In a recent column, I speculated that the coronavirus pandemic will make us more socialist, by which I mean simply that governments take more from the rich and give more to poor. I specified that this shift would be consistent with democracy. Now, following my pattern of veering between Pollyannaism and dread, I’ll consider whether the pandemic will make us less democratic and more authoritarian, like China.
I’ve been pondering this dark possibility since reading an article in Open Democracy, a journal that aims “to challenge power and encourage democratic debate across the world.” (I’m all for that.) Economist Laurie Macfarlane argues that the 2008 recession had already exposed the weaknesses of neoliberalism, the fusion of democracy and free-market capitalism embraced by the U.S. and other western powers.
“If neoliberalism was already on life support,” Macfarlane writes, “then the coronavirus has administered the lethal blow. The pandemic has laid bare the disastrous consequences of decades of privatization, deregulation and outsourcing in countries like the U.S. and U.K., and highlighted the critical importance of strong public services and a well-resourced state bureaucracy.”
More specifically, the pandemic has displayed the advantages of China’s centralized style of governance. While the U.S. struggles with Sars-Cov-2, China quickly quelled its outbreak, and now it has “embarked on a high-profile campaign of health diplomacy, winning applause around the world for providing support to countries in need.”
China has responded more effectively than the U.S. to climate change, too, Macfarlane asserts. “In recent years, China has spent more on greening its energy system than America and the European Union combined. China is now the world's leading investor in wind turbines and other renewable energy technologies, and produces more wind turbines and solar panels each year than any other country.”
Although China adheres nominally to communism, an extreme form of socialism, Marfarlane describes its economy as “authoritarian capitalism,” in which the government permits private enterprise but exerts strict control over it. In an ironic reference to the famous first line of the Communist Manifesto, Macfarlane titles his article, “A specter is haunting the West – the specter of authoritarian capitalism.”
China’s system has boosted standards of living. The proportion of its population living in extreme poverty (less than $1.90/day) fell from 88 percent in 1981 to 2 percent today. But China is not exactly a progressive paradise. “Income inequality is among the highest in the world, labor rights are notoriously weak, and freedom of speech is often brutally suppressed,” Macfarlane points out. “Workers do not have freedom of association to form trade unions, and non-governmental labor organizations are closely monitored by the state who carry out regular crackdowns.” (For eye-opening insights into Chinese attitudes toward labor, see the brilliant documentary American Factory, which tells the story of an abandoned auto factory in Ohio reopened by a Chinese glass-manufacturing billionaire.)
Marfarlane fears that the U.S. and other western nations, in response to the pandemic, might adopt Chinese methods of mass surveillance and social control. Some countries, including Hungary, Russia and Israel, “are already using the coronavirus crisis to ramp up intrusive surveillance and roll back democracy, often taking inspiration from China.” Google and Apple have announced plans to turn smart phones into “coronavirus trackers.”
“For progressives across the West,” Macfarlane writes, “the task ahead is enormous. Not only is there a need to respond to the growing dynamism of China’s authoritarian political-economic system, there is a need to do so in a way that strengthens democracy and protects civil liberties at a time when both are increasingly under threat.”
Macfarlane’s article reminds me of a mordant, 106-page novel, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, by historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. They also co-authored Merchants of Doubt, a tough expose of individuals and groups that question human-induced climate change. Merchants reveals that climate-change deniers are driven by an ideological commitment to unrestrained capitalism.
Riffing on this theme, Collapse takes the form of a memo written in the future, the year 2393, by a scholar in China, which has become the world’s sole remaining superpower. The scholar looks back at the 21st century and recalls with wonder the disastrous inability of U.S. and other western powers to take action against climate change.
“Clear warnings of climate catastrophe went ignored for decades,” the book’s summary says, “leading to soaring temperatures, rising sea levels, widespread drought and—finally—the disaster now known as the Great Collapse of 2093, when the disintegration of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet led to mass migration and a complete reshuffling of the global order.”
China, with its top-down government, responds far more effectively to the Great Collapse than U.S. and other western nations, and it becomes the world’s dominant state. The bitter irony at the heart of Collapse is that western civilization is destroyed by its irrational faith in free enterprise. The future imagined by Oreskes and Conway seems even more plausible now than it did in 2014, when their novel was published. The U.S. President and Republican party have become even more fanatically committed to unrestrained capitalism and opposed to curbing fossil-fuel emissions.
We Americans still live in a democracy, so our fate is in our hands, right? Here’s what I hope will happen here in the U.S., the so-called leader of the free world. We will take steps, beginning in November, to make our society more, not less, democratic. We will elect leaders committed to making our nation healthier, greener, more equitable and less cartoonishly Darwinian. We will pass laws making it easier for everyone to vote, and harder for wealthy people and corporations to rig the system for their benefit. We will keep lurching in our erratic, democratic way toward a better world.
See my free, online book Mind-Body Problems: Science, Subjectivity & Who We Really Are.