An imperfect future: Imagining the post-Covid world order

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By Pushparaj Deshpande

John Locke rightly argued that “things of this world are in so constant a flux, that nothing remains long in the same state”. Under the right conditions, a seemingly localised event could potentially kickstart a systemic churning that reshapes the entire world. The French Revolution, the two World Wars, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the September 11 attacks and the crash of Lehman brothers all delivered acute shocks that heralded profound global changes.

To briefly elucidate, the pressures unleashed by the 2008 financial crisis eventually led to a democratic recession and rise in anti-establishment authoritarian regimes in countries like Brazil, India, Hungary, United Kingdom, United States of America etc. Each of these countries started reinventing themselves, as the formal and informal norms shaping them were renegotiated by autocrats untethered from established values and dismissive of the status quo. The Corona pandemic is one such unprecedented shock to the world order. Undoubtedly a turning point in history, it will herald four tectonic shifts – economic, social, political and geopolitical.

Economic churning unleashed by the pandemic

Economically, the International Monetary Fund estimates that over 170 countries will experience negative per capita income growth, and the fallout is being characterised as worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s. Apart from disrupting normal economic activity, the ripples of the world-wide lockdowns have impacted almost every sector. Unemployment has soared to record highs, as is apparent in America, China and India. A recent forecast suggests that around 580 million people (or 8% of humanity) will be pushed into poverty, a first since 1990.

The financial hangover of this pandemic is clearly going to linger for years, and will dramatically alter the political economies of various nations that would loath to depend on external production for domestic needs. Just to pose one hypothetical question – would nations be okay with being dependent on essential medicines from China and India? Or would they rather bolster their individual capacities to arm themselves against future shocks? It is highly likely that the notion of disbursed and outsourced production which underpinned globalisation, will be dramatically reimagined. Already exports and trans-border supply chains have been severely disrupted in unimaginable ways. Likewise, the principles underlying tariff-free trade, flow of capital and investments, multi-border pipelines and energy grids, as well as international travel are all being redrawn.

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Interestingly, this reimagining of economic globalisation is being spearheaded by the global north (the Annex-I countries, in the lexicon of climate change negotiations). In renegotiating the concept of globalism transcending national sovereignty, these countries are increasingly turning to protectionism, as well as a planned economy with enhanced state control over key sectors. Following the precedents set by Make America Great Again (MAGA), Britain First, and Make in India, nations will progressively repatriate production value chains and turn insular. All of these will collectively precipitate a systemic restructuring.

Societal tensions

Secondly, these economic disruptions will produce drastic social changes. Already, in a desperate bid to control populations, governments are resorting to hand stamps with indelible ink, house stickers and publishing lists of potentially infected people. This has deepened fears of outsiders, and led to social ostracism akin to caste discrimination. These measures are reinforcing existing prejudices against immigrants, ‘outsiders’ and ‘undesirables’, as Orhan Pamuk has argued in highlighting the effects of “unfounded rumours and accusations based on nationalist, religious, ethnic and regionalist identity”. This (direct and indirect) vilification of whole communities as carriers of, and conspirators in the spread of the coronavirus is reminiscent of the Catholic Church’s invocation of pestis manufacta (diabolically manufactured diseases) to caricature Jews as involved in a conspiracy to sabotage Christianity. It is also similar to what happened in Nazi Germany, when under the pretext of protecting majorities against typhus, “delousing baths” were normalised to disinfect and quarantine Jews.

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Because of the vulnerabilities and insecurities caused (and deliberately manufactured) by the pandemic, societies will fearfully turn towards traditional norms of social cohesion. As it has happened these past few years, these norms will be potently repurposed with a vengeance against democratic principles and proceduralism. Claiming to speak for the “silent-majority”, autocrats will further sharpen their attacks against minorities (religious and ideological), academics, activists and opposition parties. Autocrats will not only blame these sections of society for the silent-majority’s socio-economic situation, but also for the erosion of traditional identities and cultures. This is going to lead to an upsurge in hate crimes and violence, which autocrats will leverage to demand that the values that shaped these nations be assigned to the dustbin of history.

