All those who participated in the meeting on 25th April were invited to submit comments on the presentation and the discussion. Originally 400 words or so were asked for. Some grew longer… They are presented vaguely in the order in which they were made during the discussion and finally circulated on 10 May 2020.
Three contesting responses to the economic crisis caused by Covid-19
There have been broadly three kinds of response to the politico-economic crisis generated by Covid-19: Keynesian, socialist and eco-socialist.
The Keynesian response comes in the form of critique of neo-liberal austerity policies which many right-wing governments have pursued in the last few decades, but more vigorously after the 2008 global financial crisis. The Keynesians point out that these austerity policies had hollowed out the public health systems, and that the unpreparedness of the weakened public health systems to deal with this novel coronavirus has been the main cause behind the deaths and the suffering of those who have survived. Now that the governments all over the world have been forced to follow the stimulus policies advocated by the Keynesians, it is seen as a vindication of the Keynesian perspective on managing modern capitalist economies. There is certainly some weight behind this Keynesian claim but what is missing in the Keynesian perspective is the centrality of the link between Covid-19 and capitalism’s devastation of nature which has been the central cause behind the emergence of Covid-19. This missing link in the Keynesian framework weakens the Keynesians’ suggested path in dealing with the economic slowdown i.e. greater fiscal intervention by the state accompanied by welfare state policies but without any fundamental restructuring of the capitalist economy, especially relating to the link between economy and nature.
Socialists have responded by going significantly beyond Keynesian interventionism and by pointing out the essentially anarchic nature of the capitalist economy which is prone to periodic crisis, though they do recognise that economic crisis of capitalism caused by Covid-19 is unprecedented. Their suggested solution in the long run to the current unfolding crisis is different from that of the Keynesians by indicating that eventually private profit-oriented capitalist economy has to be replaced by socially-oriented socialist reorganisation of the economy but in the short-run, their suggested path out of economic slowdown is broadly similar to the Keynesians’ and especially Left Keynesians who emphasise more on the welfare aspect than the government interventionist aspect. The economy-nature relationship remains unembedded in the traditional/old style socialist perspective and that remains the weakness of this old-style socialism.
Eco-socialists extend the socialist response further by bringing ecology central to the understanding of the origin of Covid-19 and to the suggested path for dealing with the grave economic crisis caused by Covid-19. Eco-socialists trace the origin of Covid-19 and other viruses to human encroachment on the habitats of other living species. They contend that this encroachment has been significantly and qualitatively heightened by the logic of capitalist economy. Expanding capitalism is the driving force behind deforestation causing destruction of natural habitats and bio-diversity loss. The profit-driven international meat market encouraging international trade and transportation of live animals leads to an accelerated flow of commodities, people and disease.
The eco-socialists’ suggested path out of the grave economic crisis caused by Covid-19 has both long-run as well as short-run dimensions. In the long-run (although this long run is itself very limited due to the ecological crisis of global warming humanity is facing) is to replace capitalism with socialism but where they differ from the old socialists is that they emphasise the centrality of ecology in that imagined socialist reorganisation. In the short run, the eco-socialists argue for a Green New Deal as a transitional path to their suggested goal of ecological socialism. This Green New Deal involves building new public transport infrastructure based on renewable energy, discouraging car use (especially based on petrol) and air travel, new energy-efficient building projects, reforestation, encouraging local foods and generation of millions of green jobs — green architects, engineers, electricians, plumbers, mechanics etc — needed for a green retrofit of the damaged economies.
There is something that is common to all the three responses which create conditions for political alliance between all the three perspectives i.e. the necessity to raise tax on income, property and wealth to deal with the massive debt the states have incurred through their public expenditure interventions.
After the 2008 financial crisis, the burden of adjustment was passed on to the middle classes and the poor. This time, the burden of adjustment will unavoidably fall on the rich whose lifestyles of consumption and travel are the prime contributors to the crisis. The eco-socialists-suggested Green New Deal is the most advanced and historically appropriate path that encompasses the positive aspects of Keynesianism and old-style socialism and overcomes the limitedness of these two perspectives on the economy-nature relationship.
This article published in Tribune (India) on 2nd May is a development of my contribution at our meeting.
Did social care save the NHS?
The government claims to have succeeded in its aim of ensuring the NHS was not overwhelmed. But did it do that by shifting the problems of an under-funded public sector health system onto our even more underfunded private care sector?
