Mid-April, and here in rural Kent the lanes are full of bud and blossom, and the green-gold glory that marks the English spring. People from the village are making the most of their daily exercise. On a lunchtime constitutional the other day I saw a fair few locals enjoying the glorious sunshine. When you’re in a form of enforced captivity, you learn to cherish the simple pleasure of a country stroll.
It’s not a normal springtime, of course. The volume of cars on the road through the village is noticeably diminished, and the normally bustling pub closed its doors nearly a month ago. Much to my daughter’s dismay, the swings and slides in the park are out of bounds, by order of the parish council. Unless you count the odd short walk up into the hills, I haven’t left the village at all for more than four weeks, since I nipped up to the magnificent Shrine of St Augustine at Ramsgate for a last Mass before the churches were locked up for the duration.
Life has taken on a slightly hobbitish air, albeit without the consolations enjoyed by the Shirefolk at The Green Dragon. The garden centre up the road has branched out into selling produce from local farms. There are more people out and about on foot, and everyone seems a bit more willing to pass the time of day, at an appropriate distance. Without much fuss or fanfare, arrangements have been made to help those who might need it.
Some people have seized on these unusual conditions to suggest that the politics and economics of a post-coronavirus world may look very different to the status quo ante.
Here at UnHerd, David Goodhart echoed many sceptics of liberal globalism, when he argued that the pandemic will accelerate the move away from that system. He notes that “neat theories of free trade and comparative advantage have been oversold”, mentioning for example the loss of good jobs in Western economies, and the potential damage done to national security from a lack of strategic capacity in steel or power generation.
Goodhart also notes that in the United States, attention is turning to reducing its logistical dependence on China. President Trump has been rightly criticised for the federal government’s chaotic and inconsistent response to the pandemic, but he may yet benefit from increased suspicion of Red China in November’s election, especially as his opponent is Joe Biden, long associated with the trade liberalising policies that have seen so many US supply chains relocate across the Pacific. Many of the pieties of multilateralism have come under strain in the past few months: Ian Birrell made a powerful case against the WHO, bitterly criticising that organisation for its subservience to China.
Away from the level of national governments and high politics, here in the UK there are signs of a resurgence of localism and community feeling, and a more human-scaled life. Hundreds of thousands of people have volunteered to help the NHS and to pick fruit and to deliver food and medicine to isolated neighbours. I hear reports from north London of children playing in the streets unimpeded by motor traffic (all sorts of statistics from 2020 are going to make fascinating reading, but I’m looking forward to seeing those on pollution and car deaths).
How much of this is permanent? Here my heart and head are in conflict. I am broadly sympathetic to the strain of thinking sometimes called “post-liberalism”, that seeks a renewed focus on localism, community, human solidarity and national sovereignty, which opposes the often destructive logic of ever-increasing choice and freedom, and seeks to transcend and tame the harsh imperatives of the market.
I would like to see more people spending more time in their communities and with their families. I think it would be good for all of us to make do with less, for our food consumption to be more closely tied to the rhythms of the year and the nature of our land. It is heartening to see so much energy devoted to protecting the health of vulnerable people.
But on the other hand, I need to keep in mind the old dictum cited by John Locke, “quod volumus, facile credimus”; what we wish to be true, we easily believe. We are undoubtedly living through an Event, but who knows what the consequences might be?
There is enormous momentum behind the economic and social liberalism that has dominated Britain for much of the past half-century. Is the general mass of people really looking on these changed conditions as a glorious experiment, as a demonstration that another life is possible, rather than as a grim time of insecurity, confinement and frustration to be endured only for as long as necessary?
It seems quite possible that an extended lockdown may in fact increase the attractions of the liberal economy. I would not be surprised if people were very keen to get back to the old way of life — back on Tinder and JustEat, back to the pubs and the clubs, back to their autonomous urban lifestyles, to the low prices and huge range of options enabled by modern technology, global supply chains, and hyper-efficient business practices.
It’s worth remembering, too, that huge economic damage is being done by the lockdown. Post-liberals may argue, with some justice, that the economy should be structured differently, such that we are more resistant and resilient to shocks like the coronavirus but that is easier said than done.
To a considerable extent the renewed communitarianism that we are seeing, the quiet streets and the lack of travel, is making the best of a bad situation, rather than a straightforward sign of a new order. While they can be viewed as experiments in living that may provide inspiration for future change, we need to be wary of glorying in them too much, because there is going to be a serious and grim recession over the next couple of years.
Reductions in consumption, and a reliance on more local and restrained economic activity, will have many losers, unless we see permanent and foundational changes to economic and social policy, perhaps along the lines envisaged by thinkers like EF Schumacher, known for his 1973 book Small Is Beautiful. In that work Schumacher lays out his manifesto for a humane and human-scale economic system, premised on careful stewardship of the environment, the dignity of labour, and the undesirability of excessive consumerism and materialism. It is a splendid vision in many ways, but we are a long way from achieving it. Similarly, without a revolution in moral and social attitudes, people will not be willing to accept the ethical conservatism without which post-liberalism is unintelligible.
I am confident that there will be certain permanent after-effects. Short-haul flying will struggle to recover to pre-crisis levels: national governments will have an unmatched opportunity to increase the operating costs of short-haul routes, as part of efforts to reduce carbon emissions, providing a shot in the arm for operators of long-distance European rail routes.
Increased middle-class movement out of large cities seems likely too, as does a greater tolerance for a larger government role both in the economy and in shaping public behaviour (for good or ill). Rishi Sunak’s economic aid package, involving enormous public spending, was broadly welcomed across the political spectrum. It is hard also to see how the pandemic doesn’t strengthen the hands of China hawks in Western capitals.
Nevertheless, my instinct is that what we are seeing is a holiday from the modern world rather than a thoroughgoing repudiation. Despite the disruption and upset, there are very few voices in politics offering a sustained and coherent challenge to the assumptions about the good life and human nature that dictate the structures of modern society.
These assumptions are well-described by the US writer Rod Dreher, in his book The Benedict Option. He talks about “liquid modernity”, by which he means the situation of constant moral and cultural flux in which we find ourselves. The range of acceptable values and attitudes changes with baffling speed and frequency. Within liquid modernity, consumption is king, and the amount of choice across all areas of our lives is vast, often paralysing or even damaging for individuals. For businesses to survive in the liberalised, globalised economy demands constant adaptation and a ruthless attitude.
The system is extremely resilient, not least because it is not consciously a system. But without the political clout to strike some severe blows against it, the green shoots of a better way of life that we have glimpsed in this otherwise difficult time will remain uncultivated.