In our latest article in the series ‘Human Rights in the Age of COVID-19’, Charles Slidders discusses some of the challenges facing economic and environmental progressive policy making against the backdrop of the coronavirus, huge transfers of wealth in the era of neoliberalism and the subsequent economic turmoil facing millions of people around the world.
Naomi Klein’s critically acclaimed and best-selling book of 2007, Shock Doctrine, has been the subject of much recent commentary as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Shock Doctrine is a critique of Milton Friedman’s neoliberal policies and their implementation; primarily in Chile after the Pinochet Coup, Russia and Poland at the end of the Cold War, South Korea after the Asian economic meltdown in 1997, and by Paul Bremer in Iraq following the misguided U.S invasion of 2003 (predicated on the false proposition that Saddam Hussein’s government was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction). In each case, neoliberal economic policies were rapidly implemented to ‘shock’ the economy into replicating the free market model envisaged by neoliberals. The neoliberal policies implemented included economic deregulation, the removal or reduction of labour and welfare protection, and the privatisation of government owned enterprises. These policies resulted in the ‘shock’ of unemployment, poverty and hardship for the poorest parts of society. But multinational corporations and societies’ elite benefited from reduced labour costs and decreased taxation.
The Shock Doctrine highlighted the tragic human cost of implementing these policies, but Klein acknowledged that Milton Friedman was right about one thing, in Friedman’s words:
Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.
Or as another Friedmanite, Allan Meltzer puts it: ‘Ideas are alternatives waiting on a crisis to serve as a catalyst of change.’
The Covid-19 pandemic is a crisis of worldwide human significance and it has the potential ‘to serve as a catalyst of change.’ A question for progressives is do they have the ideas ‘lying around’ that can provide a left alternative to the neoliberal policies that have dominated governance since the 1970s?
One such idea could be the Green New Deal, a policy platform centred on “a commitment to transition to 100% clean, renewable energy by 2030.” Like the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the Green New Deal aims to combat climate change and global inequality. The proposal envisages government investment in clean energy to reduce climate warming and also create high-paying jobs in clean energy industries. Naomi Klein together with New York Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have been the principle figures promoting the Green New Deal. Variations of the Green New Deal had previously been promoted by the European Greens in 2006 in response to the global financial crisis and subsequently by the Green Party in the United States.
Klein’s latest book On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal (2019) passionately argues for a green ‘new deal’ to urgently address climate change. Likewise, Representative Ocasio-Cortez has promoted the Green New Deal and, together with Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, introduced a non-binding resolution to the US Congress in February 2019. Meritoriously, the Resolution, as well as calling for urgent action to address climate change, aspires to “providing all people of the United States with (i) high-quality health care; (ii) affordable, safe, and adequate housing; (iii) economic security; and (iv) clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and access to nature.” As Klein has written, “a green-left worldview, which rejects mere reformism and challenges the centrality of profit in our economy, offers humanity’s best hope of overcoming these overlapping crises.” While the Green New Deal is a great start and should be promoted by progressives, it should be enhanced by including additional progressive economic and social policies to provide social and economic justice for all.
A progressive – or ‘social’ – market economy can only provide social justice for all if everyone has the same opportunity, irrespective of gender, race, religion, health and socio-economic background. Opportunity in a social market is largely predicated on education and the access to capital, as well as maintenance of physical and mental well-being. Accordingly, governments should aim to equalize the provision of education, access to capital and health care and ensure a basic standard of living.
The nationalisation of private educational institutions and the provision of free quality (that is well-funded) education at all levels will go a long way towards eradicating economic and social disadvantages accorded to those with limited educational opportunities. People will only be able to participate in any market economy if they are healthy. Consequently, access to health care, and equal health care, must be a priority. The left should continue to promote a nationalised health service. But nationalisation alone is not enough, as has been demonstrated by the current crisis in states like the UK with its NHS, adequate funding – to the point of profligacy – is necessary.
At the same time, many people are simply unable to participate in the workforce, because for example, of disability. Irrespective of participation in the workforce, everyone is entitled to a reasonable – more than simply adequate — standard of living. It is a human right. Everyone should be entitled to a universal basic income that will meet their basic needs. A guaranteed income will reduce both poverty and inequality. Perhaps surprisingly, billionaires Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Richard Branson support variations of a universal basic income. Indeed, support for a UBI has been rapidly increasing on both sides of politics: almost 50 per cent of Americans – and 30 per cent of Republicans – now support a UBI. A UBI could potentially replace all social security payments, whether it be for old-age, disability or unemployment. It will also effectively replicate a minimum wage. Many progressives have been touting a right to work – equally as important is a right not to work. A UBI will provide a right not to work and decommodify labour- a long-standing goal of the International Labour Organisation. Here, in Spain, the governing coalition of the Socialist party and Podemos has introduced regular payments to its poorest citizens.
