There is one political issue that towers above all others in 2021: How can humanity avoid a repeat of the 1930s?
Surrounded by the wreckage of pandemic loss — both human and economic — and with even darker climate crisis clouds gathered on the immediate horizon, the future may already appear rather gloomy.
But it can still get even worse, depending in large part on the choices that are made during the course of this fork-in-the-road year, this historical moment.
Perversely, this low-road scenario may even be sugar-coated with a distractingly positive veneer: the pandemic begins to be defeated, with a combination of smarter policy responses, herd immunity and, of course, the roll-out of an effective vaccine. Steadily, life begins to return to a so-called normal, perhaps faster than expected.
And then, if Yale professor and social epidemiologist Dr Nicholas Christakis is right, there may even be rebound boom time as people flock to pubs, clubs, festivals, theatres, restaurants, museums, and airports, boosting not just the entertainment, hospitality, tourism and arts industries — significant though they are — but the whole economy as people pump their expendable income into a post-pandemic release valve.
As Christakis points out, this is precisely what happened after the Spanish flu and led to the “roaring 1920s”. Well, here we may well go again.
The problem is that the 1920s were followed by the 1930s and the rise of fascism.
Of course the coronavirus may yet play us for fools (once again). Having dangled the prospect of vaccine immunity, it may mutate numerous times, confounding epidemiologists, some of whom already readily admit that the more they think they know about Covid-19 the more they realise how little they understand it (as one of South Africa’s most esteemed medical scientists, Dr Salim Abdool Karim, told listeners in radio interviews last week).
But let us assume that it does not play us for idiots, and that sooner rather than later this pandemic, like all previous pandemics, leaves us in peace for the simple reason that they always end.
The question, then, is whether we have the leadership needed to recognise two interconnected fundamental truths. First, that there can be no return to “normalcy” and nor should there be: it was the old economy that got us into this pickle and it won’t get us out of it. Second, we need a new non-rapacious and environmentally conscious economy — one that will require new economic thinking.
Unfortunately in this respect, the cupboard does not look over-stocked with alternative policies or ideological outlooks. This may, indeed, be a significant distinction from the 1920s, where the Russian Revolution had generated the big ideological contest that was to consume much of the rest of the century: Communist Soviet Union’s alternative to Anglo-capitalism.
We know how that ended — with the ostensible victory of liberal democracy and Fukuyama’s “end of history”. Liberal democracy, in turn, despite its many victories for free speech, human rights, and international norms and standards, provided cover for the neoliberal model of globalisation that was then to entrench itself in the dying decade of the last century and the first decade of the new.
It came to a jarring stop with the global financial crisis of 2008, the impact of which was felt everywhere; South Africa, for instance, lost around a million jobs in the immediate aftermath. But the first lesson of interconnected globalisation was not heeded: global capital simply committed itself to getting back on the horse, in a defiant attempt to get back to normal.
It wasn’t possible. And it spawned an unholy alliance between those left behind and the populist-nationalist leaders that have spotted the political opportunity and exploited it, just as Hitler did in the depression-ridden Germany of the 1930s.
This has led to painful setbacks for liberal democracy, multilateral co-operation and the international rule of law and its attendant institutions.
Exhibit A: Brexit. “Vote Leave” attracted the support of working-class racists and posh home-county Tories who crave a return to the bygone age of empire.
Exhibit B: Trump won power in 2016 thanks to an alliance of “black-shirt” white supremacists, evangelical “Christians” and the super-rich.
Trump has gone, but Trumpism remains. And it is everywhere. Bolsonaro is still in power in Brazil, Modi in India, Putin in Russia, Orbán in Hungary, Duterte in the Philippines. And there are many more.
Next year, the French presidential election may well remove the devoted multilateralist Emmanuel Macron from power and it is not beyond possibility that a fascist such as Marine Le Pen could replace him.
South Africa, in comparison, is fortunate to have such a sane, seasoned and accomplished social-democrat leader as President Cyril Ramaphosa at the head of government — though the authoritarian populists in his own party would love to oust him at next year’s ANC national elective conference. This year, Ramaphosa will have to move far more ruthlessly if he is to ensure that he gets a second term.
Thanks to Covid-19, the socioeconomic conditions in South Africa and across the world are now even more congenial for the neofascist brand of big-man authoritarian populism, making the threat more dangerous.
Global levels of poverty have increased for the first time in more than two decades, and levels of food insecurity have doubled as a result of the deep economic consequences of Covid-19 (with as many as 265-million people pushed to the brink of starvation).
International Labour Organisation analysis shows that the rate of relative poverty is expected to increase by almost 34 percentage points globally for informal workers, ranging from 21 percentage points in upper-middle-income countries to 56 percentage points in lower-middle-income economies. 1.6-billion workers in the informal economy — almost half the global workforce — could be at risk from lockdown measures and the longer-term impacts on the sectors in which they are employed.
In Africa, for example, estimates suggest that seven years of development will be lost, meaning that it is unlikely that the UN’s sustainable development goals can be achieved by 2030. Nearly 20-million jobs, in both the formal and informal sectors, are at risk.
Nine out of 10 emerging market countries could see contractions in GDP, after driving global growth for two decades. In South Africa, for example, figures published late last year indicate that while 543 000 people have returned to employment in the last quarter, this is only a small proportion of the 2.2-million who have lost employment during the same period as a result of the contraction of the economy.
At a time when people need their governments more than ever — to manage the public health impact of Covid-19 and to provide a welfare safety net — many countries face a mounting debt crisis of potentially unprecedented proportions and fiscal constraints will constrain democratic governments from providing the levels of assistance needed. These constraints, however, will not stop power-grabbing fascist politicians, but galvanise them.
The bleak socioeconomic statistics of the current crisis resonate strongly with those of the late 1920s and early 1930s, post the 1929 crash. It is well worth rereading Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s seminal book Age of Extremes to grasp what history can teach us about what might come next, as Hobsbawm traces the rise of fascism and Nazi Germany — and the fall of liberalism — to the economic slump of the 1920s and the failure of the ruling classes to properly understand and act on the structural weaknesses that underpinned it.
It does not portend well for what lies ahead. But there is another way and another scenario. It will, however, require extraordinary political leadership, vigorous and unending progressive social activism, and alliances with those in the capital-owning and for-profit sector who are smart enough to recognise the need for profound change.
A new climate economy will need to be built. While it feels distinctly uncomfortable to speak of a virus that has killed well over a million people as “an opportunity”, the fact is that it will be less difficult to build back differently (to adapt the UN secretary general’s injunction to “build back better”), than to retrofit the old pre-Covid economy, as the vested interests will be more powerful.
The combined global fiscal response to the pandemic totals well over $12-trillion and shows what can be done, at speed and at scale, when the political will is there. Now the same energy must be funnelled towards rebuilding economies in line with the need for climate action.
That is the opportunity: to tackle the deep structural defects of the global economy and to rebuild in a way that meets the urgent need for climate action, that closes the inequality gap and which either creates decent jobs or secures people’s livelihoods by providing a universal basic income.
This will require a massive transfer of wealth and an equally enormous repurposing of capital. Without it, the authoritarian populists will continue to prosper, sowing division and hatred, inspiring violence and war, while turning their backs on reason and science.
This is a political contest of a global, epochal character. Fascism will need to be fought everywhere, including in South Africa. It needs to be recognised in all its different forms, understood, challenged and then crushed.
Progressive democrats cannot afford to celebrate the end of the pandemic, when it eventually comes. Aluta continua. But victory is not certain.