'If you send everybody home the capitalist system ends'

"A long term collective social isolation is beyond any political system, the most authoritarian state’s current capacity or even its imagination. It is also related to the continuation of the capitalist system. While those down the ladder demand quarantine, the ones up cannot do this. If you send everybody home, then the capitalist system based on consumption will end," tells Evren Balta, associate professor of international relations at Özyeğin University.

If humanity survives, the year 2020 will determine the future of generations after us and it will be accepted as an important milestone of the history of humanity. Even if the coronavirus leaves the earth tonight, this will definitely be so.

However, this virus will not leave us easily. This coronavirus which infiltrates through the gaps of wild capitalism, which also cooperates very well with capitalism in many places, hits the most disadvantaged segments of the society. The current world order is extraordinarily convenient for the coronavirus. 

The “global village” environment is based on fast profit and consumption, not on people. This atmosphere facilitates the rapid spread of the virus. The capitalist system of states builds weapons from steel, buildings from concrete but the health system from balloon, causing the virus to become fatal. Well, what does the coronavirus actually tell us? What other types of paths does the virus open for humanity with the social and political consequences it will create? Here is an interview with Evren Balta, associate professor of international relations at Özyeğin University. 

Q: How do you think the corona virus would affect the current system in the world? 

Evren Balta: What we know is that the world will not be like it used to be. The epidemic has highlighted all the tension lines of the world. We are talking about, not the tension between the nation state and globalization but about the tension among cities. As a matter of fact, when you look at both the style of spread and control of the epidemic, you would see that this is really the crisis of mega cities. Global cities that have high population density and that are centers of the global world are those places that have most been affected by this outbreak. The fact that certain cities and regions in the same nation are quarantined, the suspect involved in the human flow from those cities to other cities, the tension and competition experienced among the cities about the share of public funds during the crisis are actually the sign that the nation state will not come back in the form we know it.  


Q: Considering the example of China, it is claimed that authoritarian regimes are more advantageous in managing these types of crises. It is argued that maybe this pandemic will strengthen the global attraction of authoritarian regimes. Is authoritarianism a correct concept to explain the differences in practice? 

Evren Balta: This is one aspect of explanation but it is not the only one. A very strict curfew was forced in Wuhan, China but this ban, although it mildly shrank it, did not put the economy into a huge crisis, due to the decentralized structure of production in China. Whereas, in European or in Turkish economies where production and economy intensify in almost one mega city, the situation is not the same. For this reason, I find those analyses very inadequate, which base the practice of these kinds of measures on the difference between authoritarian and democratic regimes. For instance, another authoritarian regime Iran became one of the most unsuccessful countries in dealing with the crisis. They were late in the timing of the measures; they gave a bad test in the prevention of spreading of the disease. First, they acted as if there was no crisis, then they underestimated it, followed by accusing foreign powers. As a result, despite its authoritarianism and despite having a state tool that is very powerful and centrally controlled, it was not able to control the crisis. 

Q: Then the type of the regime is not determinant in the fight against coronavirus, right? 

Evren Balta: I think it is the capacity of the state that is more determinant than the type of regime. 


Q: Well, even though the U.S. is very strong in state capacity, why isn’t it going anywhere in the fight against the virus? 

Evren Balta: Within the concept of state capacity there a several factors such as trust and support for the government, the infrastructure of the health system, economic power, income inequality, type of leadership, the relationship between the state and the society and the relationship between the state and the capital. All of them together are significant enough to affect the result. Thus, authoritarian China, democratic South Korea and again democratic Germany have different styles in fighting the epidemic but one way or another they shine as good examples. The most important concept here is probably the relationship the state has with risk. 

Q: What is risk? 

Evren Balta: Risk means measurable and controllable threat. For instance, insurance companies calculate your risk and make you pay a premium, distributing the risk among those who are sick and who are not sick. This system works upon transforming threats into foreseeable risks. 

