The catastrophe that COVID-19 has visited on the US and UK is related to the nature of the economic ideology that both embraced, best known as ‘neoliberalism’ (I’ll say later why the term is important). Neoliberalism hollowed out the capacity of their public sectors, under-funding what it did not privatise. This created the conditions that led to the severity of the COVID-crisis for the White House and Downing Street.
But the underlying crisis they now confront is shared by market economies everywhere. All shut down or radically cut back up to a third of their economies and must now seek to recover, something no one expected or prepared for.
True to their neoliberal inheritance, the Anglo-American leaders tried hard to resist such measures. When policy towards the virus was debated in Downing Street at the “end of February” it seems the government embraced the existing epidemic planning whose results were so “terrifying” when war-gamed in the 2016 Exercise Cygnus they were never published. The strategy, as presented by the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Dominic Cummings, was summed up by a witness as, “Herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”, according to the Sunday Times.
It is not hard to see the logic of this approach from a free-market perspective. The deaths would mostly be of the old and thus merely accelerate the termination of those of us who are anyway ‘a drain’ on social services. The less elderly victims tended to have underlying health issues, which would also eliminate costs for the NHS. A younger, fitter, cheaper population would be the outcome, preserving the economy from the punitive ‘panic’ measures of other countries. It’s an approach implicit in Johnson’s Greenwich speech about Britain transforming itself into Superman. But it was abandoned. Why?
The desire to support the economy at all costs visibly consumed Trump, who downplayed the virus at the start. Republican governors refused to ban meetings or close beaches. The party’s politicians and funders rage at restrictions. Two Trump supporters summed up their market-first approach, as Nick Paumgarten, noted in the New Yorker: Fox commentator, Glenn Beck, “I’d rather die than kill the country” and Dan Patrick, just elected as lieutenant governor of Texas, on grandparents dying for the economy: “If that’s the exchange, I’m all in”.
Such attitudes are characteristic of Trumpian economics with its hostility to regulation of any kind. His supporters are now pushing to open up the economy despite the deaths this will cause, especially as they believe the wealthy will be OK. But this attitude did not dominate policy making at the start.
China has an ageing population. What could be better than thinning it out? In 1958 over 30 million died thanks to the so-called Great Leap Forward, yet Mao never answered for it and the figures were covered up. The treatment of the Uighurs shows such ruthlessness has hardly been stilled. Why, then, did Xi and his Politburo decide the Chinese would not take the coronavirus ‘on the chin’ when Beijing’s system of party control and surveillance could have imposed this?
Part of the answer is that the cult of Xi’s personality and the party’s boasting of its success creates a tension within the obedience it demands. Despite the country’s immense size, when things go wrong the central authorities are held directly responsible with a ferocious anger. As the spread of infection and its mortal consequences developed in Wuhan it became clear that it could neither be covered up nor contained, given the city’s connectedness within China and with the world.
On 25 January, two days before the Chinese New Year, which sees the largest mass movement of people on the planet, after millions had already left Wuhan as rumours spread, the Politburo realised the days of the Great Leap Forward were over. What could once be imposed on the dispersed, immobile rural settlements of a fatalistic peasantry was not going to be tolerated by a connected metropolis. There is now something akin to public opinion.
In response, a country-wide lockdown was launched across China. Wuhan’s province was isolated, closing off 50 million people. Medical personnel were poured in as the precious growth targets, the key to the regime’s success, were abandoned.
The economy of the world’s most populous country has grown by an average of close to 10 per cent a year since 1979, an astonishing record. In the first quarter of 2020 it shrunk by over 6 per cent as the brakes were slammed on. So complete were the closures even pollution disappeared. The Politburo understood that its own life and legitimacy depended on it demonstrating that nothing mattered more to it than the lives of its people.
A similar reality shock confronted governments around the world. A hundred years ago, when perhaps 50 to 100 million died in the 1918-20 flu epidemic, governments were not blamed. In 1943 the British government did not feel responsible for the Bengal famine that took two million of its subject’s lives, continuing an official indifference to genocide that goes back to the Irish famine. The flu pandemic of 1968 is estimated to have killed 700,000 people, made little impact and is now forgotten.
Yet today, if governments were indifferent to such deaths, few would survive. Whether or not the politicians acted out of their own ethical conviction is beside the point. To slow down the loss of life, they shut down economies everywhere, neoliberalism be damned. The alternative was not publicly acceptable.
I am not saying they discarded capitalism. On the contrary they acted to try and ensure its survival. Neoliberalism was always only a variant of a shapeshifting economic system which has plenty of life in it.
Nonetheless, an historic transformation has taken place. The measures taken, however reluctantly, misconceived, badly run and limited, have precipitated the sharpest recession in history, because governments felt obliged to try and give their peoples’ lives and health priority over financial interests.
For this to have happened three changes were necessary. Governments had to be seen by the public as having responsibility for the economy. People had to expect their governments to ensure the availability of health services, including modern hospital support for all citizens whose lives are in danger. The public had to have a relatively clear idea of what is happening that governments cannot suppress. Together these changes have upturned the nature of politics around the world.
The first politician to recognise the moment’s “anthropological” significance was France’s president Emmanuel Macron. An exponent of globalisation and neoliberalism and one time banker he had sought to impose marketisation on his reluctant country.
