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Can Diplomacy Help Navigate an Upcoming Worldwide ‘Valley of Disappointment’?

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The current worldwide slowdown in productivity gains may reflect a combination of decreasing energy returns on energy investments in fossil fuels, and limitations on productivity gains in the early stages of development of renewable energy replacements.

A review of the development process in terms of non equilibrium thermodynamics concepts is in order. The stresses of the upcoming major worldwide energy transitions, accompanied by climate change protections, are likely severely to test national and international coordination systems, and demand insight into the thermodynamic and economic processes involved on the part of those who participate in international diplomacy.  

1.The Current Productivity Problem

Numerous publications have been reporting that rates of productivity gain have been declining in recent decades across much of ‘developed world’, and, from higher levels, in many ‘developing’ economies. A recent publication of the highly respected Brookings Institution probes this issue

The National Conference Board in the United States also reports almost imperceptible productivity gains, and some losses, in the most developed economies in the world. The Conference Board’s summation on this is as follows:

Zero or even negative total factor productivity growth suggests that improvements in the efficiency by which labor and capital are used have stalled . . . Ultimately declining TFP prevents companies from improving their competitiveness and profitability, and threatens the ability of countries to maintain or better people’s living standards.

As of this writing, the International Monetary Fund reports low growth prospects across a broad range of economies, and some difficulty in identifying why this should be so.

2. Current Related Financial Policy Actions

Institutions charged with coordinating national and global financial activities have undertaken attempts to encourage a resumption of ‘growth’ (typically measured within States as gross domestic product or gross national product). The conceptual basis for such measures seems to assume that growth rates should be those typical of the late 19th and the 20th centuries.

National governments have considered that they had two principal levers for trying to get economic activity back up to accustomed and/or targeted levels, termed ‘monetary’ and ‘fiscal’.

As to ‘fiscal’ action, the national government is assumed to be able to authorize economic activity directly, and to issue whatever monetary instruments, or forms, will be accepted in the markets supplying goods and services. This may create a current deficit, to be financed over time.

There seems to be more attention given to ‘monetary’ policy, typically managed by central banks, and institutions to coordinate the policies of national central banks.

National central banks have tended to try to stimulate economic activity by actions which make monetary units more amply available for national and international transactions. A part of this strategy is actions to lower the interest rates which generally apply in such transactions. This is thought likely to increase the levels of activity in investing in the production of goods and services (and in consumer purchases) by reducing the levels of yield needed over time from such activities to attract the ‘capital’ which will enable such activities.

At this time, most of the institutions with central bank functions, in the ‘developed’ economies, have been targeting very low interest rates for an extended period of time.

There have been at least two other, external but parallel discussions, with implications for economic activities. This article suggests that these inquiries are particularly significant at this time.

3. Current Awareness of A Need for An Energy Source Transition

It is generally understood that the enormous gains in human populations and activities have come from exploiting the ‘energy’ in fossil fuel, or earth-stockpiled, hydrocarbons. Discussions of productivity gains over time — generally the 19th and 20th centuries — seem to have assumed that the fossil fuel flows supporting such gains will be available at the same levels and costs as have been the case in these last two centuries. But looking ahead a century or two, this cannot continue to be taken as a given.

First, the prospective climate effects of combusting these hydrocarbons, to get the energy yield, has spurred a global search to replace these energy sources.

At the same time, the net energy yields from mining these hydrocarbons have tended to decrease. And, the limits of the most energy-rich hydrocarbon deposits seem visible, given current and prospective consumption rates.

The efforts to develop ‘renewable’ or ‘sustainable’ energy sources have led to a focus on a key measure — the energy returns on energy invested (EREOI) in such renewable technologies. Those tracking the development of renewables are keenly interested in when they will meet or exceed the EROEI of fossil fuels, and whether, and when, such energy yields will be sufficient to support a high energy industrial civilization in the future.

This author suggests that this should lead to shifting the conceptual center of discussion as to economic (and social) activity to the energy flow factors which enable such activity.

4. The Rise Of Academic Understandings of ‘Non Equilibrium Thermodynamics’

This dovetails into a stream of academic thought which has steadily expanded in recent decades, often termed ‘non equilibrium thermodynamics’.

The foundations of this thought go back at least as far as Heraclitus of Ephesus, born about 560 BC, who saw all things as process. However, in recent decades astronomers, physicists and others have expanded, elaborated, and measured these concepts in universally applicable ways.

Re-casting the productivity issues in thermodynamic terms may help answer a key question.

On the one hand, some suggest that the current slowdown in productivity growth in developed economies is just a pause in the realization of gains from innovations in process as to the economic potentials of current developed societies — e.g. ‘big data’ computations, self driving cars, the spread of ‘digitization’ of business and government operations.

An alternative suggestion might be that the combination of restrictions of fossil fuel use, the energy costs of such use, and the energy investment costs of creating and deploying   renewable energy sources now imposes or will impose constraints on the rate of productivity gains, if any, which we can project for coming decades.

Given the recent ascent into widespread scholarly discussion of non equilibrium thermodynamics, I should to state at the outset what version of nonequilibrium thermodynamics frames the premises here used in approaching human productivity and ‘finance’.

Briefly stated, this essay proceeds from the premise that all ordered structures in the Universe are manifestations of ordered energy flows. All ‘tangible’ structures are composed of relational systems — systems of correlated elements. Thus, the ‘order’ In the universe arises from correlations among the elements in the structures. In some, as in ‘solids’, the correlations are so stable as to stabilize both spatial dispersion, and radial degrees of freedom, over the periods of observation — or interaction with another ordered structure, or system.

Dynamic systems at the macro scale available to humans — processing energy flows and altering its internal conformation and/or relationships with external systems over time, or process — entail both energy intake and dissipation. Ilya Prigogine condensed this seminal insight long ago. A simple and visible astronomic example is the Red Spot on Jupiter.

Thus, ‘energy’ is in a fundamental sense the sovereign coin of the realm, so to speak, in the creation and maintenance of all ordered systems.

