The outbreak of Covid-19 prompted the greatest political intervention in our lifetime. Governments around the world introduced measures that shattered our private life, brought economic life to a virtual standstill, and threw into question the value of international organizations. The article first shows how the political interventions undertaken throughout 2020 have crushed long standing equilibria on such fundamental issues as the notion of a common good, the limits of individual freedom, or the relationship between the state and markets. It then analyses the battle of power and minds between the main political protagonists. The following section scrutinizes the policies applied by these actors, and their implications for democracy. The final section tries to envisage a democratic politics suitable for the world of viruses, super-bugs, climate change, poverty and hyper-connectivity.
The outbreak of COVID-19 prompted the greatest political intrusion in our lifetime. Governments around the world introduced measures that shattered our private life, brought economic life to a virtual standstill, and threw into question the value of international organizations. These stringent measures were adopted in a warlike fashion in order to combat an invisible enemy that has infected millions of people globally, killing 758,014 so far (as of August 14, 2020). Only some interventions have been long-lasting, and efforts have since been made to soften the impact of restrictions. Governments have spent plenty of money to protect businesses, for instance. We can argue about the wisdom of individual measures, but we cannot negate their magnitude. Our basic rights to privacy, to work, and to move and to associate freely have been brushed aside by states aspiring to a quasi-absolute power. No wonder the Russian conservative intellectual Alexandr Dugin announced with visible satisfaction “the total collapse of open society” (Dugin 2020). We may find his declaration premature and biased, but we cannot deny that the unprecedented interventions undertaken by states have left a durable impact on our polities and on citizens.
This essay addresses the far-reaching political implications of the pandemic: what effect the pandemic has on our political “body” rather than our physical bodies, and how it can emerge from this crisis stronger rather than weaker. The shock of 2020 may leave us shattered and divided, but it may also mobilize us to rebuild and enlarge the public sphere, to offer citizens meaningful forms of participation in public affairs, to bring markets under democratic scrutiny, and perhaps even to create a caring society able to respect labor (including migrant labor), the environment, and citizens’ health.
Revolution by Default
The scale and form of governmental actions during the pandemic amount almost to a revolution, but this revolution was not plotted by angry citizens inspired by a radical ideology. It is a revolution by default, resulting from policies aimed at combating a deadly virus rather than overthrowing leaders and regimes. Yet the measures introduced in 2020 have shifted the key boundaries of the political, and the world will never be the same.
Political systems reflect a certain equilibrium. Their complex balance of competing values, rights, and prerogatives is the product of hard and long bargaining, and in some cases even war, either civil or international. The equilibrium—or compromise, if you prefer—governs procedures for adopting laws, the powers of state institutions, and catalogues of citizens’ rights. The latter limit state intervention in our family life, economic activity, and leisure. Most of these rights are protected in our constitutions. This equilibrium also concerns issues that are difficult to legislate but that form the basis of an unwritten “social contract” between the state and its people. They define the notion of the common good, demarcate the public sphere from the private one, and shape the relationship between the state and markets. If this fundamental equilibrium is overturned, then we may witness a revolution. This essay will argue that the political interventions undertaken to fight COVID-19 have destroyed most of the existing equilibria beyond repair. This is why the impact of these intrusions is not just massive in scale but also bound to be long-lasting.
The scale of governmental interventions is most vividly manifested by the politics of time and space. Time and space are, as Charles S. Maier (of Harvard University) put it, “two of the scarcest social resources” that politicians must handle with great care (Maier 1987, 16). Both have been subject to brutal intervention during the pandemic. Lockdowns have not only confined us to narrow spaces defined by the authorities; they have also turned upside down our future planning and changed the implications of past decisions regarding our work and family life. The process of easing the lockdowns has often been arbitrary, and it is not yet complete. We don’t yet know when, if ever, we will move through space in the ways we did before the pandemic, but we suspect that our pre-COVID thinking about the past and the future cannot be restored.
Political interventions also effectively curbed our political freedom. During lockdowns it is impossible to exercise the right to assembly or peaceful demonstration. Lockdowns also curb our access to information and our freedom of speech. In China whistleblowers have been brutally silenced, and in Russia some of them have “accidentally” fallen from high windows. Even in established democracies, scientific reports have been censored by governments, and journalists have been reprimanded publicly by officials for being “too negative” and “unpatriotic.” President Trump’s press conferences during the pandemic will be watched by students of journalism for many years. In the United Kingdom, scientists condemned “Stalinist” attempts to censor COVID-19 advice.
Political interventions in private business have been unprecedented. Many factories were ordered to shut down. The movement of goods, services, and labor was stopped by the closure of borders and flight cancellations. Millions were asked to work online, while millions of others found themselves without a job. Governments have tried to soften the economic impact of the decreed lockdowns by spending huge funds to support affected entrepreneurs and workers. This support in itself represents an enormous political intervention with uneven and controversial distributive results. In Poland the government was denounced for favoring local political cronies, while the Dutch government was accused of wasting money on indebted members of the eurozone. Some have criticized the governmental help for distorting the markets, while others condemn it for failing to help the unemployed or migrant laborers.
The burden of these political interventions has been shouldered not just by individuals but also by their families. In fact, governments openly declared private homes to be the front line in the war against the pandemic. Yet lockdowns physically divided many families, and those squeezed into small flats have struggled to cohabit peacefully. Some governments went as far as to define who belongs in a family. In France the “lovers amendment” was voted down in parliament to prevent separated couples from reuniting for the lockdown unless they are officially married.
The relationship between the private and the public spheres has thus been shifted considerably by these political intrusions. Public authorities assumed more powers, and these were not always exercised in a rational, effective, and fair way. The relationship between the individual and the market has also changed through political intervention. Initially, policies were guided by ethical considerations rather than by concerns about profit. The aim was to save lives regardless of the economic implications. With time, however, this relationship has been reversed. Workers have been asked to return to their workplaces to restart the economy, while the risk of further waves of the pandemic loom large. The relationship between local, national, and universal identities has also been changed through these interventions. As states began to rally people under national flags, new enemies were created, and some of us discovered ourselves to be on the wrong side of the newly erected borders, physical or virtual.
The Case for Hope amid Despair
Social media is full of conspiracy theories suggesting that these unprecedented intrusions have been orchestrated by a small group of people with power and money, which Danton or Saint-Just would call the aristocracy of the twenty-first century. Bill Gates and George Soros are the favorite targets of conspiracy theorists. Some “experts” have even questioned the dangers related to COVID-19. I find these speculations groundless, and in some cases malign. There is ample evidence suggesting that many governments across the world acted in good faith; they all tried hard to save lives in their own imperfect ways. Draconian laws were usually drafted by doctors rather than politicians; the information to guide decisions was patchy; and each measure hurriedly adopted was bound to have unintended side effects. Those in charge have often been partisan, and some of them have misused the emergency powers they were granted. At the end of the day, however, this is not the most important factor behind the revolutionary change. The boundaries of the political would have shifted even if someone else were occupying the White House, 10 Downing Street, or the Élysée Palace. COVID-19 has prompted a politics of fear, with all its destabilizing implications. This virus could not be treated in a benign manner; it required an extraordinary, rapid, and largely improvised response.
However, even the noblest of intentions can generate poor, if not malicious, results. All political interventions create winners and losers. Revolutions can be a force for good, but they can also be a force of evil, generating violence and injustice. Democracy and capitalism have been temporarily suspended, and various partisan actors will try to redefine the rules of the game in the coming years. We have already observed a clash of power and ideas between scientists, industrialists, and politicians. National politicians have come into conflict with local and regional leaders, and also with each other. We have seen the World Health Organization and the United Nations struggling with their national paymasters. The European Central Bank in Frankfurt clashed with the German Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe. The European Union also came under fire for doing either too little or too much, depending on who was doing the criticizing. Most citizens were either confused or scared, which opened the door for speculators and demagogues.
The result of this systemic breakdown is not necessarily bad news, as citizens can find ways of turning this crisis into an opportunity rather than a tragedy. Inequality has reached unprecedented levels in recent years, and those who find themselves at the bottom of our societies may welcome a shock to the existing equilibrium. But if they find themselves without a job and with no state able to support them, they may well need to look for support beyond the state: in Calabria and Campania, we have already observed citizens turning to the mafia. International organizations have done little to arrest climate change or the spread of viral diseases. No wonder some citizens rejoice in their demise. But are we sure that closing pompous buildings in Geneva or Brussels will help rather than hinder our efforts to avert another pandemic or environmental disaster? We need to comprehend the nature of the ongoing changes and to steer political interventions in a direction reflecting the interests and aspirations of the majority of citizens.
A Liberal Program for Change
We may not know what the future will bring, but we can certainly imagine what kind of future we would prefer and try to make it a reality. Liberals from the right and left political spectrum must demand more inclusive democratic institutions, a more effective civil service, more just economic redistribution, more meaningful international cooperation, and more protection from viruses and other looming security threats such as climate change. Many different things could be achieved in all these fields, but let us try to be realistic and have at least one core vision for each area. There is no point in seeking to construct a new utopia, however attractive this vision may be. The objective should be to construct the fundaments for a new “home” that will shelter us after the traumatic experiences of 2020. If we try to achieve many things at the same time, we may end up accomplishing little or nothing. Democracy, capitalism, security, and social justice are big topics requiring complex solutions, but we need to start somewhere and show tangible results before citizens become discouraged and disappointed. Let me offer three brief examples of what I would put in the preamble of any post-COVID-19 program of action.
