The economic and social catastrophe affecting most of the world as a result of the coronavirus crisis has thrown up not just huge political issues but also big ideological ones – issues about the fundamental nature of our existing societies and, in similarly profound terms, what these societies could be or should be like after the crisis has abated.
The raising of these questions results not only from the way in which current governments have responded to the crisis in the short-term. It also results from the interplay of their responses to the crisis and their pre-crisis behaviour, revealing much about the underlying, long-term state of our societies.
In Britain, the Conservative government led by Boris Johnson has been shown to be increasingly inept. First, it was to painfully slow to enact a lockdown. Then, it has not provided enough PPE or testing or tracking capacity even though it praises to the skies the very people – health professionals and carers – whose very lives this ineptitude is putting at risk. Finally, its furlough and business loan schemes were late in being announced and then in going live. Many have found there are not eligible for this aid. The government deliberately reacted this way because it is loath to use state intervention in the economy when its whole raison d’etre is promotion and extension of the free market. However – even if it had engaged in the early and necessary interventions – society in Britain would have still been facing huge problems in responding to the virus. This is because of the privatisation and marketisation of public services (especially health and social care), followed by years of government austerity, have denuded these services and critically impaired their ability to adequately respond to the virus and its social impact.
To a greater or lesser degree, this situation of wilful ineptitude and systematic and systemic failings can be found in many, if not most, other major countries. Just as the global financial crash of 2008-2009 threw up about big questions about the neo-liberal phase of capitalism that we live under (especially over-financialisation and deregulation), so, too, has the coronavirus crisis. This time round, the questions in people’s minds could point to a more existential crisis for neoliberalism because they are of a much more profound and searching nature.
Questions are being raised about not just the value of human life and how different sections of, and groups in, society are being treated differently, but also being about what role the state should play in securing a decent and humane society for all. We can see what kind of changes in the type and level of economic activity would be needed to halt the climate emergency. We can also see that the state can use its levers of power to alter the behaviour of many. In sum, questions are being thrown about what kind of alternative kind of society do we want.
The significance of these questions and the politically progressive character of many of the responses have the potential to shape the post-crisis reconstruction of economy and society. They could lead to the state playing a much more involved and strategic role, especially with regard to regulating capital (employers) and protecting the environment as well as in ending markets where they did not previously exist (in health and social care).
But for this to happen, the political forces of the left need to be sufficiently great to take advantage of this new situation so that they can institute wide-ranging and deep-seated change. This is where the argument – and the hope – begin to fall down. It is as though the crisis has happened at exactly the wrong time for the left.
In Australia, the Labour Party, standing on a fairly radical green-left platform, was defeated in what was quite a surprising outcome by the incumbent National/Liberal coalition parties at last year’s federal elections. In Britain, the Labour Party lost both the general election of 2019 and its left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn. In the United States, the Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic Party nomination eventually succumbed to that of the liberal status quo candidate, Joe Biden. Even if Biden defeats Trump, we can expect little substantial change. And this is only to consider the forces of the social democratic left. Those of the radical and revolutionary left are far, far more depleted.
There may be odd exception here or there. The swifter and more effective handling of the crisis by the Labour-led coalition government in New Zealand may result in the return of Labour to office with a solid majority in the September election. Unfortunately, this does not change the overall picture. And although we are living through unprecedented times, we should not underestimate the clamour for a return to some kind of capitalist ‘normality’ – and not just from the capitalists. State intervention and seemingly Keynesian reflation measures do not in themselves represent the harbingers of progressive change because they are in place to support the neoliberal variant of capitalism and will be relatively temporary measures. Historically, state intervention, such as nationalisation, has also been used right-wing and reactionary governments. Rather, the current measures show the flexibility of the ruling class and its parties to rule in new ways as and when needs be.
Just as importantly, many workers have an immediate vested material interest in returning to ‘normality’. If levels of strike action in recent years are anything to go by, most of the working classes want to be ruled economically in the same way as before and, critically, are not collectively fighting in substantial numbers for their own betterment and against the way they are ruled. This element of combativity is the vital missing ingredient if we recall that the period of world revolution after the First World War as any kind of guide for radical social change. Workers had been become militant in the 1910s before the outbreak of war. They were then re-radicalised by the effects of the war on their living standards and the desire for betterment. Not only did they strike en masse but they also established Soviets in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy and Ukraine. This was during the time of the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920.
Unfortunately, therefore, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the forces of neoliberalism will come out again stronger than they were before the crisis in the guise of Naomi Klein’s ‘disaster capitalism’ thesis. Klein argued that neoliberalism is capable of exploiting national crises to further establish controversial and questionable policies as citizens are too distracted – emotionally and physically – to engage and develop an adequate response, and resist effectively.
It is right that the left, whether social democrats, radicals, socialists or Marxists, seek to use the opportunity of the coronavirus crisis to raise searching ideological and political questions about the character and consequences of contemporary capitalism. But we should harbour no illusions about their ability to affect the desired and necessary economic and political change for the time being.
Image by Alec Favale