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The Left Must Offer a Transformative Post-Pandemic Agenda — Or Risk an Emboldened Right

Around the world, the global pandemic has spurred widespread public hunger for radical economic and political change. It’s a historic opportunity the global left must seize — or risk watching as it’s seized by the Right.

East Bay Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members on May Day 2017.

For a non-negligible chunk of the world’s population, the coronavirus pandemic probably represents the single biggest disruption in daily life since the Second World War. It should come as no surprise, then, that COVID-19 appears to have yielded a significant shift in public attitudes, both toward the economy and the role of the state. And though it offers only a partial picture, a new analysis from the Pew Research Center strongly suggests the ground in the post-pandemic era may be fertile for a transformative political program.

The just-published study, conducted among thousands of adults across four countries in late 2020, identifies a general appetite for significant political and economic reform — particularly when it comes to public goods and the role of the state. “Across the United States, France, Germany and the United Kingdom,” Pew’s researchers write, “significant shares believe their economic system needs either major changes or a complete overhaul.” This desire was by far the strongest in France, where some 70 percent favored one or the other — though in the other three countries studied, roughly half supported either major changes or a complete overhaul.

“Change” and “overhaul,” of course, are ultimately subjective frames, which is why other questions posed in Pew’s analysis are particularly instructive. The survey gauged support for five hypothetical actions by states, with publics in all four countries generally voicing a high level of approval for each. Among all five, the relatively tame idea of government-sponsored job and skills training for workers was most often cited by respondents as “very important” for their government to pursue.

But considerable shares also endorsed redistributive measures and viewed them as priorities: the construction of public housing, increased benefits for the poor, and tax hikes on the wealthy (the general idea of a universal basic income was also received favorably, although Pew’s question contained no specifics about program design). In the UK, France, and Germany, some 67, 58, and 53 percent, respectively, responded that government regulation of business is good for society. Only in America, where the split was 46-50, did a larger share of people respond that government regulation of business is bad.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the desire for reform and overhaul is inflected by ideology. In the United States, for example, some 77 percent of left-leaning participants in Pew’s survey favored significant changes to the economy at minimum, compared with less than half identified with the center and only a third identified with the right. As a matter of course, those in higher income brackets were the least likely to support redistributive policies.

The usual caveats about the reliability of opinion polling notwithstanding, Pew’s findings suggest COVID-19 may have dealt something of a blow to the market dogmas which have dominated global politics since the 1980s — potentially creating opportunities for the Left in the post-pandemic era. In many ways, in fact, it may be useful to think of COVID-19 as merely one stage in a wider crisis of capitalism that began in late 2008. The pandemic, after all, didn’t fall from the sky to push a basically functioning global order into crisis: it ultimately exacerbated existing inequalities and brought the deep unfairness of the current social order into sharper relief. It also exposed, yet again, the inadequacy of the market in the face of disaster — even right-leaning governments have had to intervene and spend to prevent total breakdown. For this reason and others, the Left can and should seize the narrative in the months and years ahead to push a transformative redistributive agenda.

An inadequate left response will doubtless mean a new wave of austerity as neoliberal governments default to the rhetoric of belt-tightening or, still worse, a resurgent populist right. The failure of the Trump administration to offer a more dynamic response to the virus or use it as a pretext for realignment should not be taken as illustrative in the post-pandemic era. A more innovative right-wing politics might have seized the moment to dispense with anti-statist orthodoxies and fuse a traditional conservative agenda with exclusionary forms of redistribution — a project that could yet find new legs if governments opt to respond to national deficits with another round of cuts.

After 2008–9, disaster capitalism reigned. After COVID-19, the Left must do its utmost to ensure it doesn’t return.