By Ellen C. Byrne
The return to ‘normality’ is looming on the horizon. There has been much talk of the ‘new normal’, but we seem to be inclining moreso towards a re-establishment of life as we knew it— and I don’t think enough people are reflecting on whether that would be such a good thing.
The Covid-19 crisis has provoked colossal socio-economic dysfunction at a household and state level over the past year and a half. Simultaneously, an array of social justice issues which were previously swept under the carpet by governments have gained traction internationally, forcing states to confront the structural injustices that they facilitate. Issues such as the occupation of Palestine, violence against women, racial violence by the police, and the protests which surround such issues have characterized the Covid-19 lockdown almost as much as the virus itself. For some, this cumulative dysfunction serve as evidence that capitalist society is not meant to last.
But, you may argue, these are famously unprecedented circumstances! No economic system could cope with a pandemic! This is fair, to an extent. Viruses don’t care for political beliefs, but they do rely on the movement of people in order to multiply and spread, and the rise of globalization has facilitated the movement of people to a preposterous extent. For example, it was commonplace pre-lockdown for business executives to jet across continents to attend meetings which could have been phone calls. Last March, climate charity Possible published a report on the link between wealth inequalities and the aviation industry which revealed that in 2018, half of aviation’s carbon emissions came from just 1% of the global population, many of whom were business class ‘frequent flyers’.
So, what are the alternatives? One proposal which is gaining traction both in academic and political spheres is the idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI). UBI is a form of unconditional social welfare which is granted to all citizens of a state. The rationale behind this is that, regardless of whether people can or choose to work, they should have the means to survive at a basic level. It’s a simple and old idea, endorsed by figures such as Thomas More, Thomas Paine, and Martin Luther King Jr.
The common objection to UBI is that it eliminates the incentive to work- particularly unpleasant, poorly paid jobs. Yet, it appears increasingly likely that automation will eliminate many such jobs before UBI has the chance. Thus, the argument remains: society should provide some unconditional provision for people so that, in the event that they cannot work, they may still have means of survival.
UBI is now being contemplated at state level, both in Ireland and beyond. The Green Party included the trialling of Basic Income in their election manifesto and this trial is set to take place in the next five years; in the US, 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang included the introduction of UBI as a core policy proposal.
During lockdown, Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) was granted as a short-term provision during the pandemic, ensuring for many a level of basic financial security that that would otherwise have been impossible in the current climate. As such, more people are recognizing the value, and perhaps necessity, of unconditional income and discussions of UBI have simmered to the surface once more. These challenges have prompted a renewed discussion on the feasibility of UBI amongst officials and scholars alike. One such academic is UCC Philosophy Department’s Dr. Vittorio Bufacchi who, over the course of 2020, wrote a book about the socio-economic landscape in the wake of Covid-19 and considers how it could be moulded into something not just better, but fairer.
‘Everything Must Change: Philosophical Lessons from Lockdown’ tackles the questions of how we, as a society, ought to move forward from the Covid-19 crisis, and which bad habits we need to shake off in the process. Bufacchi addresses and philosophically analyses a variety of issues, ranging from the impact of Covid on populism to the effect of the series Normal People in lockdown #1. A recurring message throughout the book is the necessity for major structural change in order to avoid reverting back to the same injustices which have been a plague of their own for generations.
Shortly before exam season, I caught up with Dr. Bufacchi to discuss his new book, UBI, and the role of philosophy in forging a better future.
What was it about the COVID-19 crisis that inspired you to write a book?
The sense of guilt I felt for feeling so ecstatically happy during the first lockdown 12 months ago. Here’s a confession: I loved the first lockdown. In March 2020 everything stopped. There was no traffic on the roads, no airplanes in the sky, no noise. Blue skies and birds singing. I was with my family, every minute of the day. I have a comfortable house, with a garden and a library. I had time to read, think, and write, and I felt awfully lucky. But in feeling so grateful and lucky and happy, I also felt guilty. From the very first day of lockdown I was painfully aware of my incredibly privileged position, which was not the case for many people in Ireland or for the vast majority of people worldwide. I wanted to make sense of this contradiction. My good fortune was someone else’s injustice. That’s not right.
