By: Zack Breslin
We are entering a stage of the pandemic that we might optimistically term “the beginning of the end.” The rollout of the various vaccines has begun in earnest, and as our most vulnerable citizens are vaccinated, we can now finally catch a glimpse of that faint light at the end of the tunnel. That the pandemic will end is a certainty, but so too is the fact that its consequences will linger for many years to come.
What sort of world will Covid-19 leave in its wake? It would perhaps not be unreasonable to assume that the long-term effects of this pandemic will be negative. Covid-19 struck a world in which nationalist populism was becoming increasingly ascendant. Some academics have warned that the “pandemic will amplify these forces, leading nation-states to turn further inward,” ushering in a more divided, dog-eat-dog world of acrimonious competition between states. Add to this the growing mistrust that has been in evidence throughout the crisis (think of the proliferation of conspiracy theories), as well as the fact that we are all undergoing something of a collective trauma, and we could well be facing a future in which citizens demand authoritarianism and nationalism as a type of seductive palliative for societal ills, just as they did in some countries during the Great Depression.
How We Got Here
It does not help that the pandemic has accelerated the long-term trend of rising inequality. As the economist, Grace Blakeley points out in her book The Corona Crash, “By the end of the crisis, a tiny oligarchy of politicians, central bankers, financiers, and corporate executives will have further monopolised wealth and power in the global economy.” The priorities of this ruling cabal could mean that the post-pandemic world is characterized by a prolonged period of austerity, as financial markets demand an end to the increased government spending that we have witnessed throughout the pandemic. This, in turn, would further increase the likelihood of a shift toward nationalist authoritarianism, just as the post-2008 austerity drive contributed to Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump.
In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein described how “disaster capitalists” use crisis moments to implement free-market policies that impoverish the masses while enriching elites. That this pandemic has disoriented citizens across the world and resulted in general upheaval means that it may well be conducive to an agenda that further centralizes power and wealth into the hands of the elite. But even absent any pre-planned nefarious agenda, it is well known that crises tend to produce era-defining change. The Great Depression is perhaps the most illuminating example of this. The misery and poverty which the 1929 crash resulted in was the direct precursor to the rise of fascist movements that overthrew liberal democracy in several nations. This, in turn, resulted in the global conflagration that was World War Two and the accompanying horrors of the Holocaust, undoubtedly the two most dystopic events in world history.
But the example of the Great Depression (and World War Two) tells us that crisis-induced change can also be remarkably positive. Out of the ashes of dystopia rose the welfare state, instituted to prevent the type of catastrophe that preceded it. Policymakers learned the lessons of the previous years of despair. They embarked upon a serious attempt to promote the well-being of the masses through the acceptance of trade unions, progressive taxation, and a massive expansion of government welfare programs. The result was an unprecedented era of equality and general prosperity throughout the western world. Looking back much further, the Black Death during the Middle Ages was perhaps the most significant demographic disaster in European history, claiming tens of millions of lives. Yet even this catastrophic crisis brought with it the winds of positive change; the aftermath of the plague saw substantial wage increases for the peasantry and even contributed to the end of feudalism.
Covid-19 is no Black Death, but a case can be made that it will nonetheless prove to be a transformative moment in history. Shifts that seemed politically impossible before the pandemic have already occurred. The United Kingdom is an instructive example in this regard. Prior to the pandemic, the UK held an election where voters were faced with a choice between Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Corbyn ran on a left-wing platform of nationalizing key industries and increasing government spending to tackle poverty. It was a campaign that was widely pilloried as containing too many unrealistic promises, and the electorate decisively rejected Corbyn’s agenda of redistribution and state intervention. Yet, weeks into the pandemic, and a mere three months after the election, the UK had nationalized much of its railway network and was, in effect, paying people not to work. As one writer noted, “Britain has experienced the kind of social and political upheaval that normally only comes when you guillotine some royals, or storm a winter palace.” This example, and that of numerous other countries, reveals to us that previously unthinkable transformations can take place rapidly when conditions allow it.
Of course, this is not to say that our current crisis will give rise to positive change. Nobody can yet know whether the new trends unleashed by the pandemic will be beneficial or not. Will the winds of change resemble that which followed World War One and the Spanish flu pandemic? This was an era referred to by the historian Richard Overy as “the morbid age,” one of paranoia, fear, and suffering that eventually culminated in the Holocaust. Or will it produce the “never again” mood that reflected the aftermath of World War Two, in which immense economic and social progress was achieved?
A Better Safety Net
Thankfully, there are some arguments to be made that it will be the latter. Firstly, there are indications that the pandemic is strengthening social solidarity. Human beings have an immense capacity for cooperation and empathy, and our ability to work together has been a crucial factor in the advance of civilization. Throughout history, times of crisis have witnessed increases in this spirit of generosity and cooperation, particularly when we are faced with existential threats. In hard times, people pull together, and our current situation is no different.
