The making of a new global order
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
The crisis will test the fortitude of individuals. It is the kind of uncertainty we are not used to. It makes us think that perhaps the world could be arranged differently. The solidarity we witness now may not last but it has given the emerging social order a leg to stand on, even as it brings about unforeseen changes across the globe.
The coronavirus pandemic seems, for the moment at least, to have turned the world upside down. Almost all the parameters of the biggest planetary lockdown of human economic activity in history are uncertain: the number of fatalities it will cause, the suffering it will unleash, the scale of the economic devastation that might ensue in its wake, and the social and political upheavals that might result as a consequence. Much, of course, depends on how quickly science and our immune systems are able to master this virus, how quickly a vaccine or a treatment protocol might become available, or how data might allow us to manage the spread of the disease. At the moment, it seems Covid-19 has sent humanity back into the waiting room of history. Even as societies across the globe struggle with the prospect of death and destitution, we are essentially trying to buy time for science to deliver us from this scourge. The underlying premise is that, for now at least, the future has only been temporarily suspended. Once science triumphs, we can return to it. We cannot tell exactly when or in what shape. How long will lockdowns remain an intermittent feature of our lives? How long will social distancing stay the new normal? This is a judgment call only scientists can make. But as moderns, we will still live in the conviction that the future will at some point be ours again. The train will eventually arrive, and we can all leave the waiting room. Our biggest psychological challenge, simply, is not knowing when.
There has certainly not been a global event resembling this scale in our lifetime. If the stakes were not so high and the suffering not real, our day-to-day condition might even come across as a cosmic allegory: the mighty species that roamed freely, colonising everything, has now been confined to its barracks. Every other human being is a possible threat to us: one we can handle only through the right social distancing, or through layers of protective armour. Sartre’s ‘Hell is other people,’ seems positively reassuring in comparison to ‘Infection is other people.’ The quotidian inversions in our daily rhythms—busy streets as desolate silences, the inversion of work and home if you are lucky to have either, the possibility of merely seeing people but not being with them—will, at an appropriate point, unleash their own metaphysical and literary fantasies. The Great Lockdown Novel, or the philosophy treatise Time without Being, will doubtless explain the human condition when the time comes. For now, we have the urgent task of flattening the curve of the virus, so that human endeavour can resume its steep march towards progress.
It is tempting to see an event of this magnitude as a turning point in history. In one sense, that is right. Depending on its course, Covid-19 will have far-reaching ramifications. But it is extraordinary how previous health cataclysms in the 20th century have been so easily forgotten. The Spanish Flu that claimed millions of lives was perhaps assimilated to the general devastation caused by the Great War. Even the Asian Flu of 1957, which killed hundreds of thousands, is barely a footnote in history. Neither involved the extraordinary lockdown and social distancing experiment we are now witnessing. Avoidable death and disease is still part of the fabric of our societies. Even in this crisis, we are being compelled to make choices between the relative risks of opening the economy and saving lives. But the global determination to minimise the deaths that result from this disease, even if the price is a hitherto unimagined disruption to our lives, is itself quite unprecedented. It gives a new form of moral expression to the idea of life.
Contrary to expectations, such cataclysms do not also readily alter us. Human nature remains recognisably human: our prejudices and antipathies, generosities and allegiances still govern us. Crises like these, more often than not, are understood in relation to the webs of belief we already possess. For radicals, this crisis will be a pivot to radical change; for conservatives, this will call for familiar comforts. We will hang our favourite theories to this crisis. Those who are tempted by the satisfactions of conspiracy will seek conspiracies everywhere; those who coolly sift through complicated data will work in their mode. There will be extraordinary occasions of solidarity, but also the occasion for venting prejudice. We will want the freedom to be human again, not necessarily the freedom to be better ones.
Given the magnitude of the challenge Covid-19 poses, there is bound to be significant historical change. This essay is a rumination on some of the possible drivers of change this crisis might unleash. These are only potential drivers that might transform our economies, the relation between state and the individual, and the nature of the global order. It is worth reiterating that almost every parameter of this crisis is uncertain, so it would take even more hubris than most writers are used to, to hazard a guess about the future. But we can at least try and take stock of how the sands might be shifting.
SCIENCE IS OUR MORNING PRAYER
Before we come to history after Covid-19, here is one preliminary thought on the relationship between nature and us. Unlike our ancestors, or many previous historical episodes of plague and other epidemics, we do not see this episode as nature, in the form of a pesky little virus, humbling humankind. Many had hoped that this pandemic will, in some form or other, remind us of our creatureliness, our dependence upon nature, and the hubris with which we sometimes act over it. This is nature finally getting its revenge on us. The premise of so much of our response to the pandemic comes from the premise of the mastery over nature, not submission to it. We think, rightly, that the pandemic was preventable. This was not an unforeseen event. Our forms of knowledge had always warned us of the possibility that such a pandemic could take place. Our anger stems from the fact that we reacted too late on the knowledge we had. We have not paid sufficient attention to the dangers of zoonotic transmission. Had China, for instance, informed the world earlier than it did of the existence of this virus, the scale of devastation it has caused could have been minimised. Had the World Health Organization (WHO) got its act together, the international response could have been better coordinated. Had governments in other parts of the world prepared and acted in time, its spread could have been contained. Had our public health systems been in shape, our response would have been more effective. The lesson we will draw from the crisis is not that we need to radically attune ourselves to nature, instead of mastering it. The focus will instead be on the deficiencies in our form of mastery, the failure of human institutions to gather and act on the knowledge that would have allowed them to anticipate and defuse this threat.
