Avoiding the new Enlightened despotism

I don’t mind saying that I have tried to publish this piece a number of times over the past 6 weeks – and have found no takers!  Maybe it’s not very good.  Or maybe it’s just not made for the media.  Or maybe no one wants to hear this.–It’s just too dark as one editor said to me.  Over the past few weeks, though, it has  also felt more accurate. Alas.

For us at Counterpoint, who have been working on the hidden wiring and deep dynamics of increased polarisation for a decade, the next wave of work can only be about strategies to protect legitimate government (of whatever hue), to support organisations (public and private) who value accountability, transparency, and voice.  For whatever reason: because it’s the right thing to do, because they believe in all of it, because they believe it’s the least worst option, because it makes good sense (business sense and governance sense).  The point is that whether you are an organisation or an institution it will matter more and more whether you are able to understand the lines of polarisation and dissent, as well as find strategies to help bridge or navigate some of these divides in ways that are both effective and legitimate. And this will not be easy.

A Global Reset?

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 is already a part of democratic political landscapes 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 European democracies (but this as true of our American counterparts), 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.

For some (Conte, Johnson, and above all Merkel) the crisis initially granted a rise in support. Short-lived, for everyone but Merkel. Conte is already under fire, and the mishandling of the crisis by a Conservative government drunk on its own rhetoric of UK exceptionalism will inevitably become the subject of what could be an ugly and damaging public inquiry—not to mention tumbling support. As for Macron and his PM there has been no COVID-19 dividend: they were granted a spike in the polls as fear of the pandemic first set in, but this soon gave way to plummeting ratings around the way the executive has handled the crisis, and various factions sharpening their knives.

And that’s the democracies.

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

The main question, therefore, 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. This is where we are now – 6 weeks after my first penning of this – on that dangerous crest.  We already know how the populists will behave.

But how will Europe’s democratic leaders behave? What kind of capacity will these governments have?

From governing to ruling?

No matter how well certain governments will have handled the crisis (and possibly Germany aside) there is no obvious sign that publics are ready to be particularly grateful or complimentary.  And so there is a question mark over whether, past the immediate health crisis, ‘big government’ will continue to benefit from the kind of acquiescence provided by the pandemic itself.  There are several obvious reasons for that—first because they will be broke.  And, therefore, in no 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 lockdowns regionally or by sector, maybe according to age group or profession; or perhaps ease restrictions and then need to reimpose them again 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: the social peace that democracies usually elicit through trust and trade-offs, may need to be increasingly enforced 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? How do we prepare – and avoid –  a 21st century under the sign of Enlightened despotism?

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