With every part of our lives facing upheaval, the only certainty is uncertainty

March 24, 2020  |  By Luca Tiratelli, Policy Researcher, NLGN

It feels like only a cliché will do as a title for this article. Maybe this tells you something about my writing ability – but, maybe, just as love-songs on the radio only make sense when you’re in love, apocalyptic clichés do just make more sense now. These truly are strange times.

But it’s not the strangeness of the present that we should be fixating on. It’s the insecurity of the future. Hugely powerful forces are swirling all around us, sometimes rubbing alongside each other, sometimes clashing together, meaning that the only certainty is that serious change is now coming. The political and economic era that was ushered in by right wing governments across the world in the 1980s stands on the brink of ruin, and what will come next is unknowable. All we can do is acknowledge these forces and assess the directions they are pushing in.

Economically, the blunt force of this pandemic, and the recession that will follow it, seem to necessitate a revival of state interventionism. Spending taps will be turned on, and money will flow from central government in ways not seen for generations, as infrastructure is built, services are invested in, and teetering sectors of the economy are propped up. Climate change already exposed a need for this kind of economic paradigm shift – and itself will serve to bolster the argument for the continuation of this kind of crisis-footing in treasury departments around the world for the rest of the decade.

Both COVID-19 and climate change are also, to a certain extent, crises of globalisation, with the connective infrastructure of global-capitalism serving as exacerbating factors for both issues. This fact, married to the forces of national-populism currently sweeping electoral politics, suggests that the very idea of a globalised economy may come into question in the 2020s in new and unprecedented ways. And yet, some what paradoxically, both COVID-19 and climate change also demonstrate the value of international decision making and coordination in the face of the challenges of the 21st century. Here the forces of populism are their enemy, and the conflict that ensues will set the tone for much of global politics in the coming years.

There is also potential for the next decade to see massive social change. If our current state of lockdown and homeworking is prolonged, the implications for how we interact with one and other and operate as a society are likely to be profound. For organisations that find homeworking works well for them, a question may arise as to whether paying expensive rents for office space is a good investment. If large sections of the economy have this experience, this will have massive implications for the property market, and for land use in urban areas. This is a genie that may be hard to be put back in its bottle, and when combined with other forces that loom over the idea of work, such as artificial intelligence and automation, it becomes easy to imagine that the coming decade may be totally transformative for labour practice.

Such a workplace (or non-workplace) revolution will have profound implications for our social and domestic lives, which will themselves likely already be facing disturbance from other forces. As over the last decade, technology will continue to disrupt. Climate change will reshape basic areas of modern life, like how and what we eat, and where and how we travel. In short, all aspects of the social will be up for reimagination.

The potential is there for the next decade to be tumultuous in ways unseen in the post-war period. Would it be hyperbolic to imagine something akin to the social change of the 60s, combined with economic change of the 80s? It’s easy to imagine that the days you are living through are more important than they are (remember all those parliamentary debates last year that seemed so crucial at the time?). But it’s hard to escape the feeling today that we are on the brink of a whole new world.

For those of us who consider ourselves progressives, we must adapt to the new reality fast. Reactionary forces will be ready, as they always are, with their simplistic narratives and destructive solutions. We must match them, by being ready to harness the newly powered-up state for the common good. We must be ready to accept the new ecological, economic and political realities that we are faced with, and ensure that we are not just reaching for old solutions.

Perhaps most importantly, we must be ready to empower communities, so that they can provide an anchor for people in these choppy waters. Communities do not suffer from the lack of trust that dogs so many of our institutions, and they are intrinsically robust in a way that will be most valuable in the coming tumult. Deep engagement with them will be key to creating a better world out of this period of flux.