In recent months we’ve heard dramatic warnings from figures in Catholic media regarding an alleged plan for post-COVID global change called “the Great Reset.” Some of these warnings are based upon reasonable concerns, while others are examples of outright conspiracy-mongering. C.C. Pecknold, without getting into conspiracy-theory territory, argues in First Things that the Great Reset is a pseudo-religious slogan of elite secularist technocrats, and that in fact “Jesus Christ is the only ‘Great Reset’ possible.” Taking things much further, Cardinal Burke describes the Great Reset as one component of an “evil agenda” of forces “inimical to families and to the freedom of states,” while Archbishop Viganò claims it will involve “a health dictatorship aiming at the imposition of liberticidal measures” as part of a transition to the New World Order. Burke and Viganò provide no convincing evidence to back up their claims, but that has proven to be no obstacle to the fomentation of panic. The Great Reset has become, in the minds of many, the threatening backdrop to the COVID-19 restrictions that most of us face, and Pope Francis is now being associated with it by some hostile Catholic commentators.
Great Reset conspiracy theory is not a specifically Catholic phenomenon, and examples of it in the Catholic sphere are dwarfed by those in the realm of right-wing politics and commentary at large. The general phenomenon has already been documented in an article from earlier this month by Naomi Klein (who is a Great Reset skeptic herself). Given, however, that in the Catholic world there appears to be little serious critical engagement with the idea of the Great Reset, I will provide an overview here that will hopefully provide some clarity, or at least a starting-point for productive discussion.
The Great Reset is both the name of an initiative by the World Economic Forum and the title of a book by WEF executive chairman Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret. It will also be the theme of the 2021 WEF meeting in Davos, Switzerland. For those unfamiliar with the WEF and its mission, it describes itself as the “International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation,” and it seeks to facilitate policy discussion among global leaders in government, industry, and finance. Its Davos meetings are often high-profile, high-security affairs, and provide a meeting-space for such policy discussions to take place. Anyone paying attention to the key figures in global politics and industry over the last decade or two will likely have heard of the Davos meeting. President Donald Trump spoke there just last January, offering his contrarian perspective on climate change.
The WEF and Davos loom large in the popular political imagination of both the far left and right. Critics on the political left have long treated the WEF and the Davos meetings with extreme suspicion, and Pecknold, though he is not a leftist, captures the leftist attitude toward the WEF when he suggests that the Great Reset “is not about social justice, but about expanding the power of capital via the pseudo-religious impetus of progressive aims.” WEF-talk, for the left, is nothing more than empty rhetoric used by the representatives of global capital, which always reinvents itself by co-opting forces of resistance, and Davos is where the brains of capital meet to plot in private. Critics on the political right (usually the populist or far right), on the other hand, tend to see the WEF as a forum for ideological technocrats who wish to usher in a one-world government. The WEF and Davos represent not the face of global capitalism but instead a new and insidious form of communism that will be thrust upon the world by a great cabal of elites.
The reality is less exciting, but ultimately more interesting. I took the time to read Schwab and Mallaret’s COVID-19: The Great Reset, and I can say that it contains very few ideas that correspond with the terrifying vision of the Great Reset we hear about from the likes of Burke or Viganò. Overall, it provides an insightful overview of the global challenges posed by COVID-19—particularly in the economic realm. The title is derived from the observation that “history shows that epidemics have been the great resetter of countries’ economy and social fabric,” in the sense that during a plague, rapid economic and social changes occur that are not soon undone. The authors argue that we need to recognize and analyze the changes happening all around us, determine which are good and which are bad, and prepare for what comes next by taking new approaches to the creation of public policy. COVID-19: The Great Reset does not provide anything resembling a definite program for the future, but rather poses questions and points out possibilities, with the hope that policymakers will take these into consideration.
