WHILE the world is still reeling from Covid-19’s impact, idealistic revolutionaries are already looking beyond it. They envision this crisis may upend populism, cause major wealth redistribution and produce a fairer world. How valid is this view?
Many recent natural pandemics had mortality numbers similar to the worst projected for Covid-19. The 1918, 1956 and 1968 flu pandemics killed millions. None gave long-lasting equity globally, or even nationally. But then, none created the huge global economic turmoil that Covid-19 has already. This high dislocation even in rich states feeds hope of a fairer world among revolutionaries. So, rather than looking at past pandemics, one must compare the Covid-19 crisis with outcomes of huge global dislocations in the modern era due to different causes to see if it will lead to lasting equity.
The modern era emerged from one such period of dislocation caused by scientific discoveries during the 17th-18th centuries. It rendered feudal economies unproductive and uncompetitive with the emergence of democratic and capitalist European states. The changes led to some equity as power went from a small landed class to a bigger middle class. But the changes did not give much to the European working class and also led to brutal colonisation globally.
This situation continued till the early 20th century, which saw several cataclysmic events, including two world wars, the global depression and the 1918 flu pandemic. Much of this dislocation was linked to the inequities of global capitalism. From these events emerged a major push towards greater equity (via communism in the East bloc and social democracy in the West), decolonisation and global institutions.
Clear lessons emerge from eras of great change.
Even this did not produce long-lasting equity. Communism presented initial equity, but later brought human rights abuses and economic stagnation. It became especially exposed in comparison with the higher productivity of capitalism and democratic freedom which led to its collapse. In the West, too, social democracy started fraying by the 1970s and gave way to neoliberal capitalism. This upped global and national inequities, weakened global institutions and produced neo-imperialism globally.
These neoliberal trends led to another cycle of dislocation in the 21st century, with post-9/11 global terrorism and the 2008 recession. The terrorism-related violence did not compare with that of the two world wars; nor did the economic turmoil of 2008 with that of 1929. The result was thus not a move towards equity, but towards the bigoted politics we see spreading today at a slightly slower pace than Covid-19.
Clear lessons emerge from these eras of huge changes based on the degree of dislocation faced by the existing systems then. The least dislocation is when a system’s inputs and outputs are temporarily disrupted. A higher level of dislocation is when system processing units are damaged temporarily. The highest level is when institutions and ideology underpinning a system are seen as faulty, leading to its demise. This happened in two of the four cases, ie the demise of feudalism and communism, as their institutions and ideologies were supplanted by capitalist ones.
But even so, neither change led to long-lasting equity. The other two cases from early 20th and 21st centuries emerged from capitalism’s weaknesses. Mayhem in the early 1900s only caused major disruption of system-processing units and questioning of capitalism’s excesses, but not of its basic ideology and institutions. Thus, it did not lead to capitalism’s demise, but internal reform. The early 21st century did not even see that.
How deeply will various projected scenarios for Covid-19 affect capitalism? An optimistic scenario says the crisis may end in two to three months. This will only briefly disrupt capitalism’s inputs and outputs. The focus will be on technical solutions to protect the rich from pandemics. But if it lingers on a few months more, large portions of its processing units may go bankrupt. State bailouts would be required to reboot them. With many states already indebted, high debt levels will necessitate increased taxes on the rich. But with basic ideology unscathed, this phase may be brief. Finally, a more prolonged crisis may lead to a major law-and-order meltdown, thus damaging capitalist ideology and institutions.
However, this scenario is unlikely. Even if it happens, who will fill the gap? Are progressive ideas and networks strong enough to steer society towards equity? Actually, terrorists, mafias, populists and autocracies like China and Russia may be better equipped to fill the gap. Thus, a fairer world seems an unlikely outcome of Covid-19. But it may come from a few more major capitalist mishaps and revolutionaries converting their dreams into concrete policy ideas for a fairer world to undermine capitalistic ideology.
The writer is a Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.
Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2020