During the past six months countless differing forecasts have appeared on the future direction of the world and anticipated changes. If we pick out the common features, in summary over the next few years the world will become more dysfunctional and stratified in various criteria, while economic and political power will be concentrated even more in the hands of the most successful and privileged groups. And to all intents and purposes this concerns both the world order in general and also the internal structures of the societies constituting its component parts.

Digital technologies and the globalisation of disorder

First of all. Virtually everyone is forecasting a deceleration and in some important aspects a reversal of the global economic system as we know it, where the role of cross-border flows of products and resources increased, and that of national sovereignties weakened (See «The New Age economy»).

Such a reversal can be traced to factors existing long before the COVID-19 epidemic, the election of Trump, the migration crisis in Western Europe, Brexit and many other milestone events of the past five years. The age of global political supremacy of major multinationals hoped for by some, and feared by others did not happen.

The past six months not only failed to change the situation in this respect, but on the contrary promise to expedite a discernible trend.

In developed countries corrections to multinational supply chains have been encouraged — at the very least with the elimination of China, and at most with the maximum degree of localisation in one country or in a closed and limited group of countries. Additional steps are already being taken in respect of foreign investors and specialists in the USA and Japan. There is good reason to assume that the situation will continue developing in this vein.

London, June 2020 (AP Foto/Matt Dunham)

Today, we can see forces proactively advocating for a decoupling of American (and in general Western) and Chinese business; for a return to the “sovereignisation” of trade and investment policies; for the de-offshorisation of national business and the return of business activity to “its own” jurisdictions. Naturally, this does not mean that insurmountable barriers will be erected to block goods and technologies, and that multinational ways of doing business will start to be scrapped. However, the growth rates of such processes, which tend to be called economic globalisation, will at the very least slow significantly. And this will happen now because any further advance of globalisation is impossible without some forms of supranational multilateral regulation at a time when the political influence of the proponents of such ideas is effectively on the wane everywhere.

At the same time, the greatest detachment will also clearly be manifested in politics. It is highly unlikely that the lower degree of coordination between Western countries is solely attributable to the personal qualities of the current generation of global leaders. The tensions between military and political allies patently disclose a growing deficit in mutual trust, and this is unlikely to be replaced by universal aspirations for unity, even if Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Boris Johnson and Shinzo Abe were all to withdraw from the political stage. The lack of trust has deeper roots — based on the evolution of public opinion which has readily responded to populist and nationalist rhetoric.

This also renders impossible any so-called “new bipolarity” — the establishment in the world of two opposing camps united behind, accordingly, the USA and China. This confrontation does not represent a  competition between two polar opposites, as was the case during the times of the USSR: today there is no fight between ideologies, and China has no areas of influence and allies  (except for the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea). This is a fight for a change of leadership. The USA holds that China is seeking to take its place in global economic and over time technological rankings.

Therefore the picture emerging in reality is far more pluralistic and susceptible to change at any moment. And here COVID-19 has also fallen into line with this new reality: the reaction of governments to the pandemic and concomitant threats — both real and mythical — has objectively also distanced the world even more from a simple bipolar model.

Secondly. At the same time within each country the role of the state and government has increased perceptibly (in particular in Russia) albeit by virtue of the objective need to strengthen centralisation of management at a time of acute and clear threats to the health and lives of the population — even if the actual proportions and nature of this threat are not fully clear to everyone (and possibly, precisely for this reason). In this environment, the instinctive desire of the population to oppose the tightening of controls is also weakening for some time (See «On the political systems of the New Age»).

Naturally, all the so-called lockdowns which affected in general private, and not state business and social activity, were merely a temporary phenomenon and did not aspire to become part of some new normal. However, the information and communications sectors and services, to a large extent controlled by the authorities, have played a special role in the general direction of these changes. It is sufficient to say that the internet, which had appeared until comparatively recently to be a realm of unlimited individual freedom, has turned out to be a tool used to manipulate public consciousness, and is perhaps many more times powerful than the traditional printed mass media have ever been,  deemed extremely vulnerable to administrative control. Moreover, thanks to the establishment of rules and preferences for certain participants in the information and communications sector, new tools of state supervision and control are becoming particularly effective (See «Information ochlocracy»).

World leaders in G7 summit, Charlevoix, Canada, June 2018 (Jesco Denzel/AP)

To all intents and purposes, increasing economies of scale resulting from more extensive use of digital platforms will have even more material consequences — both when organising new forms of activity, and also controlling  them. Today digital platforms for business and private communications have already ended up concentrated in the hands of a group of oligopolists of not only a national, but also a global order. This is a reference to mission-critical digital assets (in conjunction with capabilities and expertise) controlled by a limited number of people, businesses or countries. This may result, first and foremost, in a non-market, but political pricing tool and the lack of any objective oversight, and secondly, in digital inequality — fragmented and unequal access to mission-critical digital networks and technologies (both between countries and within them) as a result of unequal investment opportunities, a shortfall in the necessary professional qualifications, inadequate purchasing capacity or government restrictions.

