Out of the Belly of Hell: COVID-19 and the humanisation of globalisation
It turns out we did change the world. And we must keep changing it.
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In memory of Julian Perry Robinson, all the victims of COVID-19 and their families
Introduction: writing under lockdown
I am going to write about how the impact of the coronavirus shows we all got globalisation wrong, but that we have created the conditions to replace it, why this has happened and what we should do. To achieve this I've looked at when globalisation as we know it began and what happened. This means I've set out a history of the last fifty years. While brief, it's long for the web and you may find reading a PDF version easier. Or you can just read Chapters 1 and 4. First, I want to say three things.
I wish every reader well and a fruitful future life. Like any scribbler I always desire more of you. But the more of you there are the more likely it is that some of you will not survive this year. Never have the words “take care” been so freighted with relevance. Keep your distance, wash your hands, don’t touch your face – something I find impossible – and look after others.
Second, as someone now classified as ‘vulnerable’ who has always wanted the world to change, I didn’t want it to change like this. I fear the powers that rule us may exploit the pitiless nature of the plague to control us after it has passed, rather than be forced to step aside. As one of those most likely to be taken away by the virus if it gets to me, and least likely to qualify for life-support if I need hospitalisation, I have to acknowledge a new dread. It’s a dread which makes me dream of hugging my children rather than seeing them flicker on the computer screen, of holding my older granddaughter’s hand and poking out my tongue at the younger and laughing with delight. And laughter is good for the immune system, I’ve been told, and bad for SARS-CoV-2 (the name of the actual virus) which suffers from being over-serious.
The dread is that if my child gets COVID-19 (the name for the disease the virus causes) I cannot stroke her forehead; that my beloved could be removed from me forever if she finds it difficult to breathe; or if I get it, that she can’t bring a comforting drink to my bedside and my body will become a toxic time-bomb demanding rapid, sterilised disposal. All this imbues everything that follows, writing under lockdown.
Third, to write about it, just like singing about it, talking about it, or posting messages about it, requires making a call about the fear the pandemic generates. This isn’t simple. It is vital to turn on the fear mechanisms – for the virus is contagious and cruel. It is also essential to turn them off – for fear itself is the most contagious thing of all.
In my country our leaders got both calls wrong. They failed to take the coronavirus seriously when it first arrived and are now unable to provide reassurance. It means that trying to respond in a clear-headed way to its impact, here in England, is unsettled by the unavoidable presence of a prime minister who lacks every virtue except audacity and ambition. He counteracts his emotional void with a calculated ebullience and the recruitment of smart advisors whose messaging he follows, as he flees serious questioning and the human engagement this demands.
On 28 February he was asked during a BBC interview about the death of a British citizen from COVID-19 and insisted the advice was to “wash your hands” and that the NHS was fully prepared. The first time he set out to address the wider public about the advent of COVID-19, on 5 March, he revealed an almost alien lack of empathy. On a popular breakfast television show he told his two startled hosts, “Perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow coronavirus to move through the population without really taking as many draconian measures”. It’s well worth watching. He described this as “a theory” about how best to respond. But he did it with enthusiasm, oozed reassurance, delighted in shaking hands, and insisted that for most it is only “a mild to moderate illness”.
The words that most chilled me were “move through the population”. They show how stunted he and his advisors were; like colonialists talking about the natives catching smallpox. A week later, on 12 March, as other countries in Europe were going into lockdown, the government ended testing for the public. It limited it to only those ill in hospital, thus depriving even health workers with unwell family members from evaluating their condition and forcing them to self-isolate. Johnson justified his policy by claiming it was “science based”, when, above all, science IS testing. You simply can’t be “led by science”, while cutting back testing
The science didn’t get through to the dunderheads of Brexit. When the prime minister himself nearly died from COVID-19, his tone changed, as he rode out the public’s desire for solidarity and compassion. But he soon diluted his messages and encouraged England to return to work, leaving the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments appalled.
Some might say that I am being ‘political’ by bringing in Brexit. As Adam Ramsay has argued, responses to pandemics are intrinsically political. And Johnson himself made the connection from the beginning. On 3 February, he gave his first set-piece speech after the UK had left the EU. Speaking to the ambassadors of the world in the glorious painted hall at Greenwich he set out his government’s Brexit policy as “a campaigner for global free trade”. What Johnson said next needs to be quoted in full to be believed:
“we are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric... there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage... at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other. ... I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role”.
There is nothing in this comic-book posturing about being ‘science-led’. Ten days previously The Lancet had published a report by four scientists on A novel coronavirus outbreak of global health concern. They described the disease in Wuhan, its rapid international spread, compared it to the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918 and concluded, “Every effort should be given to understand and control the disease, and the time to act is now”. Johnson, however, the would-be superman, already knew what is “medically rational”. In contrast to Germany which began to mass order ventilators from its factories, Johnson subjected Britain to his cartoonish fantasy of saving the earth for unregulated trade. At just the point when leadership was called for, a man who thought he was born to be a leader pitted his Brexit ideology against careful medical warnings that were the opposite of “bizarre autarkic rhetoric” and discarded precious weeks of preparation, thousands have died painfully as a consequence.
In normal times it is dispiriting enough to be governed by such people. Now, it’s doubly awful. The Johnson government’s combination of boastful messages, superficiality and sheer incompetence, gets in the way of confronting the more lasting issues.
I wanted to get those things off my chest. For it’s impossible to confront the impact of COVID-19 as if it is a plague happening to other people. How it is happening to each of us in our particular countries matters hugely, and whether we are in Sweden, Zimbabwe, Italy, India, Mexico, or South Korea, national government is decisive. At the same time, it is happening to all of us in our individual networks, communities and families, and equally important, for all of us as a single human species. One difficulty, then, resides in the need to respond at all four levels simultaneously: the global, the national, the local, and the personal.
Here I will look at the planetary nature of what is taking place: how the impact of the virus shows us our world has changed in ways we did not realise, why this has come about, and what we should do now.
Chapter 1: We were all wrong
Medically we can foresee that cures or vaccines could be developed that might prevent the future rampage of COVID-19. Politically, a short-run scramble to reassemble normality is already underway. To achieve it, labs must deliver at speed, social distancing be sustained, testing implemented and those who test positive be quarantined – as demonstrated in South Korea – to try and achieve national eradication.
These are impossible imperatives in poorer countries. Disasters among even those without reckless leaders will blow back to the richer world, where the far-right is already preparing to ramp up xenophobia and trigger a ferocious polarisation, especially in the United States.
But whatever the medical and immediate political responses to the pandemic, it has unleashed an earthquake tumbling the world’s economic and financial systems. The ground has not stopped moving. The real surprise is not that there is a financial crash – wise heads saw one coming, hedge funds shorted it. It is that governments themselves brought it about by deliberate acts of policy. A previously inconceivable collapse of commerce was caused by politically ordered lockdowns. No scenarios had prepared anyone for anything like this.
Why did it happen? Most of us thought that ‘the system’ of power and interest put profits before life, I certainly did. How could this not be the case when so many lives are sacrificed for the sake of an international capitalism that drips with inequality, filling the harbours of the Caribbean with yachts as millions go without basic necessities, let alone health care? Yet when it came to the crunch, leading governments put the health of their citizens first, generating the sharpest recession ever known.
The right believed the market came first, and approved. The left was sure it did and opposed. The liberal centre believed it did and felt it should be moderated. All of us believed that market values ruled and democracy had been hollowed out, or captured by authoritarians. We were all wrong.
That is the good news. Bad news will certainly follow. The right is already reasserting the domination of corporate priorities and obliging vulnerable people to work in unsafe conditions. Many in the centre have returned to far-sighted hand-wringing, and too many on the left are agreeing with each other over how correct they were about the past.
Yet much of the response to the pandemic tells us we can create a different way of governing life on earth. Not because there is a new ‘answer’ to which we can turn in our predicament, or an old one waiting to be finally collected from left luggage. But because the potential of far-reaching change has been created all along, under governments of all political stripes, and has now taken us by surprise.
One measure of the surprise is that two of the countries worst hit by COVID-19 are America and Britain. At the turn of the century they were confident that they ‘represented the future’. That South Korea was capable of making better television sets or generating weirdly popular girl bands and dance routines, could be put down to its unique location between China and Japan. Now the virus has revealed that if you measure a society’s success by its ability to look after its people in freedom, then South Korea’s embrace of modernity is far superior to the Anglo-Saxon’s.
A functioning democracy of over 50 million people, South Korea recorded its first case of the Coronavirus on 20 January the same day as the US. By the end of April it had limited mortality to five COVID-19 linked deaths per million of its population, its capital Seoul – bigger than New York City and with twice its density – is not under curfew and the country has even held a general election. By then the US had 207 deaths per million and rising, its great cities were silenced while its president bragged and blathered – and the UK officially recorded 419 deaths per million. Just as important, while the economy of South Korea started to recover, both the US and UK were staggering under ongoing shutdowns.
The catastrophe that COVID-19 has visited on the US and UK is related to the nature of the economic ideology that both embraced, best known as ‘neoliberalism’ (I’ll say later why the term is important). Neoliberalism hollowed out the capacity of their public sectors, under-funding what it did not privatise. This created the conditions that led to the severity of the COVID-crisis for the White House and Downing Street.
But the underlying crisis they now confront is shared by market economies everywhere. All shut down or radically cut back up to a third of their economies and must now seek to recover, something no one expected or prepared for.
True to their neoliberal inheritance, the Anglo-American leaders tried hard to resist such measures. When policy towards the virus was debated in Downing Street at the “end of February'' it seems the government embraced the existing epidemic planning whose results were so “terrifying” when war-gamed in the 2016 Exercise Cygnus they were never published. The strategy, as presented by the Prime Minister's chief of staff Dominic Cummings, was summed up by a witness as, “Herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”, according to the Sunday Times.
It is not hard to see the logic of this approach from a free-market perspective. The deaths would mostly be of the old and thus merely accelerate the termination of those of us who are anyway ‘a drain’ on social services. The less elderly victims tended to have underlying health issues, which would also eliminate costs for the NHS. A younger, fitter, cheaper population would be the outcome, preserving the economy from the punitive ‘panic’ measures of other countries. It's an approach implicit in Johnson's Greenwich speech about Britain transforming itself into Superman. But it was abandoned. Why?
The desire to support the economy at all costs visibly consumed Trump, who downplayed the virus at the start. Republican governors refused to ban meetings or close beaches. The party’s politicians and funders rage at restrictions. Two Trump supporters summed up their market-first approach, as Nick Paumgarten, noted in the New Yorker: Fox commentator, Glenn Beck, “I’d rather die than kill the country” and Dan Patrick, just elected as lieutenant governor of Texas, on grandparents dying for the economy: “If that’s the exchange, I’m all in”.
Such attitudes are characteristic of Trumpian economics with its hostility to regulation of any kind. His supporters are now pushing to open up the economy despite the deaths this will cause, especially as they believe the wealthy will be OK. But this attitude did not dominate policy making at the start.
China has an ageing population. What could be better than thinning it out? In 1958 over 30 million died thanks to the so-called Great Leap Forward, yet Mao never answered for it and the figures were covered up. The treatment of the Uighurs shows such ruthlessness has hardly been stilled. Why, then, did Xi and his Politburo decide the Chinese would not take the coronavirus ‘on the chin’ when Beijing’s system of party control and surveillance could have imposed this?
Part of the answer is that the cult of Xi’s personality and the party’s boasting of its success creates a tension within the obedience it demands. Despite the country’s immense size, when things go wrong the central authorities are held directly responsible with a ferocious anger. As the spread of infection and its mortal consequences developed in Wuhan it became clear that it could neither be covered up nor contained, given the city’s connectedness within China and with the world.
On 25 January, two days before the Chinese New Year, which sees the largest mass movement of people on the planet, after millions had already left Wuhan as rumours spread, the Politburo realised the days of the Great Leap Forward were over. What could once be imposed on the dispersed, immobile rural settlements of a fatalistic peasantry was not going to be tolerated by a connected metropolis. There is now something akin to public opinion.
In response, a country-wide lockdown was launched across China. Wuhan’s province was isolated, closing off 50 million people. Medical personnel were poured in as the precious growth targets, the key to the regime’s success, were abandoned.
The economy of the world’s most populous country has grown by an average of close to 10 per cent a year since 1979, an astonishing record. In the first quarter of 2020 it shrunk by over 6 per cent as the brakes were slammed on. So complete were the closures even pollution disappeared. The Politburo understood that its own life and legitimacy depended on it demonstrating that nothing mattered more to it than the lives of its people.
A similar reality shock confronted governments around the world. A hundred years ago, when perhaps 50 to 100 million died in the 1918-20 flu epidemic, governments were not blamed. In 1943 the British government did not feel responsible for the Bengal famine that took two million of its subject’s lives, continuing an official indifference to genocide that goes back to the Irish famine. The flu pandemic of 1968 is estimated to have killed 700,000 people, made little impact and is now forgotten.
Yet today, if governments were indifferent to such deaths, few would survive. Whether or not the politicians acted out of their own ethical conviction is beside the point. To slow down the loss of life, they shut down economies everywhere, neoliberalism be damned. The alternative was not publicly acceptable.
I am not saying they discarded capitalism. On the contrary they acted to try and ensure its survival. Neoliberalism was always only a variant of a shapeshifting economic system which has plenty of life in it.