More than 400,000 residents are now looked after in 15,517 homes run by more than 5,000 different providers, at least 80% of which are private for-profit companies, generally using debt-laden business models. Many of the 26 big care home providers use complex company structures to maximise leakage and hide profit extraction going to owners, investors, and related companies some of which are offshore tax avoiders. Many are effectively property speculation companies. Home care is also privatised with around 9,000 regulated providers trying to support more than 600,000 people in their own homes.
Funding to local authorities has been reduced by over £7bn since 2010, despite an aging population. Thresholds for assistance have shot up so the numbers receiving support fell by 26% between 2010 and 2016, leaving one and a quarter million people with unmet care needs even before the current pandemic.
Care provision is particularly unsuited to privatisation. Providers facing local authority cutbacks in payments per recipient can cut costs in care only by employing fewer people, or by employing less well-qualified staff who can be paid less – inevitably leading to lower quality care. Difficulties associated with doing either of these in the public sector was one of the main drivers for privatisation. Privatisation was supposed to harness consumer choice and competition to improve quality but, given the impossibility of achieving the intended cost reductions in any other way, has in practice both lowered care quality and workers’ working conditions and pay. This has meant care workers on zero-hours contracts, insufficiently trained and badly paid, moving from one vulnerable person to another, often working in many different care homes. Although austerity intensified it, this process of squeezing profit out of worsening working conditions was going on well before the financial crash and continues to this day.
Competition between private providers also produces its own inefficiencies, so that in domiciliary care, for example, services may be provided by many different providers within the same street, while care workers may have long journeys between their clients. Although reducing the number of clients visited by each care worker would have helped reduce the infection rate of Covid-19, a care system built on competition rather than co-operation was not able to provide that rationalisation. Indeed, that care workers without appropriate PPE work across different care homes is one reason why the infection rate in care homes in the UK has been so high.
Private sector providers would in normal circumstances be expected to provide protection for their own workers, including their own PPE. But with profit in mind why would they prepare for a pandemic? In emergencies the state is expected to step in to rescue the private sector, but a state that has run itself down to the bare minimum cannot respond well to emergencies. With austerity ensuring that stockpiles were reduced, the easily predictable worldwide shortage in PPE seemed to catch the government unaware.
A different approach is that adopted in British Columbia where the provincial government effectively nationalised its care home staffing system to improve workers’ pay and hours and provide PPE. But a privatised care system, especially with many staff on contracts that deny them a living wage from a single job, cannot hope to remove poor contracts and multiple employers as a source of infection.
Instead our government moved particularly vulnerable people, without testing, into care homes. This lowered apparent hospital death rates, but seeded infections and vastly increased the death rates in care homes not equipped to give medical attention to such cases. The unprepared social care sector in the UK has been so badly hit by Covid-19 because it was in crisis already. Emergency measures are needed now to protect care recipients, care workers and unpaid carers. But thought must also be given as to how we can build a new care system that does not leave people so vulnerable another time, provides good quality care, well integrated with health services at every level, that treats workers and carers with respect and dignity. This would not be a private sector care service. Instead we need a public sector led National Care Service nationally funded, but locally delivered, operating with decent working conditions alongside the NHS providing support for all who need it free at the point of use.
This is a shortened version of a blog to be published by the Progressive Economy Forum https://progressiveeconomyforum.com/blog/
The Covid 19 crisis and climate change emergency are closely connected. In one respect, we can see not only how it is possible for society to be radically transformed, but also how carbon emissions can be radically reduced. Air quality has dramatically improved with the lock down and emissions lowered though the reduction in air and road transport and the increase in virtual working. Indeed, the growing tendency towards virtual working at home has been speeded up and enforced, and one aspect of the labour process thereby permanently altered. Universities, in particular, will never be the same again, and teaching and learning virtually on-line is set to remain a feature of education.
It is important too in other respects not to ‘go back’ to ‘normal’, even if this were possible. The situation with construction sites, for example, which have largely remained open, has laid bare all the problems in the construction industry, and here again, it is important not to ‘go back’ but to build on any improvements being put in place. Not only has it become clear that ‘bogus’ self-employment impoverishes workers in a crisis situation, but also that personal protective equipment (PPE) and safety precautions are critically important and need to be improved and constantly monitored. Measures now being negotiated and put in place to improve and protect workers health and safety therefore need to be seen as permanent, not temporary.
