7/7 – Opus Magnum: How the Pandemic is Changing the World

Artikeln tidigare publicerad på thesis eleven.

This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis.

by Göran Therborn

The COVID-19 pandemic operates as a magnifying force to social actors, and as a magnifying glass to social observers. As a magnifying force it has, so far, mainly strengthened pre-existing societal tendencies. But it has also, as a huge, unexpected contingency, suddenly enlarged obstacles to many political projects, of the right – of Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson, Modi and Trump, for instance – as well as of the left –e.g., in Argentina, Mexico, and Spain, while at the same time enlarging the room for economic manoeuver available to the central banks and the governments of rich countries. It has magnified the tensions and frictions between states, regions, and between cities. As a magnifying glass it makes complex social patterns and their contradictions not only more visible, but also making class structures, political systems, and geopolitics appear more nakedly raw.

Planetarity, Deglobalization, and Geopolitics

One of the first striking features of the pandemic is its planetarity, its contemporaneous and inter-communicated experience on all continents from at least the beginning of March 2020, continuing for months (at least). Never before in its history has humankind had such a long consciously common experience of life and death. The World Wars and the Great Depression mainly engaged Eurasia and North America, and the commonality of the wars was the particular one of enemies fighting each other. The death toll of the so-called Spanish flu in l9l8-20 was much higher than that of the current pandemic. It amounted to 40-50 million people, corresponding to 150-200 million of the population of today’s world. In the US, the current equivalent to the 1918-20 viral deaths would have been 1.7 million dead. But the effects of the pandemic then were overwhelmed by the decisive stages of the very bloody war, by the colonial concentration of its victims, above all in British India and Kenya, brought there by returning soldiers from the imperial armies, and by the postwar economic crisis, to which the deadly flu was mostly a minor contribution.[i]

The global paths of virus contagion still remain obscure, although it is clear that COVID-19 has first of all travelled the main thoroughfares of the world, China-Western Europe-North America, preferably staying at global hubs like Paris, London, and New York, and secondarily at national nodes, from Jakarta and Delhi to Stockholm, Madrid, Cape Town, and São Paulo. It has also ecumenically enjoyed international religious gatherings as launching-pads of contagion, Christian in Daegu and Mulhouse, Muslim in Delhi, and promiscuously large mass gatherings, from Mardi Gras in New Orleans to March 8 in Madrid. The international couriers of the virus have primarily been businesspeople – doing China business – and holidaying upper and upper middle class people, carrying the contagion from their vacations in Europe – into Latin America first to their maids –including from Alpine skiing to Northern Europe.

A closer look at this planetary commonality brings out the deep divisions of humankind, divisions which foreshadow the ones likely to show up again at critical moments of the climate crisis. Old inter-state bonds and alliances, like that of the Nordic countries – with pass freedom and a common labour market since l952 and l955, respectively – NATO, the European Union, suddenly broke, albeit not necessarily irreparably, in the panic of border closures and the frantic competition for protective equipment. Each Nordic country unilaterally closed its borders to the others, virtually without advance notice. In the EU, Germany suspended the EU’s sacred freedoms, not only of movement of persons but also of goods, and for some days stopping paid medical equipment from being shipped out, e.g., to Sweden. The French had more than one experience of NATO ally USA snapping up protective gear purchased in China on the airport tarmac by overpaying in cash what the French authorities had bought.

March 2020 in modern inter-state history, or as some people would call it, to the postwar Liberal International Order, was like August 1914 in the history of the labour movement. That is, it is the moment when internationalist declarations and organizations were suddenly worth nothing, and Deutschland über alles, America First and their synonyms were sung by almost everyone.[ii] Nationalism and big power geopolitics still trump global commonalities and international treaties.

Neoliberal economic globalization took a hit in the 2008 financial crisis, but with COVID-19 not only have many global supply chains been disrupted, their very existence is becoming suspect in the eyes of many powerholders of the rich world, as a risky dependence. To Trump and the Trumpists it is even as a kind of extortion of the rich by the poor. Incoming foreign direct investment, long seen by North Atlantic economists and politicians as always beneficial and as a major vehicle of development, is now regarded as a threat by the rulers of the EU as well as of the US, especially if the investors are Chinese.[iii]As the OECD editorialized in its 2020 Economic Outlook, “The pandemic has accelerated the shift from ‘great integration’ to ‘great fragmentation’.” How far the latter will go is anybody’s guess, but neoliberal globalization since about l980 is dying.

