According to an April 2020 report by openDemocracy, more than two billion people back then lived in countries where parliaments have been suspended or restricted by coronavirus emergency measures.1 But it is not just parliament. The lockdowns have also diminished the role of the courts. People are banned from leaving their homes. Elections are either suspended or are held in an atmosphere that makes fair political competition impossible. Media restrictions have proliferated; and while the pandemic has made reliable information more important than ever before, the economic crisis threatens the financial survival of the media outlets.
Many political analysts fear that the pandemic will usher populists to power and that once in charge these demagogues will use the crisis to suffocate democracy and impose a type of authoritarian rule. The long-term political consequence of COVID-19, the argument goes, will be restrictive legislation that will remain in force long after the coronavirus is defeated. Finally, they suggest, the most significant geopolitical outcome of the crisis will be the increase of China's global influence.
I share most of these fears. COVID-19 is particularly dangerous for those individuals with 'existing pre-conditions,' and Western liberal democracies have in the last decade been suffering from considerable dysfunction, with trust in their democratic systems in dramatic decline. Populist parties have been on the rise in angry and frustrated societies. The titles of two influential recent books speak to this idea: How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt2 and How Democracies End by David Runciman.3 It is logical to expect that COVID-19 will strengthen - and even accelerate - at least some of the negative political trends that preceded the crisis. Although such concerns about the future of democracy in Europe are valid, my sense is that the picture is more complicated but perhaps not as bleak.
Will COVID-19 Bring Populists to Power?
'Fear exceeds all other disorders in intensity,' remarked Michel de Montaigne. And fear is what brings populists to power. We should therefore not be surprised that many people believe that right-wing populists will be the biggest beneficiaries of the COVID-19 crisis. But is the rise of populism during the last decade better explained by fear or anxiety?
While psychologists suggest that fear and anxiety are close relatives - both contain the idea of danger - they also stress that fear is a reaction to a specific and observable danger, such as the fear of being infected with a deadly disease. By contrast, anxiety is a diffuse, unfocused, objectless belief about one's future. People are anxious that their children will have a life worse than their own. That migrant will replace them. They're anxious about the oncoming climate apocalypse, or about the prospect of an alien invasion. Anxious people are also angry, while fearful people do not have the luxury of anger, because they are too busy working to survive.
Populists have been able to skillfully exploit the anger of the anxious. Anxious people do not behave in the same was as fearful people. A large and growing literature in social psychology argues that under conditions of fear, 'people develop a heightened mindfulness and self-awareness about the constraints on free action, and take, as a central goal, the desire to restore a higher degree of coherence and certainty'.1 In his memoir, the literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki gives us a powerful insight of the one-dimensional nature of the fearful mind: he confessed that in his months in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War, although he spent all his time reading, he did not once pick up a novel because he feared that if he started one, he would die before he had finished it.
When the most acute stage of the current crisis is over and people cease fearing for their lives, anger will return and populist politicians like Marine Le Pen or Matteo Salvini will likely flourish once again. In the early days of the crisis, however, it is the intensity of the fear caused by COVID-19 that explains why it is government rather than populist rhetoric that has won the day. As the approval ratings of Merkel and Conte grow, the support for their populist challengers declines. Rather than looking for someone to express their frustration, fearful people look for somebody to protect them and to those with knowledge. As a result, COVID-19 has changed the public's attitude toward expertise. It has made explicit the social benefits of a competent government, in contrast with the mistrust of experts and technocracy that followed the financial crisis.
Will the coronavirus benefit the 'Chinese model'?
Like many others, in the early days of the crisis, I had the impression that China would be the country that emerged from the pandemic on the strongest strategic footing. The crisis seems to have legitimised authoritarian states to those people that live in them, and early data shows that the pandemic has made Chinese citizens more critical of the American model.1 The fact that China was the first country to be struck by the virus meant that it was also the first to start its economic recovery, which worked in its favour.
However, I'm now less certain that China will be the major benefactor of the crisis. Anti-Chinese sentiment has increased following the revelation that the Chinese government lied to the world about the numbers of people who had died of coronavirus and were infected with it. Beijing's aggressive public relations campaign aimed to portray China as the model for effective response to the pandemic and the only global-minded power at the point when the virus was spreading to Europe and other parts of the world backfired.
German public opinion was outraged to learn that Chinese diplomats have pressed German officials to praise publicly the Chinese response to the crisis.2 Furthermore, China is likely to be negatively affected by the 'deglobalisation' that will be a social and economic consequence of the pandemic. In the first quarter of 2020, China experienced its first major GDP decline since Mao's Cultural Revolution, posing a significant and symbolic challenge to a regime whose legitimacy relies on its capacity to deliver increasing living standards. It could turn out that Chinese leader Xi Jinping will be much weakened by this crisis.
Our current moment is somewhat akin to the crisis of the 1970s, when Soviet communism and Western democracies were both riven by internal turmoil during what the political philosopher Pierre Hassner called a period of 'competitive decadence.' Instead of answering the question of whether liberal democracy or Chinese-style authoritarianism is the type of regime best suited to the demands of 21st century,
COVID-19 achieved something else: it ended the possibility of Chinese-American cooperation in managing the problems of globalization and further eroded the trust in multilateral institutions like the World Health Organization. The trend of global fragmentation and regionalisation has only been strengthened. Wang Jisi, a professor at Peking University, correctly claims that the fallout from the virus has left China-US relations at their worst point since formal ties were established in the 1970s, with bilateral economic and technological decoupling 'already irreversible.'
The rivalry between China and America will not trigger the return of a Cold War. Unlike the Soviet regime, the Chinese model is not an ideological alternative to capitalism but rather a part of global capitalism. However, a confrontation between the two powers will very much feel like a Cold War. As John Updike's character Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom remarked, 'Without the Cold War, what's the point of being an American?'2 It is clear that regardless of the outcome of the American presidential elections in November 2020, Washington's position towards Beijing will toughen. Chinese leaders would also likely agree that without a Cold War, there would be little point in continuing to incorrectly call themselves communists. Mobilizing anti-Western nationalism would be the Communist Party's best strategy to preserve its power.
The published here is an excerpt from chapter 3 - "Democracy as a Dictatorship of Comparisons"
The book is available from Obsidian in June