Corona as catalyst: Social competition

Five centuries of western domination are currently being replaced by a new world order. All the political, economic, military, cultural and ideological cards are already being reshuffled. If the Corona virus rages deep enough, it will ‘only’ catalyze this transition. In this essay, I try to briefly describe three of these major intersections in our time. Part 3: Social competition / Part 1. Ideological / Part 2. ‘Glocal’

The third question, begging for attention in this transition time and even more so in our corona time, is the tremendous difference in vulnerability between people in one society. I don’t mean here the increased vulnerability of elderly people, but the vulnerability of people lacking opportunities and securities.

In the past years many have pointed to the growing inequality in the world, particularly in ‘undercover oligarchies’ like China, Russia, India, Brazil and the US. Europe, Canada and Australia are in a better shape because of a more extensive welfare system, a stronger social dialogue, and a levelling tax system. But also in these parts of the world we see a growing vulnerability in society as a result of people not being able to escape their inadequate circumstances. And also in these countries, this can be the result of mechanisms that make people lack even the opportunity to flourish.

Consider the growing number of self-employed workers and flex workers who struggle due to temporary jobs, low incomes, little social security and no political voice. In 2011, Guy Standing wrote a book about this group with the title The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. (Precariat is a combination of ‘precarious’ en ‘proletariat’.) Standing warns that chronic vulnerability makes people prone to populism and extremism.

In The Meritocracy Trap (2019), Daniel Markovits describes how a group of American citizens, who first benefitted from a meritocratic society to climb the social ladder, is now forming a closed caste at the top that is hardly accessible for outsiders. The result is a split society with on the one hand an elite that, from an early age on, prepares itself for top positions with top salaries and top responsibilities, and on the other hand a ‘precariat’ that lacks the means to keep up with the elite and is therefore condemned to insecure implementation work. For those who wish to know what this looks like, Markovits refers to the world’s largest taxi company Uber: at the top a small group of privileged and very rich designers and managers, at the bottom millions of underpaid and overworked drivers who will never be able to work themselves up to the level of the first group.

Also in Europe, Australia and Canada, although not as dramatic as in the US, social mobility is dropping rapidly and many are only one accident away from big financial trouble. And we don’t even know yet, how automation, robotics and digitalisation will disrupt the global labour market in the years to come. With new urgency we are confronted with an old question: how to avoid social disruption because of structural inequality?

Now look at the pandemic the world is facing, in the midst of this social competition. The good news is that we suddenly have an eye for people who were so easily overlooked in the past: all the people whose essential work keeps the heart of society running. At the same time, our world is facing a solidarity test with hardly any precedent in history.

I don’t need to describe the misery as a result of the many lockdowns in the world. For millions of owners, losing their business means the end of a life dream and sleepless nights over every layoff. For 60% of US citizens, no work means no health insurance. For millions of factory workers, no global trade means no living. For millions of labour migrants, no income abroad means no family support at home. And for millions of day labourers, no work for a day means no food for a day.

With fear and trembling the world awaits the social and economic damage when the dust of corona settles. Yet one thing is clear already: people who have nothing to lose are prone to extreme ‘solutions’: to communist revolutions, ethnic cleansing, fascist nationalism, scapegoating and sectarian violence. We saw it a century ago, and again these are real threats.

Anger can easily shape these threats, for nothing angers humans more than a lack of recognition. What we cannot afford in times of growing uncertainty is people also feeling humiliated by ending not only economically but also socially (in terms of appreciation and respect) at the bottom of society. If we want to avoid the anger this causes, we need to ask ourselves with new urgency: how to secure each person’s self-esteem and dignity?

In many countries this will provoke another question, namely what is more important to us: the income someone generates, or someone’s contribution to keeping society running? As long as we stress the first, society will continue to be divided into ‘workers’ and ‘volunteers’, with the last group feeling easily that they are somehow falling short. If we stress the second, we will be able to appreciate anyone for anything that contributes to the common good: not only the police officer, the accountant or the nurse, but also the family care giver, the church elder or the baby-sitting granny.

