Let’s build back better post-Covid, create a sustainable and inclusive global economy that works for the many, not just the few
The corona crisis might be our last chance to change our rotten economic system, so it doesn’t work only to further enrich the elite, but provides equality and fairness for ordinary workers and families.
American economist Milton Friedman once said: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change.” Friedman was the champion of individualism and competition, the founding father of the modern neoliberal era. But in the era of Covid-19, governments have been forced to abandon economic growth as their holy crusade. At least for a while.
According to the latest McKinsey Global Survey on economic sentiment, a majority of respondents expect the global growth rate to increase over the next six months, meaning most executives are expecting the economy to remain as it was before the pandemic. Friedman’s strategy was used to impose neoliberalism on unwilling nations, shocking them into submission. Can it be used against neoliberalism to produce real change?
Most economists believe GDP growth is the measure of a nation’s wealth, but a wealthy society is one without vast inequalities, in which the poor can benefit from growth – that is, share in its proceeds, and everyone has equal opportunity to climb the social ladder. However, for the past half-century, we’ve been told that “there is no such thing as society,” as Margaret Thatcher famously said, and “there are individual men and women, and there are families.” A system rooted in selfishness has increased global inequality and many people feel trapped in poverty.
With coronavirus measures severely affecting the weakest, Covid-19 is pushing between 88 million and 115 million people into extreme poverty. In the midst of the pandemic, Amazon owner Jeff Bezos became the richest person in history, the first person worth over $200 billion, while US billionaires saw their net worth increase by half a trillion dollars. So far, they’re making this crisis work for them, but it can work for the rest of us too.
A change of awareness is already happening. “One thing I think the coronavirus crisis has already proved is that there really is such a thing as society,” said UK prime minister Boris Johnson, after he was discharged from intensive care, where he received treatment for Covid-19 in an underfunded NHS.
But it’s not enough for politicians to pledge support for a crumbling infrastructure after they’ve been sacrificing the public sector in favor of the private one for decades. An economy in which workers have been stripped of legal and financial security for the sake of maximizing company profits needs to change. Just over 58 percent of America’s employed are paid by the hour, so absence from work due to the pandemic means zero income. Developing countries have seen income losses due to the pandemic in excess of $220 billion. If a just society isn’t reason enough to change the global economy, the pandemic has made it a matter of life and death.
Wildcat strikes started in Italy as early as March 2020, with workers demanding more rights. In Toronto, Canada, renters protested in front of their landlords’ mansions, and students across the UK organized rent strikes that forced many universities to significantly cut rental charges on university accommodation. The US saw over a thousand unsanctioned, spontaneous strikes against hazardous working conditions. On Black Friday, the biggest global shopping day of the year, #MakeAmazonPay shot to the top of Twitter’s trending board, with workers around the world denouncing unsafe working conditions and low wages. Workers in many supermarkets, warehouses, and delivery firms have joined coordinated walkouts or ‘sick-outs’.
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Governments are reacting – to an extent. The UK has suspended all eviction proceedings, and a moratorium on new proceedings has been imposed. Many liberal capitalist governments are nationalizing hospitals and companies in trouble, improving working conditions, and providing financial aid for those in need. US president Donald Trump said, “Government intervention is not a government takeover,” adding that its purpose is to preserve the free market. These measures shouldn’t be a mere Band-aid for neoliberalism, however, but rather a step in a different direction.
Poverty and social injustice didn’t emerge as a result of the pandemic, but they were certainly worsened by it. Now is the time to reimagine the global economy, to build back more sustainable and inclusive economies that work for the many, not just the few.
Not much time is left. Governments across the globe have imposed draconian measures on people to curb the spread of the virus – measures that, according to National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, could outlast the pandemic. “The emergency tends to be expanded. Then the authorities become comfortable with some new power. They start to like it,” Snowden said recently.
If the elites sense that the state intervening in the economy is less temporary and more of a blueprint for equal opportunities for all, there is no telling what the powerful could do in trying to stop us from reinventing the world. The expansion of the surveillance state will make it harder for us to fight, but that’s why we have to fight. Before it’s too late.
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