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Coronavirus Crisis: A Juncture For Paradigm Shift Or Newer Wave Of Neoliberalism?

While the onset of the coronavirus pandemic around the world has created a global public health emergency, it has also disastrously unveiled the deficiencies in laissez-faire economic system to handle a crisis of this magnitude.

This is quite apparent looking at the ongoing situation in the United States to cope with a pandemic; be it the deficiencies in its cut-throat /made-for-few health care system or Donald Trump’s pushing for a suspension of the payroll tax, which could bankrupt social security, providing the excuse to cut it or privatize it completely. In the UK, Boris Johnson’s response has been trying to protect the economy at the behest of peoples’ lives, as the death toll in the UK gets steeper every day. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, another right-wing populist has been equally callous to deal with the crisis.

By contrast, interventionist or semi-interventionist regimes have faired much better in dealing with the situation. Coordinated Market Economies (CMES) like Norway, Denmark and Sweden already appear to have flattened the coronavirus curve, whereas, in China and South Korea extensive testing, quarantine measures and public health education have managed to contain the virus indigenously.

These emerging developments and the continued way in which the crisis is unfolding have raised questions. Immobility in general has slowed down the economic activity, unrestrained capitalism is morally bankrupt to provide people sustainable healthcare during ordinary times, let alone during the times of crisis. The pundits are questioning the future of free-market capitalism. Could coronavirus be that juncture in the history, capable of a paradigm shift towards a welfarist or a broadly progressive future?

Milton Friedman, a staunch neoliberal polemicist once said; “Only a crisis – actual or perceived -produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” It is possible that Friedman said this after the 1970 recession, while working with supply-side economists from University of Chicago who were marking an end to Keynesianism at the time, and ushering a new wave of neoliberalism, with political backing coming from Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the UK.

“Crisis” in this case became the recession, and neoliberalism became “ideas lying around”, leading to unbridled proliferation of neoliberal doctrine around the globe until today, despite suffering a serious setback in 2008 financial crisis, but it still continues to reign, and could still be seen in operation today, in what Jamie Peck refers to as , “zombie phase”. Peck also says, “the living dead of the free-market revolution continue to walk the earth, though with each resurrection their decidedly uncoordinated gait becomes even more erratic.” The Left was incapable to put this zombie to rest, and instead we saw a new wave of right-wing populists engulfing the world, making the state limited in its regulatory power, and heralding the democratic onslaught with their exclusivist and chauvinist agendas.

Crisis is a fragile moment for neoliberalism but lets not forget as David Harvey warns us that it could open space for much more pronounced neoliberal policies and create variegated capitalism. Worse, it could also turn into an opportunity for disaster capitalism in the developing countries like Pakistan that are already on the payroll of IMF.

It is likely that the pandemic would cause serious economic repercussions around the globe, especially for those impoverished and surviving at the lower strata of human existence. A possible recession.  Extreme unemployment.  A socio-economic catastrophe of this magnitude could further polarize the social cohesion and instill a new wave of strongmen/authoritarian leaders, something witnessed before, after 2008.  An acceleration point and what Naomi Klein is already calling “pandemic shock doctrine” and newer shapes of “neo-illiberalism”. A new impetus to already deteriorating democracies. But it could also be a realization point? Governments could realize the importance of advance levels of protectionism and could slow-down unwarranted globalization. This could mobilize social forces and could inculcate new social movements.

Friedman, among others, had readily available alternative or ideas, albeit predatory, which resonated with the crisis at the time, leading to a shift from Keynesianism to neoliberalism after the 1970 recession. Corona could be an opportunity, for those on the Left to take charge of the situation and to come up with ideas, a coherent alternative ideology.  Something which has been lacking in its fight against free-market capitalism.

This may also be the time to get rid of verbal realism, which according to Daniel Rodgers turned neoliberalism into a “linguistic omnivore”, but never expanded the scope of public debate, except from its ubiquitous use in handful of university departments. The recent defeat of Jeremy Corbin in the UK could be a good reference point here.

To turn the current crisis into a catalyst for paradigm shift, towards an egalitarian and just world, the Left must work on a coherent response, one that can resonate with the working classes, the impoverished middle classes and which informs the public sphere. Let’s just hope the current moment doesn’t end up like the 2008 financial crisis, and we don’t see a whole new lot of strongmen, neo-facsists, furthering the cause of free-market fundamentalism.

May the zombie may never rise again!

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