This might be of interest for two reasons. First, whatever alternative future humanity might imagine for itself after this crisis, it is unlikely to spill over into a radically new relationship between human beings and the planet they inhabit. One of the comforts we can draw from the hope that science will ultimately allow us mastery is that this hope relieves us of the burden of deep and radical social change. To be sure, every major epidemic, in its own way, calls for behavioural changes. This one will also perhaps change our quotidian behaviour in many ways: from inculcating the habits of handwashing to circumspection about physical contact without adequate protection. But the burden on us to change, or radically alter our behaviour, would be so much more, in the absence of a scientific solution on which we can rely. In one sense, science is now our morning prayer. We look to news of a new testing kit, a cheaper ventilator, a breakthrough in vaccine, new knowledge of human immunity, to not just help us ward off suffering and death. We look to it to create the conditions where the world as we know it can be held together.
We look to news of a new testing kit, a cheaper ventilator, a breakthrough in vaccine, new knowledge of human immunity, to not just help us ward off suffering and death. We look to it to create the conditions where the world as we know it can be held together
Many had hoped that this crisis would also have spillovers in the way we think of other crises confronting humanity. For instance, climate change. There are some, especially the rightwing in the US, who deny the reality or at least the urgency of climate change. But even those who accept the reality of climate change, resist urgent action for a number of reasons. There is the conflict between short-term and long-term interests, conflict over the distributive conflicts over who bears the cost of the change, and the inability to think of this planet as something we inhabit in common, not something parcelled out as property or sovereignty. I suspect, however, even more than these familiar obstacles, there is the modern complacency about mastery. Somehow, we think, when the crunch time comes, our collective technological and scientific resources will find a solution. The challenge is to incentivise our knowledge systems. The challenge is not that we need to change radically or envisage a future which imagines a radically different relationship with nature. Just as we hope that the solution to the coronavirus will turn out to be a scientific breakthrough, the solution to climate change will turn out to be a bunch of engineering interventions. The obstacle to thinking about climate change may be overconfidence in our powers. The only question is when we can concentrate our minds on those interventions. There is a temptation, after each human calamity, to talk metaphysically of the humbling of human conceit, of our vulnerability to nature. But as a species, our self-identity has now become that of mastery. Each adversity—or rather its overcoming—does not change this drive to mastery. It is at least as likely that, in this respect, nothing fundamentally changes about our orientation to the world. It is as if there is no middle ground to be had between fatalism and mastery, and if that is the choice, mastery will triumph.
THE MOST RADICAL SOCIAL SHIFT
No matter how this crisis unfolds, it has revealed the stark vulnerability of many of our political and social structures. In order to understand those vulnerabilities, we need to take a short detour through our recent history. One of the paradoxes of modernity is this: We do not think nature imposes any ‘necessary’ constraints on us. As what Jedediah Purdy calls an ‘infrastructure species’, we seem to want to reengineer the planet, influencing everything from its carbon and nitrogen cycles to altering its landscape. When it comes to society, we more generously submit to the constraints of necessity. It is as if we are saying: We can remake nature, but we cannot remake the institutions that we ourselves created. Nature is easier to re-imagine and remake than our own artifice.
Ever since Edmund Burke’s critique of the revolutionary project, remaking society to conform to first principles has been associated with two horrors. First, the project itself entails a concentration of power such that it can pose a risk to ordinary human liberties. Second, to re-imagine human nature functioning differently under different arrangements is a speculative fantasy at best, a monstrous political project at worst. It may require an omniscience and omnipotence that will destroy humanity itself. So incremental change is the best we can hope for, a slowly negotiated accretion of our possibilities. It can be debated whether this conservatism embodied genuine wisdom or self-servingly condoned too much injustice. But the doctrine acknowledged the imperfection of our world and told us to put up with it. It demanded a certain humility towards our own power, especially in relation to the social world. The necessity imposed on us was the necessity of our limited knowledge.
