What Will Come? COVID-19 and the Politics of Economic Depression
The financial crash of 2008-2010 reemphasized that traumatic economic shifts drive political change, so what might we imagine — or fear — will emerge from the COVID-19 depression?
Crisis, whether personal or global, does things to the experience of time. The start of 2020 feels like it exists on the other side of a glass wall, visible, but muted, and at a perceptible distance. With the past cast off, with the present all-encompassing, it feels very hard to see any distance into the future, let alone to predict what the other side of 2020 might look like. What we all already know is that we stand on the brink of the greatest global depression in generations.
Economics is the macro-view of billions of individual struggles to feed oneself and one's loved ones, to provide shelter and clothing, to stimulate mind, body, and soul in vital ways. The flexing of GDP, or jitters in stock markets, are abstractions indicating direct damage to the survivability of the masses in the face of daily battles. That personal damage, understandably, drives feelings of vulnerability, pushes time and energy toward correcting harm, leads to a desire for help, for support — even for miracles — to pull human beings up out of the mire.
The consequences of the world having ground to a halt will dwarf the period from 2007 to 2010 where we discovered that the self-styled 'masters of the universe' had sabotaged the engine of society. While the collapse of Communism unleashed enduring crises in the former countries of the Warsaw Bloc, the West experiencing a remarkably prolonged spell of social harmony, during which we exported our violence and pollution abroad at an exponentially accelerated rate. Here in 2020, it's hard to recall the soporific era when theorists could declare 'the end of history' and be treated plausibly.
The crash was a globe-spanning breach with reality. It destroyed confidence in the kind of technocratic, gradualist, and internationalist progress of prior years and reinforced a turn to extremes. The centre-ground was rapidly vacated and loud forces arose on both the left and right of politics, reinforced by the echo-chambers of social media. Nativist, anti-immigrant, alternately authoritarian or libertarian blocs, have brought cesspit politics into regular circulation in countries across the globe — no one has patience with gentle answers anymore.
Looking back further, beyond the memory of the majority of living humans, The Great Depression remains a reasonable historical point of comparison. The extreme and prolonged damage to the world economy led to led to surges of support for both the extreme nationalist right and the communist left in Weimar Germany, collapsing what was left of German democracy. The Parti Populaire Français in France, groups like the Iron Guard elsewhere in Europe, were formal manifestations of increased authoritarianism that infested a lot of continental governments at that time. In light of the general turn in world politics since 2007, it's hard not to think back on that and wonder what might come post-COVID-19.
More optimistically, one can look at the United Kingdom in the '30s, and to the United States. The increased radicalism and racism of Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (the Black Shirts) provoked a falling away of support. In the US, despite the rise of grim organisations like the German American Bund, the Silver Shirts, the broadcasts of Charles Coughlin, it was a more positive vision of American governance that guiding thinking throughout the era.
Weighing up these past examples, my feeling is that politics during and after the coming depression will be shaped not just by how long hardship endures, but by two additional factors: who is left 'carrying the can' for perceived disaster, and whether our nations' leaders are perceived as helping or hindering the desire of their people for safety and security.
In the United States, the government of Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to power in 1932 with clear programs for relieving suffering, aiding economic recovery, and reforming inefficiencies that were holding the nation back. The scale of ambition enacted, the power of the government's response (enduring even through a depression in 1937-1938), laid the groundwork for America to carry the Allied nations of World War Two on its shoulders, and to become the greatest economy in the world in the years after. Faith in government, in the collective strength of a nation as expressed through interventionist institutions, prevented people from being swayed by radicalism or apocalyptic fanaticism.
In the case of the Weimar Republic in Germany, there were simply no reserves left to cushion the blows to the economy — but worse, there was an overwhelming impression of impotence, which sparked demands for strong leadership and emergency measures. The governing conservatives moved in a direction that left democracy as mere window-dressing, and saw the National Socialists under Hitler as the more palatable (and controllable) partner for Germany's future. It was the National Socialists who were able to capitalize by enacting economic measures that seemed to show they were the people's friend — which in turn gave them leeway in which to systematically punish and eliminate any alternative politics.
