Covid-19 crisis calls for a Copernican revolution

Mugabe Ratshikuni says crisis presents a unique opportunity to try and reset our skewed economic order

Covid-10 crisis calls for a Copernican revolution

19 April 2020

According to billionaire Johan Rupert, speaking of the Covid-19 pandemic, “people speak as if this is just a blip, but I don’t think it’s like anything any of us have ever seen before, economists are discussing if it’s a ‘V-shaped curve’, or a ‘U-shaped curve’ — it’s all meaningless. What they don’t get is that this isn’t just a pause — it’s an entire reset of our economic system."

Rupert goes on to liken the period we have entered into in the global economic system because of Covid-19 to the circumstances that the world was confronted with during the Great Depression in the 20th century.

What are we to make of this? It is clear from the words of many experts, that the world as we truly know it is over post Covid-19, and what is now to be contested is what this new global economic order will look like, as the world emerges out of this pandemic in the near future.

For us South Africans, with our plethora of socio-economic challenges, Covid-19 presents a unique opportunity to try and reset our skewed economic order so that we can exhaustively deal with those three things that are the favourite phrase of most politicians’ speech writers: poverty, inequality and unemployment.

But this will not happen through the same thinking, the same debates and the same ideological outlooks that have dominated much of our public discourse. What is needed, if we are not to waste this crisis, is a Copernican Revolution, which relates to the ground-breaking, earth-shattering discovery by Nicolaus Copernicus, that the earth was not at the centre of the universe, but rather it is the sun that is at the centre of the universe.

This Copernican Revolution, that the Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei further developed and popularised, overturned 2000 years of scientific thinking dating back to the times of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. The discovery of the simple fact that the sun, and not the earth was the gravitational centre of the universe helped spur the scientific revolution and laid a critical foundation for the later discoveries of the likes of Isaac Newton, which contributed immensely to human progress.

So, we need a similar Copernican Revolution, to reshape the world order, to transform stubborn socio-economic realities that have persisted for generations and reset the global and local economic system. A Copernican Revolution of this ilk means developing and embracing completely new paradigms that are not in any way tied to what we have known up to now. It means letting go of centuries old thinking which has been dominated by the theories of two fellows: Karl Marx and Adam Smith, and conceptualising a completely new economic and political order, not in any way influenced by the thinking of these two great thinkers. This is the challenge that is before us methinks, a Copernican Revolution that transforms the political and economic order.

In philosophy of science, a field of study which deals with metatheory, the theory behind theory, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions introduced the popular phrase paradigm shift to the world. Kuhn changed science, from its almost religious reliance on the scientific method, which sees scientific progress as the addition of new truths to old truths or the correction of past errors (cumulative progress building on existing ideas), to one of discontinuities.

In Kuhn’s conception of scientific progress, which radically altered the field, progress consists of a series of discontinuities, where the scientific consensus of one era is challenged by outsiders from the scientific community. This plunges the scientific community into a crisis as established paradigms are collapsed and completely new, unrelated paradigms emerge, which is then called scientific progress.

The Covid-19 crisis gives us an opportunity to move away from the same old stale debates we keep having, from outdated ideologies and outlooks, into a new economic and political era, in the mould of Kuhn’s scientific progress, a Copernican Revolution built on dangerous ideas. Dangerous ideas, aptly described in the online thinktank www.edge.org are ideas to propose new ways of understanding the world and ourselves, new ways of thinking about thinking that question all our basic assumptions and new ways of ordering and structuring the world both politically and economically.

So, the opportunity beckons for us to reshape the world, society economically and politically, through this Covid-19 crisis, in the manner that Galileo Galilei, Thomas Kuhn and even Immanuel Kant, with his Copernican Revolution in philosophy through his iconic Critique of Pure Reason did. It is up to us now to let go of the old and usher in the completely new.