Alexander Armstrong invited listeners to his Classic FM radio programme to contact him with examples of things from the past that had enjoyed a revival during lockdown and which people hoped would continue. Doorstep deliveries of milk were welcomed by one listener. Another listener expressed delight that there were shops where staff stood behind counters and brought shoppers the goods they requested. A third listener said there had been great enjoyment of board games played by all the family.
The milkman and the shopkeeper belong to times when service to people was work with a reasonable income. My great grandfather was a milk delivery man, delivering milk around Chiswick until his death in 1944 as a result of German bombing. He lived in Cavendish Road in Chiswick, always a pleasant part of London’s W4 area. A house in Cavendish Road would cost in excess of a million pounds, well beyond the pocket of a milkman today.
Whether or not SARS-CoV-2 had caused the current mood of introspection, Western capitalist society needs to ask how it can make itself sustainable, how it can save itself from succumbing to the simplistic diagnoses of the political extremes, whether on the Right or on the Left.
Market economics is a reflection of human nature. Buying and selling, trying to achieve a profit, adjusting supply to demand, these are activities that facilitated human progress. Market economics is the best and most efficient way of organising a society – when it works for the benefit of all in society.
Contemporary economic history is a tale of some people becoming fantastically rich and more and more people working longer and longer hours. Billionaires accumulate more wealth than they could possibly spend while there are millions of workers on minimum wages and zero hours contracts. It is a nonsensical way of running an economy and ordering a society.
An efficient response to the economic problems arising from SARS-CoV-2 is to introduce a universal basic income, enabling the dismantling of the massive apparatus of state concerned with provision of welfare and eliminating the culture of snooping.
Once guaranteed a basic income, people can then consider taking the sort of jobs they used to do. The service jobs that used to make life more pleasant, the people who had time to talk to you, the people who were familiar to everyone, could reappear because their earnings on top of the basic income would make the work a viable choice. It might not mean someone could afford a house in Chiswick, but would create the possibility of recapturing the world that people miss.