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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 32, New Delhi, July 25, 2020

Covid Redefines the State | D.K. Giri

Friday 24 July 2020, by D.K. Giri


Covid pandemic is unprecedented in human history. Any disaster including the Spanish Flue of 1918 which infected 500 million people and claimed about 20 million lives, did not affect so many countries. The Second World War saw the death of about 70 million people, but did not involve every country in the world. The covid-19, despite lower death rates, about half a million so far, disrupted social lives and national economies in countries and regions of the world.

Disruption of lives in multiple dimensions and of such huge magnitude has forced a serious rethinking on how we run our lives, states and societies. The debate between lives and livelihoods is raging in many countries. Before the pandemic, the focus of economies has been on enhancing GDP, as a measure of a country’s growth and power. In developing countries, ensuring ‘ease of doing business’ was the priority of planners. That has now to be replaced by ‘ease of living’. Such shifts in approaches call for a change in roles of the institutions that govern as well as serve the people.

There are three kinds of institutions in any country-state or government, market or business, and civil society. The state produces citizens, the market creates consumers, and the civil society comprises communitarians. The roles of running people lives have been handled either by state or market, or jointly, whereas civil society has been a bystander. Under globalization, in the last three decades, the market has dominated people’s lives more than the state. Consequently, we have had more consumers than communitarians or conscientious citizens. The practices of individualism and consumerism overrode the values of compassion, solidarity and interdependence.
In fact, the state has been in retreat since the heydays of Ronald Reagan in USA and Margaret Thatcher in UK. Reagan’s wisecrack in 1986, “I am from the government and I am here to help’ would not generate any ridicule today. As covid-19 delivers shocks to systems of unparalleled magnitude, people would like their governments to turn up and rise to the challenge of this pandemic.

Reagan’s approach of diluting the state and according primacy to the market became an orthodoxy that coincided with globalization. The idea that gained currency worldwide was, the state should roll back and reposition itself, it should not try to control inequality and help the disadvantaged.

Admittedly, we have been on such a trajectory for over 30 years. Only a few social democratic states like those in Scandinavia tried to maintain some role of the state in minimizing inequality and in providing safety nets for the less fortunate and the marginalized. Or else, the individual consumer preceded the collective interest. But this pandemic tells us to go backs to the community-ness where people pulled together.
The passion for high-growth led by the market has let us down massively. Nature, bio-diversity, ecological balances have been destroyed. In the pursuit of profit, the critical services like healthcare, sanitation and education have been neglected, which, in turn, has diminished the prospects of people earning sustained livelihoods.

The development economists like E.F. Schumacher, in his pioneering work, ‘Buddhist Economics’ strongly advised looking after the people not the capital. This is where we need the state. Elected by the people and representing them the state should retrieve and re-assert it role.

India, like other developing countries, put emphasis on ‘ease of doing business’. Now it should shift to promoting ‘ease of living’. People would like first to live before they become richer through higher growth. The debate between lives and livelihoods is sterile. Both are complementary. People cannot survive without livelihoods, and likewise, unless they are healthy and skilled, they cannot eke out a living. Depending on doles which come in dribs and drabs or not come at all, is not an option.

At the same time, not all activities are best run by the market model. Many professional spheres like education, science, or medicine need not be run as commercial enterprises, suggested by economists like Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, or Milton Friedman. The former socialist French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin once famously said, “We are not against the market-based economy, but market-based society”.

Remember, the states with stronger healthcare systems managed the covid epidemic better-Vietnam, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan etc. Also countries with special universal safety nets like those in Scandinavian region and Germany dealt better with poorer sections of their societies than the countries without such welfare schemes.
Now, in the wake of this system- threatening pandemic, people demand from their states rights to lives and livelihoods, the natural and constitutional human rights. The states can provide those only with people-centered planning and strategies. Needs of human beings must precede the needs of business. Societal well-being must be the goal of economies, not the size of GDP.

There have been initiatives and experiences of putting people first. The Bhutanese king Jigme Singye Wangchuk coined the concept in 1979 of GNH in lieu of GDP. Gross National Happiness (GNH) should the measure of a country’s development, he suggested. Recall Helena Norberg Hodge’s experience in Ladakh based on dependence on local resources than global technology. Her books, “Local is our Future: Steps to an Economic Happiness” (2019), and “Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh, published in 1991, which speak for localization, not globalization, are models to look at. She forcefully argued that globalization has no future, climate chaos is intensifying, stress and anxiety disorders are of epidemic proportions. Why are we in thrall to the global market? Why do we cling to the wreckage? These are the questions we must address after the horrifying trail of panic and pain left the world over by covid-19.

A call for greater role of the state may give rise to statism of another kind, more a ‘big brother’ state than a ‘great society’. The governments may want greater control of civil liberties and political rights and entrench themselves in power, like Victor Orban did in Hungary. China’s response to criticism of mishandling covid has been suppression of dissent, and elimination of dissenters. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi too has ignored the Opposition in dealing with the pandemic. Therefore, in redefining the role of the state, we should talk about state capacity, not state power.

Furthermore, the Government as the representative body of the people having their mandate should play as team leader, not the leader. The society is greater than the government which comprises the majority of a certain party or an alliance. It is again a procedural majority, not an absolute one. At any time, we advocate a partnership between the government, the market and the civil society and the partnership is needed more in such emergencies as the present pandemic. The state has limited outreach and its resource is stretched in disaster situations, hence it must rope in the business for augmenting resources and the CSOs for reaching out to the unreached.

Finally, one would advocate a state based on pluralism-technological, economic, social and political. Switching back to local leading to isolationism or dirigisme is not the antidote. The state should play the role of a balancer or reconciler of multiple ways of planning and living. Such pluralism as well as synthesis have been our heritage, and let us preserve them.

Prof. D.K.Giri is the Secretary General of the Association for Democratic Socialism (ADS), New Delhi. ADS is a non-party political think tank doing research and advocacy on progressive politics.

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