Will the pandemic show us the way to the future?

Social media, of late, has been abuzz with the expectation that one golden lining to the Covid-19 crisis will be a change of world paradigm. A shift away from the neo-liberalism that has fuelled the growth and wealth of corporates at the expense of those who actually produce the wealth, the labourers at the bottom of the heap.

Whether that’ll happen or not is yet to be seen. I blogged about that last time – check it out – and offered some suggestions.

One thing that has occurred to me, though, is that paradigm-shifts across history usually don’t come very easily. Often they emerge from a protracted contortion. The First World War, for example, essentially brought the ‘old European order’ to an end; but it was not until the end of the Second World War that a stable ‘new order’ of sorts emerged. Between times – as the central powers fell into fascism and police-state communism grew in the Soviet Union – there was a very real risk that the world’s majority governmental system would not be democracy, but totalitarianism in its various flavours.

The Covid-19 crisis has come at a moment when the existing economic paradigm – neo-liberalism – has clearly hit its use-by date. Already there has been talk of finding different ways for governments to approach economics. Whether the virus and the economic apocalypse that will follow it suffice to push governments into that new mind-set, however, remains to be seen. One of the reasons why neo-liberalism didn’t fall when its hollowness became evident during the GFC, a dozen years ago, is that there was nothing credible to replace it.

What worries me, though, is the potential that humanity will – once again – miss the boat, by swinging into a new paradigm that doesn’t really fix what had gone wrong with the old, but merely reverses what was perceived to be the bad side of the old idea. That seems typical of human societies: the ‘recency effect’ means that one generation, often, reacts to what they object to about the last.

One of the more recent examples of this was the ‘baby boomer’ reaction to the society that had emerged, across the western world, from the two world wars. It was a staid society, safe, rather dully, and with certain social norms such as short haired and clean-shaven men, an exalted nuclear family, and so on. All of which were reversed by a ‘hippie’ generation who went bearded and long-haired, and experimented with ‘communal living’ which, they imagined, was the way of the future.

It wasn’t, of course. Today we still live largely in nuclear families and, curiously, men mostly have short hair and are clean shaven. All that had happened was that the ‘hippies’ had simply reversed what they didn’t like, without changing the fundamental paradigm.

That’s true to a certain extent of the way neo-liberalism entered the picture too. By the 1970s, the ‘liberal democratic’ approach of the mid-twentieth century with its regulated welfare state was beginning to reach its use-by date. Regulatory creep and a sense of entitlement to welfare, two generations on from when these systems had been introduced across the world, created a sense of being dated and tired.

The neo-liberals entered power here in New Zealand after the Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon, got drunk and called a snap election in mid-1984 (he did consult on it, but still…) What followed, however, merely reversed whatever Muldoon had done. If Muldoon had done things one way, the neo-liberals had to do it the opposite way. Specifically. In short, it didn’t offer a new approach: it was still being defined by the old mind-set.

You see what I am getting at. For humanity to really move forward – as is necessary – we cannot afford to let what has just gone define the way we tackle the future. A new paradigm is needed, one that builds on the best that society has created to date, that nurtures what we already know works for us, and which gets rid of the worst. It must be sustainable, and it must be built around a mind-set of kindness, and of genuine care for all others. All? All. I am not the first one to suggest this, of course.

I am probably being wishful in offering such a thought. Human society, in reality, is messy. Still, to get anywhere we have to first start with a dream. And the best way to dream is to dream big. We can’t allow the obvious problems and failures of the immediate past to shape the vision of a better future.

Thoughts? And, in case anybody thought I was being hyperbolic about a drunken Prime Minister calling a snap election in 1984, here’s the clip. He was so pissed he could barely speak.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020

13 thoughts on “Will the pandemic show us the way to the future?

  1. Matthew, I think I share your healthy scepticism. People talk of paradigm shift because they can see a real disaster on their doorstep – one that they can really own – and it does feel like armageddon. There is a plague of locusts of biblical proportions in East Africa – not a big news story and it seems like only yesterday that Australia was on fire, UK flooded and so-on. Now we globally have a problem – it feels different, but it’s actually more of what I see as the same endless march of problems we have made for ourselves. This link is The Lancet medical journal, I expect you know it. I’d just read it when I saw your post, it says it all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t seen that article – thanks for the heads-up. It’s interesting that calls for an economic paradigm shift have extended to the medical field, not least because of the way that dereliction of public services provokes harm to people.