Nonetheless, an historic transformation has taken place. The measures taken, however reluctantly, misconceived, badly run and limited, have precipitated the sharpest recession in history, because governments felt obliged to try and give their peoples’ lives and health priority over financial interests.
For this to have happened three changes were necessary. Governments had to be seen by the public as having responsibility for the economy. People had to expect their governments to ensure the availability of health services, including modern hospital support for all citizens whose lives are in danger. The public had to have a relatively clear idea of what is happening that governments cannot suppress. Together these changes have upturned the nature of politics around the world.
The first politician to recognise the moment’s “anthropological” significance was France’s president Emmanuel Macron. An exponent of globalisation and neoliberalism and one time banker he had sought to impose marketisation on his reluctant country.
In March, he told the Financial Times, the impact of COVID-19 “makes us refocus on the human aspect. It becomes clear that the economy no longer has primacy. When it comes to our humanity, women and men, but also the ecosystems in which they live, and therefore the emissions of CO2, global warming, biodiversity, there is something more important than the economic order.” To emphasise the shock of this he did not draw back from describing what was happening. “We are going to nationalise the wages and the profit and loss accounts of almost all our businesses. That’s what we’re doing. All our economies, including the most liberal are doing that. It’s against all the dogmas, but that’s the way it is.”
By “dogmas” he means neoliberalism. When he says “the economy no longer has primacy”, he means that what he, and all other leaders of our era believed in at the start of the year, just like the rest of us, no longer holds.
How should we evaluate Macron’s words? He gave the interview in part to pursue his call for bonds to mutualise the costs of the pandemic for Eurozone members. Without this, he warned, the currency will fold. “I believe [the EU] is a political project. If it’s a political project, the human factor is the priority…”.
Macron is widely patronised as a blow-in who struck lucky when France had a poor choice of presidential candidates. Traditional political leaders spend half a lifetime manoeuvering and calibrate their statements to make them acceptable to their constituencies. Macron’s lack of such a past is also a strength, the lightness of his political hinterland makes frankness possible, indeed it may be his special asset. Few other right-wing politicians would dare to say they have just nationalised their country's wages and business accounts. But the French president is simply reporting on the astonishing decisions he and others have all had to take.
What he is reporting is that the COVID-19 pandemic has precipitated an ideological breakdown. Breakdowns are not the same as death or revolutions. You can recover and be strengthened by the experience or just go back to how you were. You can recover and be changed by it. Or you may be altered fundamentally for good or ill. The outcome is decided afterwards and has to be achieved, it is never inherent in the crisis. And the outcome in this case could hardly be more important as it is a breakdown in globalisation itself. The pandemic has revealed an incompatibility between the economic market “dogma” that claimed to shape the wealth creation of the world, and an expectation of the right to life that, it turned out, accompanied its growth.
If you look at the way globalisation has been talked and written about across the media over past decades you would not have guessed this was likely or even possible. Four notions stand out: that globalisation is inhuman, is singular, is inevitable and is economic – based on trade, supply lines and international finance.
Above all, it appears to be something done to us. It may be driven by human agency yet it is experienced as a process we can do nothing about. UN and non-government organisations seek to shape, limit and mitigate its consequences. But they are like a Greek chorus of helpless onlookers unable to orchestrate the drama.
The most alarming example of this is the vast international effort to track, measure, double-check and predict the looming climate catastrophe, contrasted with the persistent failure to take emergency measures to prevent it. The Davos elite bathes in its own power but pleads incapacity when it comes to taking responsibility as the planet burns.
Supporters of globalisation encouraged fatalism and powerlessness. A striking example was when the then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair told the Labour Party Conference in 2005, “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer”. That was the year Thomas Friedman published the best-selling The World is Flat and it was fashionable to believe the human planet was being turned into a socio-economic singularity, thanks to the growth of a world-wide system of trade, finance, migration and communication, driven initially by states, then by corporations and finally by finance and cyberspace. It was supposed to lead inexorably to representative democracy and the rule of law overseen by a liberal elite.
We cannot understand what is going on if our minds are gripped by such nonsense. The essential starting point to grasp is that all talk of globalisation misleads if it projects the idea of a simplification or homogenisation. Progress – and we are living in an epoch of immense technological and productive progress – generates complexity and diversity not uniformity. The internet intensifies local communication. The forging of a shared environment assists the development of difference. Richness, contrasts and paradox are the companions of shared regulation and security. As communication multiplies, variety blooms and decentralisation becomes more effective, not less.
Not only does globalisation generate differences, it is driven by them, especially the imperative of ‘catching up’. Studies of nationalism show that it has been the vehicle for industrialisation and modernisation, not an impediment to them. Far from this being something we cannot debate, it demands arguments and experiments.
Most important of all, globalisation is by no means limited to the economy. Yes, it encompasses the ways in which the world goes about its business within and between nations. But it is also the processes by which we inhabit the world as a whole, including our media and communications; it affects how we eat and drink, and the way we relate to and experience ourselves and our health as a species, something the Coronavirus has literally brought home to us.
Accompanying and related to the inhuman progress of the market, with all its insecurities, booms, busts, precariousness and refusal of responsibility, there has been a parallel process of humanisation. This is not a term I’d have used before COVID-19. Back then, in 2019, ’humanisation’ would have sounded too feeble and soft to describe the direction the world might be taking. But the virus has shown us that our species-nature is a hard and serious priority.
Today the human consequences of globalisation are part of our experience as well as knowledge. People everywhere feel we share the same planet earth at the same time as each other. It does not follow we share an identical response, on the contrary. Nonetheless, there is no longer any society on earth where the experience of being part of contemporary world history is excluded from everyday life.
A simple way to assess this is to compare 1950 to today, a period well within my lifetime (I was born in 1942). In the mid-twentieth century an estimated 51%, that is to say half of the world’s population, had no formal education, most women were illiterate, most people lived on the land and most of today’s countries were colonies. Today, nearly two-thirds of us have mobile phones, most of us live in cities or towns, there are almost more nations than we can count and the fact that 10 percent of us have no basic education is regarded as shocking.
This is an economic, social and political revolution. An immense improvement in the standard of life has created a generalised capacity to become citizens everywhere. The masters of globalisation did everything possible to debilitate popular agency. They have generated slums and urban poverty and hard drug addiction on an unspeakable scale, but sweeping educational, sanitary and technological transformations have laid the basis for people to become fully human and this has blown away neoliberalism.
Chapter 2: So, what is globalisation then?
The word ‘globalisation’ has different meanings. In the broadest sense of ‘the interconnectedness of humanity’ it began when early homo-sapiens in Asia reconnected with the first human communities in Africa to become a world-wide species, perhaps two million years ago.
While there is a flourishing study of global history that predates it, globalisation is more usually taken to have begun in the sixteenth century with the first circumnavigation of the globe and European expansion including the conquests and settlements of the Americas, followed by early colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade. For generations, the loudest and ugliest part of this complex human story was colonialism. Which was intensified by industrialisation. The development of the telegraph and trans-oceanic cables initiated elements of a recognisably contemporary global economy, centred on the City of London, which by 1914 was more open than at any time since.
The period of the two world wars from 1914 to 1945 saw a collapse in world trade as autarkic blocs formed and fought and resulted in a global order shaped by American superiority decorated by the United Nations. This was to become the foundation for the phase of globalisation we have just lived through. The immediate consequence, however, was the sharply divided world of the Cold War and its three-fold separation between Western capitalism, Soviet communism and the ‘non-aligned’ countries, which were often newly independent colonies plunged into the proxy-battles of the Cold War. The most intense of these, the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962, when the US and the Soviet Union came close to war, was perhaps a prelude to an emotional globalisation when hundreds of millions held their breath. Had a thermonuclear holocaust been unleashed, it would have meant globalisation of a different kind, with much of the planet uninhabitable. The result, however, was to entrench the existing hierarchies of authority.
In the decades that followed two forms of globalisation developed. One was economic. It refers to the emergence and then rapid growth of a financial, trading and high-tech capitalism that overwhelmed communism and, so its celebrants proclaimed, made nation states increasingly redundant as economic actors. There was a debate about its nature at the turn of the turn of the century with some arguing that it was by no means as novel or free of national determination as its endorsers made out1. It is the economic globalisation that commentators are referring to when they report on ‘deglobalisation’ due to ‘decoupling’ of economic supply chains after the pandemic, even though the experience of COVID-19 is clearly one of the most global events ever in terms of shared experience.
This shared experience is the second form taken by globalisation. You could call it the social, or political, or cultural but each term seems to pocket it into an inadequate slot. It is the human impact of the virus. And this experience tells us that along with the economic another form of globalisation has been underway in terms of an underlying structure of feeling about human life on earth that does not give priority to corporate interests. It is made possible in part because of rapid electronic images but is about more than the spectacle. It is rooted in a sense that we as a human race have developed the power to hold the whole world in our hands and yet what is happening is beyond our control.
Globalisation in this sense and as we know it today began in 1968. The impact of the Vietnamese Tet offensive in January, the French barricades of May, and the Prague Spring that brought the Soviet Tanks into what was then Czechoslovakia, were high points in a whole series of challenges that altered the nature of what was possible. They were unexpected, unpredictable, popular uprisings against the established orders and expressed a far-reaching social transformation, one that had developed through a decade which had already seen the liberation of most African countries from colonisation. It would prove to be revolutionary, although not in the way that the rhetoric of the time foresaw. It was the start of our contemporary globalisation, as it became clear that processes had been unleashed that had escaped the control of those supposedly in charge as well as the confinement to any single continent.
It seems counter-intuitive to speak of 2020 and 1968 in the same breath. That was a time of liberation, of the breaking of restraint and restrictions, calling on the imagination to “seize power” and a “realism” that demanded “the impossible”. This is a year of self-isolation, auto-imprisonment and punitive monitoring. 1968 was a year of boom, 2020 one of bust. The contrast is my point: these years will book-end the half-century of globalisation.
1968 was a left-wing moment which led to five decades of right-wing domination culminating in Trump’s first term. For sure, the pandemic is already generating an eruption of reaction designed to strengthen corporate capitalism. At the same time I believe it is going to initiate a long, progressive, democratic and ecological transformation. We are witnessing the force that will achieve this in the upwelling of solidarity that has been released in cities, towns, communities and networks, in response to the lockdowns and in support of frontline workers around the world.
To assess the nature of the force I call humanisation calls for a re-assessment of globalisation. I’m attempting this below with assertions that should be preceded by ‘perhaps’ or followed by ‘isn’t this so?’
First, I’ll look at some influential strands that weave their way continuously across the five decades since 1968.
Then I’ll look at how these ongoing strands are shaped by key historical moments, conjunctures that shape the history that has brought us to 2020. Their selection and interpretation may be controversial, but I’m putting them forward to start a discussion and, especially, to highlight the contested nature of the last fifty years. I hope you will not be impatient with this double approach which means there is some repetition. But it is essential to identify the deep tensions built up over the past five decades so that, in the final section, I can suggest how we can draw upon them to replace corporate domination and its free-market priorities.
1968 to 2020 - strands that marked the half century
1) Unparalleled consumption
An immense, unsustainable rise in the use of raw materials, overwhelmingly consumed in wealthy countries, took place starting from the mid-century. It has been called the period of “the great acceleration”. While it is punctuated by busts and downturns the overall increase in almost everything underlies the period as a whole.
The tragedy of globalisation is that its great material success guarantees a catastrophic failure if it continues. The drivers include corporate expansion and over-consumption, as well as the desire to catch up, to live in a warm apartment, to send children to university, to enjoy the freedom of good transport. Growth has been propelled in part by the increase in the world population from about 2.5 billion in 1950 to today’s 7.8 billion. It is not an unsustainable population or the main cause of peak consumption. It is how we live, not our numbers, which is generating the mismatch between humanity’s demands on the earth and the planet’s capacities. It follows that we have to wean our assessment of success away from measurement of GDP. Improvements in the living standards of billions is a must, rightly they will not allow themselves to be deprived. To be sustainable and equitable as well as carbon neutral it is going to have to be growth of a different kind for all of us.
2) People Flow
There are five conversations about the exponential increase in the movement of people since 1968.
- There was a huge rise in travel for tourism and work. A measure of this is that on 29 June 2018, for the first time, more than 200,000 flights took off and landed on the same day. 202,157, to be exact. Worldwide, over a billion took to the sky in July and August 2019.
- Migration within countries, especially the exodus from the countryside to the cities, altered the nature of humanity as a whole. In 1970, 36% of the world’s population was urban, 1.3 billion people. By 2020, 56% lived in towns and cities, 4.3 billion of us. The tipping point was around 2005 when humanity became an urban species numerically, although the urbanisation of rural life, especially in terms of media penetration, was much earlier.
- Then there is migration from one country to another, which I’ll come to.
- There is also the debate over the ‘threat’ of immigration, which is distinct from actual immigration. Its concerns are identity, tradition and control. Thus racist opposition to the newcomers who had rescued us from the fate of monocultural uniformity went mainstream in the UK in April 1968, when Enoch Powell warned of “rivers of blood” thanks to blacks settling amongst ‘us’. He was wrong. There was no such catastrophe. Yet he is regarded as a prophet not an idiot. This is because the ‘issue’ won’t go away as it is seized upon time and again to stir fear of the other.
- Wars and persecution generate refugees and asylum seekers and humanitarian principles oblige everyone to offer shelter.