Another fatality of the pandemic is US “leadership” and world hegemony, a death foretold when USA backed out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, and effectuated by its leave of the WHO in the midst of a global pandemic. In only 3 of 53 countries were more people thinking that the US had handled by the pandemic better than China, viz. USA, Taiwan and South Korea. Majorities in all 15 European countries surveyed find the US having a negative impact on global democracy, with a minus 40 % negative score in Germany. Loss of hegemony is not the same as loss of power, economic and/or military. [iv] But it does both signal and imply an important change of the parameters of geopolitics. One of its implications has already become visible, an increasing resort to economic warfare, with the deliberate intention to starve nations deemed undesirable into submission, Cuba, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and including mafia-like economic threats to the investigators and judges of the International Criminal Court.

A Possible US-China War

The unfolding of rightwing politics in the US during the pandemic has brought the world close to a US-China war, not so much in the form of a deliberate full-scale US attack to eliminate a threat to US supremacy, but rather as a spiralled effect of a series of attempts to put China in its proper place as a secondary power and to deny its claims to be the legitimate heir of the ancient empire of the Middle Kingdom. Anti-China-ism seems to have conquered the whole political establishment of the US, with Biden and Trump racing to be the most anti-Chinese. The houseboys at NATO are rushing to be of help, as was to be expected. Two of the most vicious war hawks of the US Congress, Marco Rubio and Robert Menendez, have launched an anti-China international parliamentary lobby on the basis of the Trumpist electoral pandemic campaign against China: “The resentment against Communist China is due to its carelessness in handling the deadly COVID-19 virus and hiding the information with the world”, but with larger ambitions. Military confrontations in the South China Sea or around Taiwan or Hong Kong, egged on by the same kind of crusader lobbies which started the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, could easily be ignited. The Chinese are not likely to run away.

The background to this runs much deeper than Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. The rise of China is a challenge to US rule of the world, and to the cultural supremacy of the “West”. With Huawei at the head of 5G communication technology, for the first time in half a millennium, a technological vanguard is appearing outside Europe and its overseas transplants. To many powerholders and aspirants in Europe as well as in the US, this is a glimpse of the “Yellow Peril”, which the last Emperor of Germany warned the West against. To what extent the US will bring on board all its satellites to ban Huawei technology is still undecided.

The only certainty in this context is that the days of the Washington Consensus are terminated. The populations of the Sundown powers, in Europe as well as in North America, may have to choose between adjustment to a new, Asian-centred world order or a Third World War.

State Pictures: Style, Effectiveness, and Failure

The uneven pandemic challenge threw a flashlight on governments and states, their style of power, their effectiveness or ineffectiveness. On the blustering, capricious, and incompetent governments of Brazil, UK, USA and others, on the lethally brutal deployment of police and military in, e.g., India, Kenya, the Philippines, and South Africa, and, at the other end, the low-key governmentality of Sweden, implementing the advice of its Public Health Authority with non-policed closures and social distancing. At the same time the virus outbreak revealed the hollowness of the Swedish welfare state after decades of municaplization, privatization and neoliberalization, under Social Democratic as well as bourgeois governments. They had fragmented public health care, handed over much old age care to corporate capital accumulation, promoted by rightwing regional and local governments, particularly and fatally in highly virus-exposed Stockholm.

Since the amount of viral diffusion is still little known, it is difficult to evaluate the responses. That said, it is clear that, at least as the first wave of the pandemic is concerned, one world region stands out as a success, and another as a big failure. The best available criterion available is the death rate, which unfortunately is not calculated according to a uniform standard. However, the differences between the two regions seem tremendous enough to withstand a final demographic counting of 2020 excess deaths. The winner in effectiveness is East Asia, where it all started. The region follows the arc of ancient Sinic civilization, but not any contemporary political arrangements. The states of failure are the powers of Western Europe and North America.