Political reorientation

Thirdly, the nature of politics will also change radically. Autocrats are insidiously misusing the pandemic driven lockdowns to further cement themselves. Consider how India’s ruling dispensation has outsourced not only some of its welfare functions to its ideological organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, but also the partial responsibility of enforcing the lockdown. This is at the cost of all other opposition parties, who are being expected to scrupulously adhere to the lockdown. Similarly, a shadow task force has been functional in America, which has enlisted the private sector and manages the Strategic National Stockpile of medical supplies. At the same time, concerted efforts are being made to personalise power with autocrats. For example, President Trump is being projected as the only one competent to manage the pandemic, juxtaposed to his political opponents. Likewise, all decisions related to the pandemic are announced by India’s Prime Minister, to the exclusion of cabinet ministers, opposition parties and state governments. We should expect more such opportunistic politicking.

Structurally, governments will become even more authoritarian, ruling via diktats rather than consensually. On the one hand, the pandemic will be used to justify extending absolute control over Parliaments, courts, financial institutions, policing and administrative apparatus. To cite three examples, Hungary’s Prime Minister has decided to rule by decree, Israel has suspended all courts, while India has suspended the Members of Parliament-Local Area Development Funds, effectively circumscribing the opposition. Similarly, national governments will also centralise powers by undermining federal principles. For instance, using different tactics, state governments have been greatly weakened by the federal governments of America and India. This centralisation will only accentuate as state governments face increasing debts and declining revenues.

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On the other hand, following the precedent set by Britain, China, Israel, and South Korea, governments could impose regulations on mobility and enhance surveillance of its citizenry. Legislation limiting the assembly of citizens is also within the realm of possibility. Ostensibly to reduce public health risks, this will infringe upon citizens’ rights to protest.

However, there is a small silver lining in that the time of the minimalist State has gone. States will no longer have the luxury of non-interference in markets or in depending on trickle-down economics. The problem is that given the undemocratic proclivities of the current leadership many nations have; the delivery of essential goods and services might be made contingent on complete submission to one leader and one ideology.

World on the cusp of a major re-orientation

Geopolitically, the pandemic has also sparked a greater assertion of national sovereignty and a further straining of existing multilateral mechanisms, which has precipitated a renegotiation of established institutions and norms. For example, nations are aggressively trying to acquire medicines and supplies at each other’s cost and negating the idea of free/open borders. The latter has put tremendous strain on the European Union (EU), which was already under strain after the Syrian crisis that led to a wave of immigration, and after Brexit. Already, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened that he would allow migrants to pass unchecked into EU, while Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has argued “if Europe does not rise to this unprecedented challenge, the whole European structure loses its raison d’être for the people”.

In parallel, great power politics between China and the USA has accelerated which is exacerbating tensions and undermining global collaboration. With the USA “antagonising even close allies” through its actions and inaction, nations are increasingly turning to China for support. Consequently, dismissing the EU’s ability to work collaboratively, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic recently argued “European solidarity does not exist… that was a fairy tale. The only country that can help us in this hard situation is the People’s Republic of China. To the rest of them, thanks for nothing”. Capitalising on this dynamic situation, China is strategically positioning itself as the guarantor of global public goods, and stealthily making territorial gains, while the rest of the world grapples with the pandemic.

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Clearly, the world is on the cusp of a major reorientation and will require visionary leadership that can steer various nations on to the next phase of the world order. In doing so, they’ll first have to forge new national dreams, which weave traditional norms with those values that originally moulded their respective nations. Secondly, they’ll have to experiment with disruptive and innovative ideas that challenge established policy dogmas. They will have to aggressively invest in anything that enhances a citizen’s capability (including universal healthcare, education, housing and incomes, public infrastructure, decentralised energy production and accessible banking). Thirdly, they will have to incentivise a majority of stakeholders and interests in their respective countries to work collaboratively in the national interest. This includes the political opposition (which most of the current crop of leaders is unable or unwilling to work with). And finally, they’ll have to find a way to work not just in the national, but also global interest. This won’t be easy, and multiple visions will collide, collapse or collude until they forge a new world order.

Given the limitations of the current leadership, it falls upon the next generation and the one after us, to rebuild a better world. This new world needs to be more cooperative and equitable, and has to conceptualise prosperity differently. The next few years are critical for humankind, and we will all have to pledge ourselves to something larger than our individual selves. Thomas Paine once argued “these are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands for it now, deserves the love and thanks of our men and women. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered. Yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph”. For the sake of our collective futures, let us pray that we can steel ourselves to do what needs to be done.

(Pushparaj Deshpande, Director of Samruddha Bharat Foundation and Editor, Rethinking India series. Views are personal.)