Over the last couple of decades, we have been subject to another kind of necessity in relation to the social world. This is not deference to necessity born of the limits to our knowledge; this is a glorification of necessity that flows from our superior knowledge. Its foundations are not epistemic humility, but the alleged certainties of some forms social science. Large features of our social order, from inequality to privatisation, were legitimised on the grounds of their optimality and efficiency. So many policy measures, from low taxes on the wealthy to cuts in funding public research, were defended as the necessary means of creating more productive economies. And instead of recognising that human beings work on a variety of motivations from self-love to benevolence, and that healthy societies nurture and build on that variety, our dominant policy frameworks largely emphasised one word: incentives. All the features of our social order became necessary. Necessity immobilised broader questions of justice and value. Counter movements to this reign of necessity were feeble, or domesticated with minor modifications within this architecture.
One of the striking things about the pandemic is the astonishing display of what the powers of surveillance can do. If you so much as take two false steps, the state can be at your doorstep before you know it
But if social movements could not displace this empire of entrenched ideas of necessity, Covid-19 has done that. The lines of what we now consider necessary to a sustainable society, if still not a deeply just one, have radically shifted. In some ways, the lines were already beginning to shift with the so-called populist revolts against what was regarded as liberal centrism. Much of the political and aesthetic appeal of this politics was not so much a reasoned critique of markets or globalisation. It was a revolt against presenting them as a kind of fatality, a necessary fate to which all politics and the state must adjust. The desire to reclaim sovereignty was often less about justice; it was still about the human aspiration that our economic fates should be, in some senses, under our collective control. Often this politics expressed itself against existing institutions. It made it easy to dismantle or weaken the existing institutions in many democracies, because those institutions were seen as either corrupt or simply a technocratic bulwark against popular control. This politics also exploited two tensions at the heart of globalisation. The first, the tension between its beneficiaries and its losers. While globalisation may have produced immense good, it left behind a significant number of citizens who began to feel marginalised by the global process. Globalisation also opened up fissures within the cultural matrix of societies. The fears, imagined or real, of the dominance of particular ethnic groups being challenged, the norms of membership and the cultural landscapes of societies being altered, led to something of a backlash against globalisation almost everywhere in the world.
This incipient backlash against globalisation was not accompanied by any possibility of a radically transformative agenda. In many countries, its effect was felt more in the degradation of institutions and in the fabric of cultural life. But the main premises of domestic economic policy showed more continuity than discontinuity. After the 2009 financial crisis, it was fashionable to say that “We are all socialists now.” Yet, the evidence that something remotely approaching ‘socialism’ could ever command assent in a broad electoral contest remained thin. It was also a reminder that, with every major crisis, we thought the world would change significantly. But despite the convulsions of populist politics, the old order reasserted itself.
THE FIVE SHAKY PILLARS
The current economic order was built on five organising social principles: Exit, Invisibility, Inequality, Insecurity and Privatisation. These are, of course, unevenly realised in different social and economic orders. But we thought in terms of these. The crisis has exposed the vulnerability of a society founded on these principles. Take the first principle: Exit. The current economic order was largely premised on the ability of elites to exit and insulate themselves somewhat from the societies around them. Elites could insure themselves against risk, largely through private provisioning—private school, private healthcare, private security. They could use the exit gamble as a way of making arbitrary policies seem necessary. Think of, for example, the fact that countries were loath to increase taxes on the wealthy for fear that they could literally secede. The first lesson of this crisis is that exit is no longer an option. A world of frictionless travel may have spread the virus. But there is no question that, in a sense, even one ill person could affect all. The privileged will still find it relatively easy to exit, withdraw and protect themselves against risk. There are now clear limits to how much exit can insulate them, their work, and their businesses. Their fates are more implicated in the social orders they inhabit than they recognise.
The second principle of the current order was Invisibility. In part, what made the social order seem so natural, constraining change, was the fact that its main sinews were invisible. The poor, as Adam Smith had pointed out, were always invisible; invisibility is often the most pressing indignity associated with poverty. There are other forms of invisibility as well: the lack of recognition of just how much we depend on the labour of others; the lack of recognition of the kinds of frontline workers and citizens who make the economy tick. The invisibility associated with the market economy is not the invisibility of the invisible hand. It is the alchemy by which it makes invisible important forms of labour, whether it is the dependence on domestic help in India, or childcare in advanced countries, or the gendered division of labour that marks our economies, or immigrants doing dangerous jobs no one else wants to. The capacity of social orders to render us invisible to each other has always been remarkable. This crisis has, in a small way, confronted us with what that labour means; it has made both its condition and the value of its work more visible to us. The one fleeting achievement—given our past record, there is reason to think this achievement will be fleeting indeed—of the crisis might be to just open that little crack, so that we can see who is on the other side of the wall.