At the turn of the century a senior Dutch civil servant, Teo Veenkamp was working on migration between countries. He recognised that it is a constant in the modern world, with up to three percent of people moving. He called this ‘People Flow’. He set out how to wrest it from the hands of people smugglers, ensure host societies gain direct financial benefit, confront the need for linguistic training, and help the communities who lose their skilled and energetic young. His political aim was to stop migration being treated as a ‘crisis’ that politicians sought to ‘solve’ so that it would then go away. Only by governing migration as a constant could its enormous value be shared and the issue made less toxic. Despite its practical foresight and authority the debate over People Flow was ignored.
There is an important but little discussed aspect of today’s migration. Enormous numbers have worked or studied abroad and returned, or have a family member overseas who meet on WhatsApp, or are married to, or have relatives who are related to, foreigners. Thanks to this perhaps even a majority of the world’s population have directly or vicariously experienced life in another country.
3) TV, the microchip and the global economy.
An enormous shift in how contemporary events were perceived took place between 1965 and 1970 as colour television began and quickly became the norm. All previous history had been reproduced in black and white. It was democratising to see authority in its flesh colours. At the same time an international political-media-entertainment complex was born that was anything but democratic, even though it exploited the end of paternalism.
Even as television swept all before it, 1968 saw the first seeds of a further transformation of communications, that would plough up industrial capitalism some decades later. The so-called Mother of all Demos took place in December. It signalled the development of the personal computer and mouse; while the foundation of Intel, also in 1968, initiated the coming era of the microchip. In addition to land, sea, air and, if you will, space, a new domain was about to be created. One within which humans now exist, reshaping our identities: cyberspace.
The multiple transformation of communications, however, was only part of the globalisation of the world economy. A crucial physical development was finalised in 1968 by ‘ISO 668’. This defined the dimensions for a universal system of containerisation across ships, rail and road transport. Economic globalisation would not have been possible without it, a development apparently encouraged by the US army wanting to secure its massive shipments from “Viet Cong pilfering”. A transformation of world trade and supply lines took place for which the developments in communications provided the nervous system. In addition the first Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet emerged from its hanger in 1968, to go into commercial flight in 1970. In terms of mass tourism as well as international trade and digitalisation, it was a breakthrough year in all respects.
4) Frustrated environmentalism and the rise of NGOs
It was the first image of earth-rise – taken by US astronauts above the moon in December 1968 – that was arguably the moment the modern environmental movement took off, as the ecosphere’s vulnerability became visible in a thumbnail. It has been described as "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken". In 1970 the first Earth Day filled streets across America. But what happened to this movement?
This generation - my generation - invented the modern NGO: Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Médecins Sans Frontières were founded, Oxfam and Amnesty, revitalised. Our peers were recruited into the great US Foundations as well as new ones, where they funded progressive causes.
An extraordinary range of amelioration was achieved, the worst pollution was reversed, poverty was alleviated and international development greatly helped. But the whole period is marked by a contest between the growing urgency of the need for environmental recuperation – and the systemic failure to implement it.
There is nothing dishonourable about defeat. You can even overcome it if you face up to it. The great non-governmental movements, mobilisations and organisations were frustrated yet did not debate why. Instead, their literature endlessly proclaims how well they have done, while the world they exist to save burns.
Certainly, market fundamentalism constricted politics and squeezed their influence. But marginalisation was also self-inflicted. One of the most noticeable failures was the World Social Forum that first met in Brazil in 2001 to challenge Davos style globalisation. It made a huge impact, then dissipated. By the time it was vindicated by the great financial crash of 2008, it had faded away.
5) Feminism and our bodies become the basis for claiming control over our lives
Ecological consciousness was accompanied by another change familiar to all of us and theorised by feminism but little considered in global politics: the rise of body-consciousness. Our bodies were sold back to us, women’s bodies first followed by men’s especially via sports. The commodification of intimate life and personal looks stimulated insatiable demand for attractive appearance.
Across the half-century, as the human species became an urban genus, individual fitness, diet and mental well-being became a central part of modern life. It generated intense individualism, making health a private responsibility. The word ‘jogger’, for example, entered the English language in the early sixties and only became widespread in the latter part of the decade. A push back against this, while poorly funded, is strengthened by being true: our health and well-being are also intrinsically social.
While we gained as well as suffered from better understanding of our bodies and their inter-relationships, this tremendously important area was confined to consumerism rather than citizenship. The issues were excluded from what passes for democracy which, by making politics less relevant, reinforced depoliticisation.
The Greens tried to bring these issues of the personal and our lived relationships with our environment into policy making but this was used to ghettoise them. Now the nature of living on the planet in terms of our health, sexuality, hygiene and diet, needs to become political and coronavirus may help us to achieve this.
Especially thanks to feminism. It takes more than two generations to overcome the epochal subordinations of patriarchy. Although our joint emancipation from it as women and men is still ongoing, a profound transformation took place across the half century that will be vital to our surviving it.
6) Moscow, Washington and Beijing but not Europe
Three clear shaping political processes stretch across the half-century: the fall of Soviet communism, the divide of American democracy along with the consolidation of the dollar’s supremacy, and the rise of authoritarian, capitalist China. There was also an unclear, flailing influence: the European Union.
The long drawn-out termination of Soviet Communism ended the only organised and armed opposition to rule by the market. Although the Tet offensive which opened 1968 was planned by the most classic of communist parties, the Vietnamese, founded by Ho Chi Minh, its defiance inspired spontaneous risings against hierarchy and centralised authority from Germany to Mexico – including Stalinist authority.
In France, May 68 confronted the Parti Communiste Français, the PCF, the largest Stalinist Communist party in the West, as well as President de Gaulle. Unlike the French state, the PCF never recovered. Within the Soviet bloc, the Prague Spring experimented with an open version of socialism and political freedom that would have terminated the Party’s ideological monopoly. It was crushed by Brezhnev’s tanks, which thereby ensured there would be no escape for Soviet Communism from fatal sclerosis, despite Gorbachev’s heroic efforts at resuscitation twenty years later.
In China, Soviet style rule was shattered by Mao’s so-called Cultural Revolution, which came to a head in 1968. It mobilised the young to “bombard the headquarters” and save Mao from being retired below decks by his pro-Soviet, ‘revisionist’ colleagues. These included the nominal head of state, Lui Shaoqi, Moscow trained and author of How to be a Good Communist, who was sentenced in December 1968 and died shortly after.
When the Vietnamese finally drove the US out of their country in 1975 it looked as if the appeal of communism might revive. Instead, while the capitalist world was absorbing the energy of the sixties to good effect, communist states went to war with one another.
China mobilised over a million troops along its border with Russia and invaded Vietnam to punish it for liberating Cambodia from Mao’s protégé Pol Pot – and the USSR invaded Afghanistan. Soviet ‘internationalism’ never recovered. Its momentous history gave Soviet influence a shadowy endurance after the USSR collapsed in 1991: a ruthless belief in manipulative centralism in the name of the working class still leaves its baleful effects on leftist political organisations as it takes far too long to wither away completely.
The rise of China co-defines the half-century from 1968 to 2020. The most populous country on earth was isolated after its revolution in 1949, absurdly excluded even from membership of the ‘United Nations’ at the insistence of the United States. It was only in 1971, when Mao agreed to support the division of Vietnam, that America relented and China replaced Taiwan on the Security Council.
Five years later, Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping swung his country to market development, initiating the largest single-generation socio-economic transformation in history. Hundreds of millions migrated from the fields to city life. In 1968 Wuhan was a city of 2 million prone to flooding. In 2019 the coronavirus mutated into existence in a city of 11 million, with skyscrapers, infra-red thermometers and mobile CT scan units, and a stunning transport system that put western cities to shame. While the Soviet Union was a full-scale military and ideological rival, it never came close to matching the United States economically. China has done so with awesome speed and intelligence and on its own autocratic terms, re-writing world history to create a formidable model of authoritarian capitalism. As Laurie Macfarlane has shown, the combination of Beijing’s hi-tech surveillance state and economic clout with Washington’s blundering obsession with ‘greatness’ threatens open societies everywhere.
Washington’s toleration of Beijing’s challenge had ended before COVID-19. Given the role of China’s growth in its own economy, severing the symbiotic relationship of the two Pacific powers will hit them both. But the US is undergoing an acute ideological crisis with deep roots. Arguably, it has never managed to recover from the domestic consequences of the Tet offensive. Militarily the rising was utterly crushed in Vietnam. Internationally, America’s genocidal impulses were exposed, scarring its appeal as a model for democracy. This too it could brush aside. But at home it generated an opposition to US militarism that fused with the civil rights movement to create a still unresolved polarisation, exacerbated by astonishingly ignorant and arrogant leaders in Washington, Republicans especially.
The Jekyll and Hyde nature of America, home to the finest humanism while massacring and assassinating non-stop, kept the world in its thrall for a good reason. While it has proved a chronic failure as a political model, leaving its liberal supporters continually aghast, its economic predominance remains. As Adam Tooze is reporting in detail, the Federal Reserve is responding to the financial upheavals of the pandemic with unprecedented speed and boldness, to retain its responsibility for the working of the world’s inter-linked financial systems. The dominance of the dollar and the reach of US corporations remains unbroken, as it has since 1945, a crucial factor in the continuity of the last fifty years.
In 1968, what is now the European Union consisted of the six countries that founded it in 1957 and de Gaulle had just vetoed a second British application to join. By 2020 it had 27 members, was the largest free-trade area in the world, and had just lost Britain, the first member state to leave.
The expansion of the EU might have created an example for the world as its architects hoped. It still may do so but it contains an unresolved element, the Euro, which instead of drawing member countries together spun them apart. As a result the EU spends more time internalising its energies seeking to save itself than it does externalising them to influence others.
Its actual, irreplaceable success has been to create a regulated space within which its national members can flourish. In effect its role has been to rescue European nations from their imperial, racist and belligerent pasts. But its headline project remains the conceit that it will somehow also replace them, to develop a unified executive equal to the US, China and Russia. The Euro embodies this contradiction and until the EU resolves its own nature it will not be able to help shape the world.
7) Equal but unequal
Socially, humanity has become more equal since 1968, a process empowered by the concept of fundamental human rights. Open segregation and racial supremacy is no longer acceptable even if we are still a long way from convivial, planetary humanism. The half-century stands out for the struggle for gender parity, which made enormous gains against the hierarchies and prejudices enforced by traditional authority.
Cisgender male privilege did not crumble. Religiously-blessed male domination, Hindu, Christian and Muslim, continued to reproduce itself, as it does in secular forms in Chinese Communism and Japanese precedent. But however intransigent, it has become a rearguard action.
Television and now video and social media have reinforced a demotic energy in all societies, deflating claims of intrinsic superiority everywhere. At the same time less penury has meant enormous, massively maldistributed increases in wealth, deepening inequality in two dramatic ways.
While never have so many fought their way out of poverty so fast to earn the basics of a warmer, sanitary life and education, the rise of the ‘super-rich’ has been faster, appropriating an accumulation of personal wealth that was inconceivable in the mid-century.
Meanwhile, the conditions of the poor in countries suffering forms of political disintegration and war is unimaginably dire shanty towns of destitution attached to the centres of urban wealth. Whatever the WHO recommends to prevent contagion, hundreds of millions can’t wash their hands as they have little access to soap and running water, can’t practise social distancing in cramped conditions, or stay away from work as their families may starve.
The bitter irony of the decades that followed the Vietnam conflict was that a period of quite exceptional human progress was accompanied by non-stop wars and armed conflict. The imbalances that have led us to the climate emergency cannot but be linked to the perverse levels of military expenditure, a fraction of which could have helped diminish global warming. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute spreadsheet does not offer an estimate for Soviet military expenditure for 1968, but that year Europe and America spent over $800 billion in today’s dollars. Last year the world’s total of military expenditure had risen to $1,922 billion excluding the Middle East, a record high. For the last half century we have spent an average of more than a trillion dollars, that is over a thousand billion dollars, a year, on fighting and preparing to fight each other. The sheer perversity is maddening and spread across almost all societies (except perhaps Costa Rica which dissolved its army); my own country, for example, is spending tens of billions on a redundant submarine-platform nuclear missile system.
Arms expenditure on this scale probably causes wars and certainly deepens and lengthens them at a time when, along with better education, most countries have become more tolerant and peaceful. The Uppsala Conflict Data Programme has tracked conflicts since 1975 (see graph) and reckons that 2,733,206 have been killed in conflicts since 1989. Many can be regarded as victims of the competitive form of globalisation we have experienced. “Until the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes, there will be war”.
Decade after decade, the last fifty years has been laced with scandals, the most recent involving the direct subordination of democratic politics by dark money (see Peter Geoghegan’s 'Democracy for Sale'). But the existence of oligarchs enjoying the protection of tax havens quite legally is the real scandal. A system of permissiveness has made the City of London into, in effect, a receiver of stolen revenues generated globally and cycled through tiny islands under British sovereignty2. The illicit has public impacts, such as the costs of addiction and the criminality of the drug trade, itself a new kind of international, exposed in Misha Glenny’s 'McMafia'.
To preserve itself, protection money goes to support politicians who in turn support ‘light regulation’. The European Union’s belated efforts to close down off-shore tax havens was one reason the Brexit campaign was flush with cash and backed by billionaires. Of course there has always been crime. But in its imperial heyday the City of London profited from its global influence because of a belief it could be trusted. The closed shops and rituals of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ were highly efficient and integrity was perceived around the world as a sign of modernity. No more.
