As the current pandemic crisis continues to unfold across the globe, more and more important people are heard making pronouncements that our world and our lives will not be the same after this is over. Whether it’s Dr Anthony Fauci (“If you want to get to pre-coronavirus, that might not ever happen in the fact that the threat is there.”) or Scott Morrison (“Our country will look different on the other side.”), we are being slowly accustomed to the idea that COVID-19 will permanently reshape our reality. Some optimistic souls out there hope the change will be psychological and for the better: we will get closer to one another and more caring, our values will become less materialistic and our lives simpler. Maybe it’s my upbringing, but when I, on the other hand, hear leaders talking about epochal changes, my first instinct is to wonder how much bigger and more intrusive the state will become and how much smaller and less free the people and the institutions. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear I’m not.
Some of the changes we are likely to see are continuations of previous trends that have been arguably accelerated by the special conditions of our shutdowns, for example the switch from brick and mortar retail and services to home delivery. Another related one, albeit motivated more by economy than convenience, will be the progress towards telecommuting and working from home. It has been said many a time in the past few weeks that most businesses, in particular in professional services, are discovering that all their employees can do the same work in pajamas from their living rooms they currently do occupying three floors of CBD high rises. You would not want to be in commercial property in the post-Corona future, so the conclusion goes. I think that’s to an extent true, but there will be a pushback from workers themselves. While many indeed would prefer to work remotely, we have for most part outgrown our historically recent past where virtually everyone used to live and work within the same four walls. Most of us don’t necessarily want to spend our entire lives at home; most of us we are social creatures who long for interaction with others who aren’t immediate family members. How the owners and managers will reconcile their quest for savings with our quest for variety and community remains to be seen.
Arguably one positive consequence of the whole current mess looks likely to be some sort of a reckoning with China’s power and influence around the world. I doubt very much whether all the chatter at the moment coming from many quarters about “making China pay” for the loss and damage caused internationally by COVID-19 will result in any action; it is just too messy politically, legally and economically. But it is good that the world has been awoken to the fact that China’s communist rulers are not our friends and allies and don’t have anyone’s interests at heart but their own narrow ones of perpetuating their near-absolute domestic power and national aggrandisement abroad. You can deal with the Party but you can’t trust it, believe what it says and rely on its bona fides. Chinese people and businesses, to the extent they don’t positively share in their rulers’ vision, are hostages and subjects to the whims and wishes of their government. This too is an important distinction to keep in mind between the people and the Party. As I argued at the link above, at the very least the developed world should ensure that it is not dependent on China in sectors crucial to its safety and security, including medical and telecommunications. I suspect though that the decoupling will go further in many cases. The Japanese government will now be paying businesses to relocate their factories out of China (American firms are starting to do so without official incentives, concerned as they are about the precariousness of the China-centric current supply chains); in countries like Australia there is a growing pressure to clamp down on Chinese investment, particularly any perception that China is taking advantage of Corona-caused fire sales and thus benefiting from the damage caused in part by the initial official cover-up that allowed the virus to spread and infect the world beyond Wuhan.
Many on the populist and nationalist right are also celebrating the crisis as the “death of globalism”. Globalisation has by and large been a boon, with freer markets and freer trade lifting billions of people out of poverty and creating a commercial abundance of almost infinite variety and affordability. It has not been costless, including in the hollowing out of the manufacturing sector throughout the developed world, but I suspect even most of the critics of the free movement of goods, services and capital don’t remember what the world was really like before the current era. At the risk of gross oversimplification, it was much poorer and more boring. I hope that COVID doesn’t herald the return to autarchy and countries closing themselves off to the rest of the world. But if I still believe in globalisation as an international system, I would not mourn the decline of “globalism” as an elite political religion with its anti-democratic, technocratic and relativist tendencies and a drive towards global homogenisation, where natural richness and variety are replaced by universal sameness wherever you go.
But if the world is to be profoundly different after Coronavirus dies down, it is most likely because most of the massive fiscal, regulatory and security growth in reaction to the pandemic is unlikely to be rolled back: we are facing a prospect of a much larger state, eye-watering levels of government debt with all the consequences that entails, and increased control of and interference in our lives and our businesses. The extraordinary nature of circumstance we find ourselves under both provides the perfect opportunity for statists and technocrats of both the left and the right to implement their vision and conditions the population into accepting the state as their lord and saviour at the expense of autonomy and freedom. I have discussed both phenomenon in more detail at the links above, so let me only add that every passing day accumulates more evidence for both propositions. Take the former – after I wrote that post, California governor Gavin Newsom (who has recently referred to Cali as a “nation-state”) deemed the Coronavirus crisis an entre to a new “progressive era” (“We see this as an opportunity reshape the way we do business and how we govern.”), while the likely Democrat presidential nominee Joe Biden (even if the Dems currently seem keener to support COVID-19 against Donald Trump) echoed these sentiments on a national scale (“We have an opportunity… to do so many things now to change some of the structural things that are wrong, some of the structural things we couldn’t get anybody’s attention on. In a sense, no pun intended, the bandaid’s been ripped off here.”). The longer the crisis drags on the more economic and social devastation and consequently the greater the state intervention as everyone’s last and only resort. The left simply does not have an incentive to work to wrap up the response anytime soon; “saving lives” nicely dovetails with saving socialism. Why large sections of the right are behaving in similar ways is a mystery; a shell-shock perhaps. No wonder Labor’s Anthony Albanese sounded so magnanimous in his parliamentary response to the Prime Minister. Albo, coincidentally, was the only one to express concern about a trillion dollar national debt – he on the left of the left.
This is of course not the first time in living memory when extraordinary events were going to spur far-reaching changes: we were never going to be the same again after September 11. And indeed we then said goodbye to the optimistic, post-Cold War sunlit uplands of the 1990s and entered the age of the war on terror, Afghanistan, Iraq, ISIS, Homeland Security and pat-downs at the airports. Like COVID, 9/11 too was going to bring us together. When I visited New York five years later, I found the locals pleasant and helpful, very far from their pre-terror gruff and rude stereotype (as the old joke goes, a tourist approaches a New Yorker on the street and asks: “Can you please tell me how to get to the Central Station or should I just go and f*** myself now?”). But such a new sense of shared community was indeed long lasting (and I doubt it was) it would have been the only positive to come out of the smoldering ruins of the Twin Towers. The tenor of the past two decades does indeed seem darker, with the extra serving of the Global Financial Crisis and climate change, but except for those directly affected by Al Qaeda’s attack and its long, bloody and costly aftermath, it’s difficult to argue that life has changed much for an average person around the world, or even just in the developed world. The Coronavirus crisis, on the other hand, is not a sudden and localised shock, but a ongoing drama that touches every corner of the world and causes unprecedented economic and social upheavals and dislocations. We struggle for apt historical analogies, reaching back to world wars or the Great Depression. And if that’s indeed the case, as it increasingly seems it might be, then we will perhaps in time look back at these dark first two decades of the new century and in hindsight consider the age of terror to have been rather been golden days instead.