Bouncing forward, better: is another Liverpool possible?

After a shock, the previous common sense often no longer works. The ideas picked up in its place are often those that did not make sense previously, but do now.  The famous Overton window – that space which governs what ideas are seen as credible – moves, and perhaps enlarges. Actors take advantage of what Naomi Klein calls ‘disaster capitalism’ to do things they would not have dared to do before.

COVID-19 emerged, mutated, infected and killed some while others have had none or only minor symptoms.  We cannot know what effects it will have in the medium to longer term.  What we do know is that this is a major, immediate shock and while grassroots alternatives can develop new hopeful stories of what could be, we also need structural action on an international and national scale.

What sort of ethical co-ordinates might guide a conversation about how we can build something better?  Geographers know that there are no ‘one size fits all’ silver bullets that pay no attention to the specifics of place. Geographers know that there are times when action at one scale is more effective than at others – sometimes international, sometimes local.  Sometimes some places are better able to act than others, some need more help.  Some places are better resourced, and have a geographical responsibility for distant others.  What then, can we do locally?  What do we need to argue for others to do? What help do we need?

This is a view from the People’s Republic of Liverpool, written while looking out the window to the same Victorian terraced street I have been looking at since March. Through my window, what does the COVID-19 crisis mean for the future of work and the economy?

Liverpool – crisis/opportunity? 

Liverpool has always seen itself as an exceptional place – not English, but Scouse – more Celtic.  A former wealthy port that fell on hard times and fought back against disrespect and a lack of esteem epitomised by the Thatcher government’s plans for the management of the city’s decline, the reaction to the Hillsborough tragedy, and Boris Johnson’s ruminations on the ‘self-pity city’ in the Spectator.  But Liverpool also self-identifies as a city based on solidarity and mutual aid.

In some ways, the city went into the COVID-19 crisis in good shape. In others, it was vulnerable.  The last few years have been relatively good for the city centre at least.  While in the 1980s the city’s militant-led Labour council famously fought the Thatcher government, since 2010 it has been governed by an increasingly experienced, pragmatic and competent political leadership, with new institutions at the city region level. It has a wealth of community-based organisations rooted in neighbourhoods, social enterprises and housing associations. It has that famous Liverpool spirit of social solidarity rooted in collective experiences of hard times and a rejection of hurtful stereotypical prejudices about the city, that mean people stick together rather than fall apart. Liverpool has bounced back before, and knows it can do so again. People look after each other here. This manifested itself in a mushrooming of neighbourhood, street-by-street local COVID-19 support networks built on community spirit and WhatsApp. The city’s rich voluntary and social enterprise sector stepped up, making sure people were fed and received their medicines. This was inspiring, with more people and organisations available than were needed. It was spontaneous, unconnected, effervescent. If there were needs, they were met.

On the other hand, Merseyside is less resilient as it could be, finding itself on the wrong end of ten years of austerity.  The crisis has shown that our public services have not been there when we needed them have been run too lean. They will not be resilient going forward without a major change of tack.  Many residents suffer from food and fuel poverty, live in damp housing, and rely on food banks and Universal Credit.  Many are in debt, reliant on payday loans and zero hours contracts.  They are just about managing, but may go under.

Those in work are often reliant on the hospitality and tourism sectors which have been badly hit.  The universities have moved online, and many students have struggled with high levels of COVID infection and lockdown. Graduates are finding job offers rescinded or delayed. Others struggle to pay their rent as they have been furloughed.  This is likely to be a lasting condition.  The city centre is full of empty student flats.  Will they fill up again after the crisis, or stand empty as monuments to a bubble?

Of course, it may be that this crisis is, as Anyata Roy suggested, a portal to a new and better world. The cavalry may come over the hill in the form of massive state intervention, the nationalisation of key sectors of the economy, or a basic income.  Things previously seen as unrealistic might now seem possible. People might recognise that the old cannot continue and that we can build something better. Many have recognised that we have not been living in the best possible world, and that we do not want to ‘bounce back’ quickly to a world of unsustainable growth, polluted air, universal credit and zero hours contracts

We will find out what is resilient, to be frozen and reanimated.  We will find out what emerges like new growth after a forest fire.  We will find out what well paid but essentially ‘bullshit’ jobs we do not need, and which really are essential.  We will find out what parts of the economy continue through lockdown, even when no money changes hands: cooking, cleaning, looking after kids and older people.  We will find out what is necessary and needs to happen, even when there is no money to pay for it – that where there is a need, there is a need to meet it. There may be no money, but there are still people with skills, needs to be met, and work to do.

But that is not what we have seen so far.  The furlough set things in aspic in the hope of a future “V-shaped” recovery.  Mutual aid provided a triaging service, helping bounce through the initial lockdown. While there are new warm words about what could be, the ‘old’ does not  is not seen as having failed – yet.