The third principle of the current order was Inequality—another old affliction of human society. One of the somewhat dispiriting lessons of history is that the push towards greater equality comes under exceptional circumstances. Usually, it has been the taxation facilitated by national crises like war that has propelled institutional change. Inequality, the struggle between those who have and those who do not, has been a perennial theme of politics. Even in this crisis, the cliché that disease knows no distinctions of caste or class has been matched equally by the truism that it does. The power to isolate from society itself became a marker of privilege and inequality. From the strength of immune systems to the ability to self-quarantine, to access to medical care, the disease in some ways once again exposed the stark inequality that characterises our relationship to disease. Why will the crisis change this? Perhaps the spectre of 15 or 20 per cent unemployment, even if temporary, or the catastrophic failure of large numbers of businesses, will create the conditions for thinking that while societies can put up with large degrees of inequality, on our scale of experience, they might turn out to be catastrophic.
The fourth principle of the existing order was Insecurity. Insecurity was, in some ways, almost the guiding motor of human endeavour. Security, other than in the militarised parlance that nations are prone to, became a bad word. Income security would diminish incentives; job security would distort labour markets; social security would be a drag on efficient expenditure. In a sense, the idolisation of the gig economy—short-term contracts, incentive-driven payment structures, no security against economic fluctuations—was the symbol of insecurity becoming almost a reigning necessity. In developing countries, the prospect that millions of informal sector workers, the epitome of insecurity, could literally starve if the economy stopped even for day, brought home the precariousness of the economic circumstances that confront most people.
Globalization is not a done deal. There will still be contradictory forces pulling us in different directions. The most likely outcomes are that financial globalisation will continue. The focus of international cooperation will shift to the creation of some more global public goods, such as health and scientific cooperation
The fifth organising principle of this social order was Privatisation. In some senses, exit was one manifestation of the emphasis on private provision over public investment. The degree to which this happened varies across societies. Some, like Europe, still have robust national healthcare systems, some provided social security more than others, and some countries none at all. Countries like India have, albeit very slowly, been building up social security systems, though our focus in healthcare has largely been on private insurance rather than public health. The positioning of all goods that make for a sustainable society as private goods—security, environment, health, education, research, the arts, critical infrastructure—has had damaging consequences.
RETURN OF THE STATE
Exit, Invisibility, Inequality, Insecurity and Privatisation were all pillars of a mutually reinforcing social imaginary. This social imaginary took on an almost natural status. These are the principles, we argued, that were necessary for a productive society, almost like ordained laws. Many of them are likely to remain obdurate features of our social reality, difficult to change. But there are four aspects of this crisis that suggest there might finally be some pushback against them.
The first is simply the recognition that state capacity matters. The form of government—whether authoritarian or democratic—seems to matter less than the state’s ability to mobilise knowledge, personnel and resources. The resilience of a society is a function of the nimbleness of its state. The state does not need only the legal power to do whatever it does to protect life; it needs the actual capacity to do so. Political leaders in different countries will be assessed on how they handled the crisis. It is too soon to tell what this might mean for the political fortunes of different political parties although, at first cut, in democracies, Narendra Modi seems to be rising in popularity; Donald Trump is declining; Boris Johnson is making up for his early missteps with more boldness on the economic package; Angela Merkel is providing reassurance to Germany, but less so for the larger European project. This crisis has given a lot of state-level and provincial leaders the opportunity to shine and many have risen to the challenge. Politics is never suspended under any circumstances. However, there is one profound sense in which it has been suspended. No one, including the opposition, can wish that incumbent governments fail in tackling the crisis. The human costs will be quite devastating. And yet, success in some sense means political benefits for the incumbents.
Even as politicians are subject to varying degrees of adulation or criticism, the frontline workers of the state will again rise in public esteem and consciousness. Even the much-maligned Indian police, often dismayingly caught on camera mistreating vulnerable migrant workers, quickly turned around in many states into an astonishingly dedicated service provider—from providing meals to doing frontline medical surveillance. The derision for government employees and state capacity was one pillar that justified the social imaginary described above. It was at the centre of a vicious circle—the state was not capable, so we will not invest in it or in public goods, and since we did not invest in it, its incapacities seemed permanently enshrined. The crisis has shown the true measure and mettle of so many state employees that this argument now seems unfair, if not ideologically blinkered. Even if many politicians do not survive this crisis, the state will be strengthened.
Even as politicians are subject to varying degrees of adulation or criticism, the frontline workers of the state will again rise in public esteem and consciousness. Even the much-maligned Indian police, often dismayingly caught on camera mistreating vulnerable migrant workers, quickly turned around in many states into an astonishingly dedicated service provider—from providing meals to doing frontline medical surveillance
Second, the scale of the crisis has already forced all governments to put aside the traditional economic pieties. The boundary of necessity has shifted. You might say crises allow governments to create new instruments of policy that were previously thought politically unthinkable. When uncertainties are deep and pervasive, and standard pricing mechanisms no longer work, the state has so many degrees of freedom to take unorthodox measures. The current crisis is, as Adam Tooze so ably documents, the biggest shock to the global economy since World War II. The unemployment figures for both developing and developed countries will be staggering if this crisis lasts or recurs. In the US, they exceed the rate we saw at the peak of the 2009 financial crisis. If austerity and fiscal conservatism was considered the necessity we transgressed at our own peril, it is now the luxury no one can afford. In 2009, President Barack Obama thought a $1 trillion package would be crossing a psychological barrier for American politics; President Trump just signed a $2 trillion package. Central banks are pulling no stops in shoring up the economy, and suddenly, most monetary constraints seem to have, in some senses, disappeared. India’s welfare package focuses on distributing foodgrain, free gas cylinders and a very modest cash transfer. But there is an unusual economic consensus that India will have to greatly enhance its cash and welfare assistance. The aura of necessity that surrounded so much economic thinking has melted into thin air.