So, the current crisis can be seen as part of the just transition to a green economy, whereby reduced carbon emissions and any improvements in living and working conditions are embedded and a green new deal is directed not only at addressing climate change but also at combatting pandemics.
Assuming SARS-Cov-2 emerged from the Wuhan “wet market” as generally believed, it can be seen as an indirect result of the takeover of Chinese agriculture by transnational agribusiness, as argued by Laura Spinney. This pushed peasant producers out of their traditional markets, and often onto marginal land, near China’s remaining wildlife refuges. The Chinese government encouraged them to move into wildlife farming, and eating a wide range of wild species moved from being a subsistence practice for the poor to a luxury trade in cities. Even if the virus actually escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where bat coronaviruses are cultured and studied, this was presumably a response to the earlier SARS outbreak, also thought to have resulted from the wildlife trade.
We are still at the beginning of the pandemic. Initially it appears mostly to have affected higher-income countries (presumably because of their high international connectedness), but is spreading in South Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, where the “lockdown” and “social distancing” responses that appear to be constraining it in Europe, North America and East Asia (faster or slower, depending on the speed and effectiveness of government response, which has not followed any clear left/right or democracy/dictatorship lines), are far harder to apply. We still know little about the virus itself, particularly about whether infection confers immunity, whether a vaccine will be possible (no vaccines against coronavirues exist), whether climatic conditions affect its transmission, and whether infection will have long-term sequels – we do know it can attack the heart and nerve cells as well as the respiratory system. These natural properties of the virus will interact with social conditions and political decisions in complex ways, but we can be sure that manual workers, the poor, and ethnic minorities are now bearing the brunt of the epidemic and will continue to do so, even though its initial spread was to a large extent through the business and leisure activities of the international elite.
A huge economic contraction is already happening; many businesses will collapse, unemployment will soar, a new financial crash is very possible. Political and cultural consequences are extremely hard to predict: a strengthening of xenophobia and far right movements and regimes is quite likely, but the stark revelation of whose work is really of value (medical staff, care workers and shelf-stackers – many of them poorly paid, women, and/or from ethnic minorities, not social media “influencers” or hedge fund managers), the clear demonstration that there really are “magic money trees”, and the widespread upsurge of mutual aid among neighbours, will push in a very different direction.
C19: a threat to life on the planet
It was a good discussion on Saturday. Challenging governmental shambles (as the introduction did very well) is extremely important – since it is killing large numbers of people. It is also important, however, to address the longer term ecological implications of increasingly dangerous pandemics of this kind, since they directly threaten the future of the planet itself.
The starting point for this, in my view, is to see such pandemics as an integral part of the ecological crisis itself, and not just as occurring at the same time or in parallel. (Ecology, after all, is the relationship between living organisms and the relationship between such organisms and the planet.)
The threat from such pandemics of dangerous pathogens is greater today than at any time in human history. Such (novel) pandemics are not only occurring more often but they are transitioning zoonotically to humans from other species more readily. Their impact on human society is also increasing along with their ability to trigger highly dangerous social crisis, and indeed major global societal breakdowns. They are on a par, in this regard, with the other existential threats to life on the plant such as pollution, global warming, the mass extinction of species, and the melting of the ice sheets. These factors, in turn, reflect the age of the Anthropocene – a re-definition of the geological epoch as one defined by human impact.
All this poses some fundamental questions for ecosocialists: i.e. how (exactly) do such pathogens make the ‘zoonotic’ transition from animals to human beings; what drives their onward evolution into a pandemic, and why are such pandemics becoming more frequent and more dangerous – despite the efforts of modern medicine to contain them?
Some of the factors are clear enough:
- Habitat destruction, deforestation in particular, forces reservoir species to relocate and engage with new species for the first time.
- Intensive agriculture, particularly meat production, creates the conditions for both the zoonotic transition and the drive towards pandemics. (Rob Wallis in Big Farms Make Big Flu, gives numerous examples.) Asian wet-markets also facilitate this process, with multiple wild species being crammed together and slaughtered in appalling conditions.
- Population density is a major factor. Having jumped species such pathogens need a minimum threshold of human population density to survive. This is provided not just by population increase but by urbanisation. 55 per cent of the global population now live in big cities.
