The future of social democracy has been a perennial debate but the coronavirus crisis has provided a shock: progressive politics will not be the same again.
The coronavirus crisis is a profoundly transformative experience. Hardly anyone (outside of epidemiologists) had predicted the catastrophe coming the way it did.
Thousands of pages had been written about globalisation and modernity. A great many featured terrifying, doomsday scenarios. But what has happened has gone beyond anything ever imagined. Now there is no way of knowing how long this will all take, how many lives will be claimed and what kind of world will emerge.
So resorting to comfortable intellectual templates by way of explanation would prove treacherous. It is time humbly to admit that not only will the world be different—and it will simply be impossible to pick up where we left off—but also it isn’t an option to revisit essays on previous crises and replace ‘economic’ with ‘coronavirus’. Never before has the saying ‘the future is unknown’ been more true.
Put to the test
If there is therefore a need to turn the page, there is also a need to understand what this confinement has done to ordinary lives. It has put individuals to the test. They have had to revise what they consider essential and inessential, in both materialistic and non-materialistic senses.
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It has put households too to the test, making individuals acquire a new closeness by default. Those within confinement together have had to learn a great deal about one another, while those at a distance have started communicating more frequently. Some perhaps have never called their parents and grandparents as often as during these days.
Moreover, a new kind of responsibility has been emerging within communities, whereby the younger would volunteer to bring groceries or go to the pharmacy for those elders, the first to be advised to stay home. And the courage and devotion of so many has made others realise superheroes live among them. These are not only the doctors and nurses but also the shop assistant in the grocery around the corner, the teacher from the nursery that wasn’t closed to provide care for those ensuring continuity of vital services, the refuse collector, the post-office clerks, the lorry drivers …
With white flags hung on so many buildings and at 8 pm people opening their windows to cheer and applaud, a sense of gratitude, solidarity and a new admiration for others has been born. Paradoxically then, people may feel themselves closer as a result of the lockdown—more connected and more respectful towards other—than they have been in decades. This would, if sustained, be a reversal of years of atomisation of contemporary societies.
Furthermore, confinement foregrounded issues that had been known and talked about at length, for at least two decades, but had not been given the priority they should. Appropriate elderly care, alongside the need to invest more and equip adequately institutions providing healthcare, is evidently top of the list. But it includes many other, less obvious, matters.
Lockdown left many imprisoned, alone, within their own houses, questioning the adequacy of existing support mechanisms. For the impoverished, it raised again the question of what minimum standards are, especially when shops had to limit their offer to essential goods. The tragedy also exposed the absolute necessity to do more to fight children’s poverty, as nobody could guarantee during the lockdown that each and every child had even one warm meal a day.
Mental health and care for patients suffering from chronic disease—for whom human contact has a therapeutic relevance and who were from one day to another left to a potential decline—were also at issue. As was the quest to fight domestic violence: it pains even to think how much more suffering there has been in conditions of confinement. Finally, the continuing lack of provision in many places for same-sex marriage presented an incredibly cruel obstacle to partners remaining together in challenging moments in hospitals and elsewhere.
Managing to adapt
The new life brought on many challenges. And, although it all happened under immense pressure, it has been quite extraordinary to see how quickly and brilliantly people managed to adapt. The already oft-posed question ‘How will people manage in the era of digitalisation?’ received particularly rapidly replies.
Some, such as teleconferencing or sharing data, were merely intensifications, but alongside them came fresh inventions. Teleworking prompted many employers to negotiate the rules and set guidelines. Virtual classrooms and e-lessons made teachers and students acquire new skills, as also due to necessity many parents and guardians became much more aware about the content of their children’s education. Even gyms and other social institutions found e-solutions—proving yet again that no matter how virtual, the human need to connect with others remains vital.
While acknowledging this creativity and perseverance, not all sectors could find sustainable solutions. Many people entered a precarious situation of at least temporary unemployment with, in some cases, no income whatsoever. On the back of that, some controversial debates returned—for example, on a universal basic income, though this represented an elision of a minimum-income guarantee. Refraining for the moment from arguing in favour or against, it is quite clear that once again the economic system as it is is in no way crash-proofed.
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Future of social democracy
How then does this translate into the debate on the future of social democracy? While the coronavirus crisis is a hard test of leadership, in its aftermath citizens will come up with a new set of expectations, to which progressives should be able to relate.
First, the catastrophe has been directly felt by everyone. It wasn’t just something to read about in the news and it wasn’t anything from which one could distance oneself. Interpersonal connections forged and strengthened during the lockdown will naturally weaken after, but they will not disappear. The feeling of ‘being in it together’, the awareness about each other’s needs, the mutual respect and admiration for those who helped get us through these times, is likely to be here to stay.
The prospect of new, solidaristic communities emerging is thus quite real and can provide a counter-current to the neoliberal tide of atomisation. Especially so since staying in touch was made possible thanks to the same internet tools and applications previously considered solvents of face-to-face human relations.
So while progressives of course would not have wished for such disastrous circumstances, these new collectives may be what they had been hoping to see. The speech of the ‘strong political actor’ will not however connect with them. Neither will an articulation of a list of complaints about the shortcomings of different institutions. What could, on the other hand, is social democracy finding it in itself to be the most humane, empathic movement—pretty much in the way Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand (where the virus has been successfully contained) is trying to do that. In the long term this can be a shield against the negativism of the right-wingers as well.
Secondly, the crisis has shown that people can actually quite quickly start to think in a totally different way. Before, patriotism was a term evoking association with national pride. Today, it has become identified with taking responsibility for others and recognising societal demands. So though the connecting points and building blocks of a new, post-catastrophe, majority-winning political agenda cannot be fully defined yet, there is no doubt it is going to be driven by social issues.
A new narrative
Yes, it will still revolve around the fight against inequalities. But it cannot be a recycled blueprint or anything that would remotely claim ‘this is what we have been saying all the time’. The next challenge is most probably an incomparable economic crash and recession, which will demand a new narrative, reflecting a shift in thinking.
Before the crisis, it was legitimate to speak about the ambition of a new enlightenment. Now the mission should rather be a new renaissance—which in its hopes, its uplifting story of progress, its openness and attractiveness, with humanist values at its core, could break through in these dark times of inquisitional far-right figures who want still to spread fear. When tomorrow comes, people are likely not to be driven by anger or anxiety, but to be seeking something positive. They may be motivated rather by a desire to do the utmost to insure themselves against anything like the situation at hand—collectively and individually.
Thirdly and finally, while the pandemic has been the possibly toughest experience in Europe since the collapse of former Yugoslavia, it has also been the ultimate test of political leadership across the world. And the evaluation criteria have changed. Today what seems to define a true leader is his or her capabilities to provide stability, care and truth.
This is a remarkable turning point: people locked at home, relying on the internet themselves, want better than misinformation. They want to know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth—that, while they follow emergency rules, they retain their right to self-determination and that what is being done is in their vital interest.
This is also why the behaviour of populists such as Viktor Orbán, Jarosław Kaczyński or Boris Johnson must finally be met with contempt. There is a real chance that instead citizens will confide in those, such as the Spanish, Czech and Danish social-democratic leaders—Pedro Sanchez, Jan Hamáček and Mette Frederiksen respectively—who emerge as responsible, caring and solution-driven.