by Hendrik Wagenaar & Barbara Prainsack
Three months into the COVID-19 crisis, many people are wondering: What will the world be like once the virus has been conquered? At the same time, there is a strong sense that the crisis is something we have brought upon ourselves — in the sense that we have created the circumstances that allowed the virus to hit us so hard, health-wise, and economically. As a graffiti in Hong Kong reads: “There can be no return to normal because normal was the problem in the first place.”
And we knew this, of course. There are libraries full of books and journals analysing why our economic and political system should not, and could not, continue to exist as it was. The COVID-19 crisis has merely crystallised its problems.
Why have we been so reluctant to change anything, then? We believe that the reason for our inactivity has been twofold. First, while we understand the individual parts of the problem, we have a hard time grasping how they are interconnected, and how they interact. The human brain is not hardwired to grasp complexity. The second reason why we didn’t tackle the problematic aspects of our systems prior to Corona is moral. 40 years of neoliberal market capitalism has dulled our moral sensibility.
None of the solutions that we suggest here is new: Each one has been proposed before. But rarely have they been presented in connection with each other. The laws of complexity compel us to consider solutions as interconnected, because one measure or solution is dependent upon the other.
Element 1: Ensure a well-functioning public infrastructure. During the COVID-19 crisis, countries that had a good public infrastructure did much better than countries that didn’t. Their healthcare systems were more resilient; tenants were protected against eviction, those who lost their jobs could rely on a social safety net. Strong public infrastructure includes good and accessible healthcare, ample social housing supported by tenant protection and rent control, frequent and affordable public transport, nation-wide broadband and mobile phone coverage, affordable education at all levels, and a social security system that ensures a dignified life for everyone. Echoing arguments by the proponents of Universal Basic Services, good public infrastructure is a form of public wealth that forms the basis of an equal and just society.
Element 2: Housing is a public good, not a commodity. Housing doesn’t need to, and should not, be commodified. Rent controls and tenant protection are fundamentally important; but also banks should be regulated in that mortgage payments may never exceed a sustainable percentage of the lender’s annual salary (and, as we argue later, ideally, the banks are public banks). To protect against the harmful effects of speculation, foreign buyers should be required to demonstrate that they live in the house for a minimum of 10 months a year. And taxes on housing profits should be high enough to make it very unattractive to treat housing stock as an investment.
Element 3: Rethinking work. Over the last 40 years the share of the national pie that went to labour has steadily decreased, while that of capital has increased. This simple statement masks massive, wrenching changes in the lives of workers. Wages have stagnated. Another change has been the gradual displacement of “standard employment” (full time, non-temporary, secured by contract; often with generous benefits, union recognition, job protection, worker consultation, and protected by sector-wide wage negotiations) with “nonstandard employment”. The latter is a catch-all category that encompasses call- and zero-hour contracts, short term employment, and all sorts of informal unregulated work at the bottom of the labour market. Almost 25 percent of all employment in OECD countries is now precarious. The business model of whole sectors, such as higher education, or the care industry, rely on low-wage work.
Is this the end of work? Is this model of work sustainable? These questions are raised in a 2018 Opinion by the European Group on Ethics (EGE) that one of us was involved in. The EGE Opinion reacts to growing precariousness by widening the definition of work, including the large amount of unpaid work in our society, such as volunteering, caring for children, the sick and the elderly. Not only is this work mostly done by women, the Opinion also pays tribute to the great extent that our society, including the business sector, relies on such unrecognized, un(der)remunerated work for its functioning. This then leads to an argument to decouple wages from work and introduce a form of basic security for every citizen through Universal Basic Income (UBI). UBI would need to be designed as a complement to a broader package of Universal Basic Services — as we argued in our section on good public infrastructure. It goes without saying that first of all need we need good jobs of the standard employment type: well paid, with sufficient security and workplace democracy. If only because good jobs provide so much more than economic benefits to society and the individual. They are a source of meaning and self-actualization, they privide social contacts, and they structure people’s time.
Element 4: Good Government. In his remarkable 2010 book on the moral defects of neoliberal society, the late Tony Judt observed that by now two or three generations have grown up who don’t expect any good to come from the state. Currently, in 2020, the situation is even worse. How did we get here?
