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Regardless of its denouement, the current coronavirus crisis may end up affecting the authority of the political, economic, media and scientific elites who shape world public opinion. The function of the elites, and their claim to legitimacy, has been linked to their ability to create certainty, in defiance of all and sundry Cassandras.
However, the current crisis, which struck like thunder out of the blue, has reasserted the evanescence, even the uncertainty, of human affairs. Just a few weeks ago the received wisdom was that stock exchanges will continue to move upwards while US President Donald J. Trump would sail to a second term and the post-Brexit European Union would settle for a period of anemic growth on the edge of recession. Globally, the elites peddled the certainty of business as usual.
And, yet, what we now have is uncertainty on a degree not seen in recent memory. Already the Brexit agenda in Europe is delayed, if not actually derailed, as British Premier Boris Johnson's stiff upper lip is less impressive under a surgical mask. With French airplanes ferrying abandoned Brits back home from the four corners of the globe and British aircraft providing the same service to European tourists, the old union, cursed by the Brexiters, does not look as dead as Boris hoped.
In Britain itself, Boris has been forced to postpone local and mayoral elections for a whole year, adding to the sense of uncertainty.
The political process is also slowing down in the United States, as both parties are forced to put the presidential campaign in a low gear. With President Trump losing his chief claim to success, the robust health of Wall Street, his re-election is no longer as certain as pundits pretended. There is also uncertainty in the camp of the Democrats. Will enough Americans be seduced by the "end of capitalism" mantra to go for Bernie Sanders and a Socialist America or will they choose Joe Biden, another septuagenarian who represents the back to the future option?
In China, the birthplace of the virus, uncertainty is illustrated with the postponement, sine die, of the Communist Party congress, which was slated to trigger a massive purge and consolidate President Xi Jinping's position for at least another decade.
In France, Emmanuel Macron has used the coronavirus as an excuse to virtually abandon the key reforms that were to make his presidency different from the self-indulgent and ineffective terms of his three predecessors. He also postponed the second and crucial round of municipal and mayoral elections that could have seen his En Marche (Marching On) party trounced at the polls.
In Japan, the controversial amendment of the Constitution, to allow the nation to re-arm and if necessary, fight foreign wars, has been put on the backburner. Uncertainty is also casting its shadow on constitutional wizardry to keep Russian President Vladimir Putin in power as long as the Angel of Death allows.
In Italy and Spain, the two European nations most affected by the pandemic, shaky minority governments are using uncertainty to prolong their lives.
Uncertainty may also be affecting politics in Iran, where the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei may have slowed down his bid for exclusive hold on power, in the hope that Hassan Rouhani, the hapless president, will end up carrying the can for the disaster caused by the pandemic.
Slowdown in the power struggle is also noticeable in Iraq, where fear of facing the pandemic has dampened the enthusiasm of many ambitious figures, allowing the shaky status quo to endure. Shaky status quo is also prolonged in Afghanistan where the latest round of the Pahstun-Tajik power struggle has lost much of its intensity while the curious "deal" the US has signed with the Taliban fades into the background.
On positive note, the pandemic may have slowed down India's tragic rush towards a major Hindu-Muslim civil war that threatened to tear its democracy apart.
The uncertainty in question has also made some "unthinkable" decisions inevitable, including the postponement of the Olympics in Tokyo. There is also talk of postponing or re-locating the Football World Cup in Qatar, with the excuse that the cancellation and/or postponement of most tournaments, including the European Cup, have upset the entire global sporting calendar.
Another "unthinkable" that has come to pass is the absence of the United States from a leading role in curbing and defeating the pandemic. China, Russia and Cuba have tried to fill at least part of the vacuum thus created and, hopefully, burnish their tarnished images as despotic regimes.
Global elites have always built their predictions on the law of causality, the association of a cause with every effect and the temporal sequence of cause and effect. Since Immanuel Kant and Pierre Simon Laplace, researchers and scientists have assumed that if one knows the exact position of a particle at any given time, one can predict its exact position and velocity at any given time in the future.
From the mid-1920s, a number of European scientists, among them Bohr, Born, Jordan, Pauli and Dirac, challenged that certainty, arguing that study of phenomena should take into account the possibility of jumps and discontinuity. Werner Heisenberg took that thesis a notch further with his concept of uncertainty. He wrote:
"The law of cause and effect asserts that if we know the present, we can calculate the future. It is not the conclusion that is wrong, but the premise."
It is no surprise that Heisenberg arrived at his thesis during the crisis of uncertainty that struck Germany under the Weimar Republic while the rest of the so-called civilized world coped with the global economic crash.
Should the global system rethink its fascination, not to say obsession, with speed and appreciate the individual and collective slowdown imposed by the pandemic? The question is not impertinent if we consider that we often confuse haste with speed as we aspire after permanence when our reality is one of evanescence, not to say precariousness.
Uncertainty, jumps and discontinuity; key words in a new vocabulary we ought to ponder. They help rein in our hubris but could also temper any despair we might feel at this bleak moment. If the best we hoped for a few months ago didn't happen, there is no reason why the worst that we now fear may come to pass. The beauty of uncertainty is that it works both ways.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.