10) Humanity as an agent
All of the above processes combined to transform the class system. On mid-century earth, industrial output was driven by massed, working class efforts, down mines and in vast factories, unionised in the west and lionised in Soviet propaganda and largely male. The labour movement was the rock of progressive politics, while its conscription into patriot loyalties ensured its allegiance to competing nation states.
Fifty years later the division of society into badly educated, manual proletariats, middle class professionals and ruling establishments has vaporised. Working class politics has lost its Stalinist dead weight while collectivism has been dissolved by the market. Corporations took advantage of the dramatic weakening of organised labour to use global production lines and supply chains to break the influence of the unions. Now, the nature of work is undergoing a metamorphosis as financialisation and platform monopolies make insecurity and precarity almost a norm for the young, while digitalisation puts unparalleled creative powers into our hands.
There are still very real class differences, between rich and poor for a start, often expressed in depression – or opioids in the USA. There are acute divisions between metropolises and declining towns, between the educated and those without training, between immigrants and the entrenched, and especially between generations. Attitudes within atomised electorates are closely surveyed by market research for commercial and political messages that manipulate our subjectivity. Under these pressures, across the half-century, traditional class solidarities have passed away. At the same time, and in response to the same pressures, the foundations for a new solidarity within nations and between people is emerging – that of humanity itself in all our different societies.
Chapter 3: The stepping stones
Nine moments forged the processes described above to shape the globalisation that has now gone into shock. In identifying them I’m not denying that there were many other events of global consequence, such as the end of Apartheid, the wars of post-Yugoslavia, the triumph of Modi and his assault on India’s secular constitution, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands or the battles over Ukraine, to mention just five. Nor am I writing a history, I say nothing about Japan, for example, despite its importance and I’m conscious of a North Atlantic bias, when the most grievous impacts have been imposed on the poorer, more populous countries.
1968: risings against the ‘system’ followed by the entrenchment of reaction initiate cultural globalisation
Explosive confidence generated complexity, not simplicity in 1968; it can’t be understood if it is stereotyped with the romantic insignia of Che Guevara. It was a raw, novel democratic moment in Europe and North America. A hitherto unknown manifestation of humanity, ‘teenagers’, heralded the arrival of a distinct generation. Tom Nairn captured the heady confidence it gave us of being different from "all previous history", which he described as “between 6000 B.C. and A.D. 1950”. We felt different because, “For the first time since the era of Neolithic villages… countries on roughly the same level of evolution as France [have] developed their powers of material production to the point where most people, most of the time, are liberated from the elemental conditions of poverty and scarcity… Furthermore… a generalised confidence has been created where for the first time material prosperity is ‘taken for granted’”3.
What we took for granted was a life unlike anything that had gone before. Good contraception freed sexual activity for women and men, television transformed the experience of the public sphere, university education ceased to be an elite privilege, and we could travel, while rock and roll expressed an epochal generation gap – famously etched in Jim Morrison’s lyrics, the lead singer of the Doors. His naval father worked with nuclear weapons and commanded a carrier fleet in action against Vietnam: “Father/ Yes, son. / I want to kill you. / Mother, I want to…” I rocked to it in London’s Roundhouse in September 1968.
The Doors at the Roundhouse, London, 1968
Teach-ins led to opposition to the Vietnam war, followed by the occupations, demonstrations and sit-ins, that sought tolerance, pluralism, dialogue and participation and an inspiring desire to change everything. We explored ideas of direct democracy and the transformative power of shared knowledge, as deference to traditional hierarchy was discarded.
While these hopes were crushed, a stubborn resilience was generated that has passed on through generations, always ready to ignite. It even finds expression today in the spontaneous self-organising of streets and communities under lockdown. It helped turn 1968 into an inspiring challenge to all forms of authority: ageist establishments, aristocratic entitlement, homophobic churches, vested interests, party organisations, trade union bureaucracy, workplace discipline, male dominated households, sexual and racial stereotypes.
Sectarian violence accompanied demands for voice, fairness and self-government, generating division, craziness and all too often narrow-minded leadership and authority. Vietnamese defiance of America did more than excite and inspire a restless generation; it challenged racism and white supremacy, which was still practised openly in the US South. Dehumanised as ‘gooks’, ‘dinks’, ‘slants’ and ‘slopes’, the Vietnamese resistance turbo-charged demands for racial equality in the US, a claim still relevant today.
Traditional authority was threatened, perhaps none more than on the centre-left. The practical energy of the time was repulsed by often ruling social democratic parties – with the important exception of then West Germany, where the ‘anti-authoritarian movement’ obliged an entire generation to confront their parents' Nazi past. By contrast, the Democratic mayor of Chicago, Richard J Daley, had protestors clubbed to the ground outside the party’s convention in August 1968.
Apart from West Germany, ‘68 was defeated: de Gaulle was returned to power in France in June, Nixon won the US election in November. History since then can be seen as a series of largely successful efforts to neutralise the inchoate demands for popular, open democracy born at that time, while never being able to snuff them out. Repression ranged from crushing uprisings to appropriating and commercialising desire, from controlled concessions to the encouragement of disengagement and outright depoliticisation and the self-damaging permissiveness of hard drugs.
The different national legacies are striking. At the time there was talk of a world-wide ‘1848’, or a Cuban inspired ‘Tri-continental’. The reality became the opposite, each country’s ‘68 intensified its national distinctiveness. As a political-cultural, generational moment, it also took place in different countries at different times. In one way, as I describe later, Spain then under Francoist lockdown, had its 68 in 2011. I went to Moscow in 1987 as the country opened up under Gorbachev and wrote that “The sixties have come to the Soviet Union” as students called for the ‘Three Nyets’ (No to violence, national exclusion and claims to a monopoly on truth) and its own rock and roll music took off4.
The UK saw a dramatic example of the separate, national outcomes of 68, when the call for human rights in Northern Ireland precipitated a revanchist civil conflict that lasted thirty years. In Britain the radicals were outmanoeuvred by the establishment. In March 1968, we stormed the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. A second march in October was preceded by a media paroxysm of alarm that London would become another Paris, instead it fizzled out in Hyde Park.
I did my best to try and reverse the defeat and initiated 7 DAYS in 1971, the finest radical photo weekly of our time. Put together by Alexander Cockburn and other comrades, many of whom went on to lives of influence after it folded, it lasted only 6 months5. Today you can cross the digital Styx to search it in its ghostly form. Politically, our movement was captured by sectarianism and deserved to be vanquished. Its wider liberating spirit of democracy lives on in opposition to war, intolerable exploitation and ecological pillage. These were symbolised at the time by the napalm and dioxin dropped from the most advanced technology in the world on the peasants of Vietnam. It was the beginning of an ongoing battle over globalisation.
In London, commercialisation turned rebellion into the huge new market of youth culture. Both Mick Jagger (Street Fighting Man) and John Lennon (Imagine) engaged with the revolutionary moment. Lennon understood its potential and was assassinated. Jagger went on to his knighthood and play stadiums. It was a right-wing politician who coolly picked up the anti-big-state sentiments of the time and put them in her handbag. Margaret Thatcher gave the first major speech of her career at the Tory Party conference in October 1968, linking personal responsibility with the desire to get rich.
What emerged was an unspoken, unholy alliance between the cultural radicalism of the 60s, which assaulted paternalism, and the economic radicalism on the right that despised welfarism. The energy of the sixties, rocket fuelled by the long boom, empowered the reckless growth of a capitalism freed from tradition. The permissive, rule-breaking, fame-fucking irresponsibility of sixties transgression and its embrace of individualism and the market, has now found its ultimate personification in Donald Trump. But he also represents the enemies of ‘68 who pre-date it: the racist, sexist, gun-toting individualists scared by anything that smacks of international solidarity and, above all, feminism.
For the greatest, progressive legacy of 68 and evidence of its continued relevance is modern feminism. This began in reaction against the macho culture of the 68 movements and the music industry and then laid claim to a better politics. It then inspired gay rights. The #MeToo movement is the present day inheritor of decades of arduous efforts to achieve women’s liberation from patriarchy. Implicitly a reprimand to the limitations of the early movement, it is also a demonstration of the unstoppable demand for fundamental equality and human dignity ignited in the sixties. If the future is to be decided by a contest between Trumpism and #MeToo we can be confident that, however long it may take, feminism will succeed.
1971: The end of Bretton Woods and 1973 oil embargo initiate economic globalisation
The most consequential right-wing victor over the spirit of 1968 was Richard Nixon. He won the presidency in November and made Henry Kissinger his National Security Advisor. They reversed the Johnson administration’s move towards a cease-fire in Vietnam and set about winning. Alongside millions of Vietnamese killed, wounded and displaced, the American economy also suffered. Supplying half-a-million troops in continuous combat without raising taxes drove the US into deficit. It became unable to sustain the Bretton Woods system which had governed the world financial system since 1945 and was anchored in dollar convertibility to gold. In August 1971 the ’Nixon Shock’ ended convertibility and imposed a 90 day prices and wages freeze across the US.
The devaluation of the dollar hurt the incomes of the oil-producers in the Middle East and when, in 1973, Egypt attacked Israeli forces occupying Sinai, the resultant oil embargo led to a four-fold increase in oil prices. The two developments, the Nixon shock followed by the oil shock, led to floating currencies and the inflation of the western financial system, which along with already strong growth in Germany and Japan displaced America’s overwhelming post-war dominance.
If 1968 was the beginning of our era of cultural and political globalisation, the Nixon shock of 1971 inaugurated a new era of economic globalization which was then trialled in Chile when, also in 1973, a US backed coup overthrew the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende and violently imposed radical deregulation of the market. It saw the emergence of a free-market system dominated by corporations, addicted to instability, generating inequalities overseen by technocrats and elites who believed nation states had to be disciplined by exchange rate markets and borrowing spreads rather than governed by their citizens.
1975, the Helsinki Accords
The aftermath of 1968 saw chaotic confrontations everywhere. In Italy, for example, the large Communist Party turned to a reformist ‘Eurocommunism’ after it opposed the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring. Fearful of its success, the far-right launched a ‘strategy of tension’ with a bombing campaign known as ‘the years of lead’ to prevent a Communist victory. It was pinned on anarchists, possibly with the connivance of the CIA and almost certainly with the collaboration of the Italian state.
Vietnam turned into full scale military confrontations. Nixon launched a devastating bombing campaign against the North and a peace treaty was signed in 1973 – really an armed truce. The US withdrew its ground forces and the Senate passed an amendment that forbade any American return to fighting in Vietnam. But as the North resupplied through Cambodia and Laos, Nixon sent B-52 bombers into Cambodia, dropping a greater tonnage of conventional bombs on the small country than it had used in the whole of World War Two.
To impose the will of the White House against widespread domestic opposition demanded an imperial presidency at home. But Nixon was defenestrated by Watergate, in effect the US constitution worked and the independence of the judiciary ensured the rule of law. (It may be that some on the right never accepted what happened and the failure to impeach Trump, as he openly claims imperial powers, reverses the outcome.) Freed from skyborn devastation, the Vietnamese army was finally able to wrest Saigon from American control in 1975.
In these circumstances a shaken western alliance headed by Nixon’s replacement, Gerald Ford, sat down with Soviet leader Leonard Brezhnev in the neutral capital of Finland to sign the Helsinki Accords. Thirty five heads of state, including the leaders of both East and West Germany – but not Spanish dictator Franco, who had taken sick and would die later that year – participated in what was in effect a European peace agreement that solidified Yalta and legitimised Soviet control over Eastern Europe.
Looking back we can see Helsinki as an official response to 1968. It sought to close down instability and confirm the status quo. But the Accords included a commitment to Human Rights. On both sides this was cynical. The Americans sought to re-burnish their liberal credentials, now that they had ceased bombing South East Asia, while the Russians regarded Western hypocrisy as so blatant it could not represent a threat. Thirteen years later when presidents Reagan and Gorbachev met in Moscow they joshed about human rights in just the way their predecessors would have expected, “Reagan raising both general and particular humanitarian issues in the Soviet Union and Gorbachev referring to the unemployment statistics of American blacks and Hispanics and the per capita income difference between whites and blacks in the US”6. After which ritual they returned their negotiations.
By then, however, Helsinki had helped put the skids under communism. The crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968 had seeded a dissident commitment to basic liberties. Within two years of the Helsinki meeting, Czechoslovak intellectuals launched Charter 77 to demand that their country enjoy the human rights which the Accords had pledged. In this unexpected way they prised open the apparatus of bad faith that passed for ‘People’s Democracy’ in eastern Europe.
Western media that had never dreamt of energetic support of human rights at home (for example, in Northern Ireland) delighted in doing so behind the Iron Curtain. Political cynicism turned to human rights for cover, and unwittingly gave the notion of fundamental rights a degree of traction its adherents have never since relinquished.
In East Europe itself opposition to communist rule was eventually led by the Polish trade union movement Solidarity, while the banner of fundamental rights made more headway as an argument for assisting the global south. Drafted with disdain by ‘realists’ who thought them meaningless, neither west nor east could rebottle commitments to basic freedoms as their publics became attached to them.
The claim that there are universal ‘human rights’ originated with African American opposition to slavery in the early nineteenth century7. This discomforts liberals since it exposes the complicity of Western societies in the forced transportation of 12 million humans. The genocidal behaviour of the Nazis created an alternative history, which sees the concept of human rights as being grounded in the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights drafted to prevent such outrages from ever happening again. But with colonialism still going strong, this too had very little purchase on world affairs or people’s consciousness. Instead, it was the unexpected exploitation of what were intended to be point-scoring banalities in the Helsinki Accords that gave the kiss of life to human rights.