In March, he told the Financial Times, the impact of COVID-19 “makes us refocus on the human aspect. It becomes clear that the economy no longer has primacy. When it comes to our humanity, women and men, but also the ecosystems in which they live, and therefore the emissions of CO2, global warming, biodiversity, there is something more important than the economic order.” To emphasise the shock of this he did not draw back from describing what was happening. “We are going to nationalise the wages and the profit and loss accounts of almost all our businesses. That’s what we’re doing. All our economies, including the most liberal are doing that. It’s against all the dogmas, but that’s the way it is.”
By “dogmas” he means neoliberalism. When he says “the economy no longer has primacy”, he means that what he, and all other leaders of our era believed in at the start of the year, just like the rest of us, no longer holds.
How should we evaluate Macron’s words? He gave the interview in part to pursue his call for bonds to mutualise the costs of the pandemic for Eurozone members. Without this, he warned, the currency will fold. “I believe [the EU] is a political project. If it’s a political project, the human factor is the priority…”.
Macron is widely patronised as a blow-in who struck lucky when France had a poor choice of presidential candidates. Traditional political leaders spend half a lifetime manoeuvering and calibrate their statements to make them acceptable to their constituencies. Macron’s lack of such a past is also a strength, the lightness of his political hinterland makes frankness possible, indeed it may be his special asset. Few other right-wing politicians would dare to say they have just nationalised their country’s wages and business accounts. But the French president is simply reporting on the astonishing decisions he and others have all had to take.
What he is reporting is that the COVID-19 pandemic has precipitated an ideological breakdown. Breakdowns are not the same as death or revolutions. You can recover and be strengthened by the experience or just go back to how you were. You can recover and be changed by it. Or you may be altered fundamentally for good or ill. The outcome is decided afterwards and has to be achieved, it is never inherent in the crisis. And the outcome in this case could hardly be more important as it is a breakdown in globalisation itself. The pandemic has revealed an incompatibility between the economic market “dogma” that claimed to shape the wealth creation of the world, and an expectation of the right to life that, it turned out, accompanied its growth.
If you look at the way globalisation has been talked and written about across the media over past decades you would not have guessed this was likely or even possible. Four notions stand out: that globalisation is inhuman, is singular, is inevitable and is economic – based on trade, supply lines and international finance.
Above all, it appears to be something done to us. It may be driven by human agency yet it is experienced as a process we can do nothing about. UN and non-government organisations seek to shape, limit and mitigate its consequences. But they are like a Greek chorus of helpless onlookers unable to orchestrate the drama.
The most alarming example of this is the vast international effort to track, measure, double-check and predict the looming climate catastrophe, contrasted with the persistent failure to take emergency measures to prevent it. The Davos elite bathes in its own power but pleads incapacity when it comes to taking responsibility as the planet burns.
Supporters of globalisation encouraged fatalism and powerlessness. A striking example was when the then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair told the Labour Party Conference in 2005, “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer”. That was the year Thomas Friedman published the best-selling The World is Flat and it was fashionable to believe the human planet was being turned into a socio-economic singularity, thanks to the growth of a world-wide system of trade, finance, migration and communication, driven initially by states, then by corporations and finally by finance and cyberspace. It was supposed to lead inexorably to representative democracy and the rule of law overseen by a liberal elite.
We cannot understand what is going on if our minds are gripped by such nonsense. The essential starting point to grasp is that all talk of globalisation misleads if it projects the idea of a simplification or homogenisation. Progress – and we are living in an epoch of immense technological and productive progress – generates complexity and diversity not uniformity. The internet intensifies local communication. The forging of a shared environment assists the development of difference. Richness, contrasts and paradox are the companions of shared regulation and security. As communication multiplies, variety blooms and decentralisation becomes more effective, not less.
Not only does globalisation generate differences, it is driven by them, especially the imperative of ‘catching up’. Studies of nationalism show that it has been the vehicle for industrialisation and modernisation, not an impediment to them. Far from this being something we cannot debate, it demands arguments and experiments.
Most important of all, globalisation is by no means limited to the economy. Yes, it encompasses the ways in which the world goes about its business within and between nations. But it is also the processes by which we inhabit the world as a whole, including our media and communications; it affects how we eat and drink, and the way we relate to and experience ourselves and our health as a species, something the Coronavirus has literally brought home to us.
Accompanying and related to the inhuman progress of the market, with all its insecurities, booms, busts, precariousness and refusal of responsibility, there has been a parallel process of humanisation. This is not a term I’d have used before COVID-19. Back then, in 2019, ’humanisation’ would have sounded too feeble and soft to describe the direction the world might be taking. But the virus has shown us that our species-nature is a hard and serious priority.
Today the human consequences of globalisation are part of our experience as well as knowledge. People everywhere feel we share the same planet earth at the same time as each other. It does not follow we share an identical response, on the contrary. Nonetheless, there is no longer any society on earth where the experience of being part of contemporary world history is excluded from everyday life.
A simple way to assess this is to compare 1950 to today, a period well within my lifetime (I was born in 1942). In the mid-twentieth century an estimated 51%, that is to say half of the world’s population, had no formal education, most women were illiterate, most people lived on the land and most of today’s countries were colonies. Today, nearly two-thirds of us have mobile phones, most of us live in cities or towns, there are almost more nations than we can count and the fact that 10 percent of us have no basic education is regarded as shocking.
This is an economic, social and political revolution. An immense improvement in the standard of life has created a generalised capacity to become citizens everywhere. The masters of globalisation did everything possible to debilitate popular agency. They have generated slums and urban poverty and hard drug addiction on an unspeakable scale, but sweeping educational, sanitary and technological transformations have laid the basis for people to become fully human and this has blown away neoliberalism.