The novel coronavirus is not just a catastrophe for global public health, it will also bring about a shift in the world order. Pandemics have affected and altered world orders in the past. The Black Death pandemic in the fourteenth century AD, also believed to have originated from China, killed 90 percent of the people of Hubei, and about half of China’s then population of 123 million and reduced the world’s population by over 100 million. It brought the Mongol world order to its knees. After building the largest land empire in world history, the Mongols had developed trade on a vast scale, linking East Asia, the Middle East and Europe into a vast economic network. They had built roads, bridges, relay stations, and provided security for traders and travelers. These avenues of commerce became conduits of the spread of the pandemic. The plague disrupted the interlocking economic relationship, known as the Khubi system, between the empire’s four segments, the Yuan in the East (Beijing), the Chagatai Khanate in the center, the Ilkhanate in Southwest (Central Asia and Iran), and the Golden Horde in the northwest on Russia’s border. European cities closed their borders and turned on the Jews, whom as usual, blamed for the catastrophe. It cut China off from Europe for centuries.
Compared to the Black Death, the novel coronavirus, also known as the coronavirus seems rather mild; despite its high contagion power, it seems to have a lower mortality rate so far. The Black Death killed plenty of younger people (the 1361–2 outbreak is called the Children’s Plague (pestis puerorum, mortalité des enfants), the coronavirus kills mostly the older. Yet, despite better medicine and medical care, many countries have been caught grossly unprepared. The quarantine system invented by the sixth Umayyad caliph Al-Walid in early eighth-century AD, in Damascus, seems to be the only effective way to combat the spread of the virus, aside from fashionable postmodern term: “social distancing.”
How will the coronavirus affect the current world order then? It’s still early days, but some trends are clear.
First, the crisis is going to undercut support for globalization, which was already weakened by rising populism and the policies of the Trump presidency. The lightning speed in which the virus spread around the world, thanks to economic interdependence as well as tourism and travel, is going to be blamed on globalization and will create a further backlash against it. The closing of national and provincial borders and reassertion of state sovereignty has further exposed one of the most powerful myths of globalization as a borderless world.
Second, the virus may be the nail in the coffin of the idea of West, including whatever remained of transatlantic relations after Trump-wreck. The G-7 failed to issue a statement because of the Trump administration’s insistence on calling out the “China virus.” In the meantime, Italy’s former Prime Minister Enrico Letta has warned in a Guardian interview of April 1 of Europe catching “the Trump virus,” with nations pursuing “Italy first,” “Belgium first” or “Germany first” approaches over a common EU strategy Support for the EU in Italy, Europe’s and world’s largest victim of coronavirus, has plummeted, with 88 percent of Italians in a recent poll feeling let down by the EU.
Third, the virus might strengthen Trump’s “America first” agenda. At the White House Coronavirus briefing on April 2, 2020, Peter Navarro, the architect of Trump’s trade war, said “if there’s any vindication of the president’s by American secure borders and a strong manufacturing base philosophy, strategy and belief,” he says, “it is this crisis because it underscores everything that we see there.” Yet, the image of a hapless nation with the world’s greatest economy and military caught with its pants down is grossly at odds with Trump’s MAGA aspiration.
Yet, the crisis seriously diminishes America’s credibility globally and that of the Trump administration within America. The image of a hapless superpower with the world’s greatest economy and military caught with its pants down and then brought to its knees by a virus that had been forewarned will be hard to forget. While Trump may not care about international public opinion, many Americans are feeling a sense of helplessness that cuts across party lines.
All this could mean another nail in the coffin of the Liberal International Order, already reeling from Trump’s policies and Western populism.
Fourth, will China gain from this crisis? The crisis puts the relative political and economic models of the United States and China under the global spotlight, and whoever comes out it better will gain more credibility. There is a chance that its economic impact may be harsher on the United States than on China. Should this happen, it will accelerate the power shift to Asia, which was already in process. The loss of America’s both hard and soft power will accentuate the transition to a post-American order, or what I have called the Multiplex World.
Yet, while China managed to bring the outbreak under control, it has been criticized for its initial failure to act transparently and effectively to prevent the virus from getting out of control undercuts Beijing’s global leadership ambitions. This will not be easily forgotten or forgiven, even as Beijing seeks to repair the damage by providing aid and advice to many nations to help them cope with their own outbreaks. China’s image has not been helped by the conspiracy theory promoted by a foreign ministry official that blames the United States as the source of the virus, and the under-reporting of infections (now admitted) and deaths, which might have given a false sense of the human costs of the virus, hampering other nations’ efforts to combat it. Until China accepts its own share of responsibility for the outbreak, its international image is not going to be rehabilitated.
The virus may have other costs for China, even if its domestic economy picks up, it might make China a less attractive investment and tourist destination. It might speed up U.S.-China decoupling and supply chain reorientation away from China.
Indeed, the crisis may well end up putting other emerging powers, such as India, and Russia in a negative light, should they replicate the West’s failures.
