Thinking of a post-pandemic future.

I was recently invited to participate in an international teleconference on post-pandemic futures. It has a NZ-centric focus but involved distinguished participants from overseas, including former high level government and private sector officials. Discussions were held under Chatham House rules so I cannot get into particulars, but I am writing here as a reflection on what I heard.

Above all, I took away two troubling thoughts. The first is that the discussion was entirely elite-focused, with much talk about trade regimes, supply chain dynamics, attracting foreign direct investment, scientific diplomacy, political leadership characteristics and competition, plus other things of that sort. The second take-away was the nearsightedness of many of the discussants, particularly those representing the private sector. In a nutshell, they just want to get back to business as usual.

I made some remarks that attempted to amplify the context in which we are operating. I will elaborate on them here.

The CV-19 pandemic is an inflection point in a longer trend involving the intertwined crises of national and international governance and models of accumulation. It has exposed the dark contradictions in both. These must be addressed if the world is to emerge a better place. But there is a broader backdrop to this trend that needs to be understood before we get into unpacking its component parts.

The international system is in the midst of a long transition. It has moved from a tight bipolar configuration during the Cold War to a unipolar construct in the 1990s and an emerging multipolar system after 2001. The emerging system is characterised by the interplay between ascendent and descendent great powers, the emergence of non-state actors as key international actors (both irregular and corporate), an erosion of international norms and rules, and the resultant presence of conflict as a systems regulator. The underlying ideological consensus that dominated international relations from the end of World War two until the last decade, that being the notion of a liberal order where the combination of democratic government and market-driven economies was seen as the preferred political-economic construct, has eroded to the point of marginality.

In its wake has re-emerged the concept of realpolitik or power politics, whereby nation-states and other international actors pursue their interests above all things and do so with the resources at their disposal relative to the countervailing powers of others. This does not always mean that might makes right because not all resources are coercive. Some are persuasive, which helps distinguish between so-called “hard” power (coercive, be it economic, military or diplomatic), “soft” power (persuasive), “smart” power (a mixture of both) and “sharp” power (coating coercive intent in a persuasive argument or approach).

Over the last two decades several great powers have emerged or re-emerged, while the lone 1990s superpower, the US, has declined. This is seen in the fact that while superpowers intervene in the international order for systemic reasons, great powers do so for national reasons. One only needs to view the US inability to prevail in regional wars and then turn towards economic nationalism, populist politics and away from support for alliances and international organizations to see its descent. Meanwhile, pretenders to the throne and others have emerged: China, Russia, India, Japan, Germany in the forefront, but other regional contenders also in the mix (Indonesia, Brazil, South Korea, France and the UK, perhaps Iran and Turkey as part of lesser constellations).

The issue is not so much who these specific emerging powers are but the fact that they are moving the international system towards multipolarity. Given its relative decline, there is little that the US can do about this even if it attempts to reverse the trend (assuming that it recognises what is happening). And yet, the contours of the future system will not conform to the specific interests or designs of the emergent powers within it. Much like Adam Smith’s invisible hand of economics, it is the aggregate of power dynamics during the transitional moment that will give precise shape to the global future. A new balance of power will emerge, but it remains unclear as to its exact configuration or stability.

That is the broader backdrop to the global crises of governance and models of accumulation. As macro and micro-cosmic reflections of this larger reality, national, regional and international governmental organisations have been sidelined and/or undermined by a combination of forces. Some are internal, such as the ossification of agencies due to corruption and self-interest. Others are external, such as rapid and sudden migration trends resulting in ideological and racial backlash in recipient countries. Whatever the combination of factors, the crisis of governance is seen throughout liberal democracies as well as many authoritarian regimes (even Singapore!) and international organisations like the EU, WHO, WTO, SEATO, OAU, OAS and UN. Many of these agencies are seen as toothless at best and bastions of patronage, nepotism and corruption at worst. Above all they are mostly seen as (and many are) ineffectual and inefficient in discharging their mandates.

The decline in quality of political governance is paralleled and matched by the increasingly obvious contradictions of the global model of accumulation. Commodity supply chain concentration, hyper-specialisation, just-in-time production, “race-to-the-bottom” wage competition, and other features of the globalisation of production, consumption, supply and exchange have produced increased inequalities and fractures in the world social division of labour. Hyper-concentration of wealth in the so-called “one percenters” has happened on the backs of the global poor, who now extend well into what used to be the middle classes of advanced liberal democracies. Again, the US provides an example with its charity food lines and millions of unemployed (rising to 20 percent of the work force and over 30 million unemployment claims lodged in just three months) as a result of the pandemic. The US situation is particular dire because most private health insurance is tied to employment, so the loss of jobs is measured in both declines in income as well as health coverage.

