As the UK edges uncertainly into easing the COVID-19 lockdown, where might we be headed and to what kind of new normality?
At this very early stage in the responses to the pandemic, four narratives are taking shape, pointing us to quite different futures. These scenarios combine elements of continuity and discontinuity, realism and idealism, optimism and pessimism. They are not mutually exclusive. There are overlaps between them. Any of us could feel drawn to more than one at the same time. Some of these will make sense in some places but not others, and for some people but not others.
The first future is the most superficially comforting: the return to normal – life as it was for most of us in late November 2019. For that to be possible, the crisis must have a finite duration, which will allow victory to be declared. Its implications must be contained as a health crisis, not an indictment of the entire social order. There will be lessons to be learned about our preparedness for crises, the stocks we keep of PPE, but not the risks of hyper-globalisation. After taking a big hit, the economy will eventually right itself. People will go back to work, aircraft will criss-cross the skies, pubs and restaurants will – in time – fill with people desperate to leave behind the nightmare of 2020. Pupils will return to school and students to universities, anxious to see them back. Next year will be the summer of love, a year of long-delayed weddings and newly arrived babies. Sighs of relief all round. The sense of solidarity we currently feel will become a warm memory. Brexit will return to centre-stage, as the debates about the lessons of the crisis play out along predictable, party-political lines, with Commissions of inquiry taking years to conclude.
The ‘return to normal’ will be more possible in countries which have responded to the crisis well in terms of minimising deaths (presuming that the apparent early successes are not undone by subsequent waves): Denmark, Greece and New Zealand might be examples. It is not just companies that want to return to business-as-usual as soon as possible; most people need to get back to work to pay their bills.
Although the last few weeks have been marked by striking discontinuities – the 33 million unemployment claims in the US, the 10 million French workers drawing temporary unemployment support – there will also be strong continuities between the world we were in and the world we emerge into. The crisis confirms already-entrenched trends: Hungary’s leadership is authoritarian; the US is withdrawing from international leadership; border controls are already tightening; the climate crisis continues unabated. Perhaps the world will be less different than we think.
Except that we won’t be able to ‘return to normal’ in anything other than the most superficial sense. The trauma and distress left behind by the disease will take years to soothe. The economy may be in a deep mess for years; companies and entire industries may have collapsed. It will be hard for politicians to put the genie back in the bottle now we know that governments can borrow and print money when they really need to. There will be strong demands to look again at how the people who have carried the country through this – nurses and doctors, cleaners and frontline workers, care and delivery staff – are valued and rewarded. There were, moreover, plenty of people for whom the normal of 2019 was very tough: like those living paycheck to paycheck on zero hours contracts, for example.
An official campaign to get us to be completely normal again is unlikely to succeed. Indeed it may well feel contrived rather than familiar; more like Hyper Normality in which we must keep up appearances at all costs and pretend everything is normal when in fact the country has been through a profound collective trauma.
One of the main reasons we will not return to normal, calmer waters is that another crisis is likely to come along soon.
We will not be able to return to normal because how we are now, albeit in extreme form, has become normality. This crisis may not have a definitive end. It may roll on for years, first as a health crisis, then as an economic and social crisis, in turn generating upheaval in domestic and international politics. In that time this crisis could easily intersect with others: the coronavirus arrived in Australia just as catastrophic bushfires were dying down; in Africa, harvests are being severely affected by a plague of locusts; the south western states of the US are still suffering an historic drought. Some places – Greece for example – have been living with a crisis for at least the last decade. Many people working in the gig economy may feel they are in perpetual financial crisis.
It certainly feels as if in the last two decades that crises have been a persistent feature of interconnected lives in a fragile, unequal world. Wherever a crisis enters our society, whether through terror (2001), finance (2008), migration and populism (2016), or now in health, it quickly entangles the entire economic, social and political machine. Crisis is a state that is on the verge of being overwhelmed. If states found themselves perpetually on the verge of being overwhelmed we would be living in the next future: the permanent emergency.
