Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

The Separation of the ‘Economic’ and the ‘Political’ under Capitalism: ‘Capital-centric Marxism’ and the Capitalist State

‘The Iron Rolling Mill’ by Adolf Menzel

One of the central claims of Capital-centric Marxism is that capitalism is the first mode of production in human history whose social property relations are reproduced through market competition. Capitalism’s unique laws of motion/rules of reproduction—the law of value which compels producers to economize labor-time through productive specialization, labor-saving technical innovation and the accumulation of surplus-value—operates through the mechanism of price competition. Put simply, capitalism is reproduced through the “dull compulsion of the market place” rather than through varied forms of extra-economic coercion.

The capitalist state, from this perspective, is distinguished from all previous forms of political domination by its relative separation from the capitalist economy. The capitalist state constitutes what Heidi Gerstenberger has called a public sphere of “impersonal power;” while exploitation is privatized in individual units of production. In the words of Ellen Meiksins Wood in her seminal essay “The Separation of the ‘Economic’ and the ‘Political’ in Capitalism”:

To speak of the differentiation of the economic sphere…is not, of course, to suggest that the political dimension is somehow extraneous to capitalist relations of production. The political sphere in capitalism has a special character because the coercive power supporting capitalist exploitation is not wielded directly by the appropriator and is not based on the producer’s political or juridical subordination to an appropriating master. But a coercive power and a structure of domination remain essential… Absolute private property, the contractual relation that binds producer to appropriator, the process of commodity exchange—all these require legal forms, the coercive apparatus, the policing functions of the state.2

While the capitalist state provides the ‘general conditions of accumulation,’ it does not direct the distribution of labor-power and means of production within and between branches of production. Instead, it is the law of value operating through real market competition that insures the reproduction of this mode of production. The unique dynamism of capitalism—the constant development of the productive forces—and its crisis tendencies—falling profits as a result of the increasing mechanization of production—operate independently of the desires and goals of either individual capitalists or its “Executive Committee,” the capitalist state. Again, as Wood argued:

… the social functions of production and distribution, surplus extraction and appropriation, and the allocation of social labor are, so to speak, privatized and they are achieved by non-authoritative, non-political means. In other words, the social allocation of resources and labor does not, on the whole, take place by means of political direction, communal deliberation, heredity duty, custom, or religious obligation, but rather through the mechanisms of commodity exchange.3

Many critics of “Political Marxism” have labelled this approach a “Hayekian Marxism” that limits the “general conditions of production” to the provisions of certain infrastructure that individual capitalists cannot produce profitably. This perspective, it is argued, cannot account for the key features of the concrete history of capitalism. Specifically, Capital-centric Marxism cannot explain the role of the capitalist state in creating capitalist social property relations, the persistence of legally coerced labor under capitalism; or the growth of capitalist state economic intervention in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In this essay, we will attempt to sketch the barest outline of a Capital-centric account of the roots and limits of capitalist state policies that attempt to shape social relations and the course of accumulation. In this task, I draw not only on Marx’s Capital—the most important of Marx’s mature, scientific works—but on a variety of works in or close to the tradition of “Political Marxism.”

Michael Zmolek’s excellent new book, Rethinking the Industrial Revolution4, directly addresses, from an explicitly Capital-centric perspective, the role of the capitalist state in the creation and consolidation of capitalist social property relations in England. Brenner, Wood and others have been quite insistent that the operation of capitalist rules of reproduction—specialization, innovation and accumulation—cannot explain the origins of capitalist social property relations. Put simply, the process of ‘primitive accumulation’—the establishment of capitalist social relations of production—is not the result of the spread of markets or the development of the productive forces. Instead, it is the unintended consequences of attempts of pre-capitalist classes to reproduce themselves in periods of crisis that produce capitalism. In this process, the state plays a crucial role. Zmolek’s discussions of enclosures and the expropriation and sale of monastery lands in Tudor England give new historical depth and sophistication to Marx’s discussions in the section on “primitive accumulation” in Capital.

Zmolek’s discussion of the role of the post-1688 British capitalist state in the creation of an industrial working class is especially important. Marx was quite clear that the ‘dull compulsion’ of the market was not sufficient to discipline propertyless wage workers when capital had not yet conquered the labor-process. As long as capital’s subsumption of labor was formal and the actual labor-process was in the hands of skilled artisanal wage earners—legal-juridical forces was necessary to ensure the sale of labor-power and capital’s ability to command production. The majority of workers can be “dually free”—free from possession of objects and instruments of production; and free of non-market legal-juridical compulsion to labor—only when capital has achieved real subsumption of labor. Only when capitalists both face a mass of workers without non-market access to the means of production and are able to constantly reproduce a reserve army of labor through the mechanization of production, can capital effectively secure an adequate and reliable supply of labor power without legal and juridical restrictions on workers. Zmolek’s discussion of the central role of the British capitalist state in destroying artisanal wage workers’ resistance to the real subsumption of labor to capital again concretizes these insights.

Legally coerced wage labor also persists in capitalist agriculture, where the disjuncture between production and labor time5 makes non-market coercion necessary to secure adequate supplies of labor power during crucial periods like planting and harvesting. Legally coerced wage labor is also found in situations where capital has command of industrial labor-processes, but where workers are only partially separated from landed property. For example, in apartheid South Africa, workers were not “free” to enter or leave labor contracts at will.6 The specific forms of capitalist social property relations that emerged in the South African countryside and urban centers after the 1913 Natives’ Land Act—the partial separation of the African population from the means of production—necessitated this legal coercion. Africans were able to partially reproduce their labor-power outside of the wage-relation either in the “Reserve Areas” or on plots of land provided by capitalist farmers. This “partial proletarianization” required the “pass laws” that legally restricted geographic mobility of labor-power in order to ensure steady supplies of ‘cheap’ African labor power to capital.

Today, millions of non-market coerced wage workers—often mislabeled ‘slaves’—are compelled to sell their labor-power often for less than the cost of their reproduction, and are prevented from leaving employers to seek better wages and conditions. As David McNally and Susan Ferguson7 have argued, most of these workers are migratory workers who do not enjoy the legal rights/freedom of citizens. The extra-economic coercion they face is crucial to supplying inexpensive labor-power to labor-intensive sectors—sex-work, domestic servants, landscape workers, hotel cleaners, janitors, home construction, garment production, and certain branches of agriculture. Real capitalist accumulation and competition compels capitalists in labor-intensive industries to pay low wages—wages often below the costs of reproduction—in order to earn the average rate of profit.8 Legal coercion in the form of the denial of civil and political rights is often required to provide such “cheap” labor-power.

The reality of capitalist competition through the “artillery of fixed capital” also explain the role of the capitalist state historically in attempting to protect “infant” capitalist industries. Anwar Shaikh, in his seminal essay “Foreign Trade and the Law of Value,”9 has argued out those capitalist classes that entered the world market after the consolidation of industrial capitalism in Britain were faced with a dilemma. Whether in Germany, Italy, Japan or the US in the nineteenth century, or in the global South in the twenty and twenty-first centuries, “late industrializers” found they were unable to compete directly with the older, more capital-intensive producers. “Free trade” meant remaining exporters of agricultural goods, raw materials and low-end, labor-intensive manufactured goods. Only those ruling classes that succeeded in establishing protective tariffs and selective state subsidies for capital-intensive export industries succeeded in carving out a place for themselves in the capitalist world economy. As Vivek Chibber points out in Locked in Place: State-Building and Late Industrialization in India10, protective tariffs as part of “import substitution industrialization” programs were insufficient, allowing inefficient manufacturing in many parts of the global south to survive for decades. However, “export led industrialization” programs had a very different impact. When capitalist classes were ready and willing to compete globally, usually in social formations where the capitalist transformation of agriculture had created a competitive home market, forms of capitalist state intervention and protection were necessary preconditions for successful industrialization.

Finally, Joaquim Hirsch’s essay “The State Apparatus and Social Reproduction: Elements of a Theory of the Capitalist State”11 provides important insights into the roots and limits of capitalist state intervention in the advanced capitalist countries in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The state-derivation school, of which Hirsch was a prominent figure, shared with “Political Marxism” the goal of providing a Marxist analysis of the form of the capitalist state—of a “public power” separate from the private sphere of exploitation and accumulation. Like Wood, Hirsch rooted the separation of the political and economic in the specific social property relations and rules of reproduction of capitalism. The “state derivation” school also sought to counter various neo-Keynesian and neo-reformist arguments that capitalist state fiscal and monetary policy, combined with forms of ‘indicative planning’ and limited nationalizations, had finally created a crisis-free form of ‘managed’ or ‘state monopoly capital.’ Put another way, Hirsch’s arguments point to how the separation of the political and economic that characterizes capitalism essentially limits the capacity of capitalist state personnel to alter the rules of reproduction of capitalism through the construction of institutional frameworks—the Regulationists’ “regimes of accumulation”—to regulate the economy. Instead, it is the dynamics of accumulation, competition and profitability that place strict limits on the actions of capitalist state personnel, as we have seen time and again in the past forty years beginning with the Mitterand regime in France in the early 1980s through, most recently, the capitulation of Syrizia in Greece to the austerity agenda of the European Union.

Starting from an account of the separation of the political and economic that is essentially the same as that of Capital-centric Marxists, Hirsch concludes: 

… that the bourgeois state, by reason of its essential character [its formal separation from the economy—CP], cannot act as regulator of the social process of development, but must be understood in the determination of its concrete functions as a reaction to the fundamentally crisis-ridden course of the economic and social process of reproduction. The developing state interventionism represents a form in which the contradictions of capital can temporarily move; but the movement of capital remains historically determining… These can be condensed in terms of value theory in the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, which also means that this law must be the conceptual point of departure for an analysis of state functions, to be developed out of the concrete course of capital accumulation and class conflict.12

Put simply, other than the extension of political rights to workers and the expansion of the welfare state which were temporary concessions to working class struggle that never undermined labor-market discipline, the logic of capitalist state economic policy is driven by attempts to mobilize the counter-tendencies to the falling rate of profit.13Whether the use of fiscal and monetary policy to stimulate demand, manipulate interest rates or provide tax subsidies to various capitals; incomes policies and restrictions on trade union rights; or the mechanisms of indicative planning and nationalization (usually of less productive capitals), capitalist state economic policies aim facilitate increasing the rate of surplus-value and destroying redundant capitals—without the collapse of accumulation that comes with crises.

The abandonment of Keynesian policies in the late 1970s and early 1980s reflected the limits of capitalist state policy and the necessity of periodic capitalist crises.14 Despite the massive expansion of ‘state intervention,’ capitalist state policies operated at a distance from accumulation and could not prevent a new crisis of profitability. The shift to neo-liberalism facilitated the revival of profitability and accumulation between 1982 and 2007 because it was effective in facilitating the increased exploitation of labor and the destruction of inefficient firms. However, neo-liberalism—like all other capitalist state policies—could not prevent a renewed crisis of profitability beginning in 2008. These crises are rooted in the operation capitalism’s most fundamental laws of motion/rules of reproduction—the operation of the law of value through specialization, innovation and accumulation under the whip of market competition—which are beyond the ability of capitalist state managers to effectively regulate.

Ultimately, the Capital-centric understanding of the place of the capitalist state in the ensemble of capitalist social property relations points to the need to radically disrupt the separation of the political and economic in order to transcend capitalism. Because capitalist state policies are ultimately limited by independent dynamics of profitability, the capitalist state institutions cannot be utilized in some instrumental fashion to abolish capitalism in some piece-meal manner, as strategies of “non-reformist reforms” argue. Instead, working people will have to confront the capitalist state and build their own organs of political and social power—which will abolish the separation of the political and economic—in order to build a new, democratic socialist order.


1 “The Bourgeois State Form Revisted,” in W. Bonefeld, et al. (eds.) Open Marxism, Volume I: Dialectics and History (London: Pluto Press, 1992); Impersonal Power: History and Theory of the Bourgeois State, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009)

2 “The Separation of the ‘Economic’ and the ‘Political’ in Capitalism,” in Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 29-30.

4Rethinking the Industrial Revolution: Five Centuries of Transition from Agrarian to Industrial Capitalism in England (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014).

5 Susan Archer Mann, Agrarian Capitalism in Theory and Practice (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), Chapter Two.

6 This argument is detailed in Martin J. Murray and Charles Post, “The ‘Agrarian Question,’ Class Struggle and the Capitalist State in South Africa and the United States,” Insurgent Sociologist, Volume 11, Number 3 (Winter 1984).

7 “Precarious Migrants: Gender, Race and the Social Reproduction of a Global Working Class,” in L. Panitch and G. Albo (eds.), Socialist Register 2015: Transforming Classes (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014).

8 Howard Botwinick, Persistent Inequalities: Wage Disparities under Capitalist Competition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

10 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003). See also “Development from Below,” Jacobin 19 (2015) []

11 In J. Holloway and S. Picciotto (eds.), State and Capital: A Marxist Debate (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1978)

13 For a similar argument see G. McCormack and T. Workman, The Servant State: Overseeing Capital Accumulation in Canada (Blackwood, NS: Fernwood Press, 2015)

14 See David McNally, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (Oakland, CA, PM Press, 2011) and Anwar Shaikh, “The First Great Depression of the 21st Century” in L. Panitch, G. Albo and V. Chibber (eds.), Socialist Register 2011: The Crisis This Time (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).



Can Democracy Reduce Inequality

Despite two decades of social policies targeting poverty and inequality, Latin America remains one of the most economically unequal regions in the world. Recurrent protests motivated by economic grievances have been a regular reminder of this reality. The ongoing health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately harmed already vulnerable populations, undoing some of the progress made. At the same time, democracy has taken root in the region, and participation in elections is growing. Then why hasn’t democracy been more effective in resolving Latin America’s persistent inequality?

Research shows voters are not able to make their demands for greater redistribution heard, while governments are not implementing redistributive policies at the desired pace. Reasons include unequal political participation, institutional bias against redistribution, and vote buying. Until such impediments are removed, democracy’s impact on inequality will remain limited.

Between 2000 and 2018, income inequality in Latin America, as measured by the Gini index, gradually fell from 53.3 to 45.7. During the same period, government spending on social protection steadily increased by almost one percentage point of GDP. While these trends seem promising, inequality in Latin America remains high and social spending low by the standards of more advanced economies. For example, the thirty-six countries of the OECD reported a Gini index of only 33.2 in 2018. That is puzzling, given that at least on paper, Latin America is built on similar economic and political principles—market economies and representative democracies. One would expect that the democratic process, which by design is based on the egalitarian principle of “one person, one vote”, would lead to policies that reduce market inequalities. In other words, in a well-functioning democracy, inequality should to some extent be self-correcting. Why isn’t this happening to a greater degree in Latin America?

Weak Voter Demand for Policies that Lower Inequality

A first explanation is that voter demand for inequality-reducing policies remains relatively weak. Lack of voter pressure can be seen in limited and unequal political participation. Despite the widespread use of compulsory voting, voter turnout in the region has remained below 70% on average. More importantly, turnout is biased in a way that is detrimental to the poor, as voting is less common among the less educated and the less wealthy.

Even when they do vote, the less well-off are less informed, and thus less effective in choosing candidates that represent their economic interests. The poor are the greatest beneficiaries of basic public services, such as public education and health care. Unfortunately, voter demand for government investments in these public goods is tenuous, either due to low trust in the ability of public officials to spend public resources in these areas effectively, or due to a preference for immediate benefits such as cash transfers, at the expense of longer-term benefits such as high-quality education and public safety.

Weak Supply of Policies Designed to Reduce Inequality

A second explanation is that the policymaking process may fail to internalize popular demand for redistribution. In some cases, this occurs because political institutions can be manipulated by incumbents to retain power, for example through legislative malapportionment. Others argue that elements of the elite gain access to and remain in power using campaign donations from narrow interest groups, obviating the need to rely on broad popular support.

More recent research has shown that vote buying by political candidates, a prevalent phenomenon in many Latin American democracies, subverts the normal functioning of the budget process. Voters targeted with vote buying prior to an election may receive no government benefits after the election. As poorer voters are more susceptible to vote buying, they are often left unrepresented in the subsequent negotiations over the budget. Thus, vote buying crowds out redistributive spending that could reduce inequality.

Stronger Democracies Better Alleviate Inequality

In a chapter of the recent IDB report entitled The Inequality Crisis I present new data patterns that support the idea that the strength of democracy matters for the alleviation of inequality. I use the Economist Intelligence Unit democracy index to rank democratic quality along five dimensions. Among Latin American countries, stronger democracies provide more redistributive spending. At one end of the spectrum, Nicaragua spends less than 1% of GDP on social protection, compared to almost 7% in Uruguay, at the other end of the spectrum. Interestingly, stronger democracies are also characterized by higher voter turnout and fewer protests. This suggests that voting, rather than protesting, is a catalyst for government redistribution. Protests appear to be a symptom of unmet economic expectations.

Some development institutions, such as the UNDP, have suggested that inequality may be one of democracy’s greatest weaknesses. As the less well-off are economically marginalized, they become more disengaged with the democratic process. However, a weaker democracy may also fail to alleviate inequality. Overcoming this vicious circle remains a challenge for Latin America’s young democracies. Political and civic leaders in the region should renew their commitment to strengthening democratic institutions, chief among them free elections, civic liberties, and independent media. Over time, better-functioning democracies should improve economic equity. Democracy can certainly reduce inequality, as long as it functions as intended.


Income Inequality and Citizenship: Quantifying the Link

Our level of income is unarguably dependent on where we live in the world. But evidencing this is tricky. This Posting presents a model that explains global income variability using one variable only – where you live. The results suggest that we might want to reassess how we think about both economic migration and global inequality of opportunity.

It is as obvious as it is well known that the world is unequal in terms of individuals’ incomes (e.g. Mohammed 2015).  But it is unequal in a very particular way – when split into ‘inequality within countries’ and ‘inequality between countries’, the latter accounts for by far the biggest gap.

Inequality within countries measures, for instance, gaps between poor and rich Americans or between poor and rich Chinese. For simplicity, let’s call it ‘class’ inequality. But there is also another equally obvious inequality – that between rich and poor nations. More specifically, this inequality is measured as the gap between the ‘representative’ or ‘average’ individuals of any two countries, be they Morocco and Spain or Mexico and the US. For simplicity, let’s call this ‘locational’ inequality.

Inequality, as it is commonly understood in today’s world, is such that whatever measure we choose, the lion’s share of global inequality is ‘explained’ by the differences in mean incomes between countries.

This was not always the case. Although our data for the past are far more tentative than our data for today’s global income distribution, we can still state with little doubt that the dominant type of equality in the 19th century was that within countries (see Milanovic 2011).

Citizenship Premiums and Penalties

If income differences between countries are large then your income will significantly depend on where you live, or even on where you were born (97% of the world’s population remain in the countries where they were born). This is what I call a ‘citizenship premium’ (or a ‘citizenship penalty’) – a ‘rent’ that a person receives if he or she happens to be born in a rich country, or, if we use the terminology introduced by John Roemer, an ‘exogenous circumstance’ which is independent from any one individual’s effort and episodic luck (Roemer 2000).

How big is citizenship rent, how does it vary with one’s position in the income distribution, and what does it imply for global inequality of opportunity and migration?

Estimating Citizenship Rent

I estimate citizenship rent by using data collected from household surveys conducted in 118 countries in and around the year 2008 (Milanovic 2015). For each country, I have micro-level (household) data ordered into 100 percentiles, with individuals ranked by their household per capita income. This gives 11,800 country/percentiles with ‘representative’ per capita incomes expressed in dollars of equal purchasing parity, making incomes across countries comparable.

I ‘explain’ these incomes using only one variable – the country where individuals live. Of course, people living in the US will tend to have higher incomes at any given percentile of the distribution than people living in poor countries in, for instance, Africa. But how will it look for the world as a whole? In a least-square dummy variable regression, I use Congo (the poorest county in the world) as the ‘omitted country’ so that I can express the citizenship premium in every other country in terms of the income gain compared to Congo. The premium for the US is 355%, it is 329% for Sweden and 164% for Brazil. But for Yemen, another very poor country, it’s 32%.

According to this regression, we can explain more than two-thirds of the variability in incomes across country/percentiles by only one variable – the country where people live. This estimation shows that, as we thought, a lot of our income depends on where we live.

Citizenship Rent across the Distribution      

But this is only an average premium that compares countries. Does citizenship rent vary along the entire income distribution? If I were to take into consideration only people belonging to the lowest part of the income distribution in each country, would the premium still be the same?

Intuition may help here. Suppose that I focus only on the incomes of the lowest decile (with rich countries more equal than poor countries). Then the gap between rich and poor countries should be greater for the very poor people than for the average individual.  And this is indeed what we find – Sweden’s citizenship premium compared to Congo is now 367% versus 329% on average. But Brazil’s is 133% versus 164%.  The situation at the top is exactly the opposite – Sweden’s advantaged position at the 90th percentile of the income distribution is ‘only’ 286%, but Brazil’s becomes 188%.

Implications for Migration

The existence of the citizenship premium has obvious implications for migration: people from poor countries will have the opportunity to double or triple their real incomes by moving to a rich country.

But the fact that the premium varies as a function of one’s position in the income distribution carries additional implications. If I consider moving to one of two countries that have the same average income, my decision on where to migrate – based on economic criteria alone – will also be influenced by my expectations regarding where I may end up in the recipient county’s income distribution. My decision will thus be influenced by the extent to which the recipient country’s income distribution is unequal.

Suppose that Sweden and the US have the same mean income. If I expect to end up in the bottom part of a recipient country’s distribution, then I should migrate to Sweden. The poor people in Sweden are better off compared to the mean, and the citizenship premium, evaluated at lower parts of distribution, is greater. The opposite conclusion follows if I expect to end up in the upper part of the recipient country’s distribution – I should migrate to the US.

This last result has unpleasant implications for rich countries with greater ‘in-country’ equality. More equal rich countries will tend to attract lower-skilled migrants who generally expect to be placed in the bottom part of the recipient country’s distribution. Developing a national welfare state would have the perverse effect of attracting migrants who can contribute less.

Even in this rough sketch, we also have to consider the levels of social mobility in recipient countries because more unequal countries with strong social mobility will, everything else being the same, tend to appeal to more skilled migrants.

Global Inequality of Opportunity

The mere existence of a large citizenship premium implies that there is no such a thing as global equality of opportunity because a lot of our income depends on the accident of birth.

So should we strive for global equality of opportunity or not? It is a political philosophy question that philosophers have thought much more about than economists. Some, following John Rawls in The Law of Peoples, believe that this is not an issue and that every argument for global equality of opportunity would conflict with the right of national self-determination. But other political philosophers like Thomas Pogge believe that in an interdependent world, the dominant role of chance in people’s life is not to be accepted lightly (Pogge 2008). I am not proposing a solution to this issue, yet, I believe that economists should not shy away from addressing it.1

As gaps between nations diminish, mostly thanks to the high growth rates of Asian countries, the citizenship rent will tend to reduce. But there is such a huge gap today that even a century of much higher growth in poor countries (in comparison to rich countries) will not eradicate citizenship rent.

However, it will reduce. As it does, it will also reduce overall global inequality. This might then lead us to a world not dissimilar to the mid-19th century, in which class is again more important for one’s global income position than location.

Do I hear the distant sound of Marx?


Milanovic, B (2011), The haves and the have-nots: a short and idiosyncratic history of global inequality, New York: Basic Books.

Milanovic, B (2015), “Global Inequality of Opportunity: How Much of Our Income Is Determined By Where We Live?”, The Review of Economics and Statistics 97(2): 452-460.

Mohammed, A (2015), “Deepening income inequality”, World Economic Forum report.

Pogge, T (2008), World Poverty and Human Rights, Polity Press.

Rawls, J (2001), The Law of Peoples, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Roemer, J (2000), Equality of Opportunity, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shachar, A (2009), The Birthright Lottery, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


1 Legal scientists such as Ayalet Shachar have written about addressing global inequality from a legal standpoint, proposing a much more flexible and open definition of citizenship (see Shachar 2009).


Global Income Distribution: From the Fall of the Berlin Wall to the Great Recession

Since 1988, rapid growth in Asia has lifted billions out of poverty. Incomes at the very top of the world income distribution have also grown rapidly, whereas median incomes in rich countries have grown much more slowly. This posting asks whether these developments, while reducing global income inequality overall, might undermine democracy in rich countries.

The period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Great Recession saw probably the most profound reshuffle of individual incomes on the global scale since the Industrial Revolution. This was driven by high growth rates of populous and formerly poor or very poor countries like China, Indonesia, and India; and, on the other hand, by the stagnation or decline of incomes in sub-Saharan Africa and post-communist countries as well as among poorer segments of the population in rich countries.

Anand and Segal (2008) offer a detailed review of the work on global income inequality. In Lakner and Milanovic (2013), we address some of the limitations of these earlier studies and present new results from detailed work on household survey data from about 120 countries over the period 1988–2008. Each country’s distribution is divided into ten deciles (each decile consists of 10% of the national population) according to their per capita disposable income (or consumption). In order to make incomes comparable across countries and time, they are corrected both for domestic inflation and differences in price levels between countries. It is then possible to observe not only how the position of different countries changes over time – as we usually do – but also how the position of various deciles within each country changes. For example, Japan’s top decile remained at the 99th (2nd highest from the top) world percentile, but Japan’s median decile dropped from the 91st to the 88th global percentile. Or, to take another example, the top Chinese urban decile moved from being in the 68th global percentile in 1988 to being in the 83rd global percentile in 2008, thus leapfrogging in the process some 15% of the world population – equivalent to almost a billion people.

