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Coronavirus and the end of globalization: The 'neoliberal' model got us into this mess. Most Americans already believe in a better way

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Globalization is not a new phenomenon. As evolutionary anthropologist Peter Turchin noted in a recent blog post, it's something that happens in pulses, or waves — starting with waves of Afro-Eurasian "continentalization" in the Old World and of "Mediterraneanization" before that — and the waves often break with pandemics, just like the one we're experiencing now. It can take generations to recover.


Expecting a "return to normal" or a "V-shaped recovery" in light of this history is wishful thinking at best. COVID-19 appears to have a single-digit mortality rate that's much lower than pandemics of the past. But its spread is far more rapid, and our neoliberal, debt-financed, just-in-time, global-supply-chain economic system deliberately has far less resilience than previous globalized trade systems. Plus, this may be just a hint of worse pandemics to come. "Government is the problem," neoliberals argue — except when it's working in service of the market. "Not so much," the pandemic reminds us, with climate crises looming right behind it. A response that prioritizes enhanced resilience may be both the most prudent and the most visionary alternative we have.

At the same time, visionaries need to take seriously the constraints that Turchin's analysis reveals. "Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew," Indian author Arundhati Roy has written. "This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next." She casts this in starkly moral terms:

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

I'm with her 100%, so far as her moral vision is concerned. But the multi-millennial historical record that Turchin and his colleagues have studied presents us with a starkly challenging picture of just how difficult that fight will be. While the growth of human cooperative efforts has been staggering, it's been driven by strife, as Turchin argues in his 2015 book, "Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth." While COVID-19 has produced a remarkable cooperative response, both in America and around the world, the divisiveness exemplified by autocratic leaders like Donald Trump, Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte and Hungary's Viktor Orbán is both driven and supported by powerful forces that are not well understood — and thus remain extremely difficult to deal with. Americans came together dramatically during the crises of the Great Depression and World War II; but those divisive forces were waning then. They're much stronger now, and have been mounting for decades.

To understand our situation, we need to start with the driving force behind waves of globalization — what Turchin calls the "secular cycles" of integration and disintegration that individual societies go through — and how those cycles become synchronized, often as a result of pandemics. The dynamics of those secular cycles also help explain several two other key factors confronting us:

  1. the hold of market ideology on elite imaginations, despite repeated market failures, an ideology that precludes effectively defending against pandemics as well as the even larger looming threat of climate catastrophe; and
  2. the polarization of our politics, which causes increasing paralysis.

This also illuminates a related crucial need, to develop bottom-up democratic processes, like the citizen's assemblies I wrote about earlier this year, which can help overcome that paralysis. Doing this could help us avoid the worst ecological disaster and the lengthy period of disintegration that has followed waves of global or continental integration in the past.

"Secular cycles": The driving force of globalization

Turchin's analysis of globalization, first laid out in a 2008 article, "Modeling periodic waves of integration in the Afro-Eurasian world-system," rests on his much more extensive work on a model known as structural demographic theory (SDT), which describes and explains cycles of integration and disintegration in individual political entities (empires, nation-states, etc.) The theory was originally developed by historian Jack Goldstein in his 1991 book "Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World." Turchin generalized and refined it, applied it to a broad range of societies over time in "Secular Cycles," co-authored with Sergey Nefedov, and to the United States in particular in "Ages of Discord" (my Salon review here.)

These cycles generally go through four phases: expansion, stagflation, crisis and depression. In the expansion phase, the state and elites together maintain order and stability, facilitating sustained mass population growth, until that outstrips productivity growth. Next comes the stagflation phase, with falling living standards ("popular immiseration"), urban migration and unrest. This also leads to "elite overproduction" — less money for ordinary workers means more for elites, whose numbers grow, producing their own set of problems in the form of intra‐elite competition, rivalry, fragmentation and loss of cohesion. Population growth also drives growth of the army, state bureaucracy and taxes, pushing it toward fiscal crisis, state bankruptcy and loss of military control (the crisis phase), opening the way for elite fragments to rebel and/or mobilize popular resentments to overthrow the central authority.

