Almost since the beginning of the pandemic, and with all the warnings around the use of the comparative method, I have been comparing the current catastrophe with the Second World War. There were those who thought I exaggerated, but now I see that the same analogy has been formulated by the Prime Minister of Germany, while her Italian counterpart has spoken of the post-war situation. Obviously, our point of view did not refer as much to human damage -the scales are incomparable- but to the political, ideological, economic and even cultural consequences of both episodes. It seems that, in both cases, the market had to step aside and leave the role in the hands of the State. Let's see how things happened in the middle of the 20th century.
Back in 1926, John Keynes had mentioned The End of the Laissez Faire. He had not done it out of affinities with State socialism, but from the natural point of view of a progressive liberal. The Great Crisis of 1929/30 and its aftermath confirmed the advance and ended up putting Keynes's thesis at the center of the scene. Naturally, together with Roosevelt's phenomenal New Deal experience, whose conjunction of state and social policies, as Hobsbawn would say, meant a sort of "Never Again" and worked for a long historical period. With the war, this trend took a “great leap forward”, supported by the conviction that the war was the manifestation of a deep civilizing crisis that would not end with the silence of arms. As early as 1941, the british Richard Tawney tried to explain to his fellow citizens the reasons why they were fighting: “to suppose that our victory will solve the questions is to deceive ourselves. The crisis the world is facing is not a mere interlude from which it can return, with a sigh of relief, as the last bomb falls. It is part of a decomposition process that has been operating for a long time below the surface and that, if not contained, will continue the same in peace as during war”.
State, planning and social action were keys to the defeat of the Axis and informed to the post-war agendas. The only thing that in some way weighed against it, was their demand for totalitarian regimes; hence the importance of Karl Mannheim's thesis –he, too, convinced that we were facing a great civilizing crisis-, arguing in favor of the virtues of democratic planning, a third party alternative between laissez faire and collectivism. Without being the direct inspiration of the German sociologist, the sense of the indicative planning put into practice in France since the end of the war shared similarities with it.
To complete this brief depiction of the spirit of the time, it seems appropriate to recall the terms in which another prominent exponent of the progressive liberal tradition expressed his ideas in a text written during the war: “The problem of social justice, to which primitive liberalism’s response was strange and hostile, comes to the fore as a problem of concrete realization of freedom. It takes the place of anti-stateism, according with the general democratic orientation of political life, an opposite tendency in favor of state intervention in the social struggle in order to achieve as much as possible equality of conditions and opportunities”[i]. In short, that Reason, whose role was claimed by so many contemporaries, would be the one to dictate the Post-War Consensus, articulated around the idea of a mixed economy and the Welfare State; synthesis of a “new capitalism” and a new form of organization of social coexistence that many believed would be irreversible.
However, the regressive path began to impose on the second half of the 1970s, thus ending the "tactical withdrawal of capital". From the Chicago chair, Milton Friedman gave new tones to old creeds and organized a legion of young preachers bent on spreading them; shortly afterwards the Anglo-Saxon "cousins" designed the slogans: he held the State responsible for all calamities and she affirmed that society did not exist; ideas simple enough to be replicated by a number of minor advertisers.
The "domino effect" in Eastern Europe, the collapse of the famous wall and finally of the Central House itself, along with the unexpected course of China, sounded to music in neoliberal ears and strengthened a trend that was already unstoppable. Almost at the same time, a small group of "enlightened" experts gathered in the capital of the victorious superpower established the code of conduct for "good governance". Privatizations, deregulations, would bring all power and wealth to the coffers of banks and large corporations. An almost inexistent Welfare and the State turned into a timid entity that in the name of fiscal discipline would cut spending on health, education, housing, environmental protection, basic science and technological development. This being the situation when catastrophe arrived, now in the form of a pandemic.
Predictably, prospective interpretations and exercises soon abounded. Analysis based on complex knowledge together with comments from "amateurs". On our behalf, we are inclined to make use of a figure also used on the occasion of the 2008 crisis: that of concentric circles generated by the impact of a blunt object on the water. Each circle would correspond to a sphere of reality: the progress of the economy, social life, the universe of ideas, the world order. For now, we have evidence of some reactions. Capital defends itself: the economy over life; the annual meetings of the Swiss city attentive to the profits of banks and corporations; dozens of consultants and scribes of financial newspapers, making forecasts on businesses’ recovery. There was a greater sensitivity in the last G20 statement. Reasonable mentions to cooperation, coordinated action and multilateral bodies, but nothing too bold -perhaps with the exception of the Global Solidarity Pact proposed by Argentina- and, above all, nothing that indicates the aspiration to build a future different from the state of the world before the arrival of the plague
However, other possible futures may be incubating in the painful experience. Most likely, the recoil of market fundamentalism and its individualistic livelihood, the rehabilitation of an active State with the capacity for regulation and control, a mixed economy and the return of the idea of Welfare to the center of the scene -no longer on the plane of individual political unity, but with global projections, building global chains of well-being. The Post-Second World War Consensus of the 20th century strengthened the democratic institutions and helped introduce, through international cooperation, solidarity towards neglected countries and regions. The Post-Pandemic Consensus would add, to these, other potentialities, among them the restoration of vitality to politics and, above all, to allow new ideas on the organization of social life to make their way, including those that have long been trying to define, in terms of concrete policies, the concept of Common Good. Perhaps renewed and not distorted expressions of third directions.
Josè Paradiso is a sociologist, Director of the Master in Latin American Integration and academic coordinator of the Master in International Political Sociology at UNTREF.
[i] Guido de Ruggiero, Return to Reason. Paidós, Buenos Aires, 1949