The pandemic brought these issues to the fore. The global financial crisis of 2008 resulted in very little fundamental change, and now there is a danger that the experience of letting a crisis go to waste will be repeated. The politics of the common good in the age of the pandemic needs to address four processes.
First, exacerbation. Inequality has been worsening throughout the neoliberal era but in the Covid year worsened. The world’s ten richest men (and they are all men) increased by $540 billion in the year since March 2020. The richest 660 in the US have collected a $1.1 trillion windfall since the pandemic began. The power of GAFA – Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple – has increased in various ways, despite some regulatory tightening. The progressive era saw the break-up of Standard Oil, and there are now demands for the same to happen to the tech giants.
Second, acceleration. The pandemic has accelerated existing trends, including the move away from bricks and mortar high streets to online shopping. At the same time, the great increase in home working and home schooling has exposed the digital divide, and digital poverty has exacerbated already marginalized communities. In his 2019 Labour Party manifesto Jeremy Corbyn promised free broadband for all. Derided at the time, this left populist policy can now be seen to have been prescient.
Third, aggravation. The pandemic has worsened international contradictions and even threatened solidarity within the European Union. The Trump administration blamed China for mismanaging the Covid outbreak, but in the end China was one of the few countries to emerge from the pandemic with their economy largely intact. There is no clear pattern to whether authoritarian or liberal democratic systems best managed the crisis. State capacity and coherence crossed the systemic divide and emerged as the single most important factor. This includes the readiness to work with the scientific community, and then to formulate coherent policies. The importance of multilateral agencies in handling pandemic responses has been reinforced, although lessons will have to be learned, above all tightening up World Health Organisation procedures. There has been some notable cooperative work on ensuring the availability of vaccines to the global South, but overall the pandemic did not reset the conduct of international affairs.
Fourth, transformation. This is the call to turn a negative into a positive. There is much discussion of the way forward. Old-fashioned macroeconomic stimulation, of the quantitative easing type, allowed economies to recover after the 2008 crisis, but today would only further artificially inflate asset values and do little to address underlying issues of achieving the common good. The revival of Keynesian social democracy certainly works in the short term, and government support for distressed business and laid-off workers was essential during the pandemic. The right populists are on the march, and in the US contributed to Donald Trump’s extraordinary 74 million votes in November 2020, despite evidently mishandling the pandemic. Responses to the pandemic restrictions have revived various libertarian impulses, and even anarchist outbreaks. In this confused political situation, left populist ideas emerge as the most coherent, accepting the importance of political contestation. There may be an emerging consensus on the need to address the climate emergency, but decarbonisation involves choices and affects vulnerable communities in different ways.
The pandemic has once again demonstrated that it is not enough to leave fundamental decisions about the public good to technocratic elites or social identity entrepreneurs. The common good is a matter for the people to decide, and for that we require the renewal of politics as an open-ended process of public contestation.