In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to acknowledge that three prominent intellectual figures spanning the 19th and 20th centuries forecasted the cataclysm of modernity. Thomas Carlyle, René Guénon, and Jacques Ellul provided reasoned accounts to justify their views that modernity is engulfed in a state of crisis on the basis that the not-mutually-exclusive hegemonies of technology, capitalism, and globalization are not invulnerable.
While each offered a slightly different viewpoint and a slightly different description of what they took to be the crisis, their views all coalesce around the general thesis that the continuous expansion of the material and technological built landscapes will eventually prove to be catastrophic. This is for two reasons. The first, because an ever-more complex system becomes ripe for error, an error which could cause the whole system to go haywire. Essentially, “the bigger it is the harder it falls.” The second reason is that in constructing an external environment as its hegemonic priority, humanity is neglecting giving attention to spirituality, philosophy, and developing the human inward nature. The external and material becomes the fog that humanity becomes ensconced in to such an extent that pursuing such things as the ascertainment of spiritual reality through intuition, the project Plato inaugurated academia with and inspired Christianity and Islam’s later development with, becomes wrested away wholesale from the consciousness of humanity. The two factors work in a type of synergy in that they mutually reinforce one another and precipitate cataclysm. The renunciation of the pursuit of constructing an ever vaster and more complex material system, which ostensibly implies a turn toward the spiritual as a premise, is the only means to stave off ever-greater cataclysms as the material system continuously grows more complex and more globalized.
Since the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, technology, capitalism, and globalization have exerted their unquestioned domination only increasingly—until COVID-19. Technology, capitalism, and globalization have been unquestioned to such an extent that in hindsight it is obvious, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, that a global emergency of major proportions was necessary to even entertain the question that they were bound all along to eventually lead to a breakdown and inflict unprecedented harm to global health and the global economy. World War II was a destructive moment, but in no way did it impede the post-war expansions of technology, capitalism, and globalization in the latter-half of the 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st. The COVID-19 pandemic is dissimilar even to the catastrophe of World War II because of the magnitude and the nearly-universal geographic scope of the economic toll it has taken in such a short time. Moreover, while there was room for technology, globalization, and capitalism to both re-emerge and expand following World War II, their room for expansion from their forms immediately prior to the economic contraction COVID-19 exacted is likely to be minimal and is more likely to be non-existent or even negative. The contraction of the technological globalized capitalist system would inherently imply the beginning of a new post-globalization era.
What makes Carlyle, Guénon, and Ellul interesting to entertain in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is the grand, global, and “esoteric” natures of their philosophies of modern history. It should be noted that the dominance of scientific rationality, mechanization, and materialist economy in the modern era itself was the lens through which enabled their philosophies to bereceived as radical and “esoteric,” or not based on empirical, positivist, scientific evidence. If their views had found a way to usurp the hegemonic position in the popular collective consciousness, they would not have been seen as radical or off-base.
Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus is an 1836 fiction book that essentially inaugurated and epitomized modern social criticism toward the blind commitment to the Enlightenment and the resulting emergence of the non-spiritual materialistic basis of 19th century European politics, economy, and society. It was a chief inspiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and a foundational book for American Transcendentalism as an intellectual movement in general. In Sartor Resartus, Carlyle offers a cryptic diagnosis of the ailment of modernity during the midst of its advent, the Victorian industrial age.
Speaking through the voice of the book’s protagonist, Professor Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, Carlyle theorizes of a “phoenix” that can be forecasted to take place roughly sometime in the 21st century. Carlyle writes, “we are at this hour in a most critical condition; beleaguered by that boundless ‘Armament of Mechanisers’ and Unbelievers, threatening to strip us bare! ‘The World,’ says [Teufelsdröckh], ‘as it needs must, is under a process of devastation and waste, which, whether by silent assiduous corrosion, or open quicker combustion, as the case chances, will effectually enough annihilate the past Forms of Society; replace them with what it may.’” This is flowery language that communicates Carlyle’s view that the world is destined to be consumed and destroyed as a function of the domination of those who uninterruptedly pursue the “boundless” construction of the material economy single-mindedly as their highest/only priority in conjunction with those who are non-spiritual, the “Unbelievers.” The “Armament of Mechanisers” and “Unbelievers” are synergistic and largely synonymous in that they are those who acknowledge only that which is material and perceptible by their senses.
