On July 18, 2020, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivered a memorial lecture in honour of the great South African leader Nelson Mandela. The Secretary-General’s speech was clearly intended as a policy statement and designed to provoke a wide response. Guterres outlined “a new social contract” and “a new global deal” that are to replace the current international and even universal social order.
Inequality as the Principal Problem
Guterres was scathing in his criticism of the current world order, comparing the coronavirus pandemic to “an x-ray, revealing fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built.” The pointed accusatory pathos of his speech would have been better suited to a silver-tongued preacher or a radical youth leader than to a member of the top political elite who has headed the most representative and influential international organization for the past three and a half years. The coronavirus is “exposing fallacies and falsehoods everywhere: the lie that free markets can deliver healthcare for all; the fiction that unpaid care work is not work; the delusion that we live in a post-racist world; the myth that we are all in the same boat.”
The pandemic has set humanity back years, if not decades, plunging the world into its worst recession since World War II. Guterres believes that, as a consequence, entire continents will be doomed to hardships, poverty and even famine. Social and economic inequality is growing at an accelerated pace: the financial assets of the world’s 26 wealthiest people already equal the combined assets of half of the rest of the world. Glaring inequality feeds corruption, provokes financial and economic crises, fuels crime and causes epidemics. The number of risk groups is expanding rapidly and includes refugees, migrants, indigenous peoples and minorities of all kinds that are discriminated against and exploited. Inequality breeds political and religious radicalism, social cataclysms, destructive international conflicts, and civil wars.
The coronavirus pandemic introduces new dimensions to the issue of inequality: rich patients have higher chances of receiving quality COVID-19 treatment, and the Global North is better prepared for the pandemic than the Global South. The long-term economic and social consequences of this upheaval will also differ for individual social, professional, ethnic, and other groups.
What are the roots of inequality in the world? For Antonio Guterres, the answer is very clear: colonialism and patriarchy. The Global North is responsible for the shameful history of colonialism, whereby it established its centuries-long economic and political dominance of the Global South. Even though many decades have passed since the decolonization process concluded, the historical legacy of the colonial era has not been overcome. This legacy makes itself felt on a regular basis as everyday racism, institutional racism, the rise of “white supremacy,” the system of the international division of labour and global trade and the distribution of the rights and responsibilities of individual states within the global political system.
The patriarchal system that we live in today is the result of the traditional “male-dominated culture,” which for millennia has discriminated against and humiliated women. While great strides have been made in women’s rights (just like decolonialization has brought certain successes), it would be premature to say that we have finally resolved the gender issues that haunt our societies. The UN Secretary-General called himself a “proud feminist” and reported that “gender parity” has been achieved in top UN jobs (let us note parenthetically that, in 2016, he took the office that many UN members believed should have rightly gone to a female candidate).
So how will the “New Global Deal” advanced by the UN Secretary-General benefit the world? First of all, it promises to achieve social harmony by overcoming inequality – gender inequality, social inequality, racial inequality and inequality between states and continents. The “New Global Deal” is an instrument for establishing egalitarian humanism, where access to quality education, healthcare, food and water, decent jobs and social security is an integral part of our fundamental human rights and is not determined by an individual’s income or family wealth.
Guterres’s ideal and goal is to create a global community where people of any origin, country, ethnicity, social standing or gender can and should fully realize their potential to the benefit of all humankind. The UN Secretary-General supports the idea of universal medical insurance and universal basic income. In general, the world that looms on the horizon follows the principle, “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”
Antonio Guterres and Ivan Yefremov
Reading Antonio Guterres’s speech, I was, for some reason, reminded of the leading Soviet sci-fi author Ivan Yefremov’s famous utopian novel Andromeda: A Space-Age Tale, which depicts a remote communist future. The world of Ivan Yefremov, just like the world of Antonio Guterres, is a world of egalitarian humanism. One’s place of residence, family status, gender and race have absolutely no meaning for Yefremov’s characters. They are all a thing of the distant past. Humankind has successfully overcome the cult of excessive consumption, and basic human needs for education, healthcare, welfare, social status, etc. are guaranteed by birthright.
This world is populated by beautiful, strong, somewhat poster-like people who have virtually no human weaknesses. For them, the meaning of life lies mostly in the arts and sciences and other elevated forms of self-realization. Personally, Yefremov’s utopian society has always seemed somewhat cold and uninviting, but in any case, it is much preferable to the current chaotic state of the global society.
Of course, one cannot suspect Antonio Guterres of directly borrowing Ivan Yefremov’s ideas. I doubt that the Portuguese statesman has ever read Andromeda: A Space-Age Tale or any of the Soviet sci-fi author’s novels, for that matter. Additionally, the concept of a “New Global Deal,” unlike Yefremov’s utopia, is not entirely communist. Guterres’s egalitarian world does have a private sector, but it is radically different from the one we have today.
First, the “New Global Deal” would involve significantly raising taxes for big businesses throughout the world, eliminating financial loopholes that allow large corporations to avoid paying taxes. Second, the private sector would switch its focus from making profits to social responsibility. Guterres is an ardent supporter of restoring the trade union movement in order to balance the relations between labour and capital. On the whole, one gets the impression that the UN Secretary-General sees the Northern European social state as the optimal state model.
How can global social harmony be achieved? Take education, for example. In order to overcome global inequality in education, we need to at least double the spending in this sector in the Global South, to USD 3 trillion annually. Clearly, the South does not have that kind of money, it can only come from the North. But in addition to education, we need to think about healthcare, infrastructure development, the “green economy” and gender inequality, where the South still lags significantly behind the North.
Essentially, the UN Secretary-General is calling for a revolution – if by revolution we mean a historically compressed process of a radical redistribution of economic resources and political power. The “New Global Deal” is focused on transferring resources and power not from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat within individual states, as Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin had suggested, but from the rich North to the poor South. That is, the collective North is the nasty “global bourgeoisie,” while the collective South has the honourable role of the “global proletariat.”
The redistribution of power presupposes the reform of international institutions created mostly by the Global North, including changes to the top management of the United Nations, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Monetary Fund. The redistribution of resources means restructuring the international debt accumulated by the Global South, writing them off at least partially, increasing financial aid programmes for developing states and changing the terms of global trade so that the South will gradually move up global value chains.
Just like the classics of Marxism-Leninism idealized the proletariat and demonized the bourgeoisie, the UN Secretary-General idealizes the South and demonizes the North. Appealing in 2020 to the dark colonial legacy as the principal cause of the backwardness of developing states is only slightly more convincing than explaining the current archaic nature of Russian politics by the pernicious legacy of serfdom. The experience of post-colonial development is too variegated for such generalizations. For instance, South Korea experienced decades of extremely harsh Japanese colonial rule, and then the totally destructive war of 1950–1953. Nevertheless, almost no one would call South Korea a backward state today, or a victim of its colonial past.
Antonio Guterres has brought his many years of experience as a European social democrat to the activities of the United Nations. This experience certainly remains relevant today. However, the attempts of European social democrats over the years to resolve gender, social or global problems by mechanically redistributing resources have repeatedly demonstrated their limitations. It is no coincidence that European social democracy today is going through a clear identity crisis. To prepare the next edition of Andromeda: A Space-Age Tale, the UN Secretary-General should find a co-author with a radically different experience, someone like Elon Musk.
From our partner RIAC