If it is true that the purpose of a system is what it does, then the purpose of the government’s response to Coronavirus has to be to shrink British society.
Lockdown is ostensibly aimed at flattening the curve, protecting the NHS and saving lives. But there’s little evidence that lockdowns are making much difference to countries’ experience of the pandemic or whether there’s a significant epidemiological benefit at all.
What the UK government’s systematic response has done is to put swathes of society into an induced coma.
Lockdown is literally shrinking society. [By ‘society’ I mean both what we usually call the economy and society since the two are essentially the same thing].
While many of the jobs, businesses and events that have been abruptly suspended by lockdown will return, it’s clear that tens of thousands of small traders and firms and millions of jobs are being lost.
Britain is not alone, of course. More or less the whole of the EU and the Western elements of the G20 have also put their societies on crash diets.
So, if a system is what it does, then the G20/EU have, in concert, launched one that will diminish millions of lives and livelihoods for years, or even forever, even though the label on the box says it’s a noble battle with an ‘unprecedented’ pandemic.
It’s possible that the reaction is a kind of political mass hysteria against which the only protection is being Swedish. But I don’t think so.
UK governments routinely tough out public opinion during flu seasons that kill more people than coronavirus is likely to.
One reason they can do so is that flu doesn’t generate all that much ‘public opinion’ because the British media have pretty well ignored the cumulative 80,000 flu deaths in the UK since 2014.
Downing Street’s Daily Death Count Show
Another is that collective flu deaths are carefully identified and not reported until months after the end of the annual season. With Covid, the lockdown system counts almost everyone who dies without visible gunshot wounds as a coronavirus victim. Then we’re called to sit around and watch the Daily Body Count show from 10 Downing Street in just the way people used to tune into the National Lottery draw.
So one purpose of the coronavirus response is to create ‘public opinion’ that’s supportive and accepting of the restrictions the government imposed to drive the other, larger purpose, which is to shrink society.
The $64,000 dollar question is why the UK and other countries which ever since WW2 painted themselves as rich, successful and liberal, are now working in concert on what amounts to a controlled diminution of their long term future.
I probably won’t win the $64k but it seems to me there’s another useful principle that applies here.
What can’t go on, won’t go on.
The Western economies that most of the media still tries to portray as stable and still-growing are, in reality, tottering mountains of irredeemable debt which are about to break through a wafer-thin crust of trust to be destroyed by a gazillion trillion dollar hellfire of derivatives.
Appreciating why we can’t grow our way out of this problem as we did in the past requires an understanding of what societies really run on – real energy not imaginary money.
The very best place to go for that is the website Surplus Energy Economics, How the economy REALLY works, written by Dr Tim Morgan, former head of research at Tullett Prebon.
Boiled down to its essentials, his message is society runs on the energy left over after you subtract the energy needed to get energy – from oil, gas, nuclear, coal, renewables and so on. Trouble is, though there’s lots of oil, etc. left, it is costlier to get at (e.g. fracking and deep water wells).
Societies, especially in the West, have used debt and other financial jiggery-pokery to mask the problem. But the room for manoeuvre is close to running out according to Tim Morgan.
Places like the UK are worst-exposed because what we regard as a normal standard of living stems from massive amounts of energy used in other places, notably China. They too will have less to share around even if they were inclined to.
20 per cent poorer by 2040
Morgan’s Surplus Energy Economics Data System model suggests that the average person worldwide will be poorer by 9.5% in 2030, and by fully 20% by 2040, than he or she is today.
Given that half the world’s population could scarcely get 10% poorer without starving, you can start to imagine that the lion’s share of impoverishment will occur in countries that are currently among the wealthiest.
And having gained and retained power by promising all of us bigger, shinier futures, no politician relishes the inevitable backlash when what materialises instead is degrowth.
One reason the Covid response is functioning like a controlled deflation of society might be that that is precisely what it is. Not so much flattening the curve of infections but getting a head start on the huge cultural changes needed to cope with the end of three centuries of industrial expansion.
Main image by Luismi Sánchez on Unsplash