Civil Unrest, COVID-19 and the Terminal Crisis of American Power, with Jerome Roos

Published May 31st, 2020 - 03:25 GMT
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Civil unrest in Minneapolis following the killing of Geroge Floyd (AFP/FILE)

On March 27, 2020, a day some official tallies put the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus at 100,000, civil unrest broke out in Minneapolis and Los Angeles against a police officer’s killing of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man accused of writing a bad check. In Minneapolis, protesters blocked streets, burned buildings and attempted to loot a bank. 

Graffiti painted on the facades of buildings called not only for justice for Floyd, but reflected the desperation of a people who feel abandoned and economically disempowered. One graffiti tagged on a Target store read: “Fuck Jeff Bezos.”

 

Many miles away and a few years back, thousands took to the streets of Sudan’s major cities to protest against austerity measures implemented by the brutal Omar al-Bashir regime. Demonstrators held sit-ins and refused to vacate public squares even as paramilitaries sprayed them with bullets.

Around the same time Sudan was revolting in 2018 and 2019, similar unrest broke out in Jordan, Tunisia, Egypt, and Algeria. In each country, protesters were mobilized in part against austerity measures the governments were seeking to implement. We’ve seen similar actions in France with the Yellow Vests movement, in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran.

One graffiti tagged on a Target store read: “Fuck Jeff Bezos.”

The last eleven years has seen a skyrocketing number of demonstrations and protests around the world. One study from The Economist estimates the total number of protests have been taking place has risen nearly 12% each year since 2009. It appears popular discontent is boiling over, engulfing countries’ into successive crises and producing a disorienting array of media coverage.

Now, most countries are trapped in the global health crisis of COVID-19, causing yet more pressure on already-distressed social, political, and economic systems. Breaking news-style reports alternate between providing hourly-updates on death rate statistics, rates of infections in hotbed areas, changes in local and national responses, spiraling unemployment, growing debt and highlighting the political fallout in the form of protests and unrest. Each story details a tiny episode or spectacle mostly devoid of meaningful context.

“It is one of widespread tumult and usually that includes a variety of morbid symptoms, if you will, like wars, revolts, all kinds of crises simultaneously that I do think potentially we are living through right now.”

Seeking to make sense of this chaotic minutia of local and global events, think pieces and op-eds compete for new ways to superlatively describe the times we’re in. They are ‘Unprecedented,’ and ‘apocalyptic,’ we are regularly turning new pages of history over, going through whole chapters in months rather than decades or centuries. Where we’re going, there’s no turning back. These and other dramatic declarations punctuate an otherwise endless stream of news stories of growing magnitude.

The combined effect for many is a sense of paralysis as we attempt to make sense of our surroundings that are breaking down and changing faster than we can grasp. 

And herein lies a core problem.

Breaking news reports and individual think pieces are missing key insights that future historians will be using to write their histories of this era. One scholar argues that we should take a step back and adopt a world-historical view to these rapid events, viewing them as symptoms of a world in transition. 

Al Bawaba spoke with Jerome Roos to try and take this world-historical view. Roos is a Fellow of International Political Economy at the London School of Economics and author of the book Why Not Default? The Political Economy of Sovereign Debt.

Jerome Roos (@JeromeRoos) | Twitter

Jerome Roos (Twitter)

He thinks much of the growing unrest shows the extent to which a financialized global economy, which has for decades been led and organized by American hegemony, is crumbling and experiencing a terminal crisis—one accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

That such political chaos appears to be happening in a time where countries are more entrapped in sovereign debt and austerity regimes than ever before, for him, is no coincidence. 

It is nothing less than the death throes of a global system’s demise before being replaced by an alternate model that restabilizes global political economy around its terms, Roos maintains. 

"Under the leadership of the U.S. economy where the material expansion of the post-war decades has gradually given rise to a shift towards a more financially oriented economy."

Usually, this transition period is marked by “really grave social, political and economic disorders.”

“It is one of widespread tumult and usually that includes a variety of morbid symptoms, if you will, like wars, revolts, all kinds of crises simultaneously that I do think potentially we are living through right now,” he adds.

Using insights from prior historians, Roos notes that past transitions, such as the fall of the Dutch Empire and the rise of the British Empire, have been triggered by the decline in that empire’s ability to maintain itself off of manufacturing capital and the subsequent dependence on financialized capital to sustain itself. 

increasingly aggrieved populations from Minneapolis to Iran may be linked to a global shift in power that is just beginning

“What we’ve seen from the 1970s or 1980s is a similar pattern, but this time under the leadership of the U.S. economy where the material expansion of the post-war decades has gradually given rise to a shift towards a more financially oriented economy,” which spells a larger decline in the political and economic might of the U.S., and the international financial institutions that have bolstered its paradigm for governance.

To put it simply, political crises revolving around financial debt and increasingly aggrieved populations from Minneapolis to Iran may be linked to a global shift in power that is just beginning.

To listen to the full conversation, click here:
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