Out of the Belly of Hell: COVID-19 and the Humanisation of Globalisation – Part 4: Next

Viewpoint by Anthony Barnett*

This article was originally published on openDemocracy. Any views or opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of IDN-InDepth News

LONDON (IDN) – In 1957-58, 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 shutdowns 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 do not 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 us 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 World Health Organisation (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 objective. Strategies for change rightly include the personal and the subjective, a development that 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 is not practical or possible when, without it, life itself will become impossible. 

Build alliances

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 us 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 are 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 depression, 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 emphasised. 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. [IDN-InDepthNews – 09 June 2020]

* Anthony Barnett, an English writer and campaigner, is the co-founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness.

Image: Extinction Rebellion. Credit: openDemocracy

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