Finally, pundits will debate whether national responses to the crisis put democracies in a more positive light over authoritarian states. But the countries that have offered reasonably strong responses to the coronavirus include both. The real contest here is about governance, rather than ideology or regime type.
The present crisis underscores the reality that effective governance trumps material power rank (economic or military) in coping with global threats. The United States has come out as a “government ill executed,” as Fareed Zakaria wrote, using the language of Alexander Hamilton. Again it’s too early to judge their eventual success, but if the present trend holds, the “winners,” if that is the right word, here are the small and medium countries/territories who were able to rise up to the occasion with testing and containment measures, such as Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. This is very much in keeping with the idea of “G-Plus” leadership, a key element of the idea of Multiplex World, which stresses issue-oriented governance by multiple actors over traditional great powers status in defining the emerging world order.
While there is a real risk that the virus could make nations more inward-looking and promote mercantilist self-reliance over interdependent cooperation, there are some silver linings, provided the international community learns the right lessons from the crisis.
Contrary to those who may see the crisis as signaling the dangers of globalization and the virtues of self-reliance, I believe it vindicates the supporters of interdependence. The real argument of interdependence theory is not that it prevents conflict, but that it makes conflict more costly to all parties in an interdependent relationship. The coronavirus crisis has proven just that.
The crisis will not end globalization, but hopefully, it will increase demands for making it more humane and regulated. But countries need to reverse over-tourism, a major factor behind the spread of the virus, and thus better protect their national heritage and the global environment. The crisis should create great awareness for more investment in national and global public health (keeping in mind that Trump was cutting the U.S. contribution to WHO by half), especially in countries like the United States. Moreover, the crisis underscores the importance of cooperation, both bilateral and multilateral. The breakdown of U.S.-China relations made the US and international response to the coronavirus much weaker than in past crises such as SARS, Ebola, Swine Flu and Avian Flu. If so, then a major lesson of the crisis will be the need for more rather than less global cooperation.
Capitalism’s connection to our ever-worsening mental health
In 2011, British writer and cultural theorist Mark Fisher penned an essay entitled The Privatisation of Stress, perfectly capturing the relationship between depression, social conditions under capitalism and increasing alienation in the post-Reagan/Thatcherite years.
“It is hardly surprising that people who live in such conditions—where their hours and pay can always be increased or decreased, and their terms of employment are extremely tenuous—should experience anxiety, depression,” Fisher wrote. “But . . . this privatization of stress has become just one more taken-for-granted dimension of a seemingly depoliticized world.”
I think of Fisher and his writings often. I regularly reread his most famous work, Capitalist Realism, and have always admired his ability to not only write through depression and anxiety but to connect social conditions with our ever-worsening mental health. Despite headlines constantly blaring that our standard of living is ever increasing and our collective wealth is more abundant than ever, social stressors gnaw away at the foundations of our collective psyche.
The death of culture and art, for example, evident in the endless production of music algorithmically designed to evoke feeling but never provoke emotion. Literature circumscribed to appeal to the endless adolescence of an arrested readership. Tent-pole superhero films that have long since ossified and crumbled within the vaults of Disney and Warner Bros. The death of fulfilling labour, where the gig economy has driven the concept of “work” into utter absurdity (no pensions, no benefits, often no pay!), and the death of social institutions, including the church (which forever haunts us with its most destructive remnants, such as dogmatism and puritanism, even in the most liberal social scenes).
And, of course, a political culture that abides no realities, possibilities, no faint hopes outside of the neo-liberal consensus. Nowhere is the death of better things more evident than with the newly minted Joe Biden administration.
From a much-feted Inauguration Day poem by 22-year-old youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman calling for national healing (yet drawing water from the shallow and toxic pool of American exceptionalism that remains permanently tainted by its history of chauvinism, hypocrisy and genocide), to the collective meltdown over Bernie Sanders’ frumpy winter attire (viewed by many apoplectic liberals as an offensive gesture to the pageantry of the inauguration; these people can’t even be happy when they get what they want), to a trillion-dollar stimulus package that will once again deliver the goods to large corporations while handing out sparse change to working Americans (and yet again denying them universal health care, even during a deadly pandemic), the state of American politics is yet another handshake in the devil’s bargain that is capitalism.
Despite the COVID epidemic and endless political urgings for all of us to pull together, Black people continue to die at the hands of police. Children remain separated from their parents and sleep on cold floors behind ICE fencing. Wall Street hedge funds clamour for bailouts because investor pushback on their long-time market manipulations managed to blow up their plans. Suicide hotlines are overworked; polling of Canadians and Americans show we are contemplating suicidal ideation at heretofore unseen levels.
Two million dead: The tragedy of capitalism
Over 2 million have been killed as a result of COVID-19, perhaps the greatest tragedy of the 21st century. Protecting the sanctity of human life should be every country’s number one priority in a global pandemic, so what has gone so wrong?
