Returning to the ‘new normal’ after COVID-19

Gus Woody explores the unsavoury ‘recoveries’ currently on offer, and suggests possibilities for an alternative to confront climate catastrophe and the economic system that has made this pandemic so devastating.

“We can’t return to normal, because the normal that we had was precisely the problem.” Graffiti in Hong Kong, via twitter

The economic system is in chaos. Stock market values across the world have plummeted. Government and central banks have once again found the ‘magic money tree’. Perhaps orchard is more appropriate, with trillions worldwide promised to banks, businesses and more. In the UK alone, Sunak revealed £330bn in financial support in the latest budget, with more promised since.

It seems as though the virus has intervened, in an already creaking system, to intensify crisis. The effects of COVID-19 bring together multiple crises. We are seeing crises of overproduction and underconsumption across most sectors. Additionally, this virus represents a crisis of social reproduction. Communities are fighting to ensure everyone has access to the necessities of life and protect those working to provide them. COVID-19 works doubly to undermine both profit and the basic necessities required to stay alive.

The circulation of commodities is slowing, and the state is intervening to salvage what it can. Businesses, landlords and other industries have been demanding government support for an economic recovery. However, within the paradigm of ‘recovery’ there are many different responses. For simplicity’s sake I tend to lump them into three categories: the vaguely good, the bad, and the very ugly.

What’s in a recovery?

Firstly, the bad. We could see a situation where recovery means a worsening of the ‘business as usual’ of 2010. Government response is focused on ensuring the continued circulation of goods. Financial backing is given to businesses, lenders and others to ensure their continued operation. The expenditure to secure this, and stabilise the national economy, is coupled with demands that ‘we tighten our belts’. What jobs are created in this context tend to be low paid, insecure and designed to undermine existing protections. Further privatisation and commodification of sectors of society occur, providing new avenues to secure profit. Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine rightly recognised the austerity response to financial crisis in 2008, and it seems feasible that something similar will occur now. It’s important not to underestimate how much can still be cut and sold to businesses in the UK, not least of all by facilitating an expansion in private healthcare provision. Austerity 2.0 enters the scene.

Next, the vaguely good. Rather than simply bankroll industries, the government may attempt to gain stakes in or complete control in a number of industries. Austerity is dead and perhaps a return to Keynesianism beckons. The state could be forced to prop up and control significant chunks of the economy. Now, I refer to this as good only to indicate the increased capacity for the rational planning of the economy that results. Recognising this, many are pushing for a ‘Green New Deal’ or something similar as the centrepiece of any COVID-19 recovery plan. State control of industries would expand the ability to enforce environmental requirements and plans currently not being observed. It may also allow the wholesale reorientation of industries towards decarbonisation, health technologies and more.

However, this is only vaguely good. This control will be in the hands of the most reactionary cabinet in recent memory. This power will surely be exercised for negative reasons, or temporarily. Recent state ownership projects like the Green Investment Bank or East Coast Mail Line have only seen them returned to the private sector once crisis has supposedly passed. Progressive support for stimulus and Keynesian responses must push further, understanding the limited nature of this reform. Decommodification and nationalisation needs to be joined with a radical change to the way in which society and the state is organised, composed and accountable. Worker control must be demanded and fought for as well.

Finally, the very ugly; austerity is dead, is this worse? In the UK we operate in a context of historically weakened organised labour, attacked for many years through limiting trade union legislation and worse. Rising unemployment creates a further reserve army of labour to put collective action on the back foot. Given the government desires to stimulate production and circulation these factors seem a perfect recipe for an authoritarian response.

We see this in the context of food production. The shortfall in temporary migrant workers participating in the already horrific labour practices within farming has led the government and NFU to panic. Ministers are set to propose a ‘pick for Britain’ program, where students and furloughed workers are put to the land. Here nationalistic languages and practices are used to justify further exploitation, with little done to think through how broken agriculture is in the UK. More can be read about that here. Such a situation provides little opportunity to reorient UK agriculture towards practices which stop relying on the exploitation of people or planet.

Perhaps most notably authoritarian is the recent expansion of police powers. The numerous examples of police overextending their reach, and often bragging about it on social media, are shared widely. To see the emergence of these behaviours as simply PC Plod on amphetamines is too limited. They reflect the empowerment of forces within society that have been at the forefront of reinforcing racist, classist and xenophobic systems. The fact that these powers have also been expanded to immigration enforcement officials should set off alarm bells. Communities within the UK already subject to state repression are at even further risk. Eviction resistance, anti-raid organising, environmental blockades, all of these are at risk from the new powers.