The state and its citizens will need to be perpetually on guard for the next crisis, likely triggered by some combination of climate change, migration and conflict, underpinned by a growing global population which is competing for many different resources. In this future, the economy grows only thanks to bubbles – technology, commodities, property – which inevitably collapse in mayhem. Whereas before we fondly thought of ‘normality’ as the calm between waves of critical events and collapse, in this future, crisis is felt to be normality. We will look back on the relative calm of the late twentieth century as an aberration.
Everywhere the reserve powers of the state will be strengthened. More will be invested in resilience and back-up systems. That may mean not relying on the most cost-efficient short term strategies for the supply of food, medical equipment and energy. More safety buffers will be built into densely-connected systems which spread contagion and risk too rapidly. Every system we rely upon – not just banking – will be stress-tested to check its readiness to cope with a crisis. The social price of security will be constant vigilance and our willing submission to surveillance that reaches deep into our private lives, right down to the temperature of our bodies as we go to the shops. As a result, not just in Hungary, governments may never fully unwind the emergency powers they have recently acquired. Illiberalism will be a price we pay for a sense of security.
All of that sounds very plausible. Yet it also sounds deeply unappetising. Everyone will be constantly on edge looking for the next crisis which could upend their lives. Widening inequality and falling trust in government will mean people start to fend for themselves. Everything in this permanent state of emergency will be provisional and short term; nothing can be relied upon for long.
Yet perhaps because the ‘permanent emergency’ seems so plausible and unappetising people will be drawn to forge a more stable social and economic order – which we might call the post-coronavirus settlement.
For this third future to come to pass, the crisis would have to become a turning point, after which the UK strikes out on a different path.
World War II has frequently been evoked in comparison to this crisis, as a time when the state orchestrated society to meet a common threat. The post-war settlement which followed was a social bargain: full male employment in manufacturing jobs; a welfare state that combined social security with national health and education services; a managed market economy in which nation states traded with one another in a system governed by international institutions, backed by US leadership. Eventually, that settlement paved the way for the golden era of mass-production and consumption, rising productivity and social mobility for two decades up to 1975.
What might the modern day equivalent look like? If Keynes and Beveridge were alive today, what future would they now be sketching out for us?
The post-coronavirus settlement would make the health and wellbeing of citizens its central goal. That would entail the organisation of the economy around the principles of need rather than profit, care rather than consumerism. It would mean widespread acceptance of preventative, home-based healthcare, delivered in part by technology, including testing and tracing, perhaps through an expanded National Health and Care Service.
Like its predecessor, providing good work for all would be at the heart of this settlement.
The state would not relinquish its role in managing the labour market much more actively. Frontline workers everywhere would have their pay boosted as part of the settlement, likely paid for by additional taxes on the rich and corporations driven by a sense of social responsibility (although governments would likely have to resort to inflating away public debt). The quid pro quo for this state intrusion into people’s lives would be a massive extension of social security to provide a version of universal basic income to people in flexible forms of temporary and self-employment: a new safety net for the 21st century worker. Rough sleeping, virtually eliminated through the crisis, would never return. Inequality would be radically compressed. A Biden presidency might combine with a revived European project and a more engaged China to create a more stable global order.
Tackling the coronavirus could then provide the template for the state to follow in mobilising a collective effort to address big shared challenges, not least the climate crisis and flattening the curve of carbon emissions. A shift in priorities would be reflected in new measures of social and economic wellbeing that would displace narrow financial measures of shareholder value and GDP growth. There would be more good green jobs for people but we would work, travel and consume less. The coronavirus crisis could be a turning point after which society adopts a more democratic, inclusive and regulated social and economic model that underpins stable, sustainable development to 2045.
There’s no lack of ideas for what such a settlement would look like: all the plans for the model sketched above are well developed. In some cases there are working examples. The challenge is how to strike the social bargain to bring it into being when there is no accepted hegemonic power to guarantee a stable international order as the US did in 1945. Political systems have become fragmented as power seems increasingly dispersed into social movements and networks which lack the heft of social democratic parties and trade unions, while the technologies at the core of this economy do not yet create a mass of well-paid jobs. The whole idea of a lasting 'settlement' seems at odds with a world which has become, for good and for ill, so fluid and networked.
