Reflecting Back and Imagining Forward

By Anis Chowdhury
SYDNEY, Dec 24 2020 – What a challenging year 2020 has been! A year of living dangerously – “Tahun vivere pericoloso”- perhaps these words of late President Soekarno of Indonesia are the best description.

Fortunately, I managed to remain sane, reading and writing op-eds (mostly about the pandemic, here, here).

Anis Chowdhury

I began the year 2020 with an interview with New Age (Dhaka, 12 Feb.), headlined, “We need to Democratise Politics” where I highlighted the perils of growing inequality and how it could be a greater threat than the evolving pandemic for the human race, interacting with the climate crisis and advancements in biotechnology and artificial intelligence. The pandemic seems to have accelerated the process.

The Economist described the year of “Great Lockdown”, when the entire world was shut down, as “the year when everything changed” – the lead title of The New York Times columnist, Gail Collins’ book When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present (2009).

When the facemask not only became an emblem of the year, but also of a frightening new age, many pointed to fatal flaws in the neoliberal paradigm that came to dominance since the early 1980s with the Thatcher-Reagan onslaught on the post-World War II social contract that respected workers’ right and promised full employment and universal provisioning of essential public goods, and unleashing of greed (recall the 1987 movie “Wall Street”, where Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko captured the essence of neoliberalism, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good”).

It was refreshing to hear the torch-bearer of corporate capitalism, Klaus Schwab, say to TIMES, “the neoliberalist … approach centers on the notion that the market knows best, that the ‘business of business is business,’ and that government should refrain from setting clear rules for the functioning of markets. Those dogmatic beliefs have proved wrong”.

Hence, Schwab argued, “We must move on from neoliberalism in the post-COVID era”, and acknowledged, “Free-market fundamentalism has eroded worker rights and economic security, triggered a deregulatory race to the bottom and ruinous tax competition, and enabled the emergence of massive new global monopolies. Trade, taxation, and competition rules that reflect decades of neoliberal influence will now have to be revised”.

Agreed Francis Fukuyama, who celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of socialist experiments with his The End of History and the Last Man. “a certain set of ideas about the benefits of unregulated markets … had a disastrous effect… it’s led to a weakening of labour unions, of the bargaining power of ordinary workers, the rise of an oligarchic class …that … exerts undue political power”. Thus, he thought, “socialism ought to come back”, meaning “redistributive programmes that try to redress this big imbalance in both incomes and wealth. He further said, “if there’s anything we learned from the financial crisis it’s that you’ve got to regulate the sector like hell because they’ll make everyone else pay”.

Thus, it was encouraging to see the advocates of neoliberalism, such as The Financial Times pen an editorial reminding the readers of the core of the post-WWII social contract, “to demand collective sacrifice you must offer a social contract that benefits everyone”.

It was also heartening to see the IMF’s Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva move swiftly to arrange debt relief for low-income countries in an innovative way which is superior to the G20’s mean offer of debt suspension to be re-paid fully with accumulated interest obligations (no surprise not many takers). It was a music to hear debt hawks, such as Carmen Reinhart, the Chief Economist of the World Bank, advise, “First you worry about fighting the war, then you figure out how to pay for it”. The Bank also “paused” its controversial Doing Business Report that encouraged a “beauty contest” of deregulation in the “race to the bottom” after it could no longer defend its data manipulation in favour of right-wing regimes.

So, “when everything changed”, there was a great hope of change in the way we organise economies and societies, and respond to common threats to humanity; that low-paid workers would be recognised for their essential services; that the rent-seeking activities of the rentier class would be restrained; that the widening disparities in income, wealth and opportunities would be reversed; that there would be inclusive multilateralism recognising differentiated responsibility in collective global response; that no one or country would be left behind; and the list grows.

However, not everyone was so sanguine. Simon Mair of the University of Surry, for example, contemplated four possible post-COVID world: a descent into barbarism, a robust state capitalism, a radical state socialism, and a transformation into a big society built on mutual aid. He believed, “versions of all of these futures are perfectly possible, if not equally desirable”. It all depends on the choice we make and the decisions that our political leaders take.

Amartya Sen believes that “a better society can emerge from the lockdowns” as it happened after WWII; but he is concerned that “in the policies against the present pandemic, equity has not been a particularly noticeable priority…Instead, the focus has been on drastic control and sudden lockdowns … with little attention paid to labourers who lose their jobs or the many migrant workers, the poorest of the poor, who are kept hundreds of miles from their homes”.