Third, the scale of the economic devastation, particularly for the poor, has the potential to change the political economy dynamics of different societies. Europe always has more social protection in the form of access to public health and education. It has also typically protected workers more against economic shocks; welfare protections have been the buffer against the vulnerabilities of global integration. The US, on the other hand, relies on more flexible labour markets. At least in terms of unemployment figures, this model was working right till the crisis hit. But as the crisis developed, the number of unemployed has risen dramatically to six million. And the spectral scenes of Americans lining up at food banks have shown just how precarious labour is to shocks. In developing countries like India, as the migration crisis so viscerally demonstrated, social protection for workers is almost negligible. While the crisis confined the privileged to their homes, it also pushed the poor even more into territory where the fear for survival is high, the availability of food low, and the unforgiving character of economic hierarchy might become life threatening. The potential scale of the economic vulnerability of the poor to slowing growth and frequent shocks will make it more imperative to secure at least some form of social security for them.
Fourth, the shocks that emanate from this crisis will also hit the middle class. The consciousness that public capacities matter for their well-being will rise. Large sectors of the economy will require support from the state. The myth that the middle class is independent (always a myth) while the poor require welfare, will be shattered. It is also politically hard to make the case for support for business without some compensating support for workers. It is also quite likely that a crisis like this might accelerate automation and a possible strain on employment generation. Businesses may try and become more resilient by relying more on automation. This could hit the middle class as much as anyone else. The recognition that the middle class might also require more state support could alter the dynamics of resistance to a new social contract.
THE BIRTH OF A NEW SOCIAL CONTRACT
This crisis, by laying bare the structure of our economic vulnerabilities, could possibly create something of a counter movement towards a new social contract. It has to be emphasised that this is just a possibility; societies can sometimes, in a moment of crisis, also choose paths of self-destruction. Political capacity to live in denial can be quite high, and there are many practical obstacles to politically mobilising the most vulnerable. The historical conditions might be more propitious for a new social contract that reverses the tide of exit, invisibility, insecurity, inequality, and privatisation of public services. The glimmers of solidarity that emerged in this crisis, in recognition that we are all vulnerable, will not last. But they give the new social contract a leg to stand on. The details of this social contract will be debated and contested. In the long run, the move towards at least three elements is likely: more regular cash transfers, potentially leading to some architecture of basic income; enhanced investment in public goods; and higher taxes to defray the costs of the crisis.
We also need to remember one lesson from history. In a strange way, this crisis has come when many governments in the world are ‘rightwing’ or right-of-centre. These parties typically block the move to the left when in opposition. Historically, rightwing parties are also capable of quick turnarounds. After all, Bismarck and Churchill had both pivoted to something like more radical support when it suited them. They are politically astute, ruthless in outflanking their opponents, and to that extent, their ideology is not a constraint. We may see some of that happen.
Notwithstanding stories of Chinese aid, the crisis will increase suspicion of China. Some of it will, unfortunately, have a racist undertone to it. Countries will look to decrease their dependence on China. The suspicion of a closed system that represses information, that is more intent on saving face than being transparent, that is now willing to engage in wars of disinformation to get its way, will grow
For a country like India, none of this is going to be easy. How countries manage this crisis will partly be a function of how much resilience their economies had before the crisis. Even before the crisis hit, the private sector was struggling; export growth was negligible. The crisis of the Indian banking system and the challenge of non-performing assets have not been fully resolved. While the drop in oil prices may cushion India, there is a serious prospect of decline in remittances, and the return migration from the Gulf. State government finances are struggling to keep up even with the immediate challenges of the pandemic. It will not be easy to resolve the deepening social and economic vulnerabilities that the pandemic has exposed. But if, even within these constraints, our priorities do display a modicum of commitment to creating security for the vulnerable, the social and political costs will be high.