Moving forward to Britain under Gordon Brown in 2008-2010, the British government showed resolute global leadership, but was so focused on technocratic measures and high finance that it could not reverse its plummeting reputation at home. The Labour government was perceived as a calcified entity, one lacking empathy for its people, and held to blame (not entirely fairly) for profligacy and deregulation during the boom years.
The US also endured an equivocal experience: while the Republicans failed to hold onto the Presidency, they retained sufficient power to obstruct and sabotage efforts for a stronger government response, while stoking hysterical racism and anti-government feeling outside of government. The harsh realities of an economy in convalescence, and the absence of relief, meant the hopes invested in Barack Obama couldn't clear the high bar for success.
While there's no linear path from any one past to a single solitary future, for any party or individual holding power, the key is to respond to broad-reaching public distress by being seen as an energetic defender of the populace. For a party unlikely to relinquish power soon — like the Conservatives in the UK — it's also about maintaining that status throughout both the initial crisis and on into the aftermath. The nature of that defense is, of course, a fresh question all its own, but without a perception of good intentions and effective actions, it's impossible to reinforce existing legitimacy or to avoid ceding the advantage to those calling for change.
Faced with the initial crisis waves of unemployment, business closures, bankruptcy, mortgage defaults, rent arrears, most countries responded with short-term help. The only leader to give a clear path for the future, so far, is Emmanuel Macron whose government is providing 84% of net pay in a scheme used by more than six in ten employers. The hope is that such an 'all-in' backing will rally the nation and avoid an opening into which the National Front can march.
The UK government, after an initial spell of action, has been bowing to ideologically-motivated pressure, meaning an ever-increasing impression of foot-dragging rather than a desire to buoy up individuals and small businesses. There are glimmers of hope, however, that the government is trying to juggle the national interest while keeping right-wing support: there's already been a willingness to open up more spending — for instance, to house the homeless, to double down on investment expanding and greening public transport, and the ongoing de-facto nationalization of the rail network.
Of course, the politics of depression won't play out in the same way across the globe. The US is already a special case, given that — while every other national leader has spent weeks rallying their nation between a vision of one people, one country, all with the right to life — Donald Trump has devoted months to doling out accusations and blame. Doubling down on ideological divisions, while tearing away at governmental structures either through direct vandalism or a refusal to provide funding, is a novel approach. The challenge, even if it fails to rally a sufficient basis for his re-election, is that it may salt the earth of his successor, who will have to shoulder most of the recovery, will also shoulder the blame in the same way that Obama was burdened with the legacy of George W. Bush.
Nuanced positions and complexities, the much-vaunted micro-targeting of demographics, will make no impact if the broad canvas is one in which a current governmental regime is painted as the enemy of the majority. Depressions don't create entirely new politics overnight, but they do amplify existing forces and bring previously marginal perspectives to prominence.
Faced with fear, uncertainty, and outright loss for individuals, the question for national politics the world over is "what will come?" Will the extremes of left and right gain a foothold strong enough to launch them to power? Or sufficient to dominate a current opposition and launch fringe ideas into the mainstream or into power someday? Or will the strength of government responses keep disruptive forces corralled at the fringes or as a brief passing wave of voices with no lasting impact?
For those of us of a liberal/progressive inclination, the hope is that years of claims based on anti-immigrant and anti-government sentiment may have run their cause and prove harder to present as a new panacea for an ailing nation. Most centrists must hope that the current crisis renews belief in the place of government as a central pillar of a functioning society, one that must be funded and supported if we're to weather foreseeable — but unpredictable — cataclysms.
The hope is that popular opinion turns against the false dichotomy that only allows answers to be from either government or private enterprise. Let it be in favour of solutions that recognise the two must be partners in ensuring freedom for both the individual and the collective. Here's hoping for a post-depression politics that, while unlikely to be ideal, is not actively depressing.