To Carlyle, the “Armament of Mechanisers” and “Unbelievers,” by promoting the material economy, are inherently ignoring the spiritual realm, a realm that would be a moderator and reign in all-consuming materialism by embodying the virtue of renunciation (a virtue in nearly every theological and spiritual tradition). Humanity loses consciousness of the spiritual because modernity inherently divests the world of its spirit. Such a process is unsustainable because the finite nature of the world and its finite resources cannot sustain the pursuit of infinite material consumption and the increasing chaos that inherently manifests with a system that grows ever more complex. Thus, the materialist economy is bound to come into its full being, just like the mythic phoenix, before returning to ash and emerging in a different form. Carlyle reflects, “what time the Phoenix Death-Birth itself will require depends on unseen contingencies” and that it is a “handsome bargain would she engage to have [it] done ‘within two centuries.’”
René Guénon, a 20th century intellectual and metaphysician, offered what is perhaps the most sweeping and all-encompassing critique of the historical trajectory of Western civilization. He is also noteworthy in the contemporary sense as an inspiration for Steve Bannon, a chief political and policy adviser to President Donald Trump and a prominent promoter of traditionalist conservatism through such channels as Breitbart News Network. For Guénon, the West is in precipitous decline and he forecasted that it will reach a breaking point since the world is progressively displacing the realization of the quality of what he called the “Essence” of the transcendental realm (i.e. what lies beyond time and space and is perceived through the use of Platonic/spiritual intuition) with the realization of ever-greater quantity of the substance of what is material on Earth. Essentially, the progressive development of civilization corresponds to a cheapening of it and what he refers to as a “reign of quantity” rather than a reign of the quality of what can be nominally cast as the timeless Platonic Forms. Rather than conceiving of an ideal (i.e. a Platonic Form) through the use of intuition and then pursuing its realization in the Earthly material realm, everything modern defaults to gravitating around what Guénon takes to be the lowest-common-denominator, which is the measurement of everything by its quantitative rather than qualitative value. In other words, we are losing our ability to grasp and realize by intuition the ideal incarnation of all objects, concepts, and phenomena that are timeless and unchanging in the transcendent realm yet ephemeral in the material Earthly realm.
In The Crisis of the Modern World, published in 1927 shortly after World War I’s explicit embodiment of the rejection of the narrative of continual progress in modernity, Guénon reflects: “the belief in a never-ending ‘progress’, which until recently was held as a sort of inviolable and indisputable dogma, is no longer so widespread; there are those who perceive, though in a vague and confused manner , that the civilization of the West may not always go on developing in the same direction, but may some day reach a point where it will stop, or even be plunged in its entirety into some cataclysm.”
Guénon parallels Carlyle in Sartor Resartus in that he acknowledges the deeply problematic nature of cutting material existence on Earth off from any transcendent/spiritual/divine reality, a phenomenon which is only increasingly taking place in the context of modernity and not in previous ages. Devoid of any collective consciousness of transcendent reality that may prove effectual to moderating the continuous expansion of materialism and the “reign of quantity,” Guénon thinks modernity takes on a dimension antithetical to the transcendent and thus can be deemed “satanic” in the simplest nominal and non-theological use of the term. This narrative, Guénon maintains, explains the eventual dissolution of the modern world, as “the reign of quantity” will maximize the realization of quantity to its farthest limits, before triggering a cataclysmic contraction. According to Guénon in The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, the “rectification” of modernity “presupposes arrival at the point at which the ‘descent’ is completely accomplished, where ‘the wheel stops turning.’” Guénon concludes that until such a breaking point is attained, “it is impossible that these things should be understood by men in general…”
Jacques Ellul, who was perhaps the foremost philosopher-critic of technology in the 20th century (and a chief inspiration for the Unabomber), largely reincarnated without citation Carlyle’s original criticisms of modernity. Ellul felt that modernity was synonymous with one vast global technical civilization that was autonomous and not subject to human control since its overall historical development as a system and long-term consequences are not subject to human control.Ellul defines what he takes to be technical civilization in his magnum opus The Technological Society, published in 1954: “technical civilization means that our civilization is constructed by technique (makes a part of civilization only what belongs to technique), for technique (in that everything in this civilization must serve a technical end), and is exclusively technique (in that it excludes whatever is not technique or reduces it to technical form).”
