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29 March 2020

The only lasting antidote to pandemics is a stronger civic society

Coronavirus has exposed the limits of the central state and the free market. 

By Adrian Pabst and James Noyes

This week, more than 700,000 people in the UK volunteered to help the National Health Service fight the spread of Covid-19. At a time when the limits of both central states and free markets are being exposed, one thing is increasingly apparent: that only by renewing the institutions and relationships of civic society will we become resilient to the pandemics of the future.

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed a great unravelling of our political and economic lives. From the “wet” markets of Wuhan and the cheap flights that carried this virus across the world, to the locking down of cities and the crashing of markets, we are seeing our fragile networks collapse.

The global economy is built on a gigantic sand dune of debt. Freely roaming capital in search of short-term profit injects volatility and uncertainty. Our political and economic model is one where profit is privatised, debt is nationalised and risk is socialised. Society, not state or market, now bears the brunt of ever-greater risk – financial, ecological and now epidemiological.

We have watched this sand dune build up over years. First the Thatcherite market-state undermined the public realm through privatisation and deregulation. Then the central government bailout of banks during the 2008 global financial crisis converted corporate liabilities into public debt and triggered a decade of austerity, weakening local government and communities. In the process, the market-state mutated into a state-market, leaving society more fragmented and fragile.

The malaise of this liberal economic order is deeply entrenched. As early as the 1940s, the philosopher Karl Polanyi warned that, if left unchecked, greater market power underwritten by the state would “annihilate the human and natural substance of society”. The climate emergency and the Covid-19 pandemic are testament to this reality.

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Yet our response to these warnings has been woefully inadequate. The past decade has seen the global economy propped up by emergency interventions from central banks and government while deeper structural flaws are unaddressed. In each case, the pursuit of short-term profit has prioritised consumerism and mass mobility over human flourishing and communities. This has progressively weakened the resilience of society and the integrity of the natural world. Covid-19 was a pandemic waiting to happen.

Faced with the current crisis, the Keynesian state-market now seeks to salvage an ailing global economy. In the United Kingdom, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced an unprecedented fiscal stimulus package for the economy, combined with much-increased spending on the NHS.

Of course, the immediate economic priorities take precedence, just as the cure for Covid-19 will only be found through interdependent medical research. But bailouts and medicine alone will not provide a long-term solution. State and market solutions are little more than a sticking plaster, and have not prevented panic buying in Britain in the early days of the crisis, gun hoarding in the US and totalitarian tech control in China.

For us to build resilience against the pandemics of the future, we need also to strengthen our civic bonds: in the way that we relate to ourselves, our families, our communities and the communities of others. The relations that make us human also nurture our resilience.

The government has already provided a blueprint for this, although it risks being forgotten. It is the Civil Society Strategy of 2018, written by prominent Conservative backbench MP Danny Kruger. Describing what it calls the “foundations of social value”, the strategy outlines ways in which government can cultivate a flourishing of human relationships and communities. Health – or rather, wellbeing – is at the heart of it.

The reason this matters is because the culture secretary who oversaw that strategy was Matt Hancock, now Health Secretary. Few people in frontline politics are better placed than Hancock, who has tested positive for the coronavirus and is working from home, to recognise the importance of civic society in building resilience in the face of crisis.

We need to give local government the power and resources to fund social care, which would relieve pressures on the NHS and provide better ways to look after the elderly. We need to encourage mutual self-aid provided by community trusts, associations and social enterprise. And we need a new institutional ecology to build economic resilience in our cities and small towns. Civic society is the realm which brings together the things that make life worth living. The future of the world cannot be left to containment, confinement, nudge and fear. 

But civic life will not prevail if we continue to ignore the sickness at the heart of our state-market. Covid-19 is perhaps our final warning. The message is clear: build strength and health through the things that bind us together, or the grim crisis that we face today will become the reality of our future.

James Noyes is a fellow of the Social Market Foundation and a former adviser to Tom Watson.

Adrian Pabst is head of the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent and a New Statesman contributing writer.

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