This is what the pandemic has done. It has exposed in dark relief the ugly side of the global market. It has also glaringly revealed government incompetence and indifference on a global scale. These two pathologies have now combined, and the results are being felt by common people, not elites. This could well be the moment when the Liberal Order dies, killed by a disease whose spread was, in a bitter ironic twist, facilitated by its success.

That is why getting back to “normal” and business as usual by returning to the status quo ante will not work, and where short-term solutions will not suffice. That only staves off the inevitable, which is that the dual crises will continue to compound and deepen as they head towards a circuit-breaking outcome. Phrased differently, it appears that what students of social revolutions call the tension-release model is now well in play: there is a slow build up of accumulated tensions punctuated by episodic outbreaks of disorder or discontent, culminating in a cathartic moment in which the old system is destroyed and a new one–however unclear in its precise contours–begins.

If the root causes are not addressed, the next explosion of mass discontent will be precipitated by any number of calamities, man-made or natural: resource conflicts caused by draught, flooding, famine or competition over access to increasingly precious natural resources like fresh water; mass migrations tied to the above; great power war; civil war; sectarian and irredentist violence; pollution- or climate-caused environmental catastrophes; wide spread urban destruction caused by earthquakes, eruptions, hurricanes, thrones, cyclones or tornados; energy provision failures; and more pandemics. This list is not exhaustive.

It is not as if there has been no warning that things cannot hold. From the 2000 “Battle of Seattle” to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations later that decade, to the Arab Spring of the early teens to the protests in places like Chile, France and Lebanon last year, there has been a slowly rising tide of resistance to politics and economics as given. The protests are not just about one or the other but are in fact about both: systems of governance and systems of profit and their influence on each other.

The malaise is wide-spread. The US and UK are polarised, India is riven by sectarian tensions, Arab oligarchies remain closed but under increased popular pressure, despotic politics have taken hold in Brazil, Hungary, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Philippines and Turkey under electoral guise, sub-national actors challenge sovereignty in a host of Sub-Saharan states and even the seemingly monolithic regimes in China and Russia are riven by internal tensions and political intrigue. The world stands at the brink of a valley of transition where the costs of change are real but the outcome is uncertain.

Returning to normal, at least if it is defined as the way things were before the pandemic hit, is a guarantee that the socioeconomic and political contradictions now laid bare will fester, accumulate and eventually explode. That is an outcome few would want. This is why the post-pandemic moment must be seen as a window of opportunity for comprehensive change rather than a resumption of what once was.

In order to avoid an explosive break with the past, the key to post-pandemic recovery lies in addressing the dual crises of governance and accumulation as the most important priorities even if short term economic and political remedies are offered (say, by removing Trump from office, turning to regional supply chains and re-committing international agencies to a rules-based international order). I cannot offer any specifics, but it seems to me that a move towards sustainable development based on restrained rates of profit and renewable resource extraction is a beginning. Given the resurgence of wildlife in urban and suburban areas and air and water cleansing during the lockdown, climate change mitigation efforts need to be wrapped into larger projects of environmental restoration in which a return to natural balance is given urgent attention.

These involve political reforms in which those who advocate for a return to the previous economic status quo are blocked from doing so. After all, there are many interests vested in the current global market framework and they will do everything in their power to resist and thwart meaningful change that undermines their positions and diminishes their bottom lines. The key is to find a consensus about reforming, if not an alternative to, the system as given, including the reconfiguration of incentive structures in order to promote broad adherence to the shift in the global model of accumulation.

The future will be multipolar. The question is whether it will be stable or unable, sustainable or exploitative, multilateral or parochial, driven by self-interest or concern for the collective good. The overall process of transition to multipolarity is immutable, but the specific features of the future system will be defined for better or worse by human agency. It remains to be seen if the opportunity to recast the world in a better image will be seized.

Given what I heard at the online meeting, I am not sanguine about the prospects of this happening. It is easier to go back to what is known than venture into the unknown. The forces pushing for a return to the status quo are many and powerful. But the pandemic has pulled away the layers of mystification and false consciousness that heretofore obscured the intense exploitation, class cleavages and unrepresentative politics that lie at the root of the modern global edifice/artifice.

It is time for economic and political architectural re-design on a world scale.

15 thoughts on “Thinking of a post-pandemic future.”