Ellul made known his theory that the technical civilization will have to perfect itself and sustain its perfection, as the only other alternative to perfection is the commission of an error, either small or large, that has the ability to cause the vast and interconnected system to go haywire. Ellul declares, “the technical society must perfect the ‘man-machine’ complex or risk total collapse.” For Ellul, technical civilization is a “Behemoth” and it can “rest easy” as nothing “will prevent him from consuming mankind.” Such an elucidation of the stakes involved in creating an ever-more complex and gigantic globalized and technological system are deeply relevant to the narrative of how COVID-19 wreaked havoc on global health and the global economy so quickly and so easily. Air travel and other forms of transportation infrastructure were technological developments that had reached a zenith at the time of the onset of the pandemic as a function of globalized capitalism also being at a zenith. The totality of the network of global transportation infrastructure manifested by technical civilization’s progressive global development since the Industrial Revolution was compounded by the growth in the levels of global travel on the part of the largest global population in history at the time of COVID-19’s onset.
Ellul denounces liberal political economy for providing the favorable climate necessary for the unquestioned manifestation of technical civilization and refutes prospective critics who would maintain that liberal economy and technical civilization are compatible for the long-term:
“It will doubtless be pointed out, by way of refutation, that production techniques were developed during the ascendancy of liberalism, which furnished a favorable climate for their development and understood perfectly how to use them. But this is no counterargument. The simple fact is that liberalism permitted the development of its executioner, exactly as in a healthy tissue a constituent cell may proliferate and give rise to a fatal cancer. The healthy body represented the necessary condition for the cancer. But there was no contradiction between the two. The same relation holds between technique and economic liberalism.”
Just as Carlyle documented what he took to be the crisis of modernity at its advent during the initial industrialism of 19th century Victorian England, Guénon documented in the context of retrospectively accounting for the catastrophes of both World Wars I and II, and Ellul documented in the context of the post-World War II exponential growth of technology, the COVID-19 pandemic provides another milestone with which to, at a minimum, revisit their mutually compatible theses with respect to the cataclysm of modernity. Whether COVID-19 proves to be the “big one” and arrests the hegemonic triumvirate of technology, capitalism, and globalization remains to be seen. At a minimum, what can be gleaned from Carlyle, Guénon, and Ellul is that modernity’s improvement of the material standard of living for so many globally needs to be balanced with a view toward moderation and long-term sustainability. Liberal political economy, science, and technological innovation have until now been single-minded seekers of continuous growth without acknowledging the need to at some point ossify or plateau the technical civilization they have each been instrumental in constructing so that it does not become a phoenix and burn to ash.
The Monetary Policy of Pakistan: SBP Maintains the Policy Rate
The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) announced its bi-monthly monetary policy yesterday, 27th July 2021. Pakistan’s Central bank retained the benchmark interest rate at 7% after reviewing the national economy in midst of a fourth wave of the coronavirus surging throughout the country. The policy rate is a huge factor that relents the growth and inflationary pressures in an economy. The rate was majorly retained due to the growing consumer and business confidence as the global economy rebounds from the coronavirus. The State Bank had slashed the interest rate by 625 basis points to 7% back in the March-June 2020 in the wake of the covid pandemic wreaking havoc on the struggling industries of Pakistan. In a poll conducted earlier, about 89% of the participants expected this outcome of the session. It was a leap of confidence from the last poll conducted in May when 73% of the participants expected the State Bank to hold the discount rate at this level.
