The Great Reset: A Few Questions
An ecological “mistake” produced COVID-19 and now it is exacerbating all kinds of existing problems: an increase in income and gender inequality, social conflict and domestic violence. Behind the health, ecological and social crisis, many have also perceived a crisis of neoliberalism.
Klaus Schwab, an ordoliberal founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF), and Thierry Malleret, a prediction analyst, are proponents of the crisis of neoliberalism theory, but not of capitalism. Their book, covid-19: The Great Reset (Agentur Schweiz 2020), optimistically considers the pandemic as a chance for humanity. In their view, COVID-19 made us realise that “the myth of having to choose between public health and a hit to GDP growth can easily be debunked”.
The Great Reset was also the title of the 2020 edition of the WEF in Davos. The expression “the Great Reset” encompasses multiple meanings, but more important than defining strands of meaning is the question what it is needed for. The authors posit that the Great Reset serves to erase the evils rooted in our economies, and that it is unavoidable: “ultimately a reset will be imposed by … conflicts and even revolutions”. The pandemic therefore represents a unique chance, and despite sufferance it “represents a rare but narrow window of opportunity to reflect, reimagine and reset our world” (writes Schwab citing himself). The Great Reset, adopting an easy rhetoric, calls for a less divisive, less polluted, less unjust world.
Schwab’s and Malleret’s naïf elitism resembles Piketty’s, when he asks power to reform power. The wish is that big corporations finally realise and admit their wrongdoing and consequently act to amend it. Multinational corporations are powerful machineries and indeed are capable of bringing about a better future for all. But is this outcome part of their focus? Arguably not, hence this book seems an exercise of persuasion in this direction.
Schwab (and Malleret) address habitual interlocutors, i.e. the world economic elites, and gently asks them to take a fair share of the burdens of the great transformations that the Great Reset implies. “Doing nothing, or too little, is to sleepwalk towards ever-more social inequality, economic imbalances, injustice and environmental degradation”. As the George Floyd case shows – which is mentioned in the book – repressed feelings and long-standing frustrations with injustice can create dangerous mass movements. Similarly, gigantic social explosions could also happen elsewhere worldwide. The two authors warn that the interconnectedness of today’s world and the increasing rise in social injustice constitute a social detonator always on the verge of explosion. “Outbursts of social unrest are quintessential non-linear events that can be triggered by a broad variety of political, economic, societal, technological and environmental factors”. To avoid this, a new social contract is advocated that includes environmental and technological changes.
More specifically, the Great Reset has a “macro” and a “micro” component. Macro-reset is global: geopolitical, environmental, technological. Micro-reset is about an acceleration towards digitalisation, improvement of commercial hubs and commodity chains, public sector reforms, and industrial change. Similar positions can be found in the writings of other popular intellectuals, such as: Mazzuacato and Kelton, who advocate redistributive measures as financial assets’ transfers or progressive fiscal policies; Baldwin, with his criticism of the technological transition and take-over; Collier and Rajan and their localist counter-approach, etc. Schwab and Malleret belong to this group, but are in some ways less concrete than their peers in terms of policy advice. From one perspective this is their strength as policy indefiniteness is less susceptible to criticism.
Another interesting issue raised in this book concerns nationalism. The world seems to have become prisoner in a Mexican standoff between capital, peoples and governments. To solve it, the Great Reset calls for a truly global cooperation against all nationalisms. This is apparently one positive message in this book, and also in line with the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, but it also fits the interests of global capital – that does not like borders and barriers to its expansion and circulation.
As mentioned above, it is neoliberalism and not capitalism that is under examination. Inadvertently, the book shows how capitalism has a limitless ability to transform itself and to adapt to new situations. As Gramsci taught us, when something new occurs in a given historical moment, one must always ask to what extent a transformation really affects hegemonic power. For centuries, the global hegemonic power has been capital in the hands of capitalists. Does the Great Reset imply a change in this sense? Many analysts are rather sceptical even about positing such a query, but not Schwab and Malleret.
If power structures do not change, this means that historical novelties maintain society in an objectively unchanged way. We therefore cannot talk of a “reset”. In the novel Il gattopardo (the Leopard), Tomasi di Lampedusa, the writer, brilliantly described the transformist nature of power in 19th century revolutionary Italy. Tancredi, heir of a powerful Sicilian feudal lord, Don Fabrizio, realising that the Bourbon world is doomed, tells his uncle that “everything must change for everything to remain the same”. Is this the case also for the Great Reset?
This is not to imply that the propositions put forward by Schwab and Malleret should be considered inherently in bad faith, because Schwab is the executive chairman of the wef in Davos. There is a lot in this book which seems eminently reasonable. In part, it even resembles, though only superficially, a call for a return to Keynesianism via a mix of stakeholders’ capitalism, increased corporate taxation, more stringent public regulation, and a more efficient welfare. The problem is that the crisis of neoliberalism, the ideology of the global capitalist class since the 1970s, does not mean the crisis of capitalism. Was capitalism or neoliberalism that produced social and environmental degradation? Clearly for the authors is neoliberalism only.
As pointed out by Schwab and Malleret, “COVID-19 is likely to sound the death knell of neoliberalism, a corpus of ideas and policies that can loosely be defined as favouring competition over solidarity, creative destruction over government intervention and economic growth over social welfare”. If neoliberalism is to be replaced, just as neoliberalism emerged as replacement of Keynesianism, a new corpus of ideas and policies must be designed.
Indeed, a major merit of Schwab and Malleret’s work, coming from the WEF, the inner core of the global economic elite, is to provide some hints regarding where such an elite seeks to place its hegemonic project: social inclusion, environmental reconversion and technological restructuring.
These are major issues that ought to be addressed. However, for us mortals, the real issue should be how and which social forces should drive the change. This is a problem left untouched by the Great Reset. Any major restructuring – in this case a planetarian one – needs political legitimacy (governments’ corroboration) and public funds (an insurance policy in a € multi-billion business). Hence a reconversion is something that concerns all. But who will be managing the reshaping of our economies and societies? Will the reconversion be driven by a democratic process or by an arbitrary elite? Perhaps another book will tell us.