The slogan “There’s no going back to normal” has gained considerable popularity for good reason. As governments all around the world have struggled to deal with the health and economic challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have been forced to take emergency steps they would not have countenanced just months ago, challenging the idea that greater public spending to address social needs is simply unaffordable.
In Australia, where we have suffered bipartisan neoliberal governments for nearly four decades, the Coalition federal government abandoned its holy commitment to reduce government debt and has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on emergency COVID-19 measures. Most of these are aimed at propping up the corporate sector, but there is also a temporary doubling of the JobSeeker payment for the unemployed.
For many years, unemployed people have been forced to survive below the poverty line and so the demand to make this JobSeeker payment increase permanent has support from a majority in society.
However, the government has declared that this increase should only be temporary. The Labor opposition supports an increase on the old rate, but has yet to say by how much. The racist, right-wing populist Queensland Senator Pauline Hanson has gone further and demanded that unemployment payments should be cut off to people who don’t find a job within two years.
Right-wing politicians and the billionaire class interests they represent may also have their own “no-going-back-to-normal” agenda. They may seek to use the crisis to push for even more drastic neoliberal measures: more attacks on public services, welfare rights, on wages and conditions, on the rights of workers to organise and on broader civil rights.
This is a global pattern: organisations such as the Bangkok-based Asia Centre have documented the closing down of democratic space for civil society in the region. In Australia we have seen examples of this, including the imposition of fines on protesters. We have also seen changes to industrial laws that give employers the right to reduce workers’ wages and conditions.
The simple fact is that governments — dogmatically committed to neoliberal measures — have been forced to appeal for social solidarity to combat the pandemic and demonstrated that they have the capacity to increase social spending, especially for public health. It has, to a degree, raised social expectations, but this will not be sufficient to make any temporary gains permanent.
The COVID-19 pandemic will keep the world in crisis mode for many months, if not years, unless and until an effective vaccine is developed.
In these circumstances, governments will be forced to try to strengthen public health. They will be under social pressure from the general public to do this, but also from the billionaire class, which realises that it cannot decimate the workers it needs to if it wants to maintain, let alone grow, its wealth and power.
There is potential to build popular support for strong public health and other social measures to address the economic consequences of the pandemic.
The COVID-19 crisis is also shifting the hearts and minds of large numbers of people towards ecosocialist solutions. Many more people can now appreciate the possibility, and necessity, of liberating essential services such as health, transport and energy from the narrow and selfish priorities of the corporate rich.
For instance, the crisis in the airline industry (now demanding huge bailouts and subsidies) raises the question: if the public is going to bail the private airlines out, then why can’t this money be used instead to restructure inter-city travel to shift to a more ecologically sustainable fast-rail network.
More people can see that pandemics like COVID-19 are a result of a bankrupt social system which has elevated the increasing enrichment of the billionaire class over a sustainable and symbiotic way of living with the Earth.
While United States President Donald Trump and his crazed followers engage in a farcical blame-shifting exercise, more people are sheeting home the blame to the rapacious, nature-destroying greed of corporate agribusiness and to climate change.
COVID-19 is unlikely to be the last pandemic to shake up life as we know it. If our public health system has to bear the brunt of this and future pandemics, why should the wasteful multi-billion-dollar subsidies to private hospitals and private health insurance companies continue? Won’t this profit-making private health system prove itself just as useless when the next ecological crisis hits us?
Wouldn’t it be wiser for governments to spend the trillions of dollars now going on public subsidies to return to a “normal” level of corporate exploitation to instead seriously address the climate emergency and delivering social justice?
The Socialist Alliance and other progressive groups around the world have put forward programs of action — including versions of progressive green new deals — that seek to consolidate this popular sentiment generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, these programs can only be won with the backing of sustained political mass mobilisations. What is needed urgently now is the systematic organisation of trade union and social movement support for, and mobilisation around, these programs. If we don’t start organising, we’ll start agonising, as the billionaire class uses this crisis to increase its own power and privileges.
[Peter Boyle is a member of the Socialist Alliance national executive.]