Will coronavirus usher in a progressive blueprint?

Executive summary:

The last decade ended with a right-wing nationalist surge in which the profit first neoliberal status quo was effectively untouchable. An unforgiving and rampant sweep that was the metaphorical nail in the coffin for those who reside on the left of the political spectrum was how it was often described. It is no wonder there is a sense of defeatism whenever discussions are had on the future of progressive left-wing politics. However, the global pandemic has perhaps thrown the progressive blueprint an unexpected lifeline. As the woeful standards of living, the extent of the human damage to the environment and the magnitude of inequality that the system has conceived are exposed, there is perhaps no better time to make the argument for a shift in traditional political and economic orthodoxies.

The neoliberal symptoms:

Recent events in the United Kingdom and the United States were supposed to be indicative of where left-wing politics stood in global terms. In the UK, a bloodbath transpired in the December 2019 general election. Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party won an 80-seat majority, as Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party fell to a crushing defeat.

Then in the US Democratic leadership contest, despite a blistering start from Senator Bernie Sanders in the first four primaries, his rival Joe Biden responded with highly significant victories on Super Tuesday in early March. On the day in which the most states hold primaries and voters went to the polls to indicate their preferences, Biden secured convincing wins in North Carolina, Texas and Virginia. From then on, he enjoyed all the momentum and went from strength to strength, till eventually Sanders dropped out the race in April.

Ostensibly, the writing was on the wall. Sanders had failed at the same hurdle twice, first to Hilary Clinton in 2016 and then Joe Biden in 2020. Likewise, Corbyn had lost the two general elections he fought, in 2017 and 2019. They were the key engineers of a new political movement that had blossomed in recent years. A stern anti-establishment approach which focussed on tackling wealth inequality, achieving social justice, taking on the big corporations, the increased funding of public services and triggering an environmental revolution. They were speaking the language of the working class. But they did not receive noteworthy recognition. Seemingly there was no appetite. Thus, the inevitable conclusions that were drawn were that the left were presenting ideas that were lacking in attraction and could not impede the unshakable economic parameters that were in place.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the US and UK are the countries firmly rejecting a modification to the status quo. The existing neoliberal structure was ushered in during the 1970’s under President Ronald Raegan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It was the age of new market forces in which competition became the defining feature. It is a system that pioneers for minimal tax and regulation but spurs the privatisation of public services. Any efforts to create a moral equal society are deemed counterproductive and corrosive, because the market, allegedly, ensures everyone gets what they deserve. Therefore, individualism is greatly encouraged. Unsurprisingly, Thatcher infamously asserted ‘there is no such thing as society’ and ‘you get what you pay for’.

Hence, the developments of the 1970’s have left societies at the mercy of currency flows, multinational corporations and financial capital, as the prime concern is nurturing the economy. Though this model is often challenged, it is never thoroughly threatened with dislodgement. Indeed, globalization, the central pillar of neoliberalism, with its expansive free markets, long supply chains and unchecked borders to ensure limitless international trade and labour, was for decades vigorously presented as the only rational method of organising production.

Yet as the virus intensified, within a matter of weeks, hard borders were swiftly reinstated, international travel severely restricted and trade declined drastically, thereby underscoring that the long-established doctrines were not impassable.

Paradoxically, it is the US and the UK who are severely struggling with the impact of the virus. The system they engineered appears to have compelling flaws, which are being briskly exposed. In the US, unemployment figures have surpassed 36 million, and continue to increase, meanwhile nearly 40% of low income households experienced job losses. But these are problems which were accelerated by the virus, as opposed to created by it. Prior to the crisis, nearly one in ten Americans had no health insurance, one in four workers got zero days of paid sick leave, and 40 percent of adults said in a survey conducted by the Federal Reserve that they did not have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency expense. In fact, before the pandemic, 25% of American adults skipped medical care in 2019 because they could not afford it.

In the UK, even before the lockdown was introduced, statistics show harrowing levels of inequality. Data from the Office for National Statistics shows the poorest households have been hit the hardest in recent times as their income has fallen in consecutive years. Likewise, life expectancy has stalled whilst mortality rates have increased, especially for the poorest, according to a report from the Institute of Health Equity. Meanwhile, rough sleeping has risen by 165% as roughly one in 200 in the UK are homeless.

Ultimately, the virus has laid bare the financial precarities that millions of people in the UK, US and ergo the world experience on a daily basis, and uncovered the limitations of the system that was so stubbornly maintained. The neoliberal arrangement has for decades ensured wealth stayed concentrated in the hands of an exclusive few. To reinforce this, in January, the World Social Report found that the wealth gap was widening for more than 70% of the world population, exhibiting just how deeply entrenched inequality is in society now. Fast forward to May, and Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and CEO, has seen a surge in his wealth during the global pandemic, and is on course to become the world’s first trillionaire.

