The day John Galt fooled us all (including himself)

‘I will stop the motor of the world’ John Galt sworn and led the wealthy industrialists into the revolution of ‘reason and individualism’. This ‘Prometheus who changed his mind’, as Ayn Rand described the Atlas Shrugged ‘superhero’, was meant to inspire objectivism as ‘evaluation of the facts of the reality by man’s consciousness according to a rational standard of value’ (Rand, 1967). John Galt is made the bearer of the light of capitalism as the ‘only system based on an objective theory of values’ (Rand, 1967) and in this quest, he gathers the most powerful industrialist and entrepreneurs who follow his lead towards ‘new capitalism’.

Last Wednesday, while flying over quarantined and frightened Europe, on the last flight from Serbia to Sweden before the complete air traffic lockdown, I was reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. At one point, when reading the quote from the beginning of this text, a thought came: John Galt is back and could be the one behind the coronavirus pandemic!

In this world torn between freedom and safety, the choice architecture defines political leadership. In light of the latest events, two mainstream options have been challenged. While caught off-guard, both neoliberalism and paternalism have improvised the response in the face of this unseen event and, for now, paternalism seems to be gaining ground. As if it was a game of go between these two giants of social order, paternalism is surrounding more territory than neoliberalism. The bold disciplined paternalist moves strike across the board leaving the opponent with, each time, less space to maneuver. From painting the risk of virus spread as ‘low’ and letting it spread freely for the population to gain future immunity, neoliberalism has been forced to sharply change the discourse and adopt the same strategy as its opponent. But this may already be too late. While the stock markets plummet around the globe and the world economies shake under the productivity reduced to the minimum, the Chinese government is exporting their coronavirus crisis management as the only plausible model.

The game is (hopefully) soon to end and in the months to come the victor will impose centralist capitalism as the road to the global socio-economic recovery after the devastating blow from the coronavirus. While thinking of the new world that is rising from the corona panic, I am frankly not sure whether what scares me more is the fact that governments are using technology to reconstruct the movement of anyone with a mobile phone and isolate the contacts that person had with the corona infected, or the fear-imposed reality which indicates that in the future we are going to demand it ourselves. I hope that a new balance will emerge in which freedom and safety will not be self-excluding options in the post-corona world. However, this will require rethinking the way we live. This begins with the cities and David Harvey’s ‘question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be’, is more valid than ever.

One of the main characteristics of globalization that surged from the quest for internal economic growth is urbanization. Corona spread is the price we pay for having congregated 50% of the world population into hyperconnected urban areas. By 2050, according to the UN, the number of people living in urban areas will rise to 70%. The effort that the governments worldwide are making to flatten the pandemic curve has resulted in the simultaneous flattening of the economic growth curve. Half away reading through Atlas Shrugged I already have a hint of where the book leads (mainly due to knowing Aynd’s ideological stand). While seeing the data of greenhouse gas emissions before and after the coronavirus global spread, I can’t stop thinking about what would happen if the motor of the world has stopped. If John Galt, repented from his previous quest, would have changed the game and placed ecology central to his purpose.

Satellite images have shown a dramatic decline in pollution levels over China, which is «at least partly» due to an economic slowdown prompted by the coronavirus, US space agency Nasa says. Source: NASA / BBC World

With the sense of the motor slowing down, we are offered some precious time to think and talk about its purpose. The reset has provided us an insight into our very limited capability to respond once the situation escalates beyond the tipping point. The corona pandemic has exposed the fragility of the social and economic spheres. The two ones are the artificial products of our imagination, creativity, and ability to collaborate. Both, managing fear or embracing uncertainty has proven to have limited response in the face of the level of complexity whose scale goes beyond any available risk assessment proceedings or manuals. Corona pandemic has pushed humanity beyond the tipping point and we will surely find means to bounce back into some new way of ‘normal’. The chaos, fear, and disaster we are witnessing around the globe today is nothing in comparison to what will happen once we go beyond those tipping points that are set by the life-sustaining planetary boundaries. That is why we should see the coronavirus as a wake-up call to rethink the values we pursue as humanity. It begins by acknowledging our fragility and not behaving as the masters of nature.

The months behind and the ones to come have been a part of a long game of go. A game between objectivism vs. subjectivism, capitalism vs. communism, or neoliberalism vs. paternalism. And once again we have seen that when the shit hits the fan all that is left is Darwinism. But the tables are now turned. The players are aware that the only way to win is by following the prisoner’s dilemma. Trust and collaboration are the only strategies left to play. Instead of the protector of the wealthy few, John Galt has fooled us all (probably himself too) and turned into the steward of the generations to come. Stopping the motor has given both players the nudge to understand that playing against each other is playing to lose. It has helped them to understand that there is nothing to be gained.

Once John Galt has stopped the motor the sky has cleared up and we’ve realized that the motor was not running the world. Only us. Without its frenetic honking, beeping, and clanging we get to hear the world moving. We are seeing that it is life and not wealth that is the ultimate standard of value to pursue. We get to realize that once our behavior pushes the Earth’s system beyond the tipping point there will be no more game to play. The Earth will continue… without us. Without (our) reason(s).

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