The elevation of human rights can be seen as a cunning response by the long arm of established authority to the challenges of 1968. Rights deliver on the demands for fundamental ‘status’ equality, providing the same protections to all whatever their inheritance, sex or race. They do so, however, by depoliticising their implementation, ring-fencing the process from democracy and participation and reinforcing paternalistic authority.
A merely judicial definition of rights excludes claims to equality of wealth and power while private property is protected. In this way charters and conventions can be deployed to shield markets from democracy.
Nonetheless the claim to human rights appeals to norms of justice that are egalitarian and universal. They have accompanied all that has followed, irritating those who thought they had defeated ‘internationalism’ only to discover that people everywhere like the idea that their humanity entitles them to universal norms.
For these create and strengthen a dynamic comparative consciousness. By which I mean people are not simply aware of how other countries are different, they demand standards they know are achieved elsewhere. COVID-19 has revealed this quite dramatically. When citizens in the UK say, ‘Why are we not like South Korea or at least Germany?’, it is not a matter of being envious of a standard of living the government cannot achieve. It is saying, ‘We have the right to be treated as well as they have been and there is no practical reason why we’re not’. In this and other ways, rights have become part of political struggle8.
Today, unformulated by any grand treaty but perhaps all the more powerful because of that, people all over our pandemic-struck world regard it as a fundamental – if often unmet – right that everyone who needs emergency hospital treatment can get it.
1979-80, the election of Thatcher and Reagan
In a journalistic summary of how things will be changed by the pandemic, Lionel Barber, who just retired from editing the Financial Times for 15 years, summed up the conventional view of globalisation perfectly. Thatcher and Reagan had overturned the post-1945 welfare capitalism and Keynesianism with “liberalisation and deregulation”. By doing so they,
“laid the ground for globalisation, the free flow of goods, capital and services transcending national borders… Globalisation integrated China and India into the world economy, lifting more than a billion people out of extreme poverty. Globalisation, of course, has always relied upon a particular mindset: the idea of ubiquitous choice, where the consumer can have it all, on demand, in real time”.
All this has been brought to a shuddering halt by COVID-19, Barber observes. His description also captures the infuriating way globalisation has been presented. Thatcher and Reagan merely “freed” business from restraints. The Chinese were “lifted” out of poverty, as if they were beneficially hoisted by the West. The main responsibility for globalisation is pinned on the heedless “mind-set” of the little guy. Such a description reveals how we are expected to regard globalisation. It is a view that has mystified understanding since the end of the 1980s.
For if neoliberalism was conceived in the Nixon shock, it was birthed by Thatcher and Reagan. For many, the term is still dismissed as a boo-word signifying only the users' opposition to capitalism. But it is essential for an understanding of where we have got to, and why there has been such a stand-out failure by the US and Britain in their responses to the coronavirus.
Neoliberalism, or market fundamentalism, is a particular political-economic approach distinct from the colonialism and welfare capitalism, or as David Edgerton has argued in the case of Britain, the “warfare state” capitalism that preceded it9. It makes profit maximisation and marketisation the centre of economic policy, actively privatising the public sector. Its economic philosophy was summed up by Milton Friedman: “There is one and only one social responsibility of business... to increase its profits”. Companies should have no concerns about their customers, workers or suppliers unless this increases profits. As for government, its main role is to minimise all barriers that get in the way of businesses increasing profits. This was the role of “liberalisation and deregulation”.
But clarifying a shift in policy is not the main reason why it’s important to use the term ‘neoliberalism’. The reason using the word matters is that its political philosophy denies that it is political philosophy. This contributes to its influence and success – just try to oppose something that you cannot name. By presenting itself as merely the abdication by government from ‘interfering’ in the economy, and not as something that government does, it shifts responsibility for outcomes onto ‘the market’ – and if this means you lose your job, onto you.
Reagan’s inaugural address in January 1980 set the direction. “In this present crisis”, he famously stated, referring to inflation, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”. Later in the speech he added, “it's not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work – work with us, not over us…”. But by the mid-1980s his language was extreme, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’”. Thatcher went further still with her famous response, “There is no such thing as society” and her TINA catch phrase: “There Is No Alternative”, implying that her approach was simply reality itself and not a choice that could be contested.
The use of the term neoliberalism matters, therefore, because it makes clear that governments and international institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund pursued a policy agenda. They were not ‘freeing’ business from regulation they were imposing a specific direction of economic government. Reagan and Thatcher pretended that they were not ideological and were simply opening the way for the natural self-interest of humankind; less a policy than an ‘anti-policy’ that freed animal spirits from unnatural confinement. In fact they were imposing damaging priorities developed by an ideology which has to be named to be challenged.
When we use the term, however, we have to be careful. For it does not do what it proclaims on the tin. It is not a form of liberalism, that frees the market in a fair way, equalising access for all. On the contrary, it maximises the prerogatives of capital and existing property and expands their penetration. This is why it is not about the size of the state but its role. Thatcher increased total state expenditure on welfare, for example, because so many were thrown out of employment. It also meant it could be adapted by social democratic parties allowing them to invest in the public sector provided this opened it up to the priorities of capital and not the claims of the people themselves. This and the fall of communism meant opposition parties could be conscripted into accepting its framework. “It is time to break the bad habit of expecting something for nothing from our government”, President Clinton announced in his first inaugural in 1993. “Government is not the problem, and government is not the solution. We, the American people, we are the solution”, he announced in his second inaugural, incorporating Reagan while appearing to distance himself. And in case you didn’t get the point Clinton announced a week later, “The era of big government is over”.
As this closed the gap between political parties, depoliticisation intensified. The neoliberal turn and the rise of human rights were parallel responses to the upsurge of 1968. Each offered forms of individual empowerment while depriving people of self-government, placing them at the mercy of the law and the market respectively. Judicial rights preserved paternalism and traditional authority while claiming to deliver equality of status. Neoliberalism assaulted the traditional state and trade unions but energised personal ambition. Both can be seen as controlled concessions to the political challenges of 1968, appropriating part of its energy while safeguarding the ‘system’ as much as possible.
Yet they were far from natural siblings: rights mean laws and regulations; the market means freedom and deregulation. The two processes that renewed capitalism in the second half of the 20th century operated in tandem but also clashed and I want to draw out the difference between them.
At the cost of simplification there are two different cultures. The rights culture has a legal dimension, obviously, that led to the expansion of international courts. But belief in rights is more diffuse. Charter 77 sought legal rights such as freedom of speech and travel. But it concluded with a moral demand: “all citizens of Czechoslovakia” should be able to “work and live as free human beings”.
The people who are attracted to this, let’s call them rights-based organisers, are also rule-based problem solvers. Barack Obama is a representative. They believe in process, but not for its own sake, which means they are not bureaucrats. They can be administrators, engineers, coders and planners, scientists and priests – all creative roles within their briefs. They can be imaginative as architects, as decisive as generals, as gentle as nurses (but also tough). If there’s a famine, they will ameliorate it. If there is a crime against humanity they will seek justice. Their weakness is that they ‘deal with the world as it is’; one in which electoral processes change very little.
Perhaps the best word to describe the other culture, which stretches from protestors seeking revolution to hedge funders looking for disruption, is radicals. Their aim is to be agenda setters. Their desire is for a step change, a reorientation; they don't accept the world as it is. On the left, the radicals and feminists of ‘68 wanted to replace paternalistic welfarism with a deep republican equality so that everyone can fulfil their potential. The radicals of the right wanted to replace it with the dynamism of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. By 1980 the right had clearly gained the upper hand.
1986: the Single European Act and the ‘Big Bang’
In the mid-eighties I saw a Duracell battery advert in the London Underground with the banner ‘Power to the People’. That was when I knew for sure that 1968 was so deeply buried it was possible to commercialise its popularity without resuscitating its threat.
In this atmosphere, 1986 saw two decisive expansions of neoliberalism which over time turned out to be in conflict with one another, a fight now dramatically intensified by Brexit and likely to be deepened by the pandemic. These two were the ‘Big Bang’ that deregulated the City of London – the most revolutionary act of Thatcher’s “regime” (her own description) – and the Single European Act which created the European Union’s single market – now the largest free trade area in the world – which builds upon a rights-based approach.
At the time, both were radical experiments in expanding the potential of capitalism while the digital revolution took off. The place of the UK economy had been transformed by North Sea oil whose revenues made it a de facto member of OPEC and bankrolled ‘Thatcherism’. The strength of the pound then assisted Thatcher’s assault on the privileges of the City of London. The so-called Big Bang opened its financial markets to foreigners, abolished privileged access and permitted screen trading, creating what would soon become a new world capital of funding and speculation.
Conceived in Brussels, the Single European Act attempted to create the basis for a more coherent European Union. Its lasting achievement was to initiate the legislative processes in member states that created the single market in goods, governed by a shared regulatory framework.
Both became monuments to unintended consequences. The Big Bang let rip a voracious short-termism in the City. It generated colossal fortunes and – later – the 2008 crash. EU leaders were obsessed with the grand narrative questions of expansion and the creation of the Euro failed to embrace the painstaking work of setting and developing standards, yet Europe became a superpower in only one respect: regulation.
The COVID crisis throws a reverse spotlight on the two directions that western capitalism developed in 1986. One is the hedge-fund, light touch financial model exemplified by the spirit of Brexit and its City backers, that thrives off shocks. Its most influential supporter is Rupert Murdoch. The other, the more careful, rule-bound government model exemplified by Merkel and regulation, is a cousin of the more statist East Asian model, sometimes referred to as ordoliberalism. While distinct, all drink from the same capital markets.
The dramatic profiteers get the publicity, the power of regulation deserves much more attention than it gets. So much so that it has become a fourth branch of government, equal and related to the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, one which now needs its own democratic legitimacy. A recent massive study by Anu Bradford sets out what the EU has achieved, an argument she continues by showing it even gives Brussels an exceptional influence over US digital platforms. In terms of what it does, the EU should not be viewed as a project to replace its members as nation states but rather as one that provides them with the space within which they exercise an enhanced independence.
The Single Market took decades to develop. The Big Bang was an immediate success. The US banks moved in to take advantage of the opportunity, creating the ‘off-shore’ character of the London boom to make it the headquarters of a globalisation that had no national roots.
1989 Berlin and Tiananmen
The negative consequences of neoliberalism’s irresponsibility must not blind us to its effectiveness. It unleashed a dynamic and a self-confident hi-tech transformation. The neoliberal right successfully assaulted traditional hierarchies of privilege and thought hard about how to shape the future. Social democratic parties, by contrast, found their trade union base withering and became trapped in a rearguard action to preserve the welfare gains of the 50s and 60s. With singular foresight, in 1983, Raymond Williams observed how the left had lost its capacity to represent “the general interest” or measure up to the ecological challenge and that it had lost confidence in looking forward10.
The collapse of the Soviet Union confirmed the triumph of capitalism. Mikhail Gorbachev, who took over the leadership of the USSR in 1985, believed a reformed socialism was possible and launched Perestroika and Glasnost (restructuring and openness), but he was unable to carry the party apparatus with him. When East Germans began to rebel he refused permission to use force against them and the Berlin Wall was swept away, starting a process that led to the decomposition of the USSR itself into its component nations and the triumphant marketisation of the largest territory on earth.
In the West this was the final push that led social democratic parties to accept there was ‘no alternative’ to neoliberalism. “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such”, wrote Francis Fukuyama, “the universalization of Western liberal democracy [is] the final form of human government”.
In China there remained sufficient self-belief to be appalled at the decomposition of the Soviet system, now exposed to the avarice of Washington. Beijing students occupied the vast Tiananmen Square to demand freedom, erected their own statue of liberty and appeared to confirm Fukuyama’s conclusion. Instead they were gunned down. The post-Mao leadership realised that the Soviet economic model was doomed and steered their country into the world market. But they were not going to relinquish party control. Modern authoritarian capitalism was born.
1995 the creation of the WTO
With the end of the Cold War both neoliberalism and human rights upped their attempts to influence the Global South. In 1989 the ten principles of what became known as ‘The Washington Consensus’ were set out to secure the marketisation of developing countries. In the same year a World Conference on Human Rights was proposed. It finally took place in Vienna in 1993 and was stepping stone in replacing the paternalistic assumptions of welfare and charity with a ‘rights-based approach’ to development.
Hundreds of NGOs attended as well as national delegations. Like many set-piece UN events it was debilitated by diplomacy: “The rules adopted stated that no specific countries or places could be mentioned where human rights abuses were taking place”. Just to the south Sarajevo was under siege. (Later, three of the Serbian commanders would be found guilty by the International Criminal Tribunal of serious violations of international humanitarian law).
It is good to mock set-piece gatherings of the worthy that pre-commit themselves to apparent pointlessness. But they mobilise change indirectly. Organisations that wanted to attend were forced to think about their activities in terms of human rights and an official opposition to the policies of neoliberalism deepened. While very much the subordinate, a persistent and practical opposition to the Washington Consensus accompanied its expansion.
Expand it did. Trade needs a legal framework and the global economy outgrew the post-war General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT). Negotiations for its replacement began in Uruguay in 1986, the year of the European Single Market and the Big Bang. The collapse of the USSR helped Peter Sutherland, the Director of GATT, persuade a suspicious US Congress to agree to the membership terms of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to replace GATT, despite the concessions on sovereignty this entailed.