Opportunistic "counter-elite" figures like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are typical actors in this phase, but some counter-elite figures — such as the Gracchi brothers during the Roman Republic — promote more just alternatives. The final phase, depression, is the most indeterminate: The weaker the social system, the more outside forces can shape it. This phase can be skipped altogether, in the most favorable circumstances, with a new cycle starting immediately. In the worst case, it can stretch for generations, ending in conquest by a foreign power.

More of what's entailed in this compact description will emerge in what follows below.

Synchronizing secular cycles

Goldstein himself noted that demographic pressures were broadly in sync from Europe to China during the period he studied, and Turchin's 2008 article draws on the example of synchronizing mechanisms identified by ecologists studying animal population cycles to explain how this can happen: "One possibility is that a single catastrophic perturbation may 'reset' both systems to the same initial conditions, after which they would behave in a similar way," he wrote. "A possible example of such a resetting perturbation is the pandemic of the Black Death."

Synchronizing mechanisms don't have to be the same as those driving systems, Turchin explains. But in this case, they are intimately related. As noted above, one key aspect of SDT's secular cycles is the relationship between mass and elite well-being. During the "stagflation" phase, both mass immiseration and elite prosperity increase the likelihood of epidemics in a number of ways, Turchin explains:

First, and most obviously, population growth may result in the crossing of the epidemiological threshold above which a new disease is able to spread. [They spread in cruise ships, not rowboats.] Second, declining living standards, due to popular immiseration, lead to malnutrition and the weakening of defenses against infection. Third, rampant urbanization means that an increasing proportion of the population inhabits the cities, which were notoriously unhealthy places in pre-industrial times. Fourth, increased migration and vagrancy result in thicker interaction networks, through which disease can spread more easily. Fifth, long-distance trade connects far-flung regions and promotes disease spread.

Our globalized world today differs more in degree than in kind from the conditions described above. Most cities in the developed world have much better sanitation and public health systems than even 100 years ago, during the 1918-19 flu pandemic, for example. But New York City was still a dramatic epicenter of coronavirus infection. While no one can tell what the future may hold, the same age-old risks are there — and they don't simply help explain what's already happened, but the ongoing risks we're still struggling with, not to mention the threats ahead.

What is different, at least arguably, is the ideology shaping how we see ourselves and our world — and what we don't see.

The crisis of neoliberal globalization

Neoliberal market ideology is not a direct cause of this pandemic, but its hold on elite imaginations is a primary factor in crippling our defense against crises like this one, as well as the even larger threat of climate catastrophe, which also carries the risk of ever greater pandemics.

As an ideology, neoliberalism has lengthy a semi-private history, as described by Philip Mirowski in "The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective." It's  a complicated story, but with a simple essence summed up in a later paper.

"For neoliberals, freedom and the market would be treated as identical," Mirowski wrote. "The market no longer gave you what you wanted; you had to capitulate to what the Market wanted. All areas of life could be better configured to behave as if they were more market-like." Bovernment played a key active role in bringing this about.

It's a curious kind of freedom, to be sure. But one that was apparently required as the U.S. entered its stagflation phase. During the previous expansion phase, the market had benefited rich and poor alike for more than a generation, as a cooperative ethos prevailed. The market was legitimated by its own success, as experienced in people's daily lives. But as average incomes stagnated and elites did better than ever, a new legitimation was needed — and what could be better than "freedom"? After all, it's the essence of America, right? With freedom as the watchword, everyone was responsible for their own fate: The rich had their just rewards and the poor had no one to blame but themselves. The market gave everyone exactly what they deserved. Or so went the argument, at least.

This model of freedom looked exceedingly narrow to anyone viewing it from outside. That's what has happened on a grand scale with the COVID-19 pandemic, which a clear choice between recklessly sacrificing countless lives to hurriedly reopen the economy and collectively crafting a more life-preserving alternative. The freedom to shape our collective future through democratic deliberation may or may not be well-exercised. But the existence of such freedom cannot be denied. In light of the pandemic, it is self-evident in a way that it's never been since the dawn of the neoliberal era 40-odd years ago.