As such, one paradox of the pandemic has been that as we are forced into more social isolation, social solidarity has increased. For example, we have witnessed the proliferation of mutual aid groups in which communities come together to support those who are most vulnerable to the health and social impacts of the virus. If such groups outlast the pandemic, we could see the emergence of a type of “grass-roots socialism,” with people organizing together to ensure that those in need receive the social support they require.
Although there are socio-economic groups whose wealth largely insulates them from the worst effects of the pandemic, much of society is sharing a broadly similar experience, giving truth to the overused cliché that “we are all in this together.” The pandemic is thus helping to erode the old Thatcherite argument that “there is no such thing as society” as it has become increasingly clear that we are dependent upon one another for our wellbeing and for our survival. Such a realization could even come to gradually erode the overwhelmingly individualistic, consumerist, and atomized nature of western society.
Increased social solidarity could also lead to a clamor for more government intervention to fix societal ills, as a less individualistic society would be one more inclined to protect disadvantaged groups. Furthermore, as the pandemic-induced economic crisis exposes like never before the precarity of the many, there is a growing and unanswerable case for the implementation of a more universal system of government welfare. With millions of people out of work, there is already an increased demand for measures that mitigate the effects of unemployment. We should not be surprised if these demands outlast the current crisis. The pandemic has also emphasized the need for access to universal health care, and growing demands such as “Medicare For All” will surely persist in the post-pandemic world. Just as the Great Depression gave rise to the suite of pro-people policies collectively known as the New Deal in the US and “the welfare state” in Europe, so too may the pandemic give impetus for more government programs that provide much-needed protection for citizens.
The traditional arguments against such measures, i.e., their affordability, have been fundamentally undermined over the past year. As governments implement massive spending programs to tackle the deep economic crisis, the old argument about there being “no magic money tree” has been proved to be demonstrably false. In the US, the Federal Reserve effectively now follows a policy of perpetual Quantitative Easing while the US Congress passed a $2 trillion stimulus package in March 2020 to prop up the economy. In Europe, the ECB continues its asset purchasing program, pumping billions of euros into financial markets while at the same time national governments spend with abandon.
Of course, the primary beneficiaries of this new-found government largesse have been corporations, financial markets, and the rich. Nonetheless, governments across the world have, in many cases, adopted fiscal policies that have protected people from the worst impacts of the economic crisis. In Sweden, the state has guaranteed laid-off workers 90 percent of their salaries until the pandemic ends. In France, the state offered “partial unemployment benefits,” amounting to 85 percent of laid-off workers’ salaries. Even governments that have been traditionally wedded to neoliberal principles have increased subsidies to workers and the unemployed.
A Better Job Market
With such programs having the effect of normalizing direct cash transfers to citizens, the prospect of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has been placed firmly on the agenda. One study shows that 71% of Europeans are now in favor of it. Even before the pandemic, long-term trends suggested a UBI may be necessary, with the most noteworthy of these being the rapidly accelerating trend of automation. In a future where employment becomes scarcer, the introduction of a UBI could give everybody the means to survive, while also allowing for a greater ability to switch jobs, take time to train for new roles, provide care to loved ones, and even pursue creative endeavors.
A UBI could be just one aspect of a radical transformation of employment patterns. Already, the pandemic has resulted in fundamental shifts in how we see work. In particular, millions of employees have been forced to work from home, and many have enjoyed the benefits of doing so. The era of office work may be now coming to an end, but the transformation need not stop there. The pandemic is not only causing employers to re-evaluate where their workers perform tasks, but also for how long. With millions of people working from home, some companies have realized the benefits of a shorter working week and are adjusting workdays to suit employees’ needs.
Campaigners argue that the “pandemic is the ideal opportunity to rethink work patterns to boost economies and improve overall wellbeing — and that now is the time to ditch the five-day, 40-hour workweek”. Indeed, shorter working weeks have in the past been deployed during recessions as a way of more equitably sharing work between the unemployed and the over-employed. Just as with UBI, a shorter working week could be a useful tool in mitigating against the long-term high joblessness made more likely by automation. It would tackle unemployment and result in higher productivity levels, less staff turnover, and generally a happier society.
If we move toward a society where work is re-imagined for the better, we mustn’t leave behind those workers who currently experience highly precarious employment. Ideas about shorter working weeks, more work flexibility, and working from home are all well and good for white-collar professionals, but can they apply to the ever-growing section of workers who toil long hours for low pay, often in poor conditions?
A Better Labor Movement
The pandemic has revealed just how vital such workers are. Low-paid workers in grocery stores, warehouses and factories, delivery drivers, public transport workers, and many more have ensured the continued availability of essential goods and services throughout the crisis. In short, we have seen that it is often those at the lower end of the pay scale that are most crucial to a functioning society. They are unlikely to work from home, with one survey finding that just 3% of those in lower socio-economic groups could do so, meaning they have been disproportionately exposed to the virus. They are also less likely to take sick leave, which should be an absolute necessity during a pandemic.
