The Apoplectic Aftermath of the Pandemic

The 2010s have seen the rise of authoritarian political figures, larger than life leaders have gained political powers through the masses.

Media houses and think tanks have often called Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Recep Tayyib Erdoğan, and Jair Bolsonaro authoritarian leaders. So what is common among this lot?

They are all democratically elected heads of their respective states and enjoy popular support amongst their electorate, they claim to be the representative of the masses and vehemently oppose the elites. Terminologies like ‘drain the swamp’ (Donald Trump’s way of getting rid of elites) and ‘Khan market gang’ (Narendra Modi’s reference of the Lutyens culture) further illustrate that they are ready to fight against the old elite system. The masses have identified themselves with these leaders and continue to support them.

Photo by Mick Haupt at Unsplash

How did we get here? It involves a bit of economics, politics and lots of greed. Interestingly, the root of this political change lies in the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC). The aftermath of the crisis showed that the elites were greedy enough to increase their wealth at the cost of the middle class. Charles Ferguson’s documentary ‘Inside Job’ shows how rich investment bankers were rigging the financial system (to the point of bankrupting their own companies) to fill their own pockets. When the US housing market bubble burst it was the government that stepped in and saved many banks from crashing while their managers and directors had already earned huge bonuses. This left many people wondering why government intervention was needed in an advanced capitalistic economy country like the United States. The simple answer is that if the government wouldn’t have saved the banks then there was a fear of a financial crisis that would have resembled the great depression of the 1930s.

To cut a long story short the government saved the assets (and asses too) of the defaulting banks, while the managers of these banks filled their pockets and no action was taken against them. On the other hand, many bankers were arrested in Iceland for rigging the system. (Scandinavian countries are good at everything)

What does this have to do with the politics of the 2010s? Here is where emotions come in: The GFC vindicated many critics of capitalism who maintained that capitalism leads to growing inequality, and unchecked inequality may evolve into social unrest. After the GFC, lines were drawn between the elite and the commons. Widespread anger and resentment were prevalent amongst the masses throughout the developed and developing world. As people realised that the rich controlled power and wealth mass movement like The ‘Occupy Wall Street’, the Arab Spring and India Against Corruption agitation emerged in the developed, authoritarian and developing world respectively, after the GFC. This sense of resentment kept on increasing. The advent of the internet during this time added fuel to the fire. The glamorous and unaffordable lifestyle of the elites was just a google search away. Such social developments gave rise to new political leaders.

Logic, pluralism, liberalism, and facts took a backseat amidst this new chaos. Society became polarised, identities were drawn based on religion, race, caste, and financial status. Despite the success of the new political class, the lives of the middle class did not improve. The anger continued but not against their allied political class, but the elites and their representatives. This demographic divide continues to polarise our society to this day.

The COVID-19 saw people lose their livelihood in a matter of days. Lockdowns truly devastated economies and the world soon slid into a recession. The wealthy and middle class were able to survive but those who found themselves on the wrong side of this conundrum are still struggling to get back to the pre-pandemic level. For example, a cook working in an expensive hotel or restaurant would be earning ₹30,000 — ₹40,000 a month. During the lockdown, this particular cook would have found himself out of job and he would be compelled to take some other work at a lower salary. It would be worse if he has a family and additional bills to take care of. Him going back to his pre-COVID salary will take time.

Countless others have fallen prey to this catastrophic pandemic. This further widens the boundaries of inequality. The polarising difference between the masses and the elites will continue to rise. Sooner or later, the same or different set of political leaders will be able to capture this continuous emotion of resentment. Resentment is often an abstract emotion that is associated with a sense of identity, which in recent times is accompanied by majoritarianism. Political structures will exploit this and continue to convert this emotion in their favour. They will do so by demonizing minorities to strengthen majoritarian identities.

The result: even greater polarisation, political discourse reducing as the years go by and social structures undergoing a lot of changes.

There is no easy way to foresee the future social and political structure, nevertheless, looking at history we have evidence-based models that tell us that realisation of inequality has led people to ask for better rights that led to change in political structures. Similarly, the future is going to be defined by inequality and polarisation. Social media is an enabler of this discourse as was seen by the popular Netflix documentary ‘Social Dilemma’.

We are living in strange and anxious times. As Arundhati Roy wrote in her letter to her jailed friend in July 2020:

Covid-19 has turned out to be a kind of X-Ray that made visible the massive institutionalised injustices — of caste, class, religion and gender — that plague our society. Thanks to the disastrously planned lockdown, the economy has nearly collapsed, although the virus has travelled and thrived. It feels as though we’re living through a frozen explosion. The shattered pieces of the world as we knew it are all suspended in the air… we still don’t know where they will land and the real extent of the damage.”

Images of the actual damages are slowly emerging and they show that the wounds are dark and deep. It’s going to take some time before they heal.

Just as I was about to send out this blog, Oxfam International came out with an Inequality Report that highlights the growing inequality during the pandemic. It did mention one thing about India: During COVID it would take an unskilled man three years to earn as much money as the richest Indian makes in a second. Yikes!

You can find the report here.

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