Ensuring instant access to audiences of potential and actual consumers running into the millions, these platforms deliver immense gains to their owners and effectively block market competition mechanisms (in any case, in its usual forms and proportions). This complicates the access of new players to the market not only in these areas, but also in numerous adjoining sectors.

The situation is also exacerbated by the fact that big digital platforms are able not simply to provide infrastructure and technical services to their counterparties, but also to interact with them in this process, collect various information about them and to a large extent determine their future actions. While the collection of information on consumers and the programming of their consumption is by no means a new phenomenon, the staggering growth in the technical capabilities of these platforms to store and process mass data has turned them into powerful economic players.

Artist: Nicholas Ortega

Thirdly. Moreover, the financial, organisational and information opportunities of these information and communications super corporations potentially make them major political players. At the same time, their oligopolistic, and in certain segments virtual monopoly positions are becoming politically significant in terms of the potential consequences for society.

The influence of the coronavirus epidemic here also cannot be termed neutral. On the one hand, the pandemic enabled governments and the agents of the digital economy to increase the volumes of information being collected on the population, virtually unopposed, through the deployment of digital technologies in new areas and in new proportions, with this factor attributed to the measures required to understand the nature of the epidemic, curb the epidemic and implement subsequent preventive actions. On the other hand, the pandemic put on hold attempts to limit the monopolisation of this sector by the group of major players through administrative curbs and other forms of public intervention in their activities. It is undoubtedly the case that this will result in further concentration  of information capabilities with a limited number of actors — selected private corporations, state departments and specific individuals — and this is all happening against the backdrop of the growing opacity of the terms and extent of the use of information technologies.

And even though fears that these player will receive unlimited economic and political power may appear exaggerated and excessive at this historical stage, the trend of such concentration exists and should be clearly understood, as should the resulting consequences for society.

Trading at New York Stock Exchange, March 2020 (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Charging Bull wearing a mask in Wall Street, New York, 2020

Fourthly. Analysing international experience of the past six months, the stratification of both the global community as a whole, and also individual national societies, has intensified perceptibly.

One aspect of this stratification, in both business and financially, is attributable to the impact of the pandemic on the global economy. This recession promises to be more profound and protracted than the so-called Great Recession — the financial and economic crisis of 2008-20091See Grigory Yavlinsky, Financial crisis: coming round full circle, January 2019.

After a new strong push, the structural shift towards the online economy (which is, as noted earlier, intrinsically more concentrated and differentiated in terms of the size and stability of earnings) has also increased the inequality of individual opportunity. And this concerns not only the inequality of opportunities to derive income, but also importantly inequality in social and professional adaptation, in ensuring the stability of an individual’s  position, protection from the adverse impact of the external environment, etc. And even though for the time being this does not involve the emergence of new closed castes, new social partitions, albeit informal, are still appearing in society.

Whereas the general trend at the end of the 20th century was to acknowledge various types of underprivileged segments and minorities and work out how to integrate them into a single society with common rules for everyone, in recent years a different process has been observed: there has been an increase in the popularity of ideas and practices indicative of social engineering — attempts to guarantee a stable environment for ruling elites through control of the behaviour of social groups as part of the hierarchical system. In other words, people have an opportunity to compete in society through the interaction of a large number of small groups consolidating over certain specific interests, at the same time as the objective of articulating common interests and introducing them into the collective consciousness is assumed by the self-appointed quasi elite with the assistance of the social engineers servicing them.

Fifth. This is in principle a different model of the political structure where the main components of the previous ideal model (political parties competing in elections, representing differing ideological concepts and interests of major groups; the establishment of power based on a balance of interests; the division of authoritative powers between different seats of power to prevent any potential usurpation of rights) perform secondary functions and no longer work in fundamentally important moments.

Externally, this looks like political degradation, encompassing more and more countries against the backdrop of the coronavirus challenge. However, the developments may well be a reflection of the process of approving a new political system in a number of leading countries — a system based on opaque controls over society through new digital communications and social technologies.

For the time being, the new system does not exist anywhere in its entirety and visibly. However, the contours of the system have already begun to take shape. The fight of governments against the coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the crisis phenomena in the previous political system, and we can expect to see in the coming years a number of stories on the transformation of politics.

Digital technologies and the globalisation of disorder