Disclaimer: this post was written in early April 2020, in unusual circumstances. It is best regarded as a snapshot
In recent weeks many nations have done the unthinkable. Closed their borders, repatriated their citizens, revoked the most basic of human rights, and ceased all but essential work. And this has taught us much about the nature of work, of the essential, and of economics.
The first lesson is that work is more than just a means to live. In many countries, the citizens have been amply provided for by their governments. (While it is true that some have slipped through the net, which might in itself be an argument for a temporary Universal Basic Income, that is an argument for another day.) A few months back, if you had been told you’d be paid to stay at home doing nothing, you would have thought that would be living the dream. But enforced idleness is not the dream. It is, for more people than you’d imagine, a nightmare. Because without a sense of one’s existence being useful, your average person will struggle. It is disempowering for people who’ve worked all their lives to be told to claim benefits, to go begging to their mortgage company. And not just because of lack of money or fear of their future. There is also the sheer raving madness that boredom will drive you do. There are only so many times you can watch ‘Tiger King.’
There is another very important shift. Who knew that your bus driver, or the lady who rings up your shopping, was a key worker? This pandemic is redrawing the lines around what is valued. Premier league football players may be among the world’s top earners, but the premier league was the first industry to grind to a halt. Turns out that what is stylish, admired, and well paid is not at all important when we need our sick healed, our rubbish collected, goods delivered, and food on our tables. Updating Maslow for the now-rearing, new-roaring 20s: we need food, sanitation, and the internet. I take my hat off to infrastructure specialists of all kinds: network engineers, telecoms experts, anyone who can open up a firewall or manage security on the internet. I am in awe of people who go to work in supermarkets every day and put their own health at risk. I do not take for granted the ability to flick a switch and have light, to call a friend and have our voices bounce around the network. Without power, this difficult cloistering that has been forced upon us would rapidly become unbearable. Without connectivity, how would we connect?
The upset extends to hierarchies. All of a sudden, the young adult is supporting an entire family: supermarkets, desperate for staff, are not taking on the older generation; seniority and experience are temporarily devalued. More and more industries, particularly the media, have nudged their staff into self-employment, and it turns out the self-employed have little protection (they always did, but there were temporary economic advantages that looked, at the time, like certainties). Teachers are paid to police a school that holds only a handful of children. Classes go virtual, parents get to choose how involved their children are in education. We discover that when home-schooled, kids only need a few hours of lessons a day, bringing home to us that most of the teachers’ role, sadly, has been downgraded to administration and crowd control. Our children are learning vital life skills, not limited to cooking and taking the bins out. We are learning that OFSTED and exam boards are meaningless this year, and that the national curriculum may benefit from being ignored.
We are also learning how unimportant money is. Although connections can get you a COVID test, and money can buy you a larger home in which to self-isolate, nothing can exempt you from illness. A virus is too small to be prevented by doorkeepers, gated estates, servants, private education. Even extreme introverts are discovering how much they need other people; no amount of money can compensate for solitude. You can’t buy yourself a sex worker to spend the night with when everyone is self-isolating (well, you can, but you are likely to be arrested, and shamed in the papers). Yes, you may have bigger house, but you will be cleaning it yourself and doing your nanny’s job for the duration. You may have a vast number of tenants, but they can’t afford to pay, and you aren’t allowed to evict them. And when you do, you may struggle to find anyone to take their place. Most of the country was already three pay packets from the street. Why do you think the government has been so generous, interest rates are so low, and petrol prices are on the floor?
Another lesson: doing without a few things we had deemed ‘essential’ has not killed us. Yes, it’s annoying to miss our haircut, our nail appointment, our retail therapy. We are sad at the loss of coffee shops. We have had to learn to cook. We have been forced to use toilet roll in a somewhat restrained manner. When we went to the supermarket, we couldn’t get everything we wanted. No branded apricot jam, perhaps, or not the cereal in the kids’ favourite flavour. Those of us who had birthdays, holidays, music festivals bought and paid for have just had to suck it up. And many of these things will not ever be made right.
But I hope we will appreciate what we have had, so much more.
Just before this event, I was – it seems incredible now – at a party in Berlin. There was a unique Dada Cabaret performance. No-one had even heard the phrase ‘social distancing.’ Planes were caught, Airbnb’s were used, restaurants were eaten in. It was a lockdown wet dream. At one point I took myself off to the DDR Museum for a bit of solo tourism. I love social history, and it was a delight to stand in the mocked-up apartment, to read about how the East Germans adapted to their circumstances (underage sex, premarital sex, marital sex – sex, mainly). Thinking of how the Stasi encouraged neighbours to spy on each other, how we the public police our community, it occurs to me that we’ve morphed into the socialist state that was so feared in the 2019 General Election. The middle classes are claiming dole, the low-paid worker is revered, there’s nothing to buy, nowhere to go, there are food shortages, there are even queues for the shops.
