The thing about capitalism – well, one of the things, at any rate – is that it works in good times, or may seem to, but never in bad. In both the world wars of the twentieth century the British state had to resort to interventionist measures, like popular mobilisation and state-directed industrial production, in order to fit it for the fray. Until then it did badly. In the present Coronavirus crisis the countries that appear to have coped worst are those with the most neoliberal governments, namely Britain and the USA. In Britain the failures of capitalism have been shown up in a dozen ways, from the deficiencies in ‘outsourcing’ vital necessities like testing for the virus and the manufacture of PPE to private companies, to the capitalist-derived individualist ethic that lies behind all those right-wing demonstrations against lockdowns, social distancing and the wearing of face-masks.
It didn’t need to be like this. Nick Cohen (whom I don’t always agree with) published this account of the situation in my adopted country of Sweden in today’s Observer: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/26/welcome-to-libertarian-covid-fantasy-land-thats-sweden-to-you-and-me. That rings pretty true to me. Despite the damage that has been done by the global capitalist behemoth to the ‘Swedish model’ in recent years, that country still retains much of the socialist and egalitarian ethos that used to make it admired by British social democrats, and loathed (because of its success) by the American Right. Sweden’s far more generous Welfare State put it in a good position to withstand the crisis both medically and economically; at least in relative terms, and up to now.
So, Stockholm today looks normal, with scarcely anyone needing to wear a mask. The shops, cafes and cinemas are open, and we have a trusted public scientist to keep us honestly abreast of events. I feel far safer here than I did in the UK at the beginning of the pandemic (although, to be fair, I am living pretty isolated on an island an hour’s boat-ride from the city itself). Sweden’s underlying communitarianism has kept its people at least a little bit safer, and certainly saner, than the countries where ‘grab what you can, and the devil take the hindmost’ is the rule.
The last time we in Britain were forced by an existential crisis to make this switch from capitalism to socialism, in 1945, the transformation lasted for perhaps twenty or thirty years. The new post-war electorate, comprised largely of still serving soldiers and their families, determined that it was not prepared to return to free market anarchy again. Hence our post-war welfare state, nationalisation of key industries, and the rest. All that was wrested from the capitalists by the Left. Never let a good crisis go to waste! At the beginning of the current crisis I half-wished that something similar might happen after it, with people coming to realise the structural flaws in our post-post-war society (after Thatcher’s counter-revolution) that had made the coronavirus situation so much worse. That would be some comfort, almost making the coronavirus worth suffering; just as the welfare state had been a consolation to us after the horrors of the War and the Great Depression years.
Sadly, and indeed tragically, that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. The ones trying to exploit the crisis – not let it go to waste – are the Rightists in and behind the present British government, hoping to use it, and the concurrent Brexit chaos, to restore capitalism ‘red in tooth and claw’, underpinned by a very British kind of Fascism. Just look at what they’re plotting now: emasculating Parliament, the civil service and the higher judiciary; splitting away from our friends in Europe; credibly rumoured to want to privatize our National Health Service; sucking up to Trump’s America; bringing the media to heel with a new Fox-type TV news service; and (allegedly) appointing the worst poachers to regulate the newspaper press: see https://www.theguardian.com/media/2020/sep/26/pm-offers-top-media-body-jobs-to-critics-of-bbc-say-reports. Just a very few years ago all this would have seemed impossible. That’s what a crisis can do for you, if you have Dominic Cummings’s Mephistophelian skills.
And it’s difficult to see the Left countering it effectively, with the Labour Party in the appeasing mood it seems to be in now. Perhaps this will change if the present situation deteriorates even further. But it would be cruel to hope for that.