When we line up all individuals in the world, from the poorest to the richest (going from left to right on the horizontal axis in Figure 1), and display on the vertical axis the percentage increase in the real income of the equivalent group over the period 1988–2008, we generate a global growth incidence curve – the first of its kind ever, because such data at the global level were not available before. The curve has an unusual supine S shape, indicating that the largest gains were realised by the groups around the global median (50th percentile) and among the global top 1%. But after the global median, the gains rapidly decrease, becoming almost negligible around the 85th–90th global percentiles and then shooting up for the global top 1%. As a result, growth in the income of the top ventile (top 5%) accounted for 44% of the increase in global income between 1988 and 2008.

Figure 1.Anonymous global growth incidence curve: Real income change at various percentiles of the global income distribution between 1988 and 2008 (%)

Fortunes of income deciles in different countries over time

The curve in Figure 1 is drawn using a simple comparison of real income levels at given percentiles of the global income distribution in 1988 and 2008. It is ‘anonymous’ because it does not tell us what happened to the actual people who were at given global income percentiles in the initial year, 1988. In fact, the regional composition of the different global income groups changed radically over time because growth was uneven across regions. A ‘quasi non-anonymous’ growth incidence curve in Figure 2 adjusts for this – the growth rates are calculated for all individual country/deciles at the positions they held in the initial year (1988). The growth rate on the vertical axis (calculated from a non-parametric fit) thus shows how the country/deciles that were poor, middle-class, rich, etc. in 1988 performed over the next 20 years. The supine S shape still remains, although it is now slightly less dramatic.

People around the median almost doubled their real incomes. Not surprisingly, 9 out of 10 such ‘winners’ were from the ‘resurgent Asia’. For example, a person around the middle of the Chinese urban income distribution saw his or her 1988 real income multiplied by a factor of almost 3; someone in the middle of the Indonesian or Thai income distribution by a factor of 2, Indian by a factor of 1.4, etc.

It is perhaps less expected that people who gained the least were almost entirely from the ‘mature economies’ – OECD members that include also a number of former communist countries. But even when the latter are excluded, the overwhelming majority in that group of ‘losers’ are from the ‘old, conventional’ rich world. But not just anyone from the rich world. Rather, the ‘losers’ were predominantly the people who in their countries belong to the lower halves of national income distributions. Those around the median of the German income distribution have gained only 7% in real terms over 20 years; those in the US, 26%. Those in Japan lost out in real terms.

Figure 2 Quasi non-anonymous global growth incidence curve: Real income change between 1988 and 2008 across 1988 percentiles of the global income distribution

The particular supine S-shaped growth incidence curve (Figure 1) does not allow us to immediately tell whether global inequality might have gone up or down because the gains around the median (which tend to reduce inequality) may be offset by the gains of the global top 1% (which tend to increase inequality). On balance, however, it turns out that the first element dominates, and that global inequality – as measured by most conventional indicators – went down. The global Gini coefficient fell by almost 2 Gini points (from 72.2 to 70.5) during the past 20 years of globalisation. Was it then all for the better?

Probably yes, but not so simply. The striking association of large gains around the median of the global income distribution – received mostly by the Asian populations – and the stagnation of incomes among the poor or lower middle classes in rich countries, naturally opens the question of whether the two are associated. Does the growth of China and India take place on the back of the middle class in rich countries? There are many studies that, for particular types of workers, discuss the substitutability between rich countries’ low-skilled labour and Asian labour embodied in traded goods and services or outsourcing. Global income data do not allow us to establish or reject the causality. But they are quite suggestive that the two phenomena may be related.

Figure 3 Real per capita income of the 2nd income decile in the US and the 8th urban income decile in China between 1988 and 2011

A dramatic way to see the change brought by globalisation is to compare the evolution over time of the 2nd US income decile with (say) the Chinese urban 8th decile (Figure 3). Indeed we are comparing relatively poor people in the US with relatively rich people in China, but given the income differences between the two countries, and that the two groups may be thought to be in some kind of global competition, the comparison makes sense. Here we extend the analysis to 2011, using more recent and preliminary data. While the real income of the US 2nd decile has increased by some 20% in a quarter century, the income of China’s 8th decile has been multiplied by a factor of 6.5. The absolute income gap, still significant five years ago, before the onset of the Great Recession, has narrowed substantially.

Political Implications

And even if the causality cannot be established because of many technical difficulties and an inability to define credible counterfactuals, the association between the two cannot pass unnoticed. What, then, are its implications? First, will the bottom incomes of the rich countries continue to stagnate as the rest of China, or later Indonesia, Nigeria, India, etc. follow the upward movement of Chinese workers through the ranks of the global income distribution? Does this imply that the developments that are indeed profoundly positive from the global point of view may prove to be destabilising for individual rich countries?

Second, if we take a simplistic, but effective, view that democracy is correlated with a large and vibrant middle class, its continued hollowing-out in the rich world would, combined with growth of incomes at the top, imply a movement away from democracy and towards forms of plutocracy. Could then the developing countries, with their rising middle classes, become more democratic and the US, with its shrinking middle class, less?

Third, and probably the most difficult: What would such movements, if they continue for a couple of decades, imply for global stability? The formation of a global middle class, or the already perceptible ‘homogenisation’ of the global top 1%, regardless of their nationality, may be both deemed good for world stability and interdependency, and socially bad for individual countries as the rich get ‘delinked’ from their fellow citizens.


In a nutshell, the movements that we witness do not only lead to an economic rebalancing of the East and West – in which both may end up with global output shares close to what they had before the Industrial Revolution – but to a contradiction between the current world order, where political power is concentrated at the level of the nation-state, and the economic forces of globalization which have gone far beyond it.


Anand, Sudhir and Paul Segal (2008), “What Do We Know about Global Income Inequality?”, Journal of Economic Literature, 46(1): 57–94.

Lakner, Christoph and Branko Milanovic (2013), “Global income distribution: from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the Great Recession”, World Bank Working Paper No. 6719, December.


Redistribution, Inequality, and Sustainable Growth: Reconsidering the Evidence

Inequality has the potential to undermine growth. However, greater redistribution requires higher tax rates, which reduce incentives to work and save. Moreover, the evidence that inequality is bad for growth might simply reflect the fact that more unequal societies choose to redistribute more, and those efforts are antithetical to growth. This column presents evidence from a new dataset on pre- and post-tax inequality. The authors find that income equality is protective of growth, and that redistributive transfers on average have little if any direct adverse impact on growth.

Rising income inequality looms high on the global policy agenda, reflecting not only fears of its pernicious social and political effects (including questions about the consistency of extreme inequality with democratic governance), but also its economic implications. While positive incentives are surely needed to reward work and innovation, excessive inequality is likely to undercut growth – for example by undermining access to health and education, causing investment-reducing political and economic instability, and thwarting the social consensus required to adjust in the face of major shocks.

Understandably, economists have been trying to understand better the links between rising inequality and the fragility of economic growth. Recent narratives include how inequality intensified the leverage and financial cycle, sowing the seeds of crisis (Rajan 2010), or how political-economy factors – especially the influence of the rich – allowed financial excess to balloon ahead of the crisis (Stiglitz 2012).

But what is the role of policy – and in particular fiscal redistribution – in bringing about greater equality? Conventional wisdom suggests that redistribution would in itself be bad for growth, but by reducing inequality, it might conceivably help growth. Looking at past experience, we find scant evidence that typical efforts to redistribute have on average had an adverse effect on growth. Moreover, faster and more durable growth seems to have followed the associated reduction in inequality.

Disentangling the Effects of Inequality and Redistribution on Growth

In earlier work (Berg and Ostry 2011), we documented a robust medium-run relationship between equality and the sustainability of growth. We did not, however, have much to say on whether this relationship justifies efforts to redistribute.

Indeed, many argue that redistribution undermines growth, and even that efforts to redistribute to address high inequality are the source of the correlation between inequality and low growth. If this is right, then taxes and transfers may be precisely the wrong remedy – a cure that may be worse than the disease itself.

The literature on this score remains controversial. A number of papers (e.g. Benabou 2000) point out that some policies that are redistributive – e.g. public investments in infrastructure, spending on health and education, and social insurance provision – may be both pro-growth and pro-equality. Others are more supportive of a fundamental tradeoff between redistribution and growth, as argued by Okun (1975) when he referred to the efficiency ‘leaks’ that come with efforts to reduce inequality.

In a new paper (Ostry et al. 2014), we ask what the historical data say about the relationship between inequality, redistribution, and growth. In particular, what is the evidence about the macroeconomic effects of redistributive policies – both directly on growth, and indirectly as they reduce inequality, which in turn affects growth?

To disentangle the channels, we make use of a new cross-country dataset that carefully distinguishes net (post-tax and transfers) inequality from market (pre-tax and transfers) inequality, and allows us to calculate redistributive transfers for a large number of countries over time – covering both advanced and developing countries. We analyse the behaviour of average growth during five-year periods, as well as the sustainability and duration of growth.

Our key questions are empirical. How big is the ‘big tradeoff’? How does the direct (in Okun’s view negative) effect of redistribution compare to its indirect and apparently positive effect through reduced inequality?

Some Striking Results on the Links between Redistribution, Inequality, and Growth

  • First, we continue to find that inequality is a robust and powerful determinant both of the pace of medium-term growth and of the duration of growth spells, even controlling for the size of redistributive transfers.

Thus, it would still be a mistake to focus on growth and let inequality take care of itself, if only because the resulting growth may be low and unsustainable. Inequality and unsustainable growth may be two sides of the same coin.

  • Second, there is remarkably little evidence in the historical data used in our paper of adverse effects of fiscal redistribution on growth.

The average redistribution, and the associated reduction in inequality, seem to be robustly associated with higher and more durable growth. We find some mixed signs that very large redistributions may have direct negative effects on growth duration, such that the overall effect – including the positive effect on growth through lower inequality – is roughly growth-neutral.


These findings may suggest that countries that have carried out redistributive policies have actually designed those policies in a reasonably efficient way. However, it does not mean of course that countries wishing to enhance the redistributive role of fiscal policy should not pay attention to efficiency considerations. This is especially important for countries with weak governance and administrative capacity, where developing tax and spending instruments that can allow governments to undertake redistribution efficiently are of the essence. A forthcoming paper by the IMF will delve into these fiscal issues.

Of course, we should also be cautious about drawing definitive policy implications from cross-country regression analysis alone. We know from history and first principles that after some point redistribution will be destructive to growth, and that beyond some point extreme equality also cannot be conducive to growth. Causality is difficult to establish with full confidence, and we also know that different sorts of policies are likely to have different effects in different countries at different times.

Bottom line

The conclusion that emerges from the historical macroeconomic data used in this paper is that, on average across countries and over time, the things that governments have typically done to redistribute do not seem to have led to bad growth outcomes. Quite apart from ethical, political, or broader social considerations, the resulting equality seems to have helped support faster and more durable growth.

To put it simply, we find little evidence of a ‘big tradeoff’ between redistribution and growth. Inaction in the face of high inequality thus seems unlikely to be warranted in many cases.


Benabou, R (2000), “Unequal Societies: Income Distribution and the Social Contract”The American Economic Review, 90(1): 96–129.

Berg, A, J D Ostry, and J Zettelmeyer (2012), “What Makes Growth Sustained?”, Journal of Development Economics, 98(2): 149–166.

Berg, A and J D Ostry (2011), “Inequality and Unsustainable Growth: Two Sides of the Same Coin?”, IMF Staff Discussion Note 11/08.

Okun, A M (1975), Equality and Efficiency: the Big Trade-Off, Washington: Brookings Institution Press.

Ostry, J D, A Berg, and C G Tsangarides (2014), “Redistribution, Inequality, and Growth”, IMF Staff Discussion Note 14/02.

Rajan, R (2010), Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Stiglitz, J (2012), The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, W W Norton & Company.


Can Democracy Help with Inequality?

Inequality is currently a prominent topic of debate in Western democracies. In democratic countries, we might expect rising inequality to be partially offset by an increase in political support for redistribution. This column argues that the relationship between democracy, redistribution, and inequality is more complicated than that. Elites in newly democratized countries may hold on to power in other ways, the liberalization of occupational choice may increase inequality among previously excluded groups, and the middle classes may redistribute income away from the poor as well as the rich.

There is a great deal of concern at the moment about the consequences of rising levels of inequality in North America and Western Europe. Will this lead to an oligarchisation of the political system, and imperil political and social stability? Many find such dynamics puzzling given that it is happening in democratic countries. In democratic societies, there ought to be political mechanisms that can inhibit or reverse large rises in inequality, most likely through the fiscal system. Indeed, one of the most central models in political economy, due originally to Meltzer and Richard (1981), suggests that high inequality in a democracy should lead the politically powerful (in their model the voter at the median of the income distribution) to vote for higher levels of taxes and redistribution, which would partially offset rising inequality.

But before asking about what happens in a democracy, we could start with some even more fundamental questions. Is it correct factually that democracies redistribute more income than dictatorships? When a country becomes democratic, does this tend to increase redistribution and reduce inequality? The existing scholarship on these questions, though vast, is quite contradictory. Historical studies, such as Acemoglu and Robinson (2000) and Lindert (2004), tend to suggest that democratization increases redistribution and reduces inequality. Using cross-national data, Gil et al. (2004) find no correlation between democracy as measured by the Polity score and any government spending or policy outcome. The evidence on the impact of democracy on inequality is similarly puzzling. An early survey by Sirowy and Inkeles (1990) concludes, “the existing evidence suggests that the level of political democracy as measured at one point in time tends not to be widely associated with lower levels of income inequality” (p. 151), though Rodrik (1999) finds that both the Freedom House and Polity III measures of democracy were positively correlated with average real wages in manufacturing and the share of wages in national income (in specifications that also control for productivity, GDP per capita, and a price index).

In a recent working paper (Acemoglu et al. 2013), we revisit these questions both theoretically and empirically.

Theoretical Nuances

Theoretically, we point out why the relationship between democracy, redistribution, and inequality may be more complex than the discussion above might suggest. First, democracy may be ‘captured’ or ‘constrained’. In particular, even though democracy clearly changes the distribution of de jure power in society, policy outcomes and inequality depend not just on the de jure but also the de facto distribution of power. Acemoglu and Robinson (2008) argue that, under certain circumstances, elites who see their de jure power eroded by democratization may sufficiently increase their investments in de facto power (e.g. via control of local law enforcement, mobilization of non-state armed actors, lobbying, and other means of capturing the party system) in order to continue to control the political process. If so, we would not see much impact of democratization on redistribution and inequality. Similarly, democracy may be constrained by other de jure institutions such as constitutions, conservative political parties, and judiciaries, or by de facto threats of coups, capital flight, or widespread tax evasion by the elite.

Democratization can also result in ‘inequality-increasing market opportunities’. Non-democracy may exclude a large fraction of the population from productive occupations (e.g. skilled occupations) and entrepreneurship (including lucrative contracts), as in Apartheid South Africa or the former Soviet Union. To the extent that there is significant heterogeneity within this population, the freedom to take part in economic activities on a more level playing field with the previous elite may actually increase inequality within the excluded or repressed group, and consequently the entire society.

Finally, consistent with Stigler’s ‘Director’s Law’ (1970), democracy may transfer political power to the middle class, rather than the poor. If so, redistribution may increase and inequality may be curtailed only if the middle class is in favour of such redistribution.
But what are the basic robust facts, and do they support any of these mechanisms?

Empirical Evidence

Cross-sectional (cross-national) regressions, or regressions that do not control for country fixed effects, will be heavily confounded with other factors likely to be simultaneously correlated with democracy and inequality. In our work we therefore focus on a consistent panel of countries, and investigate whether countries that become democratic redistribute more and reduce inequality relative to others. We also focus on a consistent definition of democratization based on Freedom House and Polity indices, building on the work by Papaioannou and Siourounis (2008).

One of the problems of these indices is the significant measurement error, which creates spurious movements in democracy. To minimize the influence of such measurement error, we create a dichotomous measure of democracy using information from both the Freedom House and Polity data sets, as well as other codings of democracies, to resolve ambiguous cases. This leads to a binary measure of democracy for 184 countries annually from 1960 (or post-1960 year of independence) to 2010. We also pay special attention to modeling the dynamics of our outcomes of interest – taxes as a percentage of GDP, and various measures of structural change and inequality.

Our empirical investigation uncovers a number of interesting patterns. First, we find a robust and quantitatively large effect of democracy on tax revenues as a percentage of GDP (and also on total government revenues as a percentage of GDP). The long-run effect of democracy in our preferred specification is about a 16% increase in tax revenues as a fraction of GDP. This pattern is robust to various different econometric techniques and to the inclusion of other potential determinants of taxes, such as unrest, war, and education.

Second, we find an effect of democracy on secondary school enrolment and the extent of structural transformation (e.g. an impact on the nonagricultural shares of employment and output).

Third, however, we find a much more limited effect of democracy on inequality. Even though some measures and some specifications indicate that inequality declines after democratization, there is no robust pattern in the data (certainly nothing comparable to the results on taxes and government revenue). This may reflect the poorer quality of inequality data. But we also suspect it may be related to the more complex, nuanced theoretical relationships between democracy and inequality pointed out above.

Fourth, we investigate whether there are heterogeneous effects of democracy on taxes and inequality consistent with these more nuanced theoretical relationships. The evidence here points to an inequality-increasing impact of democracy in societies with a high degree of land inequality, which we interpret as evidence of (partial) capture of democratic decision-making by landed elites. We also find that inequality increases following a democratisation in relatively nonagricultural societies, and also when the extent of disequalising economic activities is greater in the global economy as measured by US top income shares (though this effect is less robust). These correlations are consistent with the inequality-inducing effects of access to market opportunities created by democracy. We also find that democracy tends to increase inequality and taxation when the middle class are relatively richer compared to the rich and poor. These correlations are consistent with Director’s Law, which suggests that democracy allows the middle class to redistribute from both the rich and the poor to itself.


These results do suggest that some of our basic intuitions about democracy are right – democracy does represent a real shift in political power away from elites that has first-order consequences for redistribution and government policy. But the impact of democracy on inequality may be more limited than one might have expected.

This might be because recent increases in inequality are ‘market-induced’ in the sense of being caused by technological change. But at the same time, our work also suggests reasons why democracy may not counteract inequality. Most importantly, this may be because, as in the Director’s Law, the middle classes use democracy to redistribute to themselves. Nevertheless, since the increase in inequality in the US has been associated with a significant surge in the share of income accruing to the very rich, compared to both the middle class and the poor, Director’s Law-type mechanisms seem unlikely to be able to explain why policy has not changed to counteract this. Clearly other political mechanisms must be at work, the nature of which requires a great deal of research.


Acemoglu, Daron and James A Robinson (2000), “Why Did the West Extend the Franchise?”, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 115: 1167–1199.

Acemoglu, Daron and James A Robinson (2008), “Persistence of Power, Elites and Institutions”, The American Economic Review, 98: 267–291.

Daron Acemoglu, Suresh Naidu, Pascual Restrepo, and James A Robinson (2013), “Democracy, Redistribution and Inequality”, NBER Working Paper 19746.

Gil, Ricard, Casey B Mulligan, and Xavier Sala-i-Martin (2004), “Do Democracies have different Public Policies than Nondemocracies?”, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18: 51–74.

Lindert, Peter H (2004), Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Meltzer, Allan M and Scott F Richard (1981), “A Rational Theory of the Size of Government”, Journal of Political Economy, 89: 914–927.

Papaioannou, Elias and Gregorios Siourounis (2008), “Democratisation and Growth”, Economic Journal, 118(532): 1520–1551.

Rodrik, Dani (1999), “Democracies Pay Higher Wages”, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 114: 707–738.

Sirowy, Larry and Alex Inkeles (1990), “The Effects of Democracy on Economic Growth and Inequality: A Review”, Studies in Comparative International Development, 25: 126–157.

Stigler, George J (1970), “Director’s Law of public income redistribution”, Journal of Law and Economics, 13: 1–10.


Accumulation, Capitalism and Politics: Towards an Integrated Approach

This article aims to regenerate analysis of how accumulation relates to politics by underlining that one cannot be theorized without the other. After recalling how initial Marxist and institutionalist problematics implied the need to grasp the relationship between these two terms, we set out to show how coupling regulation theory with field theory enables empirical analysis to reveal the political structuring of accumulation.


In an article published in 2007, Robert Boyer noted a renewed interest in the social sciences – sociology, political science and political economy, in particular – for the concept of capitalism. Editorial news lends credence to this finding 1 , in France and beyond. Somewhat surprisingly, however, this renewed interest does not translate into renewed attention to the process that underlies the uniqueness of capitalist economic organization: the accumulation of capital, that is to say the perpetual transformation profits into new productive forces to generate new profits. An effort of definition is therefore necessary. Economic system, capitalism produces and offers goods and services, but for a particular purpose, to make profits 2. According to Ellen Meiksins Wood (2019), this phenomenon is due to the fact that, in this system, the agents (the workers as well as the capitalists themselves) are prey to what Karl Marx calls “the silent constraint of economic relations” – the the former are forced to sell their labor power for a wage, the latter to use it to acquire their means of production and sell their products. This dependence means that “the mechanisms of competition and profit maximization become fundamental rules of existence” ( ibid., p. 9). The quest for labor productivity, which is based in particular on the acquisition of new technical means, is, in this system, a condition of economic survival for entrepreneurs. So much so that “the first objective of the [capitalist] system is the production of capital and its natural growth” ( id. ). From this perspective, the study of capitalism is that of the accumulation of capital, of its origins and of its multiple socio-economic and political effects.

The call for papers, from which the articles in this file are taken, therefore proposed to put the question of capital accumulation back on the job, but from a specific angle. Far from claiming to exhaust the question, this introductory text will focus more particularly on the political structures – understanding the political balance of power – inseparable from the “mechanism of the capitalist economy” (Petit, 1969, p. 9). This insight will evoke an old question for those who frequented the benches of universities before the decline of academic Marxism. It will be different for the generations that followed. Be that as it may, and without denying – quite the contrary – the contributions of classical writings,

By returning to classical political economy, we will first propose to grasp accumulation as an intrinsically political economic process. The latter is indeed based on conflicts – conflicts of powers, beliefs and values ​​3 –, whose permanence it maintains (Hay & Smith, 2018). We will thus observe that accumulation is political through its “structuring structures” (Bourdieu, 1980), i.e. the power relations that it induces, for example the reproduction of the asymmetry of positions between a worker and a capitalist, but also by his “structured structures”, the relations of forces which are at the origin of this one and found it, like private property or primitive accumulation. Through the commentary on the articles in the dossier, the sections that follow propose a diagram for analyzing the political structures of accumulation, while illustrating it with the help of empirical examples drawn in particular from the texts brought together here. In a second step, we will thus take advantage of the institutionalist tradition (in particular of certain achievements of the school of regulation but also of certain sociological currents) to draw attention to the institutions which organize and support accumulation and to the orders in which the forces competing for their production oppose each other. In a third step, relying on the structuralist tradition (in particular on the economic anthropology of Pierre Bourdieu), we will deepen this analytical scheme articulated around three concepts – “institutions, fields and political work” – in order to empirically decipher the processes that support the accumulation. Thus, echoing certain authors of regulation theory (TR),

Putting the question of accumulation back on the table – precisely that of its political structures – is not just an intellectual issue. By remaining particularly discreet on this subject in Europe and the United States 4, social sciences participate in the naturalization of the capitalist economy, its mechanisms and its effects. This is the case, in France, with the abundant literature on the sociology of markets which reduces economic activity to markets in order to study the mechanisms for adjusting supply and demand (Hay & Smith, 2018). The same goes for Anglo-Saxon literature, also abundant on the varieties of capitalism, and which, drawing on the institutionalist tradition, captures national economies through their firms and the way in which they coordinate (Roger , 2018). In one case as in the other, no word is said on the way in which the new productive forces appear, any more than on the relations of force which organize them and which they produce.

1.  Back to the 19th Century : the Accumulation of Economic Capital as an Intrinsically Political Phenomenon

1.1. From Political Economy to Its Critique: the Political Underpinnings of Capitalist Accumulation

Putting the question of accumulation back on the job leads to a return to the debates that have run through classical political economy. This is, in the 18th century  but especially in the 19th century, witness to a phenomenon unprecedented in its magnitude (Labrousse & Michel, 2017): increasingly guided by the quest for profits, economic activity lends itself, in the main European states, to a significant accumulation of capital ( generally assimilated to the means of production). The phenomenon is – for Adam Smith, in particular – at the foundation of a virtuous social process: accumulation – understood as the broadening of the productive base by adding capital – allows an increase in the number of workers, the division labor, productivity and, ultimately , production. Accumulation and enrichment of nations seem to be linked.

