Inequity, injustice, lack of power and control, and limited democracy have been exposed by the current pandemic. Before we design appropriate, active responses we need to understand the issues and their causes .
- Towards a context
- A brief history of capitalism
- Democracy, Equality, Power, and Justice
- Issues needing resolution
The reader who examined any of the examples of previous plagues and pandemic mentioned in Part 1 will have noted the uneven effects and the diversity of responses. Over the centuries as more has been learned about epidemiology and the spread of diseases such as typhoid, cholera, bubonic plague clear patterns have emerged. Not the least of these are geographic patterns which reveal underlying social, economic and environmental structures. It is impossible to canvass here all of the contextual aspects that affect the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. This survey will seek to illuminate a few fundamental principles.
Many are asking what our society and economy should look like when this pandemic is somewhat under control. You will have read or heard politicians, business leaders and most of the media speaking ‘getting back to normal.’ By this they mean doing things just as we did them before. The question we should be asking is what lessons have we learned during this plague that can teach us to do much better in the future. This section seeks to reflect on a few major aspects of the current context that have significantly influenced the spread of the disease and its uneven impact on society and economy. The following video provides plain facts to illustrate the unequal impacts of COVID-19 in the United States of America.
When economies and societies are already in strife a pandemic can finish them off. For example look at the bubonic plague in fourteenth and fifteenth century England. The loss of maybe one third or more of the rural workforce led to a slight shift in power relationships on the manor where serfs were able to demand a slightly better income. It eventually led to the collapse of feudalism. The weakness of the Australian economy prior to the emergence of the pandemic is clearly explained here.
The relationship between an economy and a plague is scrutinized in this presentation.
Sometimes the major collapse of a system leads to something better replacing them, but not always if the major causes are still in place. And they are usually kept in place by the vested interests they best serve. In this case it led to a form of agrarian capitalism where the same powerful few controlled the many in different ways. Read the eighteenth century economist David Ricardo (1772–1823) who at the end of this period and the beginning of industrial capitalism suggested that the quantum of wage cost must remain fixed while profits and cost of living should increase over time. That is precisely the same thinking that led to wage stagnation, limited savings and reduced discretionary spending and consequent loss of consumer spending over the past forty five years.
There are a few key concepts that need examination before we can understand what happened and why it happened. This essay of course does not have the scope to probe all aspects of these. Indeed it will attempt very little but shall suggest a very few principles and make a few observations that should prompt fruitful questions that may result in careful analyses of popularly held beliefs.
- What do we believe about an issue?
- How has that belief been formed?
- Which alternative, fact-based evidence challenges that belief?
- What is the factual reality? (e.g. about equality)
- Who benefits from a particular definition?
- Who controls the operation or implementation of that concept? (e.g. Justice)
Here are a few of the vital concepts underlying social, environmental and economic impacts of a major disruption like a pandemic. But what do they mean? Who defines and controls them?
It is neither sensible nor possible to examine any one of these concepts on their own. They are inter-connected. What follows examines these principles in the context of societies, economies and natural environments dominated by a relatively singular philosophy. With very few exceptions nations to varying degrees are affected by some version of capitalism - even China.
In the western world the past forty five years has been dominated by a faux form of capitalism known as neoliberalism. This was adopted by political leaders like Reagan in the USA, Thatcher in the UK and Fraser in Australia. It codified long-held selfish beliefs of some wealthy, power elites. A foremost influence was the novelist Ayn Rand, but neoliberalism was legitimized by academics associated with the Chicago school of economics such as Milton Friedman (1912–2006) and Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992). This ‘libertarian’ thinking redefined many of these concepts to suit those who controlled the means of capital production.
Friedrich Hayek - Neoliberalism
Milton Friedman - Your Greed or Their Greed?
