Revolution in the Era of Pandemics

The obvious alternative to the British, as well as the US and European, approach to the crisis was to impose a complete lockdown that closed all except the most vital workplaces such as food distribution and hospitals. This would have largely eliminated the virus in about two months. At the same time, millions could have been spent on providing people with access to counselling, online learning and home food deliveries to make the lockdown as stress-free and productive as possible. Meanwhile, billions could have been poured into healthcare, into test-and-trace, and into border control and quarantine systems, so any future outbreaks could be contained or prevented completely. And billions more could have been spent not only to transform buildings and transport to enable better ventilation and social distancing but also to drastically reduce energy use. Such an investment programme would not only have helped secure the world against both the threat of future pandemics and the threat of climate change, it would have also prevented yet another capitalist depression. So why were the Western capitalist class, and their political representatives, so reluctant to take the actions necessary to save their own system? Well, the reason can’t have been because investing in the economy poses any technical problems. After all, European governments experienced no such problems when they spent billions subsidising firms and wages in the spring 2020 lockdown. The reason was, rather, that such spending poses political problems. As the Economist warned in its response to the British government’s decision to underwrite the entire economy in March 2020: “The novel notion that the government needs to preserve firms, jobs and workers’ incomes at practically any cost may endure. … The policy will formally end once the pandemic has passed, but political pressure for similar support schemes – from the nationalisation of tottering firms to the provision of a universal basic income – may well be higher the next time a sharp downturn comes along. If politicians are able to preserve jobs and incomes during this crisis, many people will see little reason why they should not try again in the next one.” Or, to put it differently: once people see the government as being directly responsible for the economy – including everyone’s income and job security – there is nothing to stop them making more demands for welfare and secure employment. Such demands would not abolish capitalism. But they would provide workers with the ability to refuse work, to push the economy into crisis and to start questioning why, in the 21st Century, we still base society on something as miserable as wage labour. The Western capitalist class may not see things exactly this way but they’ve not forgotten the strike waves and counter-cultural protests of the 1960s and 1970s. They know that once the economy is politicised, it is only a matter of time before they start losing control of their system. That is the underlying reason why the UK government is still sabotaging its own test-and-trace system by refusing to give people enough money to isolate. That is why the UK government – along with many others – will attempt to reverse as much state provision as they can once the pandemic is over. And that is why most Western governments will continue to hesitate to take control of the economy to the extent necessary to deal either with future pandemics or with climate change.

Mark Kosman in Revolution in the Era of Pandemics (