Meanwhile Luke Cooper and Guy Aitchison of LSE list four dangers ahead: ‘deglobalisation’ takes a nationalist form; less democratic participation, more centralisation; surveillance state and erosion of human rights; inequality goes unchallenged.

I am not a fan of Tony Blair; but I tend to share his eerie feeling, when he says, “for the first time ever I’m troubled about the future”. He fears, “COVID-19 will usher in a world where insecurity and unpredictability constitute the new normal. Everything that was relevant and present before COVID will be there afterwards, except intensified and accelerated… to produce a lot of hardship with the burden falling often on the most vulnerable”.

I have reasons to be spooky. I list a few:
Vaccine nationalism rules forgetting that we defeated small-pox that has been one of the major causes of death and blindness for centuries in less than a decade through unprecedented global cooperation at the height of the Cold war.

Governments remain beholden to Big Pharmas in opposing the waiver of patent rights, falsely arguing that patent rights are needed for innovation, and ignoring the fact that we won against polio with a vaccine without patent.

Corporate bosses shamelessly paid themselves fat bonuses and used tax-payers’ pandemic relief money to pay dividends, and buy-back shares, while millions lost jobs and livelihoods.

Yet governments are offering more corporate tax cuts and further removing job and wage protections, instead of standing up to corporate interest, ignoring the fact that these are the very policies that contributed to widening disparities, sluggish growth, stagnating productivity and chronic fiscal crises.

Meanwhile billionaires have become richer and millions are pushed back to poverty and precarious living.

Governments have missed the opportunity to reboot and accelerate the achievement of sustainable development goals. The pandemic has shown that we can live on less and do not have to over-crowd cities.

But governments have failed to facilitate the millions of people who moved to villages and rural towns to stay by taking jobs and services there, and designing adjustment measures; governments did not grab the opportunity to fix urban bias and initiate regenerative economies.

Governments and policymakers are refusing to recognise that both existential threats – the climate crisis and the pandemic – although appear to be “environmental” or “natural” problems, they are socially driven.

Climate crisis is caused by society’s decision to over-consume and over-produce, the very factors that are destroying natural habitats of wild-lives and bringing humans in close contact with virus-carrying animals.

Tackling both pandemic and climate crisis would be much easier if we cut or cease our hedonic life-style and nonessential economic activities

Meanwhile, Nobel Laureate economist Michael Spence is advocating the return of structural adjustment era conditionalities for countries seeking help from the Bank and the Fund, ignoring the findings of the Bank’s Growth Commission, he chaired, that fair-seeming, “good-intentioned” conditionalities produced “lost decades” of development.

Another Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz is advocating Brady-style bond buybacks using the IMF and donor money, while these monies are urgently needed for fighting pandemic, ignoring that the debt landscape has changed significantly since Brady with more varied players and that such debt buybacks in the past benefited the creditors.

Sadly, they are not offering a roadmap for a new more prosperous, inclusive and sustainable future.

In my adopted country, Australia, the government is foot-dragging and refusing to take bold and ambitious green-house gas emission targets despite witnessing worst bushfires and extreme weather events in history. It has done nothing to protect gig workers despite four Uber-eat delivery riders killed in road accidents taking food to people in lockdown. It is contemplating reforms of the industrial relations laws that are bound to make the life of essential workers like fire-fighters, nurses, cleaners and food-delivery persons more precarious.

My country of dreaming, Bangladesh, is now listed as new ‘autocracy’ where the government has become intolerant, arresting and harassing journalists and anyone exposing its misdeeds, and corruptions even when it involved fake COVID testings, and relief money and goods. Extra-judicial killings and forced disappearance have become instruments of control, while all the state institutions, including the judiciary, the police and bureaucracy are politicised.

Nevertheless, there are some rays of hope as we welcome 2021 in the spontaneous mass mobilisation in Thailand and Belarus against despots, in Chile’s referendum to meet people’s democratic aspirations, in impulsive resistance in India against the farm laws promoting corporate interest, in Indonesia’s mass protest against the controversial, omnibus bill that assaults workers’ rights; in defeating imperialist plots in Bolivia; in imposing taxes on Argentina’s wealthy and rich; in Zambia’s decision to default that defied debt-hawk’s scare-mongering.

Hope is an incurable disease that keeps us alive and moving. Be safe and well. Let us ponder over the lessons of the crises; the relationship with our governments; social contract and trust; measures of societal progress; and how our economies be more distributive and regenerative or sustainable.

 


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