Even With Light at the End of the Pandemic Tunnel, We Mustn’t Be Complacent

Foreign policy analyst John Feffer is the author of The Pandemic Pivot: A Report from the Institute for Policy Studies, The Transnational Institute, and Focus on the Global South (Seven Stories Press, 2020). In this interview, Feffer provides a framework for how a unified pandemic response could repair and restore social movements and compacts in helping to reshape the national and global economy.

Daniel Falcone: Could you talk about The Pandemic Pivot and how the concept, format and structure developed for the book? Also, could you share your argument and what you contend in the book?

John Feffer: The project started in the spring, as the pandemic was developing and spreading. Around May we (at the Institute for Policy Studies) realized that this was a focal point in two respects. First, governments were responding to the pandemic in a systematic fashion, which revealed some important trends that had hitherto been either obscured or not remarked upon sufficiently — both on the positive side and on the negative side. Second, progressive activists were a little slow to respond to this phenomenon both in terms of the severity of it and its implications politically and economically. But also, we failed to take advantage of some of the opportunities that presented themselves in an otherwise very terrible period.

We wanted to get the reactions of activists and scholars and journalists from around the world. So, we approached approximately 80 folks to participate in a project. We divided up the topic of the pandemic into eight topic areas, and then invited experts on those topics of economic development, war and peace, migration and refugee questions, and so on. We didn’t necessarily have an argument, per se, going into it — more of a rough hypothesis that this was an important moment globally, that populist right-wing governments were taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis by consolidating their political power, and that the progressives should formulate some kind of response both to the pandemic itself but also to the right-wing activities around the pandemic.

We held those discussions over last summer. And then I prepared a transcript from those conversations. I checked them with all the participants to make sure that their quotes were correct and their insights were summarized correctly. And then I used that as the basis for each of the chapters of the report. It was my job to flesh out these arguments.

The argument coming out of this is that the pandemic brought into relief many of the existing inequities, whether political or social, aggravated those inequities and provided an opportunity for powerful actors of the world to increase their power. Those actors might be the leaders of countries or of institutions, like Amazon and Jeff Bezos, who were well positioned to take advantage economically of the breakdown of the global economy and the breakdown of traditional brick-and-mortar businesses in a quarantine situation.

At the same time, some transformational possibilities were also revealed. So, for instance, obviously, the climate crisis was very much in the foreground prior to the pandemic. But suddenly we had a very stark revelation of how a climate crisis can be addressed very quickly and very radically. We saw an unprecedented reduction in carbon emissions as a result of shutdowns of the economy. Animals returned to big cities and air pollution declined in cities because of the reduction in traffic.

Here’s another example: The major argument that was presented to climate activists prior to the pandemic was, “We acknowledge it’s a big problem, but where’s the money going to come from? Trillions of dollars are needed to deal with this climate crisis. Sorry, folks, but we’re already leveraged pretty heavily in many countries in the world.” And then, suddenly — surprise, during the pandemic the money is found to keep people employed, to deal with the consequences of the shutdown. We’ve been in financial crises or economic crises in the past but this was something really quite different qualitatively and quantitatively. The financial crisis in 2008- 2009 resulted ultimately in about a 0.1 percent reduction in global economic output. Last year, the global economy contracted by around 4.3 percent. That’s an extraordinary difference in scale between our current global economic crisis, which accompanied the pandemic, and the financial crisis.

So, obviously, there was a good rationale for governments to find money to deal with this unprecedented economic crisis.

The third argument is that the pandemic really revealed how interconnected these problems are and how interconnected a transformational response must be. It can’t be a return to the status quo ante, a return to “business as usual” as it existed prior to the pandemic. I think everybody has understood at an intuitive level that this was a transformational event and, therefore, required a transformational response. How transformational and in what direction that transformation goes, that’s obviously subject to discussion.

Falcone: We spoke previously, and you forecasted in a sense how “slowbalization” — the idea that globalization was slowing down — would impact and reach each social, economic and political system throughout the world. Has anything developed with a radical difference since we discussed the pandemic last year? Or even since you have come out with the book?

People are talking, obviously, about the global recovery. And many (and I would say most) industrialized countries have begun this economic recovery, complicated with certain kinds of speed bumps here and there. India was expecting to have a much faster economic rebound and then was hit by a much more severe wave of the pandemic. Taiwan thought it was completely free of infection and went slow in terms of its vaccination campaign only to be hit with its first significant wave of infections.

The situation is not so rosy for what are called emerging markets. Here we see the K-shaped recovery at a global scale. Of course, people talk about the K-shaped recovery at a national level here in the United States where you have a class of people that have done pretty well actually during the pandemic, who have saved money or who have become pandemic profiteers. And then there’s a much larger group of Americans who are seeing a major setback in terms of their economic fortunes: evicted from their properties, losing their jobs, dealing with a huge amount of debt, etcetera.