- Globalisation then provides such pathogens with highspeed international travel to do their worst.
The impact of population density (and its corollary social deprivation) is clear. In Britain, for example, an article in the FT on May 1st entitled Deprived areas hit hardest in UK by pandemic (based on an ONS study), found that death rates in the major cities are much higher than elsewhere, and that London’s death rate is at least double the national average. Three London boroughs — Newham, Brent and Hackney — are the worst-hit in this with death rates of four times the national average. Newham has the highest death rate of all with 144 people per 100,000 killed by C-19.
There are big opportunities in this situation as well. Carbon emissions are falling and aviation, one of the planet’s biggest polluters, is at a global standstill. Air pollution levels are falling and nature is staging a comeback. The job of the left is to insist that there is no return to past levels on pollution and that investment that will come as an attempt to recover from the economic consequences of C-19 should be used to build for a sustainable future.
One thing is sure. We cannot go on trashing nature on today’s scale without threatening our own existence, and the planet itself, as a viable living space.
1] The long term neglect of social care and its relegation to a residual status – economically, politically and culturally [if you look at media representations pre-Covid 19] – has been exposed during this pandemic, and at the same time the fairly extreme fragmentation of provision, the ultra-low pay of care assistants in residential care and home care workers, the ravages of austerity on the sector and on peoples’ lives, and it being means-tested while health care is free now needs to be challenged as an integral part of a political response to the plague and its [mis]handling.
There is at least now more of an awareness of just how significant social care and support is – well over one million employed in the adult care sector, children’s care more complex to define, and the majority classed as low skilled [yet needing technical, physical and emotional skills], at least 650,000 new jobs in adult social care necessary within the next 15 years according to Unison’s calculation – pre-pandemic – just to fulfill the demographic needs of ageing and disabilities. The pandemic has seen a heightening of mutual aid [an altogether good thing] and at the same time exposed risks and dependencies of people which will continue well beyond the easing of lockdown. For instance a previous estimate of 6.5 million informal, part or full time family carers, is now regarded as well under-estimated.
While the march of capital and new technology is rapidly changing jobs, and displacing many, the area of job creation afforded by social care and support can only extend, as well as the need for recognition of its economic impact ( a 2012 calculation gave an economic return on adult social care as 3x the cost of providing the jobs, and that for children’s care is higher —see Ian Gough’s note to the meeting on the latter).
There is then a strong economic and social case, as well as the morally just one of equivalence with health [parity of funding with NHS – see link to Duffy and Peters]for this support as part of universal basic services [Gough], for it being part of a just transition and allied to the Green New Deal, as a fundamental input and protection for people, many now put at further risk by Covid-19 which will play out for a long time to come.
2] The Covid-19 response could well link the more universalist approach to social care and support, and other basic infrastructure for general health and wellbeing, both funded from progressive taxation and strengthening local inter-dependencies [rather then the central state itself], with a move to alter what is measured and regarded as most important in political economy and culture at large, for instance establishing more relevant measures of health and wellbeing, not just GDP, RPI etc.
The initiative of the New Zealand, Iceland and Scotland governments from 2018 in setting up a Wellbeing Economy Alliance is one such – notably led by women – where they instruct authorities and agencies compiling returns to the state to devise and report on measures which attest to the wellbeing to the population and highlight areas of need for intervention.
See also: Anna Coote and Andrew Percy: The Case For Universal Basic Services, Polity 2020.
This unprecedented situation has brought into widespread public recognition several aspects of social/ political life previously hidden, or suppressed/ contested. It has also enabled or imposed significant shifts in personal experiences and ways of ‘being in the world’. It has forced political elites into policies that flatly contradict their career-long values and commitments.
These are a few thoughts about how things might go in the UK context.
From a green/ left perspective some of these aspects of the crisis offer opportunities for the right. Most obviously the taking of exceptional powers over personal and civil liberties, with little or no resistance. They will want to retain as much of that as they can post-crisis. But this is not simple, as the still dominant political ideology is a neoliberal opposition to any extended role for government and a radical individualist notion of liberty – populist-authoritarian and neo-liberal tendencies in uk government may be in tension with one another.
