This is a sketch of an idea for a possible way ahead. Any comments are more than welcome so this post can be improved.
The global disruption wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic is on a scale not seen since World War II. The pandemic has made the air cleaner, the streets safer, and forced us to spend time with our closest family members and/or find inventive ways to keep up relationships with other family members and friends. Restrictions are now slowly easing in many countries. It is not clear for how long. The reality is likely to be the globalisation of the SARS virus and its multiple mutations for years, even decades, to come. Subsequent waves of the virus are inevitable, but further near total lockdowns may not be tolerated by certain societies. Cataclysmic events necessitate rebuilding but not necessarily according to pre-cataclysmic plans.
There is a case for a coalition between people and organisations that want a more equitable, sustainable and resilient future for our democracies. It can begin with discussions across disciplines on three big broad fronts:
- Deconcentrate markets and release sovereign democratic societies from dependence on benevolence of a handful of private digital monopolies that limit the scope for safeguarding privacy and other civil liberties
- Using a mix of incentives, prohibitions and sanctions reorient work towards activities that respect the natural environment and empower the most vulnerable
- Rebuild the public sphere and independent journalism, require information and communication monopolies to comply with public service standards
Economy and society
Certain industries and professions are suffering badly. The picture is mixed. The crisis could cull services of general societal benefit while entrenching those whose effects are deleterious to democracy, freedom and justice. Independent journalism was already reeling from Facebook and Google, who as advertising intermediaries suck revenue out of news and, as social media companies, drove traffic to low-quality, outrage-inciting click fodder that sucked competition and trust out of the news. With COVID-19, journalism is now in a critical condition.
Selective government interventions, lacking any intellectual cogency, create numerous absurdities. They provide free subsidies to small businesses selling vaping merchandise, while forcing independent dentists to stay closed leaving their patients’ teeth to rot.
Ultra-mobility enabled by fossil-fuelled travel seems not so essential after all. Yet governments have been receptive to the airlines’ clamouring for bailouts. Similarly, the crisis exposes the overblown scale of the meat industry– yet the US administration has ordered meatpacking plants to stay open and slaughter animals that noone is going to eat.
The pandemic has not been a social leveller. Office workers can work from home. People doing manual work cannot. Lower paid workers are told by governments to go to work and expose themselves to the virus on public transport.
Monopolies gain strength, at least relative to their competitors. Investors have decided since the onset of the crisis that the digital gatekeepers represented the safest haven for their money. Facebook has set up its own ‘oversight board’ to ‘moderate content’, where it suits them, on the digital public space that they own and control and that most of the connected world has no realistic option of avoiding.
American and Chinese digital monopolies are seeking to control the infrastructure of the internet, particularly around the Global South. Mergers and acquisitions are the typical response to sluggish growth. Some antitrust and data protection enforcers have explicitly conceded an unwillingness to enforce the law during the pandemic.
The crisis has demonstrated the value of internet connectivity, as well as exposing the digital divide. The ability for people to remain in constant contact and hold virtual meetings, to broadcast news and entertainment has been priceless. Connectivity has provided a lifeline for society in a lockdown. The dangers of allowing this infrastructure and applications to be controlled by a handful of private companies are now self-evident.
However, the crisis has exposed the breathless hubris of far-out technologies like ‘AI’ and ‘blockchain’. They cannot, after all, save the world. The hitherto burgeoning facial recognition industry has been snookered by face masks. But surveillance technologies are being deployed to enforce the lockdown. There are extraordinary images of drones that broadcast social distancing and roving robots that tell people to get off park benches.
Policy makers have been mesmerised by the idea of COVID-19 mobile apps when less than 70% of the global population own smart phones with mobile internet access. The elderly and children are almost by default excluded from this unproven solution. Accordingly, this has not been driven by epidemiological evidence or demand from frontline public health professionals. We hope it serves as more than a convenient distraction from failure of the state to provide basic necessary healthcare and precautions to all.
Google and Apple’s announcement of API to support only certain contact tracing apps has enabled them, as indispensable digital monopolies, to usurp the role of democratic state in as the purported guarantor of the right to privacy.
A generation is now reaching maturity who formative years have been against the backdrop of the financial crisis of 2007/2008, the rise of populism and techno-authoritarianism and retreat of democracy, the digitisation of almost everything, the first terrifying signals of global warming and environmental degradation, and now the great pandemic.
The de-globalisation and uncoupling of industrialised economies was already well underway, but has been accelerated by the pandemic. Supply chains had become too leveraged and vulnerable to shock, while governments slashed budgets and taxes for the already well-off. Sovereign democratic states are fully entitled to assert and rebuild self-sufficiency, but it cannot be at the cost of solidarity between those states. The transparency and accountability scorecard of governments has varied wildly.
The 21st century is likely to be defined by how the United States and China get along. The European Union project is facing the latest and greatest in a line of shocks stretching back to its aborted attempt to write its own constitution, now nearly two decades ago.
In spite of the unprecedented crisis, policymakers remain more concerned with preserving the hermetically sealed sanctity of their specialisms. Monopolies and markets, over here. National security, over there. Fake news and free speech, over there. Human rights, over there. Education, over there. Healthcare, over there. Environment, over here.
A new Beveridge?
The architect of the post-World War II welfare state in Britain, William Beveridge, targeted what he called the ‘Five Evils’ of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. The five evils a post-COVID globally-minded democratic society needs to target remain broadly the same. They require updating, however, because each of these ‘evils’ are the product of excessiveness, recklessness and the absence of democratic control.
- Want: excessive wealth and market power are complicit in the perpetuation of poverty and malnourishment – inexcusable in an age of such abundance.
- Disease: healthcare and medicine is the most lucrative of activities yet health inequality is growing.
- Ignorance: corrupt government and the weakening or capture of democratic institutions, including the media, alongside the opacity of algorithmic dissemination of digital content, perpetuates prejudice, obfuscation of where real power resides, and scepticism of scientific knowledge.
- Squalor: the result of disdain for and degradation of our natural environment.
- Idleness: not so much people without employment as the absence of genuine value creation inherent in highly remunerative professions in finance, technology, consulting and public administration.
Rebuilding more just and sustainable democracies during and after the crisis requires addressing all of these interlinked challenges. Moreover, it requires working against the grain of increasing polarisation – not only between ‘left’ and ‘right’, but also within progressive movements. Algorithm-driven social media stokes these divisions, encouraging inane virtue-signalling and tone-deafness to alternative opinions that lack the requisite degree of ideological purity.
The first step could be a simple one: a beginner’s guide on why and how you should stop criticising your friends and allies.