On 1 July at 11.41 GMT, East Asian COVID-19 deaths per million population amounted to 8 in Japan, 6 in South Korea, 3 in China, 0.9 in Hong Kong, 0.3 in Taiwan and 0 in Vietnam. Among Western powers the death toll so far was 644 in the UK, 606 in Spain, 575 in Italy, 457 in France, 393 in USA, 228 in Canada, and 108 in Germany. The Western average is 430, the East Asian is 3, a West-East mortality ratio of 143:1.[v]

Trying to unravel the causes of this contrast between East Asia and the “West” is premature, probably ranging from more recent epidemic experiences, to social cohesion and collective social organization, state capacity , and digital advance. But the contrasting outcomes herald an incipient shift of state and cultural capacity from the West to the East. By the way, the pandemic death ratio is similar to the casualty ratios of the late nineteenth century European colonial wars, inverted.

The late June forecasts for the economic consequences of the Corona crisis point in the same direction, although here of course a lot of uncertainty and possibly intervening contingent factors are involved. The World Bank predicts for 2020 a global GDP decline of 5.2%, a US decline of 6.1%, of 9.1% for the Euro area, and 1% growth in China, bouncing back to 6.9 in 2021, with the world, the US, and Eurozone crawling back by 4-4.5 per cent. The June 24 IMF update is basically similar, as are Asian Development Bank forecasts for East Asia as a whole and for China, adding that Vietnamese GDP is expected to grow by 4.1% in 2020. The OECD is overall more pessimistic, albeit with a similar relative pattern. It thinks the Euro area economy will shrink by 14.5 per cent in 2020 and growing by 3.5 in 2021, USA declining by 8.5% and growing 1.9 in 2021.

The picture coming out of these forecasts is that no OECD country will have recovered to the level of 2019 by the end of 2021, but the whole average of East Asia will have, despite the losses in Japan and South Korea. South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa would be at about the same level as in 2019, while Latin America would be poorer. The Eurozone seems to become the pandemic’s biggest economic loser.

Internationally, the recent pre-pandemic tendencies of (overall modest) international economic convergence will continue. The June 2020 World Bank estimates predict high income countries to contract by 6.8% and to recover by 3.8% in 2021, whereas corresponding figures for “developing countries” are -2.4 and +4.7, and for low income countries among the latter +1.0 and +4.6. However, those figures refer to what is nowadays distinguished as the “real” as contrasted with the financial economy. The medium-term international financial effects are very polarizing. Only during the first two months of the pandemic there was a registered outflow from “emerging markets” of a hundred billion dollars. At the same time the central banks and the Treasuries of the solid rich economies have learnt that with the mysterious disappearance of inflation, with strong currencies and the confidence of international finance they have almost unlimited capacity to spend money. The fiscal deficit of the US government is expected to approximate a fourth of GDP, in Japan the deficit is expected at 15%, and in the Eurozone and the UK 12-13 per cent. This is luxury denied to Third World countries, haunted by overdue debt, aggressive private creditors, fallen commodity prices, and weakened currencies.[vi]

Furthermore, it is in the Third World that we find the people living in extreme poverty (on $1,.90 a day), growing by 60 million in 2020 to 675 million, and where a “looming hunger pandemic” is to be found, adding to the people with acute hunger, who had already increased from 80 to 135 million in the last four years.

The Pandemic Class Structure of the World

The pandemic is a “Great Unequalizer”, and the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the class structuration of inequalities. The UNDP calls it “a systemic crisis in human development”, and foresees a sharp fall of its global human development index, the first since 1990 (fig.3), driven above all by a massive drop in effective education, in turn largely due to very unequal internet access. Unequalization is by class, gender and “race” or ethnicity.

The magnifying glass of the pandemic has made us see a global class structure beneath the usual competing theories of class or stratification. We can discern six pandemic classes, six classes of typical pandemic experiences.

