The Age of Unrest

Empty airport

Last year I started writing about the political problems the world was experiencing in 2019, particularly the election and straightening of populist leaders, the rise of nationalism and xenophobia, the violent street protests in France, Hong Kong, and Chile among others. These kinds of movements are fulled by the anger and what the famous Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset describes in his classic book, “La Rebelión of the Masas.”

Many aspects of last year’s violent street protests in Europe are similar to those after the First World War in 1919, also during the financial crisis in1929 economic depression with massive unemployment, and finally, in students’ movements in 1968, to quote those that come to my mind.

 The social and political situation in some countries was so bad last year that The Economist dedicated one of its leading articles on August 1, 2019, titled “Are Western democracies becoming ungovernable?”  This article refers to the problems the governments of Spain, the United Kingdom, Italy, and others faced described in the following quote: “When you survey the political landscape of rich countries, you see an unusual amount of chaos and upheaval. Prague has seen the largest demonstrations since the overthrow of communism. More than a quarter of the current parliaments in Europe were elected in polls that were called early. In Britain, the mother of parliaments has been at the gin bottle, and opinion polls everywhere show increasing numbers of people losing patience with democratic niceties and hankering after a strongman…” (Source: https://www.economist.com/international/2019/08/01/are-western-democracies-becoming-ungovernable)

 Today when the Coronavirus Cov-19 has infected almost two million people and kill more than one hundred thousand, the street movements have quieted for now. No more protests in Hong Kong, calls for independence in Catalunya, violent clashes between police and demonstrators in Chile and Colombia or yellow jackets in France. Also, it is now history the political crisis in Italy, which at the start of the year threatened the Government collapse.

Emergency measures were needed to deal with the epidemic, giving governments enormous political and social power. In many countries, leaders taking advantage of the situation have born actions that have crippled primary democratic institutions, mostly in Hungary, India, and in other democracies. Beyond the logical and needed “lockouts” of cities and entire countries, the Executive Branch of some governments took advantage of the pandemic to enact extreme anti-democratic measures, including limiting constitutional powers of the other branches of government, rights of their citizens and some social organizations. In cases, censorship, surveillance, and repression is also happening in some democracies.

Not only the political landscape has changed, but the economic consequences of the pandemic are also already happening in terms of massive unemployment, bankruptcies, and economic stagnation. The Economist, cover of April 9’s issue, is represented by the economic devastation that is already happening around the globe. The main article, “the shock ripping through the business world eloquently describes a bleak future. “With countries in lockdown accounting for over 50% of global GDP, the collapse in commercial activity is far more severe than in previous recessions. Numerous indicators suggest extreme stress. Global oil demand has dropped by up to a third; the volume of new cars and parts shipped on America’s railways has dropped by 70%. Many firms have only enough inventories and cash to survive for three to six months. The exit path for those that survive will be precarious, with uneasy consumers, an efficiency-sapping stop-start rhythm, and tricky new health protocols. In the long run, companies will have to master a new environment. The crisis and the response to it are accelerating three trends: an energising adoption of new technologies, an inevitable retreat from freewheeling global supply chains, and a worrying rise in well-connected oligopolies.”

The eventual end of the health crisis probably will bring back the old political conflicts. Already in Europe, LePen in France, Salvini in Italy, and Casado and Abascal in Spain are capitalizing on the new discontent. They will benefit from the natural and justified resentment for an economic situation that will hit so many without a job or real income. There are counting on the anger that millions of people that worked in the informal economy, now without any pay in more than a month and have no idea when they will resume their work. Also, these demagogues are counting on recruiting the owners of small companies that might not survive the current slow down, and the anticipated recession. 

In anticipation of future unrest, the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, warned that “the pandemic had the potential to increase social unrest and violence, which would greatly undermine the world’s ability to fight the disease.”

 



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