The leading explicant of the underlying dynamic nature of the Universe is Tufts/Harvard professor Eric Chaisson. In a series of exhaustively documented, elegant books and articles, he explains the energy densities, and related complexity levels, of galaxies, suns, ants, plants, humans and human societies. See for example “Cosmic Evolution”, Harvard, 2001, and for beautiful illustrations

A critical metric in Chaisson’s extensive documentation of energy flows is ‘free energy rate density’ (the amount of energy flow through a system per unit of mass and unit of time). Life units, for example, embody higher free energy rate densities than do galaxies or suns: animals higher free energy rate densities than plants, and humans, with their artifacts, like cities and particular elements in cities (e.. Jet planes and computers) much higher free energy rate densities than animals as a whole. In the energy scales of the Universe, human civilization is an extremely rare high free energy density phenomenon.

For a somewhat broader context, though condensed, overview for the interested general public,   one can consult an article on ‘relational order theories’

As humans have organized the world around them, they have identified and constructed systems which have, to the humans, the characteristic of yielding more energy to the humans than the humans invest in them.

In agricultural societies, ‘land’ was often used as a conceptual catch-all for an energy yielding asset. (However, I understand the the word ‘capital’ was derived from the indo-european term for cattle, in an semi-nomadic phase of the indo europeans). A fishing resource, or the ocean as a whole, could also be so considered.

Let us focus on a world in which systems other than ‘land’ (or a fishery area) were made to yield energy returns on energy invested in them.

In the fossil fuel era, such a system could be a coal mine, an oil or gas well, etc. where we have accessed energy bound in hydrocarbons by previously living systems, and learned how to liberate and turn to our use that energy. In this world, more types of resource, and energy flows, are organized more flexibly, by entities including the holders of the symbols of ‘capital’.

As we seek to enter a larger scale ‘sustainable’ or ‘renewable’ energy era we consider artifactual photosynthetic systems, wind energy systems, nuclear energy systems, etc. As to all such systems specialized so as to yield to humans more energy than humans organize into them, we have come to seek to measure the ‘energy return on energy invested’.

5. Initial Application of Non Equilibrium Thermodynamics Concepts to Productivity and Energy Transition Issues.

Assuming that ‘productivity’, as to humans, corresponds roughly to the ‘energy’ which the human or the system in which the human functions brings to ‘goods and services’ — the fabrication, transport, communication, etc. which the human becomes involved in ‘producing’ — productivity, as measured by the output of units specified per person work unit, would be enhanced by more energy entrainment, and decreased by less.

Generalizing this, one might posit that in a world of high EROEI, per person ‘productivity’ gains can be high, and in a world of low EROEI, they will be low.

We have noted that some suggest that underlying gains in efficiency — compositional productivity, or multiple factor productivity — are in operation but not yet manifested in ways which register in the statistical identities and measures we now use.

Let us entertain an alternate hypothesis oriented to a nonequilibrium thermodynamics framework, and a simple model which might be used to attempt to test such an hypothesis, over time, with enough data accumulation and analysis.

A candidate hypothesis would be that the energy returns on energy investments in the interconnected global economic systems are now rewarding investment in energy production at lower than historic levels, and at levels which, given all the energy dissipation in cycling energy through the generation and consumption, re-generation cycles does not allow for much increase in the over all activity levels of the societies involved, over time and the continuing cycling process.

Let us consider a simple model in which the key variables are a ‘capital’ sector, the energy return on energy which is invested into the ‘capital’ apparatus, and a population. These elements are arranged in a simple linear cycle, and the result which matters most to humans is designated as per capita wealth, in energy terms, as follows.

Per capita (energy) wealth = ((K*EROEI)-ReinvE)/P

That is, the wealth per person, calibrated in energy units (which have correspondences to ‘goods’ and ‘services’), equals the energy flow into the capital apparatus times the energy return from that apparatus per unit of energy investment, minus the energy reinvested in the capital apparatus, divided by the total population.

The physical system is a cyclical, reiterative one, as follows. The population inputs energy into the capital apparatus, the apparatus returns (and distributes) the energy back into the population, the population ‘consumes’ the energy, building some of it into population and amenities, etc, and returns energy into the capital apparatus. And keep cranking.

Using a model such as this, one can imagine differing endowments in different polities — e.g. higher or lower current capital endowments, populations, EROEI results. Some interesting possible relationships are noted in the footnote.

Malthus’s famous views come to mind. If we were to adapt a Malthusian point of view, the K, or capital, factor was largely seen as land. The yield — the EROEI — of land had not shown great increases in centuries prior to Malthus, and nothing like ‘geometric’, or exponential, or repetitive doubling, would seem plausible at his time. So if one assumed that the total population would increase faster than did energy production from land, using historic forms of agricultural technology, people would live more poorly, or some of them would, or some would have to go — to be subtracted from the equation.

Let us now put in this formula the Industrial (or fossil fuel) Revolution. Suddenly (in historical terms) EROEI skyrockets — let us say up to 50 times the energy input. The population can expand (improving food supply in various energy-fed ways), the energy using apparati generally (goods and services) can expand, and the capital factor can increase. The cycle becomes wonderfully virtuous, and humanity bestrides the Earth beyond its agricultural dreams.

But now let us suppose there are limits to the extent the capital factor can increase, or the EROEI begins to decrease, or both. Depending on how one varies the critical factors of population size, capital stock, and EROEI, many scenarios can be produced, as noted before. But with capital limited or fixed, and no appreciable gains in EROEI, we could be headed back to the Malthus type of calculation.

Let us sketch a more optimistic scenario for a few centuries ahead.

Let us continue to assume that the EROEI on fossil fuels decreases, and/or fossil fuel capacity is capped in order to avoid overheating the whole human complex, with major losses of system function and human welfare.

But our specialists advise us that life on earth taps only a very small fraction of the solar energy impinging on earth, we also tap a small fraction of the wind energy available, and if we are clever, farsighted, and disciplined enough we might replace the fossil fuels, at levels comparable to or above current civilization energy levels, at EROEI ratios sufficient to maintain our population levels and our per capita welfare, and also feed back into the capacity machinery enough energy to keep that machinery, and the whole system, stable and growing.

If humanity is not to go on a severe diet at some point, this is clearly the situation which will have to be managed. We humans have a very big and tricky energy supply transition coming up, and there are many uncertainties involved in it.

We may not know just how rapidly the energy supply transition can occur.

Vaclav Smil counsels that we think in terms of a century or so, and has historical evidence to support his view. Vaclav Smil (2011), Global Energy: The Latest Infatuations, American Scientist.

