Where will we be in six months, a year, ten years from now? I lie awake at night wondering what the future holds for my loved ones. My vulnerable friends and relatives. I wonder what will happen to my job, even though I’m luckier than many: I get good sick pay and can work remotely. I am writing this from the UK, where I still have self-employed friends who are staring down the barrel of months without pay, friends who have already lost jobs. The contract that pays 80% of my salary runs out in December. Coronavirus is hitting the economy bad. Will anyone be hiring when I need work?
There are a number of possible futures, all dependent on how governments and society respond to coronavirus and its economic aftermath. Hopefully we will use this crisis to rebuild, produce something better and more humane. But we may slide into something worse.
I think we can understand our situation – and what might lie in our future – by looking at the political economy of other crises. My research focuses on the fundamentals of the modern economy: global supply chains, wages, and productivity. I look at the way that economic dynamics contribute to challenges like climate change and low levels of mental and physical health among workers. I have argued that we need a very different kind of economics if we are to build socially just and ecologically sound futures. In the face of COVID-19, this has never been more obvious.
The responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are simply the amplification of the dynamic that drives other social and ecological crises: the prioritisation of one type of value over others. This dynamic has played a large part in driving global responses to COVID-19. So as responses to the virus evolve, how might our economic futures develop?
From an economic perspective, there are four possible futures: a descent into barbarism, a robust state capitalism, a radical state socialism, and a transformation into a big society built on mutual aid. Versions of all of these futures are perfectly possible, if not equally desirable.
Small changes don’t cut it
Coronavirus, like climate change, is partly a problem of our economic structure. Although both appear to be “environmental” or “natural” problems, they are socially driven.
Yes, climate change is caused by certain gases absorbing heat. But that’s a very shallow explanation. To really understand climate change, we need to understand the social reasons that keep us emitting greenhouse gases. Likewise with COVID-19. Yes, the direct cause is the virus. But managing its effects requires us to understand human behaviour and its wider economic context.
Tackling both COVID-19 and climate change is much easier if you reduce nonessential economic activity. For climate change this is because if you produce less stuff, you use less energy, and emit fewer greenhouse gases. The epidemiology of COVID-19 is rapidly evolving. But the core logic is similarly simple. People mix together and spread infections. This happens in households, and in workplaces, and on the journeys people make. Reducing this mixing is likely to reduce person-to-person transmission and lead to fewer cases overall.
Reducing contact between people probably also helps with other control strategies. One common control strategy for infectious disease outbreaks is contact tracing and isolation, where an infected person’s contacts are identified, then isolated to prevent further disease spread. This is most effective when you trace a high percentage of contacts. The fewer contacts a person has, the fewer you have to trace to get to that higher percentage.
We can see from Wuhan that social distancing and lockdown measures like this are effective. Political economy is useful in helping us understand why they weren’t introduced earlier in European countries and the US.
A fragile economy
Lockdown is placing pressure on the global economy. We face a serious recession. This pressure has led some world leaders to call for an easing of lockdown measures.
Even as 19 countries sat in a state of lockdown, the US president, Donald Trump, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro called for roll backs in mitigation measures. Trump called for the American economy to get back to normal in three weeks (he has now accepted that social distancing will need to be maintained for much longer). Bolsonaro said: “Our lives have to go on. Jobs must be kept … We must, yes, get back to normal.”
In the UK meanwhile, four days before calling for a three-week lockdown, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was only marginally less optimistic, saying that the UK could turn the tide within 12 weeks. Yet even if Johnson is correct, it remains the case that we are living with an economic system that will threaten collapse at the next sign of pandemic.
The economics of collapse are fairly straightforward. Businesses exist to make a profit. If they can’t produce, they can’t sell things. This means they won’t make profits, which means they are less able to employ you. Businesses can and do (over short time periods) hold on to workers that they don’t need immediately: they want to be able to meet demand when the economy picks back up again. But, if things start to look really bad, then they won’t. So, more people lose their jobs or fear losing their jobs. So they buy less. And the whole cycle starts again, and we spiral into an economic depression.
In a normal crisis the prescription for solving this is simple. The government spends, and it spends until people start consuming and working again. (This prescription is what the economist John Maynard Keynes is famous for).
But normal interventions won’t work here because we don’t want the economy to recover (at least, not immediately). The whole point of the lockdown is to stop people going to work, where they spread the disease. One recent study suggested that lifting lockdown measures in Wuhan (including workplace closures) too soon could see China experience a second peak of cases later in 2020.
As the economist James Meadway wrote, the correct COVID-19 response isn’t a wartime economy – with massive upscaling of production. Rather, we need an “anti-wartime” economy and a massive scaling back of production. And if we want to be more resilient to pandemics in the future (and to avoid the worst of climate change) we need a system capable of scaling back production in a way that doesn’t mean loss of livelihood.
So what we need is a different economic mindset. We tend to think of the economy as the way we buy and sell things, mainly consumer goods. But this is not what an economy is or needs to be. At its core, the economy is the way we take our resources and turn them into the things we need to live. Looked at this way, we can start to see more opportunities for living differently that allow us to produce less stuff without increasing misery.
I and other ecological economists have long been concerned with the question of how you produce less in a socially just way, because the challenge of producing less is also central to tackling climate change. All else equal, the more we produce the more greenhouse gases we emit. So how do you reduce the amount of stuff you make while keeping people in work?
Proposals include reducing the length of the working week, or, as some of my recent work has looked at, you could allow people to work more slowly and with less pressure. Neither of these is directly applicable to COVID-19, where the aim is reducing contact rather than output, but the core of the proposals is the same. You have to reduce people’s dependence on a wage to be able to live.
What is the economy for?
The key to understanding responses to COVID-19 is the question of what the economy is for. Currently, the primary aim of the global economy is to facilitate exchanges of money. This is what economists call “exchange value”.
The dominant idea of the current system we live in is that exchange value is the same thing as use value. Basically, people will spend money on the things that they want or need, and this act of spending money tells us something about how much they value its “use”. This is why markets are seen as the best way to run society. They allow you to adapt, and are flexible enough to match up productive capacity with use value.
What COVID-19 is throwing into sharp relief is just how false our beliefs about markets are. Around the world, governments fear that critical systems will be disrupted or overloaded: supply chains, social care, but principally healthcare. There are lots of contributing factors to this. But let’s take two.
First, it is quite hard to make money from many of the most essential societal services. This is in part because a major driver of profits is labour productivity growth: doing more with fewer people. People are a big cost factor in many businesses, especially those that rely on personal interactions, like healthcare. Consequently, productivity growth in the healthcare sector tends to be lower than the rest of the economy, so its costs go up faster than average.