On top are, of course, the owners and top managers of big capital, without worries, neither for their health nor for their economic affluence, protected from the virus, planning their next enrichment and escaping from lockdowns to second, third, or nth homes if need be by helicopter, as from Santiago de Chile last April. Within this class, the pandemic has accelerated ongoing tendencies of capital differentiation. Huge gains while most people are suffering have been made in e-commerce, digital technology, communication, and logistics, and in pharmaceuticals. Stock market gambling has also continued to be lucrative, until the bubble bursts. After an initial plunge, global stock markets have bounced back with the deepening of the viral impact, US trading in spring 2020 four times higher than 2019 according to local brokers illustrating again the decoupling of capitalist finance from the human economy. At the other end, big banks and big oil have had their market value sink, and airlines and big industrial corporations are making losses, though realistically being rescued by government handouts, at no suffering to their CEOs and major personal shareholders. Digital capital, headed by Amazon and Microsoft, is the winning fraction of the untouched haute-bourgeois class.

The upper middle and parts of the middle middle classes, managers and professionals, are mostly having a good crisis, keeping their salaries and working safely from home. In some countries they comprise large numbers. In USA 39 per cent of jobs are regarded as “teleworkable”. Managers and professionals in USA have fared better in the Corona crisis than during the 2008 financial crisis, at least on the labour market. They have not been spared the seclusions of this time, though.

Below the sheltered top echelon of big capital, small and medium productive business people engaged in providing goods or services, have a very different pandemic. Above all, it has been full of worries, from often drastically declining revenue, including personal, uncertain futures, and fears of bankruptcy. To what extent governments will help them is kept uncertain.

Fourthly, there are the service workers, in health care, elderly care, and in a number of sectors of officially essential work, caring for, feeding, protecting and otherwise serving the more privileged classes with their parents, and to nationally varying extent also the non-privileged. Their income is ensured, but their work puts them in the frontline of viral attacks, sometimes fatal.

Then there are two classes of unemployed. In the second quarter of 2020 global employment shrank by a good 10 to per cent, measured by working hours, rather evenly across the world. The unemployed are also having a very different pandemic, and we should distinguish two classes of them.

A bit above the bottom are the ex-workers with once stable jobs in the formal economy. Their less worst-off part are the workers on furlough, not dismissed from their job and receiving some government paid or subsidized remuneration for part-time or no-time work. This is mainly a European, but also sometimes an East Asian practice, comprising a fourth of the EU workforce about 50 million workers. Theirs are experiences of lockdowns and income cuts and an uncertain future of work as many jobs are likely to disappear after the crisis, but also of a still continuing livelihood and housing, with a job to look forward to. In the US and in most of the rest of the world, the situation of ex-holders of a job in the formal economy is more precarious. They are severed from their employment. But they can get some unemployment compensation, and for some there may even be an unemployment insurance in operation.

At the bottom of the pandemic class structure are the cut off workers of the informal economy, day labourers, workers by the hour in rich countries, locked out street vendors. Government response to the pandemic has been to deny these people their livelihood (by lockdowns), and thereby often their housing. Usually there is some minimal and late safety net, which many are falling through. Some time after having proclaimed a total lockdown four hours in advance, the Indian federal government, for instance, offered 5 kg of grain and a kilo of pulses per month to affected families. The ILO has estimated that in the first month of the crisis, the earnings of informal workers fell by 60% globally and by 80 per cent in Africa and Latin America. Many of these workers are migrant, either intra-nation rural-to-urban-migrants or international, then desperately having to try to get back to their home village or home country, across armed checkpoints and closed borders.

In brief, the pandemic has bifurcated each of the conventional classes, the bourgeoisie between the untouched and the worried, the middle class between the served and the serving, and the workingclass between the furloughed and the destitute.

The inegalitarian economic effects of Corona are clearly more marked than those of the Lehman Brothers crash, even though numbers on income and wealth distribution are not available yet. US data show that women have been hit more hard than men, and ethnic minorities relatively harder than in 2008. The effects on poverty and on human development have been incomparably higher already. The global decline of extreme poverty, ($1.90 a day per capita in 2011 purchasing power parities), a trend with only a couple of small oscillations since 1981, will be reversed in 2020, with a well-informed June 2020 World Bank estimate of increase by ten per cent, to 675 million. The UN Economic Commission for Latin America foresees an increase of poverty in Latin America from 30 to 35% in 2020, of extreme poverty from 11 to 13.5% (using a hemispheric consumer basket definition). The pandemic has also highlighted the persistent poverty and food insecurity in rich countries, through poor children’s dependence on school meals, in the UK and US, which reluctant governments have been forced to keep even though schools have been closed.

