Bryn Jones argues that the Covid-19 pandemic must be the signal for a new democratic political economy

Neoliberal politicians claim to be waging a war on the Covid-19, Coronavirus. A ‘war’ metaphor is invoked when they expand spending and need public support to combat a perceived evil. They promise that the Corona enemy can be defeated before too much damage is done to the population and its economic health. But when was the ‘war on cancer’ (begun circa 1971) or the ‘war on terror’ (2001) actually won? Non-military ‘wars’ tend to fade from the public and media gaze, rather than ending in victory parades and garlanded heroes. Nevertheless, the scale, conduct and outcomes of the Corona campaign may actually be closer to the total-war mobilisations of the twentieth century. If so, it will not only be a question of ‘who wins’ but of how much society and its governance will change.

Aspects of today’s total war governance include: whole sectors of the economy suspended or closed down; huge special funds generated from treasuries and channelled to the front lines of health equipment, logistics and support for businesses and employees. Closed businesses span whole swathes of the economy – retailing, cafes, bars, transport, sports and entertainment. Governments are awarding themselves extra-ordinary powers to control and police civil populations. In shades of martial law, citizens are forbidden from congregating in groups and in public places. Freedom of assembly is abolished. In the UK health sector 25,000 ‘reservists’ – retirees and students – have been mobilised to assist the medical “front line in the war against this virus” (Boris Johnson); assisted by a civilian corps of 250,000 ‘NHS Volunteer Responders’ to provide ‘community support’. Actual army personnel are allocated to deliver scarce protective equipment to hospitals and convert London’s commandeered Excel exhibition centre into a kind of field hospital.

Of more economic significance is the restriction of millions of ‘non-combatant’ citizens to their homes. This strategic retreat aims to defeat the viral enemy by depriving it of human breeding grounds. A strategy that recalls Marx and Engels’ wry observation that successful generals win wars by mobilising more recruits, but capitalism overcomes its crises by dismissing armies of workers: to save on their wage costs. The current ‘confinement to barracks’ may help on the biological front. But like other special measures, including also unheard of government subventions to replace lost revenues, rents and wages, it troubles the neoliberal mind.

‘Big state’ interventions are sacrilege against the primacy of markets. They are therefore hedged with caveats: described as temporary measures to speed up a return to free competition, mass consumption and small government. Government figures promise that the pandemic will soon peak and be brought under control, enabling a return to business-as-normal. Biological and economic considerations cast doubt on this aspiration. On the biological front, mass quarantines will deprive the virus enemy of fresh supplies. Eventually transmission rates should fall, as infection rates by those still in active employment decline and precautionary hygiene minimises contagions. A preventative vaccine will eventually provide mass inoculations. However, best estimates date this stage no earlier than early 2021. It is also possible that Covid-19 will mutate, making a vaccine redundant or less effective. Moreover, previous, related influenza epidemics occurred in waves, with the first peak of mass contagion followed some months later by another of similar magnitude. It is therefore possible that crisis governance will continue for at least two years.

On the economic front a full economic reboot seems unlikely without, at best, a lengthy transition. Government and central bank financial support is replicating that doled out in 2008. But in 2008 the main goal was to refinance and insure bank capital. Now, as detailed by Laurie MacFarlane, aid needs to go to businesses that have lost revenue through vanished sales and to absent workforces. The danger is that corporations may use new capital as they did with tax breaks: to restore balance sheets, reward their investors’ launch takeover bids or for financial speculation, rather than to reactivate investment and employment for social reconstruction. Such Keynesian transfusions may, anyway, not renew or boost consumer demand and employment. Because fear, or government fiat, are physically isolating buyers and workers from shops and workplaces in our predominantly service economy. Some online sales apart, millions of worker-consumers cannot produce and spend.

If fiscal and monetary remedies fail, restructuring of the market-state relationship, in which the crisis has revealed huge holes, may be inevitable. The frayed patchwork quilt of social welfare is patently dysfunctional for millions of workers in ‘atypical employment’ and self-employment. For example, policy camps and politicians are making a credible case for a statutory ’basic’ or ‘citizens’ income, overriding means testing and with almost automatic eligibility: a radical departure from neoliberalism’s market-welfare paradigm.

There is a broader opportunity to rebuild the worst-hit aspects of public services and social infrastructures, a chance to reverse the neglect and rundown of decades of financial mismanagement and austerity – especially since the looming Brexit conclusion requires new policies. Health services need renationalising and/or incorporation into local government, social and welfare services, vocational training and transport. Longer term, the housing sector could be switched from speculative building firms and transformed to speed the supply of new homes, with compulsory purchase of buildings and refurbishments. Only two months into the crisis and instant housing in unused buildings for thousands of homeless is already under way; a problem previously deemed almost insoluble.

In the corporate sector there has been de facto nationalisation of railway franchises and, in light of its vanished markets, some state restructuring of the aviation industry looms. Other affected and complicit sectors – especially the profit-prioritising pharmaceutical monopolies and import-dependent, high-waste food sector – could then also be considered for new, democratic forms of ownership and control by their stakeholders: workers, long-term investors and community representatives.