  1. Thank you Pablo. There is much food for thought in your post today. I have also been wondering what a post-pandemic world might look like and I think you have set out the dichotomies very well. But, because I am now officially old (I turned 70 at the beginning of the year), I think that the world we will end up with will be a mixture of everything you describe…. “stable or unable, sustainable or exploitative, multilateral or parochial, driven by self-interest or concern for the collective good.” As you witnessed during your involvement in the teleconference, these will be the people who have the ultimate influence in how things pan out. It is unlikely that, other than through the ballot box, for instance, the average Joe Blow will have any influence at all on what happens next. We’re lucky we live in a democracy, but I have found myself oddly admiring places such as Vietnam, with their ability to contain CV-19 by means of their government power structure which has close ties to the military, and also their population’s willingness to dob in their neighbours should they step out of the bounds of what can and cannot be done in containing the virus. They are not alone in their success in this, as other East Asian countries have also managed to suppress CV-19 pretty successfully – more so than European countries. For that reason I have wondered it it is too long a bow to draw for East Asia in general to have their time in the spotlight, along with India and China, of course. As their governments have been able to show they are capable at managing this pandemic, therefore the population will have increased confidence in their leaders and will be loyal to them. That’s a bit oversimplified, I know, but time will only tell. For now, I’m glad I live here in NZ and we need to handle our future international relationships with great care. There will be some very challenging times ahead for everyone on this planet. I only hope the good things we have learned from this will outweigh the bad. In the meantime I won’t hold my breath.

  2. Well IF Jacinda wins a second term in government she’s going to be forced through pain of extinction to go even further left than the policy platform she campaigned on in 2017. Obviously there’s an issue that these promises are beyond her economic and military abilities but then there’s the claim this turmoil demands radical answers for instance she may very well have to do what she couldn’t previously and go even further than implementing a Capital Gains Tax.

    The government across the board and business demand that there can not be a return to austerity and the people won’t accept austerity this time either. At least in 2008 John Key could blame single mothers on welfare or at least he didn’t punish Paula Bennet (the then welfare minister) for being an absolute arsehole and sell all the state housing so people couldn’t afford houses and it was this really strong ideological onslaught against the most vulnerable people just to pay for all the bad bets on Wall Street Yknow and the people just can’t accept that anymore.

    Now we are in this situation where people are being told that they can not work anymore and they have to stay at home so that we can save old people’s lives. So that stick that was used to beat beneficiaries isn’t there anymore because beneficiaries are doing the right thing and staying at home on the governments purse, and now the bourgeoisie couldn’t possibly say to the proletariat now you pay for it, unless it’s like “well they where going to die anyway” kind of argument.

    That’s why I think we all have to wake up strong and stand strong together and say that none of the working class is going to pay for this crises (ps I’ll be reposting this comment in another blog).

  3. “I’ll be reposting this comment in another blog”

    Thanks for letting us know!

  4. Gorkem: I’m interested in the comment you made “….they have to stay home and save old people’s lives.” It has been said in various ways all through this crisis by countless others – not just you – but I’m interested to know if you think that those that fit the demographic of “old” should do the world a favour and go out and do a Captain Oates, so to speak? Bearing in mind that it is not just the old that succumb to this disease, of course. :)

  5. Di:

    It was Sam who made that comment, not the indefatigable Gorkem.

  6. Thanks for pointing out my error, Pablo! I unreservedly apologise, Gorkem. That will hopefully teach me not to post comments so early in the morning. Clearly I was not properly awake.

  7. …. they are moving the international system towards multipolarity. Given its relative decline, there is little that the US can do about this even if it attempts to reverse the trend (assuming that it recognises what is happening)

    Oh I think there are many people in the US who so realise that it’s happening.

    And they don’t want to reverse it. In fact it’s exactly what they want to have happen. They have almost no interest in preserving these international, rules-based institutions, “free trade”, and the USA as the global cop. It’s a 180 degree turn from support of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s why Jeb Bush went down in flames in the GOP primary. Of course I’m talking about the likes of Bannon and millions who voted for Trump. That’s going to be an uncomfortable fit with those who have seen international systems fail and want them fixed up – but different – yet here we are.

    And of course there are many people and groups in the USA on the other side who also recognise that it’s happening. Except they’re the types who fully supported the status quo and they will not go quietly into the night. We’ll call them the Bushes. They’re also going to be an uncomfortable fit with those who want the international systems fixed up – but different.

    Threading the needle between those two schools of thought will be the challenge.

  8. We’re lucky we live in a democracy, but I have found myself oddly admiring places such as Vietnam, with their ability to contain CV-19 by means of their government power structure which has close ties to the military, and also their population’s willingness to dob in their neighbours should they step out of the bounds of what can and cannot be done in containing the virus.

    Dear god, with grassroots attitudes like that we’ll be lucky if we do continue to live in a democracy where these sorts of “emergencies” are our future.

    But I can’t condemn “Di Trower” too harshly as I’ve been hearing the same from many New Zealanders, including more than a few of my neighbours on this street, which is truly depressing.

