‘cynically’ set its expectations low. An interesting epistemological difference between the government and its critics is that the government stresses that if a particular nation’s Covid-19 strategy ends up appearing to have been successful, it will have been due to a combination of factors specific to that nation, whereas the critics stress that, say, Germany already possesses the all-purpose ‘magic bullet’—mass testing of the population—that nations everywhere should have deployed to conquer the virus. We might think of this difference as a matter of ‘anticipatory diagnosis’.
At a more general level, the market in expectation management is emblematic of the post-truth condition (Fuller 2018: chap. 2). At stake ultimately is not which nations tackle the virus most effectively but the terms on which ‘effectiveness’ is decided. If the virus is the opponent in a match against humanity, the main question is not who wins but who gets to name the game being played. It is a ‘second order’, not ‘first order’, problem, as the logicians say. This explains why the UK cannot simply get away with setting its own targets, even it meets them. Moreover, one can envisage ‘third-order’ terms in which to deal with Covid-19. So let us imagine that the current fight against the virus is ‘completed’, at least in the sense that the spread of Covid-19 is ‘contained’. This opens a market in which some are ‘projecting’ (i.e. both assuming and promoting) that ‘we’ (i.e. most of us) have won and others are projecting that we have lost. The former want to resume business as usual as quickly possible, while the latter want to take the radically changed circumstances as an opportunity to play a different game. That is the third-order game against the virus, on the cusp of which sits the Financial Times editorial mentioned earlier.
The editorial cites the United Nations as a precedent for a post-pandemic world order, but its history displays the ambiguous field of play in the third-order game. Much of the organization’s early rhetoric portrayed it as a proper world government that would establish human solidarity on a new footing, one that transcended the modern system of nation-states, known in international relations circles as the ‘Westphalian Order’. Thus, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights alluded to the unprecedented horrors—‘crimes against humanity’—unleashed by the Second World War as the pretext for the UN Charter. Indeed, the very idea of ‘human rights’ with juridical standing pointed to the insufficiency of ‘civil rights’ inscribed in national constitutions. No more business as usual! Unfortunately, the Charter’s details reveal that the UN’s powers are no more than what its constituent nation-states are willing to delegate to it. The UN has no independent authority to be a proper rival to the nation-states themselves, and over the years, it has best lived up to its early rhetorical promise when dealing with failed states and failed inter-state relations. In effect, the UN is little more than the Westphalian Order’s insurer of last resort: It has maintained business as usual.
What I have recounted may sound like a sorry tale. However, it is worth recalling that ‘business as usual’ is also the spirit in which national governments have bailed out banks following global financial crashes from the Great Depression onward. To be sure, it has been in terms of the confident rhetoric of building ‘robustness’ and ‘resilience’ into the system—but we are still talking about the same system that generated the crisis in the first place. Nevertheless, those who have wished to turn the latest global crisis into an opportunity for radical change—from Marxists to environmentalists—have been historically hamstrung by such rhetoric. In the 1930s, radical socialists were dealt a sharp and arguably irreversible blow by the speed with which Franklin Roosevelt proposed and enacted ‘New Deal’ legislation, whereby the emerging superpower showed the world the way back to business as usual in the capitalist world order. It is not unreasonable to look to the current emerging superpower, China, for guidance back to a post-pandemic business as usual—especially since, like China today, the USA had practiced a notoriously protectionist international trade policy in the years prior to the Great Depression.
But the alternative version of the third-order game has not gone away. Its ‘no more business as usual’ attitude is predicated on our having lost the fight against the virus. However, this may not be as bad as it first seems because we are imagining this prospect, rather than having experienced it. That cognitive difference can effectively immunize us from the worst effects of the virus—or, indeed, any existential threat. At least that was how the great US Cold War strategist Herman Kahn (1962) thought about ‘the unthinkable’, namely, a thermonuclear war. Kahn estimated that the realistically worst outcome of a nuclear confrontation between the USA and USSR would kill no more than a third of the human population. And without denying such a tragic loss of life at an unprecedented scale, his strategic focus was on how the survivors might coordinate their activities to rebuild civilization. After all, the existing communication infrastructure would be among the most vulnerable targets of such an all-out war. This was the context in which the Internet was developed by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the late 1960s. Of course, the imagined war never happened, but the Internet was rolled out anyway—and became the platform on which the ‘third industrial revolution’ was launched (Rifkin 2011).