Boris Johnson Boris Johnson claps outside Number 10. Photo: Flickr/Number 10

We must push for the kind of transformative solutions that the government will do everything it can to avoid, argues Reuben Bard-Rosenberg

A Trilemma, or an impossible trinity, is a situation in which you can have two of three options but not all three.

This, I think, is of some use in understanding the choices facing capitalist societies today. The three options are:

1) Significantly reducing overall deaths from Covid-19
2) Preventing widespread economic devastation 
3) Preserving the social order in its pre-covid form. 

There was a short window of opportunity to achieve all three. This can be seen most clearly in the case of New Zealand which locked down early and heavily and has been able to limit deaths whilst keeping its mildly welfarist capitalist economy afloat. 

At this point however it is not possible for most countries to achieve all three. 

In Britain and elsewhere, the Coronavirus is now sufficiently widespread that it cannot be locked down into extinction. The only way that we can meaningfully limit the overall number of deaths that occur until a vaccine is mass produced is through a perpetual set of lockdown measures. 

However, developed economies are built around systems of fixed payments – to bondholders, landlords, banks etc. – around labyrinthine systems of exchange, and around constant frenetic activity. 

As such, simply locking down would achieve option 1 and option 3 but not option 2. The social order would remain largely intact, and we would limit the number of deaths but we would likely see widespread economic devastation: mass personal insolvencies, mass homelessness and the failure of millions of businesses, and hunger. 

The only way to lock down to a degree that reduces, rather than delays, overall deaths – and which does not produce extreme and widespread material deprivation – would be something akin to a war economy. Suspending rents, and nationalising the banks whose mortgage receipts are funded by rental payments. Working out what people need in order to live decently for the next year and making sure that they get it – as we did with rationing in World War Two. In other words choosing option 1 and option 2 but not option 3.

Insofar as both of the above are unacceptable to the powers that be, this leaves only the choice of option 2 and option 3. Keeping the prevailing social order intact, and preventing absolute economic devastation, but failing to significantly dent overall deaths from Covid. Having missed the window of opportunity to crack the Trilemma in the winter, and considering the alternatives to be unacceptable, the British government is now committed to option 2 and option 3. 

Every now and again the ruling class let on that they’re a little spooked by the fact that, should they fail to impose their solution, then widespread social transformation becomes a matter of common sense: some of you may remember the concern emanating from the cabinet that people were “becoming addicted” to the furlough. In other words, that the frightening logic that people should have stuff because they need it was taking root in the minds of the masses. 

Whilst we may have a particularly horrid and incompetent government, I suspect the ultimate position of similar capitalist nation-states – such as Italy, Spain and France – will not be all that different. 

As communists, and people who value human life, it is clear what our position should be. Our role is to oppose and frustrate a solution based on options 2 and 3. And to bang the drum for the kind of transformative solutions that would enable to us to avoid both universal infection and mass starvation.

Reuben Bard-Rosenberg

Reuben Bard-Rosenberg is a socialist activist and radical folk music promoter.

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