Life After Corna Virus
Where will we be in six months, a year, ten 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 luckier than many: I get good sick pay and can work remotely. I am writing this from Kenya , 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 badly. 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. Here are the four major outcomes:
1) State capitalism: centralised response, prioritising exchange value
2) Barbarism: decentralised response prioritising exchange value
3) State socialism: centralised response, prioritising the protection of life
4) Mutual aid: decentralised response prioritising the protection of life.
I think we can understand our situation – and what might lie in our future – by looking at the political economy of 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 prioritization 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.
Minor Changes Dont Cut
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 nonessential 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
The fact that so many people work pointless jobs is partly why we are so ill prepared to respond to COVID-19. The pandemic is highlighting that many jobs are not essential, yet we lack sufficient key workers to respond when things go bad.
People are compelled to work pointless jobs because in a society where exchange value is the guiding principle of the economy, the basic goods of life are mainly available through markets. This means you have to buy them, and to buy them you need an income, which comes from a job.
The other side of this coin is that the most radical (and effective) responses that we are seeing to the COVID-19 outbreak challenge the dominance of markets and exchange value. Around the world governments are taking actions that three months ago looked impossible. In Spain, private hospitals have been nationalised.
The economics of collapse are fairly straightforward. Businesses exist to make a profit. If they can’t produce, they can’t sell things. This means they won’t make profits, which means they are less able to employ you. Businesses can and do (over short time periods) hold on to workers that they don’t need immediately: they want to be able to meet demand when the economy picks back up again. But, if things start to look really bad, then they won’t. So, more people lose their jobs or fear losing their jobs. So they buy less. And the whole cycle starts again, and we spiral into an economic depression.