The panic buying at the beginning of the COVID pandemic has long since given way to much more orderly and calm queuing to get into supermarkets, at an appropriate social distance. For me, having grown up in East Germany where there often was scarcity of all kinds of stuff and waiting in line was common practice, especially for special things such as bananas or oranges that were actually orange rather than green (the latter were the so-called Kuba Orangen named after their place of origin), this brings back memories. It also ties in well with the writing I have done over the last month on the economics chapter of my book, in which I explore how to teach social science students about economic alternatives (a summary will come shortly.) In the chapter, I use economic responses to the COVID crisis to show the shortcomings of neoclassical economic theories, and how this might inform critical-creative teaching. In this post, which is the second in my COVID reflections, following the first one on care, I will share some of my theoretical insights, drawing on recent think pieces and publications by various economists and social scientists.
The embedded economy
According to Sanjay Reddy, ‘the pandemic underlines the necessity for a rethinking of our received ideas about economics,’ foremost among them the interdependencies between economics and all other areas of life, the relationship between individual and collective rationality and the importance of public deliberations about the differential impact of the virus on different groups and the trade-offs this calls for. Economic responses to the pandemic have also highlighted the usually more hidden value judgements made by economic policy makers, for example in prioritizing public over economic health concerns. All of this connects to calls to ‘see the big picture’ of economics, which means changing the perspective from a self-contained, efficient market as the mainstay of the economy to embedding the economy in society and nature. For Kate Raworth, for whom seeing the big picture is part of reinventing economics for the 21st century, such a move calls for ‘the creation of new narratives – about the power of the market, the partnership of the state, the core role of the household, and the creativity of the commons.’ The COVID pandemic has indeed resulted in calls for new social contracts between governments, citizens and corporations.
Let’s start with governments, many of whom have taken measures in response to the pandemic that have the potential to address existing economic inequities, if they can transition from emergency stop-gap interventions to more far-reaching structural reforms. This would follow historical precedent, modern welfare state emerged from the Great Depression and WWII. Today, governments in many countries are providing unprecedented support for workers, such as income guarantees, self-employed worker and small business support schemes. It is important to point out that many gaps remain in their coverage and their effects, just as the effects of the virus itself, are highly uneven. Nevertheless, some of these government schemes approximate, and in some places such as Spain are being developed as spring boards to, universal basic income (UBI) schemes which guarantee all citizens of a country a base amount of money to cover basic needs. Calls for UBI, such as the one made by over 500 political figures and academics, recognize and reaffirm the responsibility of governments to guarantee the basic material well-being of residents, displacing the primacy of market-based interventions.
The lines between corporations and governments have also become more blurred, as seen in the requisitioning of private resources for public (health) interest to ensure sufficient hospital spaces, make protective equipment and develop a vaccine. This can lead to the transformation of businesses into more humane institutions and to a decentering of market logics from the many areas of human existence they have infiltrated. To sustain these initiatives and help them transition to a ‘new normal,’ citizens will need to mobilize and press their demands in the face of calls to resume business as usual. This raises the question of the commons.
Revaluing the commons and households
A second element of the big economy picture is revaluing the commons, seen in calls to adequately support public health systems often ravaged by years of austerity and cutbacks. Once again, history can be a guide, since the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic helped create national health services in many European countries. An important part is recognizing who contributes to the common good as essential workers and re-valuing their key contributions to society, including financially. Others argue for a reclaiming of the knowledge commons to ensure that reliable information can lead to an informed debate that takes local values, priorities and needs into account. Against dominant claims to ‘the’ science driving government decisions, it is clear that difficult ethical decisions need to be made by policy makers and that an informed public needs to be involved in these deliberations. For starters, government committees such as the UK’s SAGE committee should include not only behavioral economists, disease experts and modellers, epidemiologists and medics, but also social scientists and humanities scholars such as philosophers, historians of science, theologians and jurists, as is happening in Germany.
Embedding the economy also means recognizing the core role of households, something that has been demanded by feminist economists and their ground-breaking studies of the care economy for many years. Following the lockdown policies implemented by most countries to stop the virus spreading, households have been reconfirmed as the centres of family lives, as studying and working from home complement daily interactions and family members have to find new ways of co-existing in often confined spaces. A new ethics is emerging where care, albeit a version that is delinked from problematic gendered notions, becomes the basis for connections.
Interdependent economic subjects
This relates to another 21st century economics principles of ‘nurturing human nature’ by recognizing that individuals are not the calculating, maximizing and self-interested individuals posited by neoclassical economics. Instead, the collective crisis of COVID is showing that humans are interdependent, reciprocating and ethical beings, and is highlighting alternative ways of co-existence based on mutuality and conviviality. The ‘thick, tangled skein of sociality’ is revealed in the shielding of vulnerable family members, the wearing of face masks mainly to protect others and the keeping of spatial distancing. Citizens’ overall compliance with lock down measures that diminish individual freedoms in the name of the social good shows the inadequacy of individual rational choice theories and requires a more expansive view that recognizes that individuals take others into account when making decisions and can align their own choices with collective requirements. The self-organizing neighborhood groups that have sprung up in many cities operate on principles of mutual aid to help those who need to self-isolate or are struggling in other ways. These initiatives show that economic systems are at their heart social systems embedded within interpersonal relations.
Thus, the COVID pandemic is clearly showing that the economy is an integral part of social, political and environmental systems. Some of the current responses to the pandemic can be used to teach students the shortcomings of orthodox economics and the relevance of pluralist ideas within and without the university. It can also encourage them to use their learning to imagine and work towards the alternative futures that can be glimpsed among the bleakness of life under COVID.