Why Coronavirus May Change the World (For Better or Worse)
Where will we be in six months? A year?
Potentially just as consequential is the possibility of massive austerity after the pandemic has peaked and governments seek to return to “normal”. This has been threatened in Germany. This would be disastrous. Not least because defunding of critical services during austerity has impacted the ability of countries to respond to this pandemic.
The subsequent failure of the economy and society would trigger political and stable unrest, leading to a failed state and the collapse of both state and community welfare systems.
State socialism describes the first of the futures we could see with a cultural shift that places a different kind of value at the heart of the economy. This is the future we arrive at with an extension of the measures we are currently seeing in the UK, Spain and Denmark.
The key here is that measures like nationalisation of hospitals and payments to workers are seen not as tools to protect markets, but a way to protect life itself. In such a scenario, the state steps in to protect the parts of the economy that are essential to life: the production of food, energy and shelter for instance, so that the basic provisions of life are no longer at the whim of the market. The state nationalises hospitals, and makes housing freely available. Finally, it provides all citizens with a means of accessing various goods – both basics and any consumer goods we are able to produce with a reduced workforce.
Citizens no longer rely on employers as intermediaries between them and the basic materials of life. Payments are made to everyone directly and are not related to the exchange value they create. Instead, payments are the same to all (on the basis that we deserve to be able to live, simply because we are alive), or they are based on the usefulness of the work. Supermarket workers, delivery drivers, warehouse stackers, nurses, teachers, and doctors are the new CEOs.
It’s possible that state socialism emerges as a consequence of attempts at state capitalism and the effects of a prolonged pandemic. If deep recessions happen and there is disruption in supply chains such that demand cannot be rescued by the kind of standard Keynesian policies we are seeing now (printing money, making loans easier to get and so on), the state may take over production.
There are risks to this approach – we must be careful to avoid authoritarianism. But done well, this may be our best hope against an extreme COVID-19 outbreak. A strong state able to marshal the resources to protect the core functions of economy and society.
Mutual aid is the second future in which we adopt the protection of life as the guiding principle of our economy. But, in this scenario, the state does not take a defining role. Rather, individuals and small groups begin to organise support and care within their communities.
The risks with this future is that small groups are unable to rapidly mobilise the kind of resources needed to effectively increase healthcare capacity, for instance. But mutual aid could enable more effective transmission prevention, by building community support networks that protect the vulnerable and police isolation rules. The most ambitious form of this future sees new democratic structures arise. Groupings of communities that are able to mobilise substantial resources with relative speed. People coming together to plan regional responses to stop disease spread and (if they have the skills) to treat patients.
This kind of scenario could emerge from any of the others. It is a possible way out of barbarism, or state capitalism, and could support state socialism. We know that community responses were central to tackling the West African Ebola outbreak. And we already see the roots of this future today in the groups organising care packages and community support. We can see this as a failure of state responses. Or we can see it as a pragmatic, compassionate societal response to an unfolding crisis.
Hope and fear
These visions are extreme scenarios, caricatures, and likely to bleed into one another. My fear is the descent from state capitalism into barbarism. My hope is a blend of state socialism and mutual aid: a strong, democratic state that mobilises resources to build a stronger health system, prioritises protecting the vulnerable from the whims of the market and responds to and enables citizens to form mutual aid groups rather than working meaningless jobs.
What hopefully is clear is that all these scenarios leave some grounds for fear, but also some for hope. COVID-19 is highlighting serious deficiencies in our existing system. An effective response to this is likely to require radical social change. I have argued it requires a drastic move away from markets and the use of profits as the primary way of organising an economy. The upside of this is the possibility that we build a more humane system that leaves us more resilient in the face of future pandemics and other impending crises like climate change.
Social change can come from many places and with many influences. A key task for us all is demanding that emerging social forms come from an ethic that values care, life, and democracy. The central political task in this time of crisis is living and (virtually) organising around those values.
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Simon Mair, Research Fellow in Ecological Economics, Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity, University of Surrey
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.