The question of the reproduction of the capitalist economy gradually came to structure the debate on political economy (Denis, 2016 [1966]). Reproduction – that is, the renewal of the production process – presupposes a relative balance between the two major sections – the production of the means of production and that of the means of consumption. According to the categorisations of Rosa Luxemburg (1969 [1913]), the “economists’ quarrel” opposes the “optimists” and the “pessimists”. The first, partisans of balance (that is to say of a harmony of the relations between production and consumption), make accumulation a positive process which, unfortunately, must end in a stationary state that it is a question of pushing back while promoting profit (case of the heirs of Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say and David Ricardo, especially). The latter, liberals (such as Jean de Sismondi) or critics (such as Karl Marx, of course), underline the possibilities of imbalances and crises of general overproduction, pointing out the internal contradictions of the capitalist economy. For the latter, the question of reproduction is all the more thorny in that the mechanisms of capitalism – the competition between the holders of capital, in particular – induce an “enlarged reproduction” of capital, a source of imbalances between production and consumption (the competition leading to a quest for productivity gains to ensure economic survival). Whereas, according to Karl Marx’s categorisations, “simple reproduction” is the repetition of the process in identical proportions to the previous cycle (the surplus value obtained by the capitalist is, in this case, devoted to the purchase of consumer goods), reproduction can be described as expanded when part of the sum of money drawn from surplus value is devoted to the purchase of means of production and/or labor. work, allowing the scale of production to increase. One-word summary: “In the first, the capitalist squanders all the surplus value, in the second, he demonstrates his bourgeois virtues by consuming only part of it and transforming the rest into money [to broaden his base productive]” (Marx, 2006 [1867], p. 656). Extended reproduction is thus confused with the accumulation of capital. allowing the scale of production to be increased. One-word summary: “In the first, the capitalist squanders all the surplus value, in the second, he demonstrates his bourgeois virtues by consuming only part of it and transforming the rest into money [to broaden his base productive]” (Marx, 2006 [1867], p. 656). Extended reproduction is thus confused with the accumulation of capital. allowing the scale of production to be increased. One-word summary: “In the first, the capitalist squanders all the surplus value, in the second, he demonstrates his bourgeois virtues by consuming only part of it and transforming the rest into money [to broaden his base productive]” (Marx, 2006 [1867], p. 656). Extended reproduction is thus confused with the accumulation of capital.

If, in this “quarrel”, the political character of accumulation is secondary, it is not absent; including among liberal economists who consider that the phenomenon presupposes the separation between the class of owners of capital and that of workers 5. From their point of view, the exploitation of the labor of the latter by the former is in a way a necessary evil for raising the standard of living of the community. It is probably Karl Marx who depicted capital and its accumulation as intrinsically political economic phenomena. Indeed, unlike the liberal economists he criticized, his philosophy of history aimed at a radical critique of forms of alienation, so as to bring out what, in social representations and material conditions, founded social relations. of their exploitation (Bartoli, 1984) – an approach that would prove to be the foundation of social sciences (constructivists) 6. Analyzing the genesis of capitalism and contrary to previous treatises on political economy, Karl Marx grasps capital not as wealth but as a social relationship 7. It is the transformation of property relations (notably the advent of private property) that opens up the possibility of a transformation of wealth into capital, private property setting in motion the mechanisms specific to the capitalist economy – taxation at all competitive relationships, incessant quest for better productivity. Seizing capital – and beyond that, accumulation – as a social relationship inevitably leads to making it an intrinsically political phenomenon in that, at a general level of definition, capital and accumulation engage the “relationships of men among themselves”, relations which are moreover conflicting (Lordon, 2008a, p. 12).

Indeed, accumulation is, in its structuring structures, political insofar as it engages power relations which, according to the moments of development of capitalist economies, are sometimes based on physical violence, sometimes on law and silent constraint. economic reports 8 . Thus, the genesis of capitalist economies, which passes through an initial appropriation of wealth by future capitalists (the so-called moment of primitive accumulation in classical political economy), is marked by “crime” and “looting” which alone allow the separation of the means of production between two social classes 9 . The enclosure movement in 17th century England century, constitutes in historiography (Marxist or not) an emblematic expression of the genesis of capitalism (Moore, 1969). In established capitalist economies, the balance of power involved in accumulation is based in particular on law (Palermo, 2007). For Karl Marx, if from a formal point of view it involves two legally equal persons, the separation of the labor force and the means of production generates an asymmetrical power relationship: “[the worker] and the possessor of money meet on the market, and enter into a relationship with each other, with their parity of possessor of goods and this single distinction that one is a buyer, the other is a seller” (Marx, 2006 [1867], p. . 188). The first has the money to build capital, the other does not: ibid. , p. 189). Establishing the asymmetry of the relationship between forces (“the worker works under the control of the capitalist to whom his labor belongs” ( ibid. , p. 208), the labor contract allows the capitalist a legal appropriation of part of the labor unpaid to the worker (the “surplus work”) that the capitalist will have to invest in order to expand his productive base.

In its structured structures, accumulation is for Karl Marx an intrinsically political phenomenon. In Le capital , which offers a more schematic representation of social stratification than other writings by the same author, it is divided into two classes, capitalists and proletarians, the former – endowed with the practical and symbolic force of law (private property and employment contract, in particular) – monopolizing part of the (unpaid) labor of the latter to feed accumulation: “capital is dead labor, which, similar to the vampire, only comes to life by sucking the labor alive, and his life is all the brighter the more he pumps out” ( ibid .., p. 259). In addition to the demands imposed by the conditions of reproduction, exploitation finds some limits with the development of social legislation. Relating the struggles over the establishment of the length of the working day, Karl Marx concludes: “the workers must unite in a single troop and conquer as a class a law of the State, a social obstacle stronger than all, which prevents them from selling themselves to capital by negotiating a free contract, and from pledging themselves and their kind to death and slavery” ( ibid ., p. 338). The feminist critique of Marxism will reveal another social division induced by the development of capitalist economies, which is added to the first: “what we see from the end of the 19th century, with the introduction of the family wage, the male worker’s wage […], it is because the women who worked in the factories were expelled from them and sent back to the home, so that domestic work became their first job, to the point of making them dependent […]. Through the salary, a new hierarchy is created, a new organization of inequality: the man has the power of the salary and becomes the foreman of the unpaid work of the woman” (Federici, 2019, p. 16-17). “Patriarchal capitalism” is emerging: the new organization of the family allows the development of capitalism in that it places in the hands of women the work of reproduction (of the workforce) – unpaid work.

1.2. Veblen and the Analysis of the Power of Businessmen

Under the effect of the marginalist revolution and until the recompositions caused by the Great Depression and the Second World War, the question of accumulation, like that of growth, no longer held much attention: the focus shifted towards microeconomics. However, American institutionalists, and more particularly Thorstein Bunde Veblen (1904, 1914, 1919), were interested in the processes of accumulation and their institutional foundations, in particular mentalities and power. For Veblen, the industrial system was constituted through the accumulation, by the community, of knowledge embodied in technology, and was favored by the artisan instinct of engineers, the institutions of science and rationalism. Gradually, the state of the industrial arts has made workers mere appendages of the technical system and standardized industrial equipment. Equipment and technology have become the going concern around which the presence of the workers was necessary, although auxiliary (1919, p. 14). At the same time, Veblen analyzes the ideological foundations of private property in modern liberalism and the revolutions of the eighteenth century  , which was originally conceived as personal property in an economy of small entrepreneurs/individual workers. Subsequently, this was actualized in the ownership of the assets of the business enterprise ( business enterprise ), that is to say capitalist, in a state of the industrial art which no longer corresponded to it. . The owners of the means of production and the business class then developed vested interests , understood as ” the legitimate rights to get something from nothing  ”, that is to say the right to obtain the usufruct of this property, without contributing anything to production. Capital, conceived (“invented”) by financiers as a capacity for income, a right to capitalized income on future production, is valued and accumulated by the practices of the business enterprise , which aim to hinder excessive development. of production, under penalty of seeing overproduction and price reductions, through the use of anti-competitive practices and the exploitation of intangible assets (trademarks, goodwill, patents, etc.). Thus, the accumulation of intangible assets also means an accumulation of means of impeding and restricting production in order to increase profitability, all actions which come under what Veblen calls “sabotage” (Veblen, 1921) and more generally predation.

This analysis basically aims to reveal the way in which the “robber barons” acquired a legitimized power of predation, parasitism and rent extraction through a set of practices restricting trade and competition, through the actualization of ownership and “predatory instincts”. Thus, Veblen shows that the accumulation of knowledge and its submission to the property and customs of the business world can harm the majority ( the common man ) and the dominated classes, starting with the workers. For him, capital is thus the product of a power (even if he rarely uses the term), of a vested interest . A thesis taken up more recently and partially by Nitzan and Bichler (2009) when they speak of “  capital as power “. Veblen (1919) was also interested, at the end of the First World War, in the foundations of states, kingdoms, nations and democracies, and in the relations between the business classes and nationalism or imperialism. He shows in particular that, in parallel, kings and political leaders have vested interests (what he calls “the divine rights of kings or Nations”) and that the suppression of kings and their replacement by democratic regimes does not did not have the effect of limiting the impulses of imperialist dominion, the vested interests of the Nation having ended up being confused with the defense of the interests of the business classes. At the same time, the common mentend to feel themselves in solidarity with the upper classes because of their national belonging, and can therefore support warlike adventures ( ibid. , p. 46). Veblen also analyzes inter-imperialist wars.

In short, with regard to the approaches in social sciences which today dominate the study of economic activity, a return to and through classical political economy leads to emphasizing the question of accumulation and to see a political phenomenon, both in terms of its origins (the power relations that found it) and its effects (the power relations that it induces). The historical analyzes of Marx or those of Veblen place, in relation to their predecessors, the question of the social and political structures of accumulation at the top of the scientific agenda. This appears as a social construction, made up of power relations, instituting social relations such as private property and the wage relation, which will be found in the theory of regulation (TR) inspired by the approaches of Marx and the institutionalism.

2. Institutional Dynamics of Accumulation

Classical political economy (notably in its critical version) constitutes a first foundation for the analysis of the political structures of accumulation that we are sketching out here. Certain institutionalist approaches, starting from a critical analysis of the Marxist heritage, and defining institutions as the rules, norms and stabilized conventions which constrain but also “enable” socio-economic activity (Commons, 1934) in are another. We will focus here mainly on work that mobilizes the TR 10. We retain, for the project that is ours, two main assets: the plurality of institutional supports which, in time and space, organize the accumulation (2.1.); the differentiation of the social space in which the strategies of accumulation take shape and develop (2.2.).

2.1. From the “Law of Accumulation” to Regimes of Accumulation

In the 1970s, when the growth of Western economies declined, empirical observation led the economists who would formulate RT to introduce a new research program – the analysis of crises and changes in capitalism (Aglietta, 1976). Here comes the concept of “mode of regulation”, which aims to grasp the resilience of capitalism through the “conjunction” (Boyer & Mistral, 1978, p. 119) of social relations, institutional determinants and private behavior – a conjunction that enables ensemble reproduction. In this perspective, where capitalism is declined in capitalist economies, “the general law of capitalist accumulation” of Marx (2006 [1867], p. 686-802) gives way to “regimes of accumulation”, national analyzes of Fordism revealing institutional configurations located in time and space. Consequently, the study of accumulation becomes that of accumulation regimes. A tool forged to analyze the reproduction of capitalist economies, the concept is defined as “the set of regularities ensuring a general and relatively coherent progression of the accumulation of capital, that is to say making it possible to absorb or spread out in time the distortions and imbalances that constantly arise from the process itself11  ” (Boyer, 2004, p. 20). An arrangement of institutional forms, always specific in time and space, makes it possible to organize and sustain a regime of accumulation. Observation of the Fordist moment has made it possible to identify five fundamental social relations of the capitalist mode of production which are actualized in five institutional forms – understood as codifications of said social relations – according to the modes of regulation: monetary regime, wage relation, labor regime. competition, international regime and state form. The approach revealed a plurality of accumulation regimes. Thus, over time, dominant configurations have succeeded one another – an extensive accumulation in the 19th century (focused on the extension of capitalism to new spheres of activity), intensive accumulation from the interwar period (focused on increasing productivity gains through the reorganization of work), an accumulation driven by finance from the end of the 20th century century (oriented towards the financialization of institutional forms). If accumulation regimes differ over time, they also differ over space. Thus, the regulationist works have shown that Fordism essentially characterized the American case, while the French version knew a more statist regulation. The German or Japanese cases put forward a sometimes meso-corporatist sometimes companyist regulation (Boyer, 2015), with accumulation regimes partly driven by exports. As for the peripheral economies, these were simply not Fordist.

From this conceptualization derive some major achievements, which we retain to build our own approach. The first, of a methodological order, is that the study of accumulation is that of its institutional supports. Once the dynamics of accumulation that marks an economic space at a given time have been objectified, the object of the research focuses on the production (or reproduction) of the institutions that organize it. The construction of the object can be declined on a meso-economic scale. To analyze the transformations that the contemporary French agricultural field is undergoing, Matthieu Ansaloni and Andy Smith (book to be published) take as their subject the regime of accumulation which determines its structure, placing at the heart of their argument the institutions which codify the relations of commercialization. , supply, financing and revenue generation. The construction of the object can also be declined on a macro-economic scale, in the manner of Isil Erdinç and Benjamin Gourisse (2019), when, to analyze the accumulation by the Muslim Turkish bourgeoisie, the Kemalist state expropriates certain ethnic minority fractions. Moreover, the analysis can also take as its object an institution which, because it affects the other components of the regime, weighs on the dynamics of accumulation. Thus, in the present dossier, Matthieu Ansaloni – to analyze the geographical redistribution of cereal production in France – takes as his subject the market institutions which organize competition between competing poles of accumulation. like Isil Erdinç and Benjamin Gourisse (2019), when, to analyze the accumulation by the Muslim Turkish bourgeoisie, the Kemalist state expropriates certain ethnic minority fractions. Moreover, the analysis can also take as its object an institution which, because it affects the other components of the regime, weighs on the dynamics of accumulation. Thus, in the present dossier, Matthieu Ansaloni – to analyze the geographical redistribution of cereal production in France – takes as his subject the market institutions which organize competition between competing poles of accumulation. like Isil Erdinç and Benjamin Gourisse (2019), when, to analyze the accumulation by the Muslim Turkish bourgeoisie, the Kemalist state expropriates certain ethnic minority fractions. Moreover, the analysis can also take as its object an institution which, because it affects the other components of the regime, weighs on the dynamics of accumulation. Thus, in the present dossier, Matthieu Ansaloni – to analyze the geographical redistribution of cereal production in France – takes as his subject the market institutions which organize competition between competing poles of accumulation. the analysis can also take as its object an institution which, because it affects the other components of the regime, weighs on the dynamics of accumulation. Thus, in the present dossier, Matthieu Ansaloni – to analyze the geographical redistribution of cereal production in France – takes as his subject the market institutions which organize competition between competing poles of accumulation. the analysis can also take as its object an institution which, because it affects the other components of the regime, weighs on the dynamics of accumulation. Thus, in the present dossier, Matthieu Ansaloni – to analyze the geographical redistribution of cereal production in France – takes as his subject the market institutions which organize competition between competing poles of accumulation.

The second achievement that we retain, of an ontological and epistemological order this time, is due to the fact that the economic field, the playground of capitalist accumulation, and the economic agents who confront each other there, do not grasp each other as given but as social constructs. As collective representations (Descombes, 2000; Théret, 2000), institutional forms are both external to individuals but also and above all internalized by them. The institutional contexts of economic action frame, and therefore constrain, action: they define the regularities that organize and sustain accumulation. Individuals also internalize institutional contexts: contrary to what the New Economic Sociology postulates, their natural motivation is not the incessant quest for profit, but rather they are caught up in mechanisms – historically constructed – which orient them in this direction (Boyer, 2004). The analysis of the political structures of accumulation (the institutions but also and above all the power relations that affect them) requires empirically resituating the way in which the mechanisms of symbolic imposition that feed bureaucratic struggles as well as the official discourses operate. ‘they generate, as much as the scientific struggles and the dominant expertise that result from them (Roger, 2020).

RT, considered here mainly in its sociological and anthropological dimensions, therefore leads us to understand accumulation through its institutional supports. It also leads us to place at the top of our reflection the strategies of accumulation that unfold in a differentiated social space.

2.2. In Search of Political Structures

An intrinsically political phenomenon, accumulation is, from the origins of RT, understood through its political structures. In his founding analysis of American capitalism, Michel Aglietta (1976, p. 14) intends thus: “to explain the general meaning of historical materialism: the development of the productive forces under the effect of the class struggle and the conditions of the transformation of this struggle and the forms in which it materializes under the effect of this development”. The State is a major stake in economic struggles, in that its policies codify social relations (which have become institutional forms), but also in that its economic policy participates in the mode of regulation and the coherence (or not) of institutional forms. . The sources of inspiration of the TR are multiple to apprehend the policy, whose meaning and conception are diverse (see the article by Éric Lahille in this file). Integrating the contribution of the state to capitalist regulation into the analysis leads some regulationist economists to break with the analysis of the state as a puppet of the capitalist class.12 . Through his theory of the state, Bruno Théret (1992) sets out a framework – forged in the light of the sociological thought of Max Weber, Norbert Elias and Pierre Bourdieu, in particular – for thinking about the political structures of accumulation. The “topology of social space” he proposes is made up of differentiated orders, each endowed with specific stakes, practices and institutions. The economic order, first of all, is one where the domination of man over man is guided by the capitalist logic of the incessant quest for profit by means of the accumulation of material goods and monetary securities. The political order, then, is one where domination is its own end, the economy being put at the service of the accumulation of power viathe concentration of fiscal and military resources. The domestic order, finally, is that in which the human population is reproduced, a population that is subject to exploitation by the other orders of practices 13 . The proposed conceptualization offers some milestones: grasping the institutions – or the regime – that organize accumulation involves identifying the relationships between the forces that oppose each other within the orders of practice that make up the social order. We will specify, in the following section, the way in which we analyze such balances of power.

The work of Bob Jessop sheds additional light. For the English sociologist, if the “circuit of capital” (constituted by institutional forms) sets the institutional context of action, it in no way determines the regime of accumulation: because, echoing the proposals of Bruno Théret, capitalist developments are the fruit of incessant struggles that unfold in multiple social orders, contingency marks their evolution (Jessop, 1990). Such a perspective leads to grasping the games that agents play in order to perpetuate, or even amend, the accumulation regime. To this end, Bob Jessop introduces the notion of “accumulation strategy” and defines it as follows:ibid ., p. 198-199). Economic hegemony therefore corresponds not to a concerted agreement between the dominant fractions of “capital” but more to a sort of temporarily stabilized compromise, in no way exempt from conflict, the model underlying the regime of accumulation allowing them to perpetuate, or even improve, their positions. In this conceptualization, the state is the main target of economic struggles, competing forces clashing to obtain a monopoly over one or another of its segments, investing the social relations of the capitalist economy (which have become institutional forms) with practical and symbolic force of law ( ibid ., p. 201).

Institutions and regimes of accumulation, social space differentiated into distinct orders of practice, strategies of accumulation: the founding arguments of RT offer useful benchmarks for the reflection engaged here. Sociology and political science deliver some complementary conceptual and methodological proposals and allow us to map out the political structures of accumulation.

3. The Political Structures of Accumulation: Fields, Institutions, Political Work

Institutions and regimes of accumulation are what enable, constrain and orient capitalist economic activity: analyzing in depth their genesis and reproduction implies opening a second “front” which specifically concerns the agents who fuel these processes. The analytical challenge is to grasp the action of those who influence the institutions that organize and support accumulation in a given economic space. The production of “institutionalized compromises” involves the capture of a segment of public power (State and/or European Union, for example): more or less faithful expressions of their demands, the institutions seal in return the distribution of economic capital in the economic area considered. Analyzing such a political process implies equipping oneself with tools to grasp differentiated social positions and the struggles that result from them. If we stick to a precise definition and analytical use, the concept of field makes it possible to analyze social positions as combinations of differentiated capitals and to consider that they are part of a structured and structuring whole (3.1 .). The concept of political work makes it possible to analyze the formation of alliances and/or convergences between the agents of a field and beyond (3.2.). From this perspective, nourished by certain achievements of contemporary sociology and political science, the study of the accumulation of economic capital becomes that of the accumulation of capital – economic, social, cultural and symbolic.

3.1. The Political Structuring of Accumulation through the Prism of “Fields”

The study of social structuring is a major issue in sociology and political science (Giddens, 1984). To analyze economic activity, the concepts of profession 14 , market 15 and sector 16 have enjoyed their greatest success since the 1980s. economic: while that of profession focuses attention on boundary workand the institutionalization of jurisdictions, that of the market elucidates market arrangements based on interactions between companies (sometimes public authorities) (Hay & Smith, 2018); finally, the concept of public action sector casts a veil over companies, their commercial and political activities (Jullien & Smith, 2012). In the version proposed by Pierre Bourdieu, the concept of field makes it possible, on the other hand, to remove the unthought of accumulation and its political structuring, backing empirical research with an ontology and a structuralist, institutionalist and constructivist analytical scheme (Roger , 2020; 2021; Ansaloni & Smith, 2021. See also the contribution of Matthieu Ansaloni in this dossier). In response to this proposal,

A field, in the sense of Pierre Bourdieu, is an analytical category intended to describe a social space within which agents, whose position is determined by the holding of heterogeneous capital in kind (economic, social, cultural, symbolic) and volume, are mobilizing in order to influence (or even impose their priorities) on the power relations (and therefore the institutions) that affect them and to derive profits from them 17. Always disputed, the borders of each field are the very object of empirical research: it is a question of revealing the objective positions of the agents, the perception that they have of the “stakes” of the struggle and of their competitors, the criteria they mobilize to distinguish “legitimate players” from those who are “offside”. As a historical construction, the field is therefore also a structure objectified by scientific work. Each field also has a hierarchy – more or less disputed – that research must restore. Fierce competition within a field is channeled through the institutions that command its structure, as well as the power imbalance that underlies them .. Capital therefore presents itself as a relational and political concept. The social position determined by the holding of capital (economic but also social, cultural and symbolic capital) procures more or less power; its accumulation is itself differential 19. The (re)distribution of capital (capitals) that institutions (or regimes of accumulation) allow is, by construction, a redistribution of power(s), in particular symbolic power and the capture of public power. The relative position in the field conditions the strategies of agents, including firms, which apprehend themselves both as fields where agents struggle for domination, and organizations endowed with organizational capitals which use strategies of control and capture over consumers, employees, competitors and public power to reproduce and accumulate more capital 20 .

In the works that adopt this perspective, the inter-field relationships are not the subject of a systematic treatment and do not lend themselves to stabilized analyzes either. They are, however, crucial for analyzing the structures of accumulation. Matthieu Ansaloni shows it well in this issue, on the scale of production: the political structures of accumulation that underlie the cultivation and marketing of a cereal (durum wheat) are located on the borders of professional fields., bureaucratic and partisan. The same is true on a global scale: a regime of accumulation is marked by the domination of companies and segments of the economic field, which are distinguished by the accumulation of capital – determinants at a given moment. This was the case for companies producing consumer goods and fixed capital during the Fordist era (Boyer & Mistral, 1978). This has now been the case with finance companies and financial capital for four decades: within the framework of the financialized accumulation regime, it is basically the ability of financial capital to maintain its position and capture public power , because of its position in the division of labour, the liquidity of capital markets and the liberalization of the movement of capital (Lordon, 2000), which enables it to ensure its income and to shape and print a specific dynamic to all the other components of the economic field as well as the state field (in particular the rules of shareholder value or, in the case of States, submission to the injunctions of the financial markets and the agencies to maintain a sufficient rating to finance the public debt). The differential accumulation of capital makes it possible to influence public policies by accumulating symbolic capital and capturing – or at the very least dominating – the bureaucratic and partisan fields (Bourdieu, 2000; Boyer, 2003), tipping the trade-offs policies that establish modes of regulation and accumulation regimes (Klébaner & Montalban, 2020). From a structural perspective, such phenomena are not the result of coalitions united around a concerted project, but the momentary expression of relations between competing forces. The differential accumulation of capital makes it possible to influence public policies by accumulating symbolic capital and capturing – or at the very least dominating – the bureaucratic and partisan fields (Bourdieu, 2000; Boyer, 2003), tipping the trade-offs policies that establish modes of regulation and accumulation regimes (Klébaner & Montalban, 2020). From a structural perspective, such phenomena are not the result of coalitions united around a concerted project, but the momentary expression of relations between competing forces. The differential accumulation of capital makes it possible to influence public policies by accumulating symbolic capital and capturing – or at the very least dominating – the bureaucratic and partisan fields (Bourdieu, 2000; Boyer, 2003), tipping the trade-offs policies that establish modes of regulation and accumulation regimes (Klébaner & Montalban, 2020). From a structural perspective, such phenomena are not the result of coalitions united around a concerted project, but the momentary expression of relations between competing forces. overturning the political compromises that underlie modes of regulation and accumulation regimes (Klébaner & Montalban, 2020). From a structural perspective, such phenomena are not the result of coalitions united around a concerted project, but the momentary expression of relations between competing forces. overturning the political compromises that underlie modes of regulation and accumulation regimes (Klébaner & Montalban, 2020). From a structural perspective, such phenomena are not the result of coalitions united around a concerted project, but the momentary expression of relations between competing forces.21 . Taken in systems of specific relations, these converge towards a common horizon according to the stakes which are theirs. The accumulation of economic capital is thus analyzed as the fruit, temporary and therefore reversible, of a coincidence between hierarchies formed in multiple fields, at the cost of incessant conflicts (Roger, 2020, Ansaloni in this dossier). The analysis of discourses like the analysis of objective positions 22 makes it possible to bring out the convergence of logics of action.

From an empirical point of view, analysis in terms of field therefore involves mapping the objective distribution of the capitals held by the agents, as well as the positions of some in relation to others (Georgakakis & Rowell, 2013; Lebaron, 2000). By bringing to light the objective structure of an economic field, we are given the means to analyze the distribution of capital between operators who confront each other for accumulation 23 . This work cannot be based on an a priori delimitation– whether it involves artificially isolating the economic field from other fields or concentrating on one scale to the exclusion of all others. To study, for example, the accumulation in European wine production, it is important to restore a system of relations between agents who come from several fields (producers, civil servants, scientists, in particular) in Europe – without limiting ourselves to the fact that these agents describe themselves as “European”, “national” or “local” (Itçaina, Roger & Smith, 2018).