Milton Friedman's Defense Of Greed Ruined A Whole Generation Of Economists ft. Richard Wolff
This approach to capitalist economies contrasted with that which followed the Great Depression of the 1930s. John Maynard Keynes was the dominant economist of this and the post World War II reconstruction period. Unlike Friedman and Hayek he believed that government intervention in times of crisis was essential to economic recovery. Just on the issue of the role of government the contrast is evident between Hayek who believed there was none and Keynes who thought it essential. Keynes was instrumental in the establishment of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
POLITICAL THEORY - John Maynard Keynes
A clear explanation of the different approaches to capitalism is given in this video. Richard Wolff On Reaganomics
While this essay will from time to time refer to neoliberalism because it has dominated the economic argument of those with the power for most of the past half century we must remember that most of these elements existed in classical economics of the past 250 years. It is ironic that when neoliberalism was being preached in the 1970s Adam Smith was the classical economist most referenced in its support. Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations which was considered “the bible” of capitalism. Like many religious folk the neoliberals cherry-picked the few ideas that suited them. Again like many religious folk they obviously had not carefully read their “bible”. They ignored or missed the bits where Smith is highly critical of capitalists. While he argued for an economic system based on individual self-interest he deplored the assumption that it was only the capitalist who should benefit from that. He warned that the “masters of mankind relentlessly pursue their vile maxim - all for ourselves and nothing for anyone else”. He further suggested that where there are two or three capitalists gathered there is a conspiracy to defraud. Those couple of pertinent examples will suffice for this essay.
Less than a century later in the USA in the 1860s the Republican Party condemned wage labour as a form of slavery. Instead of allowing labour to share in the enterprise decision-making and rewards they were considered expendable and controlled by Smith’s “masters of mankind”. The Republicans of that age railed against what they called the New Spirit of the Age - namely - “Gain Wealth - forgetting all but self”. What a different party to that of 2020.
At almost every turn neoliberalism is fraught with major contradictions. Most of these are evident in contrasting explanations for owners/managers vis a vis the workers. One simple example frequently seen in popular dialogue is the necessity to pay managers with large bonuses or incentives to encourage them to strive for more while denying any increased reward for the worker, whose increased efforts and ideas have led to better profits, because that will make them lazy. In May 2020 the Australian Prime Minister has declared that they must remove benefits instituted because of the pandemic or folk would become ‘addicted to social welfare’. This while huge numbers of these will be without employment for a long time and face the threat of eviction. It also ignores the huge sums of ‘corporate welfare’ being shovelled to business owners as grants and tax relief. Do they not become ‘addicted’ to franking credits and capital gains subsidy?
Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism- David Harvey
One of the key maxims of neoliberalism is the cry for small government. In most Western countries we are told we have that. In fact what has happened is that the reduction has been in government services for the average person while spending on services for the big business has increased dramatically. Two examples from Australia. In 1975 before the coup that led him to the role of Prime Minister Mr Fraser gave a parliamentary speech in which, following Ayn Rand, he deplored any government role in social welfare and declared that was best left to charities and churches. A few years later in a Howard government his Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, declared that the major, if not sole, role of government was to create the best conditions in which businesses could thrive.
The privatization or closing of social services in the name of small government meant that in countries like the USA they were ill prepared to cope with a virulent pandemic because it was not profitable to make and store Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for health workers. The money saved was given to the wealthy who became even better placed to protect themselves in a time of health crisis. Wealth gave them rural retreats in which to isolate and access to private hospitals if needed.
What has any of that got to do with the COVID-19 pandemic? Concepts such as Democracy, Equality, Power, and Justice have been interpreted contrastingly for different sectors of society. For example more power for management and the destruction of union influence. Remember Mr Howard’s ‘Work Choices’ in Australia? This led to poor wages and conditions as individual workers were forced to ‘negotiate’ with managers who could say “take the offer or lose your job”. In 2020 during the pandemic lockdown the Australian Government has introduced legislation to that individual worker to accept or reject an offer within 24 hours with little chance to seek advice. This issue alone highlights the interconnectedness of Power, Equality, Justice, and Democracy.
This imbalance of negotiating power has led to casualization with no sick leave. Now in Australia under quarantine conditions most such workers can access neither any government support nor health benefit while in quarantine. They rely solely on charity. One totally out-of-touch Minister of the Crown said it was their fault as they should have saved for this rainy day out of earnings. This for folk who can only dream of the concepts of saving and ‘discretionary spending’. This is a major contradiction of neoliberalism. Businesses that refuse to pay living wages and then complain that too few are buying their goods or services fail to understand a basic principle of capitalism - supply and demand. Denied the income earned by their excess labour the workers have no chance of discretionary spending. Thus the business loses because consumerism falters. During the latter half of 2019 major business organisations in Australia revealed that they understood this simple matter of wage justice and argued for greater recompense for workers. This was not necessarily altruistic - they argued that without it no-one could consume enough for industries to make a profit.
It has become very obvious that those who have most frequently been afflicted by the novel coronavirus are the lowly paid workers. This is largely because the nature of their work does not allow them to work from home. These include those in the food supply industries, slaughterhouse workers, and carers in aged-care homes. These workers have been deemed ‘essential’ and put at the greatest risk and often have lower resistance because they cannot afford the best health care, diet and accommodation.
Many of these very workers are those on the ‘front line’ our Governments keep praising. They often are carers or cleaners or kitchen hands in Aged Care facilities or hospitals. In many places they live in cramped conditions where ‘physical distancing’ is impossible. Conditions like this are the result of parsimonious governments taking from the poor and giving to the rich. In turn such governments are controlled by the rich and powerful.
Neoliberalism also meant that in most western nations that there were either no or impoverished state structures to provide the goods and services essential to cope with the dramatic onset of a pandemic. One example is enough to make this obvious. Private enterprise did not - would not - provide storage of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) which in turn led to life-threatening danger for nurses, doctors and aged-care workers and their clients. People became unnecessarily ill and many died. The neoliberal cost paring policy of 'Just in time' (JIT) supply of components for assembly lines, or in this case hospitals, is leaves the main process vulnerable to disruption like transport breakdowns or unexpected viruses. This is just one of several stark lessons that the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed about capitalism. View ** The Pandemic's Lesson About Capitalism **. In this video Professor Wolff suggests that capitalism is not efficient in dealing with many of the essentials social services that every community needs because by definition it puts profits before human welfare. He examines things like
- Public Health
- Mass Transit
- Public Space
and we could argue for others. He suggests that non-essential services like restaurants could be left for capitalism to provide.
There is one nation whose recent coronavirus response caught world attention. That is the story of what has happened in Singapore. Early in the cycle of this plague Singapore was identified and lauded for its quick response, testing, tracing and ‘flattening the curve’. However, as predicted by a few who knew Singapore better than the average tourist, there was a rapid rebound in the number of cases. As casual observers we often view Singapore through rosie lenses. You know - ‘no litter’ means ‘perfect society’. Indeed I too love the island nation’s charms - splendid architecture, well preserved history and delightful inhabitants. However as in most countries there is a heavy dependence on migrant workers. They come to earn money to repatriate. A few thrive, but most live in cramped conditions and are excluded from the good health system available to citizens. So a combination of poor health and diet together with the inability to ‘physically distance’ led to a dramatic upturn in cases and deaths. Notice that once again the problem was inequity together with unfortunate attitudes to ‘the other’ - incipient racism or ethnic profiling.
When Australian leaders were challenged on this same problem their answer was to tell their migrant workers to go home as they would get no government assistance even though they may have established lives in that country for years.
At times it seems that Australia is theocracy as their Prime Minister parades his church beliefs. This was very evident in his approach to marriage equality. Ironically the Old Testament book of laws in the Bible they trumpet as their right to deny rights to and encourage hatred of homosexuals has something to say about foreigners.
The instruction is clear: "You shall have the same rule for the foreigner and for the citizen, ..." Lev.24:22.
Inconveniently the Bible constantly challenges the powerful (Amos pulls no punches) and lays out a better way -
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8
And of course the Lord they profess to follow spent most of his ministry pressing for justice and equity beginning in his first sermon (Lk 4:17-21).
[Apologies for that digression and rant!]
Control of the flow of opinion forming information is a proud plank of neoliberalism. Government must seek to control the press by whatever means. That is not a problem for most of the private media which is owned by the same ultra-wealthy powerful class as reflected in most western nations. Even when a mildly liberal government is in power they try not to upset the powerful or they will be undermined by the popular media. Even in the UK and Australia which supposedly have independent public media in the BBC and the ABC they have been made to ‘toe the line’ by governments that hold the purse strings.
Remember that fun fact from 1987 that the ABC cost every Australian only eight cents per day. A recent survey of the ABC shows that now we only give it four cents each in 1987 dollar terms. It is no wonder ABC now dances to the government’s tune rather than its erstwhile balanced presentation. The BBC in the UK is even worse.
In the unlikely case a populace becomes unruly and demanding a neoliberal government needs a loyal army and police force to quell any rebellion. It was no accident that while Mrs Thatcher was closing corporations and putting hundreds of thousands out of work in her early months of leadership that she increased police and army salaries and conditions by about one third. This helped ensure loyalty when she set them against their fellow citizen miners. The remnants of these unemployed, impoverished workers are among those hardest hit by Britain’s disastrous pandemic experience.
When Britain’s new Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher was challenged over the many hundreds of thousands who had been forced into unemployment by her neoliberal policies she proudly proclaimed in the House of Commons that a similar huge number more must be put out of work before they could change the economy. Unemployment is a major plank of neoliberal theory as it ensures control of the worker who is told that if they do not accept the new, usually worse, conditions they will be sacked and others from the starving unemployment pool will be engaged.
Just as the reader is encouraged to examine the ways in which the concepts of Equity, Justice, Power and Democracy are entwined so should that reader recognize the beautiful, complex system that is our world. While we often study Society, Economy and the Natural Environment separately to do so allows us to draw erroneous, incomplete conclusions. Everything that happens to one of these subsystems affects the others. Mrs Thatcher in thrall of neoliberalism even declared that ‘there is no such thing as society’. Thus the concept of societal good had no meaning. Every person had to fend for themselves. In the UK we see the end result of this in the deliberate impoverishment of the National Health Service (NHS) and ill-preparedness for a pandemic.
Almost always in the popular dialogue about the coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath only issues to do with the economy and society that are canvassed - and predominant is the economy because this is the main concern of those in power. They do not have to worry about their next meal or the rent.
When we ignore or damage the natural environment it has a way of letting us know. One issue uppermost in Australian awareness prior to the pandemic was the destruction of huge parts of the nation by bushfires.
More to the point of this essay sometimes the linkages are plainly direct as in SARS and HIV epidemics. In many other cases the major loss of habitat brings humanity closer to the natural hosts of diseases that can easily jump between species.
Luckily many are now seeing that the problems Australia faces as a nation are not monolithic.
Unfortunately this has had no effect on the Australian Government who has appointed a COVID-19 response group to be chaired by a fossil fuel baron.
The very recent release of a new documentary by Michael Moore has attracted much discussion. There is much in this documentary that needs questioning and much left out that should be examined. However it does jolt the viewer to the vital fact that this planet is not just an economy or society or natural environment, but is an interconnected system. One clear ‘take-away’ message is that consumption cannot continue to grow on a finite planet.
Planet of the Humans [Viewer needs to set aside an hour and a half for this if they want to watch the whole.]
The following video provides a very well argued, scientific case that showing that economic greed and social irresponsibility are disastrous for the environment -
Greater detail can be found in her book - Oneness vs. the 1% - Vandana Shiva.
The study of the very uneven distribution of the worst effects of the novel coronavirus is seen in stark geographical and societal patterns.
We have seen by the examination of the power and control in society generally and the workplace in particular that many of the problems like poverty, ill-health, and insecure access to shelter have resulted in the powerless carrying the greatest burden of this pandemic. The difference between the most and the least vulnerable could have been much less with more democratic decision-making.
This section of the essay has deliberately avoided treating Justice, Equity, Power and Democracy as unrelated concepts. Before we move on to some brief comments about a potentially better future in the final part of the essay let us rehearse these concepts.
The fundamental elements of the concept justice as the world understands it are those of access and balance. The beloved image of a blindfolded being weighing evidence is common throughout the world. This image suggests that justice treats all equally and sees no difference in rank or wealth. Is the real world like that? Adam Smith saw that the proper, healthy functioning of capitalism depends justice for all.
Equity is a much debated concept. What should it mean? Vandana Shiva’s book mentioned above speaks of the 1% who have the lion's share of the world’s wealth and power. A recent example shows this in sharp relief. Jeff Bezos added more than $30 billion dollars to his personal wealth during the current pandemic while his workers in an Amazon building in New York went on strike to ask for their workplace to be cleaned and sanitized. That is not to mention they do not get toilet breaks or have any health/medical benefits.
This is what can happen if one person or board or management group controls the decision-making in an enterprise.
It has been obvious as we scanned justice and equity that they are dependent on who wields the power. Who gets a say? Who controls not only the workplace but also the decisions and activities that affect the economy, society, and the natural environment? To what degree is the control shared? This is why in nations and enterprises around the world consideration is being given to cooperatives. The context of the current pandemic has largely been in systems and subsystems dominated by groups who believe they naturally deserve the right to rule. That may be a class system where old Etonians dominate Britain’s cabinet, China where Party loyalty provides entry to power, or Australia and the USA where large donations to the major political parties provide massive access and influence. In a world where the populace is largely politically disinterested or ill-educated those with the power do what they want. The few who resist are denigrated and increasingly sidelined by laws or public pressure. Note the rise of “shock jocks”, “celebrity TV presenters” and “trolls” providing this function for the “masters of mankind”.
There has been very little reference to democracy in this essay so far. That does not mean it does not have a crucial role in providing a better world. Democracy by definition has to do with power and control. Instead of the power being vested in an individual or a small privileged group the concept of democracy suggests that every citizen or every person in the group affected by decisions has an equal say in making those decisions.
Democracy can be seen as threatening the control of powerful elites and is resisted, thwarted or corrupted.
Noam Chomsky: Democracy Is a Threat to Any Power System
Democracy can help to even out the massive imbalances in the power structures which in turn can lead to fairer outcomes for all. In some nations in the world there is very little democracy even at the macro level. Similarly the degree of democracy in enterprises is usually in inverse proportion to the size of the enterprise. Note the Amazon workers who do not get appropriate toilet breaks. Most workers in a small office can take a short comfort break. It seems ironic to the outside observer that the USA is the nation which is so proud of its ‘democracy’ that it invades countries to impose it on them. I say ironic because the Governors of States in the USA can and often do draw very strange electoral boundaries to effectively disenfranchise voters they believe would not support their policies. They also close voting booths, and demand almost impossible conditions to exclude certain groups from registering to vote. Even Australia has been able to eliminate most such gerry-mandering. Unthinkable to the aforementioned US Governors - Australian Federal electorate boundaries are drawn by apolitical authorities established solely for the purpose of trying to maintain the equal value of every vote across the nation. Theoretically candidates are then judged by the populace solely on merit. Of course the process is not so pure as it gets corrupted by the undue influence of powerful, wealthy players and the dominant media which are also owned by that small class.
Almost every eligible person in Australia votes (about 90% in 2019 and that was a low turnout) even if they choose not to endorse any of the candidates. Voting was made compulsory in Australia after only 55% voted in 1922. That is anathema to many of the powerful in Australia, because they believe many of those who vote against them would not vote because of the natural obstacles of work. However Australia does vote on Saturdays to increase access to the polling booths by workers. There are so many tiny things involved in the grand concept of Democracy that it can vary greatly from place to place. Often its form in any place reflects what is most beneficial for the dominant power in that place.
Democracy exists in many forms throughout the world and history. In a nation or a workplace we need to decide what form it should take. Which offers the most just system for all the participants.
This pandemic has exposed some glaring issues in complex system of the society, economy, and natural environment that need attention. These revelations about the inequity, injustice, lack of power and control, and limited democracy require action. We must now address how we should respond as nations, groups and individuals.