The basic governing technique of the states through the 20th century was this type of risk management. You can see the traces of this governing technique from the military field to the organizing of the welfare state. Politicians were responsible for the balanced distribution of risks against foreseeable threats. Underestimating risks and also exaggerating them were both problematic and called for political responsibility. Certain states still carry the remnants of this management mentality. Germany is a good example of this but many states have removed this all together. 

Q: Well, what has taken the place of risk in governing strategies? 

Evren Balta: A huge uncertainty has taken its place.

Q: You mean, states opt for uncertainty in the place of risk that is a measurable, controllable threat? 

Evren Balta: Yes, uncertainty is a governing strategy now. Uncertainty creates a field for the government that is very wide and almost all the time arbitrary and open to manipulation. Certain states, I think, have built a political power over a type of uncertainty in this epidemic. Actually, they are doing this also because they have forgotten now that risk was used as a governing technique. Governance considering risk depends on serious knowledge. Also, on institutions, on Calculations. In the past 30 or 40 years, several states willingly, knowingly or just simply by harmonizing undermined these institutions. This process occurred at different rates in different states. In other words, not carrying out adequate medical tests, not announcing the results, not telling the venues of the cases, telling people to declare their own state of emergencies are the uncertainty strategy of the state.  

Q: When people are faced with an uncertainty they cannot cope with, prevent or know, how do they establish their relationship with the state, the authority? 

Evren Balta: Uncertainty, as I said, opens a very wide field for political powers. One of the reasons that uncertainty has become a governing strategy is the policies that have destroyed the welfare state that was based on the principle of meeting individual risks by public funds within the national borders. These policies have transformed the relationship of the state and of the leaders with the society from being a risk management relationship to an uncertainty relationship.   

Q: Is this transformation only related to the transformation in the welfare state? Do we need to refer to the September 11 attacks which are accepted as a milestone in the transformation of risk management? 

Evren Balta: This is a very appropriate example. 9/11 enables the total reorganization of the security field and state-society relationship over uncertainty. 9/11 prioritized the mentality of security, making total uncertainty the main government strategy. The image of terror and terrorist based on total uncertainty, not knowing where it comes from and by whom it will be performed made it possible for the state security tool or administrative capacity increase to extraordinary dimensions; as well as creating a serious fear climate by manipulating uncertainty. The “intangible” uncertainty threats had their golden era after the attacks. While we were responsible of risks at individual level, the increase in collective uncertainty strengthened authoritarian governments. Exactly because of this trend, for instance, when coronavirus first started, those working on critical security said this threat was being exaggerated by governments, because collective fear and uncertainty are truly a government strategy. 

Terrorist and the virus 

Q: Then, fight against terrorist and fight against the virus create the same opportunities for governments? 

Evren Balta: I think this is exactly where we go wrong. The terrorist image and the virus image created by governments have many similarities. But at the same time not so many, I think. If this virus will have a democratic potential, a portion of that potential is about their dissimilarity. 

Q: What kind of similarities are there, for instance? 

Evren Balta: Almost all states, but especially populist governments claim that this virus, just like terror has foreign roots and the otherwise clean society is infected by those “others” within us. Those who bring the virus into the country are always the foreigners and those who travel. Just like 9/11, airports and planes are main venues of danger. Just like 9/11, in the coronavirus epidemic, it is not possible to know who is sick and who is healthy. Thus, the fight requires detecting foreign “extensions” and reducing of relationships. On the other hand, look at the countries the U.S. is closing its borders with. There are countries that have less cases then the U.S. These strategies have many similarities in the image of threats from outside. This of course has an effect strengthening the government, thickening national walls and increasing authoritarianism.  


Q: What do you mean with the democratic aspect of this virus? 

 Evren Balta: For an ordinary person, it is very difficult to picture themselves as the “terrorist other” or the “refugee other.” Despite all the uncertainty, there is a boundary between me and the others. But the virus removes all these boundaries. The moment you have fever, you become the “viral other.” We are all suspicious of each other. We are suspicious of our own selves. What we need to know is that this period is temporary but these monitoring and surveying practices, the surveillance steps the state takes against the virus will be permanent once they arrive.  

