Politics after the pandemic: can good follow bad?

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French environmental activist Nicolas Hulot gives a speech in 2015. Image: Fondation Nicolas Hulot pour la Nature et l'Homme/ Flickr

An important body of thought warns us what to expect as the coronavirus pandemic fades from view: After a crisis, a bad situation gets worse. 

The captains of corporate globalization turn the screws on workers, shred remaining environmental protections and play the political system to their advantage.

In a body of work, Philip Mirowski has explained how neoliberalism turns changed circumstances into new opportunities for capital. 

Shoshana Zuboff, in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, captures how neoliberalism is getting hyped up to cement class divides and exclude citizens from essential services. 

In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein detailed how capitalists take advantage of crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nicolas Hulot -- the prominent French environmental activist who was appointed minister of ecological and solidary transition by President Emmanuel Macron in 2017, only to resign 15 months later -- adopts a different approach. He wants good to follow bad. 

On a bilingual website, Hulot presents 100 principles the world should adopt now to reorganize itself politically, socially and economically to deal with the climate emergency and remedy the economic failures exposed by the coronavirus epidemic.

Hulot comes across as an over-the-top optimist. For instance, the first of his five immediate policy proposals -- the creation of a "European recovery and ecological transformation fund of several thousand billions of euros" -- looks impossible to be adopted since it requires approval from a backward European Council and unheard of sums of money. 

But before rejecting Hulot as an out-of-touch dreamer, it is worth considering where he comes from and what he has in mind. 

Speaking with C politique, a Sunday night French television program, Hulot pointed out that we have known for decades that corporations have been protecting humongous taxable revenues from national treasuries through financial trickery and the use of tax havens. 

In other words, political parties of all stripes and governments have been complicit in a gigantic rip-off that continues today, and costs thousands of billions of dollars or euros that could be redirected to a recovery and ecological fund.

In the world Hulot -- like Klein, Zuboff and Mirowski -- describes, the biggest prevailing untruth is that capitalism serves the common good because it enriches society. 

Yes, capitalism is better than what preceded it, feudalism. 

More to the point, society subsidizes capitalism through underpaid and unpaid labour; socializing corporate losses and environmental destruction; educating and keeping healthy workers and consumers; providing public contracts; and direct subsidies.

For fossil fuels alone, the IMF projected worldwide public subsidies in 2017 to total $5.2 trillion!   

Putting a stop to thievery on a mass scale by companies pirating private information, desecrating the environment, endangering survival of the species and corrupting public life will take a revolution, which is what Hulot is proposing.

Call it as he does an amicable revolution -- or a peaceful revolution -- Hulot argues a major transformation of society is an idea whose time has come.

No revolution is possible without ideals. The 100 principles Hulot puts forward are assembled to inspire a democratic makeover of political life and an integration of the economic into an ecological worldview.  

More importantly, as Greta Thunberg has said, for several months now the world has been a living example of how seriously world carbon footprints can change in response to scientific reasoning.

Physical distancing, school and commercial closures, self-isolation, and attention to personal hygiene took over most of the world in order to avoid immediate danger from the spreading infection. 

By governments' responses to the pandemic, people have seen that living differently must be possible, since they have been doing it.

A move from very bad living for precarious workers and the poor to an ecologically sustainable existence for all needs new thinking about what paths lead to the common good.

To reject a total change in the way public affairs are run means either to see no future for emancipatory politics, or to deny the true state of the world today.

Hulot is undoubtedly an idealist. Like Klein, Zuboff and Mirowski, he sees how things have gone wrong. By announcing an amicable revolution, Hulot is appealing to the better side of human nature: The educated, reasoning capacity that co-exists with the nasty, dangerous side of human nature, dominated by passions without judgement.

Hulot speaks to both hearts and minds: calling out to us to seize the moment, marshal everything we know and have learned makes sense, and act together now, to make a better world.

Duncan Cameron is president emeritus of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Image: Fondation Nicolas Hulot pour la Nature et l'Homme/ Flickr

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