Morality and Law
Covid: Beyond the Negative

In late January 2021 the UK reached a sad milestone, registering the 100,000th death within 28 days of having been diagnosed with Covid. This is per capita one of the highest rates in the world, and reflected mismanagement, especially in the early stages, as well as the increased virulence of new strains of the virus that emerged in the autumn. The disease exposed social pathologies, including long-term health inequalities, the prevalence of obesity, increased rates of diabetes and poor housing. It also revealed the consequences of poor policy making, with pandemic preparedness giving way to the priority of achieving Brexit. However, as the days lengthened, the mass immunization programme began, using a number of different vaccines. Although the country remained in its third and most intense national lockdown, a pathway out of the pandemic opened up.

This prompted an intensified debate over what sort of ‘normality’ should be restored after the crisis. The pandemic evoked images of the ‘blitz spirit’, and this was appropriate. This was the greatest national emergency since the Second World War, and the frontline workers in health and social care as well as the ambulance drivers and other emergence services had sacrificed their own health and too often their lives as well. What sort of society would emerge at the end of it? 

In July 1945 the British public rejected the leader who had led them to victory, and Winston Churchill was replaced by Clement Attlee at the head of a large majority for the Labour Party. Unlike at the end of the Great War, victory in war was to give way to a transformative peace. The new government went on to transform society, creating the welfare state as well as nationalizing swathes of industry. The National Health Service was created in 1948, and has gone on to become a model for the world. Although in recent years it has been subject to elements of stealth privatization by neoliberal governments of left and right, it remains one of the greatest symbols of national pride. 

The First Year of COVID-19: Socio-Political Consequences Through the Lens of Valdai Club Experts

As in 1945, the Covid-19 pandemic raises fundamental questions about the character of the ‘common good’. This is the term used in recent years by those seeking a new type of politics focused on achieving deliverable public goods, avoiding the dogmatism of classic programmes of political change while avoiding the technocratic elitism that characterizes much of social democracy and various right populist neoliberal governments. The politics of the common good builds on the grass-roots sentiments of actual populations, rather than idealized versions of what is desirable, imposed from above by metropolitan elites.

This is where Burke-inspired Blue Labour ideas, based on ethical conservatism and genuine local social movements responsive to patriotic and modulated sovereigntist ideas, meet a growing stream of left populist thinking. Much of this is inspired by the ideas of the political philosopher Chantal Mouffe, who long ago advanced powerful ideas on how to revive radical democracy based on an agonistic view of politics. In 2018 she published For a Left Populism, which recognized that we are living through a populist moment and on this basis challenged the authoritarian neoliberalism that has predominated since the 1980, and which had supplanted the earlier post-war social democratic consensus. 

This left populism reproduces the classical opposition between the elite and the people, but at the same time advances a positive programme of change. This includes today a green democratic transformation, which challenges not so much the structures of capital but the framework in which capital is deployed.
The traditional socialist idea of collective wellbeing is now accompanied by solidarity with nature itself.

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.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.