The right , no doubt, will scream – “who is going to pay for all this?” Yes, higher taxes will be necessary – and should be imposed on the wealthiest and corporations. To further address social injustice and economic inequality, new taxes should be imposed on inheritance and gifts. The access to capital is more often than not a prerequisite to success in a capitalist economy – look at Donald Trump who was lavished with a fortune by his father. Indeed, it is the transfer of wealth and power between generations that has resulted in today’s hegemony. A 100 percent death and gift tax will ensure that the children of financially successfully capitalists do not have an inherent advantage in starting their own business but must instead rely on generally available sources of capital. Many of the petit bourgeoise desire to reinforce their social position by continuing family businesses. A 100 per cent death tax does not preclude families passing business transferring businesses between generations: If anyone wants to inherit a family business for sentimental reasons – a ‘mum and pop’s corner store’ – they can purchase it, perhaps at a discount, but they too should only rely on generally accessible sources of capital.
Importantly, such perhaps ‘extreme’ policies will both equalize opportunity and discourage the accumulation of massive amounts of wealth. The desire to accumulate wealth for the benefit of children and grandchildren may be a natural consequence of capitalism, but it is the accumulation of wealth through consumer capitalism that has led to the depletion of the world’s natural resources. Consumer capitalism itself encourages the accumulation of consumer products that one does not need and, indeed, only wants because of the manipulation of desires by insidious consumer marketing. One thing that the lockdowns from Covid-19 demonstrates is that those who can afford to, can get by with much less when they only buy what they need.
It seems that Naomi Klein and other progressives suggest that, like Milton Friedman, the left only need to keep these ideas alive until they become politically inevitable, which will somehow be automatically precipitated by the end of the Covid-19 crisis. However, what Klein and others perhaps gloss over is that the neoliberal economic policies adopted in the 1970s and 1980s were propagated to the immediate benefit of the economic elite: deregulation reduced wage costs for multinational corporations and smaller government decreased their owner’s taxation liabilities. If progressive ideas are simply left lying around, the elites will use their economic and political power to both entrench and enhance their economic dominance after the emergence from the crisis. Indeed, the US’s first stimulus bill included $500 billion to bail out corporations apparently suffering as a result of the pandemic. The left must both promote progressive policies and take action against the dominant paradigm and the beneficiaries of free market capitalism. Mass action is crucial.
The first step, in the form of a rent and mortgage payment strikes, is already happening. Tenants in California have called for collective action to withhold rent payments and groups of students at two British universities are planning to do the same. In Australia, more than 17,000 people have “pledge[d] en-masse, [to] collectively withhold all rental and mortgage payments while the Covid-19 pandemic requires vulnerable people to isolate without security of income and housing.” The strike is being promoted by the Melbourne chapter of the International Workers of the World ( the ‘Wobblies.’) A mortgage amnesty has been implemented in Italy. Progressives must adopt collective action like this to promote left policies, like the Green New Deal, the public ownership of health and education, and economic justice. Only then will progressive policies and democratic socialism cease to be ‘politically impossible’ and instead become ‘political inevitable.’
Finally, and on a positive note, the crisis unleashed by the pandemic has seen a resurgence in community values, particularly in Western Europe (more so than the individualistic US). The NHS called for volunteers and was inundated. I am an Australian living in a village in Barcelona. My local community has provided more volunteers than can be utilised. Every night at precisely 8:00pm, I stand on my balcony and clap, together with my neighbours, the efforts of healthcare workers. The pandemic has demonstrated that communities are alive and functioning and are vital to the well-being of all. Even blueblood conservatives like Boris Johnson, himself a victim of covid-19, have repudiated Margaret Thatcher’s once applauded statement that ‘there is no society and only individuals’. At the same time, nation states have demonstrated their own inability to deal with the crisis with any foresight whatsoever. Now is a time for a reassessment of governance to both promote decentralisation of functions to the community level, and to enhance the functions of multilateral organisations.
Charles Slidders studied law at University of Melbourne Law School and is a member of the E.MAAlumni Association, a graduate of the LLM in International Human Rights Law in 2003. He has worked as a litigator in New York City and on indigenous land rights in Australia. Charles is currently based in Barcelona where he is completing a PhD at the Universtat Pompeu Fabra.