The Promise of 2021: A Pendulum Swing

The first two decades of the 21st century may go down as the era when corruption made democracy inconvenient for capitalism.

President-elect Joe Biden receiving a COVID-19 vaccine on December 21, 2020/AP

Lisa Van Dusen

December 28

As a new year dawns and we magically attribute yet another dumpster fire in the rear-view mirror to a retreating anno domini rather than a confluence of largely manmade dystopian trends, hope is making a comeback.

There is hope that an incoming American president who doesn’t serve as a walking, howling, tweeting indictment of democracy will restore sanity in Washington. There is hope that vaccines against a pandemic that has already produced nearly two million deaths and the only instance of voluntary, mass economic stagnation in history will restore normalcy.

There is even hope that — in an age when competition for political and geopolitical domination is waged not on physical battlefields but in the murky arena of narrative warfare, where every consequential outcome is a target for corruption and reality-distorting propaganda — these two developments will help turn the tide away from the dehumanizing options that Israeli historian and bestselling author Yuval Noah Harari has framed as our possible post-pandemic realities.

“In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices,” Harari wrote in the Financial Times last March. “The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.” (See my Hill Times piece of March 25, 2020, Clash of the Aftermaths: Which World Order Will Prevail Post-Pandemic?)

Now that we’re facing a possible lull in the Wagnerian crescendo of hellish headlines that has both defined and been rationalized by Donald Trump’s turn on the world stage, two new phenomena have emerged in the content sphere.

The first is that people are feeling freer to describe the damage Trump has been causing in real terms rather than filtering him through the default deference and respect that the office of president of the United States afforded his predecessors, even though that deference and respect weren’t, in his case, reciprocated. Trump himself has facilitated that transition by being so undeniably authoritarian and ludicrously unhinged in his Oval Office finale that he makes Richard Nixon look like Mahatma Gandhi. The degree to which people whose job includes the right to portray events truthfully and accurately will be liberated by his absence will reveal the almost unprecedented degree to which extrajudicial, behavioural incentives and disincentives were deployed as censorship during his tenure.

The second is that people whose role it has been to process events within their broader historical context are, perhaps also liberated by Trump’s looming departure, describing those events with fewer of the qualifiers and semantic contortions that have been required to account for the perpetual possibility of chaos, and relating to the future as though its rough outlines can actually be discerned.

In a recent column, Financial Times elder statesman Martin Wolf outlined the peril for liberal democracy against the burgeoning threat of “political capitalism” — in which the economic and political elite cooperate for their mutual benefit — as espoused by China domestically and the less beguiling “demagogic authoritarian capitalism” as promoted by China for citizens elsewhere, lubricated by investment and intimidation. “Political capitalism”, a term popularized by Randall Holcombe in his 2018 book of the same name, arises in Wolf’s column by way of Branko Milanovic, an expert on inequality, whose book Capitalism Alone was published last year.

The term “corruption”, which is really the most important one in any discussion of the current tension among democracy, capitalism and surveillance state authoritarianism, does not appear among these descriptions. Corruption is key to any discussion of which system will prevail because it helped create the new “political capitalism” elite in Western democracies and enabled their tilt toward “demagogic authoritarian capitalism”.

Among other trends that have culminated in the recent run of atrocious years, the first two decades of the 21st century may be known as the era when corruption made democracy inconvenient for capitalism, because democracy includes accountability, oversight, and the approval of the people as the price of power.

The hypercorruption that has spread through the financial system, the political world, the intelligence community and Big Tech for the past two decades — most vividly in the weaponization of Donald Trump but ringing like a bell through the 2008 market collapse, the Citizens United US Supreme Court decision in 2010, the series of intelligence “failures” from the incomprehensible handling of China since its accession to the WTO in 2001, to the Iraq invasion, to the CIA hacking of Congress, to the 2016 election interference, to the recent months-long hack perpetrated against US government targets, to the exploitation and impunity of major technology platforms — has brought us to this juncture. Among other trends that have culminated in the recent run of atrocious years, the first two decades of the 21st century may be known as the era when corruption made democracy inconvenient for capitalism, because democracy includes accountability, oversight, and the approval of the people as the price of power.

For most human beings, this is not a philosophical discussion of one label vs. another. People who are not members of the economic and political elite currently oxygenating political capitalism at the expense of democracy experience it as the difference between voting and not voting, between having a job and losing a job, between being arrested and not being arrested, between being surveiled by the state and not being surveiled by the state, between being enslaved and not being enslaved, and sometimes between living and dying, whether from COVID or the anvil of a knee against a carotid artery.

“Mr. Biden is a decent man,” writes Mr. Wolf. “What he wants to do domestically and internationally makes evident sense. But he will confront an opposition determined to make him fail. Indeed, making government fail is the core of rightwing politics — that and stoking the rage of the base.”

This isn’t really about rightwing politics anymore except as the most plausible vehicle for a systematic, systemic segue from “political capitalism”, which is where America was headed under Trump, to “demagogic authoritarian capitalism” which is where the interests who installed him — political, geopolitical and otherwise — would like the world to go. Joe Biden is already confronting opposition determined to make him fail not because making government fail is the core of rightwing politics but because he has derailed that segue. This is now about the fact that making democracy fail is the goal of interests who never want to have to tether their power to stoking either the satisfaction or rage of any base, ever again.

So, the hope isn’t that one man will possess superhuman qualities of sabotage repulsion and an exceptionally high immunity to the brand of epic malarkey that Biden will be up against. The hope lies in the belief that the cyclical theory of change has prevailed over cynically and corruptly manufactured chaos, and that the pendulum will now swing away from greed, impunity and corruption, and back toward our collective best interests.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.