Shedding light on the power relations and the institutions that structure economic activity, its political regulation and its regime of accumulation, therefore amounts to proposing a sociology of power. The positions acquired in the fields concerned are at the origin of the institutions: they are a major object of research in political economy. However, the political structures of accumulation cannot be reduced to objective structures. At this stage come the concepts of symbolic struggles and political work.

3.2. The Political Regulation of Accumulation: Work and Infra- and Inter-Field Struggles

Those who dominate a field can, more than the dominated agents, rely on the listening of bureaucratic and partisan personnel. The result is a greater ability to capture public power. Political mediation also consists in prioritizing the demands formulated by the fractions mobilized in different fields, according to their own logics – all presented as legitimate thanks to an accumulated symbolic capital: if the struggle for symbolic capital is observed within of each field, that which takes place between the fields is generally based on heterogeneous values ​​and legitimation regimes. In all cases, a “political work” of mobilizing arguments and values ​​serves to justify the relative importance given to each claim, or on the contrary to demonetize competing positions. It passes, upstream, by the construction of public problems. When these problems are on the agenda, their “dealing” is then based on the creation of regulatory instruments. It finally leads to a work of legitimation (Smith, 2019). Indeed, public authorities, in particular elected officials, leaders of political parties and senior civil servants, like those who support their action or request their intervention, constantly proclaim the legitimacy of their approach – an expression of the struggle and the symbolic dominance. Reporting on the arguments and the work of legitimization in no way amounts to saying that these arguments are “legitimate”. When these problems are on the agenda, their “dealing” is then based on the creation of regulatory instruments. It finally leads to a work of legitimation (Smith, 2019). Indeed, public authorities, in particular elected officials, leaders of political parties and senior civil servants, like those who support their action or request their intervention, constantly proclaim the legitimacy of their approach – an expression of the struggle and the symbolic dominance. Reporting on the arguments and the work of legitimization in no way amounts to saying that these arguments are “legitimate”. When these problems are on the agenda, their “dealing” is then based on the creation of regulatory instruments. It finally leads to a work of legitimation (Smith, 2019). Indeed, public authorities, in particular elected officials, leaders of political parties and senior civil servants, like those who support their action or request their intervention, constantly proclaim the legitimacy of their approach – an expression of the struggle and the symbolic dominance. Reporting on the arguments and the work of legitimization in no way amounts to saying that these arguments are “legitimate”. in particular elected officials, political party leaders and senior civil servants, like those who support their action or ask for their intervention, constantly proclaim the legitimacy of their approach – an expression of symbolic struggle and domination. Reporting on the arguments and the work of legitimization in no way amounts to saying that these arguments are “legitimate”. in particular elected officials, political party leaders and senior civil servants, like those who support their action or ask for their intervention, constantly proclaim the legitimacy of their approach – an expression of symbolic struggle and domination. Reporting on the arguments and the work of legitimization in no way amounts to saying that these arguments are “legitimate”.24  ”. From an analytical point of view, this makes it possible, on the contrary, to reveal the way in which the “problems” and the “solutions” (instruments/institutions) are shaped: this is the “intellectual framework” (Jobert & Théret, 1994) which serves as a support for certain fractions mobilized in different fields, capable of supporting institutions and accumulation regimes. Understanding the symbolic struggles that generate the accumulation of economic capital thus leads, in the same way as understanding objective structures, to the analysis of the accumulation of capital – economic, social, cultural and symbolic.

Studying the problematization of socio-economic issues therefore commits the researcher to identifying the agents who transform a private issue into a “problem” involving collective or public action, but also to analyze their modus operandi .(Gusfield, 1981; Nephew, 2015). Such a perspective makes it possible to grasp the social thickness – the conflicts, the preferred solutions and the alternatives rejected in their term – of the institutions and regimes that organize and support capitalist accumulation, as the contributions to this dossier illustrate. Sylvain Moura’s article, for example, points to how dominant players in the defense industry in France interpreted the end of the Cold War as an opportunity to hammer home the argument that supporting R&D will induce “military innovations which, subject to adaptations, will spread to the civilian domain”. Beyond, redefining the “problem” of R& D enabled a variety of agents in this industry to (re)present themselves as economic operators who “maintained” France “in the race for technological excellence”. Similarly, in his study on wind energy in Denmark, Pierre Wokuri shows that a territorialized definition of the energy problem strongly contributed to the initial rise of small and medium-sized wind energy cooperatives. In short, the definition of a public problem is in all cases at the foundation of the process of accumulation of symbolic capital by which such an agent (or such a fraction of the field) is likely to find an attentive ear with elected officials, those responsible for political parties and senior civil servants, with the aim of – in his study on wind energy in Denmark, Pierre Wokuri shows that a territorialized definition of the energy problem strongly contributed to the initial growth of small and medium-sized wind energy cooperatives. In short, the definition of a public problem is in all cases at the foundation of the process of accumulation of symbolic capital by which such an agent (or such a fraction of the field) is likely to find an attentive ear with elected officials, those responsible for political parties and senior civil servants, with the aim of – in his study on wind energy in Denmark, Pierre Wokuri shows that a territorialized definition of the energy problem strongly contributed to the initial growth of small and medium-sized wind energy cooperatives. In short, the definition of a public problem is in all cases at the foundation of the process of accumulation of symbolic capital by which such an agent (or such a fraction of the field) is likely to find an attentive ear with elected officials, those responsible for political parties and senior civil servants, with the aim of – ultimately  – to influence the production of institutionalized compromises. In either case, a link emerges between the problematization of the issues, the orientations (commercial and financial) of companies and the shaping of institutions and accumulation regimes.

This point leads to an interest in the second process that the concept of political work mobilizes: the way in which claims on the instruments of public action are formulated, negotiated, adopted or rejected. While these instruments take very diverse forms (standards, subsidies, taxes, classifications, statistics, etc.), political sociology teaches above all that they are never neutral (Lascoumes & Le Galès, 2004). They are, in fact, enlightening objects of study for those who wish to shed light on the political work necessary for the structuring of economic activity in general and the institutions of accumulation in particular. Pierre Wokuri thus shows that the “breathlessness” of Danish wind energy cooperatives in the mid-1990s was the product of the remodeling of public intervention with, on the one hand, the abolition of a guaranteed feed-in tariff (in favor of regulation by “market prices”) and, on the other, the liberalization of residency criteria (undermining the tax advantages offered to local cooperatives). By analyzing the case of defence, Sylvain Moura highlights the strict supervision of the segment of the administration responsible for implementing R&D policy – ​​the Directorate General for Armaments (DGA) within the Ministry of the Armed Forces. Whereas, for more than thirty years, this agency had worked closely with armament companies in the “co-design of products”, from the mid-1990s, its action was refocused on “the definition of needs and the control of the services rendered”. More generally, Éric Lahille shows the importance of integrating the analysis of political work for a full understanding of the processes of political regulation. According to him, the analysis of a mode of political regulation implies, for the researcher, the matching of four action regimes (sovereignty regime, citizenship regime, political regime, public policy regime), the political work shaping each of them. The author shows that these regimes take on particular forms in the era of globalization and financialization: according to his analysis, the financial and global elites partially define the forms of regulation – due, in particular, to the

Problematization and instrumentation therefore go hand in hand, the (re)definition of a problem generating that of its “solutions”. They are both accompanied by a work of legitimation (Lagroye, 1985). This work encompasses the repertoires of arguments, symbolic acts and communication practices that agents manipulate to legitimize, that is to normalize, even “naturalize”, the problems and instruments of public action. In symbolic struggles, an important part of such legitimations is knowingly designed and manipulated to serve strategies for justifying private interests that the agents represent as universal, leaving their instrumental and venal motivations in the shadows. As we indicated above, the dominators of a field (such as the large energy groups in Denmark or the weapons engineers within the DGA) have privileged access to their counterparts in the bureaucratic field – and therefore a greater capacity to capture public power. Just as for economic capital, the asymmetries of symbolic, cultural and social capital therefore weigh heavily on the legitimization of claims directed towards the (re)production of institutions and power relations. The observation applies both in the economic field (or some of its segments) and in the bureaucratic and partisan fields. It does not imply falling into the deterministic trap according to which the dominated would have no chance of asserting their positions,25.

Grasping the (re)production of the institutions that organize and support accumulation is therefore to reveal the state of the structure of the relationships between antagonistic forces. It is also to grasp the dynamics of the struggles that result from it to produce and reproduce these same institutions. To account for such a dynamic, it is necessary to analyze the agents who, within and between the fields, mobilize their respective capitals, so as to benefit from a large audience, the support of a possible objective alliance. In this sense, symbolic struggles and political labor are major components of the political structures of accumulation.


The relationship between the accumulation of capital and politics, however founding they may be in classical political economy and in RT, raises a question that must be constantly revisited, relying on the shoulders of giants, whether Marx, Veblen or Bourdieu. By making capital accumulation a political issue of power and wealth distribution, field and regulationist approaches offer tools for the empirical analysis of the social processes that generate the institutions of accumulation. The dialectic between accumulation and politics requires a dynamic analysis, without for all that imposing a renunciation of structuralism. The meso scale of the approaches in terms of fields and the concept of political work make it possible to extract oneself from the overhanging analyses, by emphasizing the logics of agents who are at the origin of the accumulation process without losing sight of the powerful determinations of the structures on their actions. The preceding arguments are an invitation to pursue this program through empirical investigations, similar to what the contributions to this file propose.


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1 This is the case in France with sociological literature. See, for example: Bessière and Gollac (2020), Boltanski and Esquerre (2020), Purseigle (2017), Laurens (2015).

2 On the basis of this fundamental proposition, authors have sometimes emphasized the rationalization of productive techniques (the “capital account” dear to Max Weber, 1991 [1923]), sometimes on ideology, even more on its religious dimension, assimilating capitalism and religion (Benjamin, 2019 [1921]).

3 Thus defined, politics is distinguished from politics (the partisan world) and public policies.

4 Exceptions can be noted, for example by certain proponents of the new institutional economy who have considered the coupling of violence and accumulation (North, Wallis & Weingast, 2009; Acemo ğ lu & Robinson, 2012).

5 Commenting on Sismondi’s thought, Rosa Luxemburg noted that “having thus made, in agreement with the disciples of Ricardo and Malthus, exploitation and class antagonism the indispensable spur, he arrives at the cause of exploitation: the separation of labor power from the means of production” (Luxemburg, 1969, [1913], p. 153).

6 See in particular Bourdieu, Chamboredon and Passeron (1980). Note that the term constructivist is posterior to Marx.

7 See in particular, chapter XXIV (“The alleged initial accumulation”) of the seventh section of the first Book of Capital (Marx, 2006 [1867]).

8 Meiskins Wood (2019) distinguishes between “coercive means” and “economic means”.

9 Marx (2006 [1867], p. 804). Harvey (2004) disputed this periodization, considering that neoliberalism was accompanied by an “accumulation by expropriation”, based on violence and predation.

10 We will attach less importance to its American cousin, the so-called Social structures of accumulation approach , which TR inspired and which today has less vitality. See Kotz, McDonough and Reich (1994), as well as McDonough (2008). For a critical analysis, see Labrousse and Michel (2017).

11 The regularities that allow reproduction mainly concern the organization of production, the valorization of capital, the sharing of value, the composition of demand and the articulation of capitalist and non-capitalist forms.

12 Delorme and André (1983) understand the state as an institutionalized compromise between contradictory interests, a conceptualization from which they analyze the evolution of public expenditure.

13 The furrow dug by Bruno Théret (with Bruno Jobert, in particular) has allowed the development of research on economic policy, grasped through a “sociology of reference points” (Lordon, 1999). Updating the classist vision of origins, Bruno Amable and Stefano Palombarini (2005; 2017) for their part proposed an approach to economic policy in terms of “social blocks”.

14 See, in particular: Abbott (1988); Gieryn (1983).

15 Voir, notamment : Powell & Dimaggio (1991) ; White, (1992), Dobbin, 2004.

16 See, in particular: Jobert & Muller (1987); Hassenteufel (2008).

17 Profit is understood here in a broader sense than that of the “classic” economic category: it includes any form of advantage that improves one’s position in the social space.

18 Contrary to what some critics have said, field theory opens up profoundly dynamic analyzes (Boyer, 2003; Lordon, 2003, 2008a). More generally, methodical structuralism (to which the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu is attached), because it considers agents – individuals endowed with their own history – as antagonistic poles of attraction, offers a dynamic reading of change. social (Théret, 2003).

19 This point echoes the work of Nitzan and Bichler (2009), who understand capital as power and accumulation as differential – in line with the proposals of Veblen (1904). Similarly, Montalban (2018) shows that power is a relational concept, the hidden face of which is the dependence linked to the unequal holding of rare and/or complementary assets between dominant and dominated actors.

20 See Fligstein (1996), Bourdieu (2000) and Montalban (2017) on the theoretical level and Montalban (2007) for an application to the pharmaceutical industry. This conception is largely compatible with that of Veblen (1904).

21 This dimension clearly distinguishes field theory “à la Bourdieu” from that “à la Fligstein”, the latter emphasizing the mobilization work undertaken by institutional entrepreneurs endowed with a powerful “  social skill  ”, when the first aims to characterize constraining position systems. For a discussion on this, see Itçaina, Roger and Smith, 2016; Ansaloni, Pariente & Smith, 2018.

22 To bring out, in his contribution to this file, an objective alliance between fractions of agents belonging to distinct fields – Mr. Ansaloni thus highlights the circulation of agents, from the (very) senior agricultural civil service, ministerial cabinets and the political representation of French cereal producers.

23 Contrary to what some critics have argued, Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory, like the work of the regulation school, is not imbued with methodological nationalism. See, respectively: Bourdieu, 2013; Sapiro, 2013; Buchholz, 2016; Lamarche et al. , 2015 ; Chanteau et al. , 2016; Klébaner & Montalban, 2020).

24 Let us repeat, legitimacy is the fruit of a symbolic struggle whose object is to make certain claims, and by extension to set aside or conceal others.

25 On this point, see Fouilleux and Jobert (2017).

Revolution Decentered: Two Studies on Lenin

February 27, 2022 Leave a comment
Pavel Filonov, Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat (1920-21)

In the “prologue” to his 1932 work, Lenin buonanima, the infamous Italian writer Curzio Malaparte points to what he deems “the clearest sign of the decadence of the bourgeoisie in the West”: namely the fact that it saw the leader of the Soviet revolution as nothing but a “proletarian Genghis Khan, emerging from the depths of Asia to hasten the conquest of Europe,” or better yet, a “Marxist Mohammed.” In reality, like Robespierre and others before him, Lenin was merely an embodiment of the “petit-bourgeois fantasy” that had lit the fires which had swept across Europe over the last three centuries. 1 While there are certainly still individuals who portray the 1917 revolution as the savage manifestation of an atemporal Asian despotism, vaguely betrayed by Lenin’s visage, it must be noted that such orientalism has, fortunately, died away. Consider two recent biographies of Lenin, one by Lars Lih and the other by Robert Service. 2 Regardless of the importance we accord to these respective works, and the fact that their interpretations of Lenin’s trajectory and thought are opposed on nearly every point, they nonetheless share one thesis, or premise: that Lenin was essentially a man of European education, whose gaze was entirely turned towards the West, as the source of the great emancipatory ideas and the setting of the socialist revolution to come. In this perspective, the revolution of 1917 appears as the apotheosis of a historical sequence initiated at the end of the 18th century, as the last major attempt to realize the ideals, or illusions, of Western modernity – and/or inversely, to betray those ideals and lead them astray. 

Although this approach is in many respects commendable, there is another side to the story. In these studies, the extra-European world almost completely disappears: the red revolution is presented as basically a white revolution. Of course, we like to emphasize that at the onset of the 1920s, Lenin pivots back towards Asia, towards the “revolution in the East,” as witnessed in his interventions in debate with the Indian communist MN Roy, at the Second Comintern Congress (July–August 1920). But this is seen as only a belated detour, under the whip of necessity, a consequence of the loss of hope in an imminent upheaval in Western Europe, following the failure of the German and Hungarian revolutions as well as the Polish-Soviet War. Lenin’s interest in national liberation struggles, then, would boil down to that of a stranger looking to a world he had hitherto ignored. As for the First Congress of the Peoples of the East in Baku (September 1920) – which, it should be pointed out, MN Roy refused to participate in, mocking the gathering as “Zinoviev’s circus” and describing it as a “picturesque cavalcade to the gates of the mysterious Orient” – the aura it enjoys today is largely tied to the fact that we imagine it, not without a tinge of romanticism, as a foundational, original act, the product of a sudden realization among Bolshevik leaders that the future of the revolution would perhaps be decided elsewhere: not in the West, but in the East. 3

This representation is chimerical, to the extent that Lenin never believed that the (anticolonial) revolution in the East could be a substitute, even a temporary one, for the socialist revolution in Europe, since both were linked together via a thousand threads. More to the point, it simply cannot be argued that Lenin waited until the last years of his life to devote significant attention to capitalist development and revolutionary movements in the non-European world. The most obvious pieces of evidence, but far from the only proof, are the multiple texts over the course of the First World War on the “national question,” in Europe, the colonies, and the semi-colonies. Further, Lenin was perfectly aware of the specific place Russia occupied in this arrangement, as occupying an intermediary space not only due to its geographical situation, but also crucially because of its status – to use the title of a book by Viatcheslav Morozov – as a subaltern empire in a Eurocentric world4 This is in no way to deny that Lenin’s thinking underwent an evolution on this subject, that is unquestionable: but this evolution, far from being an abrupt break, took the form of a long and progressive decentering of the revolutionary process. This decentering has roots in his first writings on the development of capitalism in Russia, which are marked, as CLR James has rightly emphasized – and it is not by chance that a non-European, in this case Trinidadian, Marxist theorist pointed this fact out – by the urgent necessity to translate Marxism into a context different from Western Europe, without for all that becoming wholly unrecognizable. 5

Through the two studies that follow, distinct while also engaged in an implicit and at times dissonant dialogue, we will begin to explore the itinerary of this decentering, which could even be called a decolonization of the revolution. The first will cover Lenin’s reflections on the question of national self-determination and struggles for independence prior to 1917, the second will deal with how he attempted to approach the imperative to decolonize the Russian Empire after 1917, starting with the case of the Muslim colonies of Central Asia.

Struggles for National Liberation, or the Impure Revolution

In July 1903, in the wake of the second congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), Lenin published an article in Iskra, “The National Question in Our Programme.” At stake in this article is the defense of the right of nations to self-determination – the right for political separation in relation to a state, not to be confused with the (claimed) right to national-cultural autonomy within a state, which Lenin vigorously opposed. Recognized by the party since its foundation in 1898, the right to self-determination became an object of controversy with the Polish Marxists (chiefly Rosa Luxemburg) who, in open conflict with the Polish Socialist Party, voiced opposition – in the name of internationalism – to what they saw as the reactionary and obsolete project of restoring Polish independence. While Lenin reaffirmed the need to not violate the “free expression of the national will,” in no sense was he a champion of separation: “our unreserved recognition of the struggle for freedom of self-determination does not in any way commit us to supporting every demand for national self-determination.” 6 Support is only given “conditionally,” as demands for national independence should be rigorously subordinated to the “the class interests of the militant proletariat,” which are defined at an intrinsically international level. 

Until very recently, Lenin writes, the struggle for the independence of Poland, that “bulwark of civilization against tsarism,” was closely linked to the struggle for (bourgeois) democracy in Europe, and Marx and Engels both correctly supported it. But that “age,” Lenin adds, has passed, and the Polish ruling classes have become allies of the national oppressors: “The times are past when a bourgeois revolution could create a free Poland: today the renascence of Poland is possible only through a social revolution,” which requires, more than ever, “the very closest unity of the proletariat of all nationalities.” But what holds for the “Polish question” is “wholly applicable to every other national question.” To ignore these changes and “continue advocating the old solutions given by Marxism, would mean being true to the letter but not to the spirit of the teaching, would mean repeating the old conclusions by rote, without being able to use the Marxist method of research to analyse the new political situation.” 7 The need – which Lenin loves to insist upon – for an ongoing renewal of Marxist theory and practice, its translation into new geo-historical conjunctures, here takes the form not of a further recognition, but rather a denial of the emancipatory potential of national liberation struggles in the present. His approach to the problem of national self-determination in this period is adequately summed up in a text published several months later, “On the Manifesto of the Armenian Social-Democrats”: 

We on our part concern ourselves with the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than with self-determination of peoples or nations. Thus, the general, basic and ever-binding programme of Russian Social-Democracy must consist only in the demand for equal rights for all citizens (irrespective of sex, language, creed, race, nationality, etc.) and for their right to free democratic self-determination. 8

It must be acknowledged that in these texts Lenin advances a narrow conception of the “national question,” to which he accords only a circumstantial interest and as a result overlooks its nuances. A first shift takes place during his exile in Poland beginning in 1912, first in Kraków and then the small village of Poronin, on the margins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After having prepared a resolution reiterating the RSDLP’s recognition of the right to self-determination, in early 1914 Lenin wrote an essay on the “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination.” which constitutes a real breakthrough in Bolshevik theorizing of national liberation struggles. Lenin’s principal adversary remains Rosa Luxemburg; he sees Russian “opportunists” of every stripe as merely parroting her arguments, such as those laid out in her “The National Question and Autonomy” (1908-1909). 9

In Lenin’s view, Luxemburg’s main error resides in her inability to draw a “distinction between two periods of capitalism”: the first, revolutionary phase is the disintegration of feudalism and the formation of a bourgeois society and state, when “national movements” arise which involve “all classes of the population”; the second is the period when, the state being fully developed and generally “nationally uniform,” the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and proletariat sharpens. In Western Europe and the United States, “the epoch of bourgeois-democratic revolutions … embraces a fairly definite period, approximately between 1789 and 1871” – from the French Revolution, an authentic national struggle, to the Paris Commune. The national question was “settled long ago”; it is thus completely reasonable that it does not appear in “the programmes of West-European socialists.” 10 But we should not conclude, as Lenin accuses Luxemburg of arguing, that this question is henceforth obsolete for the entire world. If, due to the fact that modern states are of a “common capitalist nature,” it is useful to draw “comparisons” between countries, it must be done “in a sensible way,” without any unwarranted transpositions: “In Eastern Europe and Asia the period of bourgeois-democratic revolutions did not begin until 1905. The revolutions in Russia, Persia, Turkey and China, the Balkan wars – such is the chain of world events of our period in our ‘Orient.’” 11

In rejecting the “the demand for the independence of Poland,” Luxemburg does not bother to investigate the “historical stage” the Russian Empire is currently “passing through,” or “the specific features of the national question in this country,” among which is the fact that Russia is “a state with a single national center – Grand Russia” (in the ethno-national sense), where “subject peoples” constitute the majority of the population. Living in the border regions, these peoples endure an “oppression … much stronger here than in the neighboring states,” not only to the West but also the East, in Asia, where “we see the beginning of a phase of bourgeois revolutions and national movements [Muslims in particular] which are spreading to some of the kindred nationalities within the borders of Russia.” Lenin introduces in this text the distinction – which would be called to serve a crucial role as the mechanism of translation for class struggle at the level of inter-national relations – between oppressed nations and oppressor nations. On either side of this division, “nationalism” could not have the same meaning or functions. In strongly condemning Polish bourgeois nationalism, Luxemburg neglected the no less widespread and even more formidable nationalism of the Great Russian oppressors, and thus she remained blind to the fact that “the bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression.” 12

Lenin then refers to an example that he will routinely mobilize in his subsequent interventions on the national question from Marx and Engels’s writings in the 1860s on Ireland under English rule; after all, as Engels says directly, “Il n’y a qu’un pas [it is only one step] from Ireland to Russia.” 13 Initially, Marx judged that only the English working class movement, within “the oppressor nation,” could help free Ireland from the yoke that held it down. But he quickly understood that such liberation, which is also a condition of possibility of the self-emancipation of the proletariat, could not happen without the “national movement of the oppressed nation,” without the “relations” between the English and Irish revolutionary movements. Lenin is able to reflect ironically on his contemporaries who, in discovering that Marx advocated for the separation of Ireland, would have not fail to reproach him for “forgetting about the class struggle.” Lenin no longer calls for a break with the “old solutions given by Marxism” on the subject of national self-determination. Rather, he stresses that Marx and Engels’s theses on the national question retain an “immense practical importance”; they serve as a remedy against the “nationalist prejudices” that arise as soon as one considers “‘one’s own nation’ as a model nation (or, we would add, one possessing the exclusive privilege of forming a state).” 14

The Right to Nations of Self-Determination” constitutes a powerful critique of the Eurocentrism prevailing in the approach to the national question among Luxemburg and her disciples. It nonetheless remains the case that Lenin’s own arguments rest upon a chronotopic, stagist logic, in which Europe continues to play a normative role: a logic through which the different “periods” can be projected onto the present-day world map. It’s true that Lenin takes care to clarify that “the two periods are not walled off from each other,” and that “they are connected by numerous transitional links.” 15 But by relying on a schema of parallel, and partially independent, development of nations, he still does not really consider the fact that the spatial coexistence of distinct times, their non-contemporaneity within the same world, cannot but produce a whole series of interferences. The paradox, at least from a (retrospective) postcolonial viewpoint, continues to be precisely that this historicism is what renders it possible for Lenin to grasp the real differences, irreducible to a mere “time lag,” and to recognize the necessary, synchronic multiplicity of forms of struggle. 

