The left is prone to misunderstanding “crisis” and “revolution”. The financial crash of 2008 led not to a left revival in the UK but to a long period of Conservative rule and ten years of austerity. This period could have offered a reckoning with the failures of globalisation and of democratic politics, an opportunity to resist the relentless pressure capitalism exerts in trying to transform human beings and our natural environment into commodities. Instead, much of the left reheated globalisation in the name of internationalism and, in the UK, the Labour Party could not assert its leadership of the country. This was intensified in the Brexit interregnum, which was resolved decisively by the Conservatives in the December 2019 general election.
The virus will shape a new era, not by transforming things utterly, as some commentators have said, but by accelerating and consolidating trends that have played out over the last 12 years.
The first of these is that the nation state has re-emerged as the primary force within bordered polities. The immediate response to the coronavirus within the European Union has been the reassertion of national controls over borders and the pursuit of national strategies of containment. Germany has not only suspended free movement of people, but for a time banned the export of all medical equipment to other EU nations. The stipulations of the Lisbon Treaty concerning state aid and competition law have been set aside in every European state, under a new temporary framing order. The European Central Bank has ceased imposing constraints on public spending. Across Europe, the state has underwritten the wages of workers, as well as securing the production of necessities and the delivery of supplies.
Issues relating to national autarchy concerning food, water, energy, manufacture and transportation have now become primary issues of statecraft, and will remain so. The consequences of financialisation have never been more apparent. The invisible hand of the market is being replaced by the mighty fist of the state, and national security is rightly no longer considered an exclusively military matter.
The distinctiveness of each national state tradition has become visible. France declares war, Germany enforces physical distancing on its streets, and the Spanish state overrides regional autonomy. At the EU’s outer borders, the Greek state forces back migrants attempting to enter from Turkey. The old is the new and the Westphalian system of nation states has re-emerged from the EU, which refuses to underwrite the debt of Italy or Spain. We are witnessing the death knell of globalisation through treaty law.
State sovereignty was once the fundamental tenet of social democracy across Europe. It was through this that the Labour government created the National Health Service in 1948. A few hospitals held out against nationalisation and successfully appealed to the law to defend their autonomy. But Labour simply changed the law through an act of parliament declaring the hospitals nationalised. Compensation was negotiated after the bill was passed.
The NHS is now our central instrument for strengthening our national immune system and responding to the pandemic. A crisis demands swift action from elected politicians in order to protect a population, and respond to its demands. State sovereignty offers precisely that ability to act and has now come to the fore across Europe. When confronted with the threat of the virus, each national state felt compelled to take action. The proceduralism of the EU could not constrain them.
The second consequence of the crisis is the visibility and necessity of the working class. In the previous era of globalisation, shelf-stackers, lorry drivers, hospital cleaners and carers were contracted out and mostly invisible. The crisis has clarified a distinctive aspect of the meaning of labour: it is something you can’t do from home. It requires real physical presence, leaving home and doing something, usually involving your hands, for other people.
Far from being replaced by machines, key workers require skill, bravery and compassion to fulfil their vocation. The “left behind” and the “losers of globalisation” have been asserting themselves over the past decade but are now lauded for their necessity and bravery. The dignity of labour is no longer a nostalgic and antiquated phrase. The importance of the working class to our well-being and survival is recognised as it has not been for decades, and labour value has been reaffirmed.
The Brexit vote in 2016 and the election of the new Conservative government in 2019 revealed that the working class were still a decisive political force and were resolutely opposed to a form of liberal globalisation that assumed they were replaceable and irrelevant. The workers were not on the wrong side of history after all.
Before the coronavirus hit us, the government had already begun to embrace an activist state and a form of regionally-targeted Keynesianism, developing a programme of state-funded infrastructure and house building. It had a new class coalition to forge and was intent on doing so.
It still is. The state has committed to underwriting 80 per cent of the wages of private-sector workers (up to a maximum of £30,000 a year) and the same share of self-employed earnings. This is unprecedented but not unexpected. This Conservative government has found the magic money tree. A substantive economic role for the state was established by the 2019 election victory, and it is to be assumed that the importance of work, workers and the working class will not pass with the virus, but will be a central part of the new consensus.
The sustained applause the public gives for NHS workers, at 8pm on Thursday evenings, is an indication of that change. It also reiterates that “working class” is not code for white. Muslim doctors, African cleaners, Portuguese carers and Bolton lorry drivers are all risking their lives to keep things going.