For the few, by the many. All this effort being put into keeping the vulnerable alive. Not just for their sake. Doctors will obey their Hippocratic oath, and the NHS is a machine brilliantly suited to keeping people alive. The knock-on effect of this is that hospital beds will be taken up that would ordinarily deal with the usual set of injuries and disasters that we might face. Other lives may be lost. That’s the rationale. The economic cost of this pandemic per life lost is likely to be extraordinary.
What does this tell us about people? It tells us that we are compassionate. It tells us that we will inconvenience ourselves in order to save the lives of others. And that gives me hope.
Of course the generosity of our government is not a new socialism. It’s a pragmatic decision, intended to preserve civil order. You cannot demand that people lay down their livelihood and future for the unknown old and vulnerable, without providing some kind of stability. No country has an army that can manage a majority of starving, potentially diseased citizens. Look how quickly the problem of rough sleepers has been solved. These are extreme times.
Even within these extreme times, there are differentiators. The small trader, the people scratching a living, perhaps some of it outside of the tax system because how else could they. Aided by big business which turns a blind eye to what people are having to do. The wealthy employing cash in hand staff. It’s part of an ecosystem and it’s hard to say how it will pan out but from my cursory reading of Piketty’s Capital, and the reaction of landlords (some of whom are not even liable for a mortgage) to the potential loss of earning that everyone faces, it doesn’t seem that the ruling classes are going to be overthrown, nor that the poor will get rich from this time.
We have had prosperity and peace over much of the globe for 75 years. We have been spoilt. We have taken stuff for granted. We have been angry and grabby and selfish. And now, when the chips are down, something absolutely different has emerged. We had forgotten, our generation (by which I mean anyone born between 1940 and 2020), that throughout history humans have lived a fragile life. Our fortunes always could turn on a dime. I remember reading ‘The Good Earth’ as a teenager – a family’s fortunes rising and falling – and that is how life has been across most of the world for most of human history. There are no guarantees. To think I had become almost blasé about the plenty in my life, the bounty. I could afford to go to more festivals and nights out than I had time for. I should have been more grateful for the bounty in my life, but I am human. Now, when I’m housebound and a friend brings a loaf of sourdough, or I taste a roasted tomato, it is amazing. The dappled spring sunshine reflecting into my sittingroom, the adenoidal snoring of the cat, the quiet of my street: it’s all beautiful and I love it, because my life has shrunk to a few rooms. I am now aware of how bloody lucky I am. How bloody lucky we all are, even if we are struggling, to have four walls and a roof and a health service that can save us.
A while ago, a propos of world politics, a comment was made that once the generations that have known war and strife are gone, there is nothing to stop insanity from rising up. That the world loses its collective head every 80 years. We all had a sense that something was coming. We imagined it would be manmade. What a surprise that the ‘something’ turned out to be nature, getting its own back?
Most people have been affected more by the lockdown than by the pandemic itself. It’s too early to say whether the lockdown will have a long-lasting effect upon people’s psyche. What I am seeing is how this could reduce humanity. My mother reminded me of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. This is how the human race ends, she said: not with a bang, but with a whimper. Unsustainable economic activity is being questioned. The crash of 2008 led to the system being bolstered up, but the economy has not really recovered, because the concepts behind our financial system are not sustainable. More of these shocks, and we will indeed be on the beach.
And yet we have proved that, across much of the world, activity can cease. Materialism can cease, capitalism can be put under a spotlight. Life can function, in some way, for all.
Before WW1 the gap between rich and poor was increasing. The two world wars changed that trend, but in the 1980s the gap began to widen again – which it will, unless unchecked. That’s a function of how capital works.
To borrow a word from an unattributed source, the world needed a reboot. As spring commenced, we have had a gradual switch-off. As with any unpatched, badly-managed IT system, when it’s switched back on again, some parts won’t work. In a complex system with so many interdependencies, it’s impossible to say what will be lost, although I’m sure that unscrupulous traders are already betting, and that money will be made for those who lose the most.
What comes out of this will not be a miraculous future that suits everyone. Nor will this time lead to a curing of all psychological ills that resulted from separating man from his roots, shoving him into crowded cities, using ‘education’ as a means to control, and making money an end in itself. But this pandemic is changing how we value money. With a bit of luck, some of these changes will be long-lasting.