22. Five ideas for a better world post COVID

ft. political scientist and sociologist Bram Büscher

Welcome back to Giving to Strangers. Every issue I explore what matters in social good and offer sane, relevant donation advice. Giving to Strangers is written by me, Anya Marchenko.

The pandemic feels increasingly under control, and sometimes kind of over, in the United States. People are having normal dinner parties, even parties parties, coffee dates with strangers, work lunches that would’ve been a Zoom meeting.

And yet, as our social world opens up and you can practically hear the whoosh of people rushing out of hibernation, a larger reflection seems missing from (at least my) newfound social interactions. If you had asked me in May 2020, I would had said that there would be a Great Reckoning when we are all back together. I would predict that people will come out of hibernation more aware (‘educated,’ as those Instagram posts say) and would want to debrief with each other about how the myriad crises of the last year has changed them. Will they donate more now? Attend different protests? Follow new movements?

But instead, I’ve heard a lot of pandemic small talk, “Wow, how weird to be indoors!” or “This is my first bar/party/restaurant/movie theater post vaccine.” In my hangouts, no one has shifted the conversation to reflect on a deeper level.

It is obvious that we cannot go back to the way that things were before the pandemic. But that requires us to have new conversations and absorb new ideas. How should we think about what paradigm shifts have taken place, and what lessons there are to learn about how to build (or not to build) a just society?1

A new paper published in the journal of Global Development that reflects on these questions and provides a way forward.

In Planning for a world beyond COVID-19: Five pillars for post-neoliberal development, the authors argue that COVID-19 has exposed the major weaknesses and damage wrought by our dominant model of economic development for the last 30 years, neoliberalism.

The Hewlett Foundation defines neoliberalism as “an approach to political economy that rests on three core beliefs: (1) society consists of individuals with a natural right of liberty that they exercise by seeking to maximize their own welfare; (2) the overall aim of a good society is to maximize wealth through economic growth; and (3) to protect liberty while enabling competing individuals to maximize wealth, the proper role of government is to encase and protect free markets.”

In the last year, neoliberalism has intersected painfully with COVID-19, as the authors describe:

The COVID-19 crisis has painfully exposed the weaknesses of this neoliberal growth machine. Amongst other immediate impacts we have seen: large companies begging for immediate state support once effective demand falls away for even a short time; countries depending on debt-fuelled export-oriented growth models falling into major financial difficulties; tremendous strain placed on already underfunded healthcare systems; looming hunger and famine in low-income societies as inequitable food systems are stretched to their limits (Kalu, 2020); chaos and near stand-still in global tourism; precarious and insecure jobs being lost or put on hold; and much more.

In light of these upheavals, it is vital to start imagining paths to reform post-COVID. The authors offer five such priorities to shape research and policy, which I outline below. I spoke with one of the paper’s coauthors, Bram Büscher, a political scientist and sociologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, to help me better understand the recommendations.

The ideas below are not a laundry list of legislation that policymakers should pass. Instead, they have implications for the norms that shape our decisions, from what we buy, to how we travel, to what work we do (see especially #3). Let’s run through the authors’ ideas for development post-COVID.

Idea 1: Move away from economic development focused on rapid, often unsustainable growth

Neoliberalism is a system “demands ever-growing circulation of goods and people, despite the countless socio-ecological problems and growing inequalities this generates.” It is an ideology that prioritizes growth: more things produced, more hours worked, more people working, more trade.

This growth-at-all-costs, ‘go go go’ economy is a function of neoliberalism (“The core of the [neoliberalist process] depends on circulation,” Büscher explains). But economic growth does not necessarily translate into wellbeing for citizens, and often comes at the expense of the environment or human welfare.

The authors argue that we need to question assumption that growth (increase in GDP per capita, # of jobs added) should be the yardstick that we use to measure how well we’re doing.

Idea 2: Create an economic framework focused on redistribution and care

The pandemic made it clear that the care and service workers who are most essential to our society’s functioning are also some of society’s least appreciated and supported people. At the same time, it was too easy for the rich to make profits on their backs (in some cases quite literally, such as Bezos’s billions and high rates of workplace injuries at Amazon). To address this, the authors recommend ending the “regressive redistribution of wealth to the rich,” including the “massive haemorrhaging of wealth from poorer parts of the world through tax avoidance and evasion by some of the richest corporations in the world.”

Idea 3: Transform food/land management towards towards regenerative agriculture and convivial conservation

Our food system is ecologically, medically, and ethically unsustainable. The pandemic made this clear, as COVID-19 is a zoonotic virus that likely originated in a meat market, but it is also clear in the everyday destruction of ecosystems around factory farms, animal welfare abuses, and the consequences of a high-processed diet for our health. To address this, the authors envision a healing agriculture, which “requires methods and visions for food and farming that are not just circular, but actively regenerative and founded on taking care of people, animals, soils and the environment.”

Idea 4: Reduce consumption and travel

Reducing travel and consumption might seem like small potatoes when compared to the first three priorities. Büscher agrees that travel is not as important as the first three priorities in terms of enacting structural macroeconomic change. Rather, it’s meant to provoke a conversation about our consumer choices and how current consumption and travel “satisfy artificially created needs and desires that are continuously reinvented by advertisement firms to push growth.”

Travel in the age of social media feels like checking boxes for photo opportunities and further participating in a capitalist/consumption cycle instead of escaping from it. In this system, Büscher describes how “we, as human beings, are seen as commodities that need to put our bodies into circulation.” Indeed, “travel is increasingly touristic,” and “has less and less to do with opening your mind and seeing the world.”