Let me start with the field of democracy: how can we create a more responsive democracy? My answer is: enhance citizens’ participation in decision-making. The key democratic instrument at present is parliamentary representation. We elect politicians once every four or five years to represent us in running the state. This system is now in tatters, for numerous reasons; as a result, we have a vote but not a voice. Therefore, we must try to build democracy on pillars other than representation alone: deliberation, contestation, and, most crucially, participation. As one of our most respected political scientists, Giovanni Sartori of Columbia University, puts it: “real democracy can only be, and must be, participatory democracy” (Sartori 1989, 39). Participation is chiefly about localism; the larger the unit, the more difficult it is to offer citizens valuable forms of participation. This means that we should shift more decisions to the urban and regional level and embrace genuine grassroots initiatives such as the Barcelona-style municipalismo. Local governments found themselves on the front line of the fight against the pandemic, but their records of performance were uneven. This is because most of the recent reforms aimed at devolution and decentralization were organized by top party echelons, and they empowered local elites rather than local citizens. This power relationship must be reversed. We also should utilize the various grassroots and voluntary initiatives that spontaneously emerged during the pandemic to help the most vulnerable. The vast strata of local activists engaged in helping thousands across local communities represents a solid foundation of the envisaged participatory democracy. Digital technology can also be utilized to enhance citizens’ participation, especially at the national and the European level. The internet can narrow the space between the government and the people; it can enhance transparency and offer novel ways of deliberation and decision-making. Of course, the internet can also be a means of manipulation, but there are ways to avert such uses.
Let us move to another crucial challenge: how to empower the public sector after years of neoliberal folly. The pandemic has demonstrated that without the public health service and state support for the economy, it is impossible to combat COVID-19 effectively. Thus, post-pandemic reconstruction can hardly rely on the private sector alone. This is ironic as, for the large part of the past three or four decades, we have been trying to privatize and deregulate virtually everything including schools, hospitals, and even prisons. The state was seen as arrogant, inefficient, and incompetent. Today the state seems to have been rehabilitated, but we must not just create a big state: the challenge is to create a public sector that is wise, cost-effective, and responsive to citizens. How to do this? My answer is: start to rebuild a competent public administration. Without a skilled public administration, the state is brainless and toothless. Neoliberals treated public service as redundant, and they cut its size, tasks, and autonomy. Then populists came to power, here and there, and started to staff state institutions with their political cronies, who had loyalty but lacked competence. Today most countries lack a bureaucracy that is able to effectively plan and implement policies. This deficiency will obviously hamper all post-pandemic efforts. Public administrations ought to be trained practically from scratch, made independent from political games, and democratized. The latter can be achieved through enhanced transparency, clearer lines of responsibility, and stronger societal ties helped by nondiscriminatory recruitment processes. Our administrators should be neither policy-motivated “zealots” nor policy-indifferent “slackers,” to use Gailmard and Patty’s expression (2007, p. 874). They should be helped to rediscover the meaning of the noble term “civil servants” at various levels of government. Teachers in our public schools, nurses in our public hospitals, and the police officers on our streets are also public servants. They should be properly trained, rewarded, and appreciated by all of us, including those at the top of the decision-making process.
Let me finish with the field of security. In 2015 Bill Gates gave a now much-shared TED talk warning that the greatest risk to our society was not a nuclear war but a pandemic: we should fear viruses more than missiles (Gates 2020). Yet over the past decades, we have invested a huge amount in nuclear deterrence and very little in systems able to stop a pandemic. Gates did not suggest replacing armies of soldiers with armies of epidemiologists. Rather, he suggested merging soldiers and doctors as well as military and health budgets in an effort to prepare for the “real” war to come. We now have the war Gates predicted, and we will not prevail in this war unless we follow Gates’s advice, at least within the European setting. (As long as Trump, Modi, Putin, Xi, and Bolsonaro are in power, it is difficult to contemplate any viable global initiative.) In short, we need to create a European security framework, without the likes of which we will go under. Europe has a poor record when it comes to military security, but the proposed initiative envisages a novel approach to security that is more in tune with the world of today. We have already seen Europe’s doctors and soldiers joining forces in the fight against COVID-19, and we can now institutionalize their future cooperation. Crucially, this novel approach to security may be welcomed by German citizens who have mixed feelings about investing in tanks and guns, let alone nuclear missiles. Each European state has sizable military and health budgets, but this money is not spent optimally, partly because we were preparing for the wrong war, and partly because we failed to embrace economies of scale in the security field. If only 10 percent of European health and military budgets were pulled together for the proposed initiative, we would be better prepared to fend off the next pandemic without jeopardizing military security. If the initiative is a success, the United States and other powers may want to join the new framework or even create a global equivalent.
We often hear that the world will be different after this pandemic, but we don’t know how different, exactly. Much depends on our resilience, organization, and imagination. The liberal agenda for change needs to tackle many more issues than those discussed in this essay. The pandemic has affected young and old generations differently, and efforts ought to be made to bring these generations together. The “economics of war” prompted by the pandemic has created a chance to rebalance the relationship between the states and markets. The pandemic invites us to envisage a new “cosmopolis” tackling such pressing issues as migration, ecology, and inequality. The future is in our hands, but we cannot be passive and selfish. This essay has tried to inspire a discussion about the way we should comprehend the ongoing political change and strive for a better future amid the havoc and devastation surrounding us at present.
Jan Zielonka is professor of politics and international relations at the University of Venice, Cá Foscari, and at the University of Oxford. His last book, Counter-Revolution: Liberal Europe in Retreat (Oxford University Press, 2018), was awarded the 2019 UACES prize for the best book on Europe and has been translated into several languages.