One of the few good things about the coronavirus pandemic is the way in which it has forced a change of thinking about social justice and the generation of wealth. Everything from environmental sustainability to the nature of human happiness – the very ground-rules of collective human existence – is the substance of the debate. For many the answers will lie in a reversion to ancient belief, the reinforcement of group identity, and the survival of the most ruthless, obviating the need to think and be rational on behalf of humankind as a planetary species.
Such behaviour is not the preserve merely of blinkered autocracies, designed for the perpetuation of a privileged elite and for the helot-demos that sustains it. It is also a flaw in national democracies, above all those with ageing populations most resistant to change. England’s deluded lurch into Brexit is an illustration of both insularity and deep and fearful conservatism, and that was before the pandemic when things were going relatively well. Around half the United States electorate displays similar irrationality. Japan has struggled with ineffective political leadership for decades. In general, political leaderships around the world are unlikely to be bold and visionary in facing new challenges, even when the stakes are revealed so incontrovertibly as they are now.
That is what makes it important to take note of places in which leadership for far-reaching change is likely to emerge, and voices which are already articulating a new agenda. Not for power, but for planetary survival. A few national figures have been recognised as credible in this debate. But more strikingly it is the positions taken by supra-national bodies that are the boldest and clearest. The UN Secretary-General – in a capacity scorned and denigrated by some extreme nationalists in the West – has been speaking out with great clarity, backed by the research done by a range of UN bodies. The universalist humanism that inspires their work no longer has to crouch defending itself against the rapacity of a destructive form of global capitalism. In tune with this are the well-argued policies advocated by philanthropic foundations and academics, amplified and deepened by voices in the arts and journalism. Intriguingly, and for the first time, powerful corporate positions are being taken by major companies and banks in favour of sustainable economic growth, recognising the whole social range of stakeholders in their success: Milton Friedman and his sole focus on maximising shareholder value are dead and staked through the heart.
There is a sense of change, not least in the prospects for effective action to limit climate change. Hopes are rising for progress at COP 26 meeting in Glasgow in November, and of the action plan that follows it. The political effects of the pandemic have yet to be revealed in further elections in the democracies. When they come they are likely to insist on fairer distribution of social goods, and a set of values no longer captured by addictive consumerism. They also will require a long-term policy agenda that recognises the stake that younger generations hold in the world’s future, if young people are not to despair of either democracy or autocracy. Turbulence is perhaps unavoidable, in view of the stark economic prospects for much of the developing world. All the more important to find effective policy solutions swiftly, and to recognise that equity lies at the heart of them, in order to let people get on with living decent lives.
There will be the inevitable push-back by selfish interests at all levels. Progress may be imperfect in many ways. The weight of habit in human behaviour may prove even heavier than we suspect. But this dislocated, pandemic-cursed moment of ours could be decisive in setting a new course. According to some scholars, the invention of iron-working led to aggression by warlike tribes paying so well that, ever since, raiding and enslaving others -and the natural world - has been the model of choice for success. Not that earlier times were devoid of violent realities, but they were lived with a greater balance between peoples and with Nature. After three thousand years of the Iron Age, can we find something better?
Written by James Watt CVO
James Watt CVO served as British Ambassador to Egypt, to Jordan and to Lebanon. He has dealt with the major issues and conflicts affecting West Asia and the Arab world and has extensive commercial experience in those markets.