But as with so much else in this pandemic, the hardships placed on low-paid workers have a silver lining. For many, increased awareness has arisen that society’s wealth originates not from the rich but from the labor of the millions carrying out “essential work.” This realization may yet result in a fairer slice of the pie for such workers. In the US, an outlier among developed countries in terms of workers’ rights, the pandemic has already brought some minor improvements. Congress has granted paid leave for some workers for the first time, and more companies are offering their employees subsidized childcare, paid leave, and more flexible hours.
With more workers waking up to the fact that their indispensability puts them in a strong bargaining position, there will be increased demands for higher wages, shorter hours, and safer working conditions. Already, the pandemic is giving rise to new workplace struggles. There have been coordinated strikes at Whole Foods, Instacart, and several other large companies in the US, with workers demanding basic protections such as sick leave and the provision of Personal Protective Equipment. Meanwhile, at Amazon, a company criticized for its poor working conditions, a new cross border workers movement has sprung up. Known as Amazon Workers International, it is “an informal network of mostly warehouse workers [that] brings together dozens of worker groups from the United States and six EU countries.” It has been described as a “new, digitized, international labor movement that is borrowing from the e-commerce giant’s own playbook to press for higher pay and better working conditions around the world.” With the pandemic resulting in a considerable upturn in Amazon’s profits, workers are now rightfully demanding their fair share.
Better pay and conditions for workers, shorter working hours, even a Universal Basic Income; the pandemic has increased the scope for a radical overhaul of employment norms. When combined with a government plan that places new-found emphasis on societal welfare and protecting the vulnerable, this would amount to a much-needed bailout of the masses, a welcome change from the type of bailouts we have become accustomed to. But if we want a brighter future, it is not just people who need to be bailed out. It is the planet itself.
A Better Planet
Our world continues to suffer from environmental degradation. It is currently on a climatic trajectory set to produce a “hothouse earth” scenario where even the continuation of industrial civilization itself may be called into question. UBI or a four-day workweek will not protect us from such an outcome. Thankfully, it is not too late to tackle the looming disaster of runaway climate change. Here also, the pandemic can give us some cause for hope. We have witnessed that governments can take drastic measures in times of crisis, even when there is a high economic cost. What is more, the rolling lockdowns implemented across the world have, in some cases, substantially reduced carbon emissions. In China, for example, levels of greenhouse gas emissions were at one point 25% less than expected.
Of course, lockdowns are not the solution to climate change. Instead, what will be required is a redirection of our economic energies toward creating a system in which the burning of fossil fuels is no longer the driving force. With the global economy falling into and out of crises, there is now a unique opportunity to make this shift. Many governments will likely be spending heavily in the coming years to stimulate their economies, and this must be done in a manner that reduces carbon emissions. The various stimulus packages that governments have introduced have not been formulated with climate change in mind. One study found that just 4% of such programs are likely to reduce emissions, with an overwhelming 92% of them set to “sustain the pre-crisis emission trajectory.”
This must, and can, change. Many industries will need state support, which gives governments across the world enormous leverage to demand that industry lowers its carbon emissions. Such a demand could be made a condition of any future bailouts. Furthermore, any stimulus spending directed at creating new jobs needs to be primarily targeted at green industries, such as clean energy or even a labor-intensive re-wilding program. There is growing evidence that such an agenda is increasingly popular, with opinion polls across the world showing that people expect the environment to be a priority in any new recovery plan.
Of course, there remains the danger that a transition away from a fossil fuel-based economy would be undertaken unjustly. If this were to occur, the popular support required for such a transformation would likely be lacking. But this is also what makes the current crisis an ideal juncture at which to embark on the greening of the economy. When combined with radical shifts in how we see our government and employment, climate change mitigation could be an essential pillar of a transformative post-pandemic agenda. One that emphasizes social solidarity and protection, increased leisure time, better pay for workers, and amounts to a new era in which inequality starts to come down. This might seem utopian, but crisis moments can be highly conducive to such change.
There is no guarantee that the current crisis will give way to such a world. As noted, crises can also bring negative transformations. This is what happened after the economic crash of 2008. Back then, there was a failure of imagination, and the opportunity for transformative, positive change was squandered. Instead, that crisis led to years of austerity, growing nationalism and xenophobia, and ever-rising inequality. It need not be the case again. The pandemic can be the wake-up call that drags us out of our current trajectory. We can build a world of lower inequality and increased solidarity, a world where the vulnerable are protected and where we start to reverse the multiple environmental catastrophes we have created.
Yet, we cannot rely on our leaders to usher in such a world. Unless pressured to do otherwise, our current political leadership will once more react with a failure of imagination. We must force them to represent our interests. After all, this is supposed to be their job. But this can only be achieved by an immense effort, an ongoing struggle that by necessity will long outlast the pandemic.
Above all, we must avoid a return to normality. There is a better world there for the taking.