The WTO came into force on 1 January 1995. It widened international trade regulations to include services such as banking and intellectual property, and created a dispute resolution system that subordinated states to arbitration, allowing corporations to sue them. On the label it claimed to protect small and weaker countries from arbitrary exploitation. Inside the can, it undermined national democracy, weakened trade union power, and put much of economic globalisation beyond the reach of elected representatives.
Now that the rich countries of the west had no competition it was in effect a chance for them to ask what was globalisation for – who would benefit? Today, we can see that the answer could have been the health of humankind or the global environment. The answer in 1995 was that it was for the benefit of transnational corporations. And they now had in their sights the People's Republic of China.
With Bill Clinton its chief advocate, the global success of neoliberalism persuaded the centre left there was no alternative. A view taken above all by Tony Blair and his inner circle, who rode the wave to gain an overwhelming majority in the UK parliament for his transformed New Labour Party in 1997. He set about making neoliberalism fit for habitation and announced that he had uncovered the pathway for doing so, ‘The Third Way’, in between centralised state control and free market anarchy.
International colloquiums of social democratic leaders and intellectuals convened to debate the significance of such a space. Most failed to realise the most important word in ‘The Third Way’. It was ‘The’. Apparently, there was only one ‘way’ to be found. Naturally, this called for the leader to navigate us along it.
Just like Thatcher’s TINA, ‘The Third Way’ functioned to reinforce fatalism. Blair did not endorse the antipathy to government and society that marked out Reagan and Thatcher’s rhetoric. His desire for the depoliticising inevitability of neoliberalism, however, was shared. Some of us suspected as much, and openDemocracy was founded.
2001 - 2003: the terror attacks of 9/11 to the Iraq invasion
When New York’s World Trade Towers were levelled by the ‘Hooligans of the Absolute’ in 2001, at least half the world’s population saw images of the carnage within a day. Most were appalled, some cheered, Muslims feared for their future. Whether you regarded it as a righteous act, the criminal deed of ridiculous fanatics, or a serious menace to civilisation, you witnessed it within a world-wide framework and media environment. This is what I mean by globalisation being about a shared experience but without everyone having identical responses. And not everyone did.
The actual threat from bin Laden’s barmy sect, al Qaida, hardly lasted the length of time of the attacks themselves. The hi-jackers of the last plane, Flight 93, were foiled by its passengers, alerted via their mobile phones. But the impact of 9/11 was immense. Never has propaganda of the deed created such a sight out of the clear blue morning sky. Immediately, the vast internet spying operation the US had been mounting overseas was multiplied to cover domestic activities as well, breaching the constitution. Surveillance capitalism came in from the cold. It turned out to be a rehearsal for today’s tracking of everyone in the name of SARS-CoV-2.
The main US response to 9/11 was to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Just as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 proved fatal for Russian communism, so the 2003 US invasion of Iraq doomed American neoliberalism. Understanding the domestic motivations of the leaders of America and Britain, that led them to such a disastrous decision, will help us grasp why both countries now have such an appalling experience with COVID-19.
All the major powers supported America’s immediate military response, which was to overthrow the Taliban who had hosted bin Laden in Afghanistan. At the same time, planning for the Iraq invasion began, although Saddam Hussein’s regime, wicked as it was, had nothing to do with 9/11.
A year and a half later, the staggering logistic achievement of the conquest of Iraq was designed to demonstrate the unrivalled military-political hegemony of Washington assisted by London. As the world's greatest military machine was assembled, with ‘Operation Shock and Awe' about to be launched, Blair wrote to President George W. Bush to say it would enable him to “define international politics for the next generation”. The aim, Blair told the president, was to establish “the true post-Cold War world order”. The British premier identified himself with this objective wholeheartedly and continued, “Our ambition is big: to construct a global agenda around which we can unite the world”.
Scorning experts, lying through his teeth and with the full support of Rupert Murdoch (the same trident of disaster that accompanies Trump today), Blair went on to recycle the hubris of Fukuyama and claimed that a triumphant Anglo-American globalisation had left history behind. Four months after the invasion he addressed the joint Houses of Congress in May 2003 as victory seemed complete. He told the assembled ranks of America’s politicians, “There never has been a time when… a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day”.
And they had just invaded Mesopotamia, the birthplace of history. Bin Laden intended his provocation to expose the political nature of ‘The Washington Consensus’. After two decades of extraordinary success, that included incorporating the social democratic opposition parties into its governing order, the world almost literally lay at the feet of a neoliberal supremacy. Yet, despite this they gave bin Laden what he wanted.
He posed a specific problem. The audacity of 9/11 was likely to inspire further terrorist follow-ups. A response was essential. Suicide bombers are a horrible challenge for police as they can’t be deterred by the knowledge they will be caught. The responsibility for security services, therefore, must be to try to detect and prevent the deed before it happens. This creates an obligation for pre-emptive policing. It also suggests doing everything to understand what motivates terrorists in the first place, to minimise recruitment.
The one thing that you don’t do in response to a terrorist attack is broaden the counter-measures in ways that encourage more recruits. But this is exactly what the US did on a massive scale by deciding to invade and occupy Iraq. Nothing could have been more calculated to enhance Islamic fundamentalism and justify bin Laden’s fanaticism than declaring ‘A War on Terror’.
Why did this happen? Why did the leaders in the US and UK feel it necessary to impose by force “the true post-Cold War world order”, when they were already successful beyond the wildest dreams of Reagan and Thatcher in 1980? Why was there a 180 degree wrong response to the destruction of the symbolic towers of globalisation in lower Manhattan? The answer relates directly to the impact of the coronavirus: the western leaders did not trust their people.
The claim of neoliberalism is that, although its policies may not be popular when voters are asked about them, once implemented they will work. But can our rulers trust voters to then continue with market fundamentalism? The question is all important but never asked. It reverses the one that is asked – interminably – in opinion polls which constantly assess the degree of trust voters have in their leaders. What is not measured is the trust such leaders have in the people.
The answer is less and less since 1968.
The greater the rise of demands for self-government, the more the governing classes, political, media and financial, have actively distrusted ‘the people’. They have sought consent and popularity and tried to exploit popular forces. But voters themselves are managed like nitro-glycerine, with considerable respect but no trust; even though education and toleration have risen and violent crime has gone down across the west.
Even the successful leaders of neoliberalism can’t trust the public because market fundamentalism is built on systemic competition and insecurity. Among the population at large it dissolves secure working conditions and creates precariousness reinforced by debt. Naturally this generates wariness if not fury. Those nominally in charge are also insecure. Especially in the Anglo-American sphere, short term expectations are the norm in the heads of companies, busts are frequent and no one feels a responsibility for the general interest.11
Perhaps the most important reason for the mistrust leaders have in their own people is that imposing market values undermines the historic frameworks that once synthesised allegiance to the state. Churches and religion, trade unions and jobs-for-life, local government and civil service, universities and their expertise, each with a strong ethos that puts loyalty and standards above cash returns, have been marginalised and marketised, dissolving the deep structures of loyalty that once secured ruling class hegemony.
Put it this way: all countries have historic divisions of class and culture and America’s run deep. But a historically successful economy that was the centre of a booming world being created in its own image should have been able to manage the trauma of an unexpected bite-back from a tiny sect.
In 2001, however, the American government felt unable to risk appealing to its people to stay calm, not to overreact, to treat 9/11 as a horrible crime and trust it to clinically hunt down the perpetrators. Instead, encouraged by Murdoch and the right-wing media, it went to ‘war’ at the cost of trillions of dollars. War always seems the best way to gain support from voters in whom you have no real confidence. The domestic objective of the conquest of Iraq was to create popular belief in the American state from outside.
As the missiles targeted Baghdad and tanks raced across the border, I joined a protest in New York while my older daughter texted me from the demonstration in London saying, “Best poster: ‘Shocked but not Awed’”.
This got the point. The invasion was America’s turn at the propaganda of the deed. In the US and also the UK the target of the exercise was the domestic population, watching on the relatively new rolling TV news. The cruise missiles were not only aimed at Saddam Hussain, a long-weakened nuisance hiding from his own people. Their larger impact was supposed to reforge the allegiance of the home populations of the US and Europe. The aim, to inspire us with the knowledge that the US and Britain were defining “international politics for the next generation”, constructing “a global agenda” on our behalf, around which to “unite the world”.
The public itself was not trusted to do anything. To be absolutely safe the cataclysm demonstrated on our television screens appealed only to a sense of vicarious agency. The supremacy was to be so great that not even the soldiers were expected to make the ‘ultimate sacrifice’. There would be no costs such as the conscription of our young against which we could organise. War, or rather victory, was reduced to a commodity that voters would be given. When President Bush stood on the deck of a gigantic nuclear-armed carrier dressed in a fighter pilot’s uniform and declared ‘Mission Accomplished’, it was the opposite of a popular parade. Once more the underlying message to the world was: there is no alternative.
It follows that they had to win. Knowing as they did that Saddam’s army was hopelessly outgunned, it seems not to have occurred to the White House and Downing Street that they could lose. As planned, they brushed aside the Iraqi Army and seized control of some of the largest oil fields in the world.
They were also on the front line of the Sunni/Shia divide. Liberating Iraq from a secular monster at a time of novel religious mobilisation was, as many warned, foolish, or as John le Carré put it, "mad".
The idea of ‘mission accomplished’ was blown apart on 19 August 2003. openDemocracy had a tragic involvement with the disaster. Coming out of our ‘People Flow’ debate on migration, we launched a new column planned by Arthur Helton and Gil Loescher called Humanitarian Monitor. Their first mission was to report on the refugees being created by the Iraq war.
They went to Baghdad and met with Paul Bremer, whom President Bush had appointed to be in charge of the country’s administration. Echoing ‘Mission Accomplished’ he told them, “The security situation in Iraq is improving day by day. It is under control now”. Then they went to the UN Embassy to interview Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN special envoy, about the refugee situation.
As they were talking the Embassy was destroyed by a massive truck bomb. It was the start of the resistance. Arthur was killed outright. Sergio and Gil were trapped inside the rubble. Sergio managed to call from his cell phone to tell rescuers they were alive but then died from his injuries. Gill survived after they amputated his legs to release him. He wrote an unforgettable account for us six months later
By then the revenge of Saddam’s army, reconfigured under the flag of the jihad, was upturning America’s plans. The hubris of neoliberalism met its nemesis in valleys of the Euphrates and the Tigris, where history turned out to be very relevant indeed. The conflict metastasised into a sprawling sectarian resistance which humiliated the western powers.
Through the 90s, market fundamentalism had delivered anxiety and insecurity in its heartland as well as growth as it bled employment down the global supply chains. The purpose behind America's Iraq invasion was to compensate with triumphant world leadership that would bind the nation, impose peace and deliver victory, if not wealth for all. In the process it would compensate for Vietnam and confirm the 1945 vision of American ‘destiny’. Half of voters opposed the war anyway. Now, the half who had supported it expressed their disappointed supremacism in a reinforced loathing for government as such.
They were eventually to find their spokesman in Donald Trump. His anti-government government then dismantled the resilience systems of the US state leaving it catastrophically exposed. Today, as he makes it worse by questioning his own government’s policy of lockdown, he seems unhinged in the eyes of those who seek good judgement. But he is signalling to his supporters that he is ‘on their side’ against both the traitorous outside world and the duplicitous establishment within, that together conspired to lead them into the three trillion dollar Iraq humiliation. Although the new world order projected by Bush and Blair may now seem a distant absurdity, we are still living in the aftermath of its frustration.
In 2002 one of President Bush’s close advisors taunted Ron Suskind for being part of “the reality based community”. You, he told him, “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality... That’s not the way the world works any more… We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality”. The supporters of Brexit, like Trump, inherited this belief that they can create their own reality, a mindset now even more unhinged after three decades of erosion of the traditional state apparatus and its loyal servants and the pulverising of electoral loyalties. When the discernible reality of SARS-CoV-2 arrived, they not only lacked the political culture to study it in a judicious way, they had lost all the necessary trust in their people to confront the challenges together.
2008 - 2011 The financial crash and Occupy Wall Street
The penultimate moment of neoliberal globalisation came midway between America’s frustration at the hands of Jihads and the COVID-19 pandemic: the 2008 great financial crash.
Unlike the UK, the US had the self-belief to swiftly elect a far-sighted opponent of the Iraq War to head its next government. Barack Obama modelled himself on Reagan. He saw his project as overcoming the divisions between American voters to reconcile them to globalisation in the form of the rise of China, the loss of the industrial sector, the supremacy of finance, the penetration of digital platforms (he pioneered a close relationship with Silicon Valley) and a controlled withdrawal from the Middle East, preserving America’s global financial dominance while becoming a model of firmness and tolerance for the world. But as he took office neoliberalism’s financial system went into meltdown. His immediate task was to oversee its survival.
The central banks in the US, the UK and later the EU, launched massive programmes of ‘Quantitative Easing’, printing money which was funnelled into the financial sector. The Obama administration passed a stimulus of $778 billion; the financial system was saved but not the homes of 9.3 million American families12. Stratospheric bankers’ bonuses returned to the stratosphere while the rest of us watched the sky. An economic depression was avoided, but austerity had a punishing effect on local, health, welfare and social services across most western economies; the failure to ‘clean out’ bad debt was accompanied by poor levels of growth and growing insecurity.