Others suggest that the coming transition could be managed more rapidly. The current Administration in the United States is pursuing an aggressive program to facilitate adaptation of the electricity system to increased proportions of wind and solar electricity generation.

As of this writing, a 2016 projection of the Bloomberg New Energy Finance group projects that by 2027 renewable electrical energy sources will cost less than operation of fossil fuel plants, and by 2040 renewable technologies will improve their cost levels 40-60% and fossil fuel production will have shrunk to less than 50% of total electrical energy production worldwide. In the advanced economies of Europe and America, the fossil fuel shares will have shrunk to a third or less of total electrical energy supplies. And, as to transportation, electric vehicles would constitute about 35% of new vehicles sold.

We also may not know exactly what system wide EROEI levels are required to maintain the high levels of free energy densities prevalent in highly industrialized civilization. A currently circulating guess is 10/1.

We do not know how well the public in the industrialized areas will understand their situation, and have the patience and foresight to soldier through the required transitions.

Given these uncertainties, we still must attempt to project a path forward.

Let us trace out a scenario reflecting the possibility that we are at or near a difficult point in our energy base transition.

This scenario might be called a ‘valley of disappointment’ scenario. (That is the pessimistic part. The optimism is reflected in the projection that only a valley, not a cliff, looms before us.)

If and as we are now entering a situation in which the fossil fuel energy recovery rates are declining, and the renewable energy yields are increasing, but are currently only a bit above the base rate needed for advanced civilization , account only a small part of energy supply at this moment and need extensive energy-consuming complements to fill out the entire range of energy uses, we might predict that our societies could encounter the following situation.

A slowdown in global, composite EROEI levels relative to historic fossil fuel boom era EROEI levels,

  • and thus widespread, aggregate slowdowns in GDP, or GDP growth
  • and related slowdowns in per person productivity gains,
  • and thus slowdowns in consequent ‘standard of living’ gains.

Even if the renewable energy sources were eventually to produce high and reliably increasing levels of energy flows in human societies, efficiently spread throughout our societies, we could see

  • lags between investment in the renewable energy sources, and the related complexes which are required to make them broadly and efficiently usable, and their full effectiveness, and thus
  • human societies enduring some decades of transiti

All this leading to

  • A lull in standard of living gains, if not a period of decline, and
  • slow progress in improving them again. And, consequently,

as these slowdowns occur, and a resumption of something like historic welfare gains seems remote, considerable dissatisfaction arising in populations which are accustomed to rapid gains in ‘welfare’, or standard of living.

Does this picture resemble what we now may be seeing in the ‘highly developed’, extremely entitled populations of America and Europe?

Were this overview accepted, the 2016 Bloomberg new energy investment scenario seems to suggest that by 2040 renewable EROEI would have increased by 40-60% and even transportation would be moving toward energy efficiency sufficient to service high energy human civilization. Such a rate of progress could make less onerous the ‘valley of disappointment’. We could at least better see our way to a more abundant future, perhaps even more abundant than our fossil fed recent past.  

6. Implications For Financial Policy

In this sort of scenario would the roles of ‘finance’ differ from those now prescribed?

‘Policy makers’ may be unclear whether they may just assume that ‘fiscal’ stimuli will draw on an underused and available well of production and productivity-increasing opportunities on which to spend money tokens, or whether their justification rests solely on a judgment that they, better than the market, can discriminate between higher EROEI possibilities and less productive ones. However, they may be inclined to choose to funnel resources to long term thermodynamic gain as well as or better than an unguided or unassisted market. We have done well in the past by encouraging canals and railroads, for two examples.

As to monetary tools, on the face of it, a regime in which low interest rates prevailed would seem to accord with a relative scarcity of thermodynamically fruitful (in customary language highly productive) investment opportunities. That is, low interest rates would appropriately reflect generally low returns to investments.  

If one expected that ‘natural forces’ — e.g. ‘innovations’ — would soon replenish the inventory of potentially rewarding opportunities, one might just hold steady and wait — perhaps a few years.

If on the other hand the ‘valley of disappointment’ construct more accurately depicts our situation, the ‘wait’ — the period of low returns on ‘capital’ generally — might go on for some decades. A great deal of adjustments in matters such as annuities, pensions, bond integrity — indeed, public and private finance generally — would be compelled.

Thus, there would seem to be a strong case for monetary policy functionaries and advisors to focus clearly on non equilibrium thermodynamics, EROEI oriented, analyses of economic phenomena. If this work is done thoroughly and well, the ‘valley of disappointment’ hypothesis may be confirmed in whole or substantial part, or disconfirmed. We may learn enough to get a better picture of workable paths through the transition before us.

7. Diplomacy

If the more advanced economies are facing thermodynamic/economic constraints in the upcoming Great Energy Transition, whereas on the other hand less developed venues feel entitled to a great deal of economic catch-up, regardless of atmosphere heating results, we have a continuing difficulty in managing world climate protection and acceptable rates of welfare improvement in some large and ambitious countries.  

The oil-laden Persian Gulf area is a continuing management problem. The deepest and most easily accessible pools of liquid hydrocarbons are in the hands of archaic political systems, some of whom — like Iran — have felt badly treated by the industrialized ‘West’. But USA Investment in an order-maintaining military presence in the Persian Gulf area most directly benefits India and China –the US only indirectly. This has not escaped the attention of one of the presidential contenders in the United States.

Diplomacy will be involved in finding ways to reconcile nativist-nationalist impulses in several European countries, and in the United States, with the economic and social advantages of global integration. The recent ‘Brexit’ act highlights the significance of this phenomenon.

Notwithstanding all the above, the hierarchy building imperative evident the hierarchical construction of order in the Universe explains at the most basic level currently available the tendency to global human integration evident in the last few centuries. This integration dynamic is fundamental.

But the equally underlying stochastic nature of the Universe counsels that nothing is guaranteed to we weird, extreme, socialized apes who seek to live like high technology, high energy, densely clustered ants, in a dynamic, promising, but perilous journey through life’s accumulated energy bounty into a new era of energy entrapment on Earth.

Thus the civilized effort to make light out of international heat, and workable coherence out of urgent parochialisms, has fundamental tasks before it in this era of change in the energy fundamentals. An understanding of the currents moving the ships of state, as well as steady hands on the helms, are needed.

