The raiding of supermarket shelves shows the influence of capitalism at its worst: competition, selfishness, exploitation by the successful raiders at the expense of those who could not compete or decided not to.
Managers of supermarkets say there are products for everyone, no need to panic, no need to hoard at the expense of someone else, and goods might even be shared. That sounds like social justice values to influence at least household economies.
Even before the devastation of bush fires and the corona virus, the ill effects on societies built around competition in so called free markets, were apparent in poverty, low pay and unrewarding work. In areas of health and education, individuals had been perceived as commodities little different from new and used cars in a sales yard, each the subject of bargaining over a price.
Market forces have contributed to the threat to planet earth. Neither have they anything to say about the pandemic, no way of responding to the need for a large increase in hospital resources, for more publicly trained medical staff, or even regarding rules to ensure social distance and personal hygiene.
In spite of the dangers to the health of people and planet, political leaders, business leaders and media commentators forecast a return to a stronger, more affluent golden age when this Covid-19 has run its course. There can be no such return. Capitalism has signed its own death warrant.
Changing the understanding and attitudes of leaders remains an obstacle to the development of different views about society and economy, even though the pandemic crisis has prompted actions which a few months ago would have been unthinkable. Rules about quarantine, social distancing and lock down, show policies in the interests of survival, and vast sums of money are being released to support health care, to keep people in work, to maintain essential services.
Intervention to combat corona virus has to be merged with initiatives to save the planet. If government can order citizens to lock themselves up, or keep distance from one another, it can intervene to put a price on carbon irrespective of howls from the coal industry or other capitalist faithful. Industrial capitalism has made the world hotter. A way of life ruled by neo-liberal economics has contributed to environmental destruction, the eradication of species, huge mental health problems, alienation from work and violence in every context of life. Social and economic selfishness looks like the self-destruction which has contributed to a twenty first century black death, yet we are told that we can and will return to the system that produced the problem.
Acceptance that global capitalism should be buried is one change of attitude which the powerful will find it difficult to accept. Even more difficult will be a change of attitude regarding the characteristics of non-market forces for guiding societies in transition to a different way of living.
Universal Basic Income
Two developments show a completely new role for the state. The first concerns financial help which in aggregate looks like foundations for a universal basic income. The second concerns the rise of networks of citizens providing their own services as part of an economy not based on profit.
Imaginative thinking about a universal basic income could change attitudes about economy and society. It is an old idea, not difficult to grasp. Paid out of taxes, this policy gives people the chance to build positions in the non-market economy. In his ground breaking ‘Post Capitalism: A Guide To Our Future’, Paul Mason argues, ‘The universal basic income is an antidote to the low paid service jobs which capitalism has managed to create over the past twenty five years, that pay little, demean workers and probably don’t need to exist. The ultimate aim is to reduce to a minimum the number of hours it takes to produce what humanity needs.’
Dangers from corona virus have forced governments to provide economic stimulus which in aggregate looks like the equivalent of a universal basic income. In the US, the Congress’ trillion-dollar rescue package sounds like President Roosevelt’s New Deal or the Marshall Plan, and has something in common with Democrats’ proposed Green New Deal. In the UK, to lessen the likelihood of large-scale unemployment and poverty, the government will pay 80% of workers’ wages. In Australia, a second stimulus of $66.1 billion was an increase from a first initiative costing $17.6 billion. Richard Denniss, chief economist of the Australia Institute, says ‘The actual result will need to be close to $170 billion.’
Universal basic income would replace the complex payments administered by Centrelink. Work for the dole would become a distant nightmare, so too the Poor Law mentality so apparent in long queues outside Centrelink offices. Equity would improve by ensuring that everyone has access to a liveable income. Regarding threats to mental health caused by unemployment and corona virus shut downs, remember that people living in more equal societies have better happiness and health outcomes.
There will be objections to the idea of a universal service to which every resident of Australia would be entitled, but those objections can be parried with the reminder that we already enjoy key universals, Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
In several countries, the transition to alternative forms of governance and economy already exist. In different communities, networks of citizens support one another and provide services and financial support for vulnerable groups.
A network of utopian thinking individuals – as with groups assisting refugees financially and psychologically, as with backpackers helping to rebuild farm properties devastated by bush fires – contribute to a form of economy which is non-profit, non-competitive, community building and rewarding.
On ABC radio’s Music Programme, Andrew Forde pleaded for more fortunate members of the public to support musicians, songwriters and composers, artists who represent society’s artistic heart and must not be left to starve and disappear. That request is the plea of one concerned individual, but with ideas for a creative version of economy: the music of altruism at play.
In France, citizens councils meet to consider ways to confront global warming by limiting carbon emissions in local communities. In resource poor Philippines, through the solidarity of volunteer social workers, the movement ‘Health for Health’ (H4H) provides finance, food and protective clothing for doctors, nurses and cleaners, plus counselling services to deal with staff stress and consequent mental health issues.
Return to Old Ways
If humankind and the planet are to be rescued, there must be no repetition of policies which contributed to the current catastrophe. Under neo-liberal economic systems, the rhetoric was that governments should not intervene, even though they did so to promote privatization and corporate profit, all the time pretending that government was neutral. Now there has to be an enlarged, unashamed, creative role for the state, and not just in the form of rescue packages.
Industrial capitalism has always been tested by crises and has responded with various adaptations, but this time the pandemic threat to the lives of millions coincides with destruction of the planet.
Although governments are spending huge sums to subsidize key industries and to provide sufficient support to enable non-essential workers to stay at home, as yet there is no acknowledgement of the likely permanence of the state’s responsibility to intervene in the interests of a common humanity.
A choice looms, between return to a greedy, destructive capitalism or transition to a life preserving, life enhancing economy, not just as a means of survival but as a healthy, fulfilling way of living.
Stuart Rees, OAM is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney and recipient of the Jerusalem (Al Quds ) Peace Prize