Coronavirus and Autocratic Resurgence

April 1, 2020 at 11:40 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

One of the less discussed outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic has been the astonishing rollback of democratic rights all over the world.‘Stay at home’ decrees and commandments to maintain physical distances have allowed governments everywhere, even in long-established democracies, to suspend constitutionally guaranteed personal freedoms including the rights of assembly and free movement, the right to demonstrate against governments and other entities, and to allow intrusive surveillance. Justified in the name of public safety, even if some of these powers are rescinded once the pandemic ebbs, the data collected could be used by governments (and private companies like Zoom and Facebook) to monitor citizens with little or no public scrutiny.

 A random sample of governments amassing power by exploiting the fear of widespread contagion and extensive fatalities includes the following:  Last Monday, Hungary’s  parliament controlled by his Fidesz party greenlighted a rule by decree by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as long as a state of emergency lasts. Serbian President Aleksander Vučić also assumed autocratic powers in an open-ended emergency by the suspension of its parliament, the imposition of a 12-hour curfew to be enforced by the police, the closure of borders, and barring those over 65 years of age from leaving their homes. In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice Party under Jarosław Kaczyński which had already made the judiciary subordinate to the executive, used the pandemic to compel people in home quarantine to install a government smart phone application to track their movements.

 NewImage

The Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes’ cabinet similarly obtained rights to govern by decree without parliamentary scrutiny for six months. In Israel, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had failed to win a majority after three elections and his rival Benny Gantz had been invited to form a government, he exploited his rival’s political inexperience to make him accept a junior position in a Likud-led government. Netanyahu also secured legislative authorization to use a trove of cellphone data to surveil Israeli citizens and to delay court actions, postponing his own trial on corruption charges. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who once referred to the country’s constitution as “a scrap of toilet paper,” has also engrossed emergency powers as has the Thai prime minister, Prayuth chan-ocha while the military police now occupy public squares in Chile. The Jordanian prime minister, Omar Razzaz, also acquired powers to censor news media and additional authority to detain people.

NewImage

French lawmakers increased the powers of Prime Minister Édouard Philippe to rule by decree and to requisition goods and services for the medical emergency. And in Britain, the parliament conferred what has been described as “eye-watering” powers on the government to detain people and close borders. India’s Narendra Modi who had already placed Kashmir under lockdown for more than half a year now put the whole country under lockdown with only 4 hours’ notice!

Even before the pandemic had emerged, Republicans in United States Senate had humiliatingly prostrated themselves before President Donald Trump and conducted a farcical impeachment trial; Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had used a shoddy coup attempt to crush all dissent; Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro had dismissed the participatory councils that have had a long history in the country and Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales had been removed from office in a coup.

NewImage

These breaches in the democratic fabric across the world had been so pronounced, even before the current transgressions, that one of the most discussed books in recent years has been David Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky’s How Democracies Die. Elected autocrats, they argued subvert institutions like the judiciary and the press; coopt important cultural and sports icons or malign and seek to sideline those who resist; disregard mutual tolerance; and violate the law. These are the playbooks of Trump, Modi, Duterte, Kacyński, Erdogan, Orbán, Bolsanaro, and Jeanine Añez who usurped power in Bolivia.

Yet, as Jill Lepore, wrote in the New Yorker magazine, in the years after the First World War, a war fought “to make the world safe for democracy” as U.S. President Woodrow Wilson famously put it, there was a similar collapse of democracies. Then too, after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian, German, and Ottoman empires, there had been a brief florescence of democracies: but these soon withered away in Hungary, Albania, Poland, Lithuania, and Yugoslavia, to be followed by Greece, Romania, Estonia, and Latvia and more significantly by Portugal, Uruguay, Spain, Italy, and Germany.

In the 1980s democracy had replaced dictatorships in much of Latin America, the Philippines, and South Korea. And in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in Eastern Europe. Indeed, in 1992, Francis Fukuyama had written a prominent treatise The End of History and the Last Man, celebrating the final triumph of “Western liberal democracy.” Yet, within a quarter century, democracy is once again in question.

 

NewImage

A study by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Future of Democracy, based on 25 international surveys covering 4 million people based 154 countries, concludes that 2019 “represents the highest level of democratic discontent on record” since 1995. Some 58 percent registered their disapproval with democracy in 2019 compared to 48 percent in 1995—with the drop in support especially marked in Austria, Brazil, France, Greece, Japan, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

 

NewImage

Yet, despite similarities between these two cycles of democratic crises, there are three important differences. Immediately after the First World War, the new democracies that arose were all in Europe or in its settler colonies in the Americas. Democracies established in the Global South after the Second World War were always more fragile as processes like territorial integration, adult suffrage, economic well-being and provision of welfare that took decades if not centuries to be instituted in Western Europe and North America and were accomplished sequentially, were telescoped into a few years in newly independent countries and were expected to be instituted simultaneously in conditions of extreme material deprivation, mass illiteracy, and constant interference by their former colonial powers, and by the United States and the Soviet Union.

 Second, even though the Great Depression had weakened trade unions at the time of the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, the form of industrialization adopted by the New Deal in the United States, the welfare state in Western European high-income states, and eventually, post-war reconstruction strengthened the industrial working class which formed a bulwark against the return of authoritarianism. Today, the fragmentation of production processes and their outsourcing to low-wage locations have decapitated trade unions in most countries. Though the conservative parties initiated de-regulation in the 1980s and 1990s, it was the social democrats—Bill Clinton in the US, Tony Blair’s NewLabour in the UK, Francois Mitterand in France—who were the greatest champions of neo-liberalism and finance capital.

