Responding to Donald Trump’s pandemic antics last week, Hu Xijin, editor of China’s state-controlled Global Times, accused the US president of trying to distract attention from his failure to prevent the deaths of nearly 100,000 Americans. “If it were in China, the White House would have been burned down by angry people,” he tweeted.
Given Beijing’s dislike for protests of any kind, that seems unlikely. Yet Hu raised a question relevant to all countries ravaged by Covid-19. Where is the fury, the public outrage? Faced by the inability of incompetent governments to protect them, why have the people not risen up, erected figurative scaffolds and guillotines, and set a torch to the established political order?
In other words, when does the revolution begin? Furloughed workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your supply chains.
Given the history of the past century or so, today’s politicians, democratic or authoritarian, left or right, may count themselves fortunate not to be experiencing a fiercer backlash. This may be brewing, once people regain their nerve. Many countries have seen small-scale Covid-related protests. Yet by and large, insurrection has not gone viral – yet.
That’s despite a consensus among business leaders, scientists and pundits that the world will never be the same again. A watershed has been reached, they say. Mostly older people are suffering now, but millions among the younger generations may have their lives forcibly upended for years to come. Like it or not, a second Age of Revolution is dawning.
So the real question is not whether but what manner of revolution is coming. Will it be of the uncontrollable, ideological 20th-century variety associated with the likes of Marx, Mao, Guevara and Castro? Or will it take the form of a non-violent but nonetheless rapid and profound shift in the way a more consciously interdependent world works? An awful lot rests on how the pandemic’s shockwaves and after-effects are directed and shaped.
The main elements of political revolutions have not changed much since Aristotle identified them more than 2,300 years ago. Whatever the objective, he wrote in Book V of The Politics, inequality is the chief cause of revolution. Justice and equality are “the fundamental basis of any state”, and inequality, being a kind of injustice, is potent grounds for challenging that state. “The lesser rebel in order to be equal, the equal in order to be greater. These then are conditions predisposing to revolution,” Aristotle declared.
Amid epidemic uncertainty, two things are clear. First, the virus is universal and ubiquitous – a threat to all humankind. Second, its impacts are deeply unequal, decisively determined by social class, race, ethnicity, income, nutrition, education, living conditions and geographical location as well as by gender and age.
It follows that the large, unjust societal inequalities found both within and between wealthy and developing countries and ruthlessly exposed by the virus are just as powerfully insurrectionary in nature today as when Aristotle first pondered them or when Marie-Antoinette told starving peasants to eat cake.
The danger that entrenched inequality poses to hopes of weathering the Covid storm without chaotic upheavals was recently debated by the tsars of modern American capitalism. “This is our chance to do the right thing,” by reducing income disparities, said top investor Mark Cuban. Ray Dalio, a hedge-fund billionaire, described inequality as a national emergency.
“If you don’t have a situation where people have opportunity, you’re not only failing to tap all the potential that exists, which is uneconomic, you’re threatening the existence of the system,” Dalio said. JP Morgan’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon, called the pandemic “a wake-up call … for business and government to think, act and invest for the common good”. This sounds almost socialistic.
A revolutionary agenda for the post-pandemic world also includes meaningful steps to address poverty and the north-south wealth gap, more urgent approaches to linked climate, energy, water and mass extinction crises and, for example, the adoption of so-called doughnut economics that measures prosperity by counting shared social, health and environmental benefits, not GDP growth.
It may seem like pie in the sky. But so too did the idea of millions working from home, and halting road and air travel, until it happened almost overnight. Whether recognised as such or not, this is a revolutionary manifesto that, if it is pursued – as a growing body of opinion believes it must be – will demand the utter transformation of current political behaviour and organisation.
In the US, the increasing lawlessness of the Trump plutocracy, coupled with its high-handed pandemic response, has exposed the inadequacy of democratic checks and balances created more than 200 years ago. What’s required now is a second American revolution – and a fresh constitutional convention that demolishes anachronisms such as the electoral college, makes democracy work for all, and refocuses on constructive global engagement.
In Britain, centralised, top-down mismanagement of the pandemic has underscored a crisis of representative governance and national cohesion. To survive as a United Kingdom, an insurgent moment akin to the Great Reform Act of 1832 is needed. In Europe, too, the EU ancien regimemust remake itself or else risk overthrow by populist-nationalist sans-culottes.
Nor may authoritarian oligarchies such as China and Russia, weaned on violent rebellion, continue on their self-aggrandising, quasi-imperialist path if repeat conflagrations are to be avoided. To forge the necessary consensus for this born-again world, it’s time to reboot the United Nations, revive the idealism of the 1945 San Francisco founding conference, and rekindle that transformative vision of humankind working in concert to defeat common evils.