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Table of Contents - Num. 15 May 2020

 

1) Pandemic Crisis and State Power 

2) The Worst Crisis Since 1945

European News
3) Covid-19 Tests Europe’s Imperialist Democracy

4) Global Health and Pandemic: the Impossible “Governance” 

5) Diplomacy and ‘Entente’ in the Shadow of Covid-19 

6-7) Sixty Days in Wuhan 

8-9) The Strategic Consequences of the Pandemic Crisis 

10) Crisis and Change in World Trade

Demographic Tendencies
11) General Decline in Birth Rates 

12) The Invisibles and the Hypocrites

Pandemic Crisis and State Power

A fundamental theme of the dominant liberal view is the contradiction – never definitively resolvable – between the freedom of individuals and the safety the state guarantees them. In the health, economic and social crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, whether people are aware of it or not, there are ongoing discussions about confining the population to their homes, the risk of creating a precedent by accepting those limits to personal freedom, the acceptance of individual IT tracking as a measure to limit contagion, and above all the clash over the selective block on economic activities in industry and the services, all of which boil down to that ideological conception. In the field of individual freedoms, a similar discussion was raised over anti-terrorism measures, especially after 9/11 in the United States and the Bataclan and Nice massacres in France.

The dialectic between freedom and security, between the individual and the state, is therefore a classic of liberal theory: we refer here to Angelo Panebianco’s excellent synthesis in his book Il potere, lo stato, la libertà [“Power, the State and Freedom”]. Safety is the necessary condition for exercising freedom, but while on the one hand people want security from politics and the state, on the other they also want safety “against” politics and the state; protection is simultaneously a threat or a limitation. An open society demands the primacy of individuals and civil society with respect to the state, which people would like to play a minimum role. In reality, politics and the state play a much bigger role than liberal individualism foresees, i.e. it limits freedom.

Here the dominant theory splits and is divided into a series of variants regarding the solutions that may limit or balance state intrusiveness and its threat to freedom.

One variant is economistic: «market liberalism». The more the market is developed, free and in private hands, the less room there is for political power. This is the foundation of the Scottish enlightenment, the Austrian school, the Italian «liberists», the Chicago school and the so-called American anarcho-capitalism; this variant also assumes that «economic freedom is the main condition for the existence of political freedom, just as, in the cultural sphere, it is for freedom of expression and creativity».

A second variant is sociological, founded on the theory of «social pluralism». A plurality of power centres independent from political power can balance and contain it «as well as obliging these powers to balance and contain each other». The condition for this «social pluralism» is the existence of an extensive and diversified «middle class».

A third variant is juridical, based on the «law»: political power can be submitted to laws that limit and discipline it, leading to the ideal of a «government of law» replacing the «government of men».

A fourth variant is political-institutional. The norm is not enough; it is «the organisation of the political sphere» that is crucial to limiting political power; the «splitting up» of power and «balancing» of the institutional powers can safeguard freedom.

We observe that if these variants often coexist and partly overlap in the different theoretical schools, it is true that market liberalism is more tied to the Anglo-Saxon political culture, while the juridical and institutional emphasis is more characteristic of the European continental area. The impact of the British and American political culture, more centred on the primacy of the economy and associated with the greatest individual freedom, influenced the initial reactions to the pandemic crisis in Britain and America… political traditions which led to Brexit, in the nostalgia for the Imperial open sea, or which elected a president imbued with Jacksonian individualism, could not be anything but reluctant to accept a personal or productive confinement decided upon by the powers of the state. If anything, it is now in the second phase of the crisis, that of its economic and social consequences, that the huge public intervention of governments and central banks tends to shift the emphasis to the European tradition of the primacy of politics.

We also observe that the theory of imperialist democracy that Arrigo Cervetto develops from Lenin’s theories about the state takes into consideration precisely the classic foundations of the liberal theory, updated for the century of imperialism: in this sense, it recognises the “truth” of the bourgeois conception of the separation and balancing of powers – these are political regularities of the ruling class’s state shell – but it gives a materialist interpretation to them on the basis of the struggle among the classes and class groups and fractions.

