In most of the countries where the first wave of the coronavirus epidemic has already crested, and even in some where it has yet to do so, we are being urged back to work ‘for the sake of the economy’. Yes, people are told, you may be worried about catching the virus, or conveying it home to your family, but aren’t you being just a wee bit unpatriotic? Look at these photos of boarded up sandwich bars in the City of London and whited-out shop windows on the high street. Unemployment is going up, GDP is falling, and if this sort of thing goes on it will be YOUR FAULT!
The ‘economy’ referred to here is a slippery thing. You, the consumer, are supposed to keep it going by emerging from lockdown and queueing outside Pret a Manger for your takeaway lunch, or pawing your way along the clothes rails at Next for a new outfit to wear for your next promotion interview. But you haven’t exactly been starving, or going naked during the lockdown either, have you? While some sectors of the economy have been suffering, others have benefited mightily. As one survey report put it ’62 per cent of 2,000 Londoners surveyed increased their online shopping habits during lockdown, helping add £5.3bn to the UK economy during lockdown as high street shops remained shuttered for months’. Another UK survey found that ‘nearly half said they have become “obsessed” with buying things online since lockdown began on 21 March, while 39% admitted to buying something they “wouldn’t normally buy.”’ Losses for bricks-and-mortar city centre service firms thus translate into substantial gains for their online equivalents. Furthermore, the more business is transacted online, the greater the opportunity for other companies to take their cut, whether this is from providing you with wifi or arranging the delivery.
If (like many members of the current Tory government in the UK) you belong to the capitalist class, keeping your income high is just a question of adjusting where you invest your funds. It is no accident that, according to the US Institute for Policy Studies, during the first three months of the lockdown, the wealth of the top five billionaires (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett and Larry Ellison) grew by $584 billion, in a period when $56.5 trillion was wiped off the value of household wealth. The pandemic may have been bad for the airline industry (Buffet shrewdly sold off his airline holdings early in 2020) but, with a sizeable portion of the population working from home, reliant on online links, it has been boom time for the likes of Amazon, Apple and Microsoft.
Once again, we are witnessing tectonic upheavals in global capitalism, in which some firms are winners and some are losers but the system itself remains intact. This time round, the main losers seem likely to be small and medium sized firms, many of the sort that have in the past provided employment that is relatively stable and paid their taxes and business rates diligently. The winners seem likely to be large global corporations, many of whom provide only precarious, digitally-managed employment with little security, and many of whom are expert tax evaders. When Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, speak of ‘the economy’ now what exactly do they mean? Their rhetoric suggests concern for the firms that are losers, at a national level, but all their past practices suggest that the interests they seek to protect are those of the winners, at a global level. What seems certain is that the interests of the people who actually produce all that wealth – the workers – are most definitely not their top priority.