Liberalism has been wrongfully declared dead many times before, but it is safe to say that the Covid19 pandemic has exposed the increasing irrelevance of some of its core principles. This essay discusses two.
By this time, many of you have read dozens of opinion pieces and alarming analyses on the Covid19 Pandemic, most of which became redundant a month later. To escape the whim of the moment, I have held back on writing on the pandemic directly for a year. Politically, one of the most consistent themes of this year has been the failure of (neo)liberal ideology and with that the decreasing appeal of its main principles. In this essay we will focus on two core assumptions of liberal theory: 1) the faith that the free interaction of self-interested individuals contributes to the common good; 2) the idea that government intervention is harmful to this common good.
I want to preface my analysis with two clarifications. First, this is not a critique of capitalism itself. While countries with ruling communist parties have dramatically outperformed the capitalist ones in handling this crisis, many on the far left where too fast to declare victory in class warfare. As always, capitalism endured by sacrificing the weak, and the capitalist class actually consolidated their privileged position. Second, this is about political philosophy, not party politics. Such analysis would not hold, as in reality most ‘liberal’ governments dealt with the crisis by abandoning their ideological principles. For example in the Netherlands, despite initial ideological resistance liberal prime minister Mark Rutten had to resort to lockdowns and even curfews just like other countries did. Likewise, many socialist leaders initially walked the liberal path until they woke up in a hospital bed.
Let us start with the first liberal assumption: the optimistic idea that if people do what they want, it will – somehow, someway – turn out for the collective good, or in a softer version at least not harm it. This faith in the rational self-interest initially played a role in establishing amongst others freedom of religion and free trade. While this might or might not always have been a fallacy, it certainly became hard to believe in 2020. One of the most frustrating and almost traumatizing consequences about the pandemic has been the collapse of faith in our fellow man and woman: whole chunks of the population flat out failed in keeping discipline or taking the collective good into account. Vast parts of the population either failed to realize or repressed the realization that regardless of their own health estimates, getting the virus a) endangers others; b) floods the hospitals; c) prolongs the pandemic. Yes, especially in countries like Mexico many were forced by economic reasons. But one cannot but agonize over how in Europe the rates dropped after painful lockdowns, only to shoot up when ten thousands of vacationers brought the virus back, or how the celebrations in Mexico sprouted new infections. A blunt ‘I do what I want’ short term self-interest washed over any social considerations or even enlightened long term self-interest. The freedom of my fellow man endangered my own like never before.
This brutal failure of liberalism brings us back to some fundamental questions of political philosophy: can man be trusted? A true conservative would argue that people where always like this, and only community constraint could make them act right. As a progressive, I propose first considering J.J. Rousseau’s idea that man has social instincts, but got corrupted over time. Fake news – a creature of the far right – played an obvious role in worsening this crisis that needs no further explanation. Yet the coronavirus also offers a clear warning of what the ‘You Only Live Once’ culture of the last decades really amounts to: total abandonment of social responsibility out of planted self-pity. For years, we have been bombarded with commercials, songs and memes encouraging us to take that trip (‘be a booker not a looker’), go to that restaurant and spend on that concert! Why would you care for others if the others probably don’t care for you? For too many, the fear of missing out has beaten the fear of killing one’s community. Consumerism and individualism locked arms in a deadly dance. What better title song for “2020 – the Movie” than Frank Sinatra’s classic ‘I did it my way’?
The second failed liberal assumption, further articulated in neoliberal times, is the idea that government intervention is to be avoided. Collective action: the less, the better. Not much of this idea survived after the pandemic hit us. Whatever remained standing, did so because of government intervention. Whether we are talking about the 23+ million families that got increased income support since 2019 in Mexico, the cash transfers and eviction bans in U.S., and the many bailouts and credit programs worldwide. From economic policy to healthcare, wherever governments failed, they generally failed because they did or could not do enough. Some early exceptions aside, government regulations and official advise has been correct, and where followed usually lead to significant drops in infections. While many conspiracy theorists are blind to this empirical truth, it also works in reverse: lifting those regulations predictably issued in global second and third waves, ending the hope of leaving this misery by summer 2020. Certainly, many of these measures hurt, especially when poorly and inconsistently executed, but resistance to them has only prolonged our collective suffering.
