When the world is going through great shocks, it can seem that the future will be radically and immediately transformed by them. But looking at how past crises played out, we find that most of them affected the world in limited and gradual ways. The post-pandemic world will be different, but also a lot more recognisable than some had originally thought, argues Stathis Kalyvas.
Like most people, I first heard of the “new coronavirus” sometime in late January 2019. I remember a conversation with a colleague who was visiting Oxford from Hong Kong about how life had changed back home—and I recall thinking how far away that was and how lucky we were to be protected from it. That was still my feeling in early March of 2020 when I travelled to Edinburgh, surrounded as I was by the cheerful crowds who had gathered to attend the Scotland vs. France rugby game. Later that week I read the first news-reports coming out of Bergamo, Italy and the rest is, as the saying goes, history.
Approaching the two-year mark, the resolution of the pandemic still seems out of our grasp. The early optimism of the vaccination campaign appears to have been supplanted by the nagging feeling that this thing will take much more effort and time to control. But the pandemic will, sooner or later, come to an end. And even though the world is in limbo right now, and the future looks uncertain, there will be a post-pandemic world. Past crises suggest the future will be a lot more like our pre-pandemic past than it might seem to us from our current vantage point.
When it comes to big shocks, like a pandemic, there are two ways in which they can affect the future. One is gradualist: some things change, but the world continues its course. The other one is systemic: most things change immediately and radically.
Predicting the future is, of course, impossible, yet we keep pretending that we somehow can do it. Past failures hardly deter us. On the contrary, we tend to double down: the tech sector (which spills over into academia) is awash with the belief that big data analysis and artificial intelligence will help us forecast what comes next. On top of that, we are exceedingly good at cherry-picking the lone voices that have previously correctly predicted the future, ignoring the adage that even broken clocks tell the right time twice each day. That goes some way to explaining why we overestimated the chance that our fortunes would be good back in February 2020, extrapolating from the past outbreaks (H1N1, Ebola, SARS) we knew of .
When it comes to big shocks, like a pandemic, there are two ways in which they can affect the future. One is gradualist: some things change, but the world continues its course. The other one is systemic: most things change immediately and radically. Of course, this is not just a binary: there is a large and varied grey zone in between. Going back into the recent past, we can certainly see how the Second World War constitutes an example of systemic change. But how about things since then?
I was born in 1964 and was too young to experience the upheaval that began in 1968. It is easy to understand in retrospect why many people were convinced at the time that the world was turning upside down. The Vietnam War triggered a wave of unrest in the US, and the Western world more generally; the oil crisis that followed a few years later contributed to the perpetuation of a malaise that seemed to signal some sort of major, systemic change. Democracy seemed inadequate and capitalism was widely perceived as both inadequate and unfair. There was a profusion of voices prophesising the end of capitalism and the advent of global revolution.
We now know that things turned out differently. The crisis triggered a reaction known as neoliberalism that rehabilitated capitalism. The Iran hostage crisis and the failed American rescue operation in 1980 were not the signal of more disasters to come, but rather the low point in the United States’ capacity to project power abroad. At the same time, much changed, most notably civil rights in the US and a new moral and lifestyle ethos in the West that some analysts described as post-materialism: an emphasis on quality of life over the accumulation of material goods, even if the former required the later for its fullest expression. Along came the sexual revolution with its incredibly wide-ranging implications for social mores and practices: the decoupling of sexuality from childbearing meant a different structuring of individual and collective life, and a totally new role for women in society, beginning with the labour market and extending into every aspect of social life.
How would we now assess 1968? Was it a gradualist change or a systemic one? I would argue the former: the West remained democratic and capitalist, but some of its fundamental values mutated, slowly yet clearly. And what about the “rest?” The postcolonial world was more socialist than capitalist, the belief in state planning and intervention prevailed. The Soviet Union was seen as a more benign power than the United States or the former colonial taskmasters of Western Europe. Engineers dominated over economists. Popular imagination turned towards the East rather than the West—and this, in spite of repeated failures in huge state-led top-down development projects, such as villagization in Tanzania. As James C. Scott pointed out, “seeing like a state” tended to guarantee disaster on a massive scale.
This type of aspiration came to an end with the crash of the Soviet World in 1989. In one of the most famous ironies of history, the ideas and values of 1968 undermined socialism rather than capitalism. If anything comes closest to the type of systemic change exemplified by the Second World War, that was it. For millions of people in the Soviet world and beyond, life as they knew it simply ceased to exist. 1989 meant that the Third World was left with a single, basic blueprint to follow, some form of liberal capitalism. There was no alternative—that was precisely the point made by Francis Fukuyama and it remains valid to this day.
The temptation is great to see radical change in store. Predicting systemic change is like bad news: it prevails in the public sphere because gradualism or good news, are simply no news at all.
But adopting liberal capitalism is distinct from making liberal capitalism work, hence the variation in experiences around the globe, ranging from the fully successful examples by such as Taiwan and South Korea that built working democracies and wealthy, capitalist economies, to the puzzling case of China, an incredibly successful experiment in massive poverty alleviation but without liberal institutions. Then there’s the broad range of cases that achieved some working forms of democratic capitalism (think Latin America and India), all the way to failed states where poverty and oppression take place under a developmentalist discourse that stresses freedom and capitalism in exchange for foreign aid. Among many other things, Afghanistan was certainly the most caricatural of these experiments and its end just confirmed what everyone knew but few were willing to acknowledge openly.
Lessons from our recent crises
Between the present and 1989 stand two other milestones. The first one is September 11, 2001. This was also advertised as the signal of some kind of systemic change: nothing was going to be the same, we were told. The shift would be so deep that even irony would end! A few things came out of it, almost all of them negative. For Iraqis or Syrians, disaster was directly linked with September 11. But the world did not change in any systemic way. The second milestone was the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, the Eurozone crisis. Again, fear and hope ran high, but the effect proved rather limited in the end.
Fast forward to 2020. The pandemic was the kind of shock no one expected. It had a huge effect on our everyday lives; it destabilized world commerce; the usual talk about the end of capitalism, democracy, globalization, etc. re-emerged. Yet, it is hard to see so far what this will amount to. The temptation is great to see radical change in store. Predicting systemic change is like bad news: it prevails in the public sphere because gradualism or good news, are simply no news at all. But if life teaches us something is that gradualism is a much more common aftermath of big shocks than radical, systemic change. If I am right, this would mean that the legacy of the pandemic (and its attendant challenge of climate change) is likely to be felt in ways that are deep, yet indirect and subtle. For individuals, there will likely be different ways of working and different priorities in life. And for the world, more globalization and more liberal capitalism rather than less.