One effect of the pandemic, according to Schwab and Malleret, will be to fuel existing trends (and it is worth noting that some of these trends, though not all, are broadly in line with the populist, anti-globalist goals of WEF critics on the right):
At the very least…, the pandemic will accelerate systemic changes that were already apparent prior to the crisis: the partial retreat from globalization, the growing decoupling between the US and China, the acceleration of automation, concerns about heightened surveillance, the growing appeal of well-being policies, rising nationalism and the subsequent fear of immigration, the growing power of tech, the necessity for firms to have an even stronger online presence, among many others.
According to this analysis, far from being a catalyst for globalization, COVID-19 will further disrupt the path toward globalization that had been largely taken for granted before 2016. Businesses will no longer take the chance of relying on complicated supply chains that can easily be destroyed by sudden restrictions on trade and travel. Borders will eventually reopen, but now that we recognize global pandemics as a genuine existential threat, it’s hard to imagine that borders will be as permeable as before.
The effects of the pandemic will also include new trends, however, some of which will significantly transform the social and economic status quo:
First and foremost, the post-pandemic era will usher in a period of massive wealth redistribution, from the rich to the poor and from capital to labour. Second, COVID-19 is likely to sound the death knell of neoliberalism, a corpus of ideas and policies that can loosely by defined as favouring competition over solidarity, creative destruction over government intervention and economic growth over social welfare.
Here is where we get to the heart of what the Great Reset signifies. It will bring about a worldwide shift away from the neoliberal order—in some ways going far beyond anything the new populism could have hoped to achieve. Governments will be forced, not by ideological pressure but by the stark requirements of survival, to provide more direct financial support to citizens, broaden and strengthen social safety nets, and focus on long-term resilience over short-term benefit. Solidarity will be the watchword of the future. The key message is that we had forgotten that life is about more than competition and profit, and it took the pandemic to remind us.
COVID-19: The Great Reset looks at the trends that have been either accelerated or set in motion by the pandemic and how they might play out in a variety of domains, including international relations, finance, industry, and technology. There is no plan for centralized totalitarian control, or even a hint of one. One chapter even addresses “the risk of dystopia”—the threat that the need for robust data collection for pandemic-related purposes like contact tracing or maintaining vaccination records may lead to further erosion of privacy under the sort of “surveillance capitalism” warned about by academic Shoshana Zuboff. Everything is up for grabs, and whether we end up in a dystopia or not depends on the willingness of our leaders in government and business to think through a wide array of potential risks and benefits and make the right choices.
Some aspects of the analysis of our post-pandemic possibilities that I have described above will sound familiar to those who have read Pope Francis’s encyclical Fratelli Tutti or his new book with Austen Ivereigh, Let Us Dream. (Indeed, Schwab and Malleret even draw insights from two economists, Mariana Mazzucato and Kate Raworth, who Pope Francis also mentions in Let Us Dream). Although Pope Francis does not get into the weeds of policy, his overview of the current global situation, evaluation of the challenges at hand, and conviction that we have a chance to come out of the pandemic with a renewed sense of solidarity and social purpose are surprisingly in line with the thinking of Schwab and Malleret as presented in COVID-19: The Great Reset. His input has also been well-received, as shown by this article on Fratelli Tutti which appeared on the WEF website and treats the encyclical with a seriousness that exceeds that shown by some Catholic media outlets. This is not because Pope Francis is in on the conspiracy, or because he has uncritically adopted a Davos style of thinking. Rather, we are in a moment where many people across the globe are thinking in similar ways—one akin to the period after World War II where, at least for a short time, a broad consensus could be established across ideological divides.
There is much, much more to say on this topic—and I hope to delve further into it in the near future—but I propose that we should be optimistic regarding the global discussion that is taking place. Further, if the pope has emerged as a prophetic voice in this context, with the potential to act as a moral guide for the Great Reset by steering it toward an outcome that will promote human flourishing and fraternity, that should not be a cause for fear or consternation. A Great Reset is badly needed, and we should take any global meeting of minds on this issue as a sign of hope. Be not afraid.
Schwab, Klaus and Thierry Malleret. COVID-19: The Great Reset. Forum Publishing, 2020.