Never let a serious crisis go to waste was the title of a 2013 book by Philip Mirowski [i], which looked at the 2008 financial crisis and how in its aftermath the banking and economics world conspired to shift the blame for the global collapse on to everyone else’s shoulders, and how they created a story that it had happened because the principles of neoliberalism were not being followed strongly enough. And they were pretty successful at doing that.
12 years later, another serious crisis hits the world, and of course, there is every possibility that a similar narrative will emerge. However, it would be nice to think that something different could happen, that this will be an opportunity for everyone around the world to reflect on how the global system is not necessarily working for everyone. The rich are getting richer, but the poor are getting poorer and sicker. In wealthy countries such as the United Kingdom financial and health inequalities are growing, life expectancies are stalling, the mental health of younger people is deteriorating, the quality of our air and our general ecosystems is getting worse. Is this because neoliberalism is not being applied strongly enough?
In my area of professional practice, learning, reflection is crucial. Reflecting on what we are doing and what we have done in order to learn. Now, being confined to our homes with immediate partners, could be a time for us all to reflect seriously on the world around us. Let’s start with this virus. Is it just bad luck? Maybe not, research has shown that the number of infectious diseases originating from human contact with animals is increasing [ii], arguably a result of our destruction of natural ecosystems and the increasing confinement of animals for consumption. If so, our apparent need for ever greater consumption and global travel is going to mean that pandemics such as we are currently experiencing may become increasingly common.
I recently read a paper [iii] talking about the idea of a ‘learning society’, one where we all actively think about what we are doing, why we are doing it and what this might mean in terms of our existence on this precious planet. What is the point of all of this futile consumption, buying more and more stuff, going to more and more exotic places? Is it really making us any happier? The current lockdown means that there are far fewer cars on the road, the air is cleaner, our cities are quieter, we seem to have more time to look at the world. Now is a perfect time to start local, national and global conversations about what we want out of our limited time in this world. I would like to think that the media would take a role in starting this debate, but I am not seeing many signs of it.
One of Mirowski’s core ideas is that we have all been infected by the virus of ‘everyday neoliberalism’, that each of us sees ourselves as an individual, exercising our rational choice, striving to ensure our individual success. But what we are seeing with COVID-19 is that we can only survive by working together and making individual sacrifices for a greater, common good. We need to reflect on what is happening around us and take this forward so that once Covid-19 is a part of our history we can develop a society which works for everyone, not just the rich.
[i] Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (London: Verso Books, 2013).
[ii] Katherine F. Smith et al., ‘Global Rise in Human Infectious Disease Outbreaks’, Journal of The Royal Society Interface 11, no. 101 (2014).
[iii] John Foster, ‘Sustainability, Higher Education and the Learning Society’, Environmental Education Research 8, no. 1 (2002): 35–41.