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This is a lesson not an outcome

You might be forgiven for thinking that the world is in the grip of a SARS-Cov-2 pandemic crisis.  That is only partially true, though.  The real crisis is in the neoliberal system which left us so desperately unprepared to meet what was a known threat.  The UK government’s own Operation Cygnus exercise in 2016 exposed how dangerously ill-equipped the NHS had become.  Indeed, even the ordinary run of winter illnesses was regularly overwhelming large parts of our under-funded and under-resourced health and social care system.

Problems relating to equipment shortages are more nuanced.  Expecting the NHS to run a massive stockpile of testing kits, PPE and ventilators would be unrealistic (although having some additional capacity would have been prudent).  The real issue is that the UK’s domestic economy lacks the ability to ramp up production of these essentials in an emergency.  Indeed, the fact that we were left dependent upon Chinese factories that had been locked down a month before shortages materialised here – roughly the time it takes to ship goods from China – highlights the stupidity of relying on fragile external supply chains at the expense  of domestic resilience.

Nor is healthcare the only sector to be exposed in this way.  The collapse of the wholesale food supply chain, and the inability of the retail sector to take up the slack, has plunged the UK into a largely hidden food crisis which may well morph into a full-blown famine in the event that borders remain closed and seasonal workers continue to be barred from travelling to the agricultural regions where they are needed.  As John Harris at the Guardian explains:

“The fact that we now rarely leave our homes means few people are aware of what is actually going on all over the country. Our field of vision is replete with statistics, and broad-brush warnings about the near future: from the daily death toll to the warnings from big banks of $5.5 trillion in lost global output, to the million or so people said to have newly applied for benefits in the UK. A very human crisis caused by Covid-19 is already here, beyond the illness itself, and it demands our attention.

“To a large extent, it is the result of what many of our politicians have been extolling for years: labour market ‘flexibility’; a benefits system designed to deter people from using it; and a public sector so underfunded that charities have had to step into the breach. Now, even last-ditch safety nets are fraying fast…

Harris points to a network of foodbanks that is struggling to meet the additional need brought about by the lockdown and the loss of millions of jobs at a time when the supermarkets are failing to meet demand from better off shoppers:

“Donations from the public… had largely dried up. A lot of fresh food used to come from cafes and restaurants, but they were now shuttered up. Aside from Morrisons, the big supermarkets tended to only directly donate food that was either past or very close to its sell by date, and often of poor nutritional value. And need was inexorably increasing…”

Again, this crisis was not caused by the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic, but by decades of cuts to the social infrastructure which used to provide at least some degree of dignity (and healthy calories) to the most vulnerable.  A system that was designed to fail the minority of people forced to turn to it in ordinary times was never going to survive the extra couple of million claims by people laid off because of the pandemic.

The economic shock, too, will be profound.  Having spent six weeks in November and December telling us that there was no magic money tree, the government are suddenly throwing newly-printed currency around like oligarchs on a jolly to the south of France.  Levels of public spending that would have made Corbyn and McDonnell blush a couple of months ago are just the beginning of a government attempt to stave off a complete collapse at least until a treatment or vaccine against Covid-19 can be found.

Longer-term, everything is up for grabs.  It was already clear that the nationalist populist right on both sides of the Atlantic was going to unravel the neoliberal system and replace it with its own version of a post-neoliberal world.  Trump’s trade war with China, together with his retreat from America’s role as capitalism’s world policeman, can only be strengthened by the fallout from a pandemic crisis which has demonstrated the dangers of fragile external supply chains.  The UK, too, will have to consider its supply chain vulnerabilities as it continues to negotiate its withdrawal from the European Union.

On the left, dreams of a post-neoliberal alternative to the politics of Trump and Johnson died last week with Bernie Sanders pulling out of the Democrat contest and – more symbolically – Corbyn handing the reins of the Labour Party to the more centrist Starmer.  Far from leading the charge to create a better world in the aftermath of the pandemic, the venal leaders of the UK Labour Party, the US Democrat Party and the European social democrats look set to become the new (small “c”) conservative parties; desperate to preserve the collapsing neoliberal order.

It was ever thus, of course.  As Chris Hedges wrote in an article for Truthdig back in February:

“The quadrennial political game of least worst, or how to scare the public to vote for presidential candidates who serve corporate power, comes this season with a new twist. Donald Trump, if he faces Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar or Michael Bloomberg, will continue to be an amalgamation of Adolf Hitler, Al Capone and the Antichrist. But should Bernie Sanders manage to evade the snares, traps and minefields laid for him by the Democratic Party elites, should he miraculously become the party’s nominee, the game of least worst will radically change. All the terrifying demons that inhabit Trump will be instantly exorcised. But unlike in the biblical story of Jesus driving the demons into a herd of swine, they will be driven into the senator from Vermont. Trump will become the establishment’s reluctant least worse option. Sanders will become a leper…”

People on this side of the Atlantic might have reassured Hedges that the neoliberal establishment would never allow Sanders anywhere near the November ballot.  We, after all, have witnessed four years of Labour insiders sabotaging their own party just to prevent a Corbyn government from taking office; even if this meant risking the worst possible “no-deal” Brexit.  As late as last autumn, with Corbyn virtually a prisoner of the metropolitan liberal wing of the Labour Party – having conceded all of the pro-remain demands made of him – the neoliberal left could not bring themselves to support even a transitional Corbyn-led government whose sole aim would be to deliver a second referendum.  Such are the supposed parties of the left who many people expect to lead the movement to reform the post-pandemic system.

Perhaps the biggest weakness of the political left is its irrational sense of optimism.  Rooted in a combination of Christian Methodism and evolutionist Marxism, too many on the left believe that success is built-in and that the New Jerusalem or the Socialist Utopia will follow the crisis as surely as night follows day.  Meanwhile, Trump, Johnson and nationalist populist leaders around the world are already using the forces of state at their disposal to implement their version of a post-crisis, post-neoliberal settlement.  Forget open borders – the nationalists will use the pandemic as proof we need tougher border controls.  Forget globalism – the nationalists will use the lesson of the pandemic to erect tariff barriers and curb dependence on vulnerable international supply chains.  Forget the green new deal – the pandemic has exposed the degree of sacrifice required just to curb our greenhouse gas emissions; far more will be needed than will be politically acceptable.  Forget appeals to international solidarity – the nationalists will use the pandemic crisis to bolster a version of nationalism which seeks to exclude and vilify any group deemed to fall outside “the nation.”

The pill will be sweetened with many of the things that used to appeal to parties of the left.  Capital controls will likely be implemented.  A higher degree of inflation will be allowed in order to “inflate away” at least some of the otherwise unrepayable debt.  A much greater degree of state intervention will be inescapable as governments seek to maintain critical infrastructure – and keep their voter base on side – in the face of a major post-pandemic depression.  Some degree of rebalancing from capital to labour – particularly where the capital concerned is foreign – is likely to occur; with many workers experiencing a modest rise in prosperity at the expense of people further up the income ladder.  Against this, anyone deemed to be an outsider – the sick and disabled, minority groups, etc. – can expect an even more “hostile environment” than the one created by Theresa May.

None of this is certain, of course.  The post-pandemic, post-neoliberal future is still up for grabs.  The SARS-Cov-2 virus has provided us with a useful lesson in the vulnerability of the neoliberal system that has prevailed for the last four decades.  It is clear to people across the political divide that things will have to change.  But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that the direction of change will inevitably be in a direction we might choose.  Remember that the political left has been decapitated and that the nationalist populist right is in the ascendancy.  The future we get may not be the one we asked for.

As you made it to the end…

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