Capitalism’s Covid Recovery Will Deepen Social Inequality

Across the West, governments are plotting pandemic recoveries which will enrich asset-owners and squeeze workers – it's time to build coalitions that can fight back against the next phase of capitalist inequality.

The recovery from the 2008 Financial Crisis was an unusual one, in that a lot of things seemed to get a lot worse for a majority of people living in the Global North. Wages stagnated for the longest time in living memory; public services were on the brink of collapse even before the pandemic hit; and people finally realised that we were already living with the effects of planetary challenges like climate breakdown, automation, and demographic ageing.

The upshot of this widespread stagnation was that a lot of people became highly disillusioned with the status quo. As a result, millions responded enthusiastically to the rallying cries of politicians like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. The slogan that shaped their rise—reportedly coined by the late and brilliant David Graeber—was ‘we are the 99 percent’.

While this 1%/99% divide never really held in practice, it was a powerful call to arms. The majoritarian framing was particularly resonant in the wake of a financial crisis that had impacted nearly everyone in the Global North, and which had been catalysed by some exceptionally shady behaviour among the top 1 percent.

Global capital was not adequately prepared for this turn of events. As a result, politicians like Corbyn and Sanders came far too close to wielding power over some of the most important institutions in the world system. The challenge for mainstream political parties throughout the Global North has been to hold on to the support of around 40 percent of the electorate—which often equates to less than 30 percent of the working-age population when turnout is factored in—in the context of this populist resurgence.

One strategy has been the strengthening of a right-wing populism based on xenophobia and cultural reaction. This strategy has been in plain sight in Britain since the election of Boris Johnson. The government has been particularly adept at using its close relationships with the media to manufacture outrage over migrants, the monarchy, and statues. In the absence of any real opposition, the approach has been remarkably effective.

But in the context of the most significant global crisis since before 2008, cultural reaction alone will not diffuse widespread discontent with the status quo.

Every politician in the Global North is weighing up the same set of calculations – how to shore up their electoral coalition without giving away too much power to workers. It’s just that this calculation looks different in different places. Capital’s representatives have to pick one of two options, depending upon which populations they wish to exclude from state largesse.

One response—currently being adopted by Biden in the US—is to offer significant concessions to the middle and working classes, in the form of infrastructure investment, redistributive transfers, and job creation. Biden’s investment plan will go some way to placating the discontent of the middle 50% of the population, without meeting the more radical demands of the most marginalised – particularly around healthcare, immigration reform, and action on police violence.

Another response—which the Conservative Party is adopting here—is to seek to rebuild the electoral coalition upon which the original neoliberal settlement was premised: an alliance between capital and small-scale asset owners. In this case, the critical lynchpin is the central bank. If the Bank of England can guarantee continuous asset price inflation through record low interest rates and asset purchases, then the middle classes will continue to see their wealth skyrocket.

Many governments will fall somewhere in between these two poles – Sunak himself has also provided some limited promises on infrastructure investment in the UK. Overall, Biden’s approach is clearly going to benefit more people – but that’s because it’s just much easier to do in the US, for two reasons.

First, the US is the world’s foremost imperial power with the exorbitant privilege of being able to print the world’s reserve currency. While bond yields (which determine the cost of government borrowing) are likely to rise in response to Biden’s plan, no one (other than perhaps a few Republicans) is going to be panicking about the US’s ballooning deficit any time soon.

Second, there is simply more space to provide some giveaways to labour in the US, given how much workers have been squeezed over the last several decades. Being working class in the US—and to an increasing extent, middle class—means experiencing constant insecurity.

Even if you’re not one of the millions of people in a low-paid, insecure, part-time job, you still face losing your healthcare if you become unemployed. You’re working longer hours, with less holiday, and almost no parental leave. Even if the labour movement was stronger in the US, the barriers to worker organising would still be astronomical – as the recent defeat in Bessemer, Alabama showed.

Plus, it’s easy for Biden to offer some infrastructure investment because US infrastructure has been underfunded for decades and is mostly in a state of utter disrepair. This isn’t to say many of these problems don’t apply to the UK too, but in the US the challenge is on another level.

Both Biden’s and Sunak’s strategies are likely to be successful on their own terms. Both states are preparing for an economic boom as middle-class professionals who have saved up vast sums over the course of the pandemic prepare to return to the shops. This, combined with ongoing quantitative easing and some expansionary fiscal policy, is going to create noticeable improvements in living standards for many people.

But a huge proportion of people are going to be left out. Those who have lost their jobs may remain unemployed for years. Those who remain stuck in low-paid, insecure employment have not been able to save very much, and many have been forced to take on more debt. Lower-paid self-employed people are in the same boat.

Young people are likely to see long-term scarring to their employment prospects, and as house prices and rents continue to rise, home ownership will remain a pipe dream for many. Working-class women and black and brown people have been hit particularly hard by both the health and socioeconomic impact of the crisis.

The risk at this moment is that the Left falls back into the language of minoritarianism. Moralistic appeals to ‘protect the most vulnerable’ will not help us build power: we need to be organising people based on what they consider to be their interests, and the interests of society as a whole.

The only way to escape this cul-de-sac is to figure out how to unite the movements working across each of these areas into a viable and coherent political project, with a view to building class power, and a strategy for the workplace, the street, and the state.

The first step will be for socialists to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and get back out there: movements such as Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion and the recent Kill the Bill protests have taken up the mantle of radical organising, but many of those most involved in the Corbyn moment seem disengaged – too busy arguing on the internet over Labour politics.

I sincerely hope that this will change as we move from the pandemic crisis through to the recovery. If socialists are to get anywhere over the next decade, we’ll need to ditch the pessimistic obituaries, and look instead with determination towards a future we can change.