All bets are off. That’s the only conclusion to be drawn two months into the Coronavirus pandemic. Every belief we had about the future, every hope we held, must now be revised. For many people, already dismayed at the state of the world before the crisis hit, optimism will now be in short supply. But the lesson of the last catastrophe of comparable scale – World War Two – is that the process of recovering from such ruptures in the otherwise steady progress of humankind can, if carefully guided by people able to think outside the box, and led by politicians of uncommon vision, be transformed into an opportunity to kick start the process of civilizational advance; a process which has, for the last three decades, stalled in the face of our collective complacency.
Too many of us in the ‘leading’ nations – those that control most of the wealth and therefore hold much of the power – have been resting on our laurels, convinced we’ve found the holy grail of civilization: supposedly secure liberal democracies operating under a lightly-regulated global free-market economic framework which has delivered unimaginable wealth to a few and technological marvels to many, but which remains silent on the chronic insecurity endured by the majority of people, globally, and the inescapable poverty to which a sizeable minority remain condemned.
Of course it’s fantastic that millions of people in countries like China and India have been provided a route out of poverty, but nobody, even among the most eloquent advocates of the prevailing order, is able to describe how that progress might be extended to the millions not so favoured, or be sustained for those whose elevation to the ‘middle class’ sees them join battle with millions of others in a struggle to maintain their new found material wellbeing so they can pass on the gains to their children.
The post-Coronavirus recovery must include a wholesale evaluation of what worked, and what didn’t work in our pre-virus global society. And that evaluation must focus on economic foundations. In recent years, political debate has been reduced to a slanging match between ideological factions; none of which, wherever on the left-right spectrum they sit, has much in the way of original thinking or wisdom to offer. Many of those who ‘succeed’ in politics are precisely the wrong kind of people to be leading the rest of us through a period when the challenges facing humankind are greater than ever.
All of which brings me to the title of this blog: there can be no solutions to the problems of growing inequality, social and economic exclusion, climate change, the rejection of the idea of objective truth by many people, culture wars within and between societies and, now, the struggle to emerge from the Coronavirus pandemic with our economies intact, until we are able to throw off the shackles of the left-right paradigm which has constrained political and economic thinking for so long.
At times of crisis it’s important to remain optimistic, and it’s vital not simply to snipe from the sidelines and abuse those with whom we disagree. We humans, and the remarkable civilization we have created, find ourselves at a crossroads: we have made incredible progress in respect of reducing extreme poverty. Fewer people are dying in wars and, at least until Coronavirus hit, life-expectancy had been increasing in all but the wealthiest nations. But at the same time, there are alarming signs that the engine of economic progress responsible for these gains was already running out of steam, pre-Coronavirus, and that established systems of governance are struggling to command the support of electorates who feel their interests are no longer being represented.
We can’t afford, as Simon Jenkins suggested, simply to ‘believe that things will get better, for the excellent reason that they have always done so.’ The achievements of the past are no guarantee of continuing progress going forward. The tremendous gains of the second half of the twentieth century were a consequence of the conscious efforts of people who, having lived through the horrors of two world wars, were determined to create conditions to assure no repeat of such cataclysms. Much of their work has already been undone by a subsequent generation of ideologues who, with the memory of war and holocaust fading fast, took us in a quite different direction.
On these pages I plan to explore how we might, collectively, plot a route through the 21st century to ensure that the world we leave our children and grandchildren is at least as viable and opportunity-laden as the one that we – and I write as someone in my mid-fifties – inherited from our parents.
Last updated: 2nd May 2020