Could the huge shifts in our way of life being introduced as part of the fight against Covid-19 pave the way for a more humane economy? - By Simon Mair
31st March 2020
Where will we be in six months, a year, 10 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 one of the lucky ones: 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 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 non-essential 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.