This K-shaped recovery is replicated at the global level. Some countries like China and the United States are emerging from this pandemic economically pretty strong. The EU is not doing as well but it’s not too bad off. But then, a number of countries have been driven to the brink of insolvency, including countries which hitherto had been doing reasonably well like Costa Rica, those that had not been in such great shape like Zambia, and countries somewhere in the middle like Brazil — all of them driven to the brink of insolvency because of this pandemic, because of the collapse of commodity markets and the collapse of the global system that allows countries to export and grow their economies. But also, they took on a lot of debt to deal with the pandemic and the economic crisis within their borders.

Slowbalization was a trend prior to the pandemic. It was largely a result of the declining rate of profits that were accruing to investments overseas, the vagaries of the labor market and the demands of workers overseas for higher wages in places like China. And now comes COVID-19, which starkly reveals the fragility of the labor market. Couple that with the rising costs of labor, and many global economic actors began to rethink the global supply change.

The pandemic has initiated a much longer conversation about the global economy and where it’s heading, above and beyond the day-to-day decisions made by individual corporations. There’s certainly not been any decision by any global authorities about what direction the global economy can move in at this point. But we’ll probably see two kinds of actions moving forward.

The first encourages some version of sustainability, which might include some form of greenwashing. If you look at, say, the extraction industry, which contributes quite a lot to global carbon emissions, not just in the burning of fossil fuels but the actual extraction of the resources from the ground, greening that process includes making the actual extraction process produce fewer carbon emissions. Is that good? Is that bad? If it continues to produce the same amount of fossil fuels in the end, probably not so good. But in any case, this is one type of trajectory for the global economy, an attempt to make it carbon-friendly.

The second involves the circulation of loans. With so many countries on the brink of insolvency, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, banks in general and creditors have to think about how to sustain the global economy. There have been some piecemeal reforms, like debt moratoria and increasing special drawing rights at the IMF. Debt forgiveness hasn’t really been on the table. But here, the trends could come together with debt-for-carbon swaps where countries reduce their carbon emissions to reduce their debt burdens.

We’ve also seen an acceleration of some trends that we saw before the pandemic hit, which are more technology-driven. The pandemic revealed the fragility of the labor force. The labor force tends to be the most expensive part of any factory process. If you get rid of those workers, you reduce costs and you protect yourself from labor shortages connected to future pandemics. So, automation is quickly going to accelerate it, and there are studies about how automation accelerates after economic crisis anyway. The International Labour Organization and World Bank produced detailed reports on how dramatic this automation might be, not just in places like the United States but also in China and Ethiopia. This is also going to raise the question of what all these redundant workers are going to do.

Another trend is reshoring, where transnational corporations make a decision that it doesn’t make sense any longer to have your manufacturing facilities so far from their consumer base. So, they’ll bring that manufacturing facility back home, closer to the consumer base. And that would accelerate the slowbalization process.

Falcone: The pandemic has created new norms. As disaster capitalism plays a role in intensifying inequality around the world, we also see new opportunities for resistance and advocacy. How has the pandemic reshaped the progressive left’s ability to harness energy and get resistance movements to focus on class disparity and class consciousness? Can recent events surrounding George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, Palestine and climate justice reduce addressing the pandemic pivot to class issues and struggles in a positive sense?

The starting point for this is really the rise of right-wing populism and the appeal of right-wing populism to what had traditionally been left-wing constituencies like the working class. We certainly saw that with Donald Trump. Obviously, there’s a race dimension here as well. It wasn’t the Black working class that Trump was appealing to, it was the white working class. But you saw this in Brazil as well. The pandemic — and this wasn’t necessarily clear from the beginning but has certainly become clear over time — removed the illusion that many of these right-wing populists fostered, that they in fact cared about these constituencies. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro engaged in a perverse version of the bolsa família, the livelihood supplement for working families that former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva introduced, by basically throwing money at people during the pandemic in an attempt to buy people’s support. Ultimately the failure of these leaders to have an effective response to the pandemic revealed to a lot of people, including working-class constituencies, that these leaders in fact didn’t care about their lives at all.

Trump most likely wouldn’t have lost the election if not for the obvious, palpable failures of his COVID response. I think we’ll see other political casualties from the camp of right-wing populists because of their COVID responses, like Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India. So, this is an opportunity for the left to say, “Okay, you know, you have been disillusioned by the right-wing populists’ response to COVID, now let’s build an authentic left populous economic program that acknowledges what has taken place during the COVID era and build a better version.”

