The past 18 months have been the most extraordinary any of us have lived through outside wartime. Covid, which started in Wuhan to initial denial, became a pandemic, sparing no country from mass deaths, deep recession, unemployment and an epidemic of poor mental health and fearfulness. The world only found its way to relatively calmer waters – and then only temporary calm – because of extraordinary advances in vaccine development and manufacture along with agile management of the international financial system, allowing less creditworthy governments to borrow trillions with little sense of crisis. Even the derided (in Britain at least) EU managed to step up to the plate with increasingly effective collective action. What Covid has prompted, above all, as these two remarkable books agree, is root and branch reassessment of the way our societies must organise themselves.
Yet for the moment, as Adam Tooze writes in his exhaustive and clear-eyed panorama of all that has happened, the forces propelling what he dubs the great acceleration of unmanaged globalisation remain intact. The world continues to handle crisis after crisis with institutions, geopolitical rivalries, absurd ideologies and vicious inequalities that will ultimately exhaust the reactive ad hoc approach that has worked so far. It is, as he calls his opening chapter, an age of organised irresponsibility.
He excuses no country from avoidable mistakes – everyone hesitated during lockdown. And while he gives credit where it is due – the aggression of China’s self-isolation once it acted or the willingness of the US Federal Reserve to offer trillions of dollars of credit domestically and globally – he also doles out appropriate criticism. The Chinese Communist party heads in Wuhan disguised what was going on, and the leadership in Beijing initially dismissed the threat. And if the Fed acted to an unprecedented degree, it was not to play its part in creating a “new social contract” – it was to serve the threatened national and international interests of US finance. Its masters were in Wall Street, not Capitol Hill.
The collective result has been more shutdown than lockdown – hence the title of Tooze’s book. Four in five workers worldwide experienced furlough, short-term working, enforced working from home or unemployment – a stunning statistic. Governments everywhere turned on the fiscal and monetary taps to bust old rules about what was formerly considered prudent. The Fed, the EU’s ECB and the Bank of England bought newly issued government bonds, in effect printing money, which was copied by central banks in Latin America, Africa and Asia – all to allow governments to spend what was required on vaccination, public health and saving their economies. If ever there were proof positive of Keynes’s great maxim “anything we can actually do we can afford”, it was this.
Covid has led to the death of libertarianism , the intellectual cover for what Tooze describes as “ fascistoid” elements in the US Republican party who obstructed in the person of Donald Trump – and who continue to obstruct purposeful public action to save lives. But above all, it was killed by our collective behaviour. Confronted by unknown risks, most social distancing was initiated and observed not by governments but by people trying to protect themselves. Libertarian Tories, baying about the loss of individual freedoms posed by lockdown, were out of sync with the British public and humankind.
But for all his brilliance as a contemporary chronicler, Tooze offers no solutions. He is a kind of latterday flagellant, telling his readers to prepare for he knows not what doom. Dark forces remain unchecked and uncheckable. For hope turn to Hilary Cooper and Simon Szreter and After the Virus.
Although their critique of the Johnson government’s handling of the pandemic would have been more rounded had they recognised that failures were ubiquitous and international, it is their blending of history and ways forward that is original and compelling. Any strong economy depends on a strong society capable of helping the disadvantaged – true for our times, they argue, and across history. The chapter on the birth of what they call “collectivist individualism” through Elizabeth I’s launch of the poor law and charitable giving in 1601 is eye-opening. Here was Europe’s first universal welfare state, requiring every one of England’s 10,000 parishes to take responsibility for their poor while incentivising charitable giving to hospitals and schools. The result, they claim, was that England, and soon Britain, was able to handle plagues, crop failures and recessions better than anywhere in Europe for the next two centuries – permitting the migration of workers confident in their security to growth hotspots that underwrote the Industrial Revolution and the UK’s economic pre-eminence. It was only when the system was unravelled from 1834 onwards, in the name of individual responsibility and penalising the workshy, that Britain fell back – alleviated temporarily by the 1945-51 social settlement.
Cooper and Szreter turn the argument of Thatcherite historians such as Correlli Barnett – that “welfarism” softened British society – on its head. Moreover, their position opens the door to seven principles, ranging from the establishment of ethical capitalism to a nurturing state, on which future collectivist individualism must rest if Britain is to prosper and manage the risks of the 21st century better. Fuse these two illuminating books as a basis for action and our future would be much brighter.
Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy by Adam Tooze is published by Allen Lane (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply