Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Social Change

My question, today, is: How is our world going to change in the near future, as a result of the unprecedented turbulence caused by the dual whammy of pandemic and social unrest?

Now is an excellent time to listen to sociologists. A major subdivision of Sociology is Social Change/Social Theory. The classical literature in this field includes Emile Durkheim, Norbert Elias, Michel Foucault, Thomas Kuhn, Karl Marx, Max Weber and many others. It would be interesting to discover what these people might say about current events.

The immediate trigger for the current global crisis is an inadvertent event - the Covid-19 pandemic. Then, on top of this, and on top of the consequent economic crisis, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis in a gruesome and graphic way captured on video and witnessed by the entire world.

In and of themselves, pandemics may not lead to massive social change. I am not familiar with what happened during and in the wake of the 1918 pandemic, or the 14th century Black Death, or other plagues. By most accounts, the 1918 pandemic was soon curiously forgotten.

Logically, one could expect such events to have profound consequences - good and/or bad. These consequences may be demographic, environmental, economic, political, social, psychological and cultural.

When such an enormous event befalls society, one can expect it to facilitate social change, which seems to be inevitable. The question is what the specific changes will be, and whether they’ll be for better or for worse, beyond the obvious mass disease and deaths.

Politics are one realm where change can be expected and, lo and behold, we see the spectacular re-invigoration of “Black Lives Matter.”

There is no question that the two phenomena - the pandemic and the mass worldwide protests - are intertwined. Gruesome and uniquely visible as George Floyd’s murder was, it was only the latest in an endless series of hundreds of annual killings of civilians by the police, with a disproportionate number of the victims being black. US cops kill more than two thousand people each year. In Germany, a recent year’s number was eight. Add to this shootings such as that of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia just a few weeks earlier by two white vigilantes.

Why, then, did the protest explode now? African-Americans have been a segregated CASTE in this country for as long as one can remember. The fact that average black income is half that of whites documents our society’s socio-economic injustice. Less often cited is the fact  that average black net worth is ONE TENTH that of whites! This is like the difference between the US and Panama, or Hungary

So why now? Some of my colleagues say, “Well, George Floyd was the straw that broke the camel’s back.” The time had arrived to say “enough is enough.”

This makes sense. Revolutions are hard to predict. It is logical that the longer oppression persists, the more likely the ultimate explosion becomes. Examples include the French Revolution, Apartheid, the Russian Revolution, you name it. The Russian Revolution sticks out, as it began while the Russian people was experiencing unspeakable suffering due to World War One.

Revolutions are not necessarily lower-class initiatives. They are often started and led by a relatively more educated urban class, as was the case in the many 18th, 19th and 20th century revolutions, including the 1960s anti-war and civil rights movements.

So it’s complicated. But today, the turmoil follows the pandemic. Am I guilty of the “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” error? Assuming that the protest is caused by the pandemic because it follows it?

One of my more skeptical friends said that at least some of the street rallies have as much to do with cabin fever as with true idealistic outrage. Most of the marchers are young and low risk. They may bring the virus home to their families, even if they don’t become (very) sick themselves. He predicts that sooner or later the protests will die down and we will revert to the status quo, with perhaps some marginal improvements. After all, we have been here before - innumerable times.

However, it may be that this social movement will be sustained,. It may help defeat Trump. One can always hope.

Another possibility is a reactionary counter-revolution, a strengthening of Trump’s base.

Then, too, there may simply be continued chaos and civil disorder.

The geo-political and international balance of power may change. China moving up, the US down. Who knows whether a full changing-of-the-guard for world leadership is under way.

A generational change can also be expected - with younger people gaining power, as many old folks leave the scene. But this is normal, and it is as it should be, isn’t it?

The “circulation of elites” may also speed up in terms of diversity: The acceleration of non-white upward mobility, and the decline of white dominance. This, too, has already been under way, reflecting long-term demographic change, pandemic or no pandemic.

Another question: What will happen to “democracy”? The essence of democracy is VOTING. My wife and I have been voting by mail for several years. Logically, the pandemic would accelerate the trend towards distance-voting, including e-voting. However, Trump and the Republicans are trying to suppress this.

As the November presidential election approaches, a frightening scenario is this: Trump loses the popular vote again, and he also loses the electoral vote. He then  challenges in court the results in some swing states, where the vote is relatively close. The conservative Supreme Court rules in his favor, as it did in favor of George W. Bush in 2000, thereby denying the presidency to the legitimate winner of both the popular vote and the electoral college.

In my previous post, I suggested that crises generally generate new leaders. In his comment, Steven Kuester provided examples better than mine: Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. However, as I reminded the readers, crises can produce both good AND BAD leaders. It is not clear whether the present crisis will result in enlightened leadership or not.

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As to the economy, it is not clear that we can expect a speedy recovery. Some sectors of the economy will decline permanently. Cruises, tourism, travel and flying may not recover to their previous level for a long time. The decline of brick-and-mortar businesses will accelerate, along with a concomitant further surge of e-shopping (Amazon, etc.). There will also be an acceleration of virtual communication, with more people working from home, and more groups and families meeting via Zoom, Skype, face-time, etc..

For the past few decades, “globalism” has been the buzz word. Will this change? Will we have more “globalism,” or less, or a different form of it? The trend towards protectionism, nationalism and building walls predates the pandemic. However, the pandemic accelerates it. In the near future, Globalism and interconnectedness are likely to decline.

On the other hand, it is possible - and to be hoped - that countries and world leaders will eventually arrive at an economic system whereby the global capitalist system becomes the GLOBAL COOPERATIVE SYSTEM.

What about demographics? What about the Third World - enormous countries such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, the rest of Latin America, and a bit later Africa, whose population will dwarf even those of China and India? Could the pandemic trigger population movements from Africa to Europe and from Latin America to North America?

But let me conclude with one beneficial consequence of the pandemic: Right now, as industrial activity and consumption decline, the environment benefits. I read that the people of Amsterdam and Venice once again swim in their now clean canals, and air quality in California is the best it has been in decades. On our daily walks in our neighborhood park, my wife and I are seeing a whole lot more bees than before. Isn’t this great?

© Tom Kando 2020;All Rights Reserved

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