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The Chinese debt issue

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Despite the “phase one” trade agreement signed between the United States and China in January 2020, the coronavirus issue has greatly distorted the Chinese economy.

It should be recalled that China had pledged to buy 200 billion U.S. dollars of U.S. goods and “specific products” over a two-year period.

Certainly the Chinese government has reacted to the coronavirus crisis with acceptable speed, injecting a huge amount of liquidity into the economy, through the Central Bank,as well as proportionately reducing financing costs and increasing credit to businesses by 67%.

 The Chinese authorities still have some room for providing more stimulus through monetary and fiscal policy, since the central government’s debt alone remains below 25% of GDP and is mainly refinanced at national level.

 But there is the excessive level of debt in real estate and the increase in costs for infrastructure and protection-sanitation activities, which could put the public budget at risk in the short term.

 The debt of non-financial private Chinese companies accounts for 155% of Chinese GDP, but there is a strong increase in household debt, which has been going on for at least five years.The local governments’ debt is currently worth 60-70% of Chinese GDP.

 There has been a significant increase in the insolvencies of companies, especially small and medium-sized ones, given the reorientation of the whole Chinese economy from the export to the domestic market, with the expansion of the formal economy, which has knocked out the companies that produced at very low cost, especially for the export markets.

 This adds to the U.S. request for cancelling part of the its public debt securities held in Chinese banks.

The underlying logic is the following: China is immediately blamed for hiding news about the coronavirus and hence the cancellation of at least part of the U.S. debt held in Chinese hands is requested.

It should also be recalled that China has approximately 20% of the North American public debt available.

It is the first time that a financial operation of such magnitude is based on a “conspiracy theory”, i.e. the hypothesis – currently denied by all experts – that the Covid-19 virus has been artificially processed in the Wuhan laboratories, which are located a few hundred metres from the even more famous wet market of the city.

 There is purely strategic relevance in all this: China’s ability to make debt is also at the basis of the Belt and Road Initiative, i.e. the economic and geopolitical project which is more disliked by the United States than we can imagine.

 That is probably the U.S. real goal.

 Therefore, asking for default on part of its debt held in China is a way to make Chinapay the bill for the pandemic and, above all, to stop the development of China as the U.S. only challenger in terms of global economic and military power.

This is one of the best moments for the United States: approximately 60 million Chinese are still in quarantine and, while SARS cost 1.5 points of GDP in 2003, nowadays – according to the most optimistic forecasts -Covid-19 is expected to cost China 2.1 points of GDP.

 Hence, while the risks of recession in China were low after the January 2020 agreements with the USA, currently the combination of the coronavirus crisis and the U.S. financial and legal pressure makes us think that the Chinese recession could be fast and strong, if these two factors persisted.

A solution could be China’s acquisition of a large part of the debt of the poorest nations that the Covid-19 crisis has bankrupted.

It has already happened with Pakistan or Sri Lanka, given that the debt service granted by China has led to the actual requisitioning of the infrastructure already built in those countries by China itself. The Chinese government, however, has mainly followed the indications of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which advise to cancel the debt partly or totally.

China replies to the U.S. accusation of having produced or spread a truly “Chinese” virus throughout the world by saying that the World Health Organization itself has established that the virus has no precise development area and cannot therefore be associated with any specific country.

Furthermore, China does not accept at all the fact that, while Covid-19 has appeared for the first time in Wuhan, this necessarily means that it was “born” in Wuhan, considering that the appearance or even the very traceability of the virus are issues which are still being studied by scientists.

Obviously China reiterates that the coronavirus is not “artificial”, but completely natural, as all the most authoritative virologists in each country have established.

China also maintains that Covid-19 has not been “made” in Wuhan, since the P4 laboratory in that city is a partnership between China and France (with some activity even funded by the United States) and there have been no virus infections among the staff.

 But all this is not enough: over 5,000 American citizens have signed a class action in Florida to claim damages from the Chinese government for the coronavirus infection.

 Similar lawsuits have been initiated in Nevada and Texas, others in Minnesota and even in California.

