What if there is no prospect of going back to the way things were? What if the post-pandemic world will be vastly different and not for the better?
New York Times columnist, Michelle Goldberg, contends that Covid-19 has brought America (and the world) to the point of irreversible change.
Many of those stores will come back — some have already — but analysts predict that thousands won’t. Jobs lost to automation during this time — in warehouses and supermarkets, among other places — are especially unlikely to return. Americans, increasingly desperate in lockdown, are going to emerge from this period into a transformed and blighted world.
As we approach this year’s election, we’re looking at an abyss. The question is what will fill it. Societal disaster can have horrific political consequences: Around the world, despots are using the pandemic as an excuse to grab ever more power. But the need to rebuild the country comes with opportunities.A progressive restoration?
At this point, even many Republicans acknowledge that the era of small government is over. (“Big-Government Conservatives Mount Takeover of G.O.P.,” said a recent Politico headline.) In such an environment, ambitious progressive ideas that once seemed implausible, at least in the short term, start to become more imaginable.
“I do think there’s an F.D.R. moment,” said Senator Edward Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts and co-author of the Green New Deal resolution, which calls for a huge new public works program to build environmentally sustainable infrastructure. “Like 1933 — which would be 2021 — we can see that it is now time to discuss universal child care, universal sick leave and a guaranteed income for everyone in our society.”
Now the people celebrated as heroes are “essential workers” — doctors and nurses, but also grocery store clerks, bus drivers, meatpackers and mail carriers. There’s no guarantee that America will reward their sacrifice; even Sept. 11 emergency workers had to struggle to get the health care funding they needed.
But cultural shifts pave the way for political reform. “When little children are making signs that say, ‘Thank You,’ and taping them up in the window for the mail carriers and UPS delivery folks, the world has changed,” Elizabeth Warren told me. (Disclosure: my husband consulted on Warren’s presidential campaign.)
Warren and Khanna recently released a proposal for what they’re calling an “Essential Workers Bill of Rights,” which folds many longtime progressive labor priorities into a plan to address our current emergency. The proposal includes a mandate for free adequate personal protective equipment, hazard pay, universal paid sick leave and paid family leave, a crackdown on employers that misclassify full-time employees as independent contractors, and protections for union organizing.
If so, it will echo what happened during the Great Depression. “This is what shocked everyone,” Warren said. “All of the economists thought the Great Depression in the 1930s would be the end of unions because so many people were unemployed and there was such a large labor supply, and unionization was going down during the 1920s. But that’s not what happened. In a time of great stress, more workers decided their only chance of survival was to come together and exercise their power through a union.”
Mass unemployment also makes some version of a Green New Deal seem like more of a near-term possibility, at least if Biden wins the presidency. During the primaries, Biden’s environmental proposals were generally more modest than his rivals’, but with the pandemic ravaging the economy he’s called for a trillion-dollar infrastructure program focused on green jobs. That’s a lot less than what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who co-sponsored the Green New Deal in the House, has demanded — but it’s more than the entire cost of the stimulus bill President Barack Obama signed at the height of the Great Recession.But if reform is in the offing, it won't be achieved without a fight. The forces that delivered us into terminal-stage neoliberalism will try to cling to the levers of power.
The Great Recession of 2007-2008 was one seismic jolt, Covid-19 is another. There will be more. In the course of this decade we can expect more jolts - from climate breakdown, a global population already grown far beyond the planet's carrying capacity, and our relentless, rapacious exhaustion of the planet's resources. We've been warned that there are more pandemics already in the chamber, locked and loaded. We will likely see regions - equatorial and tropical - become uninhabitable. Weak nations will become failed nations with all the dangers and troubles that entails.