  9. Thanks Tom,

    For the measured response to my post. Given my background I was never a fan of the so-called “Liberal Consensus” because it was all too often honoured in the breach in places like Latin America. But I think that you have made a very good point in differentiating between the two strands of US conservative thought–the Bannon versus the Bush views, for lack of a better phrase. In more adroit hands, the Bannon view could have been a capable successor to the Bush view given the clear inadequacies of the latter when confronting the rise of new powers like the PRC and resurgent Russia (however fragile the latter may be) who engage in serial norm violation rather than adherence to the so-called “rules-based order.” However, in its current guise and in the hands of the current POTUS, the turn away from foreign adventurism and towards neo-isolationism and economic nationalism has been ham-fisted and counter-productive precisely because the US is a hub of a very large international wheel upon which it depends for its material sustenance. It may not need to be the world’s policeman any more, if it ever really needed to be, but extracting itself from the global system of trade needs much more thought, nuance and contingency preparation that has been seen so far.

    That is where I differ with some of the US participants at the videoconference who repeatedly said that things will change under Biden if he wins because he will restore rationality to presidential decision-making and return the US to the international community as a good faith global citizen. The issue is not to return to the politics of yore or the system as given. Biden at best represents a return to less impulsive and coarse leadership discourse, but he is part of the larger problem: the global political-economic model is terminally broken. It will continue to benefit elites and those connected to them, but it is increasingly transparent in its exploitative and unrepresentative nature when it comes to the global commons regardless of the specific national and regional context in which it is manifest.

    In any case, I am hoping that there will be some collective soul searching associated with post-pandemic futures planning because a mere return to things as they were before the disease hit only delays the inevitable, IMO.

  10. Hello Tom,

    In my post I did say “oddly admiring”. By that I did not mean for a moment I would exchange the democratic system we have here for one that resembled anything like that in Vietnam, or similar – even somewhere like Singapore. However, credit needs to be given where it is due to the governments (such as Vietnam and Cambodia, for example) that have been able to contain this virus in the way that they have. It is a strange world at the moment and lots of what we held to be true, even as recent as four years ago, has been completely turned on its head. And you’re right. These emergencies will continue to be our future – especially if we go back to the way things have been done prior to this pandemic.

  11. I think the New Zealand Government should undertake a review once all the COVID 19 hype and blather has calmed down.

    Only 3 questions are required
    1. What did we do well
    2. What did we do badly
    3. And what do we need to change

    Failure to ask these questions of ourselves will
    mean our society has learnt nothing

  12. These emergencies will continue to be our future – especially if we go back to the way things have been done prior to this pandemic.

    By my count we’ve had three out of China alone in the last twenty years, and there’s always the chance of some Ebola/Zika variation coming out of Africa or out of the Middle East. It’s just biology+evolution+human connections increasing rapidly in a developing world.

    But if the answer each time is to lockdown our nation then it’s going to be a Pyrrhic victory. Only once of course, because unlike the Roman Empire we’re not going to be able to survive more than one.

  13. While we have seen some authoritarian governments handle the crisis relatively well, this is not necessarily because they are authoritarian. We have also seen authoritarian governments handle it badly (Iran, Turkey, Russia) and seen democratic governments handle it well (South Korea, New Zealand). And if we are going to get even more fine-toothed in our analysis, semi-authoritarian governments also have a range of performances, from Singapore (good, although not quite as good as it seemed at first) to Brazil (bad, although with some pockets of hope). So, I think it would be over-simplistic to say that authoritarianism is the solution to pandemics, although this is the narrative that many are going to push.

    Re: US global leadership, I got the sense that Obama and many in his administration (notably Ben Rhodes) did see their role as managing US decline relatively gracefully. Which is not to say they did it particularly well, and they may have been partly restrained by an inability to outright say that this is what they were doing.

  14. @Tom: The Romans were the “losers” of the original Pyrrhic victory, e.g. they profited from its Pyrrhic nature, rather than suffering.

    The only way to prevent lockdowns is to have an agile, quick-to-respond and always-in-place mechanism to identify infectious diseases, do contact tracing and implement person-by-person quarantines. Even with such a system, diseases that are asymptomatic but transmittable for long periods (like Covid-19) are going to pose a challenge, since there really is nothing we can do to get people to go to the doctors before they feel sick. So in a best case scenario, some future pandemic with similar factors to Covid-19 would still have to be treated by lockdowns, the best we could hope for is that they be local, rather than national.

  15. Now that NZ has opened everything up, this makes a lot more sense. We can’t say NZ is covid-free already, so I hope we will have our realization of the thing called new-normal. Cheers!

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