In the column by Bagehot in this week’s Economist (currently one of my favourite commentators on British politics) there is a really interesting discussion of the view that with the pandemic we are seeing a political environment that is shifting sharply leftward. Corbyn thinks this, as do Ian Lavery and Rebecca Long-Bailey and this is echoed beyond Britain, on the German left and by Thomas Piketty and Naomi Klein. Bagehot indicates what is hoped for: ‘a radical redistribution of wealth here, a green new deal there and, posed on top, the angelic vision of a universal basic income.’ Bagehot calls this view ‘not entirely convincing’—and one could see this comment either as British understatement (meaning that it is a total fantasy) or as expressing a genuine doubt in face of the uncertain future. I am inclined to use an Italian expression, to convey my reaction to this view – magari (which in English means ‘if only it were true’)
It is, perhaps, worth quoting what Bagehot says against the view. He notices that current political allegiances are being shaken up and that in many ways the left is having a good crisis but goes on to argue that ‘the current expansion of the state does not represent a philosophical conversion to the case for revolution. It is a pragmatic response to a unique set of circumstances: a combination of Keynesian demand management to boost the economy, time-limited intervention to prevent industries from collapsing and a basic income for workers who are temporarily laid off.’ He notes that the ‘debt-fuelled expansion will certainly lead to higher taxes in the long term but it will also put a constraint on the state’s future ambitions.’
Envisaging the blessed day when we will have a vaccine, he prophesies that ‘voters will desire nothing so much as a “return to normalcy”, just as they did in the 1920s after the first world war and the Spanish flu. They will see the covid era not as a time of ideological renewal but as a temporary crisis that involved a weird combination of admirable collectivism and irritating restrictions on personal freedom.’
Yet this prophecy is evidence-free and, moreover, it cherry-picks its historical analogy. Why the 1920s and not the late 1940s, when welfare states were consolidated in Europe? As for the US, FDR’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society were popular responses to massive social devastation that survive in the collective memory, despite their subsequent dismantling, involving renewed devastation and unbridled inequalities, from the time of Nixon onwards, in the name of market fundamentalism. When Bernie Sanders talks (misleadingly) of ‘revolution’ and ‘socialism’ it is this collective memory that he is evoking. Notice that his central theme throughout has been the grotesque inadequacy of public health provision in the United States. He has not secured the votes to make it likely that he will be the Democrats’ frontrunner, and, alas, Joe Biden was and remains a central figure in the dismantling, in which ‘welfare’ in the US has come to signify the means of shaming and blaming the vulnerable for their lack of individual responsibility. It was Joe Biden who in a 1988 column entitles ‘Welfare System about to Change’ wrote ‘We are all too familiar with the stories of welfare mothers driving luxury cars and leading lifestyles that mirror the rich and famous. Whether they ae exaggerated or not, these stories underlie a broad social concern that the welfare system has broken down—that it only parcels out welfare checks and does nothing to help the poor find productive jobs.’ Thereafter President Clinton promised to ‘end welfare as we know it,’ and succeeded in doing so by the end of the century.
Yet perhaps there is a feasible, reachable future that will involve something like a ‘conceptual reawakening’ – a revival of a sense of mutual interdependence. We are even now ever more aware of our indebtedness to workers in essential services, from groceries to those who provide our water and electricity and, as during Katrina, the truly vulnerable have become ever more visible. Bagehot is either asserting or guessing what voters will desire and assumes it will be a ‘return to normalcy.’ But will what became normal in the last five decades look normal and desirable when this crisis finally subsides, above all with regard to the provision of public health—with all its vastly wider implications? Bagehot writes that what we are seeing is ‘a pragmatic response to a unique set of circumstances.’ But these are not unique. We have already lived through a series of epidemics in recent times, all fortunately localizable and containable. There will be more and worse to come. This isn’t just a matter of morals, for we increasingly see that what has been normal is both socially and individually dangerous.
We don’t know, because, as someone said to me recently, people are just not smart enough to predict the future.
Steven Lukes is Professor of Sociology at New York University. From September 2015 to July 2016 he was a Krzysztof Michalski Visiting Fellow at the IWM.