The very ugly is therefore an authoritarian society, with crippled labour opposition. One of its most notable symptoms is the demand to sacrifice lives for the economy. As early as late March, Trump and his administration expressed their desire for everyone to ‘get back to work’. Irrespective of the virus, capitalists say the key issue is to stabilise the economy. I suspect such pronouncements will become increasingly prevalent across the ruling class in the coming weeks. Irrespective of the health risk, predominantly borne by those already marginalised in society, the wealthy wish to get the wheels of capital turning again.

The point of these simplified pathways is to recognise that the fight today will determine which of these contexts we operate within in the coming years. Without organising now, the tendency towards further austerity and authoritarian responses will only become clearer.

Climate and response

The contemporary crisis, and the ‘recovery’ response, is particularly relevant to the need for rapid decarbonisation. Take the worldwide collapse of airlines as exemplary. They were some of the quickest businesses to demand government bailouts to stay open. In response, there is a broad movement of environmental groups demanding that government take measures to decarbonise aviation. At the same time, industry representatives are campaigning to remove what limited regulations were already on them. We see here in micro the fight that has to be made across the economy to protect both workers and the climate.

Complicating this further is the possibility that polluting industries will actually see a benefit from the economic crisis. The collapse in the oil price over the previous months, combined with the global slowdown will certainly lead to a crisis across energy businesses. But as Adam Hanieh has argued, this does not mean there is necessarily an environmental victory here. Feasibly we could see the largest oil firms clearing up profitable assets from smaller firms and shedding its less profitable ones. With so much of the global financial system dependant on fossil fuels, many key firms will have carte blanche to demand funding for their polluting behaviours. We face and, despite the best wishes of many, will still have to face polluters after this crisis.

One effect of COVID-19 is the delay of COP26 from November until next year. Large amounts of resources and effort were being pooled into providing a strong climate justice presence at this conference. Coronavirus has created a space for these to be reoriented towards responding to the current crisis. This also applies to political resources being put into upcoming elections and similar events. Collective action needs to be concentrated on the recovery response.

We should see the emergence of mutual aid groups, despite the best efforts of councils and others to reign in their emancipatory potential, as the beginning of this process. But in other forms the politicisation of this crisis allows us to move towards different ways of organising society. To think about a world that gives a damn about people and climate. As Nathan Thanki eloquently puts it, ‘Everything we’ve always been fighting for now looms into view’.

Take the debate over public land as an example. With increased government scapegoating of those using parks and similar spaces, the debate over who has access to green spaces rose up. Guy Shrubsole, an environmental campaigner who has long focused on the ownership of land, pointed to the many private golf courses as a solution to this issue. We need green spaces for all, so why not take back the enclosed golf courses? Take back private land from the classes who wish them enclosed for their own vapid pursuits. Return it to the public, to those who lack access to green space. But then, why stop there? Think of the ecological potential of golf courses: rewilding, allotments, local ecologically friendly farming. Screw your ninth hole, let’s bring back bees, wildflowers, and the joy of sharing a space together. And if the golf courses excite you, think of what else we can get up to.

Returning to normal?

Coronavirus points us to a world where everything is horribly, brutally possible. The start of a shift against the existing political order, or the continuation and worsening of existing horrors. It has meant a significant number of the population realising what many working people already knew; that their wellbeing is based on a system of exploitation. It has opened up a space to organise and demand the end of this system.

Capitalist forces are attempting to salvage and reinforce as much of their project as possible. What must be recognised is the creaking and broken nature of this system prior to the virus. Rising authoritarianism, climate breakdown and worsening living standards were spreading throughout the world. It’s not worth returning to.

In a sense, the authoritarian wish that we return to consumption and production to stave off downturn is a spectacular form of the existing reality. The sacrifice of life for the production of profit has always been necessary. Whether in the exploitation of labour, the undermining of social reproduction or the destruction of nature necessary for value production. Capital is vampiric, as Marx rightly recognised, sucking the life from us. We have always had a necro-capitalism of one form or another. No more. There was never a normal to return to.


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