However, there are many aspects of the situation which offer real potential for a green left reading: the demonstration of the immense cost in lives and livelihoods of a decade of austerity and underfunding of heath and public services, the recognition as ‘key workers’ of a great range of workers well beyond the NHS, including care givers, delivery drivers, super market check-out staff, cleaners, rubbish collectors and so on. The stark contrast between ‘normal times’ respect and pay for these workers and their importance in crisis detaches values from the play of markets. The support for economic activity through lockdown forced into the open the extent of vulnerability of many self-employed, part-time and economically precarious individuals and households. This has led to widespread support for universal basic income (services, need-meeting…). The experience for SOME, certainly not all of us, of withdrawal from daily pressures of travel and work has enabled a degree of reflection, recognition of what is important in life, and some pleasure in a reconnection with local nature and public green spaces, unpolluted air to breathe and so on. Finally, the necessity for government to take charge of provision of many necessities, to sustain livelihoods, ensure food supplies and to engage in state intervention on a scale well beyond what was met with derision in the Labour manifesto will make it, potentially more difficult for the right to get away with taunts of magic money trees. At the centre of this will be funding for NHS, social care and public services generally.
Much of this provides support for Labour/Green policies for green industrial revolution/ new deal, universal basic needs-provision, fully funded public services, and a restructuring of the economy around need and sustainability, and a new relation between humans and the rest of nature. However, the resistance to any such post-crisis project will be overwhelming, and none of the lessons will be learned in the absence of a broad, articulate and determined progressive movement.
Slogan? ‘No going back’! especially addressed to new Labour leadership.
Judith Watson and Graham Sharp
Ten principles for the post-Covid-19 rebuilding of food production and distribution
- Viruses can cross the species barrier from birds and mammals to other birds and mammals, including humans; person-to-person transmission may then create an epidemic or pandemic
- All production, distribution and consumption of meat and poultry increases the risk of a crossover, whenever there is human contact with animals (especially live); the larger scale the greater the risk
- Industrial food processing is necessarily oriented to controlling pathogens, to ensure durability and portability, but most effort is oriented towards bacteria and parasites, not viruses
- Meat consumption is not strictly necessary for human health, and overconsumption of meat, particularly feedlot or shed reared animals is detrimental to health
- Agribusiness splits livestock rearing, dairying and crops, and makes all branches dependent on fossil inputs, whereas small farms typically depend on livestock for fertiliser and draught in relatively closed systems
- Replacement of capitalist agribusiness with smaller scale agroecology is an urgent task to avoid catastrophic climate change, and vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters should come together to call for a reduction in meat consumption in richer countries
- The animal species eaten have been narrowed over centuries of monocultural agriculture, only to be extended again with globalisation, particularly at the boundary between industrial and artisanal systems
- All meats are exotic somewhere; the tourist gaze creates an “other” food full of excitement and danger
- A crackdown on the capitalist trade in endangered species is urgently called for but hunting of common edible species typically involves less cruelty than industrial farming
- Locally regulated street markets and market halls are the future of food distribution as well as its past, ensuring maximum traceability and safety within cultural expectations.
Capitalism is a progressive mode of production in the sense that innovation via technical change is at the heart of the theory of capitalist competition. Firms are fundamentally interested in increasing profits. In pursuit of extra profit, a firm will seek to innovate in order to produce at lower cost, undercutting competitors and gaining market share. Typically, the innovation will eventually be generalised across the industry, as surviving competitors seek to catch up. And then some firm will again innovate, and so it goes on.
One important such innovation has been the development of ‘just-in-time’ methods of controlling flows of raw material and intermediate products, and inventory control of finished outputs. Such methods superseded the ‘just-in-case’ methods of Fordism, which required expensive stockpiles.
Another feature of the neoliberal era has been the sustained attempt to apply market-based criteria to state-based organisations whose primary purpose is not the pursuit of profit. The obvious example is the NHS with its complicated web of ‘purchasers’ and ‘providers’. Both Conservative and Labour administrations have been enthusiastic promoters of organisational ‘reform’, in the belief that quasi-market efficiency would thereby be facilitated. Just-in-time methods, with their concomitant extensive and globalised supply chains, have become part of the market-inspired culture and management of such large non-market organisations. But just-in-time becomes a big problem when something goes wrong, as we have seen with Personal Protective Equipment. And there are huge negative externalities (in this case involving deaths) when something does go wrong.