So, I think we can see that the left has taken advantage and will take advantage of the new kind of economic possibilities within national boundaries. Transnational is another matter; I don’t think we’ve seen an effective transnational economic program. We’ve seen transnational movements on race questions, obviously Black Lives Matter, women’s issues like the #MeToo movement, on environment questions. The pandemic either didn’t sever those connections or actually created the conditions within which those transnational movements became stronger.

Going forward, we have some ideas about what the left can do, economically speaking. Here the climate movement has offered some thinking about the economy that is largely divorced from the original Marxist or producerist roots of left economics. The climate movement is saying, “Look, a producer bias has been the problem whether it’s on the left or the right. It has produced the same overconsumption and overproduction that has led to the environmental crisis.”

But in greening the global economy, we also have to think that this is our opportunity to close the gap between rich and poor folk. This is the opportunity for the Global North to subsidize the Global South’s leapfrog over dirty technologies. In the past, the New International Economic Order offered a program for reversing the North’s colonial extraction of the South’s resources, but it never got enough traction. Now, actually, there is a self-interest among the industrialized countries to engage in this type of transformational economics because we’re all in the same climate crisis and the industrialized countries cannot shield themselves from the economic and environmental consequences of global carbon emissions elsewhere in the world.

Busra Cicek: Yeah, I was going to ask something specific regarding what you partly covered but let’s try to mention or highlight more, if we missed anything talking about it. Nationalism articulates a lot of the renewed power that states have garnered through extraordinary measures, given the pandemic. But before the pandemic, there was already a rise of far right movements co-opting state structures. And as you know, history has shown a grim result from this combination, so, what I’m asking is, what does the immediate future look like? And will authoritarian statecraft remain in place after the pandemic?

I’ve talked a little bit about how the pandemic undermined some sources of legitimation, particularly for far right populists. These populists have basically three sources of power coming from their critique of existing authority. One is their critique of neoliberal globalization, and the fact that globalization is not benefiting everybody. They have said, “Look at how corporations and international financial institutions have profited from globalization but so many people in our country have not.” The pandemic has, in some sense, only emphasized that the global economy was not benefiting everybody.

The second source of legitimate issue was a critique of the political elites that aligned themselves with that globalization project. That was also a very strong argument. After all, it wasn’t just conservative or centrist parties that supported neoliberal globalization but also some left socialist parties and former communist parties in the former Soviet bloc that adopted these policies of privatization, reduction of government services and facilitation of foreign direct investment whether they liked it or not. The global economy was structured this way, and you either “got with the program” or went down the North Korean path.

The right-wing populists said, “Let’s drive all the bums out, you know? Left, right: they all collaborated with these globalists and we, the authentic populists, never collaborated with the neoliberals.” That’s a somewhat weaker argument now because governments reversed some key elements of neoliberalism to deal with the pandemic, such as engaging in large Keynesian stimulus packages that have benefited populations.

With the third issue, immigration, the right-wing populists made the false argument that, “We have to protect the authentic communities in our country.” This took the form of white nationalism in the United States with Trump or the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany. But in India, Modi made the argument in terms of Hindu nationalism against Muslims while in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made the argument against the Kurdish minority.

During the pandemic, the immigration issue was largely off the table because countries shut down their borders. Right-wing arguments about the necessity to close borders became a reality in virtually every country. This took the immigration issue largely off the political agenda in elections — for instance, in the United States in 2020 or the Netherlands in 2021. But now that countries are opening their borders again, immigration will once again be on the political agenda.

All of which is to say, we have a mixed picture coming out of the pandemic for right-wing populists. They can make a stronger argument about the global economy, but a weaker argument about the national economy and what the centrist elite has done in response to the pandemic, at least from the vantage point of neoliberalism. But the real problem will be the return of anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The loss of Trump in November is huge in terms of the United States. Will it have an impact in terms of taking the wind out of the sails of right-wing organizing more generally? That’s hard to say. For the most part, right-wing populists organize their support within their own borders. So, the loss of Trump probably has not had that much impact. But I do think that there can be a kind of “We’re in this together” spirit generated by the response to the pandemic that can substitute for the populist attack on the global order, and this kind of international solidarity, coupled with Trump’s loss, can put the far right on their back foot.

Cicek: Where were we in 2020 concerning the progressive alternatives and in which direction are we now heading in 2021 regarding “working towards the international space” and “the rejection of both the neoliberal status quo and the far-right challenge [that] will require progressive alternatives not just nationally but globally?” In other words, can we still have hope?

Hope is unevenly distributed around the world. Now we have a vaccine available, but it’s not available to everybody. It’s available in surplus here in the United States where the government is begging people to get vaccinated and states are setting up lotteries that potentially give people a million dollars to get vaccinated. Whereas in other countries, including India, which is the largest actual producer of the vaccine, they’re still getting hit hard by the virus and vaccine distribution has been weak. So, here in this country, we are very hopeful, but folks in countries [that] are still waiting on the vaccine are not as hopeful.

