Contagion

It is rare that a movie captures contemporaneous events so well. The reason why Contagion grips the viewer from the first frame is because it makes allegorical references to the contemporary world we live in and taps deep into our insecurities. It is also an intelligent cautionary tale on the globalisation and urbanisation. As the recent ebola crisis amply illustrates, we are never far from a apocalyptic contagion.

Contagion works at various level. The movie is a docudrama which describes how a contagious disease would spread in todays world and tear apart the fabric of the society. It is a mutated virus that spreads through contact and within days becomes a global pandemic. The disease spreads at an alarming rate because of our interconnectedness. Even though there are no surprises in the movie and the story proceeds at an even pace, the movie turns out to be gripping. I was intrigued by the effect the movie had to me. I was drawn to it as I would be to a movie in the horror or thriller genre, even though it had none of the usual cinematic techniques used in the genre. On reflection, the movie seems to work because it plays on our the insecurities associated with living in a inter-connected modern world. It taps into the insecurities that go much beyond the fear of a global pandemic.

The fact that the movie does not have a well defined human protagonist is refreshing. The story is written around a well defined invisible, yet lethal antagonist. The real protagonist in the movie is the abstract notion of how we organise and govern ourselves as a society. The institutional structures the society uses to organise itself is thus the real protagonist. The protagonist is frail and has serious setbacks but prevails over adversity ultimately. In the well travelled cinematic tradition, this abstract protagonist is fighting a losing battle through the duration of the movie and succeeds in the face of adversity towards the end. The movie proceeds at a even monotonous pace and ends gently without a clear sense of a climax. Yet, the movie grips the audience like a thriller would. Steven Soderbergh has tapped into the insecurities that we carry with us in the modern world. What frustrates the viewer interminably is both the invisible nature of the threat and the incompetent institutional reaction to the threat.

The threat is not idiosyncratic in nature. Put another way, it is not a threat that affects an individual with a given probability. We are quite used to that in the modern world and there are numerous well-developed mechanisms for insuring against idiosyncratic threats. The threat in the movie is a covariate threat, as in, it affects a significant proportion of the population at the same time. The parallel with the recent financial crisis is uncanny and maybe intentional. The institutional reaction to the covariate threat posed by the financial crisis is inadequate both at level of individual countries as well as the global level. The institutions were slow to grasp the nature of the threat from the financial crisis and their reaction was inadequate at best. In the movie, as the global pandemic spreads, the inadequate institutional response leads to break down of law and order. Widespread looting ensues leading to anarchy and lawlessness.  Again, the parallel with the London riots and protests in Greece is uncanny.

The institutions we live with and that govern us were designed for a very different world. Institutions by its very nature get ossified over time.  It is thus not surprising that these ossified institutions are neither able to comprehend the nature or the scale of the evolving threat to our prosperity. Our ossified institutions have not kept pace with the threats that have emerged from globalisation. 

In essence the evolving nature of covariate threat in the modern inter-connected world and ability of our ossified institutions to react to it taps into the insecurity that envelopes all of us in the modern world. There are great pecuniary and non-pecuniary benefits to be had from globalisation. The benefits of globalisation are meaningless if we don’t acquire a new set of institutions that are capable of reacting effectively to the covariate threat the globalised world poses.

Agglomeration and Urbanisation: The technological advances of the last couple of decades along with the natural tendency to agglomerate has meant that we are living a world where we trade off prosperity for a covariate risk. We are moving towards a increasingly inter-connected world with intense specialisation where we are constantly in sync with each other. Thus, we live in a world of impossibly long value chains that implies that a simple product we buy at our local store could have been made in a number of countries. These long value chains allows individuals to specialise and become part of this large interconnected global production process that makes us more prosperous over time. But this interconnected prosperity is like a house of cards. One significant covariate shock and it all collapses in a blink of an eye.

The institutions that govern us are past their sell by date. Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party movement, the Arab Spring or the Anna Hazare led anti-corruption movement in India is all part of the same overall challenge to our institutional structures. The fact that is easier to communicate and travel has meant that it is easier for the civil society to organise itself and challenge the current institutional structure. There institutional governance structures are still used designed to respond to threats that are staccato in nature. These institutions are like the superstructures in Marx’s world and generate a similar friction in the society due to their inherent inertia.

The institutional governance structures we currently have are synonymous with the modern nation states. Even though the nation state is the organising principle for institutions that govern us, people across the world are able to assort themselves in smaller homogenous groups according to their interests and want to governed accordingly to their newly acquired group identity. Hence, we see emergence of trans-national movements like the environmental movement and political islamism.

Technology is allowing people to group in ways that defy traditional geographical and physical constraints, yet the nation states and its institutions remain embedded in well defined geographical space. It is not at all clear that the demands we collectively place on our institutions as groups can be resolved easily. Something will have to give. It would either be a radical institutional change or a apocalyptic contagion.

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