Lenin’s intensive study of imperialism following the outbreak of World War I will prompt a second leap forward. For Karl Radek and Luxemburg – his allies on the Zimmerwald left, internationalists opposed to any kind of support for the war effort – imperialist rule definitively demonstrates that “capital has outgrown the framework of national states; that it is impossible to turn the clock of history back to the obsolete ideal of national states.” 16 This is the ultimate proof that the right of nations to self-determination” has become “‘impracticable’” and “‘illusory.’” 17 Several months after the publication of the “Junius Pamphlet,” alias of Luxemburg, Lenin submits it to critique by taking the opposite stance to the argument in said text that “there can be no more national wars,” and that “every war, even if it starts as a national war, is transformed into an imperialist war and affects the interests of one of the imperialist powers or coalitions.” 18 Having immersed himself over the two preceding years in an impassioned reading of Hegel’s Logic, Lenin affirms that if the Marxist dialectic teaches us that every phenomena can “transform into its opposite,” and thus a national war can (and not necessarily) in fact transform into an imperialist war, then the inverse is also true (Lenin says: “and vice versa”). Moreover, national wars against imperialism “waged by colonial, and semi-colonial countries” are not only “possible but inevitable”; even in Europe, “national wars must not be regarded as impossible.” They must ultimately be considered as fundamentally “progressive and revolutionary,” although their individual success depends on a multiplicity of factors beyond the particular context. 

Luxemburg is not the sole target of Lenin’s criticisms: there are also those theorists who, under the guise of internationalism, display an “indifference” towards the national question. This indifference becomes “chauvinism when members of ‘Great’ European nations, i.e., nations which oppress a mass of small and colonial peoples, declare with a learned air that ‘there can be no more national wars!’” 19 To assert that imperialism now exerts its grip over the entire globe by transgressing all established territorial limits should not lead us to deny, but rather underscore the acuity of “the question of the frontiers of a state that is founded on national oppression.” 20 The struggle against chauvinism within the imperialist countries is a primary task at a moment when a section of the working class in each “oppressor nation” has become (economically, politically, ideologically) “partners” of the bourgeoisie “in plundering the workers (and the mass of the population) of the oppressed nations.” 21 This is why the proletariat must openly “demand the freedom of political separation for the colonies and for the nations oppressed by ‘their own’ nation.” 22 This is especially true for Russia, which Lenin often depicts – borrowing a popular expression – as a vast “prison of the peoples”: “It would be unseemly for us, representatives of a dominant nation in the far east of Europe and a goodly part of Asia, to forget the immense significance of the national question.” 23

Of course, Lenin does not forget that socialism has no other goal besides “abolishing the present division of mankind into small states and all national particularisms”; put otherwise, to work towards their full and complete “merger” through a dynamic of “concentration” and “centralization.” But just as the abolition of classes will be preceded by a “transition period,” the dictatorship of the proletariat,” so the abolition of nations presupposes the freedom of the oppressed to separate from their oppressors, whether or not it is translated into action. As Engels already underscored in an 1882 letter to Kautsky: “the victorious proletariat can force no blessings of any kind upon any foreign nation without undermining its own victory by so doing.” 24 And Lenin adds in a premonitory manner: on the one hand, carrying out the revolution does not mean that the proletariat will “become holy” or render it immune from all forms of chauvinism; on the other, “the hatred – and perfectly legitimate hatred – of an oppressed nation for its oppressor will last for a while.” 25 The one principle which is adequate to the demands of internationalism is what he calls, in an apparent contradiction, “concentration along non-imperialist lines.” 26 By grasping the meaning and deep-seated implications of this decentered centralism, and the well-nigh insoluble dilemmas it inevitably raises, would allow us to re-examine Lenin’s attitude, strategy, but also doubts when faced with the imperative of decolonizing the Russian Empire during the initial years of the revolution, abstaining from any sort of intentional process or apologetic vision. 

In his wartime writings, Lenin maintains the spatio-temporal framework in which nations evolved, thus producing a tripartite division between: the advanced capitalist countries of Europe, where the national question belongs to the past; the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (Austria, the Balkans, Russia), where it bears on the present; the semi-colonies (China, Persia, Turkey) and the colonies of Asia and Africa, where the national question largely belongs to the future27 But now he is aware, more than ever, of the basic interweaving of times, and that these differences are the very product of the uneven development under imperialism, which has ineluctably altered the fate of the entire world. Socialist revolution and national liberation struggle are by no means “independent.” This is why they must be thought together, in their close connection, according to an genuine dialectic of the national and the international. It is necessary, Lenin says, to “link the revolutionary struggle for socialism with a revolutionary programme on the national question,” and more broadly to “combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary programme and tactics on all democratic demands.” 28 Well before 1917, Lenin advances a multipolar and combinatory conception of what he would soon call the “world revolution,” irreducible to any sort of diffusionism:

The social revolution can come only in the form of an epoch in which are combined civil war by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie in the advanced countries and a whole series of democratic and revolutionary movements, including the national liberation movement, in the undeveloped, backward and oppressed nations. 29

Lenin positions himself against those who tend to downplay this heterogeneity by establishing an impermeable border between Europe, which is heading towards a purely socialist revolution, and the extra-European colonies and semi-colonies: “owing to the crisis of imperialism, the flames of national revolt have flared up both in the colonies and in Europe” – in Eastern Europe, but not only there, as evidenced by the 1916 Irish rebellion. Given these conditions, it is pointless to promote, as Bukharin was urging, “Bolshevism on a West-European scale.” 30 In other words, this refers to a desire to protect the proletariat’s struggle against the bourgeoisie from any contamination by foreign bodies, first and foremost nationalism. But in the matter of revolution, impurity is not the exception, but the rule: 

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc. – to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism,” and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism,” and that will be a social revolution! … Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is. 31

There cannot be a revolution without acknowledging the pressing need (“objective truth”) for “a variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented, mass struggle.” While Lenin never questions the vanguard role of the “advanced proletariat” and remains convinced, for better or worse, that if the working class does not come to power in one or more countries, national liberation struggles – “powerless as an independent factor” – will be doomed to be crushed by imperialism sooner or later, he nonetheless posits, inversely and dialectically, that peripheral, national wars have the capacity to sow the seeds of a revolutionary contagion amongst the imperialist powers: “The dialectics of history are such that small nations … play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which help the real anti-imperialist force, the socialist proletariat, to make its appearance on the scene.” 32

The ultimate aim remains the same: the full-fledged unity of the proletariat of different nations. But this can only be achieved if we account for the present “division” of the working classes in the oppressed and oppressor nations, and consequently of the fact that revolutionary “propaganda must not be the same for both.” 33 This non-identity is not merely strategic, but means “that some will approach in one way, others in another way the same goal (the merger of nations) from different starting-points.” 34 In other words, if the passage to socialism is “inevitable,” it is no less inevitable that this transition will take heterogeneous “forms,” partially unforeseeable, which vary from one country to another, one nation to another: 

All nations will arrive at socialism – this is inevitable, but all will do so in not exactly the same way, each will contribute something of its own to some form of democracy, to some variety of the dictatorship of the proletariat, to the varying rate of socialist transformations in the different aspects of social life. There is nothing more primitive from the viewpoint of theory, or more ridiculous from that of practice, than to paint, “in the name of historical materialism,” this aspect of the future in a monotonous grey. 35

There is no shortage of “disciples” of Lenin who promptly ignored this lesson and painted a colorless picture of revolution, which would follow the same trajectory in all places, save for a time lag or two. But it is clear that on the eve of the 1917 revolution, Lenin had already broken with every linear-historicist schema of this type. The figure whose Marxist career had begun with a patient and uncompromising critique of the thesis, defended by the populists (Narodniki) that there was a specific Russian road to socialism, now argued for the irreducible plurality of processes and paths leading to revolution. But the difference between these positions is crucial: while the populists had made this other path into the only viable response to what they judged as the failure of capitalism to take root Russia, Lenin conceived, in a methodological inversion, such revolutionary polymorphism both as the consequence of capitalist modernization which had reached its “latest stage,” imperialism, and as the condition of its abolition.

After Empire? Lenin and the Muslims of Russia

On November 20, 1917, in the aftermath of Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, Lenin sent out an appeal, co-signed by Stalin, “To All Muslim Workers of Russia and the Orient,” in order to rally them to the revolution in progress: 

Muslims of Russia, Tartars of the Volga and the Crimea, Kyrgyz and Sarts of Siberia and Turkestan, Turks and Tartars of Transcaucasia, Chechens and mountain dwellers of the Caucasus, all you whose mosques and places of worship have been destroyed, whose beliefs and customs have been trampled on by the tsars and oppressors of Russia! From now on your beliefs and customs, your national and cultural institutions are being declared free and inviolable. Arrange your national life freely and without hindrance. This is your right. Know your rights, just as the rights of all the peoples of Russia, are protected by the might of the Revolution and by its organs, by the Councils of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies. 36

The relations between Soviet power and the Muslim populations of the (ex)Russian Empire would prove to be more tumultuous than this appeal to a free (revolutionary) union would lead us to believe. 37 But it does show a profound desire on Lenin’s part to enact a radical break with the oppressive policies towards national and religious minorities that had marked the whole history of tsarism. The opening gesture of this will is Lenin’s order to return the Uthman Quran, one of the oldest copies of the sacred text, to the Muslims of Russia. Lenin then played a significant role in the rocky process of creating the first Muslim Soviet republics, particularly during the Bashkir crisis of 1919–1920. 38 But Lenin was above all interested in the case of Russian Turkestan (Central Asia), conquered in the second half of the 19th century by tsarist armies and subjected to colonial exploitation in the strict sense: one encountered the development of monoculture farming (specifically cotton), a spatial cleavage between indigenous towns-villages, on the one side, and the colonizers on the other (the number of the latter rose considerably after the completion of the railroad connecting Moscow to Tashkent in 1906) and a stark opposition between the two. Whereas Russian, Ukrainian, (ethnic) German, and Jewish peoples were divided along national lines across the rest of Russia, here they comprised a single group of white settlers set against the Muslims. Lenin became increasingly aware that the challenge of decolonizing the Russian Empire needed to be confronted in Turkestan more than anywhere else.

On April 22, 1918, Lenin and Stalin relayed a message of greetings, “To the Tashkent Congress of Soviets of the Turkestan Territory,” assuring its members of the Council of People’s Commissars’ support for the “autonomy for your territory on Soviet principles,” and enjoining them to “cover the whole territory with a network of Soviets,” acting in concert with “the Soviets already in existence.” 39 On April 30, the Turkestan Socialist Federative Republic is declared. But the intensification of the civil war in the region soon provoked a near-complete breakdown in communications with Moscow, and until the autumn of 1919, Turkestan communists were left to their own devices. In the wake of the victory over the White armies, the urgent necessity for Soviet power was to revive industrial production. In this context, “Turkestan” was above all a synonym for the supply of cotton. As Lenin says in a 1920 speech: “Everybody knows that the textile industry is at a complete standstill because today we have no cotton – it has to be imported, owing to the fact that Western Europe, too, is suffering from an acute shortage of raw materials. Our one source of supply is Turkestan.” 40

Lenin is not unaware, however, of the complaints raised about the abuses committed during the civil war by local Russian communists, stilled imbued with a colonial mentality, against native Muslims, who have been brutally robbed of their lands and victims of other types of harassment “in the name of class struggle.” These complaints would be brought up again by a delegate from Turkestan, Tashpolad Narbutabekov, at the First Congress of the Peoples of the East at Baku in September 1920: “So that what has happened in Turkestan shall not be repeated in other parts of the Muslim world … we say: Remove your counter-revolutionaries – remove your alien elements who spread national discord, remove your colonizers who are now working behind the mask of Communism!” 41 In October 1919, a commission (the Turkkomissia), headed by Mikhail Frunze, is sent to Turkestan with the orders to correct errors in the implementation of the policy on nationalities, and encourage the participation of the local Muslim population in economic and political issues, all while fortifying Soviet power in the region. The following month, Lenin addresses a letter, “To the Communists of Turkestan,” which indicated the vital, exemplary role he attributed to this endeavor: 

It is no exaggeration to say that the establishment of proper relations with the peoples of Turkestan is now of immense, epochal importance for the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. 

The attitude of the Soviet Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic to the weak and hitherto oppressed nations is of very practical significance for the whole of Asia and for all the colonies of the world, for thousands and millions of people. 

I earnestly urge you to devote the closest attention to this question, to exert every effort to set an effective example of comradely relations with the peoples of Turkestan, to demonstrate to them by your actions that we are sincere in our desire to wipe out all traces of Great-Russian imperialism and wage an implacable struggle against world imperialism. 42

In Lenin’s view, the revolutionary process in Central Asia could serve as a model of inspiration, and importation, for national liberation movements on the international terrain, in particular in the majority-Muslim areas of the East. It was to be a laboratory for the essential combination of the socialist revolution and anticolonial struggles, a space in which the experimental conditions for a fusion of the proletariat of the oppressor nations and the exploited classes of the oppressed nations were already assembled. But we must be careful not to overestimate the importance Lenin accords at this stage to expanding the revolutionary process to the eastern peripheries of Russia. Witness his response, sent via telegram in mid-December 1919, to three members of the Turkkomissia (Shalva Eliava, Jānis Rudzutaks, and Valerian Kuybyshev) who had requested extra reinforcements for the commission: 

Your demands for personnel are excessive. It is absurd, or worse than absurd, when you imagine that Turkestan is more important than the center and the Ukraine. You will not get any more. You must manage with what you have, and not set yourselves unlimited plans, but be modest. 43

But this rebuff is at least in part due to Lenin’s already firmly-held belief that in matters concerning the Sovietization of Central Asia, it is necessary to proceed with caution. Despite its commitment to fight the harsh manifestations of Great-Russian chauvinism in the region, the Turkkomissia does not intend to be excessively tolerant of the “natives [indigènes],” taking a dim view in particular of the demands put forth by the Muslim national communists, unruly allies of the regime, especially Turar Ryskulov. Ryskulov sent a letter to Lenin in May 1920, in which he stressed that, despite the revolution, there continued to be confrontations between “two groups” in Turkestan, the colonized Muslims and the Europeans: 

The October revolution in Turkestan should have been accomplished not only under the slogans of the overthrow of the existing bourgeois order, but also of the final destruction of all traces of the legacy of all possible colonialist efforts on the part of Tsarist officialdom and kulaks44

Without waiting for the Turkkomissia’s approval, Muslim communists sent a delegation to Moscow to express their grievances. Over the course of these discussions, chaired by Lenin and attended by members of the Turkkomissia who had been urgently recalled, Ryskulov argued for the “significance of Turkestan to Soviet Eastern policy and of the colonial nature of national relations existing there,” and demanded the widest possible autonomy for the republic, its borders still undecided. 45

The Muslim communists’ claims were rejected, with Lenin’s approval, but the latter nonetheless realized he would have to intervene more actively in the affairs of Turkestan. Insisting on the aims of the Turkkomissia, in which he had lost some degree of confidence and whose decisions would henceforth be submitted for the approval of the “center” and other organs of Soviet power in Turkestan, he calls for the elimination of inequalities between the settlers and the natives, by “equalizing land tenure of Russians and newcomers with that of local people.” “The general task,” he adds, should not be “communism, but the overthrow of feudalism.” 46 For Lenin, Turkestan once again served as a focal point in a larger test; as he indicated the following month (July 1920) during debates on the national and colonial questions at the Second Comintern Congress, the recent experience in Central Asia, marked by “tremendous difficulties,” proved the need to carry out a simultaneous adaptation-translation of “communist tactics and policy” into a (post-)colonial context. 47

Lenin became increasingly suspicious of the accusations of nationalism being thrown at Muslim communists, in Turkestan and elsewhere. In the days leading up to the opening of the Congress, he gave a brief reply to a message from Sakhib-Garei Said-Galiev, president of the executive central committee of the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. To the heavy-handed, complacent question of of whether it is “right to say that the Communists of the formerly dominant nation, as having a higher level in every respect, should play the part of pedagogues and nurses to the Communists and all other working people of the formerly oppressed nationalities,” Lenin responds: “not ‘pedagogues and nurses,’ but helpers.” Said-Galiev also emphasized in his letter the “two clearly distinct trends (groupings) among the native Communists (Tatars)”: one adhering to “the standpoint of class struggle,” the other having a “shade of petty-bourgeois nationalism” – the author has in mind, without explicitly naming him, Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev and his supporters. Said-Galiev also asks whether it is correct to say that the former should receive the Party’s “full and all-round support,” while the latter should “merely be made use of and simultaneously educated in a spirit of pure internationalism.” With evident incredulity, Lenin’s laconically responds: “please let me have exact, brief, clear information on the ‘two tendencies’” – not a word more. 48 A policy of prudence is doubtless the best way to define Lenin’s approach to the national question in the (ex-)Russian Empire at the onset of the 1920s. 

But Lenin’s most bitter battle in the affairs of Turkestan would be internal to Soviet power. Declared in 1921, it can be understood, in terms of both the cast of characters and the sequence of events, as a sort of dress rehearsal prior to “Lenin’s last struggle” of the following year, against the so-called “autonomization plan” envisioned by Stalin for the Caucasus. 49 The conflict, which revolved around the implementation of the New Economic Policy, pitted Mikhail Tomsky, “exiled” to Turkestan after the trade union controversy of 1920–1921, against Georgii Safarov, head of the Comintern’s “Eastern Department.” The former, relying on Lenin, argued for the immediate introduction of the tax in kind, in accordance with the requirements of the NEP; the latter advocated for establishing committees of poor peasants, distributing amongst these committees kulak lands and territories, and inducing class polarization within the Muslim population. Tomsky’s position quickly became identified with a defense of the the privileges of Russian settlers, as well as other groups. The sympathy Safarov garnered from dispossessed Muslims, due to his unwillingness to yield on the task of expropriating the expropriator colonists, prompted local Soviet authorities to grow progressively more frustrated with him. Outlined in an article published near the end of January 1921, Safarov’s deeply-held convictions were hardly a secret: 

In the first year of Soviet Power, the right of oppressed peoples to self-determination appeared above all as the elimination of the colonial heritage of the former Russian Empire…. First, the infected Russian proletarian masses must be educated, the backward elements at the very least, of an unconscious nationalism which makes them consider non-Russian villages as the foyer of the petit-bourgeoisie, which forces them to apply to these villages the methods of attack deployed against capital…. If we transport as such the Communist Revolution into the backward countries, we would only obtain one result, namely the unity of the exploited masses with the exploiters…. All of our part must be mobilized, morally, in the service of the national liberation of the oppressed. 50

At the beginning of August 1921, Adolph Joffe is sent to Turkestan by the Politburo to mediate the disagreement between Tomsky and Safarov and work towards a compromise which would accommodate the struggle against the exclusion of Muslims from exercising power, but without alienating Russian workers, who formed the bulwark of the “red forces in Turkestan.” 51 At the same time, Lenin delivered two nearly identical letters to Tomsky and Safarov in order to notify them of Joffe’s assigned mission. Lenin makes the case that the “two tendencies can and must be combined,” and specifically asks that “the Muslim poor peasants should be treated with care and prudence, with a number of concessions,” to consolidate the line of wisdom and prudence”; for what is at stake, he reminds them, extends beyond Turkestan, it affects “our ‘world policy’ throughout the East.” 52

Lenin’s neutral stance on the Tomsky-Safarov conflict is only a facade. When sending a letter of Safarov’s to Stalin, the People’s Commissar for Nationalities, Lenin adds in a postscript that Safarov is “completely correct.” Stalin does not share this opinion and replies that “they are both incorrect.” Visibly annoyed by Lenin’s magnanimity towards Safarov, he viciously attacks the latter, accusing his actions of contributing to the “exacerbation of the national dissension,” the destruction of “our party organization in Turkestan,” and “compromising the party in the eyes of the workers.” The cornerstone of the nationalities policy in Muslim regions, Stalin bluntly adds, is the liquidation of “mass nationalist banditism,” embodied by the (anti-Bolshevik) Basmachi movement, which Safarov has done nothing to stop, and although subdued elsewhere, continued to flourish in Turkestan via the ransacking of cotton crops. “The conclusion is clear: Safarov must be removed (he cannot be given independent, management work, for he himself needs management).” Stalin nevertheless informs Lenin that he will await the conclusions of the Joffe investigation before bring this question before the Central Committee of the Party. 53

Joffe’s first dispatch would have devastating effects for Safarov; the Politburo decided to suspend him until further notice. The same day, September 13, Lenin sends a message to Joffe. Suspecting him of being siding with Tomsky, he demanded more details, “Facts, facts, and more facts” on whether Safarov is “ruining” the cotton, on the struggle against the anti-Soviet Muslim rebels, but above all on “the question of protection of native interests against ‘Russian’ (Great-Russian or colonialist) exaggerations.” Who were the “natives … (Safarov’s supporters)”? Would the indigenous Muslims be able to defend themselves “against such a subtle and firm and stubborn man as Tomsky”? Lenin “very much suspect[ed] ‘Tomsky’s line’ … of engaging in Great-Russian chauvinism, or, to put it more correctly, in deviating in that direction.” In an even sharper manner than previously, he underscores the international significance of Soviet policies in Turkestan, and forcefully requests the adoption of a fundamentally anticolonialist course of action: 

It is terribly important for all our Weltpolitik to win the confidence of the natives; to win it over again and again; to prove that we are not imperialists, that we shall not tolerate any deviation in that direction. This is a world-wide question, and that is no exaggeration. There you must be especially strict. It will have an effect on India and the East; it is no joke, it calls for exceptional caution. 54

On October 14, the Politburo convenes again. Tomsky and Safarov are dismissed from their posts and orders are given to reorganize the Turkkomissia and the Party Bureau of Turkestan (Turkburo) around reliable Russian and Muslim elements, to be supervised by Grigori Sokolnikov. At the end of December, Lenin sends, “secretly,” a message to the latter. Continuing to believe that “Safarov is right (partiallyat any rate), he asks Sokolnikov to “examine this objectively to prevent any squabble, quarrel or revenge from spoiling the work in Turkestan.” Lenin had just received a letter from Safarov, which indicated his wish to resign from his leadership post for Soviet policy in the East. Lenin replies curtly, but is clearly supportive: “Don’t lose your nerve, this is intolerable and shameful, you are not a 14-year-old miss …. Carry on your work, and don’t give up any of your duties. You must learn to collect the facts, calmly and purposefully, against those who have started this absurd case.” 55

Safarov will not succeed: this case, like others, demonstrates that in the face of stubborn prejudices, Lenin does not possess “omnipotence” across the different centers of Soviet power, all the more so when it involves localized organs thousands of miles from the Kremlin. Perhaps he did not show in the “Safarov affair” and “Eastern questions” more generally the same spirit of sacrifice as in other battles, but we cannot blame Lenin for decisions and actions that he was reluctant to take not only for strategic reasons, but also, more simply, due to his visceral hatred for chauvinism. Moreover, he would retaliate in 1922 with the purge of the Communist Party of Turkestan, whose 1500 members were expelled because of their (orthodox) “religious convictions,” in other words their anti-Muslim attitudes and what we might call their colonial (false) internationalism. No Muslims experienced the same outcome, as for a short period Islam was considered as an oppressed religion, which was protected from measures of anti-religious propaganda. 56

In 1923, on Stalin’s urging, the policy of “indigenization” (korenizatsiia) is officially adopted, aiming to promote, under the auspices of building the USSR, the training of cadres from among national minorities; this is deemed the best method for struggling both against Great-Russian chauvinism and against nationalism(s). Although studies have portrayed this policy to have been the touchstone of Soviet administration on the nationalities question, it has not often been pointed out that the policy only very loosely corresponded to Lenin’s views, who was then on the verge of death. 57 Lenin did not want to reconstruct the empire so much as destroy it, to construct on its ruins a new international(ist) order, with all the risks such a refoundation implied and the errors this enterprise would necessarily engender (and of which Lenin was aware). He did not want to merely integrate minorities into power, but to disintegrate the colonial structure, the condition for a definitive rupture with the (feudal and capitalist) legacy of imperialist logics. Like his stance on the emergence of the bureaucracy, Lenin’s mistake was to believe, until the end, that these logics were nothing but remnants from the past, the particular difficulties in extirpating them notwithstanding. He thus ignored, from the turn of the 1920s, that the seeds of a neo-(Soviet) empire were developing, born from the depths of the counter-revolution itself. Had Lenin lived a little while longer, he certainly would have sought out new weapons against it. 

– Translated by Patrick King

This text first appeared in the French-language publication Revue Période.


The Shifting Geopolitics of Coronavirus and the Demise of Neoliberalism – (Part 2)

European economic historians fear some déjà vu memories of the Black Death, which spread in the continent in the mid-14th century and led to the death of one third of the population. This reduction of demography caused scarcity of labor, increase in wages, decrease in inequality, and contested the then-feudal system in Europe. It also paved the way for the Industrial Revolution which Industrial Britain was hit by ‘King Cholera’ in 1831-32, 1848-49, 1854 and 1867. Tuberculosis also was responsible for the death of one-third of the casualties in Britain between 1800 and 1850. This nightmarish refrain comes back now stronger as epidemics have been ‘great equalizers’, and may initiate long-term implications nor only for European economic growth, but also for the world economy. After the US Federal Reserve decided to slash the benchmark interest rate to between zero and 0.25 percent (down from a range of 1 to 1.25 percent) and to buy $700 billion in Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities in a Sunday emergency meeting, the Dow Jones industrial average plunged 2,250 points at the open and trading suspended almost immediately the following day Monday, March 16.