  2. Thanks for your thought-provoking and interesting post, Matthew,

    What do you mean by neo-liberalism?

    Here in the UK, we have, (in recent years) enjoyed much lower levels of unemployment when compared to other European countries such as France. This is due, in part at least, to the more light touch approach to regulation here in the United Kingdom. Of course regulation is needed to prevent child labour etc, however there comes a point where over regulation kills jobs.

    One can call it neo-liberalism, but the so-called (and much criticised “Gig Economy”), has allowed many students (and others) to fit in their studies around delivering food and performing other courier services.

    The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) carried out a study which showed that, on the whole the majority of those engaged in the “Gig Economy” appreciated the flexibility it gave them, despite the lack of certain protections enjoyed by those in full-time employment.

    If you wish to see the closing down (or much heavier regulation) of “the gig economy” then there will be social consequences, namely the growth in unemployment and (when Corona is over) we will need all the economic activity possible.

    Cheap products from other parts of the world (for example televisions from China) benefit consumers in the West and also provide much needed jobs in developing nations. That is, surely neo-liberalism benefiting all?

    I’m sure that once the COVID19 crisis is over, there will need to be some tax rises to, over time recoup the monies spent to tackle this horrendous situation. But the end of neo-liberalism? I think the jury remains out on that question.

    Best wishes, Kevin


    1. I will have to disagree with you on this – civilly, of course, and with all good will and discussion. Neo-liberalism was introduced in the 1980s as a response to prior over-regulation. I have blog posts coming up on it.

      I have no doubt that neo-liberalism, originally, had beneficial effects, not least because it shifted away from the stagnant economic systems of the 1970s. It also, I think, super-fuelled the western system sufficiently to win the Cold War by economic power. I had a first-hand view of this system as it evolved because I spent years working at the very heart of the economic system (in public-relations, which meant I had to write stuff to explain it) and ended up editing (and writing for) a peer-reviewed economic journal.

      However, all things have a use-by date, and I think it’s suffered the usual fate of such paradigm shifts, where they become ever-more extreme as a generation or so goes by. That includes a kind of default reduction of human life to dollar values – here in New Zealand, for instance, it was calculated at $4.7 million a life. To me, that speaks volumes about the extent to which the system has intellectualised society away from basic values of normal humanity and care.

      There is also no question about the way that the mechanisms on which neo-liberalism floats are a device for moving money from the poor to the rich. It’s done in part through tax levels, in part through creating debt for the poor, from which those who issue the debt profit; and in part by keeping returns on labour down. The gig economy may well offer flexibility, but equally, it offers no certainties and the overall rates of return on that work are low by comparison with the return that wealthy individuals can obtain through stocks, shares and similar. The material outcomes (cheap consumer products) on the back of the third industrial revolution in the developing countries and neo-liberal globalism haven’t compensated for the overall economic disenfranchising of very large sectors of western society, of late including the middle classes – as evidenced by the phenomenon of the ‘working poor’, in which wages simply haven’t kept up with costs. Furthermore, those same systems of globalism are utterly fragile, uniquely vulnerable to a supply disruption (as we have, indeed, just seen).

      There is no question about the imbalances and high instability of a system which has been geared to enhance the quest for profit by companies whose loyalty is not to their customers, but to their shareholders. This focus also means there is no sustained philosophy for systemic altruism – other than lip-service philanthropy performed with due public-relations trumpeting. Furthermore, the fact that the corporates and financial systems now dominating world economics also rely on unlimited growth for the system to work (the constant quest for increasing GDP) is a recipe for disaster on a planet with clearly finite space and resources. Nor can there be any question, now, about the social damage being done. In one developed nation after another, chronic under-funding of health systems (because ‘private enterprise’ never did fill the gaps properly) has meant that people are now dying from Covid-19, who might otherwise have been helped.