SURVIVING THE SURVEILLANCE STATE
Ever since 9/11, even in the most liberal democracies, the appetite for surveillance has increased considerably. States argued that they could not discharge their primary function of addressing our fear without some powers of surveillance. This move coincided with two tectonic changes. The first was a revolution in technology, which has so unimaginably enhanced the powers of surveillance, and the triangulation of data to track citizens. The second was an economic model premised on collecting as much information as possible about individuals, to know us perhaps better than we know ourselves. The Faustian bargain was that this data would not just allow companies to more efficiently serve us, but it would cater to our deepest desires too. As Dave Eggers dramatically put it, in this new order, privacy became theft. Withholding data was, in some ways, obstructing the progress of mankind. We needed to make ourselves more transparent to the world for the world to serve us better. We will be defined, not as we choose to, but as the state and private entities decode us through our metadata. We also became more vicarious, intruding on moments in other people’s lives that are not our own. But there is a deeper concern: as everything about us is potentially colonised by the imperatives of state power or commercial needs, what we are left with is a wholesale instrumentalisation of the self, where every action, every gesture, every thought ends up serving the logic of mammon or the state. Privacy became an alien idea. Privacy is not about the wish to hide; it is about having a space which is truly one’s own, where we are not instruments of someone else’s purposes.
These changes were accompanied by two vulnerabilities. The information revolution, even as it levelled many knowledge divides, made us also more exposed to misinformation. The thought that our desires, fears and political beliefs could be manipulated became a recurring threat. Rather than liberating us from fear, it added a new dimension to fear. On the one hand, the algorithms and the processes by which we are exposed to information remained opaque. On the other hand, the potential that certain kinds of misinformation could have significant consequences for society began to weigh on our consciousness, providing states the perfect reason to try and regulate speech. Even in the coronavirus crisis, states have armed themselves with more power to regulate what they regard as ‘misinformation’.
The anti-immigration sentiment in most countries is likely to continue, even if far-right parties electorally decline. The relatively seamless movement of people, that at least the elites experienced, will be hampered in the short run. It is also quite likely that nationalism will also become one way of trying to manage the deepening social contradictions
The second vulnerability is the fear of other people. The coronavirus crisis has two commonalities with 9/11. The first is that even individuals or small groups of individuals can, in certain circumstances, create disproportionately large disruptive effects.
A small group of terrorists can have a large effect; a small group of super carriers might impose significant costs. The phrase “Oh, it’s just a small group” no longer has any meaning. Second, the spectre that these individuals could be anywhere; they could also be anybody. The interdependence and mobility in the globalised world meant that effects can also reverberate very quickly across the world. So the state argues the job of protecting us requires total surveillance. If the job of the state is to protect your life, so the argument goes, it cannot protect life without information. The totality of the information order impinges on our ability to save individual lives. One of the striking things about the Covid-19 crisis is the absolutely astonishing display of what the powers of surveillance can do. If you so much as take two false steps, the state can be at your doorstep before you know it.
Our previous regimes were founded on the principle that states would control us; liberty and privacy was something we claimed against state power to make us feel more secure. Now, security comes from an opposite sentiment: the more we might know about other people—their body temperature, their past, the assurance that someone is watching them—the more secure we will feel. The panopticon is legitimised not as the tool of surveillance but as a precondition of our security. If Hobbes’ Leviathan relieved us of our fear by assuring everyone that the state could punish anyone who transgressed the law, the modern Leviathan claims to relieve us of our fears by assuring us that they know exactly what is going on with everyone. The onus has shifted from fearing the state to fearing society—a perfect recipe for the enhancement of surveillance powers.
There is no question that this crisis will legitimise even more surveillance and the linking of databases. Even for those of us old-fashioned enough to value privacy, we have to admit that the answers are not easy. If constantly sharing health data, monitoring the movements of potential carriers, even at the risk of transgressing privacy, is the condition of opening up the economy or allowing travel, who will really object? Will we see curtailing privacy as enabling some freedoms we have lost, as much as we see it as a threat? In a way, interdependence, combined with the potential of individuals to have disproportionate effects, and our willingness to put ourselves on display has, in a strange way, dissolved the boundaries of our selves, making privacy, in a classical sense, harder to sustain. The only two things we can hope for are these: the first is to ensure that commercial interests, and the imperatives of profiting from data, do not drive the information architectures we create. This is easier said than done, but it is the heart of the surveillance debate. The second is to ensure that, even as the boundaries of surveillance are extended, we press for as robust checks and balances as possible, both in the authorisation of surveillance and in the data architectures used for them.
How long long will lockdowns remain an intermittent feature of our lives? How long will social distancing stay the new normal? This is a judgment call only scientists can make. But we will still live in the conviction that the future will at some point be ours again
The worry is that both of these countermeasures are unlikely at this historical juncture. In a way, the security arguments have so habituated us to defer to the state that the default political commonsense has changed. The fear of pandemics, even more than the fear of terrorism, will change our psychological register in favour of surveillance. We are also at a historical juncture where, across the board, accountability and oversight of the executive has considerably decreased. In countries like India, the institutions that could play a mediating role in creating more reassuring information architectures—particularly Parliament and the judiciary—have become even more executive-minded than the executive. If the crisis provoked unorthodox economic thinking, it has also occasioned unorthodox legal thinking. The decision to lock down India was justified. We relied on a whole range of legal instruments, from the National Disaster Relief and Management Act to the colonial Epidemic Diseases Act, in addition to a whole range of police powers. These emergency measures have a way of becoming constitutional commonsense: Hungary might be the constitutional future of more democracies than we care to admit.
