COVID-19 STATE RESPONSES

Maria Markantonatou                                                                                                                                                                                  
December 2021

To cope with the effects of the lockdowns and to try to return to “normality”, governments around the world, and even self-portrayed neoliberal ones, resorted to massive spending and the breaking of pre-pandemic fiscal orthodoxies. Thus, a current understanding of the pandemic management is that “The state is back. Long live globalization”, that states have “a choice between authoritarian nationalism and an open global order” and that “the return of government” ends an era “in which power and responsibility migrated from states to markets[1]. Is this the case? Does the rise of authoritarian nationalism conflict with the neoliberal globalization of the past decades? Karl Polanyi stressed that the self-regulating market system was not established spontaneously, and the state intervened to assist the maintenance of the market and correct the effects of crises borne by capitalist dynamics[2]. What does this tell us about today’s state interventions implemented to correct the pandemic crisis effects? Do they restore or challenge the pre-pandemic economic governance?

These economic interventions went hand in hand with a strengthening of the state’s functions of social control. Under the new “state of emergency” regime and with the help of new technologies, surveillance and policing were intensified and there was suppression of individual liberties such as the right to move, to gather and to protest. Counter-movements have also formed in response to health measures, notably mask and vaccine mandates. Many worry that measures implemented under the pandemic’s “state of emergency” could lead to new and permanent authoritarian forms of governance. Thinking of Polanyi’s ideas on freedom as a counterpart of social responsibility[3], how can we understand the governance forms and techniques implemented during the pandemic? What are their effects on freedom and civic liberties?

In the pre-pandemic era, the ideology of the “minimal (welfare) state” dominated, worsening the living conditions of the working classes and increasing inequalities. During the pandemic, these old as well as new social inequalities came to the fore, leading to popular demands for a stronger public sector and welfare institutions, as well as for a break with economic doctrines based on fiscal discipline.

Under which conditions can the pandemic open the path towards more social egalitarianism, economic democracy, and social justice? Will the crisis effects once again burden working and lower-middle classes and increase labour precarization? Does “returning to normality” mean reproducing the very economic and social conditions which led to the pandemic and to the failure of many states to tackle it?

[1] Stephens, Philip. 2020. How coronavirus is remaking democratic politics. The Financial Times. 26.03. Available Online:  https://www.ft.com/content/0e83be62-6e98-11ea-89df-41bea055720b/

[2] Polanyi, Karl (2001). The Great Transformation, Boston: Beacon Press, p. 146.

[3] Polanyi, Karl. 2018. On freedom, in: Karl Polanyi’s Vision of a Socialist Transformation (Brie, M./Thomasberger, C. eds.), Montreal: Black Rose Books, pp. 298-319.

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