This should be hospitable terrain for the Labour Party and for the trade unions that have all but disappeared from the private sector. A soft corporatism has emerged since the crisis started, with trade union leaders consulted by the government on their economic rescue schemes. The reality of isolated workers, without benefits or support, provoked a state response and offers a space for trade union growth. A trade unionism that could represent workers at home and at work is required.
In Canada, local renters’ unions are leading rent strikes; in the US, unions are helping workers organise walkouts from Amazon warehouses in protest at unsafe working conditions. When the virus blows out, capital will be remorseless in recouping its losses. The institutional and political resistance to that needs to be formulated now, and is also central to our current response to the crisis. Netflix, Amazon and Facebook are huge beneficiaries of the lockdown and will consolidate their domination of the tech and home entertainment markets while smaller businesses fold because of lack of income.
A strong labour movement is required to resist the aggressive plunder of our weakened businesses and currency by US and Chinese venture capital, which is already planning its moves. A politics of the common good, in which estranged interests can form alliances in pursuit of mutual interests, is required so that the trade unions and government can protect a weakened economy from predatory takeover.
Globalisation was committed to the untrammelled movement of people as directed by the demands of the market. Belonging, attachment and the importance of place were viewed with suspicion by economic and political liberals. The growth of neighbourhood mutual aid groups on WhatsApp, an awareness of the vulnerability of the isolated and the old, and the necessity of supporting one another, are defining features of our response to the crisis. The paradox of the virus is that community has been rediscovered through enforced social isolation.
As the pandemic has resulted from one of the less benign aspects of globalisation, a strengthening of local civic immune systems is required. Democratic accountability needs to be strengthened, along with those institutions that sustain local life such as local banks, vocational colleges, and farming and environmental groups. Not least of these concerns is farming and how to achieve food self-sufficiency. The capacity to have a balanced diet from local food sources now seems less a lifestyle choice than a necessity. What applies to food supply also applies to the NHS, which was running at full capacity in normal times, with no slack in the system.
While the central state has underwritten the cost of economic suspension so far, this is unsustainable. The danger is the same as during the crash of 2008-09 – namely that capital centralises even more emphatically than the state and undermines regional and local self-sufficiency. None of the building societies that were demutualised in the 1980s and 1990s exist today as autonomous institutions; they are no longer part of the local civic ecology.
The accumulated inheritance of the country was concentrated in the City of London and so prey to speculative exuberance. The endowment of local banks, perhaps through a financial transaction tax, or a so-called Tobin tax, on the City of London could enable the establishment of sustainable local economies that can flourish outside the global economy and state direction. The order of things should be reversed so that the global serves the local. Vocational colleges would supply the skilled workforce that we depend on. Without the constitution of a robust civic ecology, embedded in local places, there will be no durable change after the crisis.
One of the pandemic’s cruellest ironies is that a disease that attacks people’s ability to breathe has indirectly resulted in a significant improvement in air quality. The smog has cleared over Beijing and the wild goats have returned to Llandudno, as well as wild boar to Bergamo in Italy. The benefits of reduced travel and local production have never been more obvious. Community land trusts and land reform could make possible food production that feeds local people rather than being exclusively for export; help protect biodiversity; and lead to house building that strengthens stable communities rather than developers, with homes designed by those who live in them, and built by local people using local materials. Belonging, attachment and affection for place are aspects of the good, and conservation is not in itself reactionary.
With the US retreating into a world of its own, the EU has been unable to lead. China is presenting itself as the global saviour, but questions remain over its food markets, the veracity of its data, and the quality of its medical exports. It blindsided the world by covering up the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan while buying up much of the world’s supply of personal protective equipment in January.
The development of a vaccine against the virus requires the renewal of internationalism as a meaningful alternative to globalisation. The UN Security Council should convene immediately and ensure intellectual copyright is suspended for vaccine development. It should coordinate the main research hubs in Britain, the US, Germany and China, so that a sustained intensity can be brought to bear in which all information and benefits are shared.
A defining feature of the crisis is that its exceptional nature has allowed the suspension of previous norms and activity. At present, liberty is on hold and the state is sustaining and strengthening corporate oligarchs such as Amazon. A strong decentralised democracy, which strengthens the dignity of labour, the importance of place and our mutual dependence also glimmers as a possibility when our liberation from lockdown finally comes. You could almost call it a renewed social democracy.