Note: A shorter version of this post was published earlier on Duck of Minerva.
Politics, as famously defined by David Easton, is the “authoritative allocation of values”, such as welfare, security, and liberty. Politicians thus have to make decisions on hierarchies between these values – and they have to weigh values against each other in cases in which they collide. It is still too early for an in-depth analysis of the numerous norm collisions in the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet, we can already see how the previously found balance between the three aforementioned values, and the norms revolving around them, is destabilised.
In many countries around the world, the WHO is currently setting the agenda for a strategy to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. Its campaigns and recommendations on how to deal with Covid-19 are, though not entirely uncontroversial, widely distributed, while reaffirming one of its central roles: that of the epidemiological expert and crisis advisor, especially for poor countries.
It is not surprising that in capitalist societies, especially with their neoliberal inflections, different forms of work have unequal worth. This inequity existed before the Corona outbreak and is only becoming more acute during it. Taking psychoanalysis’s reality principle – which emphasizes the need to be suspicious of any reality presenting itself as natural1 – and a Lacanian understanding of the Real, which argues that the Real is what any ‘reality’ must suppress2, one must see the Corona outbreak with all its articulations in the demand for certain workers over others as a crack – a fracture and inconsistency in the field of apparent reality under capitalism. This outbreak, therefore, invokes the Real, which is essentially a void that is usually unrepresented but can be glimpsed in the fractures underlying the reality that capitalism so wonderfully orchestrates and presents to us.
Imagine the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared the outbreak of the mysterious lung ailment in the Chinese city of Wuhan a potential public health emergency of international concern already in late December 2019. Imagine it had immediately decreed a precautionary lockdown of the metropolitan area until the severity of the illness was assessed or the virus extinct. It might have been just in time to halt the spread of the disease which by now has become a supreme global emergency of unforeseen proportions.
Of course, this scenario was far from realistic given the WHO’s limited mandate and political authority. In reality, far from stopping the crisis dead in its tracks, its approach of appeasement and applause vis-à-vis China may have exacerbated the situation. The coronavirus crisis exposes deep gaps in the global governance of infectious diseases. Tragically, rectifying those problems would mean painful adaptations not only at the costs of national sovereignty, but also of democracy and constitutionalism.
It is not only the elderly and those with pre-existing illnesses who are among the potential victims of the Corona pandemic. The end of globalization itself, too, is seen as a possible long-term effect. Crises are indeed moments of historical recalibration. However, not everything changes after a crisis.
It is indeed questionable that the pandemic will lead to the end of globalization, at least economically. Undoubtedly, there are alternatives to the global production chains, and a partial renationalization of economic cycles is possible. That, though, comes at high costs and welfare losses. Upon the return of normalcy, public and private debt will have skyrocketed. This kind of environment does not make further globalization less likely.
The situation looks a bit different with regards to political globalization. Many view the current crisis as the hour of the executive, while others point to the fact that we are witnessing a renaissance of political regulation rather than the return of the sovereign nation-state.
Until an accurate assessment can be made, many things will happen. The outcome of the crisis will be determined not only by objective facts, but to a large extent also by battles over their interpretation.
The coronavirus forced an unprecedented emergency brake on liberal democracies in recent weeks. Governments enacted sweeping social distancing measures to buy time in learning to control the virus and prevent health systems from collapsing. This new normal under an external threat appears to have changed politics. Governments rally support everywhere, even where populists govern badly. In contrast, even populist opposition actors lose support and acquiesce to the national emergency, as citizen priorities have shifted starkly. Does the Corona crisis thus mark an abrupt ending to the oft-lamented divisive politics of recent decades? Does it rein in a phase of historical unity or even herald the beginning of the end of populism?
In contrast, the emerging political economy of social distancing suggests otherwise. The standard ingredients for populist political conflict are already visible. Existing challenges to material inequalities and privileged social status within constrained democracies which feed populists are likely to exacerbate over social distancing, particularly at the international level. The momentary lull of national unity is thus more likely to give way to the forceful return of familiar distributive and constitutional conflicts of the last decades, but at even higher stakes.
As more and more people are voluntarily or forcefully retreating to their homes and isolating themselves from public life and social contact due to the ongoing global health crisis, it might be a good time to reflect on the circumstance that, according to estimates by WHO and UNICEF, in 2018 globally every five seconds a child or young person under 15 died of preventable infectious diseases, such as measles, or of complications in childbirth – many of them a consequence of unsafe births, lacking personnel, equipment, hygiene, infrastructure, and poor maternal health. A few days ago, I met an acquaintance, whose school-aged children have not been vaccinated against measles, carrying a stack of toilet paper packages in preparation for what was bound to come, the German-wide COVID-19 lockdown. The encounter made me aware of the imbalance between our plausible and humane concern for the safety and well-being of ourselves and those close to us on the one hand and a lack of awareness of our own role in preserving public health beyond COVID-19 on the other.
I tend to avoid the word liberal as much as possible in conversation. My reticence does not come from any ideological aversion (although that could be forgiven), but from an abundance of caution. What exactly do my peers mean by liberal? ‘Does it include respect for the rule of law, freedom of expression and other unenumerated rights?’ Yes, they nod. ‘What of free markets and a rules-based international order.’ Their enthusiasm is now palpable. Here, I cannot help but goad them. ‘Or does it merely guarantee that my rent increases without end and that I’ll never actually own anything?’ A dose of cynicism and the conversation stalls. ‘That’s not the point,’ they usually reply! ‘It’s dishonest to confuse neo-liberalism with classical liberalism, and besides, it’s certainly better than the alternatives.’ Ah yes, the perfunctory defense: it could be worse. ‘Is that the best we can do?’ I ask. ‘That it could be worse?’ On cue, the coffee machine growls, and the conversation ends. The comment is barbed, but not without making a point. What are the liberal values worth defending? And why does it matter now?
Germany’s current debate about the ‘schwarze Null’ is heating up. Last month, SPD-frontwoman Saskia Esken threw her weight behind existing calls to let go of Germany’s unwritten rule that bans government deficits and has yielded eight consecutive years of budget balance for the federal government. Even Jens Weidmann, notorious throughout Europe for his hawkish stance as president of the Bundesbank, has said Germany should not fetishize the black zero. The debate is a welcome development not only for Germany but for the EU as a whole.
The past three decades have seen a considerable rise of political authority enjoyed by international organizations (IOs). At the same time, however, IO authority practically remains highly constrained. In everyday politics, disagreement among powerful states, legal hurdles, and general sovereignty concerns not only hinder discreet expansions of IO authority, but also impede its effective exercise more generally.
Yet, in times of global or regional crisis, windows of necessity and opportunity sometimes create conditions in which “leaps of authority” occur, as IOs intervene assertively in circumvention of legal or political constraints of normal times. Justified by exceptional circumstances, IOs may do something structurally very similar to what we know of national governments in the state of exception: they adopt emergency powers by expanding their executive discretion and interfering with the rights of their rule-addressees. This, at least, is what I argue in my new book Emergency Powers of International Organizations (EPIO).