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Economy

Democracy in decline and its fate after the crisis: Why will the big crisis kill liberalism with or without the demos

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Being praised as never before, democracy was in crisis. The reality of the economic problems of 2008-2020 led to a new critical moment. All this makes us think about the meaning of the word “democracy”, about the economic logic of history and much more.

Twilight of a new big crisis

The countries of the core of capitalism had to face a new big economic crisis in 2008. In semi-peripheral and peripheral countries, democracy was outwardly similar to the central, with the difference that it was much more formal, implicated in falsifications and did not exclude coups and turmoil, though formally they started as a struggle for fair elections. Neoliberalism in a broad sense had no alternative and could only be mitigated in some countries. Therefore, due to its strength and rootedness, the encounter with the crisis was delayed and turned out to be completely unpleasant. In 2020, this story has not yet been concluded.

Neoliberal doctrine and ideology brought market and commercial freedom to the forefront, while public interests were pushed to the background. Under the pressure of neoliberal reforms, the social structures supporting democracy, as known in the 20th century, weakened, mass participation in them declined. People resorted to private life and the elites boldly practiced manipulations. The protest became anti-globalist with faith in social networks and a growing mistrust of “rotten parties.” The criticism of neoliberalism and the democracy that it subordinated, namely liberal democracy by the “stars” of anti-globalism was spectacular. It was not effective, as its countercultural pathos did not prevent it from fitting into the mainstream.

Not everything looked unequivocally gloomy in the era preceding the 2008–2020 crisis. When Bill Clinton came to power in the United States and Tony Blair in the United Kingdom a considerable number of ordinary people felt a certain turn. In France, such a feeling was created later by the victory in the elections of socialists led by Francois Hollande. In Greece by the election of the party “Syriza” and Alexis Tsipras. In practice, the turn did not occur, everything turned into manipulative simulations, convenient for continuing the old course. They undermined faith in the seemingly existing democratic mechanisms. Might the opposition have found a solution to the neoliberal mainstream? Wasn’t there an alternative to the “outdated” base organisations of trade unions and parties, the idea of network organisation? In the 2000s it was widely cherished in Europe and America.

Alas, the networks did not become the basis for the revival of “genuine democracy,” and faith in them only helped conserve the opposition of neoliberalism. In these networks it rotted, telling itself from time to time not to follow the way of old parties, they were all evil, they killed the egalitarianism of a genuine popular movement and not to suggest designs instead of the people and for the people (all these congresses, committees and commissions) for in this way the true spirit of democracy will be completely ruined. As a result, the “genuine spirit” existed only in imagination.

When the time of social networks on the Internet came, it showed how much they enable the control over individuals and how little horizontal connections of individuals mean to them. With such networks it was easy to organize a wave of protests and after a change of power (a coup by order of the United States or the Eurocracy) to return the mass participants to their places.

Democracy in an era of crisis once more in crisis

In 2008, the time of sustainable financial globalisation ended and the great global economic crisis began. The waves of crisis came one after another until 2020. And then it finally became clear that the seeds of the anti-globalist alternative give rotten seedlings even in the United States: Bernie Sanders withdrew from the elections at the most dramatic moment for his people in the 21st century. Before that there was a series of unsuccessful attempts by society to influence the process in Europe. It turned out that he has no structures and understanding of the mechanics of their work and personal work in them, lacks solidarity and understanding of the situation. As a result, the liberal elite retained dominance over “democracy”.

But liberal political constructs have become an obstacle in the fight against the crisis. And if in Russia and China the shift from neoliberalism to a new practice neo-mercantilism started from above, without the help of republican mechanisms set in motion by the people (the starting point were the problems of economic development),  the situation was different in the West. The manipulative liberal democracy preserved the crisis, blocking attempts to change politics. Even Trump, with his conservative transformation plan, came up against the resistance of liberal forces from the Democratic Party and its adherents in the power system. He could not overcome the checks and balances.

An extensive programme about which my colleagues and I in the Department of Political Economy and the History of Economic Science of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics spoke in the report “Donald Trump and the Economic Situation” back in 2016[1]. In another report, entitled “A Society Without Opposition,” prepared with my participation in the Institute of the New Society, many vices of the left were revealed that prevented them from acting as the main force of transformations[2]. One of the problems lies in the desire to apply ready-made schemes to new historical conditions and the belief that capitalism cannot have anything new in itself, nothing that would not have happened before.

“Revolution or reform?” and myths about the ways

The disappointment in democratic mechanisms brought the old question, which in 1918 was included by Rosa Luxemburg in the title of her pamphlet “Reform or Revolution”, back to life. Reforms over the past 40 years have been neoliberal, and therefore the word “reform” often evoces negative emotions in people. In Russia, it is difficult for many citizens to accept the fact that the socio-patriotic reforms that are taking place in the country are not liberal, they are not shattering, but strengthening society. Therefore, the question remains valid.

But this question is false. However, it seems logical to many, as since the 1980s it was suggested that there are two ways that contradict each other: a seemingly tough and a seemingly soft one (identical to liberal democracy). In another interpretation: a progressive and an opportunistic, destructive or reactionary. Neoliberal reforms inspired the latter understanding, as they were destructive and antisocial in nature everywhere. However, under the influence of the global crisis of 2008-2020 at its very end, that is presently, reforms of a different type are now becoming possible. They are associated with the need to overcome the protracted era of economic crisis and the resumption of a sustainable growth and development. Naturally, they should increase the stability of the states in which they are implemented and, as a result, make them stronger in international rivalry.

Reforms of a new type and dictated by the new era became possible. In Russia they have already begun and with them another social reality started to form. But what about cliches? And what about the vulgar, but in practice voluntaristic understanding of revolutions based on disappointment in liberal democracy?

In the book “Capitalism of crises and revolutions how formation epochs alternate, new long waves are born, restorations die and neomercantilism advances” I devoted many pages to the complexity of such a phenomenon as the great modernisation revolution, as well as the Great Russian revolution. Here there is a unity of both revolutionary, evolutionary and reformist stages (not methods!). Voluntarists of “revolution” will never understand nor accept this. For them, all sorts of reforms of Russian or other capitalism will be a deception of the masses, and their support will be a betrayal of the “cause of the liberation of the working people” or a reactionary measure. There is no dialectic in such a vision of history. That is why voluntarists, adherents of maximalist phrase, are not related to real social revolutions with their complex diverse consequences.