The materialist theory is not founded on the contradiction between the state and civil society, as in the liberal ideology: if anything, it is the young Marx, still a radical democrat, who advocated that interpretation. On the contrary, its foundation is the theory of the democratic state as the best shell for class rule, the best expression of the ruling class and its guarantee. Hence, it is not the freedom of individuals, their free will as in the myth of liberal individualism, at stake in the abstract, but the wills of the single shares of social capital. It is the capitalists who need the state as the expression of their general will, both as a means of controlling the ruled class and to prevent the partial interests of single shares of capital from prevailing over the ruling class’ general interest.

As, according to the liberal theory, the contradiction between freedom and politics, the state, is never definitively resolved, so, according to the theory of imperialist democracy, the dilemma of the pluralist centralisation of the wills of the single groups is never resolved, i.e. single groups or fractions will always seek to usurp the powers of the state or at least to bring their unilateral influence to bear on it; the dynamic of the separation of powers and of checks and balances will regularly seek to mediate and centralise the general interest. What the liberal ideology presents as the never completely resolvable dilemma between individual freedom and the state, is for the theory of imperialist democracy the never definitively resolved dynamic between the partial wills of the single groups and fractions, and their centralisation in the powers of the state.

 

 

The Strategic Consequences of the Pandemic Crisis

We need to reflect on the extent to which the formula of imperialist democracy, with the attention it pays to the dialectic between political-institutional powers and the plurality of key groups and fractions, has proved to be fecund not only as the theoretical framework for updating the question of the state to the era of imperialism, but also as a practical tool of political analysis.

At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, we followed the initiative of a publishing-entrepreneurial group, led by Turin’s La Stampa, which was contesting the dramatization of the pandemic – hence not yet the closing down of non-essential activities, still to come – because it would damage the “reputation” of the Italian groups in European and global supply chains. This was a living example of how a coalition among big groups, political-publishing circles, medium-sized groups and the petty bourgeoisie of production and services can take shape. That can be seen also in its relationship with the executive. An oscillation between a certain conditioning of the Conte government and the capacity, on the other hand, to keep the boat steady in the name of a general line based on WHO directives, revealed precisely that dialectic between the partial interests of groups and fractions and the pluralist centralisation of the class’s overall interest.

We need to reflect on the extent to which the formula of imperialist democracy has proved to be fecund not only as the theoretical framework for updating the question of the state to the era of imperialism, but also as a practical tool of political analysis.

 This is not only an Italian affair; the tug-of-war between the GDP party and the executives engaged in vital questions of public health crosses the whole of Europe, the United States and even China. It took Bild, the very popular German daily reflecting common opinion, to demonstrate in the words of a middle-ranking electronics industrialist how the pompous dissertations on rights, state of exception and individual freedom are translated into the brusque and philistine prose of the solid material base of capital:

«It is clear that everything must be done for people’s health and security. But even experts question whether radical measures such as the exit ban are really the right strategy. The amount of costs and collateral damage is not being taken into account. Do we want to put at risk, thoughtlessly, the economy, social order and civil liberties?».

The analytical criteria of imperialist democracy will be even more necessary to understand the battles to come, in which the role of the state, its power and powers will be decisive in leaving its mark on the political cycle. This is true in at least three ways. First of all as regards the huge size of state intervention in the economy, calculated by The Economist in early April as 8 trillion dollars in the USA and the Eurozone alone. Francis Fukuyama, reports L’Express, thinks we will return to a liberalism «such as existed in the Fifties and Sixties», when «the market economy and respect for private property» coexisted with state interventionism.

Secondly, the question of the role of the state will count in investment plans in key sectors and the measures of relative protection of those sectors themselves, now that the crisis is revealing the fragility of the Global Value Chains: The Economist warns against a future of «strategic protectionism», while Pascal Lamy speaks, instead, in Le Monde, of «precautionism», a policy mix that will have the globalised groups to diversify the location of plants and suppliers. Peter Altmaier, the German Minister for Economic Affairs, argues in Focus that globalisation will be preserved, but we will need to reflect on what to do to reduce «multilateral dependence» on single regions of the world: a line echoing the notion of European «technological superiority», already invoked by both Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel.