Such a generous appreciation might not be easy. It may be tempting to think that all this ‘volunteer work’ is still made possible by those with ‘a decent job’. In order to fully appreciate ‘unpaid work’, we may need to calculate its economic value (for example the costs that are saved on the health care system thanks to the dedication of family caregivers). The next question will be, how much value we want to attach to the different contributions in society, and to what extent we want to ensure all contributions are somehow financially ‘recognised and appreciated’.

Hopefully, corona is encouraging us to be less fascinated by CEO’s and financial traders and more impressed by the silent forces and forgotten callings that we are surrounded by. In times like these, when unemployment is skyrocketing and the already vulnerable are being hit the hardest, we cannot afford to lose sight of what everyone can still contribute to the common good – in whatever valuable way. For people do not only want to be loved, they also want to be needed. More than charity, we need a solidarity that takes the shape of a commitment to acknowledge and include each and everyone’s qualities.

These are no optional exercises. The solidarity test that we face will in many cases turn out to be a matter of anger prevention. And what applies to societies, is just as relevant at the international level: how to avoid that entire nations have nothing to lose and become prone to extreme ‘solutions’?

The answer to this last question requires no less than a world vision. Time to rise above the election rhetoric of four-year plans and reflect on what we want our nations and world to look like in 2030, 2040, 2050, and what investments this requires today. Climate change is already forcing us to think this way, but there are many other areas (mentioned above) in which we have no choice but to chase a joint vision. Jeffrey Sachs writes in Common Wealth (2008): “The defining challenge of the 21st century will be to face the reality that humanity shares a common fate on a crowded planet.” That is the way things are. And time is short. Corona catalyses what is moving already.

Part 1. Ideological / Part 2. ‘Glocal’ / BACK TO BLOGS

Corona as catalyst: ‘Glocal’ competition

Five centuries of western domination are currently being replaced by a new world order. All the political, economic, military, cultural and ideological cards are already being reshuffled. If the Corona virus rages deep enough, it will ‘only’ catalyze this transition. In this essay, I try to briefly describe three of these major intersections in our time. Part 2: ‘Glocal’ competition / Part 1. Ideological / Part 3. Social

The world is in transition, insisting first of all on ideological reflection within societies. Let us now consider this transition from an international point of view, for there is a second issue that was already on our plate but is now becoming more pressing: how important is national self-determination in a world that gets more and more intertwined and faces more and more threats that require international coordination?

Globalisation is not exactly new. As far as we remember, people get further and further away from home, in search of new opportunities. The result is a succession of winners and losers in history: those who benefit from other nations and those who don’t. Winners gain from free movement of people, goods and services; losers prefer to shut their borders. In the past centuries the West was on the winning side, eagerly calling on their right to free trade when selling — just an example — opium to the Chinese. In our days we see the Chinese, Indians, Poles and Mexicans seizing the opportunities of free movement, and now it is the richest part of the West who responds with America First (Trump), We Want Our Country Back (UKIP) and The Netherlands Is Ours (Party for Freedom).

Behind this nostalgic nationalism and ironic protectionism lies a double motive: loss of western control makes people feel threatened not only economically but also culturally.  Chinese and Russians buy western companies and football clubs; western mosques and Islamic schools are being financed with Turkish and Arabian money. Add to this the alleged islamification of Europe, and in the Netherlands the fight over Black Pete, and for some it is clear that not only western economy but also western culture needs to be defended fiercely.

In the meantime, something else is going on, something without precedent in history: never before did the whole world need to work together to get the whole planet in shape. All nations face the same climate change, nuclear risks, scarcity of water and raw materials, cyber threats, refugee movements, human trafficking, et cetera. Each of these issues requires international coordination to be dealt with in an effective way. No hacker, tsunami or human trafficker, no radioactive water leaking from a nuclear power plant, cares about national borders, trade balances or cultural heritage. In all of these cases, nationalism can only fail.