The unquestioned market logic of neoliberal "freedom" has led to the loss of 20,000 hospital beds in New York over the past 20 years — a trend the state's much-lionized governor, Andrew Cuomo, has done nothing to reverse, including in his current budget. The "efficiency" demanded by market-identified freedom stands starkly opposed to the redundancy of a healthy, resilient system capable of dealing with catastrophic shocks. Neoliberalism's defining feature of "market freedom" is thus revealed as an un-debuggable bug: it's the algorithmic core of the whole system.

This same logic of "efficiency" also argues against the kind of resilient global society we need to avoid catastrophic collapse from the climate crisis.

Political polarization as a secular-cycle effect

America's political polarization has been blamed on many things, but it's rarely considered in a broad comparative context. Elite fragmentation is key feature of how increased elite competition unfolds, regardless of political system. Political polarization in America today has distinct characteristics and contributing causes, but it's rooted in a common dynamic, as Turchin discusses in "Ages of Discord." He notes that customarily, "the process of elite fragmentation is difficult to study with quantitative methods," but the DW-Nominate metric presented in "Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches" provides a way to do that.

As Turchin notes, the book discovers a correlation between polarization and the rise of inequality and immigration — a correlation Turchin extends back to around 1800. The book "come[s] to the conclusion that immigration results in a larger proportion of population who are both poor and cannot vote," he notes. "This facilitates the move to the right and away from redistributive policies, which then causes income inequality to rise."

Turchin's similar, but slightly different explanation is more general, based on SDT:

  1. labor oversupply (proxied by immigration) leads to
  2. elite overproduction (proxied by wealth inequality) and heightened intra-elite competition that, in turn, results in
  3. elite fragmentation (proxied by political polarization).

From this perspective, it's largely futile to expect polarization to abate. That, in turn, negates any prospect of meaningful post-pandemic change. This is especially true since Donald Trump, his wealthy backers and his media allies seek to exacerbate polarization and intensify conflict, even driving it toward violence with the encouragement of armed protesters calling for reckless "reopening." But we can look for ways to sidestep polarization, particularly where mass public opinion is relatively unified — as it is on this very issue, among others. This leads us to the crucial need I noted above.

Reinvigorating democracy with citizens' assemblies

In a third coronavirus post, "Long-Term Consequences of Coronavirus," Turchin writes, "The shock of Coronavirus has the potential both to create social solidarity within a country, and to break the country apart." As he explains: "On one hand, Coronavirus is an external enemy, and external threats tend to increase internal cohesion of societies…. On the other hand, too strong an external shock shatters, not unifies." He believes that "two Nordic countries, Norway and Denmark, have the best chance to follow the first route," while his forecast for America is "rather gloomy":

Our governing elites are selfish, fragmented, and mired in the internecine conflicts. So my expectation is that large swaths of American population would be allowed to lose ground. Government debt will still explode, with most of the money going to keep large companies and banks afloat. Inequality will rise, trust in government decline even more, social unrest and intra-elite conflict will increase. Basically, all negative structural-demographic trends will be accelerated.

This direction, however, is not inevitable. Crisis necessarily increases the degree of uncertainty; the range of possibilities expands. The above discussion gives some sense of what we're up against. But how do we get around it?

One possibility comes from mass public opinion. It does not have a strong record in the SDT view of things, or in more conventional political science. Elites tend to define the terms of politics. But the trend toward mass political engagement is clearly growing over time. It could be on the brink of a major breakthrough into structured organizational forms, capable of dealing with policy issues in the same way that ordinary citizens have deliberated civil suits and criminal trials for eons.

Last December, I interviewed Claudia Chwalisz, who leads the OECD's work on innovative citizen participation, on the subject of citizens assemblies and related processes,  meaning randomly selected demographically representative bodies that engage in informed and respectful deliberation with the facilitation of skilled professionals. Her historical survey found its earliest example in 1986, with a peak around 2000 and a resurgence in 2010, with "an explosion of interest across the globe," last year, driven largely but not exclusively, by climate issues. The COVID-19 crisis could well take this upsurge to an even higher level.