Hence there are a number of issues. First, how will capitalism recover? Will there be more emphasis on just-in-case? It’s hard to see how this can happen if just-in-case is more expensive at the individual level despite its social desirability. This is just a standard prisoners’ dilemma. Second, how will organisations based not on profits but on some different notion of use respond? Will their management row back from the use of quasi-market criteria in favour of methods more appropriate to production for use? This would seem to depend upon a socialist politics that takes spheres of existence out of the market and defends them from the market. In the neoliberal era such politics have not been successful. Perhaps now we have a chance to improve on that record.
Wish List for a Post-Corona Political Economy in UK
As ever, content and emphasis in any politically-relevant statement will depend on its intended audience and how it will be promoted. What follows is intended for left-green academics and/or policy practitioners/activists.
A) ‘Maximalist’ transformational proposal; aims under optimal political conditions
1. Ecological change
a) Cut scale of consumption, especially mass travel (cause of both pandemic and climate change)
b) Localise production and travel destinations
c) Tackle human health problems ecologically, reducing separation from natural needs and balancing with wildlife.
2. Parallel economic policies
a) De-globalise and cut-back mass consumption industries, like tourist travel and agribusiness products
b) Reverse offshoring, bringing basic product production back to UK: shortening supply chains, minimising disruption risks, creating jobs.
c) Convert industrial sectors, businesses and workforces decimated by pandemic (e.g. scale-up Lucas Aerospace model).
3. Social Reforms
a) Prioritise wages and standards for key workers in the foundation economy:health/ care services, basic goods distribution, transport &c; putting under democratic control : https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/oureconomy/after-pandemic-ten-point-plan-collective-provision-basic-needs/.
b) Re-orient welfare policies to focus on ’lifeworld’ enhancement (Jones, O’Donnell et al 2018): ecological balance via e.g. Basic Income, reduced working times, community housing; national care services for elderly and childcare, gender equality.
4. Political Strategies
a) Exploit/adapt ’Brexitism’ to encourage localisation of production, as above.
b) Promote participatory democracy, initially amongst the health and welfare ‘heroes’ of the crisis.
c) Build up and integrate the many, new community groups and networks into local policymaking: https://localtrust.org.uk/news-and-stories/blog/how-is-covid-19-changing-the-relationship-between-communities-and-public-services/
d) Institutionalise ‘stakeholder’ representation (trade union, NGOs, etc) into national policy-making; with more transparency in government decision-making; e.g. SAGE.
f) Reform/construct international institutions to compensate/reconstruct poorer nations’ economies away from status as mere supply-chain links and growers of agri-business staples.
- Minimalist Settlement
A UK government dominated by free-market/small state zealots and a tentative Labour Opposition is unlikely to embrace the paradigm shift underlying the above ideas. So practical political advances may have to take the form of discrete policy shifts that the mismanagement of the Covid crisis and public concern and outrage make difficult to reject and might be harbingers of a broader paradigm shift.
- Cutting mass travel (cause of both pandemic and climate change) on health, climate and cost bail-out grounds.
- More localised production of foodstuffs, health care products and leisure travel; to reduce risks of pandemic contagions, boost employment and minimise supply shortages of vital medical goods.
- Prioritise wages and standards for key workers in the foundation economy:health/ care services, basic goods distribution, transport &c with more democratic control of these services. Justification: ‘heroes’ need proper reward and a future say in how services; preventing the failures of top-down management in current crisis.
- Promoting ‘stakeholder’ representation (trade union, NGOs, etc) into national policy-making. Justified by palpable shortcomings in present oligarchic decision-making by government and policy elites.
- More transparency in government decision-making, e.g. SAGE, which tend to exclude wider science and policy communities.
There is no doubt that the current crisis poses far greater challenges to neoliberal norms than the 2008 crisis. Of course, there is still the possibility that the crisis will be seized upon as another opportunity for the sort of disaster capitalism profiteering and restructuring that Naomi Klein wrote about in The Shock Doctrine—which we witnessed in the UK under cConservative governments post-2010. But as Ted Benton notes, this will not be straightforward given the adoption of Keynesian policies by Conservative free-marketeers. Moreover, we are witnessing not only a deep sense of uncertainty about the future, which challenges the neoliberal mantra of “there is no alternative”, but also public discussion about what will be the ‘new normal’. This discussion goes beyond the standard talk about when or if the economy will recover or when economic growth will resume—which has typified public debate in recent recessions. It is also about what the economy and society will look like and how particular sectors will change. Whether it is sport, transport, or higher education, to take a just few examples, there is recognition that it may be impossible to go back to ‘business as usual’. Additionally, there is an ethical dimension to some of these debates—not least because of the numbers of redundancies and furloughed workers and the new prominence of collective responsibility and care in public discourse.