Thirdly, the question of state power returns to the front line in international relations, where the capacity to react to the pandemic crisis and its economic and social repercussions is already a dimension of the confrontation in the crisis. Henry Kissinger, in The Wall Street Journal, seems to want to warn Donald Trump when he writes that at the end of the crisis «many countries’ institutions will be perceived as having failed». Whether this judgement is well-founded or not, the world «will never be the same after the coronavirus» and no power, «not even the U.S. can in a purely national effort overcome the virus».

The analytical criteria of imperialist democracy will be even more necessary to understand the battles to come, in which the role of the state, its power and powers will be decisive in leaving its mark on the political cycle.

 Rather gloomily, Richard Haass, the CFR chairman, refers to his book of three years ago, A World in Disarray: he writes in Foreign Affairs that the pandemic will «accelerate» history, increasing the already ongoing trends towards global disorder, rather than leading to an about-turn in a new direction.  The three key trends are the «waning of American leadership», the «faltering of global cooperation» and «great-power discord». The pandemic will not change the disarray, «but will bring it into sharper-than-ever relief».

A widely held judgement is that the waning of America’s role is to China’s advantage. Walter Russell Mead, in The Wall Street Journal, warns that the «febrile sense of national failure» may be premature; Trump’s initial response was «flawed», but it is too soon to tell: «America generally starts slowly». In the same newspaper, Robert Zoellick seems to pick up Kissinger’s warning not to renounce the role of American leadership, precisely to influence China. Beijing intends to promote a «globalization with Chinese characteristics»; it is winning over such existing organisations as the WHO, WTO and IMF; and it is offering help according to the Chinese tradition of «tributary ties». American leadership, together with its allies, «can prod China in constructive directions».

As often occurs, the Chinese debate is in chiaroscuro. According to many, the crisis marks the end of the American century, but opinions diverge as to its consequences. Wenwen, in the Global Times, writes that this time «the US did not set a good example». However, China does not have the time, capacity or will to take the place of the United States; Beijing wants stronger international cooperation. Zhang Tengjun, of Beijing’s CIIS, is more malicious: many countries in the crisis have turned to China rather than the USA, but it has been seen that the absence of America’s leadership «does not amount to the end of the world». An unsigned editorial, also in the Global Times indicates that the pandemic will impact the world and trigger turmoil; nationalists and populists may have more room to fan the flames and «China is likely to become the target of certain Western leaders to displace their peoples’ anger and disappointment». «Impulsivity and irrationality» may replace due reflection in the West, and China may face «much more serious risks in the arena of international politics». There is not much time, and China must make comprehensive preparations right now «especially in terms of strategic power that can force challengers to stay calm».

Once again, The Economist asks: «Is China winning?»; and sees «geopolitical consequences» of COVID-19 that may be «subtle, but unfavourable». More than being interested in leading the world, China may want to ensure that other powers cannot and do not dare attempt to oppose it. China has great ambitions, combined with the caution imposed by having to govern one billion four hundred million inhabitants. «They do not need to create a new rules-based international order from scratch. They might prefer to keep pushing on the wobbly pillars of the order built by America after the second world war, so that a rising China is not bound by it».

Finally, Europe. According to a study of the French Foreign Ministry’s CAPS centre, it is faced with a «vital test» at the moment when China makes itself «indispensable». Le Monde reports that the EU Commission is particularly targeted by the Quai d’Orsay think tank: Ursula von der Leyen had announced a «geopolitical logic», on the contrary, she has so far demonstrated an approach that is above all «juridical» and «the incapacity to promote close coordination in the face of the national states’ reactions».

Such a critical opinion has to do with France’s position in the clash within the Eurogroup and the European Council, in which an «EU recovery fund» is at issue. This fund would be in addition to the 540 billion euros allocated through the three pillars of the ESM, BEI and SURE unemployment reinsurance system. Here the Dutch debate, which has been going on for at least a couple of years, reveals a very complex clash, precisely over the point where the question of European powers interweaves with the unknowns of the Union’s strategic sovereignty and therefore with its capacity to be autonomous from both the United States and China.

The question of state power returns to the front line in international relations, where the capacity to react to the pandemic crisis and its economic and social repercussions is already a dimension of the confrontation in the crisis.

