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10 December 2020updated 07 Jan 2021 1:39pm

The pandemic won’t be a great global reset

As Covid-19 prompted life to move online and distance mattered less, globalisation was not reversed but recast. 

By Jeremy Cliffe

There were periods in 2020, particularly early on, as Covid-19 took hold, when it looked likely to be a year of ideological reckonings. The pandemic was revealing pre-existing injustices and exacerbating pre-existing tensions. It was putting different systems of politics and government to the same unprecedented test almost simultaneously, their relative performances exposed with brutal simplicity in the daily movements of infection and numbers of deaths.

In the background, not of the crisis but marked by it, were the protests on disparate topics in cities around the world and the build-up to the US presidential election. No wonder, then, that some commentators predicted that the year would turn out to be a historical turning point, one that often seemed to confirm their own long-held convictions: 2020 as the hour of the state, or of the market, or of the reversal of globalisation.

Yet far from bringing a clash of -isms, let alone a conclusive one, the onset of Covid-19 demanded technocratic crisis management. International governments of an array of political hues and instincts all scrambled to put their economies into artificial comas, hiked spending and curtailed personal freedoms to a degree that would have been unthinkable last year. Normal political debate came to a halt; in April, more than 2 billion people lived in countries whose parliaments had been suspended or restricted.

Even now, well into the second wave in many countries, Covid-19 has vindicated neither side of the state-versus-market divide. Yes, the pandemic has made a compelling case for the active, interventionist state and has exposed the vulnerabilities of systems weakened by austerity. But it has also demonstrated the market’s formidable powers of creative destruction. In most developed capitalist economies, supply chains adapted to the disruption quickly (the odd run on toilet roll aside). The digital consumer economy reconfigured itself to meet demand. Private-sector ingenuity was crucial to all three of the major coronavirus vaccines now beginning to be rolled out.

What about that other big ideological contest of recent times: open versus closed? Borders, it is true, slammed shut, people have been confined to their homes and the fragility of international networks of people and goods has been laid bare.

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[see also: If the events of this pandemic year have taught me anything, it is the virtue of empathy]

But early prophecies of the death of global integration look overblown. As I predicted in this column in March, Covid-19 has meant not globalisation’s reversal but its recasting. This year ends with the world arguably more willing and able to confront further multilateral challenges than it was before. Consider new commitments to decarbonisation by China, the EU, Japan, South Korea and imminently, with the change of tenant in the White House, the US. In many fields, distance has mattered less than ever before as life has moved online. “For those with access to communications technology, the pandemic has not de-globalised but de-localised,” writes Ivan Krastev in his new book, Is It Tomorrow Yet? This is an account that wisely explores Covid-19’s lessons through its paradoxes rather than crediting them straightforwardly to any one ideological balance sheet.

If there is a common conclusion from how governments and societies have responded to the pandemic, it is the anti-ideological one known in China as “cat theory”, after Deng Xiaoping’s mantra that “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”. Or: what matters is what works.

Consider the list of countries that have coped relatively well with the pandemic. They range from poor (Vietnam) to rich (Germany), high-tax (Denmark) to low-tax (Taiwan), liberal democracies (New Zealand) to autocracies (China). As the political scientist Rachel Kleinfeld notes, they share just three eminently practical traits: they learned from past pandemics, they have relatively high levels of social trust and they have strong state capacity. Covid-19 may initially have looked like a battle of ideas, but in fact it was a test of competence.

It is a conclusion supported by the other two big political events of the year: the global protests and the US election. Yes, citizens took to the streets in Belarus, Thailand, the US, Poland, Kyrgyzstan, Hong Kong, Russia, Lebanon, Chile and elsewhere. Many of the protests were branded as ideological, especially by their opponents – witness Donald Trump smearing Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters as “antifa” extremists – but were, often, non-partisan expressions of righteous anger at everyday injustices, whether racism (BLM), misgovernment (Brazil), corruption (Lebanon) or high living costs (Chile). Demands for “what works”, in other words.

Similarly, although the contest between Trump and Joe Biden was a choice between two very different world-views, the incumbent’s defeat should not be seen as a decisive rejection of Trumpism, or a restorationist zeal for Biden and the Democrats. Rather, it was a verdict on the avoidably high human and economic cost of the pandemic in the US. Again, this was less about ideology than about competence and results.

[see also: “We’re on the edge of epochal shifts”]

As I write this from Berlin, it is hard not to reflect on 2020 as a year also book-ended (roughly) by two 30-year anniversaries: that of the fall of the Berlin Wall in October 1989 and of German reunification in November 1990. Both brought much rueful commentary about how the end of the Cold War had not turned out to be an “end of history” that settled the global contest of ideas. The same can be said of the Covid-19 pandemic. It, too, looked initially to be a great reckoning in that contest, or at least the conclusion of a chapter. It, too, will turn out to be something else, and less definitive. A comma, not a full stop. 

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special