President Trump has framed the pandemic in xenophobic terms and made the wildly-irresponsible claim that “it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away”. However, the new pandemic has revealed the most cynical aspects of neoliberalism. In a ‘Capitalism versus Coronavirus’ debate, the focus was on whether the American neoliberal model of capitalism makes the United States and its economy particularly ill-suited and ill-equipped to deal with a health crisis of the size of Coronavirus. Jeffery Sachs, Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, asserts, “We don’t have a public health system. We have a for-profit, private system. We have tens of millions of people that have no health coverage. We have no systematic testing. We are scrambling, and it has been weeks with this virus multiplying, with the pandemic spreading in the United States.”(1)

2020 will go into history books as a year that has exposed not only a public health failure, but has also indicated an era of geopolitical recession and a fall-from-grace moment of the neoliberal system in the new century. The unanticipated public health risk now can be reduced “neither to ethical virtues nor to a need for investments”; and “the crisis puts the flaws of our short-sighted, exploitative, hyper-individualistic times in glaring focus.”(2)

This two-part paper examines what I term a 3-C complexity: a) contextualization of the pandemic spread in 2020; b) correlation with the world finance markets instability and sudden drop in oil prices in mid-March, as Brent crude fell 12.2 percent, or $4.15, to trade at $29.68, its lowest level since January 2016; and c) concern about the future of neorealist capitalism. Part 1 published a few days ago probed into several dualities circulating now in the public sphere worldwide: is Coronavirus a ‘nature-made’ or ‘man-made’ pandemic? How scientific research can sort out the truth from various conspiratorial assumptions about a ‘deliberate’ causality and possible ‘manipulation’ of the virus in international politics? One fundamental question remains open about whether the international community and the whole United Nations system have balanced the highly-sought nuclear deterrence with some virus deterrence or minimum strategy of biosecurity.

Part 2 of the paper proposes how Coronavirus has imposed a de facto trickle-across economics on the famous Reaganite trickle-down economics, or trickle-down theory, has shifted into negative economic entanglements. In New York the hot touristic hub of the world, Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered local bars and restaurants to close their doors in an effort to halt the spread of Coronavirus. He wrote in a message to his fellow New Yorkers March 16, “We must respond with a wartime mentality.” In Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron said in a somber address to his fellow citizens, “We are at war. We’re not up against another army or another nation. But the enemy is right there: invisible, elusive, but it is making progress.” He decided the army should be drafted in to help move the sick to hospitals.

In developing countries like Morocco and Philippines, where agriculture, tourism, and the financial remittances of their workers abroad represent the backbone of the national economy, there are indicators of a gloomy rest of the year since severe consequences of Coronavirus will kick in by June or July. On the whole, the United Nations’ trade and development agency, UNCTAD, foresees the current economic uncertainty and immobility will likely cost the global economy $1 trillion in 2020. The second part of the paper concludes the dominant neoliberal system is forcibly getting a reality check through a tiny virus. It argues for a human dimension and precedency of society before economy and profit in reconstructing an edited social democracy system, as a due correction of neoliberalism.

Coronavirus’s Trickle-Across Economics

By March 16, world finance markets, including Wall Street, suffered a brutal bloodbath as the Dow Jones Industrial Average dived around 13 percent in its worst percentage loss since 1987’s ‘Black Monday’ crash. Four days earlier, the US stock market had wiped out the entire $11.5 trillion of value it gained since Trump’s 2016 election victory. The once-gregarious President Trump, who told his fellow Americans “Coronavirus will go away. Just stay calm”, realized “we have an invisible enemy.” He acknowledged the virus could push the U.S. into recession. “This is a bad one. This is a very bad one.”(3) Trump seems to face echoes of 1929 in the Coronavirus engulfing crisis. Some analysts said it is Black Monday all over again; and predict “a scale of damage unseen in the modern U.S. economy: the potential for millions of jobs lost in a single month, a historic and sudden plunge in economic activity across the nation and a pace of sharp market swings not seen since the Great Depression.”(4)

The Yale economics professor and 2013 Nobel prize laureate, Robert Shiller, has written about the narratives that affect the economy. He asserts Coronavirus is “a very unusual situation. People didn’t anticipate that anything like this could happen just a few months ago. The idea that, in this modern time, we could actually have a serious epidemic and that the government would be struggling to contain it.”(5) These Coronavirus-driven negative shifts raise new questions about the Trump administration’s economic policy, which has been guided by trickle-down economic theory. Trickle-down economics, also known as Reaganomics, have been highly celebrated as the savior of the West from the 1980 recession during the Reagan administration. By adopting certain benefits such as tax cuts on businesses, high-income earners, capital gains, and dividends, this policy claims benefits for the wealthy trickle down to everyone else in society.

The essence of such a claim is blurry between the pragmatism of science and the fallacy of capitalist ideology. During his first year in office, President Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which has lowered corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent beginning in 2018. The top individual tax rate dropped to 37 percent. Trump’s tax plan cut income tax rates, doubled the standard deduction, and eliminated personal exemptions. The corporate cuts are permanent while the individual changes expire at the end of 2025.(6) In the first week of March 2020, leaders of the major Wall Street banks were summoned to the White House to discuss the coronavirus economic fallout. The Trump administration is reported to be considering more corporate tax cuts, toward the airlines and hospitality industries, and a temporary payroll tax cut. Trump’s White House is considering requesting the approval of Congress of a $850 billion stimulus package to stabilize an economy, and another $50 billion in direct stimulus to help the airline industry. The White House’s plan includes also another $100 billion in funding for programs aimed at providing paid sick leave, food assistance, and other aid to American workers. The total requested Coronavirus financial allocations can top $1 trillion.

Tense Times at World Financial Markets [Getty]

Other nations have considered generous governmental packages to help stimulate their local economy. Britain launched a $39 billion economic stimulus plan just hours after the Bank of England slashed interest rates. Italy has decided a $28 billion package to ensure that companies and workers were helped through the crisis. Qatar has allocated a $23.35 billion stimulus package to shield its economy. China earmarked $15.9 billion to fight the epidemic. These are some of the best-conceived financial remedies for the ramifications of an unstoppable pandemic. But, they could be no more than a short-lived effect of an aspirin for a long-term economic headache.

Still, I remain skeptical these wishful trickle-down measures will not solve the problem. The verticality of the trickle-down approach, or similar stimulants of large private companies, will not match the vast horizontality of the emerging Coronavirus-derived economic recession. Coronavirus has flattened whole public and private businesses, and affected both sides of the economy: supply and demand. Metaphorically, the world economic turbo has lost power instantly and became idle in mid-March with open-ended alarmist measures of precaution and isolation. Moreover, the Coronavirus impact is likely to reinforce and deepen trends toward closed-doors policies, mistrust, decoupling, and deglobalization. It reinforces uncertainty and builds up on the demise of the World Trade Organization, as one of the most relevant turning points towards deglobalization, as well as the rise of nationalism, populism, protectionism, and the growing backlash against migration in the five years.

Coronavirus has grounded all engines of the economy including manufacturers, malls, airlines, hotels, and Disney worlds. Most cities are in a lockdown isolation, and people staying home. They are not going out to restaurants, not heading to shopping centers, not traveling or buying cars. Any world economy dislikes stagnation and isolation. As an example, seventy percent of the US economy is driven by consumer spending, and it has been in an unprecedented shutdown. It is highly unlikely most economies can avoid a recession in the short term. A considerable number of businesses will go bankrupt; and once again, the middle class will lose some of its financial capability. The hard effects of Coronavirus will reveal themselves when individuals people can get back to work, go out and spend money by July or August. A Bloomberg Economics model places the odds of a recession over the next year at 52 percent, the highest since 2009. JPMorgan’s John Normand said financial markets across assets have priced in an 80 percent probability of a recession happening.

The question remains unsettled about how much time will be needed for the consumer and business confidence to recover. This is an age of uncertainty and perplexity par excellence. Several finance experts predict the Coronavirus ramifications would not reverse until 2031. For instance, Goldman Sachs’ economists declared the U.S. economy all but recession-proof at the dawning of 2020. Alan Blinder, a former Federal Reserve vice chairman and currently professor at Princeton, says “I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if when we look back at the data, it is decided … that the recession started in March. It wouldn’t be a bit surprising to me.”(7) Robert Reich, professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, believes Trump’s measures would be “useless”. He argues “they would be too slow to stimulate the economy, and would not reach households and consumers who should be the real targets. And they would reward the rich, who don’t spend much of their additional dollars, without getting money into the hands of the poor and middle-class, who do.”(8)

To help face the economic crisis in the United States as an example, the government needs a pragmatic vision to avoid the economic losses at the bottom and middle-class of the socio-economic echelon. Reich has called Congress to immediately enact an emergency $400 billion. He also recommends the money should be spent in key areas: a) Coronavirus testing and treatment; b) Paid sick leave and family leave this year, renewable for next year if necessary; c) Extended Medicaid and unemployment insurance; and d) Immediate one-time payments of $1000 to every adult and $500 per child, renewable for next year if necessary.

Other economists have argued Coronavirus may be “the most positive thing” that has happened to the global economy in recent years. Peter Zeihan, author of the new book “Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World”, believes China is the world’s workshop; “In absolute terms, China is by far the biggest beneficiary of this American-led Order. Japan and the Europeans had carved Chinese territory into imperial spheres of influence. The Americans ended that. China’s manufacturing prowess required the economies of scale of all China being under a single government system.”(9)

One should not focus on the ramifications of this Coronavirus shutdown only, but also on the correlation with the Russian-Saudi spat over oil prices and production, which is essentially the equivalent of pouring gasoline over a flame. In the last week of February, members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), a cartel of 15 countries of oil-producing nations, met in Vienna to discuss how to deal with the disease’s impact that has lowered global demand for oil. Russia was invited to the meeting although it is not officially a member of the organization; but had vowed, three years ago, to coordinate its production levels with the fifteen members, in an alliance known as OPEC+.

There are outstanding issues between Moscow and Riyadh over a reasonable oil production cut. Saudi Arabia, the cartel’s leader, suggested the participants collectively cut their oil production by about 1 million barrels per day. However, Russia, wary of the plan, stopped at around 500,000 barrels a day. The Kremlin is said to be favoring keeping oil prices at a low level, which would “hurt the American shale oil industry or is gearing up to seize a bigger sliver of Asian and global oil demand for itself.” Emma Ashford, an expert on petrostates at the CATO Institute in Washington explains, “the Russians are more worried about market share and think they’d do better compete with the Saudis rather than cooperating at this point.”(10) Russia’s strategy has not settled well with the Saudis, who decided the slash their oil exports further in early March to wage a price war with Russia. the price per barrel went down by about $11 to $35 a barrel — the biggest one-day drop since 1991.

Coronavirus represents an epistemological overture into the science of epidemics and pandemics. The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School has offered a new course about Coronavirus and other black-swan outbreaks. A primary goal of the class “Epidemics, Natural Disasters and Geopolitics: Managing Global Business and Financial Uncertainty” is to bring “expert knowledge on how to deal with these crises to investors, workers, consumers and savers, so that they are better informed and can make better decisions,” said Mauro Guillen, a professor of international management, who coordinated the class. The half-semester course, which starts March 25, has proven popular — 450 students have already registered, roughly 5½ times the typical Wharton class size. Nobel laureate Paul Krugman has started a series of Master Class lessons “Economics and Society” online with an initial subscription of $15. He aims to teaching individuals the principles that shape political and social issues, including access to health care, the tax debate, globalization, and political polarization. He argues economics is not a set of answers—”it’s a way of understanding the world”.

Politicization of Coronavirus in International Relations

No wonder how epidemics and pandemics have been politically manipulated in the course of history. They have often energized right-wing politicians’ calls for policing the borders and blocking migration. For instance, the Habsburg monarchy in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 18th century erected a cordon sanitaire from the Danube to the Balkans, in the form of a chain of fortresses, supposedly to stop infection entering from the neighboring Ottoman empire. Serving also as a military, economic and religious border – a demarcation line between Christianity and Islam – it was patrolled by armed peasants who directed those suspected of infection to quarantine stations built along its length.(11)

The current political debate in Europe and the United States over Coronavirus echoes isolationism and ‘closed-doors’ policy. Trumpian-minded Americans and Euroskeptics are capitalizing on the fear factor of the pandemic to impose more barriers and border security. While contesting immigration and terrorism, right-wing populist politicians argue Coronavirus vindicates concerns about the need to protect their country’s borders. The threat is portrayed as “foreign, and the response is to build walls and stop flights. According to this narrative, globalization accelerates the threat.(12)

In France, Marine Le Pen leader of the far-right National Rally, formerly known as Le Front National, has called for border closures with Italy. After meeting Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, she told reporters, “I am asking for control of our borders. It feels like I am asking for the moon whereas in fact running checks at your borders should be the first act of common sense.” Her colleague Aurélia Beigneux has warned, “The free circulation of goods and people, immigration policies and weak controls at the borders obviously allow the exponential spread of this type of virus.” Hyperconnected global cities might be towering forces economically, but they are also entry ports for infection. Living in a “flyover states” is, for once, an enviable position.”(13) The first round of France’s local elections held March 15 was marked with an eerie atmosphere of semi-lockdown and global pandemic, leading to record abstention. Other nationalists in Europe like Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, had complained that Europe could not have open internal borders if its outer borders were weak, allowing asylum-seekers to enter unchecked. Furthermore, Lorenzo Quadri of the right-wing Lega dei Ticinesi in Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU, has called for a ‘closed-doors’ policy. He argued “It is alarming that the dogma of wide-open borders is considered a priority.” This is a marriage in heaven between right-wing politics and the fear of the new pandemic.

The rise of nationalism may bring the EU’s already frayed unity on the Schengen system to an end while the debate has not settled yet among Europeans about the ‘wisdom’ of Brexit. Nine countries, including Germany and France, have used emergency provisions to reinstate some controls at different times.(14) Marie De Somer, head of the migration program at Brussels-based think tank European Policy Centre, points out “Schengen is in a very poor and problematic state”, and its restoration to its full functionality hinges on “changing the bloc’s asylum and migration rules.”(15) In retrospect, some authoritarian regimes like China have capitalized on the outbreak of certain epidemics and pandemics. Chinese leaders have historically boasted of their ability “to conquer disease as a sign of strength. President Xi has concentrated power around himself, which makes him a more likely target of blame for an angry, frightened populace if the experiment fails. Perhaps that’s why he has retreated from the public eye recently, allowing his lieutenants to be seen man-aging the situation.”(16)

The coverage of Coronavirus in the globe media has positioned China to be a maverick with a post-pandemic narrative and solidified its pursuit of global leadership. Beijing has sought to get traction about its ‘successful’ defeat of the virus by assuming a lead role in assisting Italy and Spain, and capitalizing on the perceived inadequacy and inward focus of U.S. policy. It has also tried to reframe the narrative since the outbreak was interpreted as a propaganda disaster for the government. China feared Coronavirus would be called China’s “Chernobyl”, and would ultimately undermine the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. Reports have indicated Dr. Li Wenliang—the young whistleblower silenced by the government who later succumbed to complications from the COVID-19—was likened to the Tiananmen Square “tank man.”(17)

By mid-March, China was claiming victory. “Mass quarantines, a halt to travel, and a complete shutdown of most daily life nationwide were credited with having stemmed the tide”, and “China’s signature strength, efficiency and speed in this fight has been widely acclaimed”, declared China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.(18) One of the op-eds published by China’s state-run Xinhua news agency emphasized that China has adopted the “most comprehensive, most strict and most thorough preventative measures” to combat the pandemic. With a nationalist tone, the People’s Daily boasted that, “China can pull together the imagination and courage needed to handle the virus, while the US struggles.” Chinese officials seized the European and American Coronavirus stress to regularly remind a global audience of the superiority of Chinese efforts and criticizing the “irresponsibility and incompetence” of the “so-called political elite in Washington,” as the state-run Xinhua news agency put it in an editorial.(19)

Nicholas Christakis, a Yale professor, expressed a widespread sentiment when praising China for “an astonishing achievement from a public health point of view”.(20) World Health Organization have praised China’s approach to controlling the Coronavirus spread, which has been an oversell of Chinese public diplomacy and soft power. It has sent medical supplies to hard-hit Spain and Italy, and offered guidance to Spain, Iraq, Iran and other nations. WHO Director General Tedros A. Ghebreyesus called the Chinese-Italian cooperation a “heartwarming example of solidarity”. Zhang Jun, China’s ambassador to the United Nations, responded “a friend in need is a friend indeed. We’ll do whatever we can to help other countries in fighting the COVID-19.” Chinese officials have succeeded in turning the ‘home-made’ Coronavirus into a global mega-opportunity of public diplomacy. In short, an authoritarian 2020 China is outperforming the US’s soft power in Europe, which was rebuilt by the very America-designed ‘Marshal Plan’ after World War II. Beijing has had its historical moment of being a global leader on public health, and thus ready to take on other types of global leadership.

Embarrassed Neoliberalism at a Moment of Truth!

With the growing radius of Coronavirus’s health and economic implications, humanity is sliding downhill in 2020. Adam Smith’s famous mantra ‘laissez passer, Laissez faire’, has dramatically shifted into ‘rester chez sois, mourir chez soi’ (stay at home, die at home). For weeks, the scarcity of coronavirus testing in the US has been a dilemma. CNN reported many Americans suffering symptoms associated with the virus said they were angry and frustrated after trying to get tested only to be turned away. For instance, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan captures the challenge on both local and federal levels. He acknowledged, “No, we don’t have enough test kits and neither does any other state, and no, the federal government does not have an answer. We are behind, and that’s going to continue to be a problem.” The US public health system has gone astray. Adam Gaffney of Harvard Medical School and president of the advocacy organization ‘Physicians for a National Health Program’ asserts “This is not a healthcare system – it is atomized chaos. For again, in the American way of paying for healthcare, our hospitals (or increasingly, our multi-hospital systems) are silos, some rich and some poor, each fending for themselves, locked in market competition.”(21) In Europe, Italy has had the highest death rate and many of the victims have been among people in their eighties and nineties. According to the New York Times, Italy has the oldest population in Europe with about 23 percent of residents 65 or older, whereas he median age in the country is 47.3, compared with 38.3 in the United States.

Between Trumpism of the late 2020s and Thatcherism and Reaganism of the 1980s, one can visualize the transformation of Neoliberalism as catchall for anything that smacks of deregulation, liberalization, privatization, or fiscal austerity. Neoliberalism has derived from several notions, which are supposedly grounded in the concept of homo economicus, the perfectly rational human being, found in many economic theories, who always pursues his own self-interest.(22) The term had existed in French “néo-libéralisme”, and appeared in 1898 in the works of the French economist Charles Gide to describe the economic beliefs of the Italian economist Maffeo Pantaleoni. ‘Neoliberalism’ also gained momentum in an international intellectual gathering, “Colloque Walter Lippmann” (the Walter Lippmann Colloquium), convened by French philosopher Louis Rougier in Paris in 1938. Lippman was an American journalist who wrote a well-read book “An Enquiry into the Principles of the Good Society” in 1937. The Colloquium’s objective was to construct a new liberalism as a rejection of collectivism, socialism, and laissez-faire liberalism. It defined ‘neoliberalism’ as involving the priority of “the price mechanism, free enterprise, the system of competition, and a strong and impartial state.”(23)

In a post-World War II and a capitalist-communist Cold War context, classical liberal economist Milton Friedman used the term in his 1951 essay “Neo-Liberalism and its Prospects”. He rejected what he considered “widespread—if naive—faith among even the intellectual classes that nationalization would replace production for profit with production for use.”(24) He also contested what he deemed as waning collectivism, in a subtle reference to socialism and other forms of social democracy; “collectivism is likely to prove far more difficult to reverse or change fundamentally than laissez-faire, especially if it goes so far as to undermine the essentials of political democracy. And this trend, which would be present in any event, is certain to be radically accelerated by the cold war, let alone by the more dreadful alternative of a full-scale war. But if these obstacles can be overcome, neo-liberalism offers a real hope of a better future, a hope that is already a strong cross-current of opinion and that is capable of capturing the enthusiasm of men of good-will everywhere, and thereby becoming the major current of opinion.”(25)

The famous political duo, Thatcher and Reagan, performed their neoliberal dance well. During her gutsy 11-year tenure as Prime Minister in London, Thatcher pushed for deep transformation of the British society, and became the driving force behind inserting a neorealist engine in public policies. She left the country “a markedly different place”. British neoliberalism flourished “through a neoliberal policy programme of massive tax cuts for the rich; a drawn out, but eventual crushing of trade unions; widespread privatisation of housing, telecoms, steel, and gas; financial deregulation; and the introduction of competition in the provision of public services.”(26) Across the Atlantic, the Reagan administration had its golden moment in gutting union power and cutting public spending. Reagan’s mannerism in his public discourse helped convince the Americans with his mantra of the time: “the most important cause of our economic problems has been the government itself.”

In his 1982 essay “A Neo-Liberal’s Manifesto”, Charles Peters, editor of the Washington Monthly, addressed how neoliberals positioned the pursuit of financial liberalization and individual enterprise as a ‘virtue’. He wrote, “If neo-conservatives are liberals who took a critical look at liberalism and decided to become conservatives, we are liberals who took the same look and decided to retain our goals but to abandon some of our prejudices… Our primary concerns are community, democracy, and prosperity. Of them, economic growth is most important now, because it is essential to almost everything else we want to achieve.”(27) Still, any trend of the Neoliberal philosophy advocates the ‘wisdom’ of four particular pillars: ‘privatization’, ‘deregulation’, ‘free markets’, and ‘individuation’, as a construct antithetical to the protection of group interest. Over the following decades, Neoliberalism was embraced not only among conservatives or republicans in the West, but also among labors and democrats including Bill Clinton. Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz argues that capitalism does not have to produce inequality. Instead, he says inequality is the result of choices capitalist countries make.  

In the late nineties, the term ‘neoliberalism’ caught up with two developments: financial deregulation, which would culminate in the 2008 financial crash and in the still-lingering euro debacle. The second is economic globalization, which accelerated more ambitious type of trade agreement, in a world of free flows of finance. Financialization and globalization have become the most overt manifestations of neoliberalism in today’s world.(28) David Harvey considers Neoliberalism a “political project” launched by a corporate capitalist class with the objective of “curb(ing) the power of labor.(29) He recalls how the rise of social movements, advocacy of consumer protection, and other reformist initiatives posed a threat to the ruling class’s interests. He notices the ruling class “was not omniscient but they recognized that there were a number of fronts on which they had to struggle: the ideological front, the political front, and above all they had to struggle to curb the power of labor by whatever means possible. Out of this there emerged a political project which I would call neoliberalism.”(30) He firmly believes the neoliberal political project was not “an ideological assault” only; but, also “an economic assault”, and “the bourgeoisie or the corporate capitalist class put it into motion bit by bit.”(31)

Other Neorealism skeptics have argued the public policies of the Obamas and Clintons of the world, and their overlook of vulnerable citizens, have enabled the election of Donald Trump in November 2016. Cornell West points out, “We gird ourselves for a frightening future. The neoliberal era in the United States ended with a neofascist bang. The political triumph of Donald Trump shattered the establishments in the Democratic and Republican parties – both wedded to the rule of Big Money and to the reign of meretricious politicians.(32) West believes the age of Obama was the last gasp of neoliberalism, and argues “despite some progressive words and symbolic gestures, Obama chose to ignore Wall Street crimes, reject bailouts for homeowners, oversee growing inequality and facilitate war crimes like US drones killing innocent civilians abroad.”(33)

From a ‘normative’ perspective, Neoliberalism may claim principles of free enterprise and equal opportunity in the market, and potential prosperity as the ‘natural’ law of the market. It has developed itself into what amount to right-wing postmodernism. John Horgan, author of the book “The End of Science”, recalls when postmodernism was popular with left-wing, counter-culture types, who associated science with capitalism, militarism and other bad isms in the 1960s and 1970s. But, as he said, “over the past few decades, extreme postmodernism—and especially the idea that all claims reflect the interests of the claimer–has become even more popular among those on the right.”(34)

British PM Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan at the White House [Getty]

Neorealist public policies pushed their way in London, Washington, and beyond. The spread of Neoliberalism sprung across the ideological divide between the right and the left, and also across the partisan caucuses at the House of Commons and Congress. Even nominally left-wing political parties, like the UK Labour Party and the Democratic Party in America, would eventually “cave into its practices, assimilating its core principles.”(35) The ideology of Neorealism also caught up with several international institutions like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization, and imposed on an unprecedented scale across the world. Most developing nations took the lead from them to implement their recommended reforms. David Harvey recalls during the debt crisis in Mexico in 1982 for example, the IMF said, “We’ll save you.” Actually, what they were doing was “saving the New York investment banks and implementing a politics of austerity.”(36) A similar scenario was played out vis-à-vis Greece’s recent crisis. Ultimately, “they bailed out the banks and made the people pay through a politics of austerity.”(37)

In Morocco, one of the studious implementers of the IMF’s recommendations of neoliberal reforms, known as the ‘structural adjustment programme’ since the early 1980s, officials decided “abandoning public services such as education and health, privatizing public facilities and institutions, shifting towards an export-oriented economy, particularly in agriculture, opening up of Moroccan market to foreign products, and decreasing subsidies for basic products like wheat, sugar and oil – and even cancelling the petrol subsidy. These economic trends were deepened by ostensibly “free” trade agreements signed by Morocco in the mid-1990s.”(38) Two decades later, stark contradictions of a tale of two Moroccos emerged and has triggered several open-ended protests: “a Morocco of mega projects: Tanger-Med Port, highways, high-speed trains (Train à Grande Vitesse, TGV), luxurious cars, villas, palaces and touristic resorts with large pools and vast golf courses. Another Morocco which ranks very low in the human development index (HDI), vacillating between 126 and 130 out of 188 countries during recent years.”(39)

These neoliberal policies have led also to vast inequalities and social malaise among Moroccans, decoupled with political despotism as the Makhzen, the patronage network of royals, military officials, landowners, civil servants and others around the King,  which “has taken over almost all political and economic decisions in the country; economic neoliberalism with the dominating forces of neo-colonialism, privatisation and export-oriented development; and finally climate change, especially extreme events like droughts and floods.”(40) Now, the Coronavirus effect and limitations of neoliberal policies may undermine the validity of la Commission Spéciale sur Le Modèle de Développement (CSMD), special committee for the development model, which Morocco has created late 2019 with the aim of consulting with various political parties and social actors in the country. The membership of Commission is reported to be decided by three heavy-weight figures: Fouad Ali El Himma, King’s advisor; Hafid Elalamy, trade minister; and Mostafa Terrab, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Moroccan state-owned phosphate-mining company OCP. CSMD is expected to submit a report by the end of June 2020, which will identify the growth challenges and design policies to ensure a better distribution of wealth across Moroccan territories and social classes. CSMD’s report will most likely fall back on the very neoliberal economic policy that are in place.

IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva speaks during a news conference in Rabat, Morocco, [February 20 2020 Reuters]

Global Neoliberalism may live through a patina of pragmatism “until the nukes start flying or a virus hits. Getting healthcare ‘consumers’ to consider their market choices follows a narrow logic up to the point where none of the choices are relevant to a public health emergency… The fundamental premise of neoliberalism, the Robinsonade I, has always been a cynical dodge to let rich people keep their loot.”(41) For instance, Trump’s policies have benefited from the claim of a mixture of hands-on and hands-off government policies. Lily Roberts, director of Economic Mobility and Andy Green managing director of Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress notice “Trump’s economy continues to squeeze Americans who are struggling to make ends meet. As the costs of rent, child care, health care, and postsecondary education continue to rise faster than wages, declining earnings and persistent wage and wealth gaps illustrate that, for many Americans, the ability to save for retirement or send children to college is out of reach.”(42)

There is an even greater consequence of the ideology’s supremacy. The question is how Neoliberalism has reduced state power, willfully transferring authority into the hands of “unaccountable transnational corporations. Services were outsourced; the market left in charge. This development has proved a dangerous one, as it has reduced government’s ability to respond to the needs of its electorate. The resultant disempowerment, as subsequently felt by the people, has in many cases led to disenfranchisement.”(43) Once again, the upper hand of corporate America and its multinationals allies is poised to benefit from the upcoming Coronavirus vaccine revenues.

President Trump and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar at the White House [Getty]

During his press conference at the White House, US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who was a drug industry lobbyist and former drug company manager, was comfortable with a system that puts corporate profits over public health. He stated “Frankly, this has such global attention right now and the private market players, major pharmaceutical players as you’ve heard, are engaged in this, that we think that this is not like our normal kind of bioterrorism procurement processes, where the government might be the unique purchaser, say, of a smallpox therapy. The market here, we believe, will actually sort that out in terms of demand, purchasing, stocking, etc. But we’ll work on that to make sure that we’re able to accelerate vaccine as well as therapeutic research and development.”(44)

Apparently, neoliberal-minded officials are playing the lobbying card in favor of dominant pharmaceutical companies and labs. Secretary Azar has gone back to the very neoliberal textbook and claims “the market will actually sort” the mess. Yes, Holy market is the savior! These right-wing politicians seek to impose what has become an irrational diagnosis of the dilemma, and to pave the way, once again, for the pharmaceutical companies to make vast profits in the months and years to come. In a sad reflection, Hawaii-based medical doctor and professor, Seiji Yamada, notices how Coronavirus exposes the vulnerabilities that humans set up for themselves “by buying into the neoliberal program.”(45)

Coronavirus, Humans, and the System

Over history, democracy has been unhelpful in epidemics. Like previous pandemics, Coronavirus has caused super disruption of public life around the globe. Frank Snowden, a professor emeritus of the history of medicine at Yale University asserts, “There’s not a major area of human life that epidemic diseases haven’t touched profoundly. Epidemics have tremendous effects on social and political stability. They’ve determined the outcomes of wars, and they also are likely to be part of the start of wars sometimes.”(46) In the past two decades, humans have been exposed to fast-rate and timely-condensed waves of epidemics and pandemics such as SARS, MERS, Ebola, Swine flu, and now Coronavirus. It’s a macabre way of recasting “how we think about human history: not as a succession of ages and epochs, but of apocalyptic death rattles and societal collapses.(47) Kurt M. Campbell, former Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and the Pacific and Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution argue “the world has grown, over the past decade, more authoritarian, nationalistic, xenophobic, unilateralist, anti-establishment, and anti-expertise. The current state of politics and geopolitics has exacerbated, not stabilized, the crisis.”(48)

In the past three decades, the Neoliberal system had it its way, and desperate workers had no choice, but to “work both longer and harder. And they die younger.”(49) If the new pandemic persists toward early summer 2020, workers will not be able to make ends meet, or may not get favorable opportunities to make up for their lost source of income. A sizable number of small enterprises will be forced to declare bankruptcy. Either in the West and in developing nations, the state’s role has shrunk into an agency of regulating fear and forbidding public gatherings. WHO has become a de-facto world institution of providing no more than statistics of infected cases, deaths, and the scope of Coronavirus spread. However, such pandemics and epidemics reveal “what really matters to a population, what is at stake, and especially whom and what these societies value.”(50) Most international organizations can deliver no more than public relations operations. By mid-March, the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) agreed to work closely to ensure the latest and most reliable information and tailored guidance reaches the global business community. ICC has vowed to “regularly send updated advice to its network of over 45 million businesses so that businesses everywhere can take informed and effective action to protect their workers, customers and local communities and contribute to the production and distribution of essential supplies.”(51)

The world’s struggle with Coronavirus can be a reflective and defining moment in modern history. Do we have a public health safety net? How the have-nots are coping with Coronavirus? Do we have an epidemic deterrence strategy since Great Powers have gone to extremes to develop their nuclear deterrence capabilities since World War II? In the fight against Coronavirus, Americans too are currently becoming collateral damage. The Trump administration is reported to be “particularly ill-prepared for such an undertaking. Not only were they distrustful of elite warnings, thanks to decades of conservative attacks on the American intellectual establishment, but the president was personally unwilling to believe news that might be politically damaging and surrounded by a staff too scared or too incompetent to convince him otherwise. They ignored the advice of public health experts warning them to ramp up testing, ignored warnings from doctors on the ground that things were getting bad, and failed to tell Americans that social distancing was necessary before it was (arguably) too late.”(52)

Pandemics historians have been mesmerized that “the more civilized humans became – with larger cities, more exotic trade routes, and increased contact with different populations of people, animals, and ecosystems – the more likely pandemics would occur.”(53) The impact of Coronavirus, as a shutdown of societies across the globe, contests the premise of neoliberal policies. It calls for deconstructing and demystifying any neoliberal ideology when it masquerades as economic science. In his “The Neoliberal Plague” essay, Bob Uri notices the ignorant brutality of this system appears to be on its way to “getting a reality check through a tiny virus.”(54) Other pertinent questions are looming on the horizon: what should come first: society or economy, public health or profit, citizens’ well-being or plutocracy? Is it time for a paradigm shift in public policies? What kind of new critical vision(s) would emerge from the Coronavirus wreckage? For sure, the promise of the Westphalian and ‘social contract’ modern state has been disappointing with the lack of one of the basic human needs: public health. One of Thatcher’s memorable sayings still echoes: ‘there is no such thing as society’. As a result, humans have been reduced to competitors. William Pearse regrettably notices, “Coldly rational – ruthless even – neoliberalism has set people against each other, valorising the notion of ‘getting ahead’ – the question, of whom, and by what means, too infrequently asked.”(55)

Ian Bremmer, professor of Applied Geopolitics at Columbia University argues “the challenge we face today is the unwinding of the American-led world order, and the absence of global leadership to step in and take its place. We live in a G-Zero world… and the geopolitical recession is its effect. In a geopolitical recession, fracturing global politics fuels global risks instead of helping solve them.”(56) The Coronavirus moment sends another signal about the dysfunctionality of the neorealism-driven global politics. It is certain there will be an US-Euro-Chinese techno-nationalism and protectionism.(57) Bremmer captures four contributing factors which need to be addressed before the world can emerge back from the G-Zero:

  1. Inequality and other economic dislocations as derived from globalization. The rise of “my country first” politics in the world’s advanced industrial democracies has been accompanied by the domestic delegitimization of political institutions in democracies, with spillover into the international sphere.
  2. Tendency of certain Great Powers and emerging regional powers toward undermining efforts of the 20th-century’s most advanced and economically-successful democracies in dealing their very real existential crises here in the 21st century. Bremmer considers Russia foremost among the former, “who 30 years after the end of the Cold War is looking for ways to destabilize the West while boosting its own geopolitical fortunes.”(58)
  3. Declining efficiency and effectiveness of the international system. The multilateral institutions the world currently has in place to help manage global politics and assist worldwide coordination are no longer fit for purpose.
  4. U.S. Indifference and Trumps’ decision to actively take a step back from global leadership cannot be overstated. Americans increasingly felt the United States was shouldering too much on behalf of others, militarily and otherwise.(59)
Previn Mosley stands with other health care reform supporters at a Big Insurance September 22, 2009 in New York City [Getty]

Since we did not learn the financial lesson of the 2008 stock market crisis, Coronavirus is here to inspire us with a deep reflection on the existing economic and political infrastructure, and the ongoing widening margin between the wealthier 1 percent and the poorer 99 percent of the population. Since 2008, many of us, including myself, have suffered losses of savings and skyrocketing inequality. The middle class is losing its battle with maintaining its living standards and declining purchasing power. Now, we are losing much more: confidence in the state, in the health ministry, in the economy, and in the whole system to save us from a tiny virus. In developing countries, schools and universities had to jump unprepared to the implementation of remote teaching of students with no particular prior training, know how, or indicators of success.

In an interview conducted in his office in MIT in 1991 during the scientific confusion about AIDS, Thomas Kuhn told John Horgan “the question as to what AIDS is as a clinical condition and what the disease entity is itself is not — it is subject to adjustment.  And so forth.  When one learns to think differently about these things, if one does, the question of right and wrong will no longer seem to be the relevant question.”(60) With Coronavirus lurking with no apparent strategy of containment or cure, the world needs to go back to the drawing board after forty years of globalization, free trade, and other ideological constructs of Neoliberalism. I would also borrow David Harvey’s proposition to think over; “What if every dominant mode of production, with its particular political configuration, creates a mode of opposition as a mirror image to itself?”(61) There is an opportunity for the left, humanists, intellectuals, citizen-advocacy group, and the global civil society to initiate a debate about a post-Coronavirus, above neorealism political and economic reorganization of society.

Return to the Human Dimension and Moral Democracy

Some commentators have argued for social democracy or social state. Any advocacy of such concepts will collide with the classical skepticism about collectivism and other brands of socialism. The concepts of ‘socialist’ and ‘social’ democracy have been polluted and stigmatized enough to stir up similar reactions in the future. The public debate can spare us an already-lost battle in the 1950s. The 2016 Bernie Sanders electoral platform flirted with several options of free public health, free university tuition. He was deemed as a ‘radical socialist’, and the Democratic Party chose Hillary Clinton as the counterforce to candidate Trump. In March 2020, Sanders relates the Coronavirus dilemma with previous public health challenges in the United States. In his op-ed “Coronavirus highlights the flaws in our health care and economic systems”, Sanders points “it is not just a question that in normal times — tragically, unbelievably — 13% of Americans, or about 34 million people, say a friend or family member recently passed away after being unable to afford treatment for a condition, according to a poll from Gallup and West Health. Now, during the coronavirus outbreak, the lack of health care threatens all of us, showing that we are only as safe as the least insured person in America.”(62) He has called for providing direct emergency $2,000 cash payments to every person in America every month for the duration of the crisis. “We are likely already in a recession,” Sanders stated.

Scott Gottlieb, former US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner noticed a pattern of ‘rationing’ screening opportunities; while the federal government officials discouraged hospitals from developing and using their own in-house testing kits because they would need to obtain FDA’s permission to use them. A recent and YouGov poll conducted March 10 has shown nearly half (48%) of the participants said they were not very confident they could deal with the costs, which exceed $3,000, (23%) — or not at all confident (25%). Only 31% said they could pay out of their savings, while 42% said they would borrow through their credit card (22%), their family (12%) or their bank (8%).

Some economists feel nostalgic to Smith’s ideas about free market, as he “anticipated much of the corruption and exploitation currently observed in the capitalist system”. Smith cautioned against some exploitative shifts of capitalism in disregarding the virtue of justice. He wrote in “The Wealth of Nations” book in 1776, “To hurt in any degree the interests of any one order of citizens for no other purpose but to promote that of some other, is evidently contrary to that justice and equality of treatment.” Industrial psychologist Paul Vorster points out, “It probably isn’t much of a stretch to say that Smith would have been a proponent of the idea that business ethics is about doing what is good for the self (the organisation) and the other (the consumer and employee) in a mutually beneficial manner. Look after the needs of consumers and they will do the same for you.”(63) Vorster remains hopeful societies will consider a purer form of capitalism as a moral economic philosophy, instead of only an exclusively economic philosophy, is required for economies to return to the principles of prosperity, justice and liberty.(64)

As Coronavirus has apparently brought Neoliberalism to its knees with a complete shut of the system worldwide, a new dawn will emerge with tougher questions: what a post-Coronavirus containment world would say about the survival of individuals, families, and societies? It will be an opportunity to revisit the ‘social contract’ paradigm, which has historically assisted the development of classical liberalism. Jeffery Sachs argues the US government has to be judged “on its incompetence, its venality, its ignorance and it will add to our costs and our dangers absolutely in an enormously depressing and significant way.”(65)

What is needed now, more than ever, is a public debate of moral autonomy of citizens in redefining the rights and obligations of the state and reconstructing their moral authority. The debate needs to kick off on a blank slate with a fresh beginning and new momentum. I argue for a moral democracy and a moral state as an anti-thesis of both Neoliberalism and the better dressed up ‘ethical capitalism’, which derive from the classical Adam Smith’s lucid explanation of the forces shaping what we still call ‘free market’: prosperity, justice and liberty. Our Coronavirus reality and the absence of the state, with no pro-active health safety net, seem to warrant a return to the natural law, Kantian principles, and the basic human needs paradigm. The new pandemic has taken us back to a fundamental question: How to reconcile the gap when the state fails to protect the citizen? What should come first: person or profit? To use Immanuel Kant’s terminology, what would be the 2020’s ‘metaphysics of morals’, which represent a “system of a priori moral principles that apply the categorical imperative to human persons in all times and cultures?”

In his well-received book “In Defense of Anarchism”, Kantian scholar and philosopher Robert Paul Wolff wrote, “The defining mark of the state is authority, the right to rule. The primary obligation of man is autonomy, the refusal to be ruled. It would seem, then, that there can be no resolution of the conflict between the autonomy of the individual and the putative authority of the state. Insofar as a man fulfills his obligation to make himself the author of his decisions, he will resist the state’s claim to have authority over him.”(66)

Morality should not be regarded as a mere utopian virtue, but rather as a factual drive for collective progress. Since the Westphalia Treaty, the state, the private sector, the stock market, and other structural forces have monopolized the status of unit of analysis for so long. They ought to cede the place be the individual, the family, the welfare state, and the principle of health for all, education for, and prosperity for all. Kant argued that the supreme principle of morality is a standard of rationality that he dubbed the “Categorical Imperative”, which he characterized as an objective, rationally necessary and unconditional principle that we must always follow despite any natural desires or inclinations we may have to the contrary. Any law, which represents a set on norms to regulate the relationship between the state and citizens, in perceived in Kantian philosophy as an element, which directly links all the fields: ethics, philosophy of law, philosophy of politics, and historical philosophy. Kant maintains the focus on the individual, the free moral self and subject, whereas he places structure and all the embedded political institutions and economic regulations at the periphery, with an open mind for perpetual peace. He urged the self to “act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”.(67)

In the midst of the Coronavirus turmoil, Edgar Morin, philosopher, sociologist and Emeritus Director of Research at the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France, remains optimistic. he spoke about the theme “Changer le monde: il n’est pas trop tard” (To change the world: it is not too late” at the first edition of “Une Époque Formidable” public lectures series. He notices humans know so much knowledge even about death; they have never had some much information and multiple expertise. But, they have lost a sense of direction. He explains, “We have accumulated so much information about humans, but we have not known yet how to be human. In our schools and universities, the knowledge of our human identity is not part of our academic curriculum. In terms of politics, we have lost the compass”. He also puts the emphasis on the question “Where should we go from here?”(68)

For decades now, a number of social psychologists and conflict theorists have argued for the wisdom of a basic needs paradigm in designing public policies. As John Burton argued in 1998, “If there is competitive material acquisition, on the one hand, and an individual desire for collaborative relationships, on the other, the explanation of the preponderance of adversarial and aggressive behaviors would have to be the conditions imposed by systems as they have evolved. If this is the case, conflicts at all social levels are due to past failures to include in institutions and in decision making a human element and to employ available intellectual resources continually to reassess institutions and social norms and thus resolve problems as they emerge.”(69)

The Peace Studies founder and 2016 Nobel Peace Prize candidate, Johan Galtung, has argued for a strong interconnectedness between basic human needs and development. He explains how “it does make sense to talk about certain classes of needs, such as ” security needs, ” “welfare needs , ” ” identity needs,” and “freedom needs,” to take the classification that will be used here, and postulate that in one way or the other human beings everywhere and at all times have tried and will try to come to grips with something of that kind, in very different ways.”(70)

The pyramid of basic human needs [Simply Psychology]

Dr. Mohammed Cherkaoui, Senior Researcher at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.


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  26. William Pearse, “A Critique of Neoliberalism”, ENOMICS, April 9, 2019
  27. Charles Peters, “A Neo-Liberal’s Manifesto”, The Washington Post, September 5, 1982
  28. Dani Rodrik, “The fatal flaw of neoliberalism: it’s bad economics, The Guardian, November 14, 2017
  29. Bjarke Skærlund Risager, “Neoliberalism Is a Political Project: An Interview with David Harvey”, Jacobin,
  30. Bjarke Skærlund Risager, “Neoliberalism Is a Political Project: An Interview with David Harvey”, Jacobin,
  31. Bjarke Skærlund Risager, “Neoliberalism Is a Political Project: An Interview with David Harvey”, Jacobin,
  32. Cornel West, “Goodbye, American Neoliberalism. A New Era is Here”, The Guardian, November 17, 2016
  33. Cornel West, “Goodbye, American Neoliberalism. A New Era is Here”, The Guardian, November 17, 2016
  34. John Horgan, “The Coronavirus and Right-Wing Postmodernism”, Scientific American, March 9, 2020
  35. William Pearse, “A Critique of Neoliberalism”, ENOMICS, April 9, 2019
  36. Bjarke Skærlund Risager, “Neoliberalism Is a Political Project: An Interview with David Harvey”, Jacobin,
  37. Bjarke Skærlund Risager, “Neoliberalism Is a Political Project: An Interview with David Harvey”, Jacobin,
  38. Jawad Moustakbal, “Despotism, neoliberalism and climate change: Morocco’s catastrophic convergence”, Middle East Eye, July 31, 2017
  39. Jawad Moustakbal, “Despotism, neoliberalism and climate change: Morocco’s catastrophic convergence”, Middle East Eye, July 31, 2017
  40. Jawad Moustakbal, “Despotism, neoliberalism and climate change: Morocco’s catastrophic convergence”, Middle East Eye, July 31, 2017
  41. Rob Urie, “The Neoliberal Plague”, March 6, 2020 Counterpunch,
  42. Lily Roberts and Andy Green, “The State of the Trump Economy”, Center for American Progress, February 5, 2019
  43. William Pearse, “A Critique of Neoliberalism”, ENOMICS, April 9, 2019
  44. Jeffrey Sachs, “The Trump administration’s ludicrous approach to coronavirus vaccine”, CNN. March 5, 2020
  45. Seiji Yamada, “Neoliberalism and the Coronavirus”, Counterpunch, February 7, 2020
  46. Ishaan Tharoor, “How epidemics have changed the world,” The Washington Post, March 8, 2020
  47. Ishaan Tharoor, “How epidemics have changed the world,” The Washington Post, March 8, 2020
  48. Thomas Wright & Kurt M. Campbell, “The Coronavirus Is Exposing the Limits of Populism”, The Atlantic, March 4, 2020
  49. Rob Urie, “The Neoliberal Plague”, March 6, 2020 Counterpunch,
  50. Ann Scott Tyson and Sara Miller LIana, “Containing coronavirus: Where democracy struggles – and thrives”, The Christian Science Monitor, March 2, 2020
  51. WHO, “ICC-WHO Joint Statement: An unprecedented private sector call to action to tackle COVID-19”, March 16, 2020
  52.  Zack Beauchamp, “The deep ideological roots of Trump’s botched coronavirus response”, VOX, Mar 17, 2020
  53. Nicolas LePan, A visual history of pandemics”, Word Economic Forum March 15, 2020…;  
  54. Rob Urie, “The Neoliberal Plague”, March 6, 2020 Counterpunch,
  55. William Pearse, “A Critique of Neoliberalism”, ENOMICS, April 9, 2019
  56. Ian Bremmer, “We Are in a Geopolitical Recession. That’s a Bad Time for the Global Coronavirus Crisis”, Time, March 13, 2020
  57. Patrick M. Cronin, Michael Doran & Peter Rough, “Geopolitical Implications of the Coronavirus”, March 13, 2020
  58. Ian Bremmer, “We Are in a Geopolitical Recession. That’s a Bad Time for the Global Coronavirus Crisis”, Time, March 13, 2020
  59. Ian Bremmer, “We Are in a Geopolitical Recession. That’s a Bad Time for the Global Coronavirus Crisis”, Time, March 13, 2020
  60. John Horgan, “The Coronavirus and Right-Wing Postmodernism”, Scientific American, March 9, 2020
  61. Bjarke Skærlund Risager, “Neoliberalism Is a Political Project: An Interview with David Harvey”, Jacobin,
  62. Bernie Sanders, “Coronavirus highlights the flaws in our health care and economic systems”, CNN, March 15, 2020
  63. Paul Vorster, “The three principles of ethical capitalism”, The Ethics Institute, February 29, 2019
  64. Paul Vorster, “The three principles of ethical capitalism”, The Ethics Institute, February 29, 2019
  65. Ali Hasan, “Capitalism versus Coronavirus, The Intercept, March 12, 2020
  66. Robert Paul Wolff, “In Defense of Anarchism”, Harper, 1970
  67. Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Jonathan F. Bennett, \
  68. Pierrick Merlet, “Vidéo: “Pas trop tard pour changer le monde”, selon Edgar Morin”, La Tribune, March 17, 2020
  69. John Burton, “Conflict Resolution: The Human Dimension”, The International journal of Peace Studies, Volume 3, Number 1, January 1998 \
  70. Johan Galtung, The New International Economic Order and the Basic Needs Approach, Alternatives,  Volume: 4 issue: 4, March 1, 1979, page(s): 455-476

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The Shifting Geopolitics of Coronavirus and the Demise of Neoliberalism – (Part 1)

One should highlight the distance between fiction and reality. However, a number of China politics observers and Western military officials have claimed a strong link between Coronavirus and recent research conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

In a symbolic and rather ironic gesture, a Chinese aircraft landed in Rome, Italy, Europe’s epicenter of the Coronavirus spread, March 12, 2020, carrying nine medical experts and 31 tons of medical supplies, including intensive care unit, medical protective equipment, and antiviral drugs. Chinese businessman Jack Ma, founder of the Alibaba Group, offered to donate 500,000 coronavirus testing kits and one million masks to the United States, which declared a national emergency over the outbreak in the second week of March. China has been ‘the workshop of the world’, for that past three decades, since it has provided a quarter of the manufacturing in the world, as economics Nobel laureate Paul Krugman would say. Interestingly, China now has positioned itself to be the doctor and the lab of the West. For more two months now, the struggling efforts to contain Coronavirus in Europe and elsewhere are signaling the need for a paradigm shift in public health management, economic strategies, biosecurity and possible revision of neorealism, which simply means capitalism on steroids.

Earlier in February, Italy’s permanent representative to the European Union (EU), Maurizio Massari, had pleaded for help via the Emergency Response Coordination Centre. “We asked for supplies of medical equipment, and the European Commission forwarded the appeal to the member states. But, it didn’t work.”(1) The Centre serves as EU’s crisis hub, monitors natural and man-made disasters around the clock, administers the need of any EU member state – which cannot handle a crisis on its own- and forwards the appeal to other member states, which can then volunteer assistance.