 In the Clingendael Spectator, the review of the Dutch Institute of International Relations, Duco Hellema of the University of Utrecht argues that, for the Netherlands, European integration has always been subordinated to the «Atlantic tie», but Brexit and the Trump presidency are forcing new strategic choices. Atlantic loyalty, at least as long as the Yalta partition was in force, served to maintain the status quo of the relations in Western Europe and to avoid a French or German attempt to take on a dominant political role. Alongside this, the image that the Netherlands have of themselves is that of a «small power» located on the «fault line» between two spheres of influence, the continental and the Anglo-Saxon. With the end of the cold war, Holland wavered, first seeking a policy more oriented towards the EU and then returning to a more Eurosceptical line, culminating in the victory of the “No” in the 2005 referendum on the European Constitution. In the new conditions determined by Brexit, the refugee crisis, the escalating Russian threat and Trump’s unilateralism, according to Hellema, the “No” «inadequacy» of the habitual combination between Atlantic orientation and reticence concerning the political strengthening of the EU is clear in Holland, but possible alternatives are not.

 The Dutch debate, which has been going on for at least a couple of years, reveals a very complex clash, precisely over the point where the question of European powers interweaves with the unknowns of the Union’s strategic sovereignty and therefore with its capacity to be autonomous from both the United States and China.

 In the debate reproduced by the Clingendael Spectator, both the frankly Atlanticist and the openly Europeanist positions appear to be in the minority. Other policy mixes emerged in a file on «The European Coalition Game», published in March 2018, and are glimpsed today in the proceedings of the European Council of a Franco-German compromise, in which Berlin seems to want to cobble together Northern Europe behind it, and have Paris mediate the consensus of the Mediterranean front.

One question is the extent to which Holland can rely on its coalition with the Nordic countries, the so-called Hanseatic League. According to Adriaan Schout, «the common thread» of the Dutch incident in Europe is its «opposition to French plans» and, when Germany sought a compromise with France, Holland did all it could to orient those agreements in a direction opposing Paris. The European agenda put forward by France contains proposals that may lead to a «transfer union», or to «small steps of integration» and loose compromises between Paris and Berlin that may, in the long term, have undesirable consequences for Holland: for example, European taxation, or the attempt to place the ESM under the Commission’s control. On a series of issues, argues Schout, the Nordic countries are not ideal allies but «limited partners»; Holland must also choose the subjects over which to hold an interdictory position by itself, «without the coalition».

Other, more numerous, interventions also see the limits of a coalition of small countries, but they conclude that the solution is to use their weight to flank Germany, influencing the Franco-German compromise. According to Hanco Jürgens, of the University of Amsterdam’s Institute for German Studies, where Macron wants to advance, Merkel puts on the brakes; a negotiating process is opening up in the European Union in which Holland can play an important role by helping Germany give a German touch to the French proposals. Intervening in mid-April in the NCR Handelsblad, Jürgens argued that Holland has found itself isolated, and that the strategy of defending a tough position with a coalition of small countries is «unproductive». The way forwards for the Netherlands is a constructive cooperation with Germany, «their most natural ally».

Further on in the March 2018 file on European coalitions, Rem Korteweg argues that, post-Brexit, the Hanseatic line is insufficient and that broader coalitions and a constructive agenda are needed. Without counterweights, there is the risk that Macron may drag Germany into a deeper European integration. On the contrary, the Hanseatic League, with Germany’s endorsement, can gather together a «European right flank», and allow Angela Merkel to hold a more central position which would incarnate a compromise between France and the Nordic countries. In this regard, we observe, Korteweg sees «a missed opportunity» in the fact that Holland’s network of alliances has not also extended to Spain. Jan Rood, of the University of Leiden, also suggests exploiting the affinities with Germany in order to be a partner in what is going on and not a «counterweight»; moreover, in order to have influence in the European Council, Holland must have alliances, and without big countries like Germany and France, a winning coalition is no longer possible after Brexit.

