September 21 is the day the dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial
Law in the Philippines. For 49 years, it has been a day of mourning
for Filipinos. This year, the 50th anniversary of Martial Law will be
taking place under the regime of his son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who
was elected president by a landslide last May.
Many are asking, is this history’s idea of a joke? Unfortunately,
it’s not. The son of the dictator will be addressing the United
Nations General Assembly on September 20. His presence there should
serve as a reminder to the world that the dark past is not really past
and is often just waiting for the right circumstances to strike back.
So you see, extreme events are taking place not only in the physical
climate. They too take place in the political climate. January 6,
2021, the storming of the Capitol in the US, was another such event.
The return of the Marcoses, Trump’s incitement to rebellion,
Modi’s ethnonationalist regime in India, Bolsonaro’s fascistoid
government in Brazil, and just in the last few days, the electoral
triumphs of the far right in traditionally Social Democratic Sweden
and, horror of horrors, in the birthplace of fascism itself, Italy —
all of these are extreme events, and they are, in turn, symptoms of a
much larger extreme event: the deepening crisis of liberal democracy.
Extreme events also mark the economic climate, and the current
coincidence of galloping inflation and stagnation is one such event.
Another is the emergence of extreme inequality. Another is the
breakdown of global supply chains, threatening not just delays and
derailments in manufacturing but also food insecurity and hunger,
especially in the global South. All these three extreme events —
stagflation, extreme inequality, supply-chain breakdown – stem from
a bigger extreme event: the unraveling of the triad of
financialization, globalization, and neoliberal ideology that have
served as the pillars of the global capitalist economy over the last
WHAT ARE THE CAUSES OF EXTREME EVENTS?
We ask, how could all this come to pass?
With climate change, there is no excuse. The science was there since
the late ’80s and ’90s, but corporate power and compliant
governments in the North ensured there would be no effective response,
despite 26 United Nations Conference of Parties to deal deal with it
over nearly three decades!
When it comes to the crisis of the triad of financialization,
globalization, and neoliberalism, the 2008-2009 financial crisis
should have served as the trigger for the world to embark on a
different path, especially since it had been preceded by Japan’s
financial crisis in the 1990s and the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997.
But despite the drastic loss of confidence in it, neoliberalism
continued post-2008 as the default mode of government technocrats who
knew of no other way of steering the economy, and proponents of
alternatives lacked the stature of a John Maynard Keynes. Governments
were finally forced to act during the height of COVID-19, but the
measures to protect people’s welfare were half-hearted, inadequate,
and sometimes harmful. Where governments of the global North should
have acted, like suspending trade-related intellectual property rights
when it came to vaccines, they didn’t, choosing instead to protect
Big Pharma. Now, fighting inflation has become the mantra to justify a
return to discredited neoliberal approaches.
When it comes to the mortal threats faced by liberal democracy, there
has been genuine surprise among many. Until 2014, there had been no
full-blown authoritarian populist regime in sight except for Orban’s
government in Hungary. Then Modi in India, Duterte in the Philippines,
Trump in the US, and Bolsonaro in Brazil followed in quick succession.
As it turned out, elites, including the intellectual elite, had been
rendered complacent, believing that the affirmation of liberal
democracy by the collapse of centralized socialist regimes of Europe
and the Soviet Union in the early 1990s represented the end of
history, as political analyst Francis Fukuyama famously put it.
As it turned out, anti-liberal democratic impulses had been
percolating, stirred by the failure of liberal democracy to deliver on
its promises of radically reducing inequality and poverty in global
South countries like the Philippines, Brazil, and India, abetted in
the case of India by unresolved ethnic and religious conflicts that
had been barely submerged by an egalitarian secular state ideology.
In the global North, anti-liberal democratic feelings were stoked by
immigration and the gains of the movements for racial justice and
women’s rights. In the US and Europe, for many middle and working
class men, the 2008 financial and economic collapse was the tipping
point. Already feeling psychologically threatened with the loss of
white-skin and male privilege by the gains of the movements for racial
and gender justice, their descent into economic insecurity was the
final step in their rightward radicalization. As Paul Mason points out
in his must-read _How to Stop Fascism_, having exchanged their class
identity for that of consumers in the market, their loss of even the
latter owing to the 2008-2009 crisis left them vulnerable to seduction
by ersatz solidarities and beliefs being spread on the internet,
foremost of which was white supremacy.
White supremacy is the cornerstone of the anti-liberal democratic
movement sweeping the United States, and this should come as no
surprise since the original sin of the founding of that country was
slavery of African Americans and genocide of Native Americans. What
Trump did was simply to make legitimate if not respectable a deeply
held anti-democratic core belief transmitted generationally and
communally that could previously be expressed brazenly only in
secretive internet chat rooms. The angry buzz in those chat rooms
these days is the “Great Replacement Theory,” wherein whites are
said to be the victims of an ongoing conspiracy hatched by blacks,
feminists, LGBTQIAs, migrants, and Democrats to make them a minority
and eventually destroy them in a race war.