Regardless of your estimation of this or that government, would it in our current conditions not sound absurd, almost clownish to claim that the path for the years to come is for the government to do less for people? For the government to retreat from its responsibilities? To whom does this old liberal dogma still appeal, after it has been abandoned by many of its own political leaders? A faithful minority will remain, but at least rhetorically (neo)liberalism is on the defense. There will of course always be those defenders of elites who, like FRENA in Mexico, claim that taxes (‘fiscal terrorism’) are a bigger problem than funding the healthcare system.
As the critical reader might recall, this abandonment of liberal principles in the face of danger is nothing new. This core dogma of liberalism gets abandoned roughly every ten years when a new crisis hits us, and leaders remember that socialism actually works. Or at least state intervention to save the rich or create order, but state intervention nonetheless. This is remarkable, as the Left still gets stereotyped as dreamers who believe in something that is nice in theory, but doesn’t work in practice. Tragedy and irony go well together.
In short, the pandemic has shed light on the glaring incapacity of liberalism to deal with collective problems. Yet as I wrote in the introduction, liberalism has been wrongfully declared death many times before. While it has certainly stumbled and invoked grand catastrophes, liberalism (and capitalism) proved many critics wrong by its remarkable resilience. I strongly believe that there is a core appeal and charisma in the values, realizations and promises of modern ideologies like liberalism, nationalism and socialism that makes them hard to fully discard. While all have – at times spectacular – failures, such big ideas are all far beyond the embryotic stage of notes on a napkin and ‘work’ in their own way. Besides, ideas of consumerism and non-intervention are backed by almost limitless money and economic interests.
The latter matters, as the economic and cultural forces that created this vulnerability to disaster are still at work. Thus the first thing we as socially minded people need to do is not to make assumptions about tomorrow, but face our defeat yesterday. Individualism and consumerism have beaten social consideration, and those driven by reckless selfishness are likely to get away with it, while those of us who acted responsible will receive no reward. Privatization and deregulation has beaten preparedness or responsive capacity, and it’s main sponsors got richer while governments rack up bills. Where can we go from here in avoiding a new pandemic or any other collective action problem (climate change! Robots!) that liberalism is defenseless against?
It is clear that we need to find a way to boost social consciousness. General education would be a simple answer, but I am uncertain how relevant this is given the dangers of reckless behavior where well-advertised and straightforward. And given how surprisingly many ‘Covidiots’ are ‘well prepared’ people. While a lack of basic scientific knowledge plays a role, we are more lacking in ethics, honesty and discipline itself. As I wrote in a previous essay, a sociology of self-control is needed: how can we organize it? One puzzle piece is to make the social in social-conscious more visible and tangible, and keep working on creating a less unequal, more inclusive society. But also to more clearly show the norms and needs of this society. I still believe people respond to norms and expectations when called out, but we rarely call each other out on our almost habitual sins such as tax fraud, water waste, and in this case lack of hygiene.
On the more political front, the Left should understand that while it will be frustrated in its ambitions because of an incoming return to budgetary austerity, it rhetorically has the advantage. While far from death, it is safe to say that liberalism has much to explain after being exposed once again. Of course, this weakness could as well be exploited by nationalism instead of socialism. Still, it is a good moment to reclaim the mantle of realism for the Left, and underscore the truth that its key policies (social insurance, regulation, collective services, etc.) reliable save the day. The aftermath of this crisis is an opportunity to spread those policies to places that still lack them, such as unemployment insurance for Mexico and public healthcare to the U.S., and to claim policy space to experiment with new ones. But that is for a different essay.