Around two years ago, most intellectuals argued that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic would dramatically transform the world. At the time, there was talk of a renewed appreciation of the public sphere and solidarity, while screens displayed images of people clapping as a token of gratitude to health workers in different parts of the world.
We were under the illusion that a disaster of such a scale would unmask this unequal economic system, as well as the urgent need to build a more equitable global order, to stand up for the planet - our common home - and to give humanity a chance and a greater sensitivity while forging ties with our brothers and sisters from all latitudes.
On the one hand, it was believed that a global problem that threatened us regardless of nationality, origin, class, gender identity, sexual orientation or religion could only be successfully addressed in a well-coordinated and collaborative manner by all nations. On the other hand, images showing the profound inequality in which we human beings had to isolate ourselves - some in their spacious homes with various devices for e-working and e-learning, and millions with barely anything - brought an intolerable inequality to the forefront.
However, the rationale for this argument was flawed, and none of that happened. Today the world is as disorganised, if not more so, than it was before the pandemic - a situation tragically illustrated by the events in Ukraine - and inequality has continued to increase. What the world has seen in relation to vaccines is a sign of the world order that (dis)organises us: in Africa the vaccination rate, with at least one dose, is around 20 per cent of the population, while in the rest of the world it is almost 70 per cent.
At the same time, the effects of climate change are becoming more noticeable and the actions of countries to tackle it continue to be insufficient. The impacts include recurrent climate crises, such as floods and droughts, with landslides and extensive human and economic losses as a result of an economic system that only seeks short-term benefits without taking into account the inevitable social and environmental consequences.
Bipolar, unipolar, multipolar?
Human beings became accustomed to a bipolar world order since the end of World War II and to a unipolar world order since the decline and subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. Both orders, which were deeply unjust and unequal, were challenged for decades. Yet beyond their shortcomings, these world orders provided the coordinates for understanding political, economic, and ideological realities. By contrast, all these coordinates currently experience a crisis, along with the "multilateral" system that underpinned them.
The unipolar order established after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 with US hegemony and neoliberal ideology was even considered at the time as the "end of history", since liberal democracy and the capitalist economy were deemed unquestionable by the dominant powers. It was said that the path of the struggle for transformation had come to an end. The United States as the sole superpower was the centre and the enforcer of this order, which was designed to guarantee commercial and financial globalisation fraught with tax havens and companies that " relocated " their production in order to pay lower and lower wages. In this new global order, the nation-states themselves, especially those of the peripheral countries, seemed doomed to insignificance.
However, this global unipolar order soon began to face new challenges, both from the periphery and from its very centre:
In defiance of all analysts, China continued to grow and become stronger by taking advantage of the multilateral institutions that had been consolidated with the advent of neoliberalism: the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Once an external actor, rejected by these institutions, China has become one of their most dynamic players. China is currently engaged in a 'trade war' with the United States, which places it at the forefront of the international stage as the other major player that is once again turning the tables and, along with the growing strength of Putin's Russia, has undermined the idea of a single pole.
But it was not only challenges from the state and from "the periphery" that challenged the unipolar order. There were also major changes at the heart of the system, which have contributed to "disorganising" it. First there were the excesses of unchecked financial capitalism, which led to the global crisis of 2008, and now the consolidation of an economic model that can be called "techno-financial". Under this model, its most powerful players jeopardise the central political powers themselves, which no longer have the capacity to regulate the system's relations.
In a short time, we have seen the growth of a global oligopoly that controls the design and application of advanced technologies. Attempts have been made to promote the coordination and consolidation of global rules to regulate the actions of this sector ( IT companies and social networks that, together with the mass media, lead and manipulate public opinion). Even though their actions go against people's democratic rights such as privacy, intimacy and freedom of speech, the results in this area are still very limited.
The arms race is taking second or third place to the technological race for the control and processing of big data and its application to artificial intelligence (AI). This is a race where the competition between China and the US for global leadership is expressed in a more tangible way, but not only in terms of the state but also at the level of business conglomerates.
All these economic transformations exacerbated inequality even further, even in those nations that were seen as the "winners" of globalisation. Popular sectors that had historically supported social democratic parties sought new ways to "rebel" against an order that literally left them out. The Brexit victory in Britain and Trump's electoral success in the US showed that the questioning of and challenges to globalisation were no longer exclusively raised from critical places and from the periphery but were now shifting to the neo-conservative right and to the heart of the system.
It was in this utterly disorganised world that the pandemic broke out and disrupted it even further. There were no global, or even regional, efforts to deal with it, but rather it was those nation-states (supposedly doomed to disappear in the global order) that had to close their borders and take control of everything. Currently, what can be seen on a global level is a confusion in which painful conflicts that resemble remakes of the Cold War (Ukraine) coexist with others that reveal the impotence of the United States to halt China's economic rise. Meanwhile, in the economic sphere, globalised techno-financial giants confront the attempts by states to bring companies (and their sources of employment) back to their own national territories.
Can we imagine a future?
Antonio Gramsci argued that the crisis of hegemony is the one that occurs at the moment when "the old is dying and the new cannot be born". This seems to be happening on the planet: the old unipolar order has not quite disappeared, and nothing new has emerged so far to replace it. Thus, while some institutions of the old order are weakening, such as the UN or the OAS, others are growing stronger, such as the IMF and the WTO. In turn, nation states remain constrained by globalisation, but at the same time their peoples are forcing them to set limits to it.
In this confusion, there are no elements that allow us to glimpse a new global order, but there are some actions that should be part of an agenda to envisage a different future:
1) To set limits to the advances of globalised techno-financial capitalism. For example, by setting higher minimum tax rates for corporations, and penalising the use of networks against the democratic rights of the people.
2) To conduct a global vaccination campaign to achieve similar percentages of vaccinated people against COVID in ALL parts of the world. This is not only a matter of planetary justice and equality, but also of pure intelligence: as long as large sectors of the world's population are not immunised, new strains of the virus will continue to ravage the globe.
3) To promote specific measures to stop the environmental catastrophe, without penalising the nations that have not caused it: environmental justice requires global financial justice. Without sustainable funding there will be no sustainable development.
Together with the denunciation of the brutal and inhumane treatment of migrants throughout the developed world, these three major issues, which Pope Francis has been raising forcefully and assertively, represent the core of a different vision that offers to lay the foundations for a new, fairer, and more humane global order. It is difficult but not impossible. And, above all, it is the right thing to do.
Juan Manuel Abal Medina holds a PhD in Political Science (FLACSO Mexico in association with Georgetown University) and a BA in Political Science from the Universidad de Buenos Aires. He is a Professor of Comparative Political Systems and Political Science at the UBA. He is an independent researcher at CONICET and the UBA (Category I). He has published numerous books and articles in major scientific journals in his field of expertise.
He has been a National Senator, Head of the Cabinet of Ministers, Ambassador, Secretary of Public Management, and Head of the Cabinet of Advisors of the General Secretariat of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), among other positions.
Marina Cardelli currently serves as Undersecretary for National Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship of the Argentine Republic (MRECIC). She has also chaired the White Helmets Commission at the same Ministry.
She holds a degree in Literature from the Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA), where she teaches and works as a researcher. She is also a professor at the Universidad de San Martin (UNSAM) and the Universidad Nacional de las Artes (UNA).