In that interview, Chwalisz cited the problem of polarization as a particular concern:

[T]he problem of polarization, which seems to define our politics today, is a design feature, not a bug, of a system that relies on elections. It feeds partisanship, and incentives are aligned for the short term. Democracy is more than elections. If we see things that way, then there is a search for rethinking the architecture of our democratic institutions more broadly to overcome some of these design flaws in electoral representative democracy — not in a way that destroys that system, but in a way that complements it.

Deliberative processes are one part of the picture of the type of change needed for democratic governance to become capable of addressing complex and long-term problems, in a way that builds trust and tries to bring society together.

There is strong reason to believe that a substantial bipartisan majority would support a dramatic shift in long-term priorities in response to the pandemic, based on social solidarity and protection of life. Creating national or state-level citizen assemblies to develop comprehensive frameworks around such areas of broad agreement could play a significant role in moving our politics beyond its current state of deadly stalemate. For example, recent polling by Data for Progress finds substantial bipartisan support for a four-point "Put People First Agenda" for recovery:

  • Voters support providing grants so small businesses keep workers on the payroll by a 75-point margin.
  • Voters support universal, monthly cash payments that will continue for the duration of the crisis by a 67-point margin.
  • Voters support all people being provided with full health coverage for all coronavirus care and protections for all frontline workers by a 58-point margin.
  • Voters support the expanded use of absentee voting by a 48-point margin.

Data for Progress also found substantial bipartisan support for a range of minimum wage-related proposals, including 68% of voters (and even 59% of Republicans) supporting a $15 minimum wage with automatic annual cost-of-living adjustments.

In short, there is a strong consensus on how we should respond to the crisis we face, a consensus that reflects the shared experience and perspective of ordinary Americans who've been largely abandoned by elite politics for the past 40 years. That consensus is obscured when it gets filtered through the elite narratives elites that routinely define the political realm. But that consensus is not only quite real, it's also our best hope for restoring a functional political system, as well as for dealing with threats like the coronavirus and future pandemics, as well as the climate crisis.

There's just one problem: How do we establish such forums in America's polarized political climate? There is one obvious possibility: the use of citizen initiatives to establish them. Initiatives — inspired by the Swiss model more than a century ago — are a well-established part of our political culture at the state level.

As described by Richard J. Ellis in "Democratic Delusions: The Initiative Process in America," they've largely been captured by the very special interests they were supposed to get around, especially in states where they're used most. But not always. In 1982, for example, the grassroots Nuclear Freeze referendum appeared on the ballot of 10 states, the District of Columbia and 37 cities and counties, winning almost everywhere. It put an end to early Reagan-era talk about "winning" a nuclear war and paved the way toward a more cooperative atmosphere, which eventually lead to the peaceful end of the Cold War.

Our political elites would rather not be reminded of the critical role played by grassroots peace activists who mounted that campaign, and the majority of ordinary citizens who voted for it. But they clearly changed the course of history, and potentially saved us from nuclear war. A similar campaign could be mounted to establish citizens' assemblies in America today, either to meet the specific challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and global warming, or more generally to find common-ground solutions blocked by our current state of polarized gridlock.

It took several years for the Freeze movement to get to that point, and it was focused on a simple idea. I'm not suggesting that citizens' assemblies could be established overnight. But they represent a potential way forward, even recognizing the formidable historical forces that SDT identifies.

When push comes to shove — as it has with the pandemic — the majority of Americans reject the neoliberal worldview that has led us to this state, where our nation is vastly under-resourced to deal with catastrophes. They reject its contradictory definition of freedom, which tells us we can only do what the market allows — especially when the market says you can't invest in basic life protection. Most Americans believe that we're all in this together, because that's what they see every day with their own eyes. Strengthening our democracy to meet the challenges we face is the most sensible pathway before us. It's the pathway that can lead us to the world worth fighting for, the one Arundhati Roy envisions.

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