“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.”
This oft-quoted mantra from Milton Friedman, the godfather of neoliberalism, is particularly chilling at a time of unprecedented global mayhem.
As many, notably Naomi Klein and Antony Loewenstein, have powerfully argued, reactionary responses to societal shocks have been instrumental in accelerating the inter and intra-national upward transfer of wealth and power in recent decades.
As well as fearing for our loved ones during the UK government’s unhinged handling of Covid-19, many of us on the left are also alarmed about how modern-day neoliberals will manipulate this crisis.
There is a long historical record of destructive corporate responses to societal ruptures. Klein’s seminal work, The Shock Doctrine, lays bare the interrelation between crises (imposed and natural), the undemocratic imposition of extractive neoliberalism, and the rise of a doctrinarian belief in privatisation.
In nations spanning the globe, crises ranging from earthquakes to CIA and MI6-backed coups have been instrumental in annihilating leftist organising and protecting profits at immense human cost.
In the UK, we are seeing an embryonic form of this neoliberal template. Under the cover of the pandemic and the commendable global uproar created by the Black Lives Matter protests, the Conservative government is already introducing a disaster capitalist privatisation agenda.
Coronavirus Disaster Capitalism.
After suspending commissioning rules, Tory ministers have awarded exclusive coronavirus-related state contracts worth over £1bn to private companies. To give just one example, Randox, a private healthcare firm that happens to employ Owen Patterson, one of the richest Tory MPs, has been awarded a £133m contract without any competition – so much for Friedman’s free-market utopia.
Outsourcing monopolies including Deloitte, KPMG, Serco, Sodexo and US data mining group Palantir have all secured taxpayer-funded commissions to manage Covid-19 testing centres, the procurement of equipment and the construction of hospitals.
Clearly, this is not a government prioritising public health. This is a government facilitating an unscrutinised handover of collective wealth to the pockets of wealthy shareholders.
The enduring legacy of the Thatcherite contempt for a functioning state has reduced the British government to a middleman for corporate contracting. Considering the success of neoliberalism in enfeebling our collective ability to do anything, it is tragically no surprise that the UK has one of the world’s worst Covid-19 death rates.
Unfortunately, reactionaries have adopted Friedman’s crisis theory. All five authors of Britannia Unchained, a Tory-penned tome which outlines disgust for “statists” and champions ultra-neoliberal policy proposals that make Ronald Reagan look like Salvador Allende, are now senior government ministers – including Priti Patel, Dominic Raab and Liz Truss.
Right-wing think tanks, such as the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies, have long been instrumental in the neoliberal project.
Free-market spokespersons hide behind neutral-sounding titles to advocate for the upward transfer of wealth and power. They exploit their cosy relationship with ministers to design and implement state-trimming policies. And Britain’s craven mainstream media, which ranges from billionaire-funded propaganda to supine stenographers, is inherently incapable of challenging whatever brutal ideas may be ‘lying around’.
The conditions, therefore, are ripe for a turbo-charged shock doctrine, a coronavirus disaster capitalism that will further stretch our public safety net after nearly half a century of brutal privatisation.
Towards a Socialist Shock Doctrine.
It is incumbent on the Labour party and the broader left to urgently confront this sinister program by advocating for a shock doctrine of a different kind; one which aims to radically overhaul our depraved economic and social settlement.
This would require the Labour party to begin advocating for radical policies, such as the recent New Economics Foundation (NEF) paper calling for a suspension of rents – something the leadership has been thus far unwilling to do.
There is a powerful network of talented, bold organisations on the left – including NEF, The Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS), NEON and The World Transformed – who must be permitted a greater role in policy formation, as well as radical smaller trade unions such as the Renters Union and Acorn.
Disaster capitalists know never to let a crisis go to waste. At a time when the status quo has never been more malleable, the left must also learn this lesson – and fast.
To give just one example, the temporary protections granted to rough sleepers and those facing eviction must be strengthened and extended. Whilst the insufficient ‘Everyone In’ scheme has been far from perfect; the government and local authorities have proven that all it takes is a modicum of political will to start seriously addressing homelessness. With attempts already in place to scale back this support, housing for all must become a permanent demand of the left.
A disaster socialism program could also capitalise on the enforced rise of homeworking to advocate for a reduced working week and increased flexibility. Decreased labour hours have been a proud historical aim of the trade union movement – now is the time for these demands to be revived.
A Socialist Shock Doctrine should tap into the public goodwill for frontline workers by offering a radically fairer settlement for migrant rights. The victory on the NHS surcharge for health workers was commendable, but Labour must now push for the abolition of the callous double-tax for all migrants – and not stop there.
This must be a turning point.
The Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police have opened a new frontier of possibility for anti-racist progress. At this fractured historical moment, it is incumbent on the left to advocate for concrete policies that meaningfully address severe, endemic racial inequalities.
This requires a more in-depth examination but could include a curriculum that teaches the true, brutal history of the British Empire as well as reparational justice for racist acts of state violence from Windrush and Grenfell to the disproportionate number of BAME deaths in police custody. The deadly, uneven impact of Covid-19 upon BAME communities reveals ingrained, intersecting racial and class disparities which must be reversed.
Yet to achieve this, Labour’s leadership will have to both investigate the recently leaked racism of senior staff and recognise that the heroes who dragged Edward Colston’s Statue to its watery grave were not, in the words of party leader Keir Starmer, “completely wrong” to do so.
Most importantly, the left must respond to the coronavirus crisis with an unprecedented emphasis on phasing out carbon-intensive industries whilst transferring to renewable energy as soon as scientifically possible.
It is vital that workers are protected, and that the transition is predicated upon justice for global south countries, improving living standards for all and an economic stimulus to revitalise our recession-hit economy with well paid, unionised jobs.
Reduced emissions during lockdown have not been enough to halt dangerous planetary temperature increases – proving that the liberal reliance upon individual carbon reduction is a woefully inadequate response in the fight against planetary breakdown. The left must advocate for all possible actions to mitigate this existential crisis, including nationalising crisis-struck fossil fuel corporations.
These are just some of the many radical, necessary responses to combat the coronavirus and rebuild our decaying social structure.
The left must recognise that we are up against a well-oiled, billionaire-backed and historically successful method of disaster capitalism, which has gouged ever-deeper rips in our social fabric.
During this era of crises, we must think bigger and bolder if we are to break with this destructive trend.
Joe Duffy is a writer based in South London with a particular interest in climate justice, radical history and weird fiction.