Idea 5: Cancel debt for workers, small business owners, and low-income countries

At first, cancelling debt might seem like a wacky recommendation (especially to someone trained in economics like me). But in our conversation, Büscher urged me to think about how debt functions within the neoliberalist context, especially through how it structures power relations between debtors and lenders.

“The best thing that can happen to the current system is if all of us are in debt,” Buscher explains. “Because then we have less and less space to actually think critically about the system that we're in, because we need to work hard to repay our debts.”

America’s student debt crisis is the perfect example of this. Due to rising costs, students take on large student loans just to pay for college. The looming prospect of having to pay off all that money makes them more risk-averse and desirous of greater financial stability. This means that students who would otherwise pursue more meaningful jobs in activism, nonprofits, or faith leadership are pushed into lower satisfaction but higher paying jobs like consulting, banking, and accounting. 

That’s why to break free from neoliberalism, “moving beyond growth is an important part, but going beyond debt is the other side of it,” Buscher says. “Because that allows people to all of a sudden become citizens again, who can start to think about their own future. Or societies can start thinking about how they want to invest money, time, energy — not to make more to repay their debts — but to do something great, to make people happy to spend time in nature, to regenerate ecosystems.”

Why do these prescriptions matter?

Why should we grapple with these ideas? Why should we consider what neoliberalism is and how it shapes our thinking? In their initiative to replace neoliberalism, the Hewlett Foundation does a good job of unpacking why intellectual paradigms matter:

An intellectual paradigm influences the outcomes of politics by structuring the arguments among competing players, and by tilting the playing field for or against different claims—putting tailwinds behind certain positions, and headwinds before others.

We see this, for instance, in the broad rejection of the elite institutions on both the left and the right that have sustained and embedded neoliberalism in our systems over the past four decades. At present, however, the only things that look remotely like alternatives are China’s harsh system of state-controlled capitalism without individual rights or democracy, and the noxious ethnonationalism that underlays the election of right-wing, illiberal governments in countries around the world in recent years. That neoliberalism will be replaced is, at this point, inevitable. But you cannot beat something with nothing, and we need a better alternative than the ones currently on offer.

Which strangers should you give to?

As I mentioned above, the Hewlett Foundation recently launched a $50 million, 5 year effort to support organizations fostering a new “common sense” about how the economy works and the aims it should serve (i.e., to replace neoliberalism). They are supporting academia, media, activists, and other groups who are developing and translating ideas that could form a new intellectual paradigm for our future.

Hewlett done more research than I could on my own to make grants to amazing organizations (some of which I already support, such as the Boston Review and Economists for Inclusive Prosperity).

You can see their list of grantees to get some ideas - whether for your own giving, or simply for ideas of players to follow - here:

Orgs working beyond neoliberalism


Quotes

I love quotes, so each newsletter I share some of the quotes I’ve written down over the last two weeks.

I’m rarely able to highlight everything from a interview that I’d like to into a piece, so below are some outstanding quotes from my conversation with Bram Büscher:

On key elements of neoliberalism:

There's always the idea of the spectacle, as things get spectacularized and need to draw attention; there's always what I call the politics of marketing; and there's a very particular idea about markets as places where supply and demand come together without political interference, which I don't believe is actually the case. I mean, I'm a political economist. So I think interests and the distribution of goods and services always come together.

On being told to “be more realistic,” and neoliberalism as an ideology:

I don't know how many times you've heard, “Oh, what you're proposing is not realistic", but I've heard this tons of times. This is literally neoliberal power speaking to you, to stop thinking and to get in line with ideological hegemony. So in the book we literally say, "No, our [proposals] are not realistic.... in this realism." But we need another realism.

That is again why we need to think about neoliberalism as an ideology. Because ideology works to propel itself. You need to believe in it.

This is where I have some problems with types of left thinking that go too far into a diversity mode. If everything is plural and only about diversity, then it's hard to hold on to certain pillars that guide you through the dynamics of actual development and change. And this is what neoliberalism did so well, it was incredibly versatile and incredibly dynamic in terms of how it works in China, how it works in Chile, how it works in the US, how it worked in South Africa. It held on to certain pillars.

That's why [the pillars] are so central to the article. Because through the plurality of the world and development initiatives and diversity, which we highly appreciate and don’t want to get rid of, you need something to hold on to, to push for change. Otherwise you will never actually get to a political platform that can be implemented across space and time.

Other quotes:

The [assembly line] increased the market for mass-produced goods, while simultaneously diminishing the market for the craftsman’s handcrafted goods. As such, it played a role in increasing living standards for many. But it also had the effect of turning many human agents into mere appendages within a vast, impersonal, and relentless mechanism of production

— Kenneth Lee, philosopher, Boston Review, May 2021

Technology is always and only developed and deployed by humans, in various political, social, and economic contexts. Ultimately, it is and must be entirely up to us, and up to us collectively, whether, how, and to what end it is developed and deployed. As soon as we lose sight of the fact that it is up to us collectively to determine whether AI is to be developed and deployed in a way that enhances the human world rather than diminishes it, it is all too easy to give in to either utopian cheerleading or dystopian fear-mongering.

— Kenneth Lee, philosopher, Boston Review, May 2021

1

This reflection is happening in the public sphere (there is practically a cottage industry of articles on what society/universities/workplaces will look like after COVID-19).