Between Democracy and Authoritarianism: Catharsis at a Turning Point

Interview with Fred Block, Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Davis

By: Guillermo Máynez Gil

Between Democracy and Authoritarianism: Catharsis at a Turning Point
We are living in complex times where various crises threaten our way of living, but – rightly so – give us great incentives to reinvent ourselves as a society. In this interview, renowned sociologist Fred Block identifies the common root of the health, environmental, economic, political and social crises of our times, namely, the fundamentalism of the free market. He believes we are at a turning point in which the cost of immobility is so obvious that foregoing the opportunity to build better societies is unacceptable.

Tribulations are lurking. What are your thoughts on the world situation?

The pandemic made the shortcomings of a public health system neglected for four decades visible. We are facing a very complex scenario in which various crises coexist, that of political representation, environmental sustainability, frustrated expectations, profound changes in interpersonal relations, and health, as mentioned. To a greater or lesser extent, these crises have a common core: the market fundamentalism introduced by Thatcher and Reagan in the late 1970s, early 1980s.

 

Market fundamentalism widened economic inequalities, which in turn explains the paralysis of democracies and their weakness in counteracting the pressures of economic elites. Overwhelmed by fiscal pressures, governments faced increasing difficulties to address demands of the people. Being fed up and going for authoritarian government options is an ever‑growing trend. The recent wave of protests against racism in the United States, for example, shows the discontent of the Afro-American community—but also that of a wider social base—at the retreat of the policies instituted in the sixties and seventies to promote social mobility and care for lagging groups. Some governments have resorted to the police to try to contain social discontent. The result of this is visible.

 


FRED BLOCK

 

Under current circumstances and in the face of the progressive ageing of the world population, do you think returning to a welfare State and universal coverage of health services is feasible? What tax measures could finance them?

Some of the most significant advances in the history of world public health were preceded directly by severe pandemics. People become more aware of their vulnerability during crises. For example, in the 19th century, a cholera epidemic triggered an important series of public health innovations, which—in the long run—made large crowds in urban centers possible.

 

The weakening of universal health systems has proven to be dangerous. Now, how do we finance them? I believe there is a relatively simple solution to this: increasing taxes for those who have benefitted from the growing inequality of the last 40 years. Elizabeth Warren, former contender for the United States presidential candidacy for the Democratic Party, proposed an additional 2% tax for taxpayers with assets amounting to between 0.5 and 1 billion dollars, and 6% for those earning more than 1 billion dollars. This measure is estimated to collect an additional 2.6 trillion dollars over 10 years.

 

Internationally, we have seen significant reductions in taxes, especially for more privileged groups. Furthermore, large corporations—including big technology companies—have resorted to tax havens in order to cut taxes. This corporate behavior is a huge threat to democratic systems, one that must be overcome through a global response.

 

 

To what extent do you think COVID-19 will change our way of living? Will there be structural changes or will we simply go back to previous practices?  

It’s impossible to know that right now. The easy answer is to predict a return to normality. However, there are reasons to believe we are at a turning point. The pandemic shook the foundations of the market fundamentalism that explains and justifies economic success and failure according to individual effort. The current crisis reveals precisely the opposite: we all depend on everybody, and the virus does not distinguish rich from poor. We’ve also discovered the value of “essential workers;” healthcare professionals, of course, but also people working in supermarkets, grocery stores and many others, who despite supplying indispensable goods and services to society, earn very little.

 

We are rediscovering the value of social solidarity and this should make us reassess our priorities and build a different social order. It is no coincidence that the flu pandemic in the early 20th century and the biggest wave of strikes in history occurred at the same time. Amidst their tribulations, workers asked themselves: If we’re all in this together, why are we earning so little?”

 

 

Are we ready for that type of change?

I’ve been saying this for years: technological progress and the economy gives us a lot of leeway to build a fairer and more equitable, and environmentally friendly system. One hundred years ago, the large majority of the population had no other choice but to work long and exhausting days in farms or factories. Today, technology has reduced demands on personnel and time in all production activities. So, we have a window of opportunity to build a more equitable society in which people don’t have to sacrifice their lives for the welfare of others.

