In the post-pandemic era, those parts of global civil society that are invested in creating a future that is as free as possible from repression are likely to face a wide range of challenges. This will come about because of the measures being enacted at increasing speed by governments across the world. Under the fig leaf of combating Covid-19, illiberal governments have enacted measures to seize more power for themselves, to reward big business and to block avenues of mobilization by civil society.
The lockdowns necessitated by the spread of Covid-19 and the consequent freeze in consumer consumption have led not only to an economic crisis but, more specifically, to a crisis for the capitalist class. It is but natural that the first order of business for politicians across the world will be to ameliorate capitalist distress. This should not be a surprise. Politicians are dependent on corporate money for funding elections. And in many non-democracies, politicians are the capitalist class, through the profit-seeking control of vast swathes of the economy by the ruling regimes. As a result, most countries have focused on supply-side economic measures under the justification that these will generate jobs. Very little attention, by comparison, has focused on demand-side measures to put money in people’s pockets.
In India, states ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party have done away with a raft of labor laws under the pretext of providing “meaningful” employment to people made unemployed by the pandemic. Workers in these states can now be required to work for 12-hours continuously with no minimum wage guarantees and little to no benefits or workplace safety provisions. India’s finance minister has also announced the privatization of publicly owned assets, as well as allowing private capital in previously closed-off strategic sectors.
In the US, Donald Trump has used the pandemic to further weaken environmental protection laws that have long been a thorn in the side of corporate America. Also written into the White House’s economic relief measures are a series of sweetheart deals for corporate America, many of whom already had piles of cash that they had plowed into stock buybacks, lavish CEO compensation and generous shareholder dividends in pre-pandemic times.
Governments also have seized the opportunity presented by the pandemic to grab more power. This has meant a weakening of institutions, a clamping down on the right to free speech and assembly, and criminalizing independent journalism.
In Hungary, the ruling party-dominated parliament has defenestrated itself by allowing Prime Minister Viktor Orban to rule by decree. In the US, Trump has fired a series of inspectors-general tasked with independent oversight of government institutions, including the inspector-general responsible for overseeing the disbursement of pandemic relief funds.
Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the pandemic as an excuse to prevent parliament from sitting. In several countries, elections either are cancelled or postponed indefinitely. Or in the case of Wisconsin’s recent Democratic party primaries, the state’s supreme court essentially forced in-person voting without giving election authorities sufficient time to ensure safe voting, in effect suppressing voter turnout.
News organizations cannot be relied on any longer to do the heavy lifting on behalf of civil society. In many countries, the press either is suborned to the ruling party’s interests (Hungary), owned by corporates linked to the ruling party (India) or prevented from doing their work by having their licenses suspended under a technicality (the Philippines). Even before the pandemic, Boris Johnson’s government in the UK was actively considering stopping the BBC’s access to public funds.
Where the independent media does seem to ask for answers, governments have responded with laws criminalizing “fake news.” Thailand’s government, for example, passed laws requiring the press to get local information about Covid-19 only from government press conferences rather than through independent sources. In neighboring Cambodia, the government has given itself the right to monitor private communications and has already begun arresting opposition politicians and journalists for spreading “fake news.”
India’s once fiercely independent higher judiciary has been found wanting in its role as a protector of civil liberties as a crippling migrant crisis unfolds across the country. Throughout it, India’s higher courts essentially have been seen as an extension of the executive arm rather than as an independent pillar of government. In Poland, the government has not only moved to exercise greater control over the judiciary, but has also enacted laws that criminalize judges who speak out against these changes.
The press and courts are increasingly dancing to governments’ tunes across large parts of the world. Moreover, with a series of arbitrary and draconian laws criminalizing free speech and the right to assemble, civil society – whether NGOs, activists, concerned citizens or the political opposition – will face a challenge like never before. Taking the fight to the internet and social media will have at best a marginal effect on shaping political counter-narratives, particularly in countries where politics relies on mass mobilization.
There are no easy answers as to what civil society leaders must do to overcome the raft of challenges, especially at a time when action is perhaps most required. The post-pandemic future may well be the death knell for politics for the people. Instead, it will see an entrenchment of power in the service of the elite and their cronies.
Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst on the Middle East and South Asia. He also advises governments on policies and strategic initiatives to foster growth in the creative industries such as media, entertainment and culture.