This crisis has also come at the time of an ascendancy of the politics of nationalism. It is important to reiterate that neither the deepening of the surveillance state nor the increased discretion for executive power is the creation of rightwing parties; the Left and the centrist parties are deeply complicit in this. The ascendancy of nationalism, the creation of political cultures in many countries like India where all citizens are increasingly expected to march to the same drumbeat, makes so much as a whiff of questioning of executive power suspect. The increasing communalisation of politics in countries like India suggests that the overlay of the two motives for surveillance—public health and the relentless drive to find enemies—will reinforce each other. The impetus to subject citizens to the total gaze of the state will be complete. There are no ideological resources left to resist it, without being declared anti-national, or a constitutional dinosaur from an age when forms and institutions, checks and balances mattered.
THE FATE OF GLOBALISATION HANGS IN THE BALANCE
Even before the crisis hit, the global order was under two kinds of strain. International institutions have always served structures of power. Even within those constraints, they can elicit many effective forms of global cooperation. Over the last few years, so many of the global coordinating mechanisms, from G-7 to G-20, from the WHO to the World Trade Organization (WTO), have been severely depleted in power and authority. This is a crisis where global effectiveness could have been enhanced by more effective coordination. The second strain was the push towards de-globalisation led by the US, largely in response to China. Tariffs were going up, investment barriers being raised, knowledge flows regulated, immigration being curtailed. The magnitude of these effects was still relatively modest, but the intention to reverse the fantasy of a frictionless world of globalisation was palpable. What will happen to these trends? Here are some preliminary trends worth thinking about.
There is no question that the political currents, if not the economic logic in more countries, will seek to have more diversified supply chains, and be wary of an overdependence on China. But the search for diversified supply chains does not necessarily mean a reversal of globalisation; it just means a diversification of sources away from China. Except for a few critical items in health, it is difficult to imagine the rationality of going back to fullscale protectionism of the kind countries like India had in the 1950s. The only joker in the pack in this regard is the US, which has the resources, the market size and the technological wherewithal to truly put itself and only itself first, without the imperative of reciprocity. Protectionist sentiments in the US are high. Second, there is a rather curious phenomenon still evident in this crisis. A main driver of globalisation was finance, not trade. Many economists had worried about the ways in which countries prioritised financial globalisation and relied on global capital flows rather than trade. Whatever the pitfalls of finance, it is a huge driver for keeping economies open. Even in the midst of this crisis, there is no evidence that countries are going to reverse financial globalisation. Nationalists everywhere might make noises about putting their countries first. Most economies will require global finance even to put their own countries first. So calls for de-globalisation may quickly run into the mercurial logic of global finance. India cannot hope to ‘import’ capital if it closes itself off to the rest of the world.
Political leaders will be assessed on how they handled the crisis. It is too soon to tell what this might mean for the fortunes of parties. Although, in democracies, Narendra Modi seems to be rising in popularity; Donald Trump is declining; Boris Johnson is making up for his early missteps with more boldness
The drivers for de-globalisation will come from domestic political imperatives rather than global economic logic. It took a few years for us to discern the protectionist undercurrents that the 2009 financial crisis unleashed. If countries experience slow growth and high unemployment, the political case for sustaining globalisation will grow weaker. So, in part, the prospects of globalisation depend on just how severe the shock of this crisis will be. Economic stress often leads to calls for more closed societies. The anti-immigration sentiment in most countries is likely to continue, even if far-right parties electorally decline. The relatively seamless movement of people, that at least the elites experienced, will be hampered in the short run. It is also quite likely that nationalism will also become one way of trying to manage and paper over the deepening social contradictions.
There is no question that the question of globalisation, partly, turns on the China Question. The pro-globalisation story was premised, again partly, upon a certain trajectory to China’s rise. There was no expectation that China would become a liberal democracy. But it would be able to present itself as a relatively benign authoritarian state internally, an influential yet not overly aggressive, player globally. But in so many different ways, China has begun to project an even more deeply authoritarian and aggressive nationalism. It can be speculated that, as is often the case, the impetus towards greater authoritarianism within, and aggressive nationalism abroad, comes from the legitimising imperatives of Xi Jinping. As Jiwei Ci has argued in Democracy in China: The Coming Crisis, with the waning of China’s revolutionary legacy and uncertainty over succession, the Party is asserting its right to rule based on nationalism. Its aggressive international posture is a way to compensate for a domestic legitimacy crisis. The question is, does this posture enhance China’s international standing or diminish it?
