COVID-19's 'politics of humiliation': A chance for the US to lead — or to lose control

COVID-19's 'politics of humiliation': A chance for the US to lead — or to lose control
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Mohamed Bouazizi did not seize the world’s imagination because he was handsome or rich or powerful. Instead, the Tunisian fruit vendor, whose self-immolation kicked off the “Arab Spring” in 2010, inspired tens of millions of Arabs because they empathized with his despair and sense of humiliation. 

We often think of politics in binary terms: right versus left, rural versus urban, north versus south. However people come to identify themselves, their political identities are products of circumstance and belief, with some sort of calculation at their core. 

Widespread humiliation gives rise to a different kind of politics, one with far less calculation and much more emotion. Today, as COVID-19 guts global economies and takes an especially grim toll on those with the least security all across the world, the politics of humiliation will rise globally. And the impacts of these politics will last for years.

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What is at issue is not the politics of the poor. The world’s perpetually immiserated often suffer in silence, as the toll taken by years of struggle for mere survival breeds passivity and disengagement.

The humiliated are, by their nature, not passive. They recall an earlier status, or they aspire to a sharply better one. Their humiliation can follow a massive change — for example, a defeat in war, or exile, or economic collapse — or a rising consciousness. The humiliated may suffer individual traumas, such as the torture that al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and former ISIS head Abu Musab al-Zarqawi suffered in prisons.

Whatever the cause, part of what drives the humiliated is a deep belief that their low status is a product of injustice. Their humiliation ignites an emotional reaction that, like a wildfire, burns hot and burns wide through communities. When enough people in any given populace feel humiliated, their humiliation spreads into politics. There, they not only raise the temperature of politics; they raise the stakes. The politics of the humiliated quickly become existential.

Given the depth and global nature of the current economic slowdown, even optimistic scenarios put normalcy as being months away. We will not reach a new equilibrium for quite some time, and it will be different from what came before. In the meantime, and even afterward, suffering will be widespread.

It is hard not to imagine that there are whole classes of people — in the United States and around the world — for whom the COVID-19 pandemic will be a humiliating flame. As uncertainty and restrictions linger for months or years, sharply rising unemployment among service workers — in food service, hospitality and retail — will throw middle-class families into poverty, and poor families into crisis. Government subsidies will run out, and financial markets will soften. Governments will face budget crises, their capacity will diminish, and their ability to afford the sorts of infrastructure and construction projects that often undergird economic stimulus programs will evaporate. Millions could liquidate their lifetime savings, lose their housing, and go hungry. 

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What hits hard in the Western world will hit even harder in the developing world. There, social safety nets are even weaker, and even larger segments of the workforce either work for small businesses or in the “informal” sector. They have tighter margins, and there is even less assistance on which to fall back. Even more so, governments lack the ability of their Western counterparts to ease burdens, to save jobs and to provide shelter.

We already have seen governments such as India’s back off coronavirus-related restrictions because the economies cannot handle a nationwide shutdown. In places such as Iran that were slow to impose restrictions until the disease was well dispersed, the economies are reopening despite sharply rising infection rates. The seeds of the future crisis are already being sown.

It is optimistic to think that the politics that will emerge from COVID-19 will be gratitude toward infectious disease experts and public health experts whose admonitions saved societies from even further despair. Technocrats always hope that their wisdom will be appreciated. 

Much more likely will be an emotional political search for those responsible for widespread misery. Governments are likely to be on the receiving ends of that rising hostility.

Governments that can afford to do so will seek to co-opt the humiliated, acceding to their demands for greater benefits. The U.S. government has so far committed $6 trillion to recovery, and the government of Japan recently devoted $1 trillion to the effort. They will hope to take the emotion out of politics.

Governments that cannot or will not commit such sums may seek to harness the emotion that has been unleashed, diverting the blame to some other scapegoat, surviving to fight on. Some governments likely will seek to be increasingly repressive, hoping that the humiliated will transition into being merely immiserated, recognize that resistance is futile, and struggle for survival rather than for changing the system.

For the United States, the domestic landscape is likely to be different, and the global landscape even more so. Here, political polarization is likely to increase, as shrinking government resources and growing demands pit interest groups against each other and squeeze state and local governments. Sustained restrictions on immigration will be enacted. The international outlook that the United States adopted reluctantly in the midst of World War II and embraced robustly in its aftermath will diminish. Meanwhile, a reckoning is ahead for U.S. military spending, and for U.S. commitments around the globe.

Overseas, wealthier countries are likely to muddle through, while most middle-income and poorer countries will suffer from rising misery and political turmoil. Politicians will seek to rally constituents around common enemies, be they sectarian, religious, national or ideological. We could see a resurgence in both civil wars and cross-border wars, and with that, a rise in terrorism.

Overall, most of these changes serve to raise China’s global influence while diminishing that of the United States. Governments in trouble will look admiringly to China’s authoritarian model, and the benefits of associating with the United States — economically, politically and militarily — will diminish. The Chinese government makes few demands of its partners, and it has few qualms about how they operate internally. As a country with literally no allies and a generally pessimistic view of human nature, a Hobbesian global future is one for which China feels prepared.

The United States cannot prevent such a future, but it can make it less likely. The United States needs to grasp the present circumstances and refocus on the unique abilities the United States possesses to influence the global environment. No country or collection of countries has the leverage of the United States, both in terms of coercion and co-optation. For decades, the United States has been unfocused about its interests and its means to advance them.

The opportunity available now to the United States is not about money or guns – the obvious tools that U.S. government officials seek to deploy around the world. The opportunity is about the ability to lead, the ability to define, and the ability to inspire. The United States needs to be about something bigger than itself, and it needs to point toward a future to which billions of other people aspire, and also see a pathway to achieving. The United States is not seizing this opportunity, and if missed, the results will echo for decades to come.

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank focusing on defense, national security and international relations issues.