In the aftermath of the Second World War, Bertrand Russell noted how this conflict had triggered paradoxical outcomes within the British political economy. To conduct war, the armed forces and the production of munitions had withdrawn a large volume of labour from productive occupations. The U-boat menace threatened to cut the isles from the output of foreign work and, with the fall of France, Whitehall met the overstretching undertakings of strategic solitude. Yet, despite mounting constraints on the civilian sphere, the general well-being of British low skilled wage-earners improved during the conflict. With one third of the British population engaged in war-work, Britain´s GDP in 1941 was 21% greater than in 1938 and, by the height of the war, domestic caloric output had doubled. Behind this feat stood the scientific organisation of production and national universal rationing. Concealed by heavy taxation and the public borrowing that underpinned the state-led planning of the economy, Britain had, through modern technique, liberated vast amounts of labour-hours for the purpose of fighting. An achievement that, in terms of the access to utility of the modal worker, even surpassed its peace-time normal.
Far from a distant political economy case-study, Britain´s home-front miracle constitutes a valuable interpretive tale applicable to the organisational derivatives of the current pandemic. Today, as in wartime, pressure to shrink the volume of labour-hours within the civilian economy has interfered with the normal of capitalist production and allocation. To accommodate the imperatives of national quarantines, governments have been forced into extra-market mechanisms of distributional legitimacy and access to utility has been partially re-regulated. Following this political causality, we have witnessed the deployment of de facto basic incomes and the freezing of utility bills and rent. Market interventions have ensured critical supplies and, through decisive policy exceptionalism, non-essential work has been heavily restricted. Once again, behind financial façades of savings and public debt, Covid-19 political economies have exposed how little labour is required to satisfy the fundamental necessities of all. Even at non-scientific levels of productive efficiency, blue-collar per capita utility could have surpassed its pre-pandemic mark without compromising de-escalation. Had they felt the political necessity to do so, governments could have rendered work accidental and, through modern productivity, comfort could have become the norm if citizenship had ruled economic purpose.
Yet, despite its proven potential, the dream of utilitarian reason will likely not germinate within our contemporary political ontology. As in post-war Britain, the upcoming the post-pandemic world will be shaped by the restitution of what Bertrand Russell defined as “the old chaos”; the non-utilitarian rule and teleology of economic scale. Far from building upon the organisational architecture which streamlined the function between utility and necessary work, capital accumulation will be re-enthroned as the mechanical and moral governor of human effort. With the return of the Ancien Régime, the technical platform which once underpinned the abolition of toil will now contribute to increased unemployment, in-work poverty and psychosocial vulnerability. Productive bureaucracy will set us back on a collision course with sustainability and leisure will be, once again, overridden by scarcity and the systemic glorification of work. While the shared psychological effects of this pandemic might produce a modern equivalent of the Beveridge Report, it is certain that its core will still remain within the parameters of social and economic madness.
In this regard, even at the gates of environmental and economic collapse, advocates for a post-pandemic New Deal still remain loyal to the operational rationale of the statu quo. While Keynesians and the MMT camp continue to adhere to the ideology of more and better work, we have long passed the point beyond which GDP growth is positively correlated with increased happiness. Heir to the pre-industrial morality of the slave state, the concept of full employment is both anachronistic and inefficient within our advanced post-Malthusian world. It underpins a moral hierarchy of segregated leisure and, under non-scientific management, it ensures that most available labour is deployed under sub-optimal levels of economic efficiency. As a consequence, pledging allegiance to operational inertia not only sabotages the brain-power and economic scale required to further lift our productivity ceiling, but also legitimates a sacrificial abolition of leisure with almost no real societal return. Particularly, if we consider its collateral environmental fallout.
Derived from these factors, it is possible to argue that social policy cannot remain within the operational and teleological enclosure of the statu quo. To serve their purpose, social agendas must break from the hierarchical and anachronistic interpretive limits of the econocratic paradigm. They must address the social centrality of what we define today as “unproductive” and embrace a societal future shaped by degrowth and labour de-escalation, science-led production and citizenship-based allocation. In the advent of the multi-dimensional crisis of our contemporary social structure of accumulation, the utilitarian agenda promises to redefine social purpose to accommodate an explosion of leisure, culture and universal socio-political participation. Through the rational use of economic scale, human work-centric existence can be erased, and societies can conjugate abundance with sustainability. In the past, segregated liberation from toil gave us the concept of democracy, technological breakthroughs and glimpses of the kaleidoscopical beauty of human expression. Today, through a rational utilitarian public policy, its universalisation can led to a 21st century cultural and democratic Renaissance. Ultimately, in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis, it is for us to determine whether catastrophes and war will continue to be the only forces capable of imposing reason.
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