Our Covid-19 predicament has been compared to many historical episodes: some consider it on the same order as a war, others a crisis of the magnitude of the Great Depression. I think these comparisons are fitting in the sense that the lasting legacy of Covid-19 has been the dominant narrative that will emerge, once the pandemic is (happily) over. So far the dominant narrative has been that an order-less, too economically integrated, and therefore reckless world has been rescued from the wreckage by almighty governments.
This might have worked, rhetorically, earlier on. Now, in so many places, the government is failing in mitigating the pandemic. Bureaucracies act on the presumption of knowing things, and there are still many things that scientists, let alone government officials, do not understand about this virus. Plus, with unprecedented success, the private sector is coming to the rescue with new vaccines.
Of course, the success of a narrative is not necessarily based on it fitting the facts better. It could just be that it is a nicer story, that it sounds better to people that it is better crafted by politicians and their spin doctors.
But here’s an interesting article. On the Guardian, John Harris remarks that in England communities have been self-organizing in the last few months:
…droves of volunteers who were gripped by community spirit coming together to help deliver food and medicines to their vulnerable neighbours, check on the welfare of people experiencing poverty and loneliness, and much more besides. From a diverse range of places all over the country, the same essential message came through: the state was either absent or unreliable, so people were having to do things for themselves.
Rather predictably, Harris thinks that if “the key story of the Covid crisis has been that of town and parish councils enabling people to participate in community self-help”, now “the next chapter is about moving in the opposite direction, and trying to get people who have been involved in mutual aid to start running the places where they live.” You get the gist of it: it is a Tory government, and years of austerity, which let communities down (forget the fact that David Cameron’s “welfare society” was all about community empowerment and that neither Theresa May nor Boris Johnson have been very austere).
Now, this begs the question. Are local communities self-organizing because politics is being unduly constrained, limited in its spending capacity, and disempowered, or are they self-organizing because, in spite of consuming more than a third of GDP (in England), governments are simply lacking the flexibility and the responsiveness to deal with people’s demands, particularly when they are new and when they are changing?
In the short term, I think it is Harris’s view that is going to stick: people will try to move on from activism and that will be justified because they ought to reclaim their government for themselves. Could it be that in the longer run they’ll realize that the public administration is simply governed by different incentives and rules, than the ones which allowed them, as privatize citizens, to work together for a shared purpose?
This article was first published by the AIER, and can be found here.