“We can’t go back to normal: How will coronavirus change the world?” was the title of an article in the Guardian. The subtitle read, “times of upheaval are always times of radical change. Some believe the pandemic is a once-in-a-generation chance to remake society and build a better future. Others fear it may only make existing injustices worse”. Several commentators quoted were divided into two camps: the optimists and the pessimists.
The author, Peter C Baker, notes, “Any glance at history reveals that crises and disasters have continually set the stage for change, often for the better”. But, he warns, “crises can also send societies down darker paths.”
He notes, “in such moments, whatever is broken in society gets revealed for just how broken it is”. But, he adds, “disasters and emergencies do not just throw light on the world as it is. They also rip open the fabric of normality. Through the hole that opens up we glimpse possibilities of other worlds”. Whilst some things are lost, others are gained. But “it’s never just one or the other, loss and gain always co-exist.”
The pessimists, he says, hold the view that, “the task is not to fight the virus in order to return to ‘business-as-usual’, because business-as-usual is already a disaster”. The goal is to fight it and in doing achieve something more humane and secure.
In my view it would be the pessimist that seeks to return to business-as-usual rather than something better. A realist, not a pessimist, would conclude that business-as-usual is a disaster for many, and fails the vast majority. The evidence of the failings is not hard to find. They are numerous.
We might take inspiration from Rebecca Solnit who Baker cites in his column. In her book, A Paradise Built in Hell (2009). She suggests disasters open up human reserves of improvisation, solidarity and resolve, pockets of purpose and joy, even in the midst of loss and pain”, says Baker. Solnit’s work pays attention to the possibilities a crisis may contain, and how it might shake us loose from our old ways, he says.
Baker goes on to say, the optimists hope we might begin to see the world differently, that we may conclude the market should not dominate as many spheres of human existence as we currently allow them to.
Another suggestion is that we might now realise that although the current crisis is likely to be the biggest since the second world war, we might finally recognise the how big the risk of the climate change crisis is, and that we should not continue to ignore the advice of scientists. It may also highlight the inability of governments to cooperate effectively, even in the face of a crisis that has no borders.
The article cites Mike Davis, a chronicler of disasters, saying “the political outcome of the epidemic will, like all political outcomes, be decided by struggle, by battles over interpretations, by pointing out what causes problems and what resolves them”. The same could be said for the battle of ideas that academics and others may have, not only politicians.
Then, Baker concludes his article saying, “the past few weeks have exposed the fact the biggest things can always change at any minute. This simple truth, both destabilising and liberating, is easy to forget”.
In the context of the above, let me state that I am a realist – after this is all over, the last thing we need is a return to business-as-usual given the evidence the system is broken existed well before this crisis. I am also an optimist – if we can demonstrate the ways in which the failed form of capitalism exacerbated the current crisis , we might see more people being willing to embrace the necessary changes.
The crisis has already stimulated a greater willingness to explore new ideas, and write new narratives to describe better world views. By revisiting older ideas, how they were different, and how they evolved to get us where we are today, we can also begin to imagine different futures and design a better future.
It is for these reasons I decided the time is right to launch three inquires. The first is an inquiry to establish A 21st Century Theory of Moral Sentiments”, the second will establish a “21st century Theory of Value”. The third, building on these first two, will be “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Prosperity of Nations”.
You may have recognised these titles are inspired by the works of the 18th century philosopher and economist Adam Smith. The rationale for this approach is to explore the origins of what we value, based on our morals, ethics and values. Then we can consider what it means to prosper, and how nations prosper.
The current crisis is leading many to question what they truly value, and what we value as a society. So, let’s explore these question deeply. We will arrive at better answers, answers that help establish a better definition of prosperity, and better designs for achieving it. In these ways we can ensure this crisis generates opportunities we do not miss.