Social Landscapes in a New Light

Hitherto, the social landscape of the world has not been re-shaped by the pandemic. But it appears edgier, uglier, more fragile, and less un-changeable than before. Neoliberal economics obviously does not work anymore, nor, it seems, does a more moderate “liberal order”. On the other hand, forces of broad, radical social reform appear to have stalled. The class structure has been sliced rather than polarized. There is no leading geopolitical light in sight to any ideological vision, left or right, although there are East Asian lessons to study. The world is getting even more unequal, but where are signs of the exploited and the excluded becoming stronger? Anti-union big digital capital aligned with finance, headed by Amazon, is the economic winner of the crisis.

Nevertheless, I think there is a widespread sense of both the unsatisfactoriness and the vulnerability of the existing social system. Outside of a few well-padded boardrooms, there are no celebrations around, nor planned for the post-pandemic. The existing social system’s increasingly apparent unfairness and ecological frailty, under the clouds of climate change and further pandemics, should be the starting-point of progressive radical rethinking.

In the piercing light of the pandemic, the malfunctioning of two features of most existing societies stand out in particular. One is the duality and division of labour markets, in the Third World between formal and informal (contractless) employment, in the rich world between stable and temporary employment, two similar systems in terms of (in)security,social rights, and wage levels. Informal and temporary workers have been hit especially hard, losing their livelihood, and are now being thrust into poverty on a massive scale. There will be confrontations coming between the forces and ideologues of “labour flexibility”, and all those heeding the ILO call for “decent jobs”, who think of jobs as means of human self-realization and social construction.

The other dysfunctional social sector is private health care and old age care. Health care for private profit has fragmented services and divided accessibility. It is intrinsically dysfunctional in meeting a large national health crisis. The delegation of care of the frailest elderly to private warehouses and to insolvent, incompetent and/or insouciant municipal authorities has turned out to be a kiss of death, leading to hecatombs of elderly, most spectacularly perhaps, so far, in Bergamo, Madrid and Stockholm.[vii]

The viral crisis has sustained pre-existing chauvinistic, xenophobic, anti-scientific Know-Nothing movements, but, so far, the virus has eroded rather than reinforced them, Trumpism, Modiism, Bolsonaroism, etc, their incompetence and brutality becoming more blatant under the magnifying glass of the pandemic.

Liberalism is a major loser of the pandemic, with the big liberal democracies of Western Europe and North America revealing themselves as among the least competent in handling the crisis. The June “Call to Defend Democracy”, issued by the international Stockholm-based IDEA institute, arguing that COVID-19 “is also a political crisis that threatens the future of liberal democracy” has to be seen against this background, and as part of a (pro-) American campaign to muddy the waters, mainly if not exclusively directed against China: “It is not a coincidence that the current pandemic began in a country there the free flow of information is stifled…”.[viii]

The liberal reaction wants to formulate the issue as one of liberalism versus “authoritarianism”, which, while much in existence, is hardly constituting a crisis-propelled threat, rather the contrary. The real threat to the liberal order or “liberal democracy” is a social polity, or “social democracy”, in an ecumenical sense, without capital letters. What do the major successful managers of the pandemic have in common, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore? They are all states and societies of social cohesion and collective social responsibility, at least and in particular in times of national crisis. They have different political systems, including a version of liberal democracy (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan), and they have different degrees of economic inequality (China and Singapore the highest), but they have all kept their cultural imprint different from “the West”, springing from ancient Sinic, or Chinese, civilization. These, economically as well pandemically successful social polities constitute a major challenge to Western liberalism. They do not constitute any actual social democracy in a historical sense, nor any progressive beacons, but they do indicate that “another world is possible”, including a world potentially better able to deal with the accelerating climate crisis.