Q: With the spread of the virus, the raid of the supermarkets, the theft of masks and disinfectants from hospitals, the pillage of pharmacies, the selfishness of stocking home medication, mask and bread that might be vital for others, focusing on long term interests instead of short term ones are not very good signs, are they?  

Evren Balta: As a matter of fact, this is closely related to the uncertainty situation, the individualization of risk management and the accompanying controlling survival style. This is a world where everybody feels themselves and their families alone and very alone against the threat. It is a climate where trust decreases for institutions and politicians. When the epidemic is wider, since I cannot trust the system and institutions, the only thing I can do is stock home one month’s food and toilet paper. This might look like an irrational behavior but the lack of trust triggers these kinds of irrational behavior. There is short term selfishness here but there is also a long-term consequence when people start asking why was this so. There may be a solidarity coming out of that. 

Q: In the face of this epidemic, does this support the optimistic approach that societies will opt for solidarity?  

Evren Balta: I think options are open. Social sciences understand authoritarianism based on the designing of the society from up above to downward. The power of administrators is overemphasized, whereas authoritarianism is based on interaction. Thus, even the most authoritarian governments have limits. This crisis has paved the way for “digital dictatorship” for the ruling class, but at the same time paved the way for those thoughts, which are normally very difficult to implant, such as citizenship income, livable cities, the nature-human balance and global income tax. The democratic potential of this virus, I think, is related to which one of these thoughts we will chose and into which path we will step. 

Q: People have been locked down at their homes worldwide and social relations have been suspended. Thus, the only channel of communication is social media and the internet. Its plug is at the hands of the governments. What will happen is this is unplugged?

Evren Balta: I don’t know if this would be possible in a distant future but under today’s conditions, I don’t think any government would dare to unplug it, put out social interaction. A long term collective social isolation is beyond any political system, the most authoritarian state’s current capacity or even its imagination. It is also related to the continuation of the capitalist system, not to the value attributed to people by the governments. While those downstairs demand quarantine, the ones upstairs cannot do this. If you send everybody home, then the capitalist system based on consumption will end. Consumption is fed by socialization. If I am to stay at home, why should buy a car, clothes and why and how should I travel? This means the end of economy. More importantly, this means the end of the society. We will continue contacting each other in various ways and we will go out in the first opportunity, do things together. Our instinctive side, maybe our core is the desire we have for others. Our problem is that we use this desire in its most destructive form. 


Q: Governments are closing their borders as their primary practice and they are highly supported. 

Evren Balta: This way the politicians wish to give the message of “I am protecting you from outside threats and controlling everything” to their own people. They are trying to overcome this issue by clinging to the idea of nation because this is the discursive and practical only took both the rulers and the ruled have in their hands. But globalization will never be the same from now on. 


Q: Well, what will happen? Will the states and nations will become introverted again? Is this possible now?

Evren Balta: I think the era of globalization that is not focused on people, that is totally focused on the actions of the markets and the commodities, which ravages everything that comes onto its path is over. It was supposed to end anyway. The populist reaction rising in the West was an objection to this kind of globalization that had already gone derail. This objection may come from the nationalist line or from the solidarity and participatory line. No matter how it will continue, the globalization idea based on unlimited marketing is very difficult to come back.

Q: What will happen to the actors of globalization? 

Evren Balta: I think the second transformation will be about the actors of globalization. It is predicted that in the short term the West will become introverted and the leadership of the global politics will be seized by Asia. This is possible. In other words, what will happen to you at the division of global and national may be closely related to where you live, your geographical location. 

Q: Do you think humanity, after the coronavirus experience, gravitate toward forming an equal partnership? 

Evren Balta: It is very difficult to foresee this now. But we should not forget that one of the most important factors that held nations together was “foreign threats.” It has been thought that the only thing to make the world come together, removing borders would be an alien invasion. The basic reason is that the emergence of a threat without borders about to strike everyone simultaneously would make borders disappear. This partnership could be one of the paths opening in front of us. What will be wise in the long term, I think, is this path that would enable us to sustain our species; however, there is also this possibility of the people and the societies to choose their own self-destruction. 

October 13, 2020 Journalism is a crime!