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Out of the Tragedy of Coronavirus may come Hope of a more Just Society

22 April, 2020

This speech was first published as an article in Social Europe, on 22 April 2020.

Read the article here.

The global loss of life and disruption to our daily lives resulting from the coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented in living memory. We have learned through tragedy that we have a shared, globalised vulnerability common to all humanity. We are learning how we, as a matter of urgency, must make changes to improve resilience in a range of essential areas: employment, healthcare, housing. We have been forced to recognise our dependence on our public-sector frontline workers, and the state’s broader role in mitigating this crisis and saving lives.

The coronavirus has magnified the scale of our existing social crises and has proved, if ever proof were required, how government can act decisively when the will is there. It has shown us how so many are only ever one wage payment away from impoverishment, how those in self-employment or workers in the ‘gig’ economy lack security and basic employment rights, how private tenants in unregulated housing markets are at the mercy of their landlords, how many designated ‘key workers’ are appallingly undervalued and underpaid. Averting our gaze to these grim truths is no longer an option.

Years of eroding welfare states in many societies have had to give way, under pressure from the virus, to significant welfare actions as emergency measures. These reflect the impact decades of unfettered neoliberalism have had on whole sectors of society and economy, left without protection as to basic necessities of life, security and the ability to participate.

There is now a widespread, recovered recognition not only of the state’s positive role in managing such crises but of how it can play a decisive, transformative role in our lives for the better. The erosion of the state’s role, the weakening of its institutions and the undermining of its significance for over four decades has left us with a less just and more precarious society and economy.

As we respond, and thinking of the labour market, there is no precedent for the asymmetric mix of mobilisation and demobilisation of labour we are now witnessing. Writing in Social Europe recently, Jan Zielonka astutely remarked:

The coronavirus has exposed the scale of the public sector’s neglect after a long period of neoliberal folly. Today no one in Europe dares to claim that private hospitals can combat the virus better than the public ones. Underpaid nurses from these public hospitals are now more precious than private health consultants.

How regrettable it is that it has taken a pandemic in which thousands of lives have been lost in so many countries to establish, or rekindle, widespread appreciation of work in the public sphere, of the public sector and the importance in the economy of the public good—and, in terms of our shared future, the state’s benign and transformative capacity.

Many concerned citizens had hoped, even mistakenly believed, that progressive political-economy paradigms would flow from the 2008 financial crash. As the ‘free-market’ economist Milton Friedman correctly identified in Capitalism and Freedom, ‘Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change … When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.’

New ideas are now required—ideas based on equality, universal public services, equity of access, sufficiency, sustainability. New ideas are available for an alternative paradigm of social economy within ecological responsibility.

Fortunately, we now have a richer discourse, thanks to scholars such as Ian Gough, Mariana Mazzucato, Sylvia Walby, Kate Raworth and others who advance an ecologically sustainable and socially progressive alternative to our destructive, failed paradigm.

Mazzucato has recently proposed that any firm-level financial assistance provided to recapitalise major companies should be conditional on a ‘greening’ agenda for its receipt. Such a suggestion is a useful contribution as we forge ahead with an eco-social paradigm which now represents our best hope for a sustainable future.

Out of respect for those who have suffered greatly, those who have lost their lives and indeed the bereaved families, we must not drift into some notion that we can recover what we had previously as a sufficient resolution—that we can revert to the insecurity of where we were before, through mere adjustment of fiscal- and monetary-policy parameters. That would be so wholly insufficient to the task now at hand. A brighter horizon must be put forward which offers hope.

The coronavirus provides us with an opportunity to do things better. This crisis will pass, but there will be other viruses and other crises. We cannot let ourselves be left in the same vulnerable position again. We have, yet again, learned lessons in relation to healthcare and equity, in relation to what is necessary in terms of income and the necessities of life.

On the most basic level, we should recover and strengthen instincts which we may have suppressed, which the lure of individualism may have driven out, displacing a sense of the collective, of shared solidarity—allowing the state’s value and contribution to be derided and disregarded, so that a narrow agenda of accumulation could be pursued.

The coronavirus has highlighted the unequivocal case for a new eco-social political economy—of having universal basic services that will protect us in the future, as Anna Coote and Andrew Percy have suggested, and of enabling people to have a sufficiency of what they need, as Ian Gough has contended.

We also need, as is now urgent and as Oxfam’s recent report shows, global solidarity if we are to avoid healthcare collapse in many developing countries, including in sub-Saharan Africa. We require enhanced attempts at the global level to build a new international architecture, to reverse the policy of fragmentation and institutional damage that has in recent years affected the United Nations and other multilateral organisations.

Transformative actions are required. The recently published, meticulously researched analysis by Ireland’s National Economic and Social Council (NESC) of the ‘just transition’ is a seminal document, offering a useful intellectual framework for the wider challenge we face as we attempt to forge a new path to an enlightened political economy, founded on ecology, social cohesion and equality. That report recommends a ‘purposeful, participative and multi-faceted approach to governance; appropriate social protection for those at risk from transition impacts; supportive arrangements and sectoral measures, and inclusive place-based development and investment’.

I support NESC’s call for the establishment of a social dialogue and deliberative process, which should be framed in the wider context of discussions as to how we embed the just economy and society now so urgently needed and desired by the citizenry.

Successful crisis management is no guarantee of durable reform. We therefore need to embed the hard-earned wisdom from this crisis into strong scholarly work, policy and institutional frameworks—this is the great challenge from a political-economy perspective. It will require, as NESC identifies, determined action by all governments, setting out priority actions, the sequence of interventions and timeframes for implementation, as well as consideration of what resources are needed.

Understandably, much current economic commentary focuses on the cost of the pandemic, but we must also reflect on the systemic weaknesses it has exposed in how we organise our society and economy. How can we address these frailties? How can we do things better, to realise the paradigm shift that is urgently required?

Our challenge is therefore to draw on the lessons of solidarity and ingenuity as the coronavirus confronts 21st-century society and its world economy with a new kind of emergency hazard—galvanising that sentiment across the citizenries of the globe which recognises the inherent flaws of our current model, and embracing a new paradigm founded on universalism, sustainability and equality.

What is a further, real basis for hope is that, within such a framework, it is possible to respond together to the coronavirus, climate change, the impact of digitalisation and an inequality which threatens democracy itself.