Napoleon and the metaphor of retreat from an overextended position.
There is a meme circulating on social media, to the effect that the current CoviD-19 epidemic and the economic collapse that attends it amounts to China winning World War III against the United States. This meme seems to have multiple origins, mostly in the Third World among commentators not friendly to the United States or global capitalism. A search found slightly different versions originating in Nigeria, Cambodia, and Bolivia.
This hasn’t been a literal world war as the term is generally understood, and moreover it is not clear who, if anyone (other than Mother Nature) is emerging as the victor, but the situation as it is developing does look more and more like a defeat for the forces of international capitalism and the economic imperialism spearheaded in recent years by the United States. The image of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in 1812 comes to mind.
I was working in the University of Oregon Russian Department, and also doing some independent research on the Napoleonic Wars, at the time when the Soviet Union collapsed, and it struck me then that the rush to fill economic niches in Russia looked a bit like Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, with an invasion that initially looked successful, an adversary which fell back with minimal struggle, and an overextended army left in the middle of Russia without the means to support itself. There is a more recent example, of course, but I will concentrate on Napoleon and 1812 because the average reader in 2020 does not have a strong emotional investment in that conflict. It is harder to objectively view the lessons of history when one is still living with the consequences, and one’s sense of national identity is tied up with the view that the moral high ground “we” occupied was a veritable Everest admitting of no criticism, and our triumph over the forces of darkness moreover evidence of overwhelming wisdom and sagacity.
The defeat of Napoleon has sometimes been laid at the feet of “General Frost” and “General Winter.” “General Virus” might be added to the current situation, though the effects of putting “General Greed” in charge of our own forces is probably significant.
There are people who see a deliberate conspiracy behind the spread of Coronavirus, and some have even suggested that it was engineered by China, or the United States, or possibly some “Deep State” of which the two superpowers are only the outward manifestations, as a weapon in some shadowy war. I am not one of them. Animal viruses spread to the human population with some regularity, and have been doing so since antiquity. Most pass unnoticed, either because they remain very local or because they are not very virulent. To create a pandemic requires that the virus which crossed the species boundary be both virulent, with a high morbidity and mortality rate, and readily transmissible from human to human. Additionally, the outbreak needs to occur in a mobile population with many outside contacts and poor internal controls to limit spread. A natural mutation favoring transmissibility seems probable in the CoviD19 epidemic.
To the extent there is culpability in the rapid spread, it lies with the failure not only of China but also China’s trading partners to admit the seriousness of the situation in the early stages and institute appropriate quarantine measures. This would have thrown caltrops in the path of an economic juggernaut, as is occurring on an even larger scale now that every country implicated in the economic web of which China has become the nexus is now battling its own epidemic.
China became a crucial player in the western-dominated world economy relatively recently. The explosion of, and increasing dominance of Chinese manufacturing depended on artificially cheap labor and the willingness of financial moguls worldwide to profit from it at the expense of the long-term well-being of the populations of their own countries and the planet in general. It did not require a conspiracy for a collection of entities obsessed with their own bottom lines to ignore a developing disaster, when recognizing it would have required measures that slowed trade, eroded profits, and exposed vulnerabilities in systems that prided themselves on their invincibility.
Where, one might ask, is Napoleon in all of this, and where, for that matter, are the Russian peasantry who may (historians differ on this) have been party to a deliberate scorched earth policy, luring Napoleon’s huge army deep into Russia, in a position where it could not sustain itself? That the entire world’s economic apparatus is being besieged in China and is unable to extricate itself appears evident. It’s not so much a physical as a virtual captivity, and not Moscow in flames so much as an entire tinder-dry virtual network waiting for a savvy saboteur or even a clumsy idiot to ignite a conflagration.
The spark that ignites the conflagration that leaves us stranded deep in a wintry wilderness of economic decay may be the Coronavirus, abetted by idiots who continued to let exposed people travel internationally long after it was known that this was dangerous policy. If by some miracle or by dint of summoning all the forces of western science Coronavirus is “defeated”, the tinder of an overextended and unsustainable economy remains, ready for another pathogen, or some natural disaster, to put us back in the precarious position in which we find ourselves in the first quarter of 2020.
Graphic of Napoleon retreating from Moscow – Wikipedia Public Domain