In the United States, Britain, Western Europe and Japan, the situation is special. There neoliberalism has gone far in influencing society. From manipulations with the help of liberal institutions, it proceeded to the destruction of the basic norms of morality and relations, not centuries-old, but largely cultivated in the 20th century. Nuclear family was attacked as “slavery of the patriarchy”, trade unions as fetters to the market, the right of the majority to laws in its interest as the anti-democratic egoism of white men, discriminating minorities. Minorities themselves were nurtured and helped to fragment a society in which, as the events of 2008–2020 showed, no forces were found to overturn neoliberalism from the bottom in a left, reformist or more radical way.

Without being defeated, neoliberalism will die from the fact that its time has passed. This is already evident in some parts of the world, but not obvious in others. However, the impossibility of overcoming the crisis on the basis of neoliberal policy is the absolute proof of this thesis. And then what about democracy?

Neo-mercantilism is approaching

Left-wing intellectuals love to write phrases like this one: the struggle for social and cultural reforms, for another world with opportunities for every person to creatively find themselves, to be free, to control power and not be afraid to be poor, will continue and lead the world to success. In parallel, they can criticize the national conservatism of the “right”, and talk about the benefits of diversity in society, without which there can be no democracy. But truth requires adding at this point the story of Socrates. Athenian democracy did not at all tolerate his liberties and forced him to drink poison. His disciple Plato was forced to behave more carefully with the people. In modern realities, we must be prepared for a democratism that is conservative in spirit.

Neoliberalism has created a moral opposition in society, the foundations of which are considered traditional. The liberal left is indignant about this unrighteous, in their opinion, way of denying globalisation and the ideas of “free trade” in all spheres of life. However, conservatism is very limited here. It is not very religious, since society in countries with developed markets is not very religious, and the protection of family values and the importance of marriage is more like the defense of the Soviet understanding of relationships and lifestyle; it should be borne in mind that the emancipation of the 20th century is irreversible, universally recognised and inseparable from society, and these are not “patriarchal mores,” but the product of modernisation. Though this modernisation took place not so long ago. Therefore, anti-neoliberal conservatism does not at all refer to old morals, and only because of the love of religious justification of its position can be called right. However, there is also a reference to the national values and interests of nations, opposing the interests of global financial structures. And here it is important to finally accept the fact: neoliberalism hit the organised working class, the old class and left structures (including their structure) so hard that it left only a limited number of means to eliminate itself. The dismantling of neoliberalism is not a socialist act, but a bourgeois measure ensuring the further development of society. Another thing is that in the process in some countries a revival of the social state is possible.

The era of globalisation has taught many people to view democracy as something universal. Neoliberalism has replaced the dictatorship of modernisation in the countries of the semi-periphery and periphery of world capitalism. There was not much personal freedom and public freedom in them. But with neoliberalism, the local elites were able to cover up their rule with the word “democracy”. The plans of the elite of the countries of the centre did not include the transformation of part of the countries of the production periphery into new centres of development of capitalism, as candidates to play part in the core of the global economy. It was not part of the plans of the old centres that the local top officials should search for support in the “lower strata”, largely due to the rejection of the neoliberal course and reliance on social and patriotic measures. And the bold and independent behaviour of the highest bureaucracy, grand bureaucracy, is absolutely perceived in Washington and Brussels as a riot.

But it is precisely this rebellion that sets the limit to neoliberalism politically. Leaning or trying to rely on the majority of the country’s population (especially in Russia), it is democratic in its own way, reflecting the demos’ requests for social policy, the revival of national pride and the growth of prosperity based on the patronage of the state to its market, production and its mass buyer. This turn from neoliberalism, however, is not a turn created from below, that is, formally democratic, organised not under the pressure of society, but by society itself. In this regard, it is necessary to acknowledge the failure of attempts to end neoliberalism from below in many countries. With a firm commitment of the “upper strata” to this policy, it is not eliminated from above either. Even the split of the upper strata in the United States with the advent of Trump to the White House did not lead to such a development of events, the processes were blocked. Therefore, neoliberalism has not yet completed its history, it simply has lost economic efficiency and cannot be the basis for the exit of certain countries from the era of the great crisis. But this is not its complete end.

Democratism instead of democracy?

Nevertheless, the end of neoliberalism is inevitable. In some cases it will come in the form of a conservative in shade, and a socio-patriotic in form turn. In another case, problems in the economy will bring about movements that can either be such as in countries claiming to be new centres (Eurasian countries), or society will be able to move from an unstable and weak in content movement like the French “yellow vests” to something stronger and more productive. Finally, there is a scenario where popular intervention in politics will be like an outbreak such as in Argentina in the early 2000s. But in this case, progressive shifts will be the fruit of a new grand bureaucracy, simply not neoliberal.

All these paths are not easy. Democracy in them will probably be expressed not in procedures, but in mass support for the new agenda. It is hardly to be expected that the “lower strata” will restore the forms of organisation and practice that were characteristic of the 1930-1970s. In this sense, the prospect of the triumph of “pure democracy” soon seems doubtful. Republican procedures and structures will live, as society is agitated everywhere. However, even overcoming neoliberalism from above to a greater extent than from below will become a common scenario for overcoming the era of the great crisis, it should be taken into account: economic growth and social development in general will work for future democracy.

Formal Republics, where development does not stop and degradation does not happen (which is possible for some countries) will become more social. Relying on social unity, on the construction of nations and their associations, for example, during the Eurasian integration process, administrations will awaken reformist activity in society. As a result, formal Republics will move towards real Republics, where people influence processes not only through expression of mood. This will be the beginning of a new revival of democracy.

Here it is necessary to summarise. It was said enough by virtue of what economic processes neoliberal democracy (the right format of ideas and practice) found itself in a crisis, and was unable to provide a mechanism for leading the countries of the old core of capitalism out of the crisis and ensuring a change of power in Russia, China and other Eurasian states, claiming to be new centres of capitalism. There, the neoliberal “democrats” at the top are increasingly oppressed by the neo-mercantile grand bureaucracy. It can restart the growth of economies and this growth will continue for about 25 years. The big crisis will end and a new upward wave of development will begin; only shortly will commercial crises interrupt it, none of which will be similar to the era of 2008–2020. The establishment of a non-mercantile economic reality in the world launches a mechanism for mastering the practices and ideas of democracy in the conditions of strong national states of Eurasia, solving the tasks of continental integration and rivalry with the old global leaders. How the process of democratisation or the revival of democracy will develop is not yet clear. But economic recovery will be a better environment for this process than the last big crisis.