The State Bank Governor, Dr. Raza Baqir, emphasized that the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has resorted to holding the 7% discount rate to allow the economy to recover properly. He added that the central bank would not hike the interest rate until the demand shows noticeable growth and becomes sustainable. He echoed the sage economists by reminding them that the State Bank wants to relay a breather to Pakistan’s economy before pushing the brakes. The MPC further asserted that the Real Discount Rate (adjusted for inflation) currently stands at -3% which has significantly cushioned the economy and encouraged smaller industries to grow despite the throes of the pandemic.
Dr. Raza Baqir further went on to discuss the current account deficit staged last month. He added that the 11-month streak of the current account surplus was cut short largely due to the loan payments made in June. The MPC further explained that multiple factors including an impending expiration of the federal budget, concurrent payments due to lenders, and import of vaccines, weighed heavily down on the national exchequer. He further iterated that the State Bank expects a rise in exports along with a sustained recovery in the remittance flow till the end of 2021 to once again upend the current account into surplus. Dr. Raza Baqir assured that the current level of the current account deficit (standing at 3% of the GDP) is stable. The MPC reminded that majority of the developing countries stand with a current account deficit due to growth prospects and import dependency. The claims were backed as Dr. Raza Baqir voiced his optimism regarding the GDP growth extending from 3.9% to 5% by the end of FY21-22.
Regarding currency depreciation, Dr. Baqir added that the downfall is largely associated with the strengthening greenback in the global market coupled with high volatility in the oil market which disgruntled almost every oil-importing country, including Pakistan. He further remarked, however, that as the global economy is vying stability, the situation would brighten up in the forthcoming months. Mr. Baqir emphasized that the current account deficit stands at the lowest level in the last decade while the remittances have grown by 25% relative to yesteryear. Combined with proceeds from the recently floated Eurobonds and financial assistance from international lenders including the IMF and the World Bank, both the currency and the deficit would eventually recover as the global market corrects in the following months.
Lastly, the Governor State Bank addressed the rampant inflation in the economy. He stated that despite a hyperinflation scenario that clocked 8.9% inflation last month, the discount rates are deliberately kept below. Mr. Baqir added that the inflation rate was largely within the limits of 7-9% inflation gauged by the State Bank earlier this year. However, he further added that the State Bank is making efforts to curb the unrelenting inflation. He remarked that as the peak summer demand is closing with July, the one-way pressure on the rupee would subsequently plummet and would allow relief in prices.
The MPC has retained the discount rate at 7% for the fifth consecutive time. The policy shows that despite a rebound in growth and prosperity, the threat of the delta variant still looms. Karachi, Pakistan’s busiest metropolis and commercial hub, has recently witnessed a considerable surge in infections. The positivity ratio clocked 26% in Karachi as the national figure inched towards 7% positivity. The worrisome situation warrants the decision of the State Bank of Pakistan. Dr. Raza Baqir concluded the session by assuring that despite raging inflation, the State Bank would not resort to a rate hike until the economy fully returns to the pre-pandemic levels of employment and production. He further assuaged the concerns by signifying the future hike in the policy rate would be gradual in nature, contrast to the 2019 hike that shuffled the markets beyond expectation.
Reforms Key to Romania’s Resilient Recovery
Over the past decade, Romania has achieved a remarkable track record of high economic growth, sustained poverty reduction, and rising household incomes. An EU member since 2007, the country’s economic growth was one of the highest in the EU during the period 2010-2020.
Like the rest of the world, however, Romania has been profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the economy contracted by 3.9 percent and the unemployment rate reached 5.5 percent in July before dropping slightly to 5.3 percent in December. Trade and services decreased by 4.7 percent, while sectors such as tourism and hospitality were severely affected. Hard won gains in poverty reduction were temporarily reversed and social and economic inequality increased.
