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On trust, global inter-dependence, and sustainability

The pandemic has highlighted two truths about politics that are otherwise easy to overlook, underestimate, or altogether ignore:

  1. Political organisation rests on trust. Without it we have no institutions, no law and order, no money, no morality, nothing.
  2. Our lives on this planet are intrinsically inter-linked. Isolationism is an illusion, as you are never truly sheltered from externalities.

We know at least since the time of Thucydides (see the Milean Dialogue) or Plato (refer to Book II of the Republic on the Ring of Gyges, etc.) that the human animal is contained and rendered moral by an equilibrium of power. What we experience as peace and prosperity is a state where no person or group thereof is preponderant. Otherwise we default to the state of nature where everyone is left to fend for themselves and their immediate loved ones.

The state of nature, which results in the Hobbesian war of all against all (bellum omnium contra omnes), tells us something fundamental about the lack of trust: that humans are predatory towards their kind when their inter-subjective institutions implode (homo homini lupus est).

Institutions are at the risk of collapsing when a crisis hits. This can come in the form of a sustained economic recession, [civil] war, famine, a pandemic, and so on. What can arrest the downfall is either a remedy to the exogenous source of tension, where applicable, or a more just distribution of resources in an attempt to ease fears and appease the passions.

Our world has yet to recover from the financial calamity that struck at the end of the last decade. We have gone through years of grinding austerity that have put us all on the edge, while undermining the viability of critical infrastructure, including public health services.

We live in a world which, according to the 2019 Global Wealth Report of Credit Swiss, is defined by its staggering inequality metrics:

The bottom half of wealth holders collectively accounted for less than 1% of total global wealth in mid-2019, while the richest 10% own 82% of global wealth and the top 1% alone own 45%.

We cannot trust in the authorities to cater to our longer-term needs when the measures to cope with this pandemic are, as with the sovereign debt crisis and concomitant financial meltdown, not addressing the egregious injustice at the core of the global world order. People are told to live in isolation and remain under- or outright un- employed until further notice even though the precarious economic conditions of most of us do not permit for such a “luxury”.

There is no shortage of resources. The problem consists in their distribution. Yet we pretend as if we have suddenly depleted all of our stock and are on the verge of collapse. Ideological obsessions, such as conformity with neoliberal guidelines for “fiscal responsibility”, must be recognised as impediments to a genuine, lasting solution to the impending downfall. It would be a cardinal sin to have decision-makers report “positive numbers” on the fiscal front while leaving people to perish.

Pragmatism and a sense of urgency are in order. Our world must rectify its excesses, its underlying hubris. This eventually requires a rethink of the axiom that incessant, amoral growth is a necessary blessing and that the profiteers know better.

We must also scrutinise the growing isolationist tendencies across the planet. In a globalised system, where capital can flow virtually unencumbered from one nation to another, any serious action to improve the distribution of burdens must come in the form of a concerted effort between states. No country can do this on its own: the economic elite is shrewd enough to siphon its profits through some shady tax avoidance scheme—they are doing it anyway.

Our inter-connectedness is also of a natural sort. We share the same habitat. There is no “planet B”. Global phenomena such as climate change or this pandemic recognise no border controls or whatever feeble wall we may build for our selves to satisfy our delusions. Our shared humanity, our common presence as part of this planet’s ecosystem, forces us to think in terms of sustainability for the system at-large. It is a pernicious folly to pursue some isolationist agenda while thinking that the calamity will somehow spare us.

Though border checks may be a necessary measure to temporarily adapt to the realities of the virus, the longer-term objective must be to formulate policies with a cross-border scope. And such programmes must have a clear emphasis on their humanitarian or even ecological character. To save lives, to preserve life, to empower communities in the face of monumental transitions.

Capitalism has gone too far into toxic territory. It has reached a point where it generates—or greatly exacerbates—one crisis after another in quick succession. There is no reason to believe that things will magically solve themselves while the power elite continues to enjoy its massively privileged status.

Only fools will see the challenge of the present as a mere health issue. Policies are woven together. Our reality is a continuum that extends to every aspect of life. We cannot have effective health systems for all when our governments operate in servitude to some chimera called “austerity”, which is but a euphemism for promoting the interests of the oligopolies that control this world.