      The economics of human history show me that, over and again, society lurches down paths designed to produce prosperity. Virtually every time, the result is a ‘bubble’ that then bursts, followed by a period of chaos and poverty. These cycles have been getting ever more-encompassing as our civilisation has extended its reach and complexity. Right now, we’re on the edge of a very major one. It was ripe and ready to happen before the Covid-19 crisis, but that has become the trigger for it. And the figures I’ve seen indicate that the US, Britain and other major developed nations are looking down the barrel of cataclysmic drops in GDP, for the upcoming quarter. There is (based on what I’ve read this morning) every chance that this will not be recovered and the world will descend into a second Great Depression, this time lasting a generation. It was where economists were thinking during the GFC, 11 years ago. The world purchased its way out through the ‘stimulus packages’ without fixing the fundamental cause of that problem, so all we did was kick that particular can into the future. Now we’re in that future – and I have due worries that the whole global edifice of profit, debt, financial markets and the rest is about to be plunged into a significant existential crisis. And those who are at a disadvantage through no fault of their own will suffer.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Many thanks for your detailed reply, Matthew.

        You are right that any system, if applied inflexibly can (and often does) end by causing suffering.

        Of course human life is valuable (extremely so), however (in the current COVID19 crisis), governments have to balance the fact that deaths could (and probably will) increase) with the ending of lock-downs, against the damage to economic activity if the lock-downs continue for months. You need economic activity to generate the money for social care and health care systems (I am a strong supporter of the NHS here in the UK, but without getting people back to work it will, ultimately be impossible to pay for such necessary systems. So governments (whether centre-right, centre-left or otherwise) all have to weigh such facts, unpleasant though it is to make such trade offs.

        It is not, of course just about economics. We are social animals and all kinds of mental health problems can (and are) developing as a result of lock-downs. Here in the UK we have (sadly) seen a rise in domestic violence since the introduction of the lock-down here.

        I agree with you that we need sustainable growth. We are seeing this through the growth of renewables such as wind, solar etc. This growth is being driven by a combination of market mechanisms coupled with government support. Its right to intervene in the market to prevent (so far is possible) environmental damage.

        As I said, we need regulation to protect people from exploitation, but such regulation needs to be carefully applied. Arguably its due to over regulation that unemployment in countries such as France has been higher than in the UK (as I said in my original comment).

        I am no economist, however there are many economists who have produced convincing evidence that globalisation has helped the developing world.

        On a personal level, I have a lady who cleans for me once a week. I pay her above the UK (London) Living Wage. She is, by choice self-employed so, if she doesn’t work she receives no pay. In a free society people should be allowed to make such choices, otherwise if one insists on loading onto those who use domestic services (self-employed I mean) the same obligations as those pertaining to the employed, such as holiday pay), then one reduces the incentive to employ such individuals and increase the number of those unemployed.

        When we come out of the Corona crisis, we will need a flexible economy not over burdened by regulations. I do, of course support legislation to protect people who are disabled, ethnic minorities etc against discrimination. Such measures are part of a civilised society and must be retained.

        I look forward to reading your forthcoming articles on neo-liberalism and economics more generally.



        1. Hi Matthew. I was sent a link to this article which may interest you and your readers, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-04-13/coronavirus-pandemic-is-wake-up-call-to-reinvent-the-state. Although the piece doesn’t refer to “neo-liberalism”, it does reference thinkers who influenced that philosophy such as F A Hayek. It offers an interesting analysis of the future of the state, and how best to reform institutions. Best, Kevin


    1. Yeah. I had a brief discussion with Muldoon’s biographer, a few years ago, who argued that the PM’s diabetic medication played a part in it. Maybe. Doesn’t excuse the fact that Muldoon was drunk as a skunk. The funny thing was that, at the time – given the polls – it wasn’t a huge gamble and he expected to win. What derailed him was a new party set up rapidly and explicitly to split the centre-right vote. Muldoon was demoted to the back bench soon after losing the election, though he went on to have a bit of fun – he appeared on TV as ‘Count Robula’, introducing the ‘Sunday Horror’ slot (various dreadful old Hammer horrors). And also starred as The Narrator in a stage production of the Rocky Horror Show.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Yeah it really worries me that the pendulum will swing in a very bad direction. But then I’m an eternal pessimist- and Covid doesnt exactly inspire optimism- I much prefer your more hopeful vision of the future!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do too for some reason! 🙂 In practise I very much fear that, human society being what it is, things will get worse – and for a while – before they get better. The ‘old guard’ will fight to keep their flows of money going and the systems that enriched them. That will define the terms of debate, meaning any new ideas for ways forward won’t get proper traction. And there are signs that Covid-19 still has surprises to throw at us. Sigh… Mars isn’t all that hospitable this time of year, but there’s always the escape route into a good book! Tolkien awaits…

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