The coronavirus pandemic taught us at least three lessons. First, it showed that the label of “populism” is misleading and does not allow for any coherent account of the policies of so-called populists. Second, it pointed to serious limits of leading multilateral institutions. Third, it revealed that policies that the mainstream liberal discourse had considered unthinkable until the crisis broke out can be quickly implemented and can benefit from a broad popular support. These lessons give us some hope for a renewal of the popular left in the global struggle against the liberal oligarchy.

To start with, the dichotomy between populism/authoritarianism and liberal democracy does not tell us anything useful about the policy responses to the coronavirus. Liberal commentators would have us believe that this dichotomy would correspond to the distinction between responsible and irresponsible policies. Thus, we would have irresponsible populists and authoritarians, on the one hand, and responsible liberal leaders, on the other. Now, this argument works, for example, for the US President Trump and the Brazilian President Bolsonaro, who are generally seen as populists and who constantly underestimated the risks of the spread of the virus and its devastating consequences for their health care systems. In the same vein, after initial hesitation the German Chancellor Merkel, a liberal leader, took extensive protective measures.

However, this argument does not work in several other cases. Central European leaders who are often seen as populists were quick in adopting protective measures, as were Germany and Austria. Having done this, they saved lives and avoided collapses of their hospitals. On the other hand, the progressive leaders of Sweden bet on a minimal protection, as did the authoritarian leader in Belarus. The progressive Spanish government encouraged a massive rally as late as on International Women’s Day, thus contributing to the enormous spread of the virus and the ensuing collapse of health care in some Spanish regions, while in Vietnam the authoritarian communists effectively saved their country with early protective measures. The further political impact is difficult to assess as even close cases bring about different results. While some liberal leaders made political profits from the coronavirus, and Angela Merkel got a new lease on life, others were seriously damaged - for example, the French President Macron suffered badly.         

This is not to defend the authoritarians or illiberal democrats against the liberal democrats. We have examples of responsible and irresponsible crisis management on either side. But we should have doubts about the usefulness of the concepts of populism and illiberalism when discussing the coronavirus effects and perhaps when discussing other issues, too.

How did liberal internationalism stand the test of the coronavirus?  The pandemic, being transnational and global, presented an opportunity for the  relevant multilateral institutions. The World Health Organisation and the EU could have shown how they could save lives when needed. That would have been very much welcome as multilateralism as such has been for a long time challenged for its bias, inefficiency and waste of resources. Alas, their record during the pandemic leaves much to be desired.

The WHO was simply late in its warnings and  recommendations. Moreover, it gave contradictory advice, at first discouraging the wearing of face masks while encouraging it later. It has left the following sentiment in the Czech government and the public opinion: let’s forget about the WHO and let’s do what national experts suggest. And that had been the case even before President Trump accused the WHO of being in thrall of China. Even though this accusation is motivated by Trump’s effort to divert attention from his own incompetent crisis management, it also reflects a long-term strengthening of the Chinese positions within the UN system. In this respect, it is legitimate to ask whether the global multilateral institutions will be able to pursue the liberal internationalist mission with which they were founded.

The EU did not fare much better. It failed to co-ordinate a European response, and there was no European co-ordination in taking national protective measures or in buying medical equipment from China. Every member state was on its own, frequently, against the others. However, neighbouring countries tried to co-ordinate their measures to some extent, and the countries that were less badly affected helped those that suffered more. But this was done without Brussels. Moreover, the President of the European Commission chided the countries that took early protective measures for closing their borders and thus being in breach of the common market and the free movement of persons. Unfortunately, having done this she gave some credence to the Houellebecqian image of a European elite that values free trade and open borders more highly than human lives.        

Finally, the national responses to the coronavirus broke two important taboos of European liberal capitalism. To start with, the government deficits and national debts are likely to explode. In most of the EU, the economies were stopped for two months or more. The costs are enormous and it will be up to the governments to pay at least a part of the bill. Moreover, governments re-discovered the fragility of the global value chains and, nationally or within Europe, they are likely to aim at self-sufficiency in the production of strategic goods. Thus, the sacrosanct rules of the European treaties, free trade and financial markets are likely to be sidelined to allow for a public engagement in the economy on a scale which was deemed impossible before.

In addition to that, by temporarily closing the national borders the governments proved that they were still able to control transnational flows crossing their territory and even to stop them if necessary. That is an important point not to be forgotten. Until now most arguments for social justice, local production, progressive taxation, or labour protection or against excessive traffic were swept away by the defenders of liberal capitalism. They claimed that we live in a world without borders where any attempt at serious regulation or protection will be ineffective. Such measures were said to violate universal human rights (to freely move), drive local activity away (to low-tax, low-regulation places) or  damage local agents by a global competition from countries that do not regulate. The only thing people could do was to dream about internationally co-ordinated capital control measures that never materialized, or obey the globalized markets and globalized legal system, both being out of any democratic control. We now know that the primacy of politics, which is nothing other than the primacy of democracy, can be restored by restoring the national borders or at least by having the option of doing so.     

Having said that, how can we benefit from this experience to make the world more equal? First, we should not ruminate too much on the threat of “populism”. The concept does not say much, and some populists can be useful allies when challenging the global oligarchy. Second, that means challenging oligarchy’s hegemonic ideology of liberalism in both of its versions: market liberalism and cultural liberalism. They are twins. Both preach the phase out of the democratic authority of the state to the benefit of either private capital or universal norms. Both abhor borders because it is thanks to borders that the democratic authority gains the space to assert itself. The reaction to the pandemic proved that again.

Finally, the oligarchy arises from an extreme economic inequality. Thus, it is the fight against the economic inequality that should be in the focus. If this fight can be allied with other worthy causes, such as the elimination of all forms of discrimination or green activism, then they should join forces. However, the experience so far shows that these fights often do not converge and, on the contrary, they can increase the economic inequality. That was the experience of the Yellow Vests in France representing middle- and low-income citizens who were squeezed by the green policies of the government while being ridiculed or demonised by the mainstream, liberal media. In this respect, a careful scrutiny is needed of the ambitious plans of the European Commission on spending hundreds of billions of euro on the Green Deal and the post-COVID recovery. We need to ask whether these plans reduce the economic inequality. If so, they deserve support; if not, they should be redrafted or shredded. Rather than warning against populism it is with the very same question that we can assess the merits of parties, policies and institutions across the political spectrum.

Petr Drulák, Institute of International Relations, Prague