On the whole, the history of democracy is not only incomplete, but by and large is just beginning. And if in most countries in the era of neoliberalism democracy was a pure imitation, in a different era everything will be different.

 From our partner International Affairs

[1] Report of the Department of Political Economy and the History of Economic Science of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics “Donald Trump i ekonomisteskaya situatsiya: strategiya kandidatov v presidenty i Vroraya volna krizisa v SSHA”  // Institute for globalisation and social movements. – URL: http://igso.ru/trump_situation/ (publication date: 28.10.2016; reference date: 27.08.2018).

[2] Report of the Institute of the New Society “Society without Opposition: the crisis of the left in the era of neoliberalism and afterwards”// Institute of the New Society. – URL: http://neosoc.ru/%d0%be%d0%b1%d1%89%d0%b5%d1%81%d1%82%d0%b2%d0%be-%d0%b1%d0%b5%d0%b7-%d0%be%d0%bf%d0%bf%d0%be%d0%b7%d0%b8%d1%86%d0%b8%d0%b8/ (publication date: 28.10.2016; reference date: 27.05.2020).

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New trade rules vital to protecting the planet

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As satellites from NASA zipped over the planet Earth yesterday, they saw what they have seen every day for months: fires, hundreds of them, tearing through virgin rainforest and other vital ecosystems.

Many of the blazes, which come at the tail end of a devastating fire season, are believed to have been set by farmers eager to clear land and sate the booming global demand for beef and soybeans.

A new United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, jointly produced with the International Resource Panel, says that type of unbridled international trade is having a damaging effect not only on rainforests but the entire planet. The report, which called for a raft of new Earth-friendly trade rules, found that the extraction of natural resources could spark water shortages, drive animals to extinction and accelerate climate change – all of which would be ruinous to the global economy.

“The economic fallout of COVID-19 is just an overture to what we would see if the Earth’s natural systems break down. We have to make sure that our global trade policies protect the environment not only for the sake of our planet but also for the long-term health of our economies,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP.

The environmental toll

The new report, titled the Sustainable Trade in Resources, was unveiled Monday by UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen at a meeting of the World Trade Organization.  

It found that in 2017, 35 billion tonnes of material resources, from oil to iron to potatoes, were extracted from the earth specifically for the purposes of trade. While that helped create millions of jobs, especially in poor communities, the report found it had a profound effect of the planet. Resource extraction was responsible for 90 per cent of species loss, 90 per cent of water stress and 50 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in 2017.

With the demand for natural resources set to double by 2060, the report called on policy makers to embrace what is known as a “circular” economic model.  That would see businesses use fewer resources, recycle more and extend the life of their products. It would also put an onus on consumers to buy less, save energy and repair things that are broken instead of throwing them away.

The benefits of going green

Those changes could pay big dividends for the planet, the report found. By conserving resources, humanity could slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 90 per cent.

While the circular model could have “economic implications” for countries that depend on natural resources, it would give rise to new industries devoted to recycling and repair. Overall, the report predicts, a greener economic model would boost growth by 8 per cent by 2060.

“There’s this idea out there that we have to log, mine, and drill our way to prosperity,” said Inger Andersen. “But that’s not true. By embracing circularity and re-using materials we can still drive economic growth while protecting the planet for future generations.”

Some countries, both in the developed and developing world, have embraced the concept of a circular economy. But the report said international trade agreements can play an important role in making those systems more common. It called on the World Trade Organization, which has 164 member countries, to take the environment into consideration when setting regulations. It also recommended that regional trade pacts promote investments in planet-friendly industries, eliminate “harmful” subsidies, like those for fossil fuels, and avoid undercutting global environmental accords.

“Re-orienting the global economy isn’t an easy job,” said Inger Andersen. There are a lot of vested interests we have to contend with. But with the Earth’s population expected to reach almost 10 billion by 2050, we need to find ways to relieve the pressure on the planet.”

UN Environment

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Democracy in decline and its fate after the crisis: Economic waves and democratic procedures

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An economist and historian specializing in economic crises from ancient times to the epochs of commercial and modern industrial capitalism. Head of the Institute of a New Society, Lecturer at the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics. In early 2008, he gave a surprisingly accurate analysis of the current crisis, a long-term painful fracture, a major crisis transforming the world economy and the life of society. The forecast of changes caused by the crisis continues to be realised, confirming the theory of cyclicality of big crises. Koltashov headed the drafting of numerous analytical reports. In his book The Crisis of the Global Economy (2009), he spoke about the logic of the first wave of global instability, warning that the crisis will return. In 2013, at the beginning of the second wave of the crisis, the author returned to Russia after six years of analysing the economic catastrophe in Greece. In the same period, he began to study the connection between major crises and the great modernisation revolutions of the era of capitalism. Thus, for the first time, an economic and socio-political analysis of such phases as the restoration and glorious revolution was carried out.

In the 21st century one could observe the rise of democracy. In the 20th century for a long time it also seemed that democracy was developing steadily moving from the formal to the real. However, the big crisis of 1973-1982 led to a historic turn in its fate. Everything turned out to be more complicated than previously thought.

A brief pedigree of democracy

The emergence of democracy was associated with the development of the Greek polis economy. This happened after the “dark ages” that followed the great economic crisis of the 12th century BC. The old economic system collapsed whereas the new system had not formed yet.  It took several centuries of decline and degradation for it to occur. Another great crisis in the 3rd century dealt a severe blow to the municipalities of the Roman Empire with their democratic practices stemming from earlier city states. In history the great and big economic crises (they appeared after the great crisis of the 14th century) had a huge impact on social structures and relations, which are usually associated with the concept of “democracy”. The era after World War II is no exception. From that time to the present, democracy as a form of power and organisation of social structures has undergone enormous changes.

