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Emergency Socialism and a Possible Pandemic Silver Lining?

Some time ago I began working on a book about the Communist party in Canada during the Great Depression. During this period, the party was declared illegal in Canada, and membership or attending meetings was punishable by fines or prison, and indeed the leaders of the party in Canada were imprisoned for 5 years. What made that period particularly interesting for me, however, was that it was precisely during this period that the Communist party achieved some modicum of popularity in the country.

The reason for this became clear pretty quickly. The party’s ‘fringe’ ideas espoused early on in the Great Depression included calling for radical changes to the social welfare system of the country—things such as social security, and unemployment insurance. Needless to say, these policies soon joined mainstream political discussions during the 1930’s and were later enacted by federal government. By the time the legislation making the party illegal was repealed in 1936, the platform of the party no longer seemed like such a threat to what even more conservative politicians viewed as the Canadian way of life.

Similar developments were enacted in the United States under the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt. In 1935 Social Security became a reality, and in that same year the federal government encouraged the individual states to adopt unemployment insurance programs. Preserving Free Enterprise and combating Socialism may be important buzzwords espoused by leading politicians who those of us who live in the US are subjected to daily on television. But whatever verbiage is espoused by Republican Party in the United States today, unfettered Capitalism is in fact a thing of the past. Even as Democrats worry that benefits under both programs have been under attack by the current US Administration, no serious politicians in either party this country could imagine getting elected with a platform to fully repeal them.

The current global pandemic is unprecedented, however, and it thus reliable predictions about what the post-pandemic world might look like are tenuous at best. The cost in human life, and in economic well-being has been harsh, and according to a number of estimates, we have yet to see the worst of it. Whether the current Recession turns into a longer-term Depression is not yet clear. Unemployment could reach 20% or more in the US according to some estimates.

We in the US have already seen responses put forward by both major parties that would have seemed unfathomable even a year ago. A two Trillion-dollar Federal government program that provides enhanced unemployment benefits, and a short-term form of Universal Income? Full medical coverage for Coronavirus testing and treatment? New talk of government-supported employment for major infrastructure development?

It is impossible to gauge what the long-term effects of this emerging period of ‘emergency socialism’ will be. Much will depend on how the US and the world recovers from the current pandemic crisis. However, having released the genie from the bottle, it does seem possible that at least some of these short-term fixes may seem less distasteful in the long-term, even to economic conservatives. Perhaps more important, the voting public may come to think of some of these benefits as rights rather than privileges. When free medical care is available to treat some diseases, for example, it may seem more unpalatable to be faced with large bills for other services.

Much of this social network infrastructure already exists in most other Western countries, including Canada, and the US is currently an outlier. Could the new global health and fiscal crisis bring the US into the fold? If the US and the rest of the world make it out of this pandemic reasonably intact, could the pandemic achieve at least some of what Bernie Sanders has been campaigning for during the past four years?

Beyond its impact on the current form of capitalism in the US, the pandemic is causing a number of people not faced with immediate economic ruin to rethink how they will live their lives post-pandemic. Learning to live without access to many outside luxuries that were previously taken for granted, from entertainment, to restaurants, automobile purchasing, and vacations, might have an impact on longer-term habits. The air quality in most big cities is already improving and use of fossil fuels is way down. Economically the current cessation of commerce in large segments of the community may be unsustainable, but could it nevertheless lead to long-term lifestyles that, from an environmental viewpoint at least, are more sustainable?

No one would seriously argue that the current pandemic is anything but a major tragic disaster, nor can anyone not feel sympathy for the millions of people around the world whose lives have been uprooted by this tragedy. But perhaps there may be some solace in imagining that underneath the current cloud of panic, hardship, death, and uncertainty, there lurks at least a partial silver lining. Could it lead to a greater willingness for countries to think and act globally and sustainably, and a saner and more progressive social infrastructure in the one major industrialized country that has resisted it thus far?

Lawrence M. Krauss is a physicist and author. He vows to complete his book on the Communist Party in Canada during the Depression sometime this decade.

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