In a new series, we explore how the Covid-19 pandemic is making changes once dismissed as pipe dreams happen seemingly overnight.
By: Mitch Anderson
This story is part of “Now Anything Is Possible,” a series about changes that have long seemed out of reach, but now, amid the coronavirus outbreak, are happening fast — and how we can make them stick. To make sure you don’t miss a story, sign up for our weekly newsletter and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
During the summer of 1932, over 40,000 veterans descended on Washington, D.C. to demand reimbursement for the wages they lost while fighting World War I. Many were among the roughly one in four Americans who were unemployed. On the banks of the Anacostia River, they occupied a shantytown dubbed Hooverville. Rather than address their grievances, on July 28, President Herbert Hoover ordered the army to drive the veterans out with teargas and tanks, and burn Hooverville to the ground.
The event encapsulated the government’s ineptitude at dealing with the Depression. Yet, within this crucible of crisis were forged institutions that stabilize America to this day. Months after Hooverville was torched, Hoover himself was voted out, and a set of New Deal reforms were enacted to protect unions, regulate banks and provide Social Security. In the blink of an eye, the structural dynamic between government and citizen was transformed — changes that have largely stuck a century later. As it turns out, it’s tough to put the toothpaste back in the tube.
Today, another collective visceral moment is unfolding in real time, upending billions of lives and reconfiguring society with unprecedented speed. In the span of a few months, countries across the world have mobilized en masse to confront an existential threat. The imperative of saving lives has swept away endemic government gridlock. People whose work often goes unsung are being recognized for their essential contributions, and billions are voluntarily curtailing their personal freedoms for the common good.
Is this another moment of elemental change? Could the pandemic catalyze structural reforms and societal shifts to make the future more resilient, sustainable and fair? Or, after the crisis subsides, will the old systems snap back into place, leaving us roughly where we were — or worse — before this all began? According to Stanford University Professor David M. Kennedy, crisis tends to be the vital ingredient for sparking long-range, widespread metamorphosis. “[America’s] constitutional order and political culture emerged from the founders’ deep suspicion of centralized power, so they cobbled up a governmental system that was purpose-built, by design, to be difficult to deploy,” says Kennedy, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. “We have lived with that regime for more than two centuries, and have seen major restructuring of our social order almost exclusively in the context of severe crises.”
Kennedy is speaking specifically about the American experience, but the potential for crises to catalyze change holds true in countries across the world. Most nations operate by pragmatic incrementalism, their evolution slowed by the weight of bureaucracy, complacency and self-preservation. This tendency toward inertia makes it easy to conclude that governments and institutions are incapable of fundamental change. But history teaches that timing is everything.
“The major long-lasting legacies of the New Deal… were all ideas that had been in circulation for decades,” says Kennedy. “The New Deal represented not so much a burst of creativity as a seizing of political opportunity.”
The road ahead
Whether we’re witnessing a similar moment may depend on whether the emergency policies being put into place are popular and beneficial enough that they become difficult to undo.
Take universal basic income, an economic model that guarantees every citizen a predictable, baseline government payout that they are free to spend any way they wish. UBI has long been proposed as a tool to promote equity and streamline economic support. There have been promising pilot projects, but the optics of paying people simply to exist has made it politically unpalatable.
Yet amid the global lockdown, versions of it are suddenly everywhere. Desperate to avert economic collapse, governments around the world are giving their citizens direct cash payments with no strings attached.
Now that UBI has been forced into practice, it’s finding some unlikely supporters. Recent adherents include Pope Francis, who proposed it in his Easter address to the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics. “The ills that afflict everyone hit you twice as hard,” wrote the Ponif to informal workers around the globe. “Many of you live from day to day, without any type of legal guarantee to protect you. This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage which would acknowledge and dignify the noble, essential tasks you carry out.”
Professor Guy Standing of the University of London, who has authored numerous books about UBI, believes statements like the Pope’s signal a tipping point. “This is actually quite a subversive statement from the Pope,” says Standing. “This contradicts the encyclicals of two of his predecessors, which focused very much on wage workers, whereas this statement is actually for everyone.”
Other prominent figures are jumping on the UBI bandwagon. Five hundred academics and thought leaders recently signed an open letter urging governments to “enact emergency universal basic income.” Early last month, the government of Spain announced it would make permanent the UBI measures it has implemented in response to the pandemic, making it the first country in Europe to do so. “We’re going to do it as soon as possible, so it can be useful not just for this extraordinary situation, and that it remains forever,” the Spanish Economy Minister Nadia Calvino pledged on national television.
Across the water, Scottish First Minister Nicole Sturgeon urged the U.K. to seize the moment to adopt UBI, saying she believes the pandemic “makes the case for a universal basic income stronger than ever.” Even in the U.S., where the social safety net is threadbare by Western standards, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi proclaimed the idea of “a guaranteed income” worthy of attention.
The sudden lurch of UBI from improbable to almost inevitable has shades of the New Deal, and the potential to once again revolutionize the relationship between citizens and the state. It’s just one of many changes currently in play that seemed like pipe dreams a couple of months ago. A recent survey in the U.K. found that only nine percent of Britons want life to “return to normal” once the pandemic passes.
That spirit informs the series we are launching today, “Now Anything Is Possible,” which will explore the potential of these bold ideas to last beyond the current crisis. We’ll examine how the shutdown is inspiring European governments to reopen their economies as greener than before, and how the imperative to depopulate jails is forcing America to confront its mass incarceration model. We’ll look at how cities are planning to preserve the beneficial changes they’ve made to urban space, and why a rise in “social trust” could lead to lasting positive health outcomes.
From the suffering of the Great Depression came the chance for renewal, not just of policies but of values. In the fall of 1932, Bing Crosby released his version of Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?, a song that encapsulated the mood of an anxious world primed for transformation.
They used to tell me I was building a dream
With peace and glory ahead
Why should I be standing in line
Just waiting for bread?
Opponents of the New Deal’s reforms tried to get the song banned from the radio. Instead, it became a best-selling anthem for not just a political shift, but an empathic one — a realignment of values toward compassion, pragmatism and collective well-being. It’s easy to envision how things might have gone another direction under slightly different circumstances.
As President Franklin D. Roosevelt observed in his 1933 inaugural address, “We now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other.” Those values would survive for generations. The ones being formed right now just might, too.
Mitch Anderson is a frequent contributor the The Tyee, a Vancouver-based online newspaper, writing about the environment, climate change and resource economics. His work has also appeared in Foreign Policy, The Guardian, Utne Reader and Desmog Blog.