The crisis has clearly strengthened at least three democratic and progressive social movements and intellectual currents, all of them pre-existing COVID-19, but all directly or indirectly reinforced by it.

Most striking are the intercontinental mobilizations and political repercussions of the anti-racism movement. How much the sudden global anti-racist movement owes to the collective experience of the pandemic is unclear, but the coincidence is undeniable. Out of the US Black Lives Matter has become the global most powerful anti-racist movement since the international anti-apartheid campaign. The second movement, against femicide and violence against women, has been stoked directly by the pandemic confinement effects of aggravating violence against women. Spearheaded from Mexico and South Africa with their bitter experiences, it is also a global movement of rejection of violence and exclusion.

The third is an intellectual current, rather than a social movement. It is the Egalitarian Enlightenment, growing out of the 2008 awakening, and coming to conquer at least a significant part of that ancient ideological bastion of capitalist inequality, mainstream liberal economics. It is a current recognizing that increasing economic inequality is a mounting social problem of contemporary societies, to which a whole cluster of Nobel Laureates of economics belongs, from Amartya Sen, to Joseph Stiglitz, Angus Deaton, and most recently Abijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, and other economists of recent renown, like Thomas Piketty. Their views are echoed by the organizers of the World Economic Forum, the Editorial Board of the Financial Times, and the current Director of the IMF, Kristallina Georgieva.

The climate movement surged before the viral outbreak, and has been in latency since then, but is likely to return as a fourth major actor after the pandemic. In the meantime, the skies above Asian cities free of fossil fuel pollution have been visible, and a world without complicated, polluting supply chains has become desirable.

Summing up, confronting the post-Corona ,even more inhospitable inegalitarian and unfair social landscape in a political context where the smug liberal status quo is questioned and nervous, there are at least four significant global movements and currents of thought. Add to this the rational anger of all those who were socially screwed by the common human pandemic, classes, ethnic minorities, women, youth. To bring these forces together for a push of egalitarian, ecological, and peaceful change would require a political leadership and organization which today is beyond the horizon. But it is certainly neither utopian nor unprecedented.

“1945” or “1932”, the Context and the Options after the Pandemic

How the pandemic will end is still unknown. Will it be defeated or will it have to be accommodated? What shape will the economic crisis and recovery take, a V, a U, or an L? In other words, a rapid return to normalcy, a slow recovery, or a prolonged recession.

In any case, because of its unique planetarity, the Corona pandemic is likely to become a historical landmark, meaning that there will an after as well a before. Modern North Atlantic history has two previous compressed such after moments, 1932, after the outbreak of the (continuing) l929-31 Depression, and l945, after the end of WWII. 1919-20 is another candidate, but its most dramatic outcomes, parliamentary democracy with universal suffrage, national independence, and socialist revolutions are none of them likely to be central to post-COVID-19.

In the early stages of the pandemic, “1945” looked like a possible end, at least in major parts of the Americas and Europe. Neoliberal marketization and privatization obviously could not cope. On April 3 the Editorial Board of the Financial Times declared: “Radical reforms are required to forge a society that will work for all. Governments will have to accept a more a active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda…. Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.”

The outlook is reminiscent of the overwhelming rejection of miserly pre-Keynesian Conservatism and Liberalism. Von Hayek’s (1944) idea then that a Social Democratic welfare state would be a “Road to Serfdom” was ridiculous, and so have become the contemporary claims of neoliberalism come to be.

A better, more egalitarian world seemed possible, with public health and old age care for all, an education system which gave all pupils an equal chance, a progressive taxation which kept inequality in check and could finance public services and security for everybody. A world committed to combat racism, sexism, post-colonial inequality, and to confront the threats of climate warming.

However, a “l945” scenario implied that the evil forces of inequality and violence had all been decisively defeated, literally burnt to ashes in Berlin and Tokyo. This is unlikely to be the case when the pandemic ends.

