When this pandemic is over, it's time to dismantle capitalism

Sooner or later we will have a vaccine for the disease. At that point, reflection ends and action begins, says Nathalie Olah.

by Nathalie Olah
06 April 2020, 4:00pm

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As the world endures one of the most painful episodes in recent history, and we find ourselves shut away at home, we have an opportunity to reflect on the value of society, co-operation, and perhaps most of all, our indebtedness to frontline staff whose hard work gives all of our lives a sense of safety and dignity.

Sooner or later we will have a vaccine for the respiratory disease that continues to spread across the world, causing suffering and grief to millions of people. At that point, reflection ends and action begins. Unless there’s a dramatic change in the next few days, the UK death toll from Coronavirus will outnumber Italy’s. This was something completely avoidable, something caused by government negligence through an ideology that undervalues human life.

As the project to rebuild the economy gets underway in a post-coronavirus, those same leaders will also be keen to assert that it is Business As Usual. We might see a return of the Big Society idea championed by David Cameron, which minimised spending on public services, including schools, and encouraged more people to set up private businesses in order to fill in the gaps. Many of those businesses will now be struggling to survive. ‘Business as usual’ should therefore not only ring even more hollow this time around, but it should also cause a collective wince for the disservice it does to the thousands who have already lost their lives, and the thousands more who continue to risk their lives in the name of protecting us.

For their sake, change is now inevitable. But it will not be easy. Entering the workplace at this time -- as I’m sure many of you are -- is a daunting prospect. The world might not look exactly as you imagined it, and the number of professional avenues available might be limited. But through cooperation and creativity you also have the possibility of becoming a part of history, adding your name to the generation who said enough, and put a halt to the neoliberal project responsible for the current, chaotic system. It is no coincidence that the two countries where state intervention into the markets was reduced to the absolute bare minimum -- the US and the UK -- now face two of the biggest challenges in bringing the virus under control.

But out of terrible tragedy comes an opportunity to learn, develop and build a world in which our carers are cared for, the vulnerable protected and human life prioritised above profit. In some ways, the seeds of this change have already been sewn. We have already seen the implementation of short-term policies unthinkable from a Tory government under any other circumstances, borrowing heavily from the Labour Party’s 2017 and 2019 manifestoes. The effort to provide shelter for the homeless, to provide the jobless with financial security, and to finally write-off the NHS debt, proves that these decisions were always political and never inevitable, as they were so often reported. As the economy continues to contract and the future for businesses seems uncertain, plunging millions into financial uncertainty under the shadow of immense grief, the timeframe in which these policies will need to remain in place stretches out indefinitely.

Pessimism is no way to live, but with economic resilience being tested to such negative effect, it would be foolish to maintain the status quo when so many other shocks stand ahead of us, and at a time when extreme weather events connected to climate change are happening more and more frequently.

You don’t have to be an economist or political strategist to understand what this alternative might look like either. Coronavirus has shown how profoundly interconnected we are. Our own health and safety is dependent on the health and safety of the collective; with finite resources, we must all work together to ensure that we do not overwhelm the system. What we will have developed at the end of this process is an instinct and motivation that stands at the opposite end of the spectrum to self-interest, personal gain and careerism. We will have learned, in the starkest and most vivid terms imaginable, the need to radically reassert the value of society.

This is what the left has always been about. Against a mainstream media, work culture and political landscape skewed towards individualism, it has fought long and hard to persuade people of the benefits of structuring our economy towards more collective ends. Even people with very little are often wedded to the dream of one day obtaining large quantities of wealth through “hard work”. There’s a false premise at the heart of that dream though -- it’s a lie that meritocracy exists in a society that still operates on a system of inherited wealth, nepotism, old boy networks and private schools; in a society where key workers and carers live hand to mouth, while investment bankers and corporate lawyers prosper too easily.

Support for the left surged following the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent installment of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government in Downing Street, which saw the rollout of austerity across the country, an austerity that protected the wealthy and plunged millions of low-income households into despair. A younger generation watched as their dreams of higher education were decimated to pay for the recklessness of the banking sector. But where the left was lost in the wilderness prior to 2008, it has been steadily gaining ground in the years since. Millions of people are now alert to the possibility that another way is possible.

What’s more, where the response to the banking crisis suffered because of the abstract nature of what it was fighting against -- financialisation, public/private collusion, and greed -- there is no escaping the vivid consequences of a healthcare system that is unable to sustain the impact of a pandemic. Under austerity, the cost to human life was often hidden from view and difficult to measure. But with statistics coming in every single day showing the devastating -- and personally terrifying -- impact of having underfunded the NHS, and paid little heed to the appeals of its frontline staff, there is finally no escaping the fundamental flaw in the Conservative’s economic project.

What happens next is down to you to decide when the worst of this is over. I’m the last person to suggest that this is a time for respite or completing creative projects. But if you’re looking for reading material, consider turning to Stuart Hall, Mark Fisher, David Graeber, David Harvey, Ann Pettifor and Naomi Klein. Subscribe to Tribune, Jacobin, and certain corners of the Guardian. Let them guide your thinking and share them with your friends, while beginning the hard work of organising for a better future.

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