The big problem for all of us is when the climate, economic, and
political and ideological crises intersect, which they are doing right
now, for they feed into each other, like moist humid air and warm
ocean water do in the formation of a hurricane, and create a combined
power that can smash everything in its path. That is what we face
today, the genesis of a global social hurricane.
There are, to be sure, counter-trends. In Latin America today, we have
progressive or left-leaning governments in Chile, Peru, Colombia,
Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba, and Mexico, and Lula is about to make a
comeback in Brazil. This trend is significant, but so far it is
limited to Latin America. Moreover, the right and its ideological
influence continue to be powerful in that part of the world, as shown
by the recent overwhelming rejection of a progressive new constitution
THE BATTLE FOR GLOBAL HEGEMONY
Then there is the challenge to classic neoliberalism and western
hegemony posed by China. China has become the center of global capital
accumulation or, in the popular image, the “locomotive of the world
economy,” accounting for 28% of all growth worldwide in the five
years from 2013 to 2018, more than twice the share of the United
States. Though China has in the past tried not to project itself as an
alternative path of development to the US, it is now cautiously doing
so, to counter the increasingly shrill US attacks on it. Increasingly,
many countries in the global South are identifying with China and
hooking up to its global projects like the Belt and Road Initiative.
Its political capitalist system, to use the term of economist Branko
Milanovic, continues to elicit questions and doubts, but increasingly
many are buying into the idea that restriction of political rights
might be the prize to pay for development.
The Chinese model, indeed, has a number of problems, not least its
being a variant of capitalism, with its inexorable thirst for profit
and its unstoppable draw on resources. Overall, however, at this point
in time, China’s presence is positive as a counterpoint to US
hegemony. The US-China rivalry provides the space for the global South
to gain more autonomy vis-à-vis the two superpowers. But it is also
here that the problem lies, for as the US falls behind in economic
terms, the more Washington will be tempted to contain China by drawing
on its resources in that area where it enjoys absolute superiority:
the military dimension. That US provocation is not to be
underestimated is underlined by US House Speaker Nancy’s Pelosi
visit to Taiwan, which was calculated to underline China’s inability
to counter US power right on its doorstep.
The dangers of military escalation with a global impact are also
evident in the Russia-Ukraine War. Most countries in the global South
have condemned Russia’s invasion, but they have refused to be drawn
into the western alliance against Putin, with many looking at the
Russian invasion as having been provoked by the West’s effort to get
Ukraine into NATO. Nevertheless, most have an interest in a negotiated
settlement since their food security is being affected by the
war-induced precipitous drop in the export of Ukrainian and Russian
grain to them.
In other words, the war is an extreme event not just for Europe but
for the whole world. And it could become more of an extreme event if
Russia were to resort to tactical nuclear weapons to make up for its
big losses in the recent Ukrainian offensive. Were this to develop,
the US and NATO’s involvement in the war in support of Ukraine would
most likely also escalate, and one cannot preclude the possibility
that this would be to the nuclear level.
In sum, we are now living at a time when extreme events have become
the new normal in the areas of the climate, politics, economics, and
geopolitics. The intersecting of these trends might mean that the new
normal will not be a plateau but one where it might be a downward
spiral propelled by more and even worse extreme events, in other
words, an accelerating fall from the precipice.
IDEOLOGICAL COMPETITION AND THE WAR OF MANEUVER
More than ever, we are confronted with the urgency of having an
alternative, a comprehensive progressive alternative that responds to
the intersecting extreme crises. The question is, can progressives and
their allies mobilize across crises and across borders to come up and
promote such an alternative to the precipice? Proverbs 29 had it
right: “Without vision, the people perish.” And we must have a
vision of a truly democratic future that not only makes sense in
rational terms but sweeps people off their feet in these extreme
times, for what we are up against are paranoid paradigms that do not
appeal to reason or reality but seek to mobilize subliminal fears,
like the Great Replacement Theory or the “Love Jihad” allegedly
directed at Hindu women by Muslims to demographically displace Hindus
Related to this matter of ideological competition is the question of
political combat in these extreme times. In such periods, politics
becomes very fluid. It becomes, to use Gramsci’s terms, a war of
maneuver. But it seems to be the right that has absorbed this lesson,
and whether on the internet, on the street, or in institutional
politics, they appear to be far ahead of the Left. The response of
progressives and liberals, in contrast, still appears to be largely in
the confines of the old liberal democracy, relying on institutions
that have worked in the past but may be inadequate for a war of
maneuver under extreme conditions.
Are we ready to move beyond the politics of the old normal, as we
engage in combat with the Far Right on the net, on the street, in
institutional politics? This is, to borrow the title of Eric
Hobsbawm’s classic work, an “age of extremes,” and unless we
release ourselves from the politics of the old normal and engage in
the war of maneuver demanded by the new normal, we will lose.