Privatisations and ‘hollowing out’ have stripped national government structures of the capacity they inherited from two world wars to organise and operationalise public programmes. For national and local projects to bolster the health, social care and food systems, government will need assistance to reallocate displaced workers and to meld funds, expertise and active leadership. So government will need to work with ‘social partners’ (unions), to use the EU rhetoric, plus civic partners (local government) and civil society partners (NGOs, community organisations and charities). Although right-wing ministers and the political establishment will resist, these other forces, as well as other political parties, will want guarantees that their cooperation is not only for discretionary patching up. They will want a say in planning and implementation. In the 1970s and 1980s such shared governance was called, often pejoratively, ‘corporatism’ and derided for its lack of transparency and accountability.

For these reasons, to repay the population for their sacrifices and to ensure it involves the right agencies, targets the right investments and benefits the right people, socio-economic reconstruction must, as the Foundational Economy Collective argue, be as decentralised, participative and democratic as possible: ‘Democratic Corporatist Capitalism’? A major drugs breakthrough, benign virus mutations, favourable political circumstances and effective propaganda may stifle such developments. But, and more likely, if the ‘war’ involves a prolonged campaign, with social and economic hardship, people and politicians may reject neoliberalism’s endemic insecurity and the dysfunctional markets that primarily benefit investors and corporate executives. Many will recognise that it was these conditions that allowed Covid-19 to flourish and kill. If they do, change may become unavoidable.

1 COMMENT

  1. Re the losing “war on cancer” … the official mainstream “war on cancer” has been an unofficial “war” on the unsuspecting public: to keep them misinformed and misguided about the real truth of this “war.” The ‘war on covid-19’ is no different.

    Take the war on cancer as an example of these rackets..

    The orthodox cancer establishment has been saying a cure for cancer “is just around the corner” and “we’re winning the war on cancer” for decades. It’s all hype and lies (read Dr. Guy Faguet’s ‘War on cancer,” Dr. Sam Epstein’s work, or Clifton Leaf’s book, or Siefried’s work on this bogus ‘war’, etc).

    Since the war on cancer began orthodox medicine hasn’t progressed in their basic highly profitable therapies: it still uses primarily and almost exclusively highly toxic, deadly things like radiation, chemo, surgery, and drugs that have killed millions of people instead of the disease.

    As long as the official “war on cancer” is a HUGE BUSINESS based on expensive TREATMENTS (INTERVENTIONS) of a disease instead of its PREVENTION, logically, they will never find a cure for cancer. The upcoming moonshot-war on cancer inventions, too, will include industry-profitable gene therapies of cancer treatment that are right in line with the erroneous working model of mechanistic reductionism of allopathic medicine.

    The lucrative game of the medical business is to endlessly “look for” a cure but not “find” a cure. Practically all resources in the phony ‘war on cancer’ are poured into TREATMENT of cancer but almost none in the PREVENTION of the disease. It’s proof positive that big money and a total lack of ethics rule the official medical establishment.

    It’s just like with any bogus official “war” (‘war on drugs’, ‘war on terrorism’, etc) — it’s not about winning these wars but to primarily prolong them because behind any of these fraudulent “war” rackets of the criminal establishment is a Big Business, such as the massive cancer industry. The very profitable TREATMENT focus of conventional medicine, instead of a PREVENTION focus which these official medical quacks (or rather crooks) can hardly make any money off, is a major reason why today 1 of 2 men and 1 in 3 women can expect a cancer diagnosis at some point in their lifetimes yet that rate was multiple times lower 5 decades ago when the phony ‘war on cancer’ began (1 in about 16). That fact alone proves we are NOT winning the war on cancer.

    At the same time, this same orthodox cancer cartel has been suppressing and squashing a number of very effective and beneficial alternative cancer approaches. You probably guessed why: effective, safe, inexpensive cancer therapies are cutting into the astronomical profits of the medical mafia’s lucrative treatments. That longstanding decadent activity is part of the fraud of the war on cancer.

    If the public were to scrutinize what the medical industry and its government pawns are telling them about the ‘war on cancer’ instead of blindly believing what they’re saying, they’d find that the cancer industry and the cancer charities have been dismissing, ignoring, and obfuscating the true causes of cancer while mostly putting the blame for cancer on the individual, denying or dismissing the serious harms from orthodox cancer treatments and chemical toxicants, and resorting to deceptive cancer statistics to “educate” (think: mislead) the public that their way of treatment is actually successful (read this well referenced scholarly article’s afterword on the war on cancer: do a search engine query for “A Mammogram Letter The British Medical Journal Censored” by Rolf Hefti, a published author of the Orthomolecular Medicine News organization, and scroll down to the afterword that addresses the fraudulent ‘war on cancer’).

    What the medical establishment “informs” the public about is about as truthful as what the political establishment keeps telling them. Not to forget, the corporate media (the mainstream fake news media) is a willing tool to spread these distortions, lies, and the scam of the war on cancer.

    Does anyone really think it’s a coincidence that double Nobel laureate Linus Pauling called the ‘war on cancer’ a fraud? If you look closer you’ll come to the same conclusion. But…politics and self-serving interests of the conventional medical cartel, and their allied corporate media, keep the real truth far away from the public at large. Or people’s own denial or indifference of the real truth.

Leave a comment...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.