In this conjuncture, it is a cruel irony that the Corbyn-McDonnell vision for a socially just, green, transition has lost ground within the Labour Party following December’s General Election defeat and their replacement by the more centrist, Keir Starmer as Labour leader. The Green New Deal, sometimes known as the Green Industrial Revolution, coupled with McDonnell’s programme for rebuilding local economies based on the Preston model, is precisely the programme we need right now. The Chair of the Commission on Climate Change spoke out this week about transforming North Sea oil jobs into green jobs. But, we have yet to hear a clear statement from the Labour Party. Ed Miliband, the new Shadow Minister of Business and Energy, has been noticeably silent—even though he oversaw a host of positive measures at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (2008-10) and recently co-chaired the IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission with Caroline Lucas. It would be a tragedy if Labour adopts a more reformist position, or privileges red over green, rather than seizing the moment to assert the Green New Deal as the way forward. After all, last summer (following the school and XR protests, and Greta Thumberg’s and David Attenborough’s calls for urgent action), we witnessed a major shift in the media coverage of the climate and ecological crisis and much more serious, informed discussion of green policies. This underlying shift was obscured by Brexit in the December election, but it has not been reversed. Moreover, the tangible impacts of lock-down in terms of reduced emissions and everyday pollution, for example, have re-opened spaces for public debate.
It is also important to emphasise the current relevance of degrowth/ eco-socialist discussions around the organisation of work. We have heard a great deal about working online from home part of the week in the new normal. But there has been little public debate about the very real scenario of less work to go round as the economy contracts. We urgently need creative proposals around job-sharing or a four-day week that ensure work is equitably distributed and discussion of the positive benefits this would bring in terms of re-balancing everyday life. Such proposals would have found little resonance three months ago. But one widely reported benefit of the lock-down (notwithstanding the hardships it has brought) is that many people have enjoyed spending less time on job-related work and having time and energy for other activities. To make this feasible is likely to require some form of universal basic income. It will also require policies that address inflated housing costs because so many people have been locked in to the drudgery of the neoliberal intensive, long-hours work culture by high rents and house prices. This will be no easy task, but this really is the time for imaginative thinking and policies.
Too many deadlines to contribute something special for now, but in this article Coronavirus, economic crash and climate change: this could go either way are some thoughts on how the coronavirus situation relates to climate change.
Some kind person said to me that all the other pieces they had read were either super-optimistic (“we’re never going back to normal, fossil fuels are finished”) or super-pessimistic (“capitalist accumulation will be back with a vengeance”), and this was more balanced. Anyway, I tried to do an assessment of the actual evidence.
I was too busy trying to chair the meeting to get it together to take part in the discussion, so here are a couple of thoughts.
I think Simon Mohun’s idea of replacing ‘just in time’ by ‘just in case’ is a promising way in to promoting an eco-socialist vision. It challenges the current emphasis on short term ‘efficiency’ with no regard to the social and ecological consequences and replaces it instead with a precautionary principle which creates greater resilience in the face of uncertainty and the capacity to better deal with the unexpected. It also challenges the current form of interdependent globalised production systems replacing it with emphasis on much more local production which is socially and ecologically more sustainable.
This then connects with Jane Hindley’s reference to my concept of ‘subsidiarity’, the principle that decisions should be made and implemented at the most local level that enables all those affected to be involved, either directly or through some form of representative democracy. Given the current capitalist socio-economic and political system, progressive actions mainly takes place at the macro level seeking to change government policies or at the micro level seeking to defend and extend gains won in previous struggles or to develop new ways of pre-figurative living. Petitions and demos, on the one hand, the currently fashionable commoning1, on the other. What is missing is a Gramscian strategy for changing the common sense of the age and building a counter hegemonic historic bloc linking the two levels and I think the concept of subsidiarity and my associated concept of social ownership at the different levels may be relevant here.
1 I understand by ‘commoning’ the increasing practice of generalising the concept of ‘the commons’ to all sorts of prefigurative local actions which seek to treat aspects of social life and non-human nature as a ‘commons’ which can/should be regulated by its users.