By John Lavelle
Undoubtedly, the Coronavirus Pandemic has caused, and will continue to cause, massive change around the world. It has increased unemployment and homelessness. More people are working from home and moving away from the cities. But when people try to predict what the other possible macro-effects are, rarely do they look at past diseases besides the Spanish Flu. Looking at past diseases and pandemics, there is only one certainty: the world will emerge as a completely different place. Of the possible changes COVID-19 will bring, one that should be expected is the death of centrism, or a rebirth of political radicalism.
Unsurprisingly, centrism itself is a vague term. However, for the purposes of this essay, centrism should encompass two definitions. First, as a ‘catch-all’ platform for a party or person and a belief that is in favor of a balance between social hierarchy. Second, as an equality that opposes overly radical changes to government and society.
But how will COVID-19 quicken the demise of centrism? One can investigate this shift by looking at the Black Death and the European Potato Failure, as well as the politics surrounding the response to the virus.
The Black Death was one of the deadliest plagues the world has ever faced. But it affected the people and politics of Europe in very different ways.
In Western Europe the working and ‘middle’ classes were becoming more liberated. Feudalism and manorialism were shrinking due to the Little Ice Age and the famines brought with it. Humanism, the belief that focused on the agency of man, was beginning to become a philosophical force in Southern Europe.
In the 1340s, the Black Death hit Europe. The initial wave of the plague lasted until the late 1350s. Over a third of Europe’s population died and a permanent scar was left on Europe, and the world.
Western Europe was hit hard and experienced extreme effects. Manorialism, a core tenet of feudalism, ended as there was too much land for the small amount of peasants to effectively farm. Wages (real and nominal) increased and a proto-middle class was formed. Food and dairy products became more available. The increase in capital made materialism a greater cultural force in European. The Black Death also gave a greater focus on life over the afterlife, as the church and clergy were severely weakened. Humanism became the mainstream style of learning and education for the upper classes, bringing Europe out of the Dark Ages and into a new world.
The next great pandemic that devasted Europe was the 1840s Potato Famine, which decreased potato yields, and other farmed plants, by over 40%. The famine would define the decade as a time for war, hunger, and chaos.
Before the Famine, the major events on the stage of Europe were decades of revolutionary waves that affected most nations in Europe. The Revolutions of 1820 were the most widespread in Europe since the French Revolution. Many nations in southern and Eastern Europe experienced revolution. However, they were not interconnected, as the goals of the revolutions differed. Those in Iberia and Italy sought more liberal governments and Greece and Russia sought freedom and independence. It ended the absolute monarchy in the Kingdoms of Portugal and the Two Sicilies and granted independence for Greece.
Those of 1830 were even more widespread and successful. Once more Europe was embroiled in conflict. France, Belgium, Switzerland, Poland, Italy, and Portugal had revolutions. They were also more interconnected by the idea of romantic nationalism – the idea that governments obtain legitimacy from a unity in the culture of its people. For example, Louis-Philippe I and Leopold I became Kings of the French and Belgians respectively. In all successful revolutions, more liberal governments and constitutions were created as well.
Then the Potato Famine hit Europe. Over one million people died in the United Kingdom, and over one hundred thousand died in Continental Europe, mainly in Prussia and Belgium. There was mass starvation and thousands of refugees fled Europe. It revealed flaws in the government and bureaucracy of the monarchies. The Springtime of Nations began.
The Revolutions of 1848 were the most widespread revolutionary wave in European history. There were revolutions all throughout Europe: From Ireland and Romania, and everywhere in between. They arose from a popular nationalism and sought more democratic and liberal government. Most were successfully initially, but many were crushed by military force. However, within a quarter of a century, many nations gained greater self-determination (mainly in the Austrian Empire), abolished feudalism, and formed a representative government.
There is a common phenomenon between the Black Death and Potato Failure — the pre-existing movements and politics before the pandemic become more extreme in the aftermath. The Black Death saw an increase in individualism and freedom of the ‘common man’ in Western Europe. The Potato Famine helped bring the ideas liberalism, democracy, and nationalism to the entirety of Europe.
COVID-19 will have a similar effect to the world today. However, the pre-existing trend is the end of centrism. It is easy to observe that centrism is already weakening around the world, especially in Europe. In Germany, the Social Democratic Party and Christian Democratic Union have lost seats in the Bundestag during most of the elections in the 21st century. The same can be said of the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom, Centre Parties in Finland and Sweden, Fianna Fail in Ireland, and Ciudadanos in Spain. Two-party dominant nations, such as America and Australia, are having their parties evolving into an extreme version of their ideologies (the Democrats more left, and the Republicans more right, for example). More extreme or radical leaders and governments have also come to power in Brazil, Italy, America, Hungary, and many more nations. Politicians and people have, and will continue to, choose more politically radical and extreme options, on the left and right. And COVID-19 will only continue to highlight the differences in ideals between the conservatives and liberals in the world. Leaders’ responses to COVID-19 will also contribute to the death of centrism. After all, desperate times call for desperate measures.
The radicalization and difference of policy can be observed worldwide. America is the first to come to mind, as Republicans and Democrats have opposite views on lockdowns and reopenings, stimulus packages, and healthcare for Coronavirus patients. However, the same conflict happens in Europe. Unlike America, European differences occur between countries more often than between parties. When the EU created their COVID-19 plan, there was a noticeable tension, as there has been for quite some time, due to the politics and policies of Hungary, Poland, and Italy. The more liberal countries, such as France, Holland, and Germany are strongly opposed to these countries’ actions, especially Hungary. During the EU COVID-19 Aid Plan, Holland tried to tie funding to Hungary and Poland to the ‘rule of law’ due to their recent history of financial wrongdoing and increasing government control over state institutions. The United Kingdom has also quibbled with the EU due to their € 3 billion payment into the 2020 EU budget, as it is still in the transitional period of Brexit (the United Kingdom still has to pay into the EU budget).
With the tension arising from ever widening political views amongst nations, its possible resolution will not arise from compromise, but from intransigence and polarization. When polarization occurs, there are only two choices, and neither are the middle. After all, the middle, or center, is an enemy to both extremes.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not represent the views of The St Andrews Economist.