Now look at the pandemic the world is facing, in the midst of this ‘glocal’ competition. Another planetary issue is binding the nations, precisely when nationalism is on the rise. To which side will the scale tip: to international collaboration or national self-sufficiency? At the moment we see both: each country fighting the same virus as if the rest of the planet (or the EU) does not exist, and scientists working together across the globe to develop a vaccine.

The latter reveals a significant fact, something that shaped the course of Europe’s history but is easily forgotten in nationalist times: science and technology are no local affairs, but determine the fate of all humankind. Countries who shield their science and technology from other countries, may save a patent or two, but will lose the global potential of brainpower, knowledge and innovation.

What, then, to think of the economy? Will corona drive our economies away from each other or towards each other? Here, we can learn an important lesson from history. During World War I, it became painfully clear how vulnerable countries can get when global trade comes to a stop. Several countries faced a dire shortage of food, leading, for example, to a national revolt in the Netherlands. After the war, many countries tried to learn their lesson by aiming for economic self-sufficiency (autarky). This led, however, to winners and losers. Some countries were doing much better in taking care of themselves than others. After a couple of decades, three proud nations who got stuck in their own autarky policy and believed they deserved more land, resources and colonies, started World War II.

Today, we witness again the vulnerability of a globalised world. First physically, then economically. Lack of global trade is leading again to serious shortages, and again it can be tempting for (especially western) politicians to advocate for economic self-sufficiency. In some cases this will make a lot of sense, like with medical equipment and medicines or to reduce CO2 emissions. But also this new self-sufficiency will lead to winners and losers. Famines and civil wars may be the result of other countries closing their factories. And (not as dramatic but relevant for export countries): less import from a country can easily lead to less export to that country.

Another issue has moved up the agenda: when is it appropriate for a nation to defend its self-interests, and when will it only shoot itself in the foot if it does not invest in good relationships and generous collaboration with other nations?

The West is losing control in the world and especially the United States and Great-Britain suffer from a ‘post-imperial stress disorder’. De world is not serving the interests of the West (so much) anymore and quite some politicians take it as a an encouragement for unfettered national self-protection. Corona can enhance this tendency, but the more self-absorbed the West becomes, the more China (and soon India) will fill the international leadership vacuum. Not only because it greatly benefits from international business partners, but also because a number of planetary issues (mentioned above) still call for international coordination. In all these cases, countries will only have it their way if they are able to mobilise sufficient allies when it gets to a vote. China is well aware of this and continues to invest in good relationships, also (and precisely) in corona time. The West is busy with further breaking down its old alliances. Corona makes us realise how much all nations are joined in one fate on a single planet. As westerners we used to have beautiful thoughts on this. Let us hope it will not take too long before we can explain to ourselves again, why we cherished liberty, equality and fraternity as universal values – not for one particular privileged nation, but for all of humankind.

Part 1. Ideological / Part 3. Social / BACK TO BLOGS

Corona as catalyst: Ideological competition

Five centuries of western domination are currently being replaced by a new world order. All the political, economic, military, cultural and ideological cards are already being reshuffled. If the Corona virus rages deep enough, it will ‘only’ catalyze this transition. In this essay, I try to briefly describe three of these major intersections in our time. Part 1: Ideological competition / Part 2. ‘Glocal’ / Part 3. Social

Since 2006, Freedom House reports a decline of freedom and democracy in the world – that is, of freedom and democracy as we westerners like to see it in the world. China plays a major legitimising role in this decline: with its collectivist and paternalistic regime, it defies the ideological bench-mark of the West. No matter how much privacy, journalistic independence and political participation is reduced in Chinese society, no western country is willing to pay the price for a hard confrontation. Too costly, too risky. Some banks are too big to fail, some countries are too big to franchise. A giant like China cannot be reshaped in the image of the West, and under Xi Jinping it has abandoned any hesitation. China stresses openly the non-universal nature of western democracy and the West reveals its impotence by remaining silent. At the same time, nobody fails to see the failure of the “global democratic revolution” (announced by Bush during the Iraq War of 2003), the non-stop arms supplies from the ‘free world’ to autocratic regimes, and the exposure of western hyper-liberalism during the financial crisis. And one group is only too keen to notice it: the authoritarian leaders of this world. They eagerly take all this as an approval of their own aspirations.

