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22 April 2021

Why the battle between left and right protectionism will shape the post-Covid world

Unless the left can construct a more secure and equitable economy, voters will turn once again to the nation as the only shield against a world in chaos.

By Paolo Gerbaudo

In 1986, the year of the Chernobyl disaster, German sociologist Ulrich Beck published an influential book about the rise of the Risikogesellschaft (“risk society”). The phrase called attention to the profusion of new risks – nuclear radiation, toxins in food, pollutants in the air – that were redefining the political agenda. The calculation and management of environmental hazards, often invisible to the naked eye, would become central to what he called a “second modernity”, concerned with dealing with the “side effects” of technological progress.

Still caught in a protracted coronavirus health and economic crisis, and living in an era blighted by the climate crisis, we are today witnessing something more extreme than Beck imagined. Risks have now gathered into catastrophic threats: pandemics, the brutal force of a destabilised nature, mass poverty – all those scourges that modernity once seemed to have stamped out – are resurfacing.

In response to this grim scenario, politics is returning to the key question of protection: how to guarantee society’s safety in the face of existential calamities. Protection is a term found virtually everywhere in contemporary political discourse. “Protect yourself and protect others” is the message used to invite people to wear masks; the slogan “Protect the NHS” features on the podium from which Boris Johnson delivers Covid-19 press briefings; the ill and old are described as “shielding” from the virus.

But the politics of protection reaches well beyond pandemic policy. The trauma unleashed by the coronavirus crisis has engendered a “demonstration effect”, catalysing public awareness of the perilous times that lie ahead, and a realisation of just how fragile and unprepared societies are. It is no coincidence that during the health emergency governments have finally started to take concrete (though insufficient) action against climate change, a threat that far exceeds coronavirus in terms of potential health and economic costs, and which heightens the risk of new diseases. The crisis has also led to a surprising revival of social protection, with politicians hastily refashioning safety nets they had themselves eroded, to forestall mass destitution and popular revolts.

Trade protectionism, the most conspicuous yet certainly not the only form of protectionism, has also been revived. One of the signature policies of the Trump administration was its trade war with China, as well as with Canada and the EU – a symbolic departure from decades of liberal globalisation. While Trump is now out of the White House, trade protectionism is here to stay. The tariffs he imposed have yet to be scrapped and the Biden administration has adopted its own policies to “protect American workers”, as seen in the “Buy American” public procurement rule.

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[see also: Populism without the people]

Even the capitalist class, usually not the greatest friend of protection, is adapting. Its favourite watchword these days is no longer “expansion” but “resilience”, the capacity to recover from disruption – a striking admission of the vulnerability of the global system of production and long supply chains investors have long favoured. Protection against the pandemic, environmental protection, social protection, trade protectionism – these may seem disparate and unrelated. But they reflect a common necessity: guaranteeing society’s safety and stability.

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This form of politics has a long history. For Plato and Aristotle, politics was precisely the art of protection (in their treatises politicians were in fact called “guardians”). The 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that politics was about an exchange in kind between citizens’ obedience and the state’s offer of protection. In the late 18th century, the US founding father Alexander Hamilton claimed in The Federalist Papers that “safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct”. The economic historian Karl Polanyi argued in The Great Transformation (1944) that at times of crisis, societies display a self-protective instinct to shield themselves against capitalist rapacity.

If protection and related concepts seem unfamiliar these days, it is because we are emerging from 40 years of free-market consensus, which depicted social protection as synonymous with paternalism, red tape and dirigisme. While social protection from the market was eroded, law-and-order protection was ramped up, as seen through greater funding for policing and the ballooning of private security firms. The number of people working in the security industry – “guard labour” – as the economist Branko Milanović notes in his 2016 book Global Inequality, has grown to five million in the US.

If the 2008 crash exposed the fragility of the financial sector, the economic crisis triggered by Covid-19 has revealed that this vulnerability is systemic. Now that promises of prosperity have turned sour and insecurity is rife, citizens are warming once again to the idea of state support and protection. According to recent Gallup polls, the share of US voters in favour of state interventionism has markedly increased.

Yet one can see different narratives of protection emerging from different political tendencies, offering different kinds of security, and different understandings of who has to be protected and from what. True to the proverbial adaptability of the conservative tradition, the right has already made significant concessions to this new context. The likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have selectively abandoned some of the tenets of neoliberalism, in particular the cult of free trade and the obtuse monetarism of their predecessors. They have veered away from the imperative to balance the budget and have run huge deficits that their political predecessors said would lead countries into bankruptcy. Besides Trump’s trade wars, Brexit, initially presented as a “free-trade” initiative, has also turned into a protectionist project, with a “muscular state” subsidising high-tech industries and promoting infrastructure investment.

But though the days of George Osborne’s austerity may temporarily be gone, the Conservatives remain thrifty when it comes to rewarding “those who protect us”. NHS workers have been celebrated over the past year in weekly “clap for our carers” rituals. But they were given a miserly 1 per cent pay rise in the March Budget, effectively a pay cut when inflation is factored in. The right’s “proprietarian protectionism” prioritises protection of big business and of asset-owners and home-owners, who have been selectively supported with mortgage holidays, rather than essential workers and the vulnerable. Furthermore, the Conservatives remain firmly anti-protectionist when it comes to labour.

The progressive version of the politics of protection is radically different. During the pandemic, left-wing leaders have argued that protection cannot be delivered without investing in public services and rewarding workers that perform essential protective functions (such as health and social care), and that no real environmental sustainability can be attained without social sustainability. As part of his $2trn infrastructure plan, Joe Biden has promised $400bn for the care economy. In Spain, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias Turrión has argued that we should aim for greater social security, ensuring “that the most vulnerable are not abandoned”.

Though drawing on the same appetite for security from calamities of which populations are ever more aware, the visions of protection invoked on the left and the right could not be more different. The battle for hegemony in the post-pandemic era will depend on which narrative of protection is seen as more credible, whether it’s the exclusionary protectionism of the right or the social protectivism of the left. We are all “protectionists” now. But unless progressives are able to demonstrate that state intervention can construct a more secure and equitable economy, voters will soon, once again, turn en masse to the populist right and its vision of the nation as the only real protective dam against a world in chaos.

Paolo Gerbaudo is a sociologist and political theorist based at King’s College London, and is author of The Digital Party (2018) and The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic (Verso, forthcoming)