If the neoliberal financial system was half-saved, its ideology was buried. Its core claim that markets know best and government is the problem could hardly survive massive market failure followed by government doling out support on such an unprecedented scale. The calamity exposed its cant; the idea that neoliberalism was not an ‘ism’ vaporised. By 2016 the International Monetary Fund used the term to describe the way privatisation and marketisation had been imposed on countries around the world. After examining 160 of them, an IMF report concluded that it had led to booms and busts and increased inequality in developing countries, making many worse off.
That same year a US presidential candidate finally came out against “globalism” and for American workers, saying “I have seen at first-hand how the system is rigged against our citizens”.
Unfortunately, it was Donald Trump. His opponent, Hilary Clinton, who had taken $675,000 from Goldman Sachs for three private speeches, was unable to deny the system was rigged. She defended her action by saying others did it so why shouldn't she, an example of how the left-of-centre parties were so deeply implicated in systemic greed and cult of celebrity they could not effectively oppose it.
Instead, the post 2008 impasse generated a new form of opposition. A movement of the young took off. While still inchoate it is of immense importance: whether the world pulls out of the coming years of post-virus turmoil with working democracies rather than hi-tech fascism depends upon its development, the alliances it can achieve and the willingness of others to ally with it.
The movement was originally inspired by the Egyptian revolution, whose aim was to create a parliamentary democracy of the kind failing in the West. The occupation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January 2011 made it the epicentre of an exemplary effort to mount a peaceful yet forceful protest. Inspired by it, a ‘movement of the squares’ developed, taking off in May 2011 in Spain.
The May-15 movement of the indignados occupied Madrid’s sweeping Puerta del Sol and then spread to 80 cities across the country. Its example triggered similar protests in Greece and the USA, as well as Santiago, Tel Aviv and New Delhi. In the following years equivalent risings inspired the umbrella movement in Hong Kong and the occupation of Istanbul's Gezi Park. France saw both the Gilets Jaunes and the nuit debout. At the end of 2019 the ‘sardine’ mobilisations filled the squares in Italy to frustrate Matteo Salvini’s right-wing ambitions in Emilia-Romagna.
One of the things that defines any social phenomenon is the nature of the opposition to it. Three kinds of resistance to neoliberal globalisation developed over time.
From the start, as we have seen, there was a human rights inspired opposition to its extreme manifestations, often supported by churches and religious associations. Eventually this jailed its most egregious torturers, banning some of the most blatant forms of pollution, educated many more young girls, enabled better development, reduced some extremes of inequality, disarmed cluster bombs, and mobilised against HIV. But it was never able to shake off the complicity of being the street sweepers of market fundamentalism.
Though funded by skilled foundations and run by great NGOs and international agencies, the ameliorators did not challenge the power structures, even though, and this was always important, they did not share their values and market-driven priorities.
I witnessed an amusing illustration of the conundrum this created at the UNDP conference in Oslo in 2011. The United Nations Development Programme “advocates change to help people build a better life for themselves”, a classic human rights endeavour of the broadest kind. It reported and ranked how well countries in the Global South were managing in terms of development. Now it had to reassess its method of scoring because this listed Tunisia as a top ranking success, only to see its population rise up against their treatment and trigger the Arab Spring! Although not without real achievements, the UNDP had gone along with depoliticisation and had been unable to build real democracy into its criteria of ‘development’.
Second, globalisation had also always been accompanied by militant, leftist challenges that did put democracy first. Their impotence helped reinforce neoliberalism’s aura of inevitability. The alt-globalisation ‘movement’ overreached itself by calling for an entirely different democratic order, while self-marginalising by scorning nation states, the only influential arenas of democracy, as irredeemably compromised.
Many of the arguments associated with its radical criticism of globalisation were well researched and damming. The pioneering Transnational Institute based in Amsterdam (of which I was an early Fellow) produced a critique of neoliberalism avant la lettre in Susan’s George’s How the Other Half Dies. Naomi Klein’s No Logo and Shock Doctrine brilliantly exposed the nature of corporate influence and its opportunist financial profiteering and she secured wide readerships. The movement named the behemoth. But the protests were a form of Cassandraism, far-sighted but helpless. They reinforced a sense that opposition to the Washington Consensus was futile.
Today, Klein’s superb Intercept analysis of the Silicon Valley response to the pandemic shows how the big digital platforms seek to reconfigure public space for corporate gain. Presented as the best way to protect us from contagion and justified by strategic competition with China, they will imprison democracy behind algorithms. It makes the need to connect to an effective public more urgent and – the big perhaps – tangible and relevant as many of us rethink our futures.
The post-2008 'movement of the squares’ and its successive upsurges are the third response to corporate globalisation, different in kind from both the alt-globalisation protests and the institutional efforts at amelioration. They could prove to be a turning point because their generational character means they can lay the basis for wide public support for arguments like Klein’s. For, as Spain’s outstanding sociologist of the networked society, Manuel Castells, recognised when he addressed them in Barcelona, the indignados initiated a movement equal to that of May 1968.
That is to say, a generation is challenging its predecessors and claiming, on the basis of its distinct experience, that the world now has to change. It is often asked how come the crash of 2008 did not lead to an immediate challenge to the financial system. One reason is that the parties of the left were themselves its co-perpetrators; another, that there was no coherent alternative, and third, that it happened so fast and the response in terms of refinancing the system was so huge, swift and effective, at least in saving the financial system. The inequity of the poor then having to pay for it all took time to sink in.
The younger generation bore the brunt and now face long-term insecurity, precariousness and debt. It gives them a determination that is more formidable, serious and cross-class than ours was, when my generation rode the sixties boom. In Spain the consequences of the crash were especially egregious. Its government may have been corrupt but it was not fiscally reckless. Yet by 2011 there was 45% youth unemployment. Hence the eruption.
Crucially, what made the indignados similar to France's soixante-huitards was their national appeal. In a protest march everyone faces the same direction and while it can be exhilarating it is predictable. In an occupation, people face each other and the collective experience can be personally formative. In an uprising, demonstrators both engage with each other and face outwards, to make a claim on the country. This only occurs when there is reciprocity.
In 2011 it was palpable in Madrid. The indignados were reaching out to the country not defying it. Polls reported 70% support, millions said they participated in some way. A detailed study by Paolo Gerbaudo of the movements in Spain, Greece and the US noted the way they broke from the “self-ghettoisation” of the previous anti-global protest and the fragmentation of identity politics as they claimed to represent “the people as a whole”. Unlike the previous anti-globalisation protestors, the occupiers no longer “considered the notion of the sovereign people as part of an authoritarian past”. Occupy Wall Street is proof. Its slogan ‘We are the 99 percent’ not only gained world-wide traction it was addressed to America and bust the myth that it is a land of opportunity for all. The occupiers may have been confined to a relatively small encampment in Zuccotti Park but they addressed the national – and they became the backbone of the Bernie Sanders campaign that has reconfigured Democratic politics.
As well as going to Madrid, I witnessed the referendum that defied the EU’s impositions on Greece, visited Occupy Wall Street, experienced the huge Gezi protests and travelled around Scotland the week of its 2014 referendum. In each there was an intense engagement with the future of their own country and its democracy by a newly politicised younger generation.
Because of the loathing many commentators feel towards such a challenge from outside their normal circles, the distinct national projects of the different upsurges have been largely ignored. In his reflections on the impact of the coronavirus as a historic “turning point”, John Gray states as fact something that is simply untrue, “Liberal or socialist, the progressive mind detests national identity with passionate intensity”. He didn’t witness the Stars and Stripes flying in Zuccotti Park13.
In London the ‘occupy movement’ was an imitation protest with no link to domestic politics and settled down by St Paul’s Cathedral helpfully assisted by undercover policemen. But the Labour Party had opened itself up to new members. When Jeremy Corbyn stood for its leadership in 2015 and opposed austerity, the party was, in effect, ‘occupied’ by his supporters, to create the largest party in Europe in terms of membership. In Spain, Podemos which came out of the M-15 movement is now part of the governing coalition having explicitly adopted a national-popular strategy, helpfully theorised by Chantale Mouffe14. In less than a decade, the financial crash has given birth to a new political generation that wants to unlock democracy at home and is becoming experienced at electoral politics.
The far-right, with its hedge fund managers and climate deniers, felt most vulnerable. For in any shift towards reform that attempted to meet the objections of the protestors, they would be first in line, for example with the closure of tax-havens. The sharpest eyed saw that the new populism being trailed in the squares also showed them a way to overcome the threat. If they could hi-jack opposition to ‘the global elite’ they could adapt it to their cause.
Strange as it may seem, the ascendency of Trump owes a debt of thanks to Occupy Wall Street. It showed him that the establishment politics which found him personally so rebarbative had become increasingly repulsive to everyone. Even though he was himself an oligarch, whose property empire floated on the cash-flow of money-launderers, he could now attack the 1% on behalf of the 99%! Only mere rationalists would object that he was himself part of the problem. As master compère of ‘reality’ television, Trump realised this would in fact lend him credibility – and he is a great borrower.
The success of right-wing populism shows why it is mistaken to minimise the potential of the left-wing occupy uprisings that the far-right pillaged. The protestors are the voice of an unprecedented political generation gap15. In the two most extreme neoliberal regimes, the US and UK, the last elections would have been overturned by considerable margins if they had been decided by the under-thirties. A clear signal of the inventiveness and energy of the new generation is that just as its first wave of occupy influence seemed to wane the Climate Emergency alliance emerged with Greta Thunberg as its figurehead. The combination of the urgent need for the greening of the global economy, egalitarianism and the desire for deliberative and creative forms of democracy, attached to a national politics that favours internationalism, combine to make a coherent challenge to the unlimited avarice of neoliberal politics.
Ecological consciousness is no longer niche. It’s reported, for example, that in 2017 an estimated 80 million in China alone streamed the BBC’s Blue Planet II, so many that it slowed their internet. The film showed that our everyday plastic detritus is suffocating the oceans. Millions realised that our lives had to change. But not everyone. One image haunts me, of Donald Trump walking past Greta Thunberg at the UN last year. It was not just the contrast of the ‘ogre and princess’ or that he had power and she merely youth and truth. It was that in all their pomp he and his entourage ignored her, as if there was no need to heed the warning she personifies, confident in their America First supremacy. A few weeks later a microorganism entered someone’s throat and began human to human transmission.
Chapter 4: Next
In 1957-8, a flu pandemic killed around million people world-wide. In the UK estimates of the deaths it caused vary from 14,000 to 30,000. Before it arrived from Asia a British Medical Journal report noted, “The public seems under the impression that nothing can be done to prevent the calamity”, and indeed nothing was done.
In 1968 the Hong Kong or H3N2 flu virus killed over 700,000 people worldwide, around 100,000 in the US. But there were no mass shut-downs of national economies.
The difference between these non-responses and today's is only in part due to the greater contagiousness and mortality of SARS-CoV-2. This year’s virus arrived in societies transformed by the human current within globalisation.
For over fifty years the authorities in government, media and finance have sought to depoliticise and disarm modern, popular claims on how we should be ruled. On 1 January 2020, globalisation still appeared to be the playground of the neoliberal order, especially as it had incorporated into itself most official opposition parties. But across its turbulent history, counter-acting forces had developed within it. Non-market human rights, values and regulations were developed. Formidable science-based research transformed public understanding. Feminism challenged traditional hierarchies. Stubborn believers in Christianity and other faiths refused to worship the profit motive. Unruly, unofficial opponents campaigned against multiple threats to the planet.
The 1968 cry for power to the people was never extinguished. Instead it was explored and tested in all kinds of drama, music, writing and comedy as well as research. Feminist and anti-racist demands for genuine equality took deep roots. Enough trade unions survived to demand low paid workers not risk their lives. Science and ecology raised our game. And so it turned out that globalisation has not only been the vehicle of two inhuman ideologies – neoliberalism and authoritarian capitalism – it has also germinated an alternative to them, a humanisation of the world. So when the pandemic struck voters knew that governments had the power to save lives, felt they had the right to demand it be used, were not captured by irrationality and had an effective voice.
The pandemic creates the opportunity, perhaps the only opportunity, for humanisation to now become globalisation’s defining influence. Many people have written in depth about the issues this raises. Two historians saw it coming as far back as 1995, while emphasising the splintering and differences of humanity, nonetheless, they argued, “in an age of globality… for the first time, we as human beings collectively constitute ourselves and, hence, are responsible for ourselves”. Two years ago, George Monbiot set out the need for a new narrative grounded on the evidence that humans are not competitive by nature but social. Global humanisation provides such a narrative. Post-Covid, Dani Rodik suggests that today’s “hyper-globalisation” needs to be replaced by a beneficial globalisation built around health and the environment, answerable to democratic national governments. Humanisation is such a replacement.
Let me suggest six things which must be done to achieve planetary humanisation. But first I must emphasise the purpose of the long, historical analysis I have set out. The internet is currently full of proposals about what we should or should not do, as if the unexpected arrival of the pandemic means a new manifesto can also sweep all before it. In fact it is the impact of the virus on our economies which distinguishes it from all previous viruses. This stems from unprecedented policy decisions. These were determined by half a century of change. So while we will be lost unless we are welcoming of invention and use our imaginations, we must also root and germinate our strategies in experience to give them traction and credibility.
To summarise: After the financial crash, neoliberal governments are held to be, and feel themselves to be, directly responsible for their national economies, far more so than during the welfare capitalism of the 1960s.
At the same time authoritarian capitalist regimes, China’s above all, proclaimed their responsibility. When this drove them to act, it made it impossible for western ones to deny their responsibility even though they may have wanted to.
