Come back brighter

Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams, authors of The Economics of Arrival, discuss the risks and opportunities of a post-viral future. First published in Green Christian magazine, summer 2020. 

How will art and literature represent our present moment, when it comes to be made? It will have to capture the sense of vertigo that so many of us have felt as the solid certainties of life vanished beneath us. It will consider our slow readjustment to a new normal, and our mourning for the way things were.

But those are stories to tell later. First we have to live it. This is a time for making history.

To use a New Testament word, it’s a Kairos moment – the opportune time. A time for choices. We cannot go back to what we considered normal, but where will we go from here?

The risks

For all the optimism around the possibilities, there’s no guarantee that the changes on the other side of Coronavirus will be positive. We know what happened at the last financial crisis in 2008: bailouts for industries deemed ‘too big to fail’, paid for by public debt that led to deep cuts to public services and ultimately transferred wealth from the poor to the rich. Bonus culture was uninterrupted even as quantitative easing rinsed market failures away with undeserved billions.

How much have we learned from last time? A string of countries have announced that companies that don’t pay their taxes shouldn’t expect government support. Poland were first, and many followed, including Denmark, Scotland and Wales. No such announcement from Westminster, despite the obvious fairness of only drawing from public funds if you contribute to them.

Should the GDP-economy continue to slump and job losses rise, budgets may tighten again. As before, this will be pushed onto local authorities to take the difficult decisions. Centrally, some politicians may try again at the ‘unfinished business’ of shrinking the state – that aid budget for example, which certain factions have been eyeing for some time.

History shows how easily turbulent times can feed extreme politics and scapegoating. Some may take refuge in nationalism. When there isn’t so much to go round, some people are going to start asking who deserves more, taking a ‘last to arrive, first to leave’ parallel to the approach often taken to redundancies. Life could get harder for minorities, and even tighter at the borders.

A re-evaluation

Let’s borrow another New Testament word: apocalypse. It’s generally used to denote the end of the world, but in its original meaning it signifies a revelation – the old order falling away and something new being revealed. In that strict sense, Covid-19 has been an apocalypse: it has revealed something hidden to us.

For example, the demands of lockdown, however hard it has been for many, also revealed how ready people are to help each other. Individualist consumer societies can fool people into thinking they don’t need each other, and that we are all self-interested economic units out to maximise our individual gain. That lie has been unmasked, as a sense of belonging and solidarity and community blossomed again. It was there all along. We’d just lost our way and forgotten about it.

Another thing that we have rediscovered is that health and wellbeing are more important than economic growth. We knew that all along too, but it had been obscured by the endless talk about the supposed benefits. We’d stumbled into the social and environmental dead end of GDP growth, and now we see it for the false promise it is.

The sorting of jobs into categories also blew away decades worth of falsehoods about who has value in society. It turns out that nurses, supermarket cashiers and bin lorry drivers are essential, and bankers, car salespersons and footballers are not (with the possible exception of Marcus Rashford!) Money, we remember, never was a good indicator of social value.

Finally, we can see that our precious economy wasn’t working – other than for those who used their wealth to shape it. It would be wrong to say it was broken – that would imply it was malfunctioning, when in fact it was doing exactly what it was supposed to do according to the dictums of those made powerful by the rents they’ve been able to extract. Dictums such as take every environmental shortcut and pay the lowest wages you can get away with, in order to deliver greater returns to capital. Supply chains became ‘just in time’, and so did people. Zero hours, worker ‘flexibility’, people as a commodity – an economy now revealed to be inhuman.

The opportunity

What can we do then, armed with these new truths? For a start, we can reconfigure our society and our economy around what matters most. Not growth, the blunt pursuit of more. Now is time to focus on better. A useful first step is to move beyond the calculus of GDP and recalibrate our definitions of success: rewarding work, life-long learning, predistribution of wealth, and the security of a social safety net that everyone can depend on.

Knowing who is essential to the functioning of society, Britain should ensure decent pay and conditions for all its essential workers. The things that make the biggest difference to wellbeing should be priorities for government spending, with a focus on prevention rather than patching things up afterwards.

There is wide agreement that the environment should be a priority too. A survey in 14 countries in April 2020 found that 65% of people agreed with the statement “in the economic recovery after Covid-19, it’s important that government action prioritise climate change.” (IPSOS) The vision for a Green New Deal pairs environmental and social action so that nobody is left behind, and a greener society also becomes a fairer society – especially for left behind communities and people of colour.

For example, a Green New Deal could focus on community-owned renewable energy, which would lower carbon emissions while reducing inequality. People would have a stake in the services they depend on, with profits returned to the local community rather than the overstuffed pockets of shareholders.

Decision time

None of these new directions are certain. The government hasn’t changed, and the same people who thought it was working before are still in charge. It will take hard work, and campaigns such as Build Back Better are already underway. Tearfund are inviting churches to consider the role they could play through their Reboot Campaign. Katherine, in her work with the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, is already seeing new choices and new policies being drafted.

As we said in our book, The Economics of Arrival, “External events create the most obvious opportunities for change – a financial crisis, an election that brings a new political party to power or the signing of a new international agreement.” (Or, we should have added, a global pandemic.) “These ‘teachable moments’ that show the impossibility of business as usual might not bring change in themselves, but they create moments of opportunity.”

Perhaps we have learned something. Perhaps change is in the air, and we can come back brighter on the other side of the virus.

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