(Credit: the author)

When the pandemic reasserted itself at the end of September, Liverpool was first into a reimposed Level 3 lockdown.  Pubs shut.  There was massive anger about regional inequality.  Again, it looked like the crisis was hitting Merseyside first, and there were worries, as in the 1980s, that the crisis was deeper here and the city would be the last to recover.  Again, the city’s esteem, its dignity, seemed under attack, especially when the government provided support for the lockdown that seemed inadequate.  While in the 1980s Liverpool was ‘the city that dared to fight’, this time its pragmatic leadership made a deal.  For some it was too soon, but for others the rising levels of infection made a deal inevitable.  The city was ‘rewarded’ with a pilot of mass testing, but the distrust of a Tory government that hated the city lingered.

A paradise made in hell?

Some people have had to suffer the unspeakable tragedy of losing someone before their time – and this included the Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, who lost his elder brother.  It is also understandable that those who remember the struggling, shrinking Liverpool of the past will be terrified that its hard-won renaissance is threatened again.  Decades of work can be undone in months, as we found in the 1980s and could find out again – especially if the past problems of a reliance on declining industries (in the past, branch plant manufacturing and the port) are recreated in a new guise given the city’s contemporary reliance on hospitality and the universities.  It is not unreasonable, therefore, to hope furlough and lockdown will get the city through the crisis and that the old growth-based model can continue on the other side of the crisis.

Others see this as a portal to a better world.  They have had a better lockdown, spending more time with family, enjoying a slower pace of life and socially-distanced  exercise.  They have enjoyed quieter streets, more bird song, nature bouncing back, cleaner air.  None of which adds to GDP, but does add to quality of life.  They ask – how much of this do we value and want to keep, but did not see or take seriously before?

What could the ethical co-ordinates of a better economy look like, post-COVID?  We need to resist the call for easy answers, for reactivating what has been suspended, and think a little more slowly and deeply about what could be.  What seemed utopian or unrealistic before, but could be possible now?  What should we spend a little time in lockdown thinking about?

The ideas treated with new seriousness after a shock do not emerge fully formed: they are developed through dialogue and bold experimentation.  Just as on Merseyside it once ‘took a riot’ to shake people out of outdated ways of thinking, the response to COVID-19 means we need to prepare for old assumptions about how to secure inclusive and sustainable economic prosperity no longer being fit for purpose. Now is not the time for short-term thinking or reactions based on failed paradigms, but a chance to think more long term to ‘bounce forward’ into a better world.

So what should we think about for the future of enterprise and work?

Think about enterprise differently

In the early days of a better country, when things are hard, having a say and having a stake in the outcome matters.  Workers taking over failed enterprises after financial crashes worked with considerable self-sacrifice and self-exploitation in difficult situations to build something new.  This suggests that the benefits of co-operatives, social and solidarity enterprises, social traders and mutuals should be recognised and these models explored if companies that do not survive lockdown need to be reactivated.  Former employees should have a stake in what is rebuilt with public support.  It is noticeable that amid concerns about the deficit growing to pay for the crisis, the state has resolutely refused to take a stake in the enterprises it has bailed out – hardly the ‘socialism’ some describe.

For now, and perhaps for some time, we should evaluate what businesses, co-operatives, social traders and social enterprises to support not on the basis of their profitability or growth potential but by the extent that they generate good jobs that go on to support families, communities and individuals through hard times.  Of course, in the long term, socially-based enterprises need to cover their costs. But like a university, their role is not to make money but to provide social value.  We need other ways to value the contribution of business solidarity, community and sustainability. We should support and incubate such co-operative, social and solidarity enterprises and help them develop in sometimes physically distanced but always socially solidaristic ways.

Bruno Latour asks us to think about what we would be happy to lose through the pandemic. This is not a question of Schumpeterian creative destruction, seeing crisis in a market economy a welcome forest fire cleaning out what is inefficient and unproductive, but a way to decide what we want to protect.  We should fully recognise the value of and nurture the ‘foundational economy’ upon which all else stands – businesses providing things we need every day:  food, power, transport, care, the arts, community making, making clothes, growing food, looking after kids and cutting hair.  We need to invest in and nurture this economy, not ignore it in favour of high growth sectors.  We should judge this sector not in terms of its contribution to GDP, but to living well, social solidarity and vibrant communities – especially through an extended crisis.  Feminist economists and geographers like Marilyn Waring have long understood the need to be aware of who exactly cooked Adam Smith’s dinner.

