Like most great economic upheavals, the crisis of 2008–9 yielded a momentary sense of possibility.
Wrenched from a complacent slumber by the sudden meltdown of the global financial system, even governments of the center-right seemed to be doing the unthinkable. The End of History was over. Deficit hawkishness was out and Keynesianism was back in, or so the story went. Even nationalization, that anachronistic tool of postwar statism, was no longer off limits.
With the landslide election of what many believed would be the most ambitious liberal administration since the 1930s in the United States, the political-economic consensus in place since the fall of the Berlin Wall appeared poised for a sweeping and potentially radical revision.
What happened next is now well-known. With the totems of high finance safely pulled back from the precipice, most governments pivoted swiftly to fiscal constraint. Having spent lavishly to secure the markets and avoid total economic collapse, states led by conservatives, liberals, and social democrats alike began downloading the financial burden onto their populations and did their utmost to transfer wealth upward through a bonanza of tax cuts and privatization.
The political talking du jour became the economy-as-household, a reductive and bogus metaphor that nevertheless worked to justify every strain of neoliberal alchemy under the sun. With remarkable agility, right-wing ideologues and Milton Friedman devotees throughout Europe and North America successfully transformed a crisis of finance capitalism into one of bloated public sectors and excessive government spending. The implications of their victory were still being felt when the current pandemic hit.
Though every crisis is different, the global recession wrought by COVID-19 already shares at least one immediate parallel with that of 2008–9. In a similarly abrupt fashion, entire states went into lockdown — shuttering economic activity on a scale that would have been unthinkable only weeks before. As Sam Gindin observed in April, what happened next amounted to a truly remarkable reversal in dominant political discourse.
No less than France’s Emmanuel Macron — the golden boy of neoliberal reform who had once pledged to remake the country into a “startup” — was suddenly championing both socialized medicine and the welfare state as “precious resources, indispensable advantages when destiny strikes.” Right-wing bozos like Boris Johnson started asking manufacturers to shift production to ventilators and even the Trump administration was mandating a federal evictions freeze.
For a fleeting moment, many again wondered whether this rupture in the political consensus would produce something, anything new. COVID, it seemed, had torn our political presuppositions asunder and opened new horizons to be exploited, for better or for worse.
With sudden chatter about massive cash payouts to the American working class coming from the unlikeliest of places, would a refashioned populist right emerge to spell the end of small-government conservatism? Would the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for president, a lifelong conservative, remodel himself as a twenty-first-century FDR? Would an atrophied American ruling class finally abandon its bipartisan opposition to universal health care? With the core institutions of capitalism itself momentarily shaken to their foundations, would other transformative enterprises like a green industrial revolution suddenly come to occupy the mainstream?
Only a few months removed from the pandemic’s onset, most of this talk already looks ridiculous. Political leaders did indeed act quickly and take extraordinary measures to combat the crisis. But many now seem equally resolute in their desire to restore the pre-COVID equilibrium — firm in the conviction that the normal operation of capitalism is simply too sacred to be interrupted for long.
Barring something extraordinary, the relative purgatory of eased lockdowns and phased reopenings is thus almost certain to be followed by a renewed spirit of crisis — particularly once political leaderships determine that the virus has been sufficiently contained to shift attention to its economic fallout.
If 2009 is any indication, the rhetoric of the past several months — that of extraordinary measures, wartime nostalgia, and social solidarity in the face of disaster — will soon give way to one of hard-headed political realism (with collectivist appeals replaced by a lexicon of belt-tightening, tough choices, “finding efficiencies,” and “living within our means”).
In June, the World Bank projected a more than 5 percent contraction of the global economy this year with most national economies going into recession and per capita income contracting “in the largest fraction of countries globally since 1870.” Earlier this summer, the US federal government posted its single biggest monthly deficit in history. Canada projects its largest budgetary shortfall since the Second World War, and the same dynamic seems likely to be the norm throughout many economies.
Though the cause of the current crisis is admittedly quite different, the basic fact of large deficits coupled with pressure from financial interests could be enough to push many governments toward austerity again. The latter, in fact, was arguably the major reason political leaderships pursued deflationary fiscal policies after the 2008 meltdown. As Gindin writes:
There was a very concrete reason for why any stimulus was approached so gingerly. For capitalist economies that are based on private finance to function, the confidence of financial institutions is paramount. This implied bailing out and consolidating the banks and others (workers) paying for this in terms of both income and if necessary, jobs — i.e., austerity rather than direct economic expansion. And even as banks returned to solid footing, that same concern to not upset the financial “community” meant that governments were reluctant to ignore financiers’ warnings of stimulus leading to inflation and the erosion of the financial systems’ assets.
Such pressure, or at least a preliminary version of it, is already rearing its head. As the New York Times reported last week, some corporate executives are urging Joe Biden to abandon key commitments around taxation and spending — one notably using a recent fundraising call to argue new expenditures should be paired with spending cuts. Given his political history, it’s exactly the kind of rhetoric Biden is primed to receive in earnest and, in the absence of significant pressure from another source, act upon without a second thought.
Many right-wing administrations won’t even face this potential impediment, the nihilism of cuts and disaster capitalism already being latent in their political DNA. A reelected Trump administration would have a handy pretext for a second-term agenda almost too sinister to contemplate, and much the same can be said about governments led by the likes of Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi.
If recent history provides any template, a new and brutal phase of the crisis may well lie ahead as an immanent public health emergency is gradually transformed in public discourse into one of bloated states and untethered government spending. Confirming a warning issued by Naomi Klein in March, the latest phase of disaster capitalism has already come and gone in the form of massive giveaways to corporate interests and the superrich.
Barring a successful political mobilization in the year ahead, we’re about to be hit by a second.