COVID-19 cases continue to soar across the world, with the free-market oriented liberal democracies of the world leading in death tolls and death rates. The UK and United States of America have made it clear that there will not be any mass efforts made to eradicate the virus entirely.
From the start, scientists have stated that the only way to save lives is to freeze human movement in order to starve the virus of its hosts and eventually eradicate it from the population. Countries such as China, Vietnam, Cuba and New Zealand have successfully curbed the spread of the virus, keeping both new cases and related deaths at an all-time low. This was done through rigorous testing and state-wide restriction measures.
According to data confirmed by John Hopkins University, the official COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. hit a grim milestone of 500,000 on February 23. The U.S. and European countries are among the top 10 spots for highest death rates (per million). This is almost a year since the virus first arrived on either continent’s shores. In comparison, China’s current COVID-19 death toll remains under 5,000 and its neighbor Vietnam’s is under 50.
In a press conference led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, plans were discussed for lockdown restrictions to ease over the next few months, with nightclubs anticipated to re-open on June 21. It was stated that the UK public should “expect the disease to become a manageable problem comparable to winter flu.” The government will reportedly work toward deciding an “acceptable” number of deaths to justify the complete re-opening of the economy.
In no civilized, morally upstanding society should the mandate of “acceptable” deaths be uttered by the state when these deaths are entirely preventable. The UK government has made an active choice to allow its most vulnerable populations to die.
In the words of Karl Marx, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs;” every member of society is as valuable as the next and should have access to an equal quality of life, whether disabled or not. In a truly democratic, people-centered society, the state should mobilize all of its resources and productive forces to ensure that these vulnerable populations receive the highest priority of care and attention. However, latest figures show that the UK has failed to do so.
Sixty percent of people in the UK who have died from COVID-19 were disabled, and people with learning or developmental disabilities are 3.7 times more likely to die from COVID-19.
Peace And The Council For Inclusive Capitalism
The recently formed Council for Inclusive Capitalism with the Vatican seeks to foster a more equitable financial system. The Council was announced in December of 2020 and comprises a group of CEOs and global leaders in collaboration with Pope Francis.
The group hopes to realise a model of capitalism which enhances equality of opportunity, intergenerational equity, fairness and equity of outcomes. It aims to transform the private sector by garnering actionable commitments from organisations related to the International Business Council’s four sustainability pillars: People, Planet, Prosperity and Principles of Governance. The commitments will also advance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), contributing to enhance well-being, reduce poverty, improve gender equality and regulate and reduce climate change, among other goals.
The Council comprise part of a broader social movement toward stakeholder capitalism which emerged after the 2008 financial crisis. Stakeholder capitalism holds that businesses have an ethical and social responsibility to consider the interests of their stakeholders as well as their shareholders. Stakeholders include anyone affected by a business’ actions: employees, investors, environmental organisations, future generations and members of the public affected by externalities. It stands in contrast to shareholder capitalism, which claims that the sole responsibility of businesses is to maximise shareholder value (MSV).
The Council’s founder Lynn Forester de Rothschild cites the financial crisis and the subsequent occupy wall street movement as highlighting the inequities of the financial system. She told Reuters magazine: “Basically, I was a money-is-good, neo-liberal person who believed in the sanctity and sanity of free markets. A rising tide lifts all boats, and all that.” UN special envoy Mark Carney argues that the crisis exposed the moral injustices of a financial system operating largely on the basis of MSV. After the crisis, it became obvious that there were banks that were “too big to fail” and financial bubbles that reflected gross economic inequities. Inclusive capitalism attempts to reform the system to cater to a more just distribution of goods and resources.
The success of the Council for Inclusive Capitalism’s efforts will depend to a large extent on the protocols they put into place to monitor the goals and progress of the organisations they work with and prevent greenwashing. Further, although it boasts over $10.5 trillion in assets under management, its influence may be too small to make any tangible difference. Stakeholder capitalism also faces considerable adversaries who argue that maximising values besides shareholder value will have a detrimental effect on the market. The latter debate is both technical and ideological.
Setting aside these issues, however, the social movement toward Inclusive Capitalism may have interesting implications for violent conflict. According to the Development for Peace, while economic inequality alone does not predict the rate of violent conflict in a given nation, it is an explanatory factor in conflicts between groups divided by ethnic, religious or cultural identities. Economic inequality exacerbates conflict where intergroup tensions already exist, especially when these inequalities exist along ethnic or sectarian divides. Economically dominant minorities are often targets for discrimination and persecution. In its ideal form, Inclusive Capitalism is purported to enable “all people to pursue prosperity and quality of life, irrespective of criteria such as socio-economic background, gender, ethnicity, religion or age.” A widespread shift toward corporations engaging in more stringent Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG), encouraged by groups such as the Council for Inclusive Capitalism, could thus have secondary social benefits in alignment with the goals of the Organisation for World Peace.
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