As you discuss in the book, the injustices in many job sectors have been both exacerbated and exposed by COVID: The credibility of experts has been frequently ignored or undermined, workers in the manufacturing and food-processing industries have faced flagrant exploitation, and the ‘essential workers’ in sectors such as healthcare and retail have been shouldering the burden of COVID with little meaningful support from those in power. Do you believe that this could stimulate a transformation of the nature of work?
I want to believe that lessons will be learned from the events of the last 12 months, although it is not a foregone conclusion, and it will take enlightened political leadership to push through the necessary changes in the nature of work. Covid-19 has exposed the structural injustice of our modern world, and now we have an opportunity to get our house in order. There was an article in the Irish Examiner a few days ago on the victims of the pandemic in Ireland. Based on data from the Central Statistics Office, three categories of essential workers were disproportionally exposed to the virus because of the nature of their work: nurses and midwives (6%), care workers and home carers (4%), sales and retail assistants, cashiers and checkout operators (4%). Ask yourself: what is the gender, class, and ethnic profile of these workers? They are women, they are working class, and many of them are immigrants or from ethnic minorities.
‘Everything Must Change’ views the crisis as an opportunity to address inequality and distributive injustice. A year after the crisis began, we are now looking towards a return to some form of normality. Where can individuals begin to make changes?
That’s exactly what I’m most afraid of, a return to normality. Covid-19 has uncovered the injustice and inequality of the ‘normal’, we can’t put the genie back in the bottle. I don’t want to go back to normality, I want a new normality, one which is more fair and compassionate. We need to stop the process of ‘privatizing’ the state, which for the last few decades has emasculated the state at the benefit of private interests motivated by profit. We need an active, strong public sector, that has the financial muscle to take care of all its citizens. As individuals, we can play our part, starting from reconsidering our live styles. The last 12 months have reminded us that we don’t need to travel abroad many times a year, since as we all know air travel is detrimental to the environment.
In the final chapter of the book, you emphasise the need for ‘radical reforms’, such as Universal Basic Income, to address inequality. Do you think that Irish society is ready for such ideas?
Absolutely. But it takes political imagination, courage, and leadership, and I don’t think the present government is brave enough to do it. It may be a different story with a different government. The objections to a Universal Basic Income today are not different from the objections Labour Party’s Nye Bevin faced in the UK when in 1946 he pushed for the National Health Service Act, providing free medical health care to everyone, regardless of wealth. He was a visionary. Universal Basic Income could be for the 21st century what the Welfare State was in the 20th century.
Based on your research for this book, which philosopher could provide the best counsel to the Irish Government at present, and why?
There are three living philosophers that I greatly admire: Maria Baghramian (UCD), Serena Parekh (Northeastern) and Lea Ypi (LSE). Going back a few years, to the late 20th century, an inspired Irish Government needs to look no further than to Brian Barry (author of Why Social Justice Matters) and G.A.Cohen (author of Why Not Socialism?). All these philosophers understand/understood that there can be no freedom without equality, and that as John Rawls famously said, social justice is the first virtue of social institutions.
Whatever approach is taken, change is necessary and now appears inevitable. Lockdown has held a mirror to society over the last eighteen months in a more honest and brutal way than could ever have happened otherwise, and (dare I say) that’s not such a bad thing.
When it comes to economic, environmental, or social justice issues (or often, all three), some small sacrifices are required by each of us to ensure fairness for all of us; and we must remind ourselves that it’s worth it. As Bufacchi argues in ‘Everything Must Change’, “Social justice is an expensive commodity, and everyone will have to pay for it.” We simply cannot facilitate change while continuing to live the same way. It’s not about punishing anyone, even the richest among us (Elon and Jeff, you can relax now), but it is about replacing a culture of inequality and excess with a structural system which is grounded in principles of fairness and consideration. As we have seen, the alternative is grim. It’s not going to go away by itself—everything must change.
‘Everything Must Change: Philosophical Lessons from Lockdown’ is published by Manchester University Press, and is available to purchase from June 2021.