The European negligence of Italy’s catastrophe, at the heart of the continent, has echoed a sentiment of resentment among Italians, who felt they had been let down by other EU member states several times; now and at the peak of the 2015 refugee crisis, when some 1.7 million individuals reached the EU southern territory. Massari’s statement implies some bitter taste of Europe’s lack of solidarity; he said, “The coronavirus crisis is similar to the refugee crisis: Countries that are not immediately affected are mostly not willing to help. Different countries obviously have different threat perceptions. We [Italy] feel that the coronavirus is a global and European threat that needs a European response, but other countries don’t see it that way.”(2) 

Such a negative response in Brussels, the EU capital, has bewildered political observers, and triggered new questions about the purpose of the EU, once perceived as the most unified and most strategic post-state alliance in the world. Elisabeth Braw, director of the Modern Deterrence project at the Royal United Services Institute, has noticed fellow EU countries “have failed, in a shameful abdication of responsibility, to give medical assistance and supplies to Italy during an outbreak. China is filling the void.”(3)

European economic historians fear some déjà vu memories of the Black Death, which spread in the continent in the mid-14th century and led to the death of one third of the population. This reduction of demography caused scarcity of labor, increase in wages, decrease in inequality, and contested the then-feudal system in Europe. It also paved the way for the Industrial Revolution which Industrial Britain was hit by ‘King Cholera’ in 1831-32, 1848-49, 1854 and 1867. Tuberculosis also was responsible for the death of one-third of the casualties in Britain between 1800 and 1850. This nightmarish refrain comes back now stronger as epidemics have been ‘great equalizers’, and may initiate long-term implications nor only for European economic growth, but also for the world economy. After the US Federal Reserve decided to slash the benchmark interest rate to between zero and 0.25 percent (down from a range of 1 to 1.25 percent) and to buy $700 billion in Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities in a Sunday emergency meeting, the Dow Jones industrial average plunged 2,250 points at the open and trading suspended almost immediately the following day Monday, March 16. 

The spread of Coronavirus, or Covid-19 virus, has brought the world to nearly a standstill. It has grounded world airlines, and represents an existential threat to many airlines. For instance, US President Trump’s 30-day ban on most flights to America from Europe, which took effect on March 14th, will erase the $20bn lucrative transatlantic routes made in sales last year. The real drama has expanded from the depiction of ghost towns in Hollywood movies into real ghost countries like Italy, Spain, and Germany. Several other countries have opted for forced quarantine of their population. We are at an era of self-imposed viral discrimination between the self and the other in the once-cozy social settings, work places, public gatherings, and even in churches, mosques and temples.   

President Trump has framed the pandemic in xenophobic terms and made the wildly-irresponsible claim that “it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away”. However, the new pandemic has revealed the most cynical aspects of neoliberalism. In a ‘Capitalism versus Coronavirus’ debate, the focus was on whether the American neoliberal model of capitalism makes the United States and its economy particularly ill-suited and ill-equipped to deal with a health crisis of the size of Coronavirus. Jeffery Sachs, Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, asserts, “We don’t have a public health system. We have a for-profit, private system. We have tens of millions of people that have no health coverage. We have no systematic testing. We are scrambling, and it has been weeks with this virus multiplying, with the pandemic spreading in the United States.”(4)

2020 will go into history books as a year that has exposed not only a public health failure, but has also indicated an era of geopolitical recession and a fall-from-grace moment of the neoliberal system in the new century. The unanticipated public health risk now can be reduced “neither to ethical virtues nor to a need for investments”; and “the crisis puts the flaws of our short-sighted, exploitative, hyper-individualistic times in glaring focus.”(5)

This two-part paper examines what I term a 3-C complexity: a) contextualization of the pandemic spread in 2020; b) correlation with the world finance markets instability and sudden drop in oil prices in mid-March, as Brent crude fell 12.2 percent, or $4.15, to trade at $29.68, its lowest level since January 2016; and c) concern about the future of neorealist capitalism. Part 1 probes into several dualities circulating now in the public sphere worldwide: is Coronavirus a ‘nature-made’ or ‘man-made’ pandemic? How scientific research can sort out the truth from various conspiratorial assumptions about a ‘deliberate’ causality and possible ‘manipulation’ of the virus in international politics? One fundamental question remains open about whether the international community and the whole United Nations system have balanced the highly-sought nuclear deterrence with some virus deterrence or minimum strategy of biosecurity. The paper also addresses a new trend of Trumpian electioneering and the pursuit of a German pharmaceutical company to develop an anti-Coronavirus Vaccine.  

Part 2 of the paper will propose how Coronavirus has imposed a de facto trickle-across economics on the famous Reaganite trickle-down economics, or trickle-down theory, has shifted into negative economic entanglements. In New York the hot touristic hub of the world, Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered local bars and restaurants to close their doors in an effort to halt the spread of Coronavirus. He wrote in a message to his fellow New Yorkers March 16, “We must respond with a wartime mentality.” In Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron said in a somber address to his fellow citizens, “We are at war. We’re not up against another army or another nation. But the enemy is right there: invisible, elusive, but it is making progress.” He decided the army should be drafted in to help move the sick to hospitals.

In developing countries like Morocco and Philippines, where agriculture, tourism, and the financial remittances of their workers abroad represent the backbone of the national economy, there are indicators of a gloomy rest of the year since severe consequences of Coronavirus will kick in by June or July. On the whole, the United Nations’ trade and development agency, UNCTAD, foresees the current economic uncertainty and immobility will likely cost the global economy $1 trillion in 2020. The second part of the paper concludes the dominant neoliberal system is forcibly getting a reality check through a tiny virus. It argues for a human dimension and precedency of society before economy and profit in reconstructing an edited social democracy system, as a due correction of neoliberalism. 

Deadliest pandemics in history [WHO-CDC]

As an uncontrollable cross-border pandemic, Coronavirus is a new harrowing reminder of the fragility of human life; but, can be interpreted as the most democratic super disease of our time, with no discrimination on the basis of any particular race, geography, political ideology, wealth, or degree of development or underdevelopment. As one British commentator put it, “It spares neither Leave nor Remain, neither imam nor Chinese doctor, and respects no national border. So even as national leaders fall back on atavistic national responses, the dictates of science and reason have to surface – there is no other way forward.”(6)

The radius of contagions across the five continents seems to echo the morale of an article “The Microbe as a Social Leveller”, written by Cyrus Edson, the New York City health commissioner in 1895. Edson had marveled the reflections of 17th-century English communist Gerrard Winstanley, as he wrote that “the microbe of disease is no respecter of persons.” He explained that while impoverished people would be most at risk from disease, the rich would never be entirely safe from infection. For Edson, the “socialism of the microbe … is the chain of disease, which binds all the people of a community together.”(7)

During March in particular, wealthy nations in Europe, North America and the Gulf could not prevent new infection cases while poor nations were struggling with providing basic resources of water, sanitizers, and drugs for their citizens. Between January and March, Coronavirus was spreading at unimaginable velocities. 

Creeping Numbers

By March 18, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced 200,106 confirmed cases, 8010 deaths, and 82,813 recovered in 167 countries. The scope of the Coronavirus spread has displayed some ironic areas of concentration. The list of countries with more than 200 confirmed cases includes: China 81048; Italy 21157; Iran 12729; South Korea 8086; Spain 5753; France 4469; Germany 3795; USA 1678; Switzerland 1359; United Kingdom 1144; Netherlands 959; Sweden 924; Norway 907; Denmark 827; Japan 780; Belgium 689; Austria 655; Qatar 337; Greece 227; Singapore 212; and Bahrain 211.(8) In China, nearly 60 million people were already subject to quarantine measures; and Italy became the European epicenter of the pandemic with the total of 21157 cases and 1441 deaths.

WHO had been reluctant to announce Coronavirus was “officially a pandemic”, and did not decide to bring the bad news until March 11. WHO defines a pandemic as “the worldwide spread of a new disease” (an epidemic is confined to “a community or region”). Director-General Dr. Tedros A. Ghebreyesus of the top health agency stated, “There is so much attention to that word. Other words matter more: prevention, preparedness, political leadership and people… We’re in this together.”(9) As Laura Spinney, author of “Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World”, points out, “After the 1918 flu outbreak killed 50 million, nations created new organizations to fight infection. But in an age of pandemics and renewed great power rivalry, they are no longer enough.”(10)

History of Pandemics

Across the Atlantic, the Coronavirus infection cases in the United States jumped from 1 case on January 22 to 2179 on March 13. This represents what is called an ‘exponential curve’, as the number of the cases doubles every two or three days, which would be one hundred million cases by May, according to the estimates of the Washington Post. Anthea Roberts and Nicolas Lamp, authors of an upcoming book “Winners and Losers: Narratives about Economic Globalization”, notice that instead of adopting a common frame to understand this threat, “actors are doubling down on their existing critiques of globalization and neoliberalism… Political observers view the coronavirus as a perfect illustration of the advantages or flaws of authoritarianism or democracy—pick your poison.”(11)

Since 2009, there have been five declarations of international public health emergencies: the swine flu pandemic in 2009, a polio outbreak in 2014, the Western Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014, the Zika virus outbreak in 2015 and another Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2019. Between 2011 and 2018, WHO detected 1,483 epidemic events in 172 countries. The Organization qualified them as signs of a new era of high-impact and swiftly spreading epidemics. It has also warned of the entirely credible threat of a respiratory pathogen ultimately provoking a global, biological calamity that “could claim some 50 to 80 million lives and destroy up to 5 percent of the world economy, besides causing social and political instability.”(12)

Pursuit of Scientific Data

At the age of fast Internet and social media, the world opinion has consumed a variety of virus misinformation and disinformation and internalized deep fear and anxiety. There have been allegations about the existence of ‘secret labs’, ‘government plots’, and implicit ‘manipulation’ of the virus in the U.S.-China geo-economic competition, and possibly an anti-Iran conspiracy. By March 16, the number of deaths in Iran topped 850, including Ayatollah Hashem Bathayi Golpayegani, a member of the clerical body that appoints the supreme leader, after testing positive for the new coronavirus and being hospitalized.

The overall panic has helped sell alarmist information. Samuel Scarpino, a business professor of network science at Northeastern University College of Science, points out, “A link between social contagions and real biological contagions are a feature of modern outbreaks because of misinformation and fake news.” So far, two dominant narratives have circulated the globe: China ‘manufactured’ the virus, and the United States ‘started’ the outbreak deliberately. Philip Reeker, senior State Department official in Washington, said “malign” Russian actors were attempting to sow disinformation about the origin of the coronavirus. 

A woman mourns during a funeral held at Beheshte Masoumeh Cemetery for the victims of the new coronavirus in Qom, Iran, [March 17, 2020 -Getty]

The public understanding of Coronavirus can be categorized into two main discourses: one is scientific, and the other is interpretive of certain incidents. From a scientific perspective, a recent ecologist study conducted in the Malaysian Borneo and China put the current coronavirus outbreak in China in a wholly new light. Scientists working with EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit research group, concluded the pandemic was “spillovers”, which are instances of an animal virus jumping into a human. Disease ecologist Kevin Olival and his colleagues collected samples from thousands of bats in China. He explained “we found evidence for, in total, from all the sampling we did in China, about 400 new strains of coronaviruses.”(13) Bats are known for carrying some dangerous ones, particularly viruses that have the potential to kick off global outbreaks.(14) One of the coronaviruses that the researchers found was a very close genetic match for the SARS virus. 

Another EcoHealth Alliance ecologist, Hongying Li, highlighted there were any number of ways these people seemed at risk of inadvertently coming into contact with bat saliva, urine or poop. She said, “In some places, you could find bats roosting in people’s homes. A lot of people reported, ‘Once a bat flew into my house and I killed it’ or ‘Bats ate the fruits in my backyard.’ “(15) Researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital in China, who have worked closely with EcoHealth Alliance, compared the new virus with the bat samples they’d collected. They found an extremely close match. They released a detailed paper showing that the new coronaviruses’ genetic makeup is “96 percent identical to that of a coronavirus found in bats.”(16)

Despite China’s alleged containment of the virus in Wuhan, there has been no clear-cut remedy while scientists race to find an effective vaccine. The Chinese authorities have advocated the use of traditional remedies. Patients are given a bag of brown soup — a traditional Chinese remedy blended from over 20 herbs, including ephedra, cinnamon twigs and licorice root, alongside mainstream antiviral drugs, according to China’s Ministry of Science and Technology. However, a team of experts at London’s Imperial College published a new document and warned the current public health threat is the “most serious” from a respiratory virus since the Spanish Flu in 1918. They advised the UK government adopts a strategy of “epidemic suppression” – for a period of potentially 18 months or more – rather than “mitigation”. Such mitigation strategy revealed that the British National Health Service capacities “could be exceeded by at least eightfold – and about 250,000 people could die.”(17) 

EcoHealth Alliance ecologists examine one temporarily captured in a cave in Guandong, China [EcoHealth Alliance]

In the United States, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asserts Coronaviruses are “a large family of viruses that are common in people and many different species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats. Rarely, animal coronaviruses can infect people and then spread between people such as with MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV, and now with this new virus, named ‘SARS-CoV-2’. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is a betacoronavirus, like MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV.  All three of these viruses have their origins in bats.”(18) CDC also concluded “this is the first pandemic known to be caused by the emergence of a new coronavirus. In the past century, there have been four pandemics caused by the emergence of novel influenza viruses.”(19) 

Dr. William Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and longtime adviser to the CDC explains how the spread of Coronavirus has been solidified by two major factors: “Asymptomatic transmission and mildly symptomatic transmission”; and considers them “the drivers of spread in the community.”(20) Other scientists have ranked the Coronavirus lethality at 2 percent compared with 10 percent of SARS. However, military historian and world affairs author, Joseph V. Micallef, highlights coronavirus has never been encountered before. He wrote, “Like other coronaviruses, it is a zoonotic disease: an infectious disease caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites that spread from non-human animals (usually vertebrates) to humans. Many of those initially infected either worked or frequently shopped in the Wuhan seafood wholesale market.”(21)

Daily confirmed cases of Coronavirus outside China March 14 [WHO-BBC]

Coronavirus’s Conspiratorial Interpretations 

A number of literary works have come back to the limelight at the peak of Coronavirus spread. One of them is “The Eyes of Darkness” published in 1981. The author Dean Koontz mentions a deadly virus called the “Wuhan 400,” which he described as a “severe pneumonia-like illness” that spreads attacking “the lungs and bronchial tubes” and “resisting all known treatments.”(22) Dombey, one of the main characters of the novel, narrates a story about a Chinese scientist who brought a biological weapon called “Wuhan-400” to the United States: “To understand that,” Dombey said, “you have to go back twenty months. It was around then that a Chinese scientist named Li Chen defected to the United States, carrying a diskette record of China’s most important and dangerous new biological weapon in a decade. They call the stuff ‘Wuhan-400’ because it was developed at their RDNA labs outside the city of Wuhan, and it was the four-hundredth viable strain of man-made microorganisms created at that research center.”

One should highlight the distance between fiction and reality. However, a number of China politics observers and Western military officials have claimed a strong link between Coronavirus and recent research conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Some have argued Coronavirus is one thing and the “dark secrets”, being developed in biowarfare labs around the world, are quite another. Moreover, there has a pattern of ethnicizing the new virus as the “Chinese virus” in Western media and publications.

The WHO China office heard the first reports of a previously-unknown virus behind a number of pneumonia cases in Wuhan December 31, 2019. The main narrative then alluded to the possibility that the new virus could have originated from a Wuhan seafood market, where wild animals, including marmots, birds, rabbits, bats and snakes, were traded illegally. After meeting Tedros A. Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO at the Great Hall of the People on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, a symbol of the Chinese Communist Party’s political might, on 28 January 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated “the epidemic is a devil. We cannot let the devil hide.”(23) By February 15, the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology released a new directive titled: “Instructions on strengthening biosecurity management in microbiology labs that handle advanced viruses like the novel coronavirus.” As of March 11, Chinese health authorities acknowledged over 81,032 cases and 3,204 deaths 

Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute and author of “Bully of Asia: Why China’s ‘Dream’ Is the New Threat to World Order”, remains skeptical about what was behind Xi Jinping’s urgent call for setting up a national system to control biosecurity risks “to protect the people’s health”, since lab safety is a “national security” issue, one week after his statement about “the need to contain the coronavirus” February 15. Mosher also believes China has had a problem “keeping dangerous pathogens in test tubes where they belong, doesn’t it? And just how many “microbiology labs” are there in China that handle “advanced viruses like the novel coronavirus”?”(24) President of the Population Research Institute calls for some deductive reasoning of Wuhan being the birth place of Coronavirus. He argues “It turns out that in all of China, there is only one. And this one is located in the Chinese city of Wuhan that just happens to be … the epicenter of the epidemic. That’s right. China’s only Level 4 microbiology lab that is equipped to handle deadly coronaviruses, called the National Biosafety Laboratory, is part of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”(25)

Patients wait to be transferred from Wuhan No 5 Hospital to Leishenshan Hospital, the newly built hospital for coronavirus patients, in Wuhan. China, on March 3, 2020 [Getty]

Reports have indicated the People’s Liberation Army’s top expert in biological warfare, a Maj. Gen. Chen Wei, was dispatched to Wuhan at the end of January to help with the effort to contain the outbreak. According to the PLA Daily, Chen has been researching coronaviruses since the SARS outbreak of 2003, as well as Ebola and anthrax. This would not be her first trip to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, either, since it is one of only two bioweapons research labs in all of China. However, Mosher argues the deadly SARS virus has escaped twice from the Beijing lab; and both “man-made” Corona and SARS epidemics were quickly contained, but neither would have happened at all if proper safety precautions had been taken.

Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, has criticized China for its “secrecy and inaction”, which turned the possibility of an epidemic into a reality.(26) He recalls doctors in Wuhan, an industrial city of 11 million people, noticed, by the end of December 2019, an increased number of sick people with symptoms similar to the SARS outbreak that had killed nearly 800 people in 2002-03. The patients were quarantined, and the Wuhan health commission issued a public notice stressing no cause for alarm. The infections were traced to a live-animal food market, which was shut down on January 1, and the genetic sequence of a new coronavirus was identified two days later.

Consequently, Daalder’s Op-Ed piece triggered some uproar with Chinese officials. Zhao Jian, China’s consul general in Chicago, sent a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune, accusing Daalder of “inaccuracies and bias.”(27) Chinese diplomacy has been mobilized in the West to control the narrative, and to promote the idea that the Communist Party’s response to the outbreak has in fact been transparent and effective. The Chinese Embassy in London accused the Economist of “hold[ing] a prejudice against China’s political system.” In Paris, the Chinese Embassy said that, in some media outlets, “the reflex criticism of everything Chinese is bordering on paranoia.” In Berlin, Chinese diplomats accused the media of “continuing to stir up and spread panic.” Ironically, China’s Embassy In Copenhagen demanded that the Jutland Post, the best-selling newspaper in Denmark, “publicly apologize to the Chinese people” for publishing a cartoon depicting a Chinese flag with illustrations of a virus instead of stars.(28) 

Western observers have been skeptical about China’s over-secrecy about the dynamics of the Coronavirus spread and mass mobilization of interlocutors to impose an official, but less credible, narrative. Lucrezia Poggetti, EU-China relations analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies points out “the Communist Party clamped down on information shared about the disease and dispatched more than 300 people to generate positive news stories around the outbreak.”(29) Others have warned of missing information from China. For instance, Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, pointed to the gap, and questioned the difference between “numbers that are given to you in a press conference as opposed to numbers [where] you can actually look at the data.”

Coronavirus patients are housed in a sports arena converted to a makeshift hospital Sunday in Wuhan, China [Reuters]

Anti-Coronavirus Vaccine and Trumpian Electioneering

In an interesting twist in the world campaign against the new pandemic, the science of Coronavirus has turned into a new battle of knowledge and brain drain, and a new trend of Trumpian profiteering. Members of the German government have expressed resentment to the news President Trump had offered $1bn to Tübingen-based biopharmaceutical company, CureVac, to secure the vaccine “only for the United States”.(30) CureVac was founded in 2000 and specializes as in “development of treatments against cancer, antibody-based therapies, treatment of rare illnesses and prophylactic vaccines.”(31)

Christian Lindner, leader of the liberal FDP party, accused President Trump of electioneering, “Obviously Trump will use any means available in an election campaign.” Moreover, German economy minister Peter Altmaier pointedly stated “Germany is not for sale.” His colleague foreign minister Heiko Maas told the Funke Mediengruppe research network “German researchers are taking a leading role in developing medication and vaccines as part of global cooperation networks. We cannot allow a situation where others want to exclusively acquire the results of their research.”(32)

Consequently, Washington has sought to calm the uproar. A US official stated “the US government has spoken with many [more than 25] companies that claim they can help with a vaccine. Most of these companies already received seed funding from US investors.”(33) CureVac investors decided not to sell the vaccine to a single state; and the principle investor dievini Hopp BioTech holding stated “If we are successful in developing an effective vaccine, then it should help and protect people across the world.” Trump’s pursuit of electioneering any Coronavirus vaccine has solidified the rumors circulating possible deliberate production of the virus in a lab for strategic goals.

Germany tells Trump “Germany is not for sale” [Getty]

So far, some promising news have emerged about a possible breakthrough in designing a drug to fight the pandemic. China’s Science and Technology Ministry has announced a new drug known as ‘Favipiravir’, and developed by a subsidiary of Japanese Fujifilm Toyama Chemical, had produced encouraging outcomes in clinical trials involving 340 patients in Wuhan and Shenzhen. In Australia, disease experts at the University of Queensland in Brisbane are excited about two existing medications that would eradicate the Coronavirus infections: Chloroquine, an anti-malarial drug, and HIV-suppressing combination lopinavir/ritonavir.

There is no certainty yet about the validity of these medical experiments while 35 companies and academic institutions are racing to create a potential vaccine. The common wisdom among most medical experts is a mere hope that the development of a Coronavirus vaccine will need between 12 to 18 months. Trump has pressed for a vaccine to be ready in November, the due date of the US presidential elections. However, it remains an impossible deadline. Annelies Wilder-Smith, professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine explains, “Like most vaccinologists, I don’t think this vaccine will be ready before 18 months.”

Part 2 of the paper will address three main themes: Coronavirus’s ‘Trickle-Across’ economics, politicization of Coronavirus in international relations, and embarrassed Neoliberalism and return to the human dimension. It will be published in a few days.

Dr. Mohammed Cherkaoui, Senior Researcher at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.


(1) Elizabeth Braw, “The EU Is Abandoning Italy in Its Hour of Need”, Foreign Policy, March 14, 2020

(2) Ibid

(3) Ibid

(4) Ali Hasan, “Capitalism versus Coronavirus, The Intercept, March 12, 2020

(5) Karin Pettersson, “The corona crisis will define our era”, Social Europe, March 16, 2020

(6) Will Hutton, “Coronavirus won’t end globalisation, but change it hugely for the better,” The Guardian, March 8, 2020

(7) New Frame Editorial, “Coronavirus and the crisis of capitalism”, New Frame, March 16, 2020

(8) WHO, “Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Situation” March 15, 2020

(9) World Economic Forum, “Coronavirus is officially a pandemic – but we can change its course: Today’s WHO briefing”, March 11, 2020

(10) Laura Spinney, “Coronavirus and the Geopolitics of Disease”, The Statesman, February 19, 2020  

(11) Anthea Roberts and Nicolas Lamp, “Is the Virus Killing Globalization? There’s No One Answer”, Barron’s, March 15, 2020

(12) Mariano Turzi, “Coronavirus: The Weight Of Geopolitics And Macroeconomics”, Worldcrunch, March 4, 2020

(13) Nurith Aizenman, “New Research: Bats Harbor Hundreds Of Coronaviruses, And Spillovers Aren’t Rare”, NPR, February 20, 2020

(14) Ibid

(15) Ibid

(16) Ibid 

(17) Greg Heffer, “Coronavirus: PM moves UK to ‘suppression’ after new analysis of COVID-19 death rate”, Sky, March 17, 2020

(18) CDC, Situation Summary, March 15, 2020

(19) Ibid

(20) Elizabeth Cohen “Infected people without symptoms might be driving the spread of coronavirus more than we realized”, CNN, March 14, 2020

(21) Joseph V. Micallef, The Geopolitics of the Coronavirus,, February 25, 2020

(22) Brian Ives, “Dean Koontz: Did He Predict The Coronavirus In ‘The Eyes Of Darkness’ In 1981?”, March 14, 2020

(23) Laura Spinney, “Coronavirus and the Geopolitics of Disease”, The Statesman, February 19, 2020

(24) Steven W. Mosher, “Don’t buy China’s story: The coronavirus may have leaked from a lab”, The New York Post, February 22, 2020

(25) Steven W. Mosher, “Don’t buy China’s story: The coronavirus may have leaked from a lab”, The New York Post, February 22, 2020

(26) Ivo Daalder, “Commentary: China’s secrecy has made the coronavirus crisis much worse”, Chicago Tribune, February 13, 2020,

(27) Annabelle Timsit, “China is mobilizing to control the narrative on coronavirus”, Quartz, March 5, 2020

(28) Ibid

(29) Ibid

(30) “Coronavirus: anger in Germany at report Trump seeking exclusive vaccine deal,” The Gurdian, march 16, 2020

(31) “Coronavirus: anger in Germany at report Trump seeking exclusive vaccine deal,” The Gurdian, march 16, 2020 

(32) “Coronavirus: anger in Germany at report Trump seeking exclusive vaccine deal,” The Gurdian, march 16, 2020

(33) “Coronavirus: anger in Germany at report Trump seeking exclusive vaccine deal,” The Gurdian, march 16, 2020