Avoiding a new Enlightened despotism?

Think Piece – Catherine Fieschi

The COVID-19 crisis has plunged people into isolation and uncertainty, but the virus, with its lethal hyper-velocity, has also felt like the possibility of a Great Reset. A catharsis of sorts – that would allow us to come out from this ordeal humbled but determined to avoid past mistakes.

Some, early on, expressed the hope that this great trauma might signal the ‘end of populism’. But this is focusing on the 20th century story.

The real question is not whether there will be ‘more or less populism’: populism has already become a part of the political landscape that, like the virus, we need to learn live with, and manage better by disabling it at every turn.

The (real) 21st century question for our democracies, is what kind of social peace we can hope for, after decades of populist pressure and in the aftermath of what is likely to be a concatenation of severe crises?  Who can secure it? And how?

Let’s not forget that, across western democracies, the virus intruded on governments that were under already under attack: at best mired in uncertainty, gnawed at by years of populism’s corrosive effects, and, everywhere, bogged down by the threat of protest.  None of the democracies were particularly well-placed to govern.

Starting from weakness

Italy offered a precarious political scene: after just over a year of a cobbled-together populist coalition, a second Conte government emerged resulting from Matteo Salvini’s hubris and some clever political manoeuvring; but no more legitimate for that in the eyes of the Italian public.

In the UK, need I really take us back to a decade of austerity, four years of immobilism and weak government – and even weaker opposition – and the unprecedented acrimoniousness of the Brexit debate and the polarisation to which it gave rise?

In France the virus walked in on strife and strike.  The Gilets Jaunes of 2018, were followed by a sort of trench-warfare across professions and trade unions, and finally, strikes against the government’s proposed (and admittedly mishandled) pension reform that brought Paris and France to a standstill for much of November and December.  France has been in permanent conflict for 18 months.  Finally, in Germany the past two years have been marked by the difficulties of the majority party in the ruling coalition: a CDU struggling to maintain its partnership with a declining SPD; Merkel retreating from the political space and let’s not forget that the month of February was placed under the sign of controversy when the CDU and the liberal FDP chose to flirt with the AfD to oust Thuringia’s social democratic premier.

But, for some (Conte, Johnson, and above all Merkel) the crisis delivered an immediate rise in support. For others such as Macron and his then PM there was no initial COVID-19 dividend.  But as we near phase two of the Covid crisis (whether this is back-to-school, back-to-work, second wave, or still exiting the first wave) European governments seem to be finding favour with their publics: a majority of Europeans (including the French, notoriously stingy in their approval) approve of the way their governments handled the crisis (except in the UK were the figure now stands at 46%).

In Hungary and Poland, the emergency situation has provided the perfect cover for an ongoing power-grab.

Given where we are now, on that dangerous crest as we watch children go back to school and others go back to the office, the main question is what happens when we move into the next phase of the crisis; when the extent of the economic damage is revealed, and the economic crisis secretes a social one.

How will Europe’s democratic, non-populist leaders behave? What kind of capacity will these governments have?

From governing to ruling?

The argument that ‘big government is back’ rests on injections of cash in the economy.  Central banks (including the ECB) have stepped up to the plate and done so efficiently.

But when it comes to policy coordination and delivery of services, it is doubtful whether any of them will be perceived as efficient, and even more doubtful that they will be able to be so. There are several obvious reasons for that—first because they will be broke.  And, therefore, in no position to reward anyone for their service during the pandemic, or redress the imbalances revealed by it.  This could only happen through more debt (already heading for well over 100% of GDP in many economies), or higher taxes.  The latter will elicit squeals of protest from businesses and individuals who will argue that they will have been hit hard enough by the virus.  The former will be untenable.  In most places, even where social cohesion and political trust were triggered by the COVID-19 crisis, these broken promises are likely to once again fuel a sense of betrayal and mistrust–in even the more competent governments.

Second, and perhaps even more worryingly, in the likely event of a non-linear recovery – even a potentially fast one, for the sake of optimism – governments will need to impart discipline to put in place even the basics of a recovery (release and reimpose lockdowns regionally or by sector, maybe according to age group or profession in the face of new waves of infection and a ‘rising R’).  It is hard not to imagine a sparking of accusations and resentment.

But what is most interesting, and most in doubt is how democratic governments will deliver on some of the deep system changes (notably around climate policy) that they have been promising and in favour of which so many have mobilised in the context of a deep economic and social crisis.  As they struggle to do this, polarisation is likely to increase between those who fear the cost of change, and those who fear the cost of not changing.

This path is far from pre-destined, but the crisis will also exacerbate rather than attenuate existing dynamics.  Much as they have accentuated and accelerated dynamics around race, exclusion and the use of force.

The point is this: deep positive change can result from world-shaking disruptions such as this crisis, but this may only be achieved through measures that are likely to sharply redefine the behaviour of even enlightened democratic governments.

This is what we need to think about: while developed economies and democracies usually elicit consent through trust and trade-offs, it may be tempting to achieve these through authority (if not authoritarianism)–more control, tracking, monitoring and regulation of all aspects of our lives to secure our basic survival.

At EU level, what role will EU institutions, and the Commission in particular, play in regulating member-state behaviour? At national levels, what institutions do we need to create to allow for democratic participation in such conditions, but also to channel the inevitable anger, the legitimate questions, the sense of injustice that may legitimately bubble up to the surface?

Do we prepare for a 21st century global Europe that may have to unfold under the sign of Enlightened despotism? Or can we come up the kinds of institutions that will channel and fashion anger into legitimate demands for redistribution, protection, recognition?

We hope our forthcoming work helps find some of the answers.