NewImage

 

Blaming globalization for the loss of jobs and incomes, the working class—abandoned by social democratic parties—fell prey to the politicians on the right who preached xenophobia and nationalism. Donald Trump’s “make America great again” promised a return to a mythical past to a historically advantaged white working class. Similarly, the Conservative Party’s Brexit campaign demolished Labour’s “Red Wall” in the north of England by blaming migrants and the European Union for economic decline. To cover up the economic failings of his government, Narendra Modi targets Muslims and domestic opponents in India. As the Canadian socialist politician, the late Tommy Douglas, said: “Fascism begins the moment a ruling class, fearing the people may use their political democracy to gain economic democracy, begins to destroy political democracy in order to retain its power of exploitation and special privilege.”

 

NewImage

Though the blaming of foreigners and domestic minorities have garnered large constituencies of support for authoritarian rulers, their policies have consistently favored the rich by tax cuts, privatizations, de-regulations, dismantling environmental controls and the protection of indigenous peoples. They have been able to subordinate the judiciary by nominating judges and to muzzle the press with varying degrees of success.

In March 2020, Prime Minister Modi nominated Ranjan Gogoi, the just retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India who had rendered crucial verdicts in support of the ruling BJP, to a seat in the Upper House of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha. Modi has also coopted sport and cultural icons: in the cricket-mad country, Virat Kohli, the captain of its national team, called the prime minister’s demonetization of ₹500 and ₹1000 notes in 2016 as “the greatest move in the history of Indian politics,” despite its drastic economic consequences.  In the case of Poland and India, it was only after the ruling parties won a second election that it surged ahead with their repressive agendas.

The emergency initiated by the Covid-19 pandemic has licensed further restrictions on the freedom of the press. Governments in many countries have banned the spread of ‘fake news’ deliberately leaving definitions vague and ambiguous.

Third, strangely, it is in fact the very global networks that are castigated for a decline in living standards that make life bearable for the poor: without the cheap smartphones and computers assembled by low-waged workers in China, Uber and Lyft, Zomato and Ola in India, could not exist to create a “gig” economy. Without the cheap imports from China and other low-wage economies, the poor in the West can hardly fulfill their credit-card driven consumer spending, itself a result of low- and middle-income countries purchasing US Treasury bonds to keep the value of their currencies low.

NewImage

Once the strength of the trade unions was eroded, opposition to authoritarianism has come from the middle classes—ironically derided as the “elite” by Donald Trump and his allies in the United States, as the ‘Khan market gang’ and the “tukde tukde gang” by Modi and his supporters in India, as “Gullenists” or the “PKK” (Kurdish Workers Party) by Erdogan. In many cases, they have failed to reach out adequately to the poor, especially ethnic minorities. In India at least, the passage of the Constitutional Amendment Act which offers citizenship to all illegal immigrants from neighboring countries except Muslims—and one which cricket captain Kohli stubbornly refused to condemn—and the attacks on universities have mobilized the youth and a wider social strata against the government.

 NewImage

It is this upsurge that the new round of autocratic resurgence is trying to corral. Nine years ago, the Arab Spring may have been celebrated as a social media and Internet-sparked revolution but not only did it collapse but it also showed that the middle classes are easily surveilled by the ubiquity of mobile phones and wifi-connected cameras. Governments now have used the pandemic as an excuse to legally tap this trove of electronic data to keep an eye on its citizens.Even if these powers are rescinded after the pandemic is over, data collected could be mined to obtain granular details about the citizenry, their opinions, connections, and predilections!

NewImage

And of course, policing is always deployed as a disciplinary weapon against racial and ethnic minorities and the poor. In the United States, President Trump’s reference to the virus as “Chinese virus” and U.S. State Department’s attempt to call it the “Wuhan virus” in a G7 communique have led to heightened attacks against Asian Americans. In India, people from the northeastern states have similarly been subject to racist attacks.

‘Stay at home’ orders may subject the middle classes to electronic surveillance but the poor have to put their lives on the line and go to work.Reports of police brutality against workers delivering essential goods in India is a reflection both of their lack of information and their general disdain for manual laborers. Even worse, the sudden lockdown of the country forced millions of migrant workers to walk back to their villages in complete disregard for their lives as all public transport was grounded and private taxis were out of reach. The sheer mindlessness of the order when maintaining physical distancing is impossible for the poor in densely populated countries is not only self-evident but also not essential when people over 65 are most vulnerable and 94 percent of the population is below that age!

 

NewImage

Over the long-term, opposition to authoritarianism will pivot around how the Left can formulate a strategy that enables an increasingly atomized poor to reverse their exploitation in conditions where automation and artificial intelligence deprive them not only of well-remunerated jobs but also of opportunities to combine together. Given the world-spanning production and procurement networks, such a strategy will have to be based on a progressive internationalism, all the more compelling because of the continuing destruction of the environment wrought by capitalist neo-liberalism. We need, in short, new strategies to fight authoritarianism in the twenty-first century.

Leave a Comment »

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.

%d bloggers like this: