What’s the Economy For?
In Kubler Ross’s famous Five Stages of Grief, denial is often the first. It helps us to survive the loss. In this stage, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial. Many of us are in this state right now, still processing what is happening around us. That is understandable but we need to work our way through the other stages because if we don’t then vital decisions will be made by people and interest groups still stuck in denial.
Much of the talk now is of “getting the economy back up and running”. We are bored and anxious and seemingly incapable of re-thinking what the economy might be for – or how it might work other than just “re-starting it”. Those industries and classes who were benefiting greatly from the economy as it was are at the front of this queue, those who who were suffering under it are considerably less enthusiastic.
The tabloid media, delighted for being able to return to the Madeleine McCann story rather than being forced to cover the uncomfortable truth about police brutality and state murder in the USA, have acted as cheerleaders for “lifting the lockdown” often with gusto about pubs and garden centres and barbeques and the like. This despite the fact that at least eleven countries have reimposed restrictions amid fears of coronavirus second wave including Japan, China, South Korea and Germany.
Last week as NASA and Elon Musk’s Rocket X reached orbit, with ten million people gawping-on, Westminster bid MPS to shuffle round in a gigantic line then enter the chamber to vote on their own return, a routine dubbed the “coronavirus conga”. In a profoundly anti-democratic move it excluded whole sections of elected MPs and seemed to bypass the simplest of technologies as if they were some kind of voodoo. Whilst the rest of society had been becoming accustomed to tele-working and online meeting, this seemed impossible for our parliament. Alok Sharma became visibly unwell shortly after, as if channeling the reckless stupidity of the whole affair by transfusion. The metaphor of Westminster as a source of disease collapsed in on itself.
Now we’re told that the quarantine of incoming passengers will “start soon” and the much fabled NHS test-and-trace system will ‘not be fully operational until September’.
The message remains: “get back to work”.
It’s been pointed out that lockdown in England ended (schools opening, back to work) at the same epidemic levels that most European countries went into lockdown.
Now we’re told by BBC Newsnight that the UK now has more daily deaths from Covid than the rest of the entire EU put together.
The message remains: “get back to work”.
But what is it we’re meant to be mourning?
Well by May 22 the UK had 62,000 more deaths than usual, the highest rate of excess deaths in the world. So we could start there, we could start processing that mountain of grief.
Lord Alistair Darling, George Osborne and Philip Hammond warned this week that we should prepare for 1980s levels of unemployment as the coronavirus crisis sinks Britain into the deepest economic crisis in living memory.
Darling told the Commons Treasury committee: “We need to get ourselves into the frame of mind where we’re thinking about 1980s levels of unemployment.”
Osborne also suggested the current economic collapse could trigger mass unemployment. “There will be loads of people in businesses that have gone bust that aren’t going to return, and people who are coming off furloughs into unemployment. That is going to be a big social challenge, and of course economic challenge, for this government,” he said.
So that’s a lot of peoples jobs and businesses to mourn.
Or we could mourn the loss of species.
This week analysis, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined data on 29,400 land vertebrate species compiled by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and BirdLife International. More than 500 species of land animals were found to be on the brink of extinction and likely to be lost within 20 years.
In more upbeat news the sixth mass extinction of wildlife on Earth is accelerating, according to an analysis by scientists who warn it may be a tipping point for the collapse of civilisation.
Mark Wright, the director of science at WWF, said: “The numbers in this research are shocking. However, there is still hope. If we stop the land-grabbing and devastating deforestation in countries such as Brazil, we can start to bend the curve in biodiversity loss and climate change. But we need global ambition to do that.”
So we could begin to mourn the Sumatran rhino, the Clarión wren, the Española giant tortoise or the harlequin frog.
Or we could begin to mourn the United States of America as it descends into fascism in a blizzard of social media evidence of police brutality and state crime. Beating women, firing on the the press, randomly assaulting peaceful protestors, attacking old men. What’s different is that it’s a sanctioned deliberate strategy in plain view. It’s aim is intimidation. If before they wanted to cover this up, now they want you to see it.
But really what we’re mourning is an economy and a way of life that we assumed was eternal, despite all the overwhelming evidence that it was gravely ill and deeply dysfunctional.
So I say to the people still in denial: this economy is over; we are dependent on global biodiversity; and if the virus should have taught us anything it is that we are part of nature, not separate from it. I could say that the American police force is unreformable, the political institutions of Britain are irredeemable and that the Brexit project is un-salvageable.
The idea that an appropriate response to all this is just to “get back to work” is numbingly stupid. But that’s probably where we are right now, numb with grief, unable to process what’s happening and groping around for anything that’s familiar: the pub, McDonald’s, school, sex, our jobs, our old routines.
Having created an economy that was destroying the world and exploited and alienated us en masse, we now, even with glimpses of what something other than that might look like, are determined to drive back to it.
Faced with overwhelming doses of reality our response is to shrink away from it.
This is 100% Mark Fisher’s “capitalist realism,” in which he describes “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”.
The second stage in Kubler Ross’s famous five stages of grief is anger.