Moreover, the uneven distribution of vaccines only makes the K-shaped recovery worse globally. In other words, countries that can’t vaccinate their populations quickly cannot open up their economies as rapidly. It’s like the tortoise and the hare. The hare can jump out of the gate very quickly because of vaccination whereas the tortoise is going to fall progressively farther behind as a result of this. Now, of course, as in Aesop’s fable, the hare might become complacent and lose the race. So, here in the United States, we have to guard against that kind of complacency and push back against the Republican arguments that we don’t need such a big infrastructure bill or the other follow-on bills that the Democrats are preparing.

Obviously, many people were very hopeful around Biden taking office. It was so bad for four years that just to return to what it was like four years ago is cause for celebration. It’s a pretty low bar, but still, all the executive orders Biden signed in his first couple days in office, which effectively reset the United States to the last days of the Obama administration, were a sign that the U.S. is emerging from four years of irrational leadership and has returned to some measure of internationalism.

But unfortunately, we either have the same problems that existed prior to the pandemic or they’ve gotten worse coming out of the pandemic. Carbon emissions, for instance, are rebounding back to new, higher levels globally. A number of countries are now on the verge of insolvency. U.S.-China relations took a step backwards as a result of the pandemic, and they weren’t exactly in great shape at the end of the Obama administration either. But any kind of major transformational change at the international level has to include U.S.-Chinese cooperation. That doesn’t mean that the United States has to applaud what China does in Hong Kong or Xinjiang. Nor does it mean that China has to applaud what the United States is doing in the Middle East. But it does require that there is a working relationship between the two countries, especially on environmental issues.

The same could be said about U.S.-Russian relations, which is experiencing something of a step backward in the transfer of power from Trump to Biden. A third issue, which is complicating international solidarity, is the issue of hedging. The United States is an unreliable superpower. It has proven this over and over again over the years, but it’s obvious now to everybody. It’s obvious not just because of four years of Donald Trump and his unpredictability, but over the longer period in the political transitions from Clinton to Bush, from Bush to Obama, from Obama to Trump, and now from Trump to Biden. How can anybody predict where the United States is going to be four years from now? Maybe it’s a second Biden administration, maybe Trump comes back, maybe it’s neither of them but we have someone even more toxic than Trump, someone more competent like Tom Cotton.

In any case, the United States has been see-sawing back and forth in its policies domestically, but more importantly, internationally in terms of how it engages the international community. Other countries are saying, “Thank you, we’re glad you’re back, we’re happy you’re back in the Paris agreement, World Health Organization, etcetera, etcetera. But honestly, we cannot trust you and, as a result, structurally we are going to change our policies to hedge our bets.” So, the EU has concluded a new economic deal with China. It’s going to continue to explore energy cooperation with Russia. It’s going to put more money into an EU military force independent of NATO.

This is in contrast with China. Countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America may not like the strings attached to Chinese investments but they know that China’s going to be pretty consistent, even consistent in a bad way. Predictability is very important when you’re making long-range plans. But the United States is very unpredictable.

It goes beyond the U.S. government. U.S. civil society is also unpredictable. Some organizations call for greater cooperation with China around environmental issues. Others are calling for more sanctions against China because of its human rights violations, actions in the South China Sea, etcetera.

Going forward, when it comes to progressive transformation at the global level, for instance on environmental issues, the real heavy lifting will increasingly be done by other countries because the United States simply can’t be counted on given the profound political divisions in this country.

Falcone: Are there any closing thoughts about the “pivot” or do you want to say something about the book in closing that you’d hope readers take away?

One thing which has been a challenge for the left — certainly here in the United States, but one could argue globally — is that we are doom and gloom. We’re always talking about the end of the world. It’s not like we’re wrong: the planet faces some serious existential crises. Part of this doom-and-gloom critique has to do also with the fact that in the United States, the left has been shut out of government. We have some people in Congress, but for the most part the left has not been in a governing situation. So, we are not forced by circumstance to put forward a positive program. And so, we end up focusing on critique and that critique tends to be, “The world is in a lousy situation, it’s getting worse and we’ve got to do something immediately.” That might be factually accurate, but I don’t think it’s a great electoral strategy.

I don’t think people elect doom-and-gloom candidates for the most part. They elect people who promise something glorious: Obama’s “hope and change” or Trump’s MAGA.

In The Pandemic Pivot, we talk about how the pandemic has aggravated a lot of bad situations. But ultimately, it’s a hopeful platform, a platform that says there’s an opportunity for transformation and we’re seeing signs of movement in that direction here, here and here. Under the rubric of a more hopeful future, the book ultimately wants to inspire both activists and the general reader with accurate descriptions and forward-looking prescriptions.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.