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.