It is obvious that the coronavirus pandemic will be front-page news for a good part of 2020. And for good reason, since its human toll and social dislocation has been devastating. Though not theorised in this way, this crisis ought to be understood as yet another marker of our age of transition. The world system of the past five hundred years, one of Western hegemony, has been undergoing profound tectonic shifts.

There are three nodes of these global ruptures that will map out the direction of the world ahead.

The first is the very obvious decline of American power. Years ago, analysts would laugh at such a thought. The Cold War had been won by the US, and the ‘end of history’ had ushered in the unipolar kingdom of America. Since that time, the promised ‘peace dividend’ has of course been a fraud, since Washington has literally been engaged in nonstop war in all corners of the planet, especially West Asia, during this period.

The emergence of the US now as the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic may indeed seem like the cause of the rapid decline of its economic and political muscle. But that would be a mistaken view. What this pandemic’s impact on America has exposed are the weaknesses of an empire in decline for quite a while now. The most influential social scientist of the last half-century, the late Immanuel Wallerstein, argued that American imperial decline had actually begun in the 1970s when a rapidly reconstructed Germany-based Europe and a Japan-based East Asia became competitors to the US economic hegemony. Facing this crisis of ‘profitability,’ elites began dismantling welfare states and instituted neoliberalism to restore the class power of the financial aristocracy. Their profits in the financialisation of the economy may have continued and expanded, but American productivity slowed down enormously as the wages and well-being of ordinary Americans suffered from that point onwards.

Since the turn of this century, we can see three events that signify precisely the last stage of American supremacy, coinciding with Western hegemony of the world system in general. 9/11, the disastrous war on Iraq in 2003, and now culminating in the supposedly richest, most advanced country in the world unable to cope with a virus – all of these point to the final death knells of the American empire.

The second most evident node of the global rupture of the world system is the replacement of a single hegemon, the United States, by a world that looks like it will be without one for a very long time. That is, multipolarity seems to be on the horizon for decades to come since powers like China, Russia, Turkey, Pakistan, and so on – don’t look like they will be bullied around too easily anymore by the US or any Western power. An important point here is that this is not only a ‘de-centring of the West’ in political, economic, and military terms; it is also in epistemological terms. That is, the shifting balance of power in the global system has already begun the process of the recovery of alternative knowledge systems and paradigms of development and the ‘good life.’

With a multipolar global system of nation-states and the collapse of a single hegemon, the third node of this systemic rupture will perhaps be the most important. While multipolarity can halt the excesses of imperial interventionism and militarism, which is not a small achievement, it certainly does not automatically translate into a more equitable global order for the social majorities of the planet.

2020 is a pivotal year in the struggle to define and shape the world to come. All of the multiple cascading political, economic, moral-spiritual, and, most importantly, ecological crises have been made so starkly visible by a single virus. What we have been witnessing, and will continue to do so, is intense pressure by elites to maximise state ‘socialist’ rescue of themselves from this crisis. That should lay bare what we are up against.

What emerges after 2020 is entirely unpredictable. All of the objective factors are in front of us, including elite ruthlessness, scandalous inequality and apathy for the lives and deaths of ordinary working people. The age of transition had begun before 2020, but this year marks its definitive historical trajectory and direction. The world system, as we know, it is coming to an end, and the de-centring of the West is certainly a positive aspect of it. But the bifurcation of the world system, as Wallerstein pointed out, can lead to one of two directions.

The new world order can be worse than the previous one, more unequal and authoritarian. Or, if we take seriously the emancipatory ethos from both our prophetic religious and secular philosophical traditions, we can struggle to make it a relatively more just and egalitarian one.

Junaid S Ahmad

The author is the Director of the Center for Global Studies, UMT. He can be reached at junaidsahmad