The concept of “democracy” is used widely, but is very controversial. It would be much more accurate to speak in most cases about the republican form of state, party and other structures, public consciousness and relations. But the word “democracy” always remains in fashion in politics, even if it is not created by the social “lower strata”, but the “elite” of nations or even the nomenclature of parties. The rejection of its widespread use will cause misunderstanding, although it would be right to treat it with extreme care. Finally, the anarchist extreme is also harmful: the belief that genuine modern government could exist in modern and even earlier socio-economic realities, not burdened by either bureaucracy, professional politicians, or oligarchs (the USA, for example, is an oligarchic republic) nor by faith in leaders and missions.

Democracy in the 21st century, no matter how contradictory this concept is, will eventually bloom. However, its current state and immediate prospects can be estimated only after analysing all the changes that have befallen it. And one should start with the crisis of democracy itself, the way the world knew it in the 20th century. It was in crisis when citizens of the former USSR saw it in its US-European liberal format.

The way 20th century democracy worked

In 1989-1994 alternative elections of heads of state and assembly of deputies, freedom of speech and press seemed the universal rules of democracy to many people in Eastern Europe. They were seen as Western standards, characteristic of a free, open, and pluralistic society. Western Europe and North America themselves seemed standards of freedom, where states flourished in democracy. Have not peoples fought here for broad public freedoms since the 18th century? Did not this struggle have results so attractive to residents of the Eastern bloc countries?

In fact, in the West, as they say in Eastern Europe, a necrosis of what is commonly called representative bourgeois democracy was taking place. No one formally abolished freedoms, like no one abolished many political freedoms in the USSR, but democracy became more and more liberal, even neoliberal, almost one-party, but most importantly, increasingly pushing the “bottom” away from decision-making. This is not to say that the “lower strata” did not cut themselves off from participating in governance, supporting neoconservative professional politicians. But most of all, they were cut off by processes in the economy. They reduced industry and the concentration of workers. But was this the only thing? Did only the dispersal of workers weaken their structure?

The concepts of “liberalism” and “democracy” have a weak connection. Democracy emerges as the power of a large number of people, while liberalism was largely an elitist trend of supporters of political freedoms, which should not be used by the “lower strata”. Therefore, it was not the power of the liberals that gave the world universal suffrage. It is known that Otto von Bismarck used universal (male) suffrage against liberals. Previously, Napoleon III had done this in France. However, the growth of industry gave rise to the development of trade unions and parties of the Social Democratic type, and later of the Communists. They made up the structures that ensured the flourishing of democracy in the West, that is in North America and Western Europe. With their help, the “lower strata” received not only the universal right to elect and be elected, but also the opportunity to have their own deputies. At least, as was the case in the United States, workers’ organizations participated through their superiors in transactions with non-worker’s parties and candidates.

Some called these deals beneficial to the working class and they actually improved its material and political position. Others called them rotten opportunism, and the masses perceived them as less and less interesting maximalists. This reformism in old industrial countries was based on the will of the working people themselves and not on deception on the part of left-wing leaders, which was remarkably shown in the book “Marxism and the Polyphony of Minds” by Andrei Koryakovtsev and Sergei Viskunov[1]. However, everything has its limits.

The crisis of 1973-1982 and a neoliberal turn

The “world revolution” of 1968 should probably be considered as the peak of the onset of democracy and social reforms. Then, students, not yet subordinated to the logic of capital by virtue of their student status, as Herbert Marcuse noted, rose to the struggle.

Many professors in the USA, Great Britain, France or the Federal Republic of Germany remembered the amazing wave of political activity of those who previously spent more time at their desks. Students demanded and sought participation in the management of universities, freedom of assembly in them and other rights. However, it would be a mistake to see in this a culmination of the struggle of employees. They often did not know what to do with the radicalism of the young. This is remarkably reflected in the film directed by Elio Petri “The working class goes to heaven” (1972): the working people solved economic problems, while the young maximalists demanded much more from them. For some time, the two streams merged and this led to an increase in wages in France and other countries. Of particular importance here was the struggle against right-wing dictatorships in Portugal, Spain and Greece. The success of these revolutions was part of the general upswing of the end of the era of economic growth of the 1950-1979s, when much seemed possible.

Finally, society was satisfied with what was achieved and the “revolutionaries” got tired. How fatigue accumulated in them is perfectly shown in the modern film “Something is in the Air” (2012). They were disappointed in the workers. Notes of this disappointment are heard in John Lennon’s sad song “Hero of the working class”. It is not difficult to see it in the transition of the hero of the Paris barricades of 1968 the anarchist Daniel Cohn-Bendit to the ranks of adequately systemic environmental parties in France and Germany. Now in the cohorts of “green” there are many critics of the neoliberalism of the 2000s. The most striking figure here is Canadian journalist Naomi Klein, the author of the book “Shock Doctrine” that denounces neoliberalism. Though, this was later… In the 1980s many parents were happy to see their “wised up” children in the ranks of office staff, among buyers of new cars, homes and aspiring to a corporate career. Hippie’s long hair was cut, and the recent criticism of parents for their commitment to the “consumer society” was forgotten.

The turnaround did not happen overnight. In the years 1973-1982 the world experienced an acute economic crisis. In the book “Capitalism of crises and revolutions how formation epochs alternate, new long waves are born, restorations die and neomercantilism advances” I dwell on its essence in great detail[2]. My colleagues from the Department of Political Economy and the History of Economic Science of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics repeatedly pointed out in analytical reports that: the current crisis is very similar to that crisis. It was also emphasised in the report “Donald Trump and the Economic Situation”, where in 2016 it was shown how difficult it is to overcome such a crisis[3]. But the crisis of 1973-1982 according to the apt expression of the French historian Fernand Braudel was similar to a flood, and did not resemble the hurricane crisis of 1929-1933[4]. This was due to the fact that the state struggled against the manifestations, but not the causes of the economic crisis.

Almost a decade of economic crisis was enough to launch serious changes. The time had come for financial globalisation, the transfer of industry to the Third World countries and the growth of financialisation of Western economies. There industry contracted and the service sector expanded.