 Under international law, the legal proceedings started by the U.S. government against the Chinese government for damage resulting from Covid-19 could be worth 1.2 trillion U.S. dollars.

 The legal basis for these legal proceedings and appeals is, above all, the delay with which the Chinese government provided data to the WHO, but the institutions where to appeal against China could be the WHO itself, the International Court of Justice, but also the Permanent Court of Arbitration or the ordinary civil courts in Hong Kong and the USA itself.

Nevertheless, considering that pandemics may break out anywhere, no country has an interest in “setting the precedent” for the coronavirus. What if a new pandemic were to break out in Lithuania or Madagascar?

 The International Liability Act for Health and Environmental Damage caused by one country to another applied, for the first time, in a 1920 lawsuit in which a factory in British Columbia released dangerous fumes to and across the Canadian-U.S. border.

 Many North American legal experts tell us that there is a parallel between the current coronavirus situation and the old dispute between Canada and the United States in which Canada paid damages without question.

 As far as current private international law is concerned, in principle States cannot be sued for public activities related to their sovereignty.

 To be entitled to sue China, it would be necessary to demonstrate that the activity carried out in the Wuhan P4 laboratory was completely private and hence aimed at simply manufacturing or marketing pharmaceutical products.

 From this viewpoint, domestic courts can never be called upon to judge the dispute.

Furthermore, in Italy, a foreign State may still be brought to trial, but only when its activities end up infringing the mandatory principles of international law.

However, when there is no possibility of damages action, there may also be the option of an inquiry committee made up of independent members.

 It could operate under the aegis of the U.N. Security Council, or even of other equally relevant international bodies.

Furthermore, according to other financial and economic analysts, the economic crisis from Covid-19 will not lead to recession in China, but even to a very strong public economic stimulus and hence to greater future short-term debt.

 After the first signs of epidemic, besides other “dedicated” financial operations, the Chinese Central Bank has injected the equivalent of 170 billion U.S. dollars of liquidity into the economy.

It is probably the largest and fastest response to the current pandemic economic crisis ever provided in the world.

 Certainly, the Chinese economy is now much different from the one that withstood the pressure of SARS in 2003.

Nowadays the service sector is the primary one, with a contribution to economic growth which is 40% higher than in the days of SARS.

 Meanwhile, however, the outflow of capital from China is increasing. The renmimbi is about 7 to the dollar, and some professional Western investors are wondering whether the Chinese economy can carry the new debt burden, which is necessary to push the economy forward, during and after the coronavirus pandemic.

 How much is China’s domestic debt support capacity? 250%? No one knows until the debt to GDP ratio reaches the ceiling.

 Obviously, the U.S. claim for damages will only exacerbate internal tensions within the Chinese economy and will temporarily enable the United States to economically and strategically outdistance China from it.

Again in economic and financial terms, in 2020 China will certainly record its first GDP decline since 1976, but the United States is not doing very well either.

 About half of the American population is now locked up at home.

 In the last week for which we have data, the cost of unemployment insurance has reached 3.5 million, the highest level in the history of the ambiguous North American welfare state.

 The International Monetary Fund also predicts a reduction in world income of at least 2 trillion U.S. dollars.

 The real issue is whether there will be any recovery at the end of 2020.

What are the variables at stake? Simply the amount of stimulus to the State economy, consumer confidence, as well as the number of Covid-19 infection cases.

 In the worst case scenario, there will be a yearly 3.5% reduction in Chinese GDP in 2020. A second wave of crisis can be expected in early 2021, but if there is no new virus infection, China’s GDP decrease is expected to level off at 2% in 2021 and then stabilize in mid-2023.

In the E.U. case, the crisis is expected to lead to a 9% GDP reduction in all Member States, which will certainly not mean a decrease in internal tensions.

On the worst possible assumption, the persistence of a significant amount of infections and of lockdowns could lead to structural recession and it would take at least four to five years to go back to pre-Covid-19 rates.

 It will be necessary to reduce spending significantly, from 20 to 30%, as well as advance receipts and provide more aid to companies and consumers.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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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