The luxury of social distancing is not afforded to all


Picture of Thomas Greven
Thomas Greven

Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Freie Universität Berlin, associated researcher at the Institute for Development and Decent Work, and an independent political consultant

“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” the adage attributed to Winston Churchill but also used by Saul Alinsky in his famous “Rules for Radicals” is certainly on many people’s minds in the face of the COVID-19’s uneven socioeconomic reverberations. It is not just that the risk of unemployment has been greater for working-class individuals. There is also the sudden awareness that underpaid and overworked hospital and service workers are more essential than many of the overpaid ‘symbolic analysts’ of all stripes.

Yet, there is still hope that this realisation will lead to a more enduring appreciation than mere applause. Hope may turn into expectation, not least because the essential nature of their work in the midst of a pandemic exposes these citizens to a considerably higher risk than most other employees, many of whom can work from home.

The last fundamental economic crisis that led to significant political change was the combined ‘stagflation’ and oil crisis of the 1970s. Neoclassical economists, business associations and neoliberal politicians were quick to exploit the supposed breakdown of Keynesian policy recipes to lead a revolution of the political and economic paradigm. In this instance, the model proposed by Austrian economist Karl Polanyi in “The Great Transformation” seemed to apply: Social Democrats and unions had pushed the ‘decommodification’ of labour too far and now the pendulum swung back in the other direction. The market was to rule; there was “no society, only individuals” and “no alternative,” as British prime minister Maggie Thatcher famously put it.

Each economic crisis leads to the socialisation of losses, but the gains are always meant to stay private

Liberalisation, deregulation, privatisation and fiscal austerity – the ‘Washington Consensus’ – became the largely unquestioned creed, giving cover to cronyism and policies fundamentally disadvantageous to the majority of working people and their families: low tax, low (state) service. The state itself was the problem, as Ronald Reagan repeated. Or, as the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist put it, the state needed to be “reduced to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

None of the subsequent economic crises around the world, not even the global financial crisis of 2008-09, has fully broken the hegemony of these policies. Yes, the state has had to step in to save capitalism (often from itself), but the economic and political elites mostly consider these measures as temporary aberrations, not the beginning of a fundamental change of policy. Each economic crisis leads to the socialisation of losses, but the gains are always meant to stay private, of course. Thus, post-crisis there generally is an urgent call to go back to business as usual.

What, if anything, is different now? At least three factors give rise to some hope that more than superficial changes will follow the current crisis and that the pendulum will finally swing back towards a ‘decommodification’ of labour – for instance, with policies that secure higher wages and better working conditions for health care workers, or reclaim greater protections for the public good vis-à-vis private interests.

Neoliberalism and austerity are deeply entrenched among policymakers

First is the fact the current economic crisis follows an ongoing public health crisis – the weaknesses of governments and public services are questions of life and death now.

Second, the global financial crisis of 2008 already undermined the foundations of neoliberal globalisation. While nationalists and right-wing extremists currently seem to dominate the backlash to globalisation because of the outsized importance of the immigration issue, a much larger movement seeks merely to modulate globalisation by reclaiming a role for democratic control, protections of labour and human rights etc.

Third, the climate movement opens up the possibility of new coalitions. Though many climate activists emerged from the middle-class – and may not share the concerns of lower-income people per se – they may yet prove to be an ally in the fight for a fairer economic system.

However, while the current availability of cheap money makes it easier for governments to finance measures such as bonuses for health care workers, there is no guarantee that this crisis will lead to more fundamental policy changes. Neoliberalism and austerity are deeply entrenched among policymakers, and there will be resistance from business and the wealthy to any increase of taxes. Ultimately, it will come down to the willingness and ability of working people to join together in unions and other movements to fight for progressive social change.

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