Political leaders will be assessed on how they handled the crisis. It is too soon to tell what this might mean for the fortunes of parties. Although, in democracies, Narendra Modi seems to be rising in popularity; Donald Trump is declining; Boris Johnson is making up for his early missteps with more boldness
Notwithstanding stories of Chinese aid, and the supply of Chinese medical goods, the Covid-19 crisis will increase suspicion of China. Some of it will, unfortunately, have a racist undertone to it. Countries will look to decrease their dependence on China. But the Trump administration’s whimsically damaging unreliability has made the conversation on managing China more difficult. It has made it harder to think of alternatives. The suspicion of a closed system that represses information, that is more intent on saving face than being transparent, that is now willing to engage in wars of disinformation to get its way, that is willing to weaken the working of international organisations by capturing them, will grow. But the fact that news of the virus was repressed and even the WHO was arm-twisted into moderating its warnings will make the political backlash against China more powerful.
But this global suspicion of China will be offset by two considerations. With almost all countries preoccupied with the magnitude of their domestic challenges, the will to resist the allure of economic cooperation of China will diminish. Second, hopefully, one of the lessons to draw from this crisis is that to keep globalisation running seamlessly will require building reservoirs of cooperation and trust. This is true in so many areas where global interdependence can magnify the power of small interventions. It is not in the nature of the Chinese regime to admit to its mistakes on an international stage. It will go on the offensive to offset any criticism of its conduct. Yet, the hope is that quietly, behind the scenes, it will help create conditions so that such a mistake is never repeated. As much as the world wants to censure China, it will also have to give it the face-saver so that it can be brought back into the ambit of global cooperation.
The fate of globalisation still hangs in the balance. It is not a done deal. There will still be contradictory forces pulling us in different directions. The most likely outcomes are that financial globalisation will continue. The focus of international cooperation will shift to the creation of some more global public goods, such as health and scientific cooperation. It might take a crisis like this to concentrate the world’s attention on the fact that the WHO, or some organisation like it, might be an even more important node for the future of global cooperation, as important as financial or trade institutions were. This may not be such a bad deal. On trade and great power competition, the drivers will depend on how China handles its domestic crisis of legitimacy, and how protracted the US slowdown is. The coronavirus crisis will not alter the course of history; it will only accentuate some trends.
BUILDING THE POST-PANDEMIC FUTURE
The truth of most crises is that they do not bring forth much that is new. More often than not, they simply remind us of what we already knew. We acted as if that knowledge did not exist. The pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities, revealed the capacities of societies, and reminded us of the priorities which governed our actions, and how misplaced some of them might have been. It is fashionable at this moment to return to Camus’ great but politically controversial novel, The Plague. The novel describes both the creeping desolation that the plague produces, and the attendant moral and existential dilemmas it occasions. Somewhat less successfully, The Plague was also an allegory of creeping Nazism. It turns on two themes, one more compelling than the other. The first is the reiteration of the abstract problem of evil. Who can make sense of the suffering in the world, and the accompanying ethical irrationality of the world? The problem with this question is the following. First, it is not clear what form of knowledge can actually answer this kind of question. Certainly no religious text really does, or actually claims to. All abstract arguments in the face of this question, even words attributed to God, end in silence. The second contention, which was more compelling, is that the experience of life shows us that when we are up against a challenge, even suffering, the compulsion is seldom to worry about the abstract problem. The compulsion, rather, is to cope with the challenge, the ability to make the next move, finding the resolve to get through it. The one character, Joseph Grand, who survives the plague, does not forget who he loves, pursues his passion in literature, and goes forward to help with the dangerous work of sanitation.
The unemployment figures for both developing and developed countries will be staggering. In the US, they exceed the rate we saw at the peak of the 2009 financial crisis. India’s welfare package focuses on distributing foodgrain, free gas cylinders and a very modest cash transfer. But there is an unusual economic consensus that India will have to greatly enhance its cash and welfare assistance. The aura of necessity that surrounded so much economic thinking has melted into thin air
The pandemic, if it lasts longer, will test the fortitude of individuals. Some will, inevitably, suffer loss. Millions more are facing not disease or death but deep uncertainty about the future. It is the kind of uncertainty we are not used to. Modern thought works on the idea that everything could be contingent. Things do not necessarily have to be the way they are. There are no necessary identities, social arrangements, or, perhaps (except in logic), even necessary truth. In social life, we act as if there are necessary pathways we have to take; we orient ourselves not by the thought that things could be different but that they are familiar and predictable. The crisis has, by taking away so much we take for granted—movement, work, human proximity, crowds—exposed us to what contingency means as condition. For a fleeting moment, we came face to face with the thought that we cannot take anything for granted. For some, particularly the most economically vulnerable, the temporary vanishing of our economic and social certitudes could be devastating. It also makes us think that perhaps the world could at least be arranged slightly differently. Its structures could acknowledge that no one can be, to use Donne’s phrase, an island, indifferent to everything around them. Like Joseph Grand, we can recognise our loves, pursue our passions. We might also think about how we can reconstruct the post-pandemic world, based not on distance and fear, but solidarity and hope.