Covid and Democracy, a Turning Point?

Photograph Source: Travis Wise – CC BY 2.0

The Covid pandemic and crisis may have generated a range of responses, but there is one remarkable absence: the promotion of democracy. In politics around the world, both the Right and the Left increasingly favor technocratic governance and neither feels that the situation calls for an especially democratic response. For a Left that has historically been committed to democracy this is both surprising and irrational, since any problem of a biosocial nature necessarily turns on values that cannot be brokered by merely technocratic means, but only through democratic process.

Both natural science and social science have a great deal to say about the pandemic and the response, but as far as the latter is concerned there are aspects irreducibly shaped by value judgements. Among the many value-laden issues evoked by the pandemic are: What is an acceptable risk? How to weigh the importance of schooling for the next generation versus the general population’s safety? What is the fairest way of protecting people? Nobody has the answers to these questions, for the simple reason that everybody does. Only by consulting the people can policies be developed that, within a framework of rights, honor the multiplicity of opinions concerning these issues.

Our societies’ waning interest in democracy may be especially obvious during the ongoing Covid crisis, but there is much evidence that the whole past decade has involved the eclipse of democratic attitudes. A case in point is the motley array of strongmen leaders, some of whom are clearly neofascist, that have popped up like mushrooms around the globe. Surprisingly, the same lack of interest in democracy can be seen in the most common responses to such strongmen, which typically lambast authoritarian leaders for the content of their decisions but not the method by which they are taken.

How strange this is, since less than twenty years ago, right-wingers (hypocritically) invaded countries in the name of democracy and leftist defended those very countries based on the same principle! This lack of interest in democracy is troubling in itself, but it is especially problematic today, because we may be at a major turning point in history. For this reason, it is important to look back at the most recent historical crossroads of this kind. I refer to the one that resulted in neoliberalism’s emergence in the 1970s.

The philosopher Nancy Fraser has pointed out how neoliberalism arose through a paradoxical process. On a superstructural level, it was a reconfiguration of capitalism that responded to and resignified two antagonistic historical forces operating in the post-war period. Confronting the establishment was, on the one hand, a new left fighting for emancipation from patriarchal, state, and cultural forms of domination. On the other hand, there were radical pro-market groups aiming to break with the social welfare state. Through a process Fraser refers to as the “cunning of history,” neoliberalism accomplished both of these groups’ objectives – even if in a limited and distorted way in the first case – while, of course, keeping exploitation and capital accumulation going.

Now, some fifty years later, we may be facing a similar crisis, and of similar gravity. In our time, two strong, antagonistic forces also operate. Pushing on one side are those who think capitalism must do away with the last shreds of democracy, if capitalist accumulation and profits are to go forward at a satisfactory pace. On the other side, there are those of us who want the state to assume more social reproduction costs, calling for basic income, universal healthcare, and more social spending in general. Nevertheless, at this historical conjuncture, a doubt emerges: Couldn’t a new authoritarian capitalism that “cares” for people be the undesired and resignified outcome of these forces?

Precisely for this reason, it is important to keep democracy and its expansion as a central item in the Left’s program today. That is because protecting social reproduction is meaningless if it is not something realized for and by the people (i.e. by a state and its institutions that are under popular control). Too many times, on the Left, we have seen our most glorious goals and dreams turned into nightmares. Think of how sixty-eighters saw the emancipation they sought handed back to them as mere market opportunities! Think about how their struggle to end state domination came back as the end of social programs under neoliberalism!

All of this isn’t, of course, to say that we should not struggle for what we want. It is not so much a question of being cautious of what one wishes for as a question of being cautious about how one wishes for it, while keeping in mind the whole range of forces at play. Today, the only way that our struggles for a state that cares for people, assuming responsibility for protecting people’s lives and health, do not lead to an authoritarian capitalist turn is to simultaneously struggle for democracy. Otherwise, we could be victims of the cunning of history a second time.

One last but important caveat: To be meaningful, democracy today depends on wresting political decision-making from the influence of powerful economic actors such as corporations. In our time, it also requires restoring public space by exercising popular control over social networks and media that should not be owned by private companies. Further, as a general principle, authentic democracy must go beyond the limited sense of affirming rights to include making them substantial and material. Importantly, too, it must lead to popular control over both what we produce and how it is produced and distributed.


Chris Gilbert is professor of political science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.