 

 

Regarding the possibilities provided by the digital era, you have been talking for a while about the State’s participation in the impressive development of contemporary technology. With examples such as the US Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, you have shown that public funds are behind numerous of the more emblematic innovations. How significant is this type of investment?

The State expanded its presence in innovation financing as technology became so complex. We’ve come to a point where it’s very difficult for a company to develop technology in isolation. The risks are such, that a company cannot face them on its own. For every research project, high-level scientists from at least six or seven specializations are needed to develop, for example, more powerful batteries or vaccines against a virus like the one that causes COVID-19. The solution to this technological complexity is in public investments. Companies can provide specialists, but they need to work hand-in-hand with government and university agencies. Science and technology are crucial to continue on the path of development; a way of ensuring the State has the resources to finance them is to increase taxes on the most privileged. Apple, for example, benefitted from eight or nine technologies developed with public funds, but it’s been very reluctant to paying taxes. That’s unacceptable.

 

 

Creativity is playing an increasingly prominent role in expanding the knowledge economy. What must we do to leverage its full potential?

Indeed, creativity is a leading factor in today’s economy. If we don’t build more inclusive and fairer societies, ones where every child has access to quality education and opportunities for professional development are provided, regardless of their socioeconomic level, that creativity will be greatly reduced. This takes me to another relevant point: the need to develop suitable indicators to measure and improve the quality of education, health, and other qualitative aspects of social welfare. Quantitative measurements like GDP are inefficient to assess a country’s progress and challenges. In the United States, for example, mortality and morbidity among men with no college education has increased significantly. GDP is irrelevant to explain this phenomenon.

 

 

A surprising characteristic of our time is the confluence of accelerated technological development with the return of more authoritarian government options. What do you make of this situation? What should we expect?

When children are on the verge of going into higher phases of their personal growth—learning to walk, talk or controlling their impulses—they often “relapse” in conducts they have grown out of like sucking their thumb or throwing tantrums. Similarly, in our evolution towards more democratic, fair, and equitable societies, we are at a turning point. The crucial and difficult decisions we must make cause fear and we take refuge in government ways that have dominated throughout history, like monarchies and oligarchies. I believe we are living a regression of this type, but as soon as some societies decide to make the leap, others will follow suit and change will not stop. That doesn’t mean the future is going to be peachy; there’s the possibility that authoritarianism will spread and societies will be paralyzed. It simply means that that change is possible.

 

 

The pandemic has given a renewed impetus to online service platforms like Amazon, Google, Uber, and Facebook. You have proposed a “public services” model to regulate the activity of this group of tech giants that control huge amounts of sensitive personal data. Do you think this proposal will prosper at all?

What is and is not politically feasible can change at the drop of a hat. The power accumulated by these large corporations has become a threat to democratic systems. A clear example is seen in Facebook’s reluctance to identify and label Trump’s inaccuracies.

 

But we’ve been through that already. One century ago, electrical and telephone companies earned extraordinary profits, and at the same time, manipulated social development. Back then, political responses created regulatory structures through which limits were set on abuses from those companies. Even the most radical defenders of the free market recognize these risks and are against monopolies, because functional markets depend on open competition. If no school of thought justifies the existence of private monopolies, I find no reasons why they cannot be regulated as public services or even be limited in the spectrum of services they provide.

 

 

At this turning point, the electoral triumph of those who propose a return to real or imaginary times of stability and national pride cannot be ruled out.

As I explained with regressions, it’s about the “politics of nostalgia,” one that suggests a return to an imaginary Golden Age. However, the challenge is not going back to it, but rather, towards institutional arrangements that include more people in the political process, that regulate monopolies, and that produce better economic results. The problem now is that center and center-left politicians have been unable to propose a roadmap for the necessary reforms.

 

 

Are you an optimist or a pessimist regarding the future?

I try to be an optimist, without being unrealistic. In a situation like this one, it’s easy to have fatalistic views where authoritarianism spreads, climate change intensifies with devastating effects, pandemics become commonplace, and poverty is widespread. This scenario is totally possible, but that’s where my optimism comes from. The stakes are so high, the consequences of immobility are so obvious that many people will become aware of the need for reforms, that decline is not inevitable, that the opportunity to change for the better is there, and we just have to make the most of it.