Consequently, extensive research has been dedicated to investigate the framework of any future political and economic format. The Great Depression of the 1930’s and the Great Recession of 2008-9 both initiated an enlargement of social programmes. But beyond the emergencies, those policies did not last. As the American economy, the world’s largest economy, shrinks at its fastest pace since the 2008 financial crisis, and Germany, Europe’s largest economy, is on track to fall into its worst recession since the Second World War, economists are bracing themselves for a deep global recession.

That the coronavirus pandemic is the second major crisis for capitalism in 12 years could be chastening for the existing structure if a robust process of reflection commences. The next few months should distinctly demonstrate which direction the world will head in and whether lessons have been learnt, as governments rush to find solutions to the upturn in debt following unprecedented intervention and spending.

A shift in economic discourse:

There are already ripples emerging which point to a moderate transformation in strategy. In the UK, as the government starts shuffling towards a policy to exit the lockdown, a plethora of prominent economists have warned against a return to austerity and the policies that defined the last decade. They have argued that the crisis has shed light on the degree of destruction thrust on public services after years of cuts, so there is little appetite return to such measures. Indeed, just months before Covid-19 took centre stage, in November 2019, the NHS recorded its worst ever performance, as treatment waiting times had increased and a series of other targets had not been met.

However, such figures should not be surprising. A detailed report in 2014 showed that the market reforms and underfunding of the health service was leaving it vulnerable to pandemics. Fast forward 6 years and those findings hold potent weight. The NHS and all its workers have been profoundly valorous and heroic in caring for Covid-19 patients and the leading the nation’s fight. But they have not received the required support from the government.

There has been a lack of adequate personal protective equipment for frontline NHS staff, which the Hospital Doctors’ Union has labelled ‘disgraceful’ and demanded officials responsible for the ineptitude be held ‘fully accountable for their abject failure’. As fears about hospitals running out of PPE escalate, it is symptomatic of the inattentive relationship the government has had with the health service.

That attitude with the NHS and wider services has woven a tangled web of alarming imbalance in society. Wretchedly, the virus thrives on inequality, hence ‘striking differences in economic vulnerability’ have left poorer communities facing disproportionate risks during this health emergency, as research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows. Therefore, downsizing the state and its capabilities, crippling public services and reestablishing sweeping austerity to reduce the inflation in government debt, particularly after the constraints of the last round of austerity were uncovered, could amount to political suicide for the government. Especially in light of new polls which show public support for Boris Johnson’s handling of the crisis plummet.

Signs of resistance to any return of the old regime after an unlikely temporary pause are discernible too. The UK government has been pressing for schools to return, in a bid to restore some normality. But the move has been widely critiqued as a veiled attempt to bring children back and unshackle the parents in order for the latter to return work and pump life back into the economy. In fact, Britain’s biggest trade unions have warned Johnson they will not recommend a return to work for their three million members until the government and employers agree a nationwide health and safety revolution. Likewise, local councils have openly declared they will be defying the government plans and will not re-open their schools on the 1st of June. Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson said teachers, unions and parents raised safety concerns, and schools will only reopen when it is completely safe to do so. Hartlepool council swiftly followed suit.

Indeed, the very notions of collective bargaining, workers’ rights and health and safety in the workplace, that are integral to a progressive foundation and anathema to the neoliberal model, due to fears they impede the formation of a natural hierarchy, are rising to the surface after years of indifference.

The vernacular in which tax is discussed also appears to be undergoing a revamp. The Welsh government recently announced it will deny coronavirus bailouts to businesses who are based in tax havens. The decisive move comes in light of the Welsh economic minister stipulating that policies will not return to ‘business as usual’ after the pandemic. And Wales are not alone. Both Poland and Denmark have sent out clear messages too, stating businesses who make use of tax havens will be excluded from government bailouts. Such endeavours will be welcomed, particularly as mega businesses like Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft have paid very little tax in recent years.

American law professor Daniel Markovitz recently contended the most logical way to support coronavirus relief was to tax the wealthiest 5%. That idea is gaining international traction too, as at least nine countries in Latin America have contemplated new tax measures directed at the wealthy to fill the fiscal holes. As the extent of the under resourced and unprotected public services globally and how they fuel a race to the bottom is brought to light, all whilst big corporations enjoy greater power and wealth, it appears many leaders have sensed this is a critical turning point.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron recently lost his governing majority in the French National Assembly as a group of defectors from his La Republique En Marche (LREM) party left to join the newly formed ‘Ecology, Democracy, Solidarity’ (EDS) party. The group now consists of 17 parliamentarians who are demanding more left-leaning policies.