Think about what have, what we pay for, what we get for free

Feminist economists have long pointed out that the economy is more than that ‘formal’ sector comprised of paid work for an employer or businesses. Much of what we do each day, especially within households, is not monetised or paid for.  Cooking, washing clothes, cleaning the house, decorating, or growing food on the allotment is as much a part of the actual, ‘substantive’ economy as the paid part.  They contribute to our quality of life and wellbeing.

People share things all the time, as neighbours, friends, members of churches, community groups, or clubs and societies.  Perhaps we will need to rely on these much more, which is why a universal basic income could be such a game changer, liberating this community-based creativity and support. How have people adjusted to a slower pace of life, seeing how much value is created outside of paid work?  This substantive, non-monetised sharing economy provides value and is continuing through the lockdown.

We should also recognise and value the free stuff that the planet provides – green spaces, clean air, the view across the Mersey and out to sea, allotments, streets where kids can play rather than just for cars, an evening walk watching the sun go down.  We should value how people have adjusted to a slower pace of life, seeing how much value is created outside of paid work. We should see this as important as the paid economy when calculating our economic welfare and write this into our strategies.

Thinking about working within planetary limits

We need to think far more about how we can work within the capacity of the planet to provide us with resources and absorb waste while providing space for other species and future generations – what Kate Raworth calls ‘donut economics’.  JK Gibson-Graham and Gerda Roelvink ask not ‘what is profitable’, but ‘what does it mean to live well’ within planetary limits?  What do we need to produce in order to live well, and how shall we produce it in equitable and non-exploitable ways?  How should we maintain communities, and the commons – the things we all enjoy and have access to for free, parks, woods, streets, beaches?  Can we provide new green jobs, retrofitting energy inefficient buildings, developing clean green power, growing more food locally, maintaining green spaces?

Our global ‘just-in-time’ economic model based on the exploitation of distant others and cheap fuel (which should be left in the ground) is also under strain.  We cannot expect people not to fly when it is so cheap, easy, and enjoyable.  Perhaps it is no bad thing for the planet that we cannot do that now.

An extended lockdown that includes significant restrictions on travel and social distancing will often be slower and more local than our accelerated just-in-time globalised economy. Perhaps the time-space compression associated with globalisation has ended.

If this becomes the “new normal”, we will need to think a little more about how we create economic value in slower, more local ways. We may find ourselves flying and travelling less, and supporting our local cultural and hospitality offer more. We may see a renaissance of local economies, and the work that they generate, rather than a reliance on visitors and tourism. We may need to do far more locally. Can we envisage a city region in which we can live our lives fully within 15 minutes of home?

(Credit: the author)

Taking the next steps

Given that the impact of COVID-19 is evolving and fast moving, the ideas presented here are not quick fixes or concrete policy prescriptions for today, but ways of thinking about how to move forward with justice and solidarity.  What might become possible depends on the extent that the virus continues to circulate and the extent of the need for social distancing, its impact on the economy and society, the resources allocated either locally or from the centre, and the political will to either do things differently or try to return to business-as-usual or even to use the crisis to drive through changes that would not otherwise be contemplated.

Has the contagion of COVID-19 made mutuality more convincing? At the time of writing, in Liverpool it seems that COVID-19 has delivered a huge shock to the system, but from the perspective of those in charge the hope is still that the furlough scheme will keep the economy on ice to re-emerge when the pandemic has passed.  The ideas presented here are considered ‘interesting’ and ‘thoughtful’, met by warm words about inclusion, health, wellbeing, equality and happiness.  Social value, the social and solidarity economy, and community wealth building are on the agenda, and finances have been allocated to their support. But the ethical co-ordinates do not yet add up to a convincing alternative. What is interesting is the emergence of the Northern Research Group in the Conservative Party, made up of MPs representing Northern seats that went to the Tories in response to a popular demand to ‘Get Brexit Done’.  These Tory voices argue that COVID-19 has “exposed in sharp relief the deep structural and systematic disadvantage faced by our communities”.  They call for a ‘spending-led recovery’, not austerity.  This suggests that there is a move back to the state, away from platitudes around the Big Society, and a recognition of the need for structural change. Of course we have been here before.  35 years ago, Mrs Thatcher called for something to be done about ‘those’ (Northern) inner cities.  The concern is that COVID-19 has revealed that 30 years of neoliberalism has degraded society’s ability to function.

At the moment we think ‘it can’t go on like this’ and that ‘something must change’, but we do not know what the change should be.  A return to growth and to the status quo is what many hope for.  When that does not happen, the alternatives could be something different, or something very unpleasant indeed.  We need to do more than support or bully people into applying for jobs that might not be there through a new ‘Restart’ programme – a revamp of the worst of the 1980s if ever there was one – but rather use the crisis to create something better.


Peter North is Professor of Alternative Economies in the Department of Geography and Planning at University of Liverpool.

Image credit: the author