‘No longer can we afford to be dominated by those who put money ahead of life. This coronavirus reminds us that we belong to the material world,’ wrote Guardian columnist George Monbiot who sees the virus as ‘nature’s wake-up call to a complacent civilisation’ (March 25th). As we hear of the clean skies over China as pollution clears and the return of fish to swim in the now pure waters of Venice’s canals, we are being taught a stark lesson in the consequences of human hubris.
There are many levels at which this learning is taking place and they touch fundamental aspects, not only of health, hygiene and social protection, but our dominant political assumptions and value systems. Seeing the state stepping in and taking control of economic activity overnight tears up 40 years of an economic orthodoxy that had seeped into every nook and cranny of our societies and our imaginaries. Where our survival depends on it, we are suddenly all statists now.
But this is no return to the statism we have known in the past when states assumed extensive control over social provision and, in some places, over citizen activity. Covid-19 does us the favour of requiring a new partnership in which the state depends on citizens to assume a level of social solidarity not known outside of wartime.
Paradoxically, we assume a physical distance from one another to show our solidarity, particularly with the most vulnerable among us. The very rhetoric of our political leaders, in Ireland at least, appealing to our sense of social responsibility and care for one another, bursts the bubble of the self-sufficient individual. The contrast between the idealistic appeals of our political and social leaders and the individualistic and consumerist values bred in us by the propaganda of seductive advertising beamed at us every minute of every day impacts deeply.
So, we wonder if at last we are waking up to our vulnerabilities and beginning the long transition to the very different future that climate change demands of us. For, what is required to undertake this post-carbon transition is precisely an ethic of belonging to the natural world and to one another, a politics based on a new partnership of state and strong local communities, states willing to limit the predatory activities of the private sector where they undermine goals of public well-being, and a common goal of supporting one another amid mounting threats and vulnerabilities.
So far, so good. But the history of crises and their aftermath gives us pause. The widely held prediction, particularly among the left, that the 2008 financial crisis marked the end of neo-liberalism was quickly found to be wishful thinking, with the return to business-as-usual incubating a new crop of authoritarian rulers (many of them climate denying) who now govern much of humanity. More than speeding the transition to a low-carbon future, Covid-19, once it’s brought under control, may be more likely to fuel a frenetic burst of consumerism, greatly aided by low oil prices and businesses avid to get back to profitability and growth.
We can say that much will depend on leadership but, of course, courageous, visionary leadership is sorely lacking today. Instead of focusing on the quality of our leaders, history teaches us that fundamental change has required at least two conditions. If we bear with the analogy that Covid-19 is like a war (and it certainly has put our societies on a footing never before seen outside wartime), then contrasting the ways society emerged from the last two world wars is instructive. Are we going to follow the lessons of 1918 or of 1945?
The First World War was followed by a vindictive approach towards the vanquished and a return to the economic model that preceded it, most especially the return of many countries to the Gold Standard that sowed the seeds for the Great Depression. In 1945 by contrast, a whole new architecture for the post-war economy had been put in place, including the Bretton Woods institutions for a managed capitalism globally and, as happened in the UK, the extension of social rights in health, education and housing ushering in the 30-year era of social democracy. A big reason for the differences between both periods was that Keynesianism offered a theoretical framework to guide the latter that was lacking in 1918.
Applying these lessons to our current situation, we can find a certain amount of planning for a greener capitalism, especially in the EU’s continuing commitment to the European Green New Deal. However, the far stronger message being given is the wish to return to normality as soon as possible, meaning spending to fuel economic growth. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said both that he doesn’t want the imposition of austerity but also that taxes will need to be reduced. This is hardly the recipe for the decisive low-carbon transition that is so badly needed here.
Taking the lessons of 1945 points to the need for a social vision equivalent to that provided by Keynes in the closing years of the Second World War. My contention in my forthcoming book Karl Polanyi and the Contemporary Political Crisis: Transforming Market Society in the Era of Climate Change to be published by Bloomsbury later this year (with a Foreword by President Higgins) is that the 20th century Austro-Hungarian thinker Karl Polanyi offers that script. How his core insights can provide the basis for society to move into the low-carbon transition will be the subject of my next blog.