This is a complex story that has, as one of its central elements, the rise of so called New Public Management (NPM) administrative reform. Although it is generally described as an innovation in public administration, it was a very political project: It radically reconfigured the relationship between politicians, officials and the market. Its ethos and vocabulary of small government and corporate managerialism has enthralled politicians and economists around the world. Some of the most important effects of NPM have been a reframing of what citizens can expect from the state, a reconfiguration of state relations with citizens and corporate actors, an extension of corporate influence in civil and personal life spheres, and a hollowing out of democratic accountability through an acceleration of the privatization of public services. Perhaps the most pernicious effect is moral: it has become an article of faith, as Tony Judt observed, that, compared to business, government is incompetent and inefficient and should therefore be circumscribed in size and closely monitored.
It is time for the public sector to regain its faith in itself. The state must take back control over public services. Citizens must have more influence over the supply and direction of vital services. One of the shortest definitions of democracy is that groups that are affected by collective decisions have the opportunity and capacity to influence them.
Element 5: Real Corporate Responsibility. The last 40 years or so saw the rise of the ‘giant transnational corporation’. These corporate powerhouses wield their power by engaging in the simultaneous takeover of the market and of national governments. Businesses — the carbon industry, pharmaceutical companies, food and tobacco, car makers, the finance industry — spend hundreds of millions in lobbying and engage in co-regulation with public authorities, writing the very regulation that is supposed to constrain their activities.
Companies that profit from public infrastructure, the skills and education of their workforce, the invisible labour of women, the natural resources they use, and public investments in research and innovation, owe a debt to the societies, communities and natural environment in which they operate. The cutting of the intimate ties between the political, corporate and banking elites (as exemplified by the revolving door between elected officials and corporate boardrooms), finally, is a condition to restore democratic control over the economic sector as a whole.
Element 6: Toward Public Money. The history of finance is the history of the gradually evolving entanglement of states, banks and central banks. There are good reasons for that. To make the provision of credit work, particularly across borders, states act as guarantors. Moreover, through central banks, private credit provision is propped up by the trust creditors put in sovereign bonds, which are themselves supported by certainty that countries will in the end pay the bill. But the entanglement of state and financial sector is not merely functional but also ideological. The value of money has suffused the outlook of government, corrupting its ethos. Governments have come to see the protection of the financial sector as one of their core tasks. While states have been ready to bail out the ramshackle financial sector, they have been hesitant, or downright unwilling, to protect private citizens.
One of the most potent elements of this entanglement is the conviction that government debt will result in hyperinflation. Rarely has one, misguided, belief resulted in so much hardship for so many. It has brought us a decade of austerity after the financial crisis of 2008. Austerity led to disinvestment in the public sector and wage stagnation. It has resulted in the mainstreaming of the “handbag economics” theory of public debt. This is the belief that the debt of nations is analogous to that of a household, and that national debt must be paid back through fiscal means, not by publicly issued credit.
We propose that states start issuing money again, and at the same time constrain globalised capital markets through capital controls. By issuing money themselves, states can keep a lid on speculation and excessive inequality of wealth and income. At the same time, through imposing capital controls states are able to control capital flight, set their own interest rates and move capital to desired forms of investment. The idea is hardly new. Keynes has articulated it and put it to work in the British war-time economy. Recent Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) also argues that states who are currency issuers can, within the bounds of the economy’s productive capacity, safely provide money and steer it in the direction of productive investment such as a a sustainable energy and production sector. The value of publicly issued money is guaranteed by two sources: the multiplier effect of investments and tax receipts — differently put, by the amount of economic activity. But this time, money works for citizens, not investment banks.
Element 7: A Sustainable Society
There are now detailed blueprints for a Green New Deal. Its elements are a steady state economy and the abandonment of the growth delusion, a needs-based instead of wants-based economy, a return to more localized production and exchange and the abandonment of unregulated international trade, a labour-intensive economy, and better monetary and fiscal coordination, have been described in great detail. Yet we have been unable to make much progress towards achieving these ecological goals. This is the case partly because of the large amounts of lobbying money spent on supporting oil, mining and polluting industries defies belief. But we also think that the difficulty in making the transition to a Green society is above all the result of being caught in a complex system of institutionalised practices and routines that, taken together, sustain the neoliberal, extractive, world order. Our first task then is to take a step back recognise the many ways in which climate destructive practices – corporate, financial, administrative and individual – hang together and mutually support each other.
The solutions suggested here (of which a longer version is available here) should be read as an attempt to describe the conditions of possibility of a Greener and more just society. The crisis sparked by COVID-19 has shown how destructive and unjust, and ultimately unsustainable, the current political-economic order is. Although to citizens institutions may appear as unassailable and set in concrete, they are not. They are human-made and they can be changed in a truly democratic process.