Meanwhile, from below, an expectation of rights has replaced deference to rulers, creating a demand that everyone has fundamental right to life including access to emergency hospital care.
This was reinforced by a changed sense of self, as the science of our bodies, diseases and our environment and medical technology broke out of the narcissistic bonds of consumerism to give us an understanding of ourselves as an earthly species.
Above all feminism, directly by making women far more equal, indirectly by diminishing the fatalism that accompanies patriarchy, shifted the nature of humanity.
Furthermore, the grip of the traditional media and political parties over popular expectations has been broken, technologically by social media and politically by the post-crash rise of populism on the right and popular mobilisations on the left.
The astounding decision to lockdown whole sections of economic activity and jump over the cliff edge of the sharpest recession in modern history was not, therefore, taken only by governments desperate to preserve themselves. It was also taken by us, the people of the world, knowing that we collectively had the capacities to put our lives and wellbeing first. It is on the basis of this foundation that at least six things follow.
Health for all
The health of one is the health of all. The lesson of COVID-19 is that we must prepare against, and seek to continuously prevent, the next pandemic heading our way, we just don’t know when. What we do know is that it is our shared self-interest to insist that everyone has a high standard of health. Not just out of altruism, which is a noble motive, but also because wherever they are in the world, if their immune system is vulnerable they can incubate a disease that can reach us.
It follows that our personal responsibility for the health of ourselves and our family is also a duty of care for all of humankind.
But what is health if not everyone having the right to a healthy life? This means: 1) the right to medical treatment that serves everyone not the market, 2) regulating the food industry to secure healthy diets and sustainable relationships with animals and plants, 3) good hygiene everywhere, from running water and sanitary toilets to waste disposal, 4) ensuring health services have the right to research and produce drugs according to public need, 5) freedom of science to report publicly, giving freedom of speech a new meaning.
Let’s just pause there. The globalisation of health for the sake of our humanity means national and international health policies will take large sectors of the economy out of the command of the marketplace, because its policy fundamentals cannot be driven by profit maximisation or corporate self-interest. To be effective in each country, this needs to happen world-wide. There is only one way to achieve such a humanisation of life on earth: voters need elect parties committed to replace out-of-control, inhuman globalisation, to form governments in enough powerful countries to make it happen.
Reassert democracy through our nations
Nation-states are our communities of democracy, so a springtime of nations is needed. Not to pitch competing claims to superior identities, with belligerence and competition, but to work with one another. Because our different languages, cultures and histories are the primary arena for democracy. And only democracy has the power to make and consolidate the shift that is necessary. Already, most national governments have just put their people’s lives before profits, or at least proclaimed that they have. What has been attempted separately can be achieved jointly.
A democratisation of international institutions will help. First of all by making their proceedings transparent and second, if they are specialist, by having them be directly answerable to the global networks of professionals they represent, so that they are not turned into arenas of national competition. The WHO, for example, should be a democratic global association of medical professionals. Again, this can only come about if nations are governed by parties that want it.
Lay claim to the world as well as the local
If this is what is needed where is the agency that can make it happen? What political force can deliver a shift of this magnitude? We know what we are up against: the alliance of Trumps, Xis, Modis, Putins, Erdogans, Orbans, Bolsonaros and their Murdochs and the speculators of disruption, who justify limitless growth, wars cold and hot, and profit maximisation and corporate power as being ‘the way it is’. The economic consequences of the coronavirus have now brought their ‘practical reason’ and its long boom and great acceleration to a temporary halt. As they attempt to restart it, how can we bring down the curtain on their inhuman form of globalisation?
The first question is, are there the ideas and is there the thinking in a living practical form to deliver? The answer is yes. Its first source is our own humanity, now experienced in the myriad of self-organising groups and initiatives that sprung up across the world in response to the threat of COVID-19. Social distancing has led to an explosion of empathy, social awareness and networking. Local supply lines are being self-organised and coordinated, proving the value of decentralisation motivated by need. Ideas about applying these principles to further an ecologically balanced and sustainable future are bursting the gunnels of the web and being correlated and synthesised. Municipal governments are creating city-wide responses reflecting the urban nature that human existence has now taken.
In addition, well thought through proposals for sustainable economies, such as Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, are being tested; women economists and activists especially have been rethinking the economy making livelihood its objective16. Strategies for change rightly include the personal and the subjective, a development the Transformation section of openDemocracy has been reporting for nearly a decade. A progressive wave is rolling, refreshing, practical and local yet strikingly international and thoughtful.
Experience of five decades says all such ideas and efforts will be marginalised unless integrated with a larger purpose. A claim on the local can only be made good with a claim on the total. Strength starts with an alternative world view. We need a confident approach with the credibility to propose a planet that puts human life and liberty first. It defies belief to say this isn’t practical or possible when, without it, life itself will become impossible.
To make it plausible, rather than just possible, there will have to be an overwhelming, multi-faceted alliance, for this is the fight of and for our lives. It is an alliance of opposition to neoliberalism and authoritarian capitalism that the past half-century has also made possible. As shorthand let’s call it an alliance of science, professionalism and youth. By which I mean those with deep, specialist knowledge; those with practical abilities to deliver, and those with the energy to insist on a different world.
A genuine alliance means all those involved also have to change themselves. The different cultures of science and professions and expertise have been dangerously depoliticised. Scientists need to add to their commitment to the exchange of information and their understanding of uncertainty an obligation to be political in this sense: to insist on the independent right to science for all humankind. Professionals of all kinds, from engineers to economists, lawyers, administrators, public, private and in NGOs, health and care workers, journalists and artists, need to challenge and not service the received agendas of power. Both they and scientists need to work with the young as a popular political force determined to change the agenda. For however good the science and however intelligent the policies, unless knowledge and purpose is rooted in democratic support it can be swept away by a determined oligarchy.
Prepare for the frontlash
At the start of his account of the 2008 crash, Adam Tooze describes the one hundred or so “systemically important financial institutions”. A key question is whether any alliance for humanisation can split this “tightly-knit corporate oligarchy”. At present the world they operate in is headed up by politicians seething with frustration at the way COVID-19 has upset their plans. They will use the scandals and shortages in poorer countries where COVID is on the rampage, now being tracked by Mike Davis, to intensify fear and resignation and unwind the solidarity we are witnessing around the world. They are aware of two threats. The first is the potential for popular self-government the virus has visibly inspired. Second, that the world economy is at risk of a serious depression17, which makes all existing office holders vulnerable.
In response they will trigger a wave of pre-emptive reaction. It has already started with the cold war between the US and China, whose core function is to generate domestic support for their respective leaderships. Beijing has taken advantage of regulations forbidding public gatherings to round up supporters of democracy in Hong Kong. The White House is fingering the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Both are weaponizing the South China Sea. We will be asked to choose between Trump or Xi, as they double-down on their agendas of aggrandisement. Xi is the more serious threat, the US president the immediate danger.
Trump has brushed aside attempts to hold him to account for well-documented treasonous and corrupt activities. The Democrats splintered in their efforts to stop Bernie Sanders. The stumbling veteran Joe Biden emerged blinking from the pile-up, to represent the tired old proprieties against the threat of vainglorious populist-supremacism. Whereupon the coronavirus arrived, to demonstrate the validity of Sanders’ call for universal health care. The weakness of the opposition to Trump will now incite a ferocious assault to propel him to electoral victory in November, intensifying the mayhem of the pandemic to provoke and divide the opposition.
In London, Johnson and team will do all they can to help Trump succeed. If he is re-elected they will go for a ‘no deal’ Brexit that will further damage the EU and set a US/UK axis in motion. Trump will bid to bring in Moscow and New Delhi in an alliance against Beijing. In the UK the prospect is for a deeper, domestic transformation to ensure long term integration into the American sphere. British ministers applaud the NHS but will use the crisis to destroy its ethos. It once had a marvellous system of district nurses to support surgeries and check and test patients, which was dismantled. Now tracing has been contracted out centrally to the private sector, while US companies are sold patient data to create a “single source of truth” as Mary Fitzgerald and Cori Crider are reporting. The aim, a sophisticated variant of transatlantic surveillance according to the Byline Times.
The most vicious weapon of all, to which no satisfactory answer has yet been found, is the dismantling of veracity, as Timothy Snyder has emphasised18. If all belief in truth is corrupted, assaulted and undermined, if voting is dishonest, if character assassination replaces the exchange of views, if the significance of climate change is denied, then a new form of right-wing power is created, no longer conservative in any institutional sense. SARS-CoV-2 threatens its ascendency because it demands scientific assessment. But unless defeated politically and culturally we face rule by the Untrue-Right.
Demand humanisation replaces globalisation
The threat is very serious. For the pandemic has its origins in our colonisation of nature and species destruction. It is linked to the climate breakdown already delivering devastating droughts and storms with worse to come. The cause is a competitive pro-corporate world system that abuses the planet and manipulates the public. It follows that we must end the abuse of our environment and live in liberty within our now plentiful means. To do so we have to link our different immediate issues to a simple global perspective that makes it clear our humanity has priority.
There are huge arguments about what this means: what kind of democracy works, how do we end arbitrary abuses of power and tame corporate concentration, what are the best ways of generating carbon neutral economies, how do we ensure security and well-being, how do we prevent over-governing ourselves and protect openness to change... not to speak of questions about whether capitalism is compatible with being constrained by human purpose and, indeed, what it means to be human, as well as more pressing issues for many of us, such as how we bring up children in a world criss-crossed by cyberspace.
These issues will be answered on their own terms and in their own time. All need truthfulness to prevail. What matters now is a single determining matter of power, fundamental to democracy on earth. Are we going to govern ourselves in terms of our overall humanity and will this be the measure of things, or are we going to leave it to corporate interests?
Let me stress the complexity of this that I mentioned at the start. We can delight in our overall humanity because it is no more uniform than we are with our sharply different histories – and all of us are creatures of history. It will be a far from a singular future, both within nations and between continents, that will be called forth by our global solidarity. My compressed account comes out of a North Atlantic experience but it is not written for this privileged part of the world: it is offered as an acknowledgement that there are equally important and just as telling perspectives on how to work our way out of the half century, especially from those who have been, and are being, racialised and excluded.
Meanwhile, in my own country, a skirmish on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme gave a glimpse of what it is to come. The ex-Tory Chancellor, and Brexit supporting appointee to the House of Lords, Norman Lamont was interviewed along with Mariana Mazzucato, author of The Value of Everything. Mazzucato said that the massive interventions by the UK state to save companies should be used to accelerate change that is anyway essential, such as demanding a commitment to sustainable use of resources in return for unprecedented public loans, or making them conditional on companies not using tax havens. These suggestions seem modest enough.
Lamont would have none of it. He responded by saying it was quite wrong for her to “be political”; the government must simply get the economy back on its feet and have consumers consuming again. A neoliberal to the tips of his synapses, Lamont suggested a return to the past was common sense and needed no further discussion. Trousering his House of Lords expenses, he told us that to ask for anything different ‘is political’ as if a return to the status quo is not. Can he any longer get away with this deceit? Thanks to the unexpected interruption of life on earth, I can hope not. For unless they do not wish to, everyone can see that the attempt to return to how things were is supremely political.
It seems odd to compare a microorganism to the largest mammal, but the pandemic has swallowed neoliberal globalisation and all of us with it, not only Mazzucato and Lamont but also our ideas and our futures. We are inside the whale. Not in the sense that George Orwell uses, of being in a womb-like chamber away from it all, but in Jonah’s “belly of hell”. When the survivors are spat out, how will we proceed? This is the gift of the coronavirus: it makes it clear that the future of humanity is a matter of our choice.
With thanks and no blame to Guy Aitchison, Hugh Brody, Duncan Campbell, David Edgerton, Paul Gilroy, Misha Glenny, Judith Herrin, Jamie Mackay, Nick Pearce, Henry Porter, Adam Bychawski, Hilary Wainwright and ‘Antiseptic’, and especially Adam Ramsay
In memory of Julian Perry Robinson, all the victims of COVID-19 and their families
1) Paul Hirst & Grahame Thompson, Globalization in Question, Cambridge, 1996.
2) Richard Brooks, The Great Tax Robbery, London 2013.
3) Angelo Quattrocchi and Tom Nairn, The Beginning of the End, London, 1968.
4) With Nella Bielski, Soviet Freedom, London 1988.
5) One was Fred Halliday, see his reflections in Political Journeys, the openDemocracy essays, edited by David Hayes, London and New Haven, 2011.
6) Archie Brown, The Human Factor, Oxford, 2020, p227.
7) Paul Gilroy, Darker than Blue, USA, 2010, Chap. 2.
8) Guy Aitchison, ‘Are Human Rights Moralistic?’, 2017.
9) David Edgerton, Warfare State, Britain, 1920-1970, Cambridge, 2006; and The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, London, 2018.
10) Towards 2000, London 1983.
11) Aeron Davis, Reckless Opportunists, Manchester 2018.
12) Adam Tooze, Crashed, p. 281
13) Or read, Todd Gitlin, Occupy Nation, New York, 2012.
15) Keir Milburn, Generation Left, Cambridge, 2019.
16) Albena Azmanova, Capitalism on Edge, New York, 2020, Mariana Mazzucato, The Value of Everything, London 2019, Ann Pettifor, The Case for the Green New Deal, London, 2019, Hilary Wainwright, A New Politics from the Left, Cambridge, 2018, Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, London 2019.
17) See articles by Nouriel Roubini.
18) Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom, London, 2018.
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