Can the invisible hand help us wipe our bottoms?

As we entered 2020, I doubt if any of us imagined the UK caught in a pandemic that is threatening the health of the nation and devastating the global economy. Throw in the recent floods and growing concerns about climate change and it does feel like we are at a tipping point.As we plan to work from home, hunt down hand sanitiser and toilet rolls it might be a good opportunity to step back and ask “what sort of world do we want to live in and what sort of lives do we wish to live”?

We know from the Brexit vote and rise of populism that many people feel they lack control over their lives and do not trust politicians and global institutions. We also know that for lots of people having constant access to cheap goods, food and travel is a real plus. So paradoxically, whilst many people have a distrust of globalisation and the feelings of powerlessness it raises, they do like the “goodies” it gives them.

For the last forty years we have been told that markets are king, there is “no such thing as society, only the individuals within it”. If you roll back the state and allow people the freedom to choose, the invisible hand of the market will sort things out. Who wants to return to the days of “collective bargaining”, strikes, three-day weeks and poor service?

So, economies have become global, goods are shipped around the world, labour is sourced “cheaply” and here in the UK we can buy a T shirt that has moved around seven countries before being sold to us for £4.99.
The 2008 crash suggested that “greedy people” were out of control and could not be trusted to work in an “unregulated” manner. More people started to get angry when they heard about rich multinational companies using loopholes and international operations to avoid paying tax. The growth of the gig economy and zero hours contracts led to insecurity and many people in “unskilled” jobs being in fragile and precarious positions where they never knew if they had work next week. Pandemics, terrorism and the growing awareness that social media is monitoring us all started to unsettle and worry people. A wide range of issue based rights groups made many think about issues of equality and how women, BAME, LGTBQ+ people were being discriminated against. Extinction rebellion and a determined schoolgirl led a growing awareness of climate change and the existential threat to our planet and humankind.

Many started to ask how “good” is life if your children cannot breathe fresh air, are suffering from angst and depression and they do not feel safe walking about the streets? How can you feel secure when at any time your job could be shipped off to another country and there is no real safety net should you lose your job? Why should social media sites be allowed to monitor your habits and sell data on you to people who want to influence and shape how you consume and vote? How can you feel safe if events thousands of miles away can wipe out your savings or lead to people blowing up concert goers in your home city?

This growing disenchantment did not, as political commentators might imagine, lead to the rise of socialist and green parties. Strong man “populism” based on a virulent hatred of the establishment and an angry dislike of the “other” cleaned up at elections across the globe. Paradoxically, many of these populist movements and parties used the same small teams of global advisers. The internet, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal proved, became a place where rich and powerful people sought to influence elections across the globe from behind a veil of secrecy.
This all seems a very long way from the benign vision of a caring society that was being offered in the mid 80’s. A nostalgic vision where people could, prosper from their efforts unhindered by the state, enjoy bringing up their children and live peaceful lives of endless opportunities based on the values of an honest hard working corner shop.

Jump forward to March 2020 and the proverbial has really hit the fan. Events in China have wiped out world markets, put millions of lives at risk and seen much of the world locked down. Suddenly, the free market is nowhere to be seen as governments step in to bail out business and workers and to organise and coordinate relief efforts. The invisible hand appears to have taken a holiday and the question for all of us is when we get through this pandemic, do we welcome it back or start to build a new way of living and cooperating. I do not have the answers but questions we might want to consider include:

Global threats require joined up global action, are our global institutions fit for purpose and if not, how do we rebuild or replace them, so they are accountable and fit for purpose?

Are we prepared to have less? After months of lockdown and shortages perhaps now is the time to discuss a future based on less travel and consumption, is this where a green new deal starts?

The limitations of a pure market-based approach has been shown to be sadly wanting, what do we replace it with? Can we replicate some of the safety nets governments have put in place such as wage protection (universal income) for non-pandemic times?

Can we now see the value of having well-funded public services that keep us educated, healthy and safe?
Can we now value and pay a living wage to people doing the everyday jobs that make our societies tick be it care work, serving in shops, cleaning buildings or getting our goods to homes and shops?

There is much more to life than profit and money, of course we need a well-run and efficient business sector to create wealth, but do we now need to develop measures beyond GDP to capture and measure how well we are doing? This might include wellbeing, environment and safety.

There is such a thing as society. Inclusive communities where you feel safe and looked after, happy in the knowledge people have your back are a key component of a wealthy society. Can we proactively build on the goodwill that many have shown and start to rebuild communities, can we talk of “us” not “I” and seek to build bridges between people?
Can we now realise that gross inequalities destroy societies and creates many more issues beyond huge income and savings disparities? We need to think seriously and act quickly so that we create a far more level playing field and have safety nets to protect people who fall on hard times?

I am very aware that nothing I have written above is new or original. What I feel has changed is that the pandemic on top of the crash of 2008 and the growing climate crisis has created a tipping point. The market driven individual ideologies of the last 40 years have been shown to be sadly wanting, they cannot even let us wipe our bottoms. I am not advocating a return to 70’s socialism but a more inclusive and radical attempt to capture the spirt of the moment and to build a green new deal. One where business, community and government work together for the good of all.

The Labour and Tory parties have increasingly been going down this road. So, post pandemic I would urge them to create a “spirit of 45” moment where having won the war against corona we now win the peace and create a UK fit for heroes once more.


Kieran Breen

Kieran is the CEO of Leicestershire Cares and lectures on globalisation and young people at De Montfort University but is writing here in a personal capacity.

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