Where will we be in six months, a year, ten years from now? I lie awake at night wondering what the future holds for my loved ones. My vulnerable friends and relatives. I wonder what will happen to my job, even though I’m luckier than many: I get good sick pay and can work remotely. I am writing this from the UK, where I still have self-employed friends who are staring down the barrel of months without pay, friends who have already lost jobs. The contract that pays 80% of my salary runs out in December. Coronavirus is hitting the economy badly. Will anyone be hiring when I need work?
There are a number of possible futures, all dependent on how governments and society respond to coronavirus and its economic aftermath. Hopefully, we will use this crisis to rebuild, produce something better and more humane. But we may slide into something worse.
I think we can understand our situation – and what might lie in our future – by looking at the political economy of other crises. My research focuses on the fundamentals of the modern economy: global supply chains, wages, and productivity. I look at the way that economic dynamics contribute to challenges like climate change and low levels of mental and physical health among workers. I have argued that we need a very different kind of economics if we are to build socially just and ecologically sound futures. In the face of COVID-19, this has never been more obvious.
The responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are simply the amplification of the dynamic that drives other social and ecological crises: the prioritization of one type of value over others. This dynamic has played a large part in driving global responses to COVID-19. So as responses to the virus evolve, how might our economic futures develop?
From an economic perspective, there are four possible futures: a descent into barbarism, robust state capitalism, radical state socialism, and a transformation into a big society built on mutual aid. Versions of all of these futures are perfectly possible, if not equally desirable.