COVID-19: Speculative social impacts
by Michael Brenner on 13 Apr 2020 3 Comments

In time of emergencies people, and institutions, revert to their deepest nature and reveal their true character” - Mauro Ferrari, (former) Chief Scientist, European Research Council


To assess the wide-ranging speculations as to the lasting effects of the COVID-19 crisis with a modicum of rigour, we should begin by differentiating between two categories of possible change. One covers those that are likely to emerge over time as the outcome of largely individual modifications of behaviour. This is what we might call the socio-cultural realm. Will we become more or less dependent on impersonal communication; will ‘virtual’ learning grow to the point where in situ teaching (especially in universities) gives way to expanded distance learning built around MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses); will the trend toward a highly individualized, and therefore anomic society be reversed? Will local communities regain their vibrancy and capacity for collective endeavour?


In another category are politico-economic systemic changes. These characteristically do not evolve by small increments, ‘organically’ so to speak. Rather, they are the outcome of intentional actions which involve organized, sustained effort - albeit personal initiative and direction by leaders play a significant role. It is true that there is some interplay between the two categories. A deeper sense of community generated by informal cooperation to deal with the challenges of the epidemic as well as the pervasive rhetoric stressing that “we’re all in this together,” could encourage a greater readiness to think in terms of collective national need relative to the pursuit of particular interests. That connection, however, is anything but a foregone conclusion.


The preliminary evidence is that attitudes in the political arena are resistant to any meaningful shift in public philosophies. What is happening at present in Washington is a case in point. There, the tight alliance between the Trump administration and the Congressional leadership remains as committed to its agenda of favoring the corporate interests, the private sector and those at the very top of the income bracket.


The President himself, backed by senior officials, has dragged his heels in a reluctant, piecemeal marshalling of the resources of the federal government to provide the means – material and administrative – required to contain spread of the virus. Due in part to the steady degradation of relevant public agencies (a phenomenon that predates the Trump Presidency although accelerated by it), it has left critical agencies of government like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in such an impaired condition as to render then almost useless.


Still, there is much that could have been done that the White House refused to do, e.g. mobilizing the stocks and the capabilities of the country’s enormous military apparatus, inventorying and coordinating the distribution of critical supplies, directing private companies with relevant capabilities to meet explicit targets, etc. Instead, the administration has explicitly told state governors that each should fend for him/herself. This is unprecedented. At the very least, an experienced person of competence should have been put in charge of a coordinated strategy – not a bespoke nitwit like Jared Kushner.


Republican Party discipline and adherence to anti-government dogma remains unshaken. In the Republican controlled Senate, the leadership has gone a step further in pressing hard to use emergency legislation intended to provide assistance in a period of massive economic disruption as a vehicle for forcing through legislation that channels hundreds of billions of dollars to their favoured constituents. Lobbyists for business organizations representing sectors as diverse as finance, energy (especially fracking), airlines, tourism, infested the capitol where they aligned with friendly legislators to get their own preferences placed on the Christmas tree.


The association representing hedge funds earns the prize for sheer audacity in petitioning for an appropriation of $220 billion to compensate them for anticipated earnings lost in the emerging economic recession, in particular a slowdown in the velocity of market transactions where they make their money through trading/speculation. Kushner’s family business immediately wet its beak in the hand-out. Corporate interests generally succeed in getting what they want – with the tacit acquiescence of the characteristically meek Democratic leadership. This sad tale is important not just for the corporate world’s unabashed special pleading, but also as evidence that attitudes among powerful forces – private and political – seem impervious to both broader societal needs and any sense of social ethics.


The same phenomenon was observable in the strong reluctance of the Trump administration to provide financial assistance to households on an equitable basis. In dispute between the Democratic led House of Representatives and the Republicans at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are salient issues: inter alia, provision of employee sick leave, and the formula for distributing cash directly to families. The latter insisted on so many exemptions that nearly half of the employee work force would continue to be denied paid sick leave. They also insisted on a means test that would give lesser amounts to those at the bottom of the income pyramid than to those at relatively high levels. Here, too, the Democrats largely conceded.


Their deferential attitude could be interpreted in various ways – none of them encouraging for those who wish to strengthen the commonweal and reducing inequality. One explanation holds that public opinion leans toward the conservative, Republican position. Survey data, however, tells us just the opposite. As on so many public policy matters, the locus of sentiment is to the “left’ of positions taken by Democratic Party leaders, e.g. Medicare-for-All supported by roughly two-thirds of the populace. Another points to the House leaders’ overriding desire to get some relief passed as soon as possible. Consequently, they wound up negotiating with themselves before they even engaged the other side. This, too, is a hackneyed approach with a dismal record of failure. A third explanation concentrates on the feebleness of that leadership. They exhibit the traits of a defeatist minority rather than a robust opposition moved by conviction and dedication to their cause. In short, the antithesis of the Republicans.


Let us return our attention to the questions of communalism, solidarity and state competence with which we began this discussion. First, as to political-social philosophy. One positive development is that the vise grip of austerity economics on the minds of the political class has been broken. That is especially so in Great Britain. In the U.S. its grip never had been quite as tight; there, it was used as a cudgel by the ‘Right” to roll back social spending.