Loss of economic power leads to a loss of ideological power. Gradually, it is dawning on us what the impact of this will be for the new world order. The “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” has become an alternative ideology next to Western political thought. Every country is now forced to take position. Neutrality is not an option. Every country will be somewhere on the spectrum between western individualism and eastern collectivism, American liberalism and Chinese socialism.

Even the West will feel drawn towards a more eastern thought. According to the OECD, 60% of middle class consumption will take place in Asia in 2030. Products for the global markets (e.g. movies) will be more and more tailored towards the cultural taste of the East. This will leave the West not unaffected. And we have seen only the beginning of India’s rise. The more this country feels powerful enough to sail its own course (independent of the US), the more we will experience its cultural and ideological influence.

Now look at the pandemic the world is facing, in the midst of this ideological competition. What is drawing more attention as we fight the virus: our individual or collective interest? And who appears to be more effective in fighting the virus: the individualistic West or the collectivist East? Looking more specifically at the authoritarian regimes, it is not difficult to see how this crisis is only increasing their confidence. Corona has created the perfect reason for submitting 1.4 billion Chinese citizens only more to an omnipresent surveillance system.

Also the West has suspended a dramatic amount of freedoms to optimise its fight against corona. Citizens approve, trusting the measures will be temporary. But how temporary is temporary if a pandemic can happen again and all kinds of other dangers are just as menacing? Are we not also facing the threats of climate change, cyber-attacks, nuclear risks, global terrorism, et cetera? And do they not also require a collective response? Should we really restore all freedoms? And would it not be wise to adapt at least some of the digital technologies that are now being used so effectively in Asia? Corona is making a particular issue, already on our plate since the rise of China, only more urgent: the right balance between individual and collective interests, and more specifically between liberty and security. I expect western countries to move to the East in thinking. How far they will move, depends on the degree to which they can still explain to themselves the significance of individual liberty (and responsibility). For liberty means less control, and less control means taking risks for the sake of liberty. And the more insecure our lives become, the greater our faith in freedom will need to be to not sacrifice it to security.

Part 2. ‘Glocal’ / Part 3. Social / BACK TO BLOGS

Corona reveals the world’s peculiarities

A ghost is haunting the world – a virus that enters all nations into a holy alliance. Yet, no matter how much we fight the same enemy, our battle is as colorful as the nations. Whoever wishes to get to know the world can learn a lot these days. In response to the same virus all countries and leaders reveal their own peculiarities. Let me mention a few.

National personalities

  • In egalitarian countries, leaders are quick in calling upon their citizen’s responsible; in hierarchic countries, citizens are quick in holding their leaders responsible.
  • In democratic countries, leaders are checked for accuracy and honesty; in authoritarian countries, leaders tend to avoid criticism through concealment.
  • In more ‘reason oriented’ countries, leaders tend to consider a targeted lockdown to spare the economy and build immunity; in more ‘passion oriented’ countries, leaders tend to reject this as cold and calculated and advocate for a total lockdown.

International reflexes

  • In the United States, we hear Trump speak of the “Chinese virus”; in Russia, we hear people speak of an American bioweapon.
  • In Africa, people suspect the West of using Africans as guinea pigs in the development of a vaccine.
  • In the European Union, old accusations between north and south come to light as soon as financial support is discussed.

Ideological priorities

  • While the US president makes every effort to protect the economy (leading to measures that are long overdue), the Chinese president makes every effort to secure the well-being of its citizens (leading to an even greater state control).
  • While the one European leader calls upon everyone’s sense of public responsibility, the other seizes the moment to rule by decree.

Seen in this light, this corona time is not exactly a revolutionary time. Rather, it is one big affirmation of the status quo. Still, many people state that the world will not be the same after corona. Are they right? I think they are. But let’s not forget that the world was changing already and will change anyway. In the next blogs I will explain why.