Even Joe Biden, a centrist status quo figure, has admitted to donors a far more radical approach to policy and governance is necessary now, alleging that ‘the blinders have been taken off because of this Covid crisis.’ He teamed up with Sanders to create a joint unity task force that will have a direct hand in shaping Democratic policy. Included are unapologetic progressive representatives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Pramilia Jayapal, and there is a stern desire to implement policies like the Medicare-for-all new health insurance system and the Green New Deal.

Emerging signs before the global pandemic:

In Ireland’s general election in early February 2020, the left-wing political party Sinn Fein produced a political tsunami. Through their grassroots activism and promises to address the issues that have plagued the country, such as healthcare, housing and homelessness, they successfully captured voters’ attention. The common and decisive factor was the promised domestic overhaul. Engrossing ideas to change the lives of ordinary working people, and ergo bolster the nation were central to the message. As a result, rather than endorse Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, the two traditional parties who had dominated the Irish political landscape, voters opted for an alternative. After years of being political outsiders, Sinn Fein won the popular poll and their 37 seats ensure they are officially the voice of the opposition which concurrently provides them with greater influence.

Spain started the new decade in similar fashion. They are now led by a coalition government for the first time in 80 years, after prime minister Pedro Sanchez and his Spanish Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE) formed a joint administration with the anti-austerity Unidas Podemos alliance. The joint government has signalled their intent to increase minimum wage, raise taxes on high earners and major companies and overhaul the labour changes introduced under the last conservative government.

Inevitably, with a shift to a more progressive ideals comes greater emphasis on the environment. That shutting down vast swathes of the global economy, thus prompting significant reductions in carbon emissions, still only achieves the minimum rate needed to combat global warming illustrates the extent of the structural challenge. Hence the immediate calls for a drastic change in policy. But such renewed attitudes were steadily gathering pace even prior to the pandemic.

Even in countries with hefty right-wing patriotic foundations, the Green alternative voices are emerging strongly. In Hungary, the ruling Fidesz party has enjoyed 10 years of rule, which a merciless environment has become part and parcel of. Discrimination and racism are rife, far right groups are emboldened, there is no press freedom and public criticism of the ruling party can cost you your job. In fact, while the virus was threatening disorder, Prime Minister Viktor Orban found the ideal pretext for another power grab and put democracy in quarantine. Emergency legislation passed in April allows Orban to govern unchallenged, to the extent his government can now hand out jail terms for fake news and misinformation. Palpably, the system is designed to minimise political infiltration. Yet in the autumn municipal election, a progressive alliance emerged which allowed Gergely Karacsony, the candidate of the green party, Dialogue, to become the mayor of Budapest and unseat the Fidesz incumbent.

It was made possible through NGO’s, trade unions as well as social movements forcing progressive parties to cooperate. Subsequently, the greens and socialists did not stand against each other, and assisted the triumph for the former. The common sentiment among supporters of the emerging movement in Hungary is that a sustainable alternative centred around institution building and common welfare is required to counter the existing system and its mainstream politicking.

Importantly, the rise of a compelling green movement raising the progressive flag is not an anomaly in the continent. In the German northern city of Hamburg, during recent state elections, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) emerged top with 39% of the vote, in an area it is historically successful in. However, the main story was The Greens who doubled their vote share to 24.2%. Meanwhile outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union of Germany political party (CDU) came third with only 11.2% of the vote, a result that was the second worst at state-level in the party’s history. Importantly, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AFD) also garnered just 5.3% of the vote, the bare minimum needed to stay in parliament.

Whilst the SPD was successful in Hamburg, broadly speaking their support is still diminishing. That the CDU and SPD apace with the AFD are stuttering whilst The Greens excel emphasises that there perhaps exists a yearning for a different approach. Veritably, green issues such as environmental protection, climate emergency and clean energy, a clean break from the traditional policies, are becoming mainstream in Germany. And after images circulated of Venice’s canals clearing up for the first time in decades following a halt in human movement, climate activists are hopeful such signs will accentuate the need for pressing action.

Conclusion:

This does not suggest that suddenly an era of progressive dominance will take the political arena by storm. However, there are signs that the neoliberal monopoly and the values central to it are being rethought and reconsidered. Despite failing to reach prime ministerial or presidential positions, years of shrewd campaigning and activism from several politicians against the ruinous status quo was slowly altering perceptions and political mindsets. The global pandemic was the catalyst and emphasised just how intrinsic the issues that were alluded to were. Thus, the challenge for those holding the progressive baton is to ensure any policies introduced now are permanent modifications to benefit society, as opposed to stop gap measures. That the evidence to support their cause is inescapable could prove monumental for their cause too and kickstart the birth of a more egalitarian status quo.

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