On the continent, the picture is cloudier. In Berlin, and in Frankfurt at the European Central Bank, the discredited Ptolemaic economics still reigns. Indeed, national governments remain locked into the chastity belt imposed by the Stability and Growth Pact’s fiscal rules.  It may be that by dint of circumstances wherein almost no one will be able to meet legally stipulated budgetary restraints, some loosening will have to occur. We should recall, though, that even the impoverishment of Greece and the country’s relegation to a condition of debt servitude changed nothing. The preference of those calling the shots is still to rely on the dubious strategy of Quantitative Easing (QE) which makes huge gifts to financial institutions in the hope - if not necessarily expectation - that it somehow will lead to macro-economic stimulation.


Second, will there be a shift in the balance between the collective interest/needs and private/individual interests? The answer is probably ‘yes’ if we think strictly in terms of practical measures to improve on performance in crisis management. It would be logical to look at China, South Korea, Taiwan etc. for instruction on how to get that done. When, though, have Asian societies ever been a model for the West? Certainly not when China maintained its growth trajectory in the great financial crisis by following Keynesian economic precepts.


The framing of the issue is important. It is not simply a question of ‘big’ government vs ‘small’ government. Rather, it is primarily a matter of where the authority and resources of the country are used. In the United States, there is no protest when huge sums are spent on “National Security’ or when the Constitution is violated for purposes of mass electronic surveillance. The “government is bad” motif that is embedded in popular mythology only is activated when debate flares about social programs or privatization of public functions. In Europe, does it serve the cause of minimal government for 22 of the 27 EU governments to ignore the Brussels law requiring transparency on financial transactions that carry the potential for money laundering? – or, is it simply a case of powerful interests and powerful persons throwing their political weight around?


In the U.K., an analogous semantic game is played by the anti-government forces to mask their ulterior purpose: to slash public services (NHS) and to privatize public assets (rail, water, natural gas). Margaret Thatcher pronounced that “there is really no such thing as society” – by which she meant that the commonweal, the collectivity, the general will were just ideological flourishes. David Cameron’s “Big Society” was predicated on the same beliefs. His vacuous notion mimicked George Bush the Elder’s “thousand points of light”. Instead of a state that is custodian of the collective welfare, we should count on voluntary initiative to meet general needs. Logic tells us that neither approach will provide competent health care or decent public transport. In practice, what the “Big Society” produced was Grenfell. Yet, this dogma remains the philosophical touchstone for the Tory Party and much of the political class beyond.


Boris Johnson’s admission that “there really is such a thing as society,” made in response to the wave of volunteer medical workers, is unlikely to alter that fundamental political and practical policy truth once the crisis subsides. This fortunate development more likely will be interpreted as confirming the faith in “big society” substituting for “big government”.


Third, will there be a narrowing of the present distance between ruling elites and the populace at large? That, after all, is the precondition for a reinvigorated public realm marked by real debate over real matters – with an alteration in the current constellation of forces as a genuine prospect. A more engaged populace, informed by MSM and more conscientious in performing their public service functions, is the sine qua non for generating the type of herd immunity that will safeguard us against a new wave of Donald Trumps and Boris Johnsons.




There are a handful of ‘green shoots’. Most notable is a stunning editorial in the FINANCIAL TIMES that trumpets a call for a drastic reversal of the prevailing neo-liberal economic philosophy and attendant emasculation of social programs. (Text Below) It details a strategy that reads as a melding of the proposals offered by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in America. An outright rejection of Obama/Biden here and Blairism in the U.K. Most remarkable is the source of this revolutionary thinking. The Financial Times, for the past three decades, has been the Osservatore Romano for the international financial powerhouses. It’s pro-business/pro-rich bias generally is proverbial – as exemplified by the notorious weekly supplement ‘How To Spend It’ – aka ‘Where To Stash The Loot’.


Who or what this 180% volte face represents is unknown – as certainly is the likely practical effect. Advocates of so radical a reform agenda have been given a boost – a valuable certification from the heart of the Establishment. Whether they have the skill or will to use it is quite another matter. And we can count on a vigorous campaign to counteract the FT’s initiative.


One obvious tactic will be to pick apart its component recommendations. For example, its reference to privileged interests includes “the elderly”. To whom they are referring is unclear. The only privileged elderly who come to mind are the affluent retirees living the high life in Switzerland, Italy or France and keeping their treasure secreted away in tax havens (many sovereign British territories) using shell companies managed from Panama. You can be sure, though, that the Tory press in the UK and the plutocratic press in the US (led by the Wall Street Journal which – dwelling blissfully in the “Age of Faith” - suspects the FT of going ‘Protestant’) - will broadcast instead the alleged abuses of widows who live in public housing with three rooms rather than two, who access the NHS well before they’ve breathed their last or don’t budge from their wheel chairs to take jobs at check-out counters. Similar rhetoric long has been a staple of American discourse going back to Reagan’s day – and today relished by the Trumpites.


From FT editorial (4/4) headlined:

Virus lays bare the frailty of the social contract


If there is a silver lining to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is that it has injected a sense of togetherness into polarised societies. But the virus, and the economic lockdowns needed to combat it, also shine a glaring light on existing inequalities - and even create new ones. Beyond defeating the disease, the great test all countries will soon face is whether current feelings of common purpose will shape society after the crisis. As western leaders learnt in the Great Depression, and after the second world war, to demand collective sacrifice you must offer a social contract that benefits everyone.


Radical reforms - reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades - will need to put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the elderly and wealthy in question. Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.

This is Part II of the essays appearing as an 'AP Insight' published by the Ambassadorial Partnership LLP in Great Britain ( 

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