For such a settlement to come to pass, not just priorities but power would have to shift. Powerful companies, not least in banking and technology, would have to embrace this model – as Ford and GM did with the post-war settlement – because they find the logic compelling for their businesses, turning it into products and services, jobs and new aspirational ways to live. New social movements – the latter-day equivalents of the trade unions and the post-war social democrats in the 1940s – would have to move from opposition to proposition, from the margins to the mainstream.
Perhaps the most likely route to the new settlement is not through a progressive revolution, but in a way the opposite: a conservative idea to look after people, care for those in need and the communities they live in. Universal basic income, for example, has gone from an interesting but utopian idea to mainstream policy in a matter of weeks. Could other policies – on climate and taxes – go through a similarly rapid transformation to become the new common sense? The settlement may arrive when adopted as the new common sense by ‘men in suits’ like Rishi Sunak, rather than through Extinction Rebellion and Occupy storming the bastions of power.
There is an alternative to this democratic, civic settlement, driven by new values. That fourth potential future is what we call the big brothers – a sharp turn towards a more authoritarian future. That would be based on a social bargain but of a different kind. The state, hobbled by the debts incurred in tackling the crisis, would be more dependent than ever on financial markets and large companies, especially those that run digital platforms. Those companies would be the main architects of this future.
Citizens concerned for their own safety would have little option but to share their data with those companies for the sake of managing the health of the nation. The South Korean test, track, trace, isolate regime would be the new template for life in the future: tightly regulated collective responsibility, overseen by big business and big government.
After years of democracy being on the back foot, this ‘democratic recession’ would be deep and lasting. In countries where democratic governments are seen to have peformed badly, there could be a sharp shift towards more authoritarian, nationalistic solutions. Authoritarianism could reach from the periphery into the core of Europe. Hungary would not be an outlier but a harbinger of things to come. Some parts of Europe may even start to look more to China than to America as a model.
The institutions and organisations that would emerge from this crisis with more power and clout would be big government, big companies, big data and big money (in the form of the US dollar). They’d provide safe havens where people would gather to start to plan the future.
The crisis would accentuate the already pronounced trends towards market concentration, at least in the US. Bigger companies with stronger balance sheets would do better. Companies that are ‘too big to fail’ would be bailed out. Life would be much harder for smaller and more fragile companies which may be left to sink or swim, especially from sectors such as high street retail which were already in turmoil. Surveillance capitalism could find its raison d’etre, the public purpose to justify its monopoly power by providing mass health care and surveillance.
We could find ourselves in a more planned, better-informed, state-directed, managed market economy – in which large digital platform companies, in particular, may be in an even stronger position than before the crisis, with a minimal social safety net for workers. The free market might be no more; neoliberalism may be over; yet corporate power would be stronger than ever. Authoritarianism, with some clever apps to keep us healthy and entertained, would be the new normal: the price we pay for feeling safe.
All these potential futures are in play at the same time, often within our own heads. That is a mark not only of how uncertain and confused we might feel, but also of the possibilities that could open up as the crisis forces us to adopt once unthinkable policies and to reflect on what most matters to us.
These futures will play out as we address the moral and economic trade offs society will now face, all of which raise questions of what we value: how will we regard the work done by frontline staff; how much should we invest in shared resilience, which requires costly buffers and standby resources, rather than efficiency at all costs; how much tax will we pay for a proper social safety net; what value do we put on privacy, set against the need for effective surveillance for the good of our collective health; how much responsibility does one generation bear for others?
The kind of society we become after this will pivot based on how we answer questions such as these. These are difficult questions, to be sure, and the ballot box is a crude tool with which to mould and model our possible futures. What we need, as Ravi Gurumurthy argued in his introductory blog, is innovation in how we conduct our democracy, so that the future can be shaped by the energy and the creativity of the public. We will need new ways to come together, now, in real time, to make collective sense of the crisis and to explore ideas for a better future. What those might entail will be the subject of a subsequent essay in this series.
With thanks to Christopher Haley.