Finally, Tom de Bruijn, the chairman of the Clingendael Institute’s supervisory board and the former Dutch EU representative, agrees that Holland needs to be on Germany’s side in order to resist the French attacks, but he adds a damper: however much Germany may be a «natural ally» of the Netherlands, it remains an «unreliable partner», because, when push comes to shove, for the Germans, strategic cooperation with France and their common interest in European unity takes precedence over the defence, strictly speaking, of their own interests.

Macron indicates that it is in the sphere of the so-called «P5», the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, in which this reflection could begin. This is a revealing detail, because it outlines a political offer that Paris seems to want to make to Moscow and Beijing.

Hence, the Dutch debate also demonstrates that the place for European compromise remains the Franco-German axis, but it also brings home the extent to which the political process that can lead to compromise is, by its very nature, complicated and contradictory, requiring timescales that are often longer than those imposed by the rhythm of the contention. It is said in many areas that «the state is making a comeback»: what for Anglo-Saxon liberism is seen as cause for alarm, for the French statist tradition is seen as an opportunity. In the Union, this means that the COVID-19 crisis is reproposing in renewed terms the question of the centralisation of the European powers. This centralisation, however, which is the capacity for autonomous political action, must be accompanied by a definition of Europe’s place in the acceleration of the change in power. We should be aware that, ultimately, Dutch reluctance has this political basis; a greater European integration is resisted because it is perceived as a loosening of the Atlantic tie. In this, Holland is also following what were London’s policy mixes, not least of which was its care to associate countries that are not part of the Eurozone in its coalitions: as we have seen, a way to hinder the French attempts to proceed by strengthening the euro federation as the Union’s hard core.

Another of Macron’s interviews with the Financial Times renews the question of Europe’s strategic autonomy during the new coronavirus phase. The French president argues that the crisis may be an opportunity for multilateralism, because it will be forced to review its «grammar»: «Multilateralism was threatened because it was in the hands of hegemonies. Or in the hands of higher powers which did not want to abide by its rules any more because they could not find their interests in it. When globalisation became once more a question of interdependence, we started to understand that some things are a matter of sovereignty and so a matter of states, not other powers, and at the same time there are also things cannot be reduced only to the nation state but are a matter of the common good, education, health, climate and biodiversity and so then you have the fundamental grammar of something forcing powers to cooperate».

For Macron, the prospect is an anthropological change that is still hard to define, but in which «we are rediscovering it, there are some elements of sovereignty, there are some elements of national sovereignty, strategic regional autonomy and there are some elements of global interdependence which force us to rethink a true governance and therefore multilateralism».

Macron indicates that it is in the sphere of the so-called «P5», the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, that this reflection could begin. This is a revealing detail, because it outlines a political offer that Paris seems to want to make to Moscow and Beijing. The hegemonic multilateralism that is wobbling today, we understand, is the postwar order guaranteed by the United States. The new grammar that will take into account «sovereignty» and «regional strategic autonomy» undoubtedly refers to the European Union, in its French version, but also to Russia and China.

If the first strategic consequence of the pandemic is to accelerate the ongoing tendencies towards the erosion of the world order, America’s relative withdrawal and China’s rise loosen the hold of the old order. Paris sees in this the strategic opportunity for Europe as a Power.

We have spoken about Beijing: an order that does not propose to hinder China’s rise, according to the interpretation of The Economist, presents itself precisely as a reformed multilateralism. A similar proposal, we saw previously, is set out in the Putin doctrine, in which the Russian President hypothesises a negotiation that has «sovereignty» and «a common juridical framework» as its presupposition, but which does not demand «the imposition of only one real criterion for all». Where Vladimir Putin also refers «to the interests of the developing countries, including those dealing with such issues as the modernisation of industry, the agricultural sector and the social sphere», his intention is to ask that the new order should not oppose the role of state capitalism in the emerging powers: a globalisation less oriented by the liberist criteria of the Washington Consensus, which can be offered to China, but also to the small and medium-sized powers.

Hence, if the first strategic consequence of the pandemic is to accelerate the ongoing tendencies towards the erosion of the world order, America’s relative withdrawal and China’s rise loosen the hold of the old order. Paris sees in this the strategic opportunity for Europe as a Power.

 

Lotta Comunista, 596, April 2020  

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