With the sharpening of geopolitical conflicts as well as of intra-national conflicts, I have come think it that the end of the pandemic crisis is more likely to land us in a “1932” situation, which means a much broader range of outcomes, including disastrous ones. Then there were three major options. One was progressive social reform, chosen by USA and the Scandinavian countries. Another was violent authoritarianism, of which Nazism-Fascism was one variant, a minority in terms of countries, most important in terms of power. More common was a more conservative sub-current, triumphant in Japan, in Eastern and Southern Europe (except Fascist Italy), with Latin American off-shoots, e.g., the military rule of Argentina. A third variant was an anal conservatism, e.g., in Britain and France (before the interlude of the Popular Front).

A 2020s New Deal or social democracy would be a rational, “evidence-based” option, egalitarian, ecological, non-violent, listening to the climate scientists – as Greta Thunberg is repeatedly calling for – and for the first time in the history of the discipline, backed up by a phalanx of distinguished economists. Above all, it would have to be a humane politics recognizing, listening to, and committed to the non-privileged people of humankind.

Where are the political forces strong enough to carry this out? There is support all over the world, and there will be struggles for post-pandemic radical reforms, but there will also be fierce resistance against transforming existing power structures and privileges.

The authoritarian, inegalitarian, and violent, if not properly Fascist, forces today have certainly not been crushed. We had best not forget that these forces took the world to World War II. Nor, that part of the story behind both WWI and WWII was that rising powers were challenging existing world rulers, Germany challenging Britain, Japan challenging US. Today, the rise of China is seen as an unacceptable threat by the main spectrum of political influencers in the US, and increasingly also in the EU, Britain, and Japan.

With the sharpening of conflicts during the pandemic, a US-China war has become a visible risk. One can already envisage the EU Foreign Minister replaying Chamberlain in Munich.


The pandemic has been, and is, an experience of suffering and loss for millions of people around the planet. For us, privileged survivors, it has been a life-engraving learning experience. It has shown us the historical impact of contingency, the planetary commons and its eradicable divisions, a sharpening of social and political alternatives, and an acceleration of the current dynamic of the world, towards inegalitarian deglobalization, and possibly to a geopolitical US-China war.

At the end of the pandemic there will be an option of equality, climate adaptation, and peace, but only as an option dependent on contingent forces and leadership still to be constituted. As in 1932 there will be other options, already discernible, likely leading to prolonged misery for the non-privileged or to disaster, by war or by climate catastrophe – or both.

Göran Therborn is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Cambridge, UK, and affiliated professor of Linnaeus University, Sweden. His next book, Inequality and the Labyrinths of Democracy, will appear by Verso in the autumn of 2020. He lives in the Swedish countryside.


Hayek, F. (1944) The Road to Serfdom, London, Routledge

  1. Cf. ‘The Coronavirus and the Great Influenza Pandemic’ and ‘Updating the Accounts: Global Mortality of the l9l8-1920 “Spanish flu” Influenza Pandemic´.
  2. A Princeton professor of international relations, John Ikenberry, is drawing a conclusion of this breakdown of international liberalism similarity similar to that Lenin, who replaced the loose Second International with the centralized Comintern: Ikenberry proposes that the US should set up a ”steering committee of the world’s ten leading democracies” to “rebuild a global order that protects liberal principles.” ‘The Next Liberal Order’.
  3. On June 17 2020 the European Commission put out a White Paper proposing regulations of acquisitions of EU companies and procurement contracts with the help of “foreign subsidies”.
  4. Cf. The thought-provoking argument against US decline of power by Ruchir Sharma, ‘The Comeback Nation’.
  5. Even the best Western European countries are far above East Asia, Norway at 45, Finland at 59 (Worldometer).
  6. See also ‘The Age of Magic Money’.
  7. Part of the explanation for this is the large-scale employment of temporary labour.
  8. Its signatures are a revealing mixture of liberal idealists and hardcore reaction. Among the latter are such distinguished democrats as the last apartheid President F.W. de Klerk, the former Argentinian President Macri, currently involved in a major spying on opponents scandal, the most aggressive war hawk of the US Congress Marco Rubio, the leader of the US Neocons William Kristol, the rightwing German architect of the division of the Ukraine, Elmar Brok, the Alliance of Democracies Foundation founded by the former NATO secretary Fogh Rasmussen, the Centre for International Private Enterprise, the George W. Bush and the McCain institutes.

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