The Romanian government acted swiftly in response to the crisis, providing a fiscal stimulus of 4.4 percent of GDP in 2020 to help keep the economy moving. Economic activity was also supported by a resilient private sector. Today, Romania’s economy is showing good signs of recovery and is projected to grow at around 7 percent in 2021, making it one of the few EU economies expected to reach pre-pandemic growth levels this year. This is very promising.
Yet the road ahead remains highly uncertain, and Romania faces several important challenges.
The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of Romania’s institutions to adverse shocks, exacerbated existing fiscal pressures, and widened gaps in healthcare, education, employment, and social protection.
Poverty increased significantly among the population in 2020, especially among vulnerable communities such as the Roma, and remains elevated in 2021 due to the triple-hit of the ongoing pandemic, poor agricultural yields, and declining remittance incomes.
Frontline workers, low-skilled and temporary workers, the self-employed, women, youth, and small businesses have all been disproportionately impacted by the crisis, including through lost salaries, jobs, and opportunities.
The pandemic has also highlighted deep-rooted inequalities. Jobs in the informal sector and critical income via remittances from abroad have been severely limited for communities that depend on them most, especially the Roma, the country’s most vulnerable group.
How can Romania address these challenges and ensure a green, resilient, and inclusive recovery for all?
Reforms in several key areas can pave the way forward.
First, tax policy and administration require further progress. If Romania is to spend more on pensions, education, or health, it must boost revenue collection. Currently, Romania collects less than 27 percent of GDP in budget revenue, which is the second lowest share in the EU. Measures to increase revenues and efficiency could include improving tax revenue collection, including through digitalization of tax administration and removal of tax exemptions, for example.
Second, public expenditure priorities require adjustment. With the third lowest public spending per GDP among EU countries, Romania already has limited space to cut expenditures, but could focus on making them more efficient, while addressing pressures stemming from its large public sector wage bill. Public employment and wages, for instance, would benefit from a review of wage structures and linking pay with performance.
Third, ensuring sustainability of the country’s pension fund is a high priority. The deficit of the pension fund is currently around 2 percent of GDP, which is subsidized from the state budget. The fund would therefore benefit from closer examination of the pension indexation formula, the number of years of contribution, and the role of special pensions.
Fourth is reform and restructuring of State-Owned Enterprises, which play a significant role in Romania’s economy. SOEs account for about 4.5 percent of employment and are dominant in vital sectors such as transport and energy. Immediate steps could include improving corporate governance of SOEs and careful analysis of the selection and reward of SOE executives and non-executive bodies, which must be done objectively to ensure that management acts in the best interest of companies.
Finally, enhancing social protection must be central to the government’s efforts to boost effectiveness of the public sector and deliver better services for citizens. Better targeted social assistance will be more effective in reaching and supporting vulnerable households and individuals. Strategic investments in infrastructure, people’s skills development, and public services can also help close the large gaps that exist across regions.
None of this will be possible without sustained commitment and dedicated resources. Fortunately, Romania will be able to access significant EU funds through its National Recovery and Resilience Plan, which will enable greater investment in large and important sectors such as transportation, infrastructure to support greater deployment of renewable energy, education, and healthcare.
Achieving a resilient post-pandemic recovery will also mean advancing in critical areas like green transition and digital transformation – major new opportunities to generate substantial returns on investment for Romania’s economy.
I recently returned from my first official trip to Romania where I met with country and government leaders, civil society representatives, academia, and members of the local community. We discussed a wide range of topics including reforms, fiscal consolidation, social inclusion, renewably energy, and disaster risk management. I was highly impressed by their determination to see Romania emerge even stronger from the pandemic. I believe it is possible. To this end, I reiterated the World Bank’s continued support to all Romanians for a safe, bright, and prosperous future.
