Only a few weeks ago the world still believed in liberal dreams. Now thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, this all may look so obsolete very soon. Financial markets are tumbling and may plunge the world in an economic crisis greater than the one provoked by the crash of the US real estate bubble in 2008. People in countries as different as Sweden and the United States are emptying supermarket shelves.

Only a few weeks ago utopian liberals in much of the Western world believed that in spite of a few minor accidents like 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, the near collapse of the euro in 2010 and the subsequent years of austerity, Brexit and Trump’s election, the trajectory of the future of the world and humanity had been defined.

Only a small group of despicable and obtuse retrogrades would stand in the way of a bright utopian future of open borders, universal human rights, from Afghanistan to Brazil, the invention of robots that would do all work, the abolition of ancient superstitions such as Christianity and almost eternal life. One of the few problems this humanity may have would have been boredom. May a small microorganism put an end to all this?

Talks of a possible coming financial crisis, after an expansionary phase that lasted more than 10 years for most Western countries, were preceding this last epidemic. Since Brexit and Trump, the revival of nationalism and the emergency of the politics of populism in countries such as Italy, the US or even Germany had become standard talking points. However, even these phenomena did not significantly alter the deeply seated belief of utopian liberals that the world was day by day inexorably moving in the direction of progress, societal and technological. It was rarely taken into account that progress can move a lot of different things to different people. For some people free abortions and gay marriages can be reasons to celebrate, others care more about a decent minimum wage and good social services.

Take for example Italy. The country found itself at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe and has registered almost 30,000 as of today, with the number of deaths having reached 2,158. Only a few weeks ago, Italians, in spite of an economy that has never recovered from the crisis 10 years ago, a youth unemployment level among the highest in Europe and a marked loss of confidence in their nation, were considerably more concerned about the new generation smart phone or the wonders of the Erasmus exchange year than about the fate of their country. Some had voted for Salvini, the right-wing leader in the election of two years ago, but his tenure as vice prime minister ended after little more than a year and the country had regained the graces of the European Union.

But the coronavirus emergency, which some in Italy have called the greatest crisis in the country since the Second World War, may have dealt another blow to Italy’s faith in institutions such as the European Union that are so dear, fundamental and indispensable for utopian liberals. When Italy asked for urgent medical supplies under a special European crisis mechanism no EU country responded. Help came, but from China. A not very carefully thought comment by the President of the European Central Bank Christine Lagarde (“It’s not my job to reduce the spread” – the differential between Italian government bonds and German government bonds) made markets rock, provoking a 17% dive in the Milan Stock Index, Italy’s most important.

In the face of the coronavirus crisis and the serious economic consequences it may have, most countries will probably make the unpleasant discovery that they will have to solve their problems by themselves. Self-reliance is not exactly a very liberal quality in the XXI century. The euro crisis in 2010 and 2011 left many scars in the European Union but a new deviation from the smooth path of progress could be fatal.

Electorates may temporarily turn to more nationalist minded forces for comfort, although the fluctuations of the election cycle moods do not necessarily bring about radical changes, as even the “populist” turn symbolized by Brexit and Trump’s presidency, but global elites, from Italy and Germany to Britain and America, have shown before that they were decidedly unimpressed by and not that interested in the whimsical choices of people left behind by the times. But when the suffering becomes too much, people stop to believe fairy tales about a wonderful future just around the corner. They want to improve their lives and their condition in the only moment they know, the present. Utopian dreams may end with an abrupt awakening.

Stefano Di Lorenzo