Crises Only Sometimes Lead to Change. Here’s Why

Пандемия коронавируса не приведет автоматически к реформам. Великие потрясения приводят к системным изменениям только тогда, когда у реформаторов есть план и возможность его реализовать. Об этом статья Шери Берман, профессора политологии Колумбийского университета, в Foreign Policy. Делимся в рамках спецпроекта «CoronaWorldImpact»

Foreign Policy

The coronavirus pandemic has upended Western economies, many of which are now facing their gravest crises since the Great Depression. In response, governments are taking unprecedented measures.

In the United States, the crisis has produced an expansion of big government programs unparalleled in peacetime: massive stimulus measures, a historic expansion of unemployment benefits, a temporary basic income for many citizens, billions of dollars in funding for public health measures, low or zero-interest loans to businesses, and more. In addition, the U.S. Federal Reserve is engaged in an experiment with modern monetary theory—previously considered “voodoo economics” by mainstream economists—promising to pump unlimited amounts of money into the economy.

In Europe, governments have implemented even more dramatic measures, as economists such as Martin Sandbu urge them to “throw caution to the wind and spend massively.” Germany has given up its obsession with balanced budgets. In France, President Emmanuel Macron suspended many taxes, rent, and household bills and promised no company would be allowed to collapseScandinavian countries and the United Kingdom have essentially nationalized payrolls, promising to cover the wages of workers who would otherwise be laid off.

The assumption that the crisis and the radical measures undertaken in response to it will shape the world for years to come and forever alter the world order, as Yuval Noah Harari and Henry Kissinger respectively put it, has become commonplace. As the other essays in this issue make clear, many hope—or believe—that the crisis and the responses to it will enable governments to deal with many long-standing problems, from climate change to inequality.

Many progressives in particular seem to believe that the world is at the dawn of a new era, perhaps even more now that protests against racial injustice have been added to the upheaval caused by the pandemic. The “era of small government is over,” declared the New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie. After the coronavirus, “ambitious progressive ideas that once seemed implausible … start to become more imaginable,” argued his Times colleague Michelle Goldberg. We must rethink “the basic assumptions underlying the American value system,” asserted former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. A belief in the inevitability, or at least necessity, of transformative change has characterized the European left as well. The crisis is neoliberalism’s Götterdämmerung, proclaimed a headline in Germany’s leading left-wing newspaper, referring to the final destruction and subsequent renewal of the world famously portrayed in Richard Wagner’s opera about an apocalyptic battle. But transformation is never preordained.

Will the current crisis and the responses to it fundamentally transform economies, governments, societies, and the relationship among them? Is the world, as many believe or hope, at a turning point in history?

Answering these questions requires distinguishing between crises and transformation. It is easy to assume that crises trigger the collapse of an existing order and its replacement by a new one. But this view is fundamentally flawed, most obviously because it does not fit the historical record. Crises are fairly common; fundamental transformations are rare.

As Leon Trotsky, one of history’s great revolutionaries, wrote in 1932: The “mere existence of privations is not enough to cause an insurrection; if it were, the masses would be always in revolt.” Instead, he argued, “it is necessary that the bankruptcy of the social regime, being conclusively revealed, should make these privations intolerable.” And only at that point, he maintained, could “new conditions and new ideas … open the prospect of a revolutionary way out.”

Trotsky, like all revolutionaries, understood that some crises lead to lasting transformation while others do not. And history provides lessons for those who believe or hope that this crisis will be one of those that does.

The first is that during periods of rapid change and uncertainty it is easier to be directed by events than to direct them—and it is easier to generate discontent against an old order than consensus for a new one. Concretely, this means that the key determinants of whether crises and discontent trigger transformation are political: In particular, planning and power are necessary. Without agreed-on plans for what sort of new order should replace the old one, opposition movements easily collapse into infighting, and discontent often peters out. And if such plans are not championed by a political force with the power to implement them, good ideas can remain footnotes to history, and the status quo can stumble on.

Take 1848, when uprisings fueled by massive discontent against existing monarchical dictatorships exploded across Europe and other parts of the globe. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm observed, few revolutions in history “spread more rapidly and widely, running like a brushfire across frontiers, countries and even oceans.” Indeed, within months, dictatorships that seemed completely secure crumbled under the onslaught of massive popular mobilizations.

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