I wrote a short paper “Whither Labour? – A Framework for the Future” over Christmas 2019 in response to the crushing Labour election defeat in December. In it I talked about the possibility of a paradigm shift which would threaten the dominant Neo-Liberal mind set by the time of the next election in 2024.
Little could I have imagined that within three months I would be writing a sequel about the devastating events that have occurred and that whatever the eventual outcome of the Coronavirus pandemic, a new paradigm will occur.
In the paper I identify the four main functions of Neo-Liberalism as individualism; deregulation; free market forces and a reduction in the size of the state primarily through privatisation of state assets. I also consider the triviality that western society has become.
I then go on to compare the values of this modern capitalistic model against the essentials of any society, starting with those that keep you healthy; teachers to pass on knowledge; builders to provide shelter; security for safety; an ability to settle disputes etc. Such essential services have tended to be provided by the public, rather than the private sector. And yet those very same people are derided by the private sector as being unable to make profit and thrive by improperly spending public money raised from taxes. Added to this, they are in consequence either poorly paid or taken over by the private sector in order to continue such low wages and turn a profit through such appalling employment practices as zero hour and short-term contracts etc.
A well-known mantra of judging a Society is “how they treat their old and disabled.” This Neo-Liberal Society has even got to the stage of making carers of the old in the Community travel in their own time and expense all for £9 per hour (less than the living wage) to do a job of nourishing those they look after with total dedication.
In the private sector so many people have had the so-called advantages of self-employment dangled before their noses. We are just beginning to see such advantages come to light. Apart from the fact that the average self-proprietor is earning less than £10000 a year, the triviality of what many are doing to earn a living is now beginning to come to light. These are seen on news reports every night. In illuminating such triviality, I am in no way criticising those people in what they are doing to earn a crust. I am returning to my main theme about the current system encouraging such people to be their own boss, pretending that their efforts are not only meaningful but also of a higher ranking than service to the public. One look at Ken Loach’s film Sorry we missed you! is all you need to appreciate the appalling conditions of this model of employment
It is all very well to be clapping those essential workers to the Society at 8pm on a Thursday evening but is it humane to allow such people to do their jobs of saving lives without providing them with the tools to protect themselves from this deadly virus, or even test whether they have it? An appreciation of their work, and this includes people stacking shelves in supermarkets at night, may be a little more appreciated when the pandemic is over by giving such people a rise to accompany the appreciation. Will money be transferred from the defence budget to fund the NHS properly? The NHS has been starved of funds for the past ten years and the poor have endured such austerity, especially through Universal Credit and waiting for five weeks to be paid. At the same time tax breaks for the middle classes have been increased in the form of relief for 40% tax payers towards their pension funds and Individual Savings Accounts, as they decide what to do each April with their £20000 tax free allowance.
How can a Society be so blind?
It is blind because to the Social Engineering of working people which has taken place since the Thatcherite governments from 1979. It is a horrible thing to say that it has required such a crisis to wake up the Society to the dreadful injustices which Neo-Liberalism has imposed.
What will come after? – The New Normal
Returning to my earlier paper, we have known for a considerable time that the world post 2024 will be a different place. It is just that changes will be brought forward. The crisis has already unlocked many alternatives of working. Having eventually realised the benefits of home working, I cannot see many desperately waiting to get back to the 0715 to London five days a week. Apart from efficiency and convenience, the climate will also benefit as well as using less energy. This will also have an effect on the distribution of house prices. Increased use of the ability to work at home will allow the physical presence of workers to be less London- centric. The far reaches of Scotland and Wales will see people flock to cheaper housing and a better quality of life.
The increased use of Artificial Intelligence AI, has already started to reduce manual jobs which will only increase as the future unfolds. Any times of hardship, like World Wars, release opportunities for innovation. This has already been demonstrated by the transfer of production to masks and respirators etc. to say nothing of the search for a vaccine.
A sad reality of Pandemics of the past is that they have thinned populations. Covid19 and the way the government has fiscally tackled the current crisis will result in two things. First, an enormous sum will have to be repaid. Rather like the repayments to the United States on loans to pay for the Second World War which only finished in 2008, sadly they will be passed onto our children and even grandchildren. Secondly, and much closer to the present, will be a significant degree of unemployment. In the short term as order books will need to be rebuilt but more importantly in the medium term as employers will use the opportunity to reassess the necessity for so much labour to date.
Two hundred years ago people worked at home under the Domestic System. On the one hand, life was harsh in terms of subsistence. On the other, people could work when they wished. The Industrial Revolution made it easier to put bread on the table but in turn required tightly disciplined hours of work along with working away from home. Very often called The Protestant Work Ethic people became not only used to the system physically but also psychologically in requiring them to see work as being a form of self-worth. The Yosser Hughes “give us a job” character epitomised the desperate times during the years of the first and second Thatcher governments with three million people unemployed.
Unemployment will need to be dealt with in a totally different manner and not at the rate of £94 a week. In fairness to Matt Hancock he had the honesty to admit that he could not live on that amount, unlike Ian Duncan Smith, the author of Universal Credit, who claimed that he could whilst living on his Estate in Buckinghamshire. One of the results of the individualism of the past forty years has been an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor, brilliantly described by Nick Hanauer in The Pitchforks are Coming. In it he demonstrates how the minimum wage could be doubled for the benefit of all. If the rich do not acknowledge that they need to consider the Community as a whole, the Community will take their wealth from them. Evidence 1776; 1793 and 1917 to quote just three such examples. No one would dream of wanting to get to that situation but it is at times of hardship that unrest ferments. The very essence of Capitalism is ultimately about exploitation of A by B to make a profit. In future the concept of cooperation and more equal division of the wealth will hopefully be seen. Serious consideration now needs to be given to the concept of a Universal Wage which everyone in the Society is entitled to.
The Thatcherite no such thing as Society, only individuals, mantra has been firmly knocked on the head, for the moment at least. There was obviously not enough regulation in Wuhan and if ever there was evidence of the death of Neo-Liberalism, a Conservative government considering the re-nationalisation of areas like British Airways and British Rail are the mere tip of the iceberg of what is to come.
The above are some immediate thoughts on the future and should be read in conjunction with my earlier paper. We are however in a new paradigm and the appalling Neo-Liberalism will need to change or perish. Perhaps we might see the dawn of Communitarianism after all.
Roger Lovell is author of Managing Change in the New Public Sector and Managing in the New Millennium