First appeared in Romanian language in Digi24.ro, via World Bank
US Economic Turmoil: The Paradox of Recovery and Inflation
The US economy has been a rollercoaster since the pandemic cinched the world last year. As lockdowns turned into routine and the buzz of a bustling life came to a sudden halt, a problem manifested itself to the US regime. The problem of sustaining economic activity while simultaneously fighting the virus. It was the intent of ‘The American Rescue Plan’ to provide aid to the US citizens, expand healthcare, and help buoy the population as the recession was all but imminent. Now as the global economy starts to rebound in apparent post-pandemic reality, the US regime faces a dilemma. Either tighten the screws on the overheating economy and risk putting an early break on recovery or let the economy expand and face a prospect of unrelenting inflation for years to follow.
The Consumer Price Index, the core measure of inflation, has been off the radar over the past few months. The CPI remained largely over the 4% mark in the second quarter, clocking a colossal figure of 5.4% last month. While the inflation is deemed transitionary, heated by supply bottlenecks coinciding with swelling demand, the pandemic-related causes only explain a partial reality of the blooming clout of prices. Bloomberg data shows that transitory factors pushing the prices haywire account for hotel fares, airline costs, and rentals. Industries facing an offshoot surge in prices include the automobile industry and the Real estate market. However, the main factors driving the prices are shortages of core raw materials like computer chips and timber (essential to the efficient supply functions of the respective industries). Despite accounting for the temporal effect of certain factors, however, the inflation seems hardly controlled; perverse to the position opined by Fed Chair Jerome Powell.
The Fed already insinuated earlier that the economy recovered sooner than originally expected, making it worthwhile to ponder over pulling the plug on the doveish leverage that allowed the economy to persevere through the pandemic. The main cause was the rampant inflation – way off the 2% targetted inflation level. However, the alluded remarks were deftly handled to avoid a panic in an already fragile road to recovery. The economic figures shed some light on the true nature of the US economy which baffled the Fed. The consumer expectations, as per Bloomberg’s data, show that prices are to inflate further by 4.8% over the course of the following 12 months. Moreover, the data shows that the investor sentiment gauged from the bond market rally is also up to 2.5% expected inflation over the corresponding period. Furthermore, a survey from the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) suggested that net 47 companies have raised their average prices since May by seven percentage points; the largest surge in four decades. It is all too much to overwhelm any reader that the data shows the economy is reeling with inflation – and the Fed is not clear whether it is transitionary or would outlast the pandemic itself.
Economists, however, have shown faith in the tools and nerves of the Federal Reserve. Even the IMF commended the Fed’s response and tactical strategies implemented to trestle the battered economy. However, much averse to the celebration of a win over the pandemic, the fight is still not through the trough. As the Delta variant continues to amass cases in the United States, the championed vaccinations are being questioned. While it is explicable that the surge is almost distinctly in the unvaccinated or low-vaccinated states, the threat is all that is enough to drive fear and speculation throughout the country. The effects are showing as, despite a lucrative economic rebound, over 9 million positions lay vacant for employment. The prices are billowing yet the growth is stagnating as supply is still lukewarm and people are still wary of returning to work. The job market casts a recession-like scenario while the demand is strong which in turn is driving the wages into the competitive territory. This wage-price spiral would fuel inflation, presumably for years as embedded expectations of employees would be hard to nudge lower. Remember prices and wages are always sticky downwards!
Now the paradox stands. As Congress is allegedly embarking on signing a $4 trillion economic plan, presented by president Joe Bidden, the matters are to turn all the more complex and difficult to follow. While the infrastructure bill would not be a hard press on short-term inflation, the iteration of tax credits and social spending programs would most likely fuel the inflation further. It is true that if the virus resurges, there won’t be any other option to keep the economy afloat. However, a bustling inflationary environment would eventually push the Fed to put the brakes on by either raising the interest rates or by gradually ceasing its Asset Purchase Program. Both the tools, however, would risk a premature contraction which could pull the United States into an economic spiral quite similar to that of the deflating Japanese economy. It is, therefore, a tough stance to take whether a whiff of stagflation today is merely provisional or are these some insidious early signs to be heeded in a deliberate fashion and rectified immediately.
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