How the crises decide instead of us

People often look at democracy as a product of their own activity. In this sense, its development is perceived as the result of smart agitation and the rational organisation of collective interaction, and weakening as the result of incorrect actions. But history has laws and these laws are primarily economic laws. One of these laws concerns the change of long waves by Nikolay Kondratiev. These waves of development last for 20–25 years and are replaced by particularly severe, major crises. Such crises appeared after the great crisis of the 14th century. However, their regularity can be traced from the 1770s, when under the influence of the great crisis, an industrial revolution took place in England.

The development of the economy of capitalism is wave-like and can also be called cyclical. The Great Crisis of 1973-1982 is on a par with the crisis of 2008–2020, to which the analytical report “The Crisis of the Global Economy and Russia” was devoted. The report was written under the guidance of the author and reflected his understanding of processes in the world economy[5]. This report was released in early June 2008. It contained a predictive analysis of events, which were subsequently confirmed in many ways, and most importantly confirmed the correctness of the concept of big crises, an area of my research. Such crises existed before. Their full range is: 1770-1783, 1810-1820, 1847-1850, 1873-1879, 1899-1904, 1929-1933, 1948-1949, 1973-1982 and 2008-2020. In Figure 1. their place in the development process can be seen.

Figure. 1 Large economic crises before and after the industrial turn of 1770-1783.

Rallies, demonstrations, strikes, occupation of campuses and slogans at lectures in the name of democracy everywhere and always all this remained in the past by the end of the crisis-era of the 1970s. The turn was painful, difficult and most importantly (it always happens) there have been such shifts in the global economy, and then in technology that weakened the old industrial regions of the West. The removal of industry to peripheral countries, the growth of office facilities in the old centres of capitalism meant a change in the sphere of social relations and ideas.

Neoliberal withering of democracy

Immanuel Wallerstein could write volumes about the “1968 revolution,” but big business was the real winner. But its victory was dictated not so much by a clash with the “lower strata” as by failures during the years of the crisis of 1973-1982, which showed the need for fundamental changes in economic policy. Keynesianism has used up its historical resource.

With changes and for the sake of change neoliberal forces came to power, demanding the market to be unchained to complete freedom and the role of the state in regulation to be reduced. The main idea was simple: let the central banks rule with the help of monetary instruments. From the point of view of democracy, this means abandoning an extremely important sphere out of public control. Later, the United States will impose on countries the independence of central banks from the authorities, and Naomi Klein in the book “The Doctrine of Shock” will devote many pages to uncovering the negative consequences of such changes[6].

If central banks are independent or almost independent of the government, they are very little dependent on society. But did this mean that Western democracy shrank like the shagreen skin from Honore de Balzac’s work only due to this? In the 1980-1990s the importance of trade unions declined and the importance of left-wing parties simply collapsed. Being very serious during the crisis of the 1970s, with the collapse of the USSR they turn into parties on the political sidelines or adopt neoliberal programmes. From that moment on, all influential forces can be divided into open liberals and those masquerading as socialists, social democrats and even communists. The Green are a special type of disguise, a very effective one. The masses lose confidence in parties and the parties often lose their mass origins. They do not lose touch with their clientele, they even develop it, but they cease to be agents of the “lower strata” in the political system. The party nomenclature is adjusted to the time politically and the “lower strata” economically.

All this undermines the foundation of the very bourgeois democracy in which the propertied classes were forced to take into account the demands of the masses, since these masses had strong agents. The masses themselves were their strength. With the decline in the industrial organisation of the “lower strata,” their role in public life also deminishes. Now they are required to vote in the elections, the procedural instance of procedural liberal democracy, having even lost the indirect and largely formal power of the “demos”. But this “demos” seems to betray its former self. It follows neoliberal ideas and forces, turning away from radical left or national-conservative preachers.

When procedures prevail

Without taking into account the fact that the majority of citizens of industrialised countries followed neoliberals, such as Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the USA, it is impossible to understand the causes of the crisis of Western democracy and its basic structures. Of course, one can believe the version that the “lower strata” were insidiously deceived, blindly followed the masters of hypnotic phrases and therefore lost faith in their own strength, the strength of their structures and in the chance of democracy. However, the truth seems different: the working class abandoned democracy and the basic working structures following the temptation to leave its class.

In those days, it was about turning people into owners of state and municipal housing (privatisation), creating small business, corporate careers, or just working in an office, which was very different from working in a factory. The temptation included the ability to dress in business style, dine in cafes and restaurants, and generally increase consumption. Many were not concerned about democracy. They did not turn against it, but its transformation into procedural democracy was not stopped.

It is amusing, but the Western working class surrendered its democratic and highly conditional dictatorship to bourgeois political management almost as quickly as the working class in Soviet Russia in 1918-1919 in a deal with party nomenclature exchanged its democratic dictatorship for new opportunities. They also included vertical mobility for some: opportunities to go up the social ladder. As a result, in the West the model of liberal democracy was established, a procedural democracy and much more formal than the form that preceded it. And if the electorate could choose parties or candidates at will, they would still get the same result, since ideologically the elections had almost no alternative. And the liberal spirit of this “democracy” was most expressed in this.

 From our partner International Affairs

[1] Koruakovtsev A. Viskunov S. Marxism i poliphonia razumov – Ekaterinburg, «Kabinetnyi uchenyi», 2016 – p. 663.

[2] Koltashov V.G. (2019). Kapitalizm krizisov i revolutsii: kak smenyautsja formatsionnye epohi, rozdautsja dlinnye volny, umiraut restavratsii i nastupaet neomercantilizm, M.: “RuScience”.

[3] Report of the Department of Political Economy and the History of Economic Science of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics “Donald Trump i ekonomisteskaya situatsiya: strategiya kandidatov v presidenty i Vroraya volna krizisa v SSHA”  // Institute for globalisation and social movements. – URL: http://igso.ru/trump_situation/ (publication date: 28.10.2016; reference date: 27.08.2018).

[4] Braudel F. Materialnaya tsivilizatsiya, ekonomica i kapitalizm XV-XVIII . Vol. III. Vremya mira — М.: «Progress», 1992. — p. 76-77.

[5] Report of the Institute for globalisation and social movements. (IGSO) «Krizis globalnoy economiki i Rossiya» // Institute for globalisation and social movements.. – URL: http://igso.ru/world_crisis_and_russia/  (publication date: 09.06.2008; reference date: 28.01.2020).

[6] Klein Naomi.  Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism  – M.: «Dobraya kniga», 2009, p. 890.

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