The Covid-19 crisis could leave in its wake an even more authoritarian, nationalistic world unless progressive alternatives are articulated.
Turning-points in history are often seen as igniting system change. Over the last four decades key such moments might be identified in the global system: the peaceful revolutions of 1989, the violent 2001 attacks in the United States and the 2008 financial meltdown. With the coronavirus crisis, 2020 seems set to join this rollcall of pivotal years which come to symbolise more than the passing of time.
Yet such ‘turning points’ also appear, on closer inspection, full of continuities. The aftermath of 1989 was powerfully shaped by the Anglo-American turns towards market fundamentalism of the previous decade, the hubristic response to ‘9/11’ similarly reflected the apogee of American global hegemony and 2008 proved only to herald the ‘strange non-death of neoliberalism’. If history rarely does a handbrake turn, then the likely outcomes to the 2020 crisis will surely reflect the conflicts of the last decade.
A long drift towards authoritarian governance, which has gained momentum since the crisis of 2008, is likely thus to be with us in the years to come. In our new report, The Dangers Ahead, we survey the range of authoritarian threats and sketch four which will require direct responses to stymie them.
Deglobalisation is a process of uncoupling, through which regional economies become more important than global ones. It is already taking place, as borne out by financial flows and other indicators. It is likely further to enhance, as states mobilise significant resources to protect their home markets from the economic fallout from the coronavirus.
The first threat is that deglobalisation takes a nationalist form—throwing up barriers to the movement of people, persecuting minorities and pursuing beggar-thy-neighbour economic policies towards other states. This would undermine economic co-operation and gyrate into other serious dangers to human wellbeing worldwide.
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The second threat is that the resurgence of the nation-state, which has demonstrated its importance in the Covid-19 crisis, encourages a further leap of bureaucratic centralisation at the expense of democratic participation. The states which have been most effective in fighting the pandemic have mobilised resources centrally and planned their allocation. The need for warlike planning risks normalising bureaucratisation and taking even more decisions out of the reach of citizens.
Thirdly, those hostile to human rights may take advantage of the genuine threat to human security represented by Covid-19. This is especially dangerous in a context where popular support for human rights still rests on weak foundations in many societies.
The final threat is still-surging inequality. Amid the convulsions of capitalism through which we are living, a particular political form is increasingly sedimenting—an authoritarian and kleptocratic state. Modern capitalist economies incentivise, through financialisation and speculation, ‘rent-seeking’ behaviour rather than productive investment. This has engendered eye-watering global inequality.
While this model arose through ‘the rolling back of the state’, in a celebration of supposedly ‘free markets’, today it has necessitated the advance of the state. Financial globalisation is now underwritten by the massive fiscal largesse of states ready to prop up this malfunctioning system.
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New authoritarians can play a special role in this context. They do not propose any reforms which would substantially alter the economic model. Indeed, they oppose the international co-operation needed to confront tax evasion and promote financial transparency.
While critical of globalisation, their criticism is confined to its alleged embrace of multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism and open borders. And in domestic politics they turn attention away from economic inequalities towards the persecution of the marginalised.
In response to these threats we advance four alternatives, based on democracy and social justice. We can manage the profound changes under way in our economy and politics, in ways that boost democratic participation. But we face a stark choice: between a more social-democratic, or socialist, approach, rooted in the importance of democratic regulation of public and private spheres, and a continuation along the current path, where increasingly authoritarian states mobilise to protect financial wealth—socialising losses across the whole of society while profits remain privately appropriated.
Our first response is multilateralist deglobalisation. Recognising that trade and production should be more locally and regionally embedded does not have to mean supporting nationalism. This agenda is about delivering greater social and environmental justice. But it can latch on to material tendencies in the evolution of the global economy.
Technological developments and the need to invest in sustainable energy are likely to change material incentives in global trade and production. This may result in stagnation, or even reduction, in international trade. Multilateralism will be vitally important to ensure that this does not adversely affect poorer states or feed political nationalism.
Secondly, we must resist the false conclusion that democratic citizenship can be dispensed with in the interests of decisive action. There is still no substitute for an empowered citizenry when it comes to the protection of basic public interests.
Thirdly, we need to popularise human rights. To do so we can point to how the pandemic has revealed the overriding importance of at least one human right—the right to health. Citizens and their governments have for the most part been willing to place the common good of public health over the private liberties of buying and selling which underpin the marketplace.
Lastly, we need a package of measures to fight global inequality. Covid-19 is not a ‘leveller’. The risk the virus poses to individuals and societies is hugely shaped by social conditions.
To address this we have to promote a package of measures to tackle social inequality in all its forms. Doing so will require rebalancing the economy away from a capital-centred, rentier model—in favour of prioritising wages and productivity growth as part of a state-managed economy.