Simon Mair is an ecological economist from the UK whose research focuses on parts of the economy such as global supply chains, wages, and productivity. More specifically, he studies the way economic dynamics contribute to issues such as climate change and mental and physical health among workers.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to force economies all over the world to come to a grinding halt, it has highlighted some serious deficiencies in the economic systems of much of the western world.
Many are wondering what the world will be like once this pandemic finally comes to an end, and how things will change if they do at all. Mair believes that from an economic perspective, there are four possible futures: barbarism, state capitalism, state socialism, and mutual aid .
While all four scenarios have their drawbacks, this is certainly the least desirable. Barbarism relies on exchange value as its guiding principle.
Exchange value refers to the relative price of a good in terms of other goods . When exchange value is the guiding principle of the economy, it means that the primary goal is to facilitate exchanges of money.
In the barbarism future, there are no supports for those who become ill and can’t work, or who lose their jobs in a recession. In this scenario, hospitals become overwhelmed because there are no state measures to support them, and people die.
Mair believes that this could happen, either by mistake if the government fails to intervene in a big enough way, or by intention, as governments attempt to restart the economy as fast as possible after the pandemic has peaked.
This could lead to the collapse of both the state and community welfare systems and the complete failure of the economy. After a period of social and political devastation, things would either be left in ruin or transition into one of the three other futures .
Many countries across the world are using this response right now, including the UK, Spain, and Denmark.
In this scenario, exchange value is still the guiding principle, but in times of crisis, it turns to the state for support. This involves extending welfare to those who are unable to work and offering credit and direct payments to businesses.
The main reason these steps are taken is to allow as many businesses as possible to keep on trading, and they are taken under the assumption that this will not last for a long period of time. Workers, in this case, are compensated based on the value they usually create, as opposed to how useful their work currently is, and they must apply to receive that income.
This scenario is only effective if it is used in the short-term, in this case, if COVID-19 can be controlled over a short period of time. As the death toll continues to rise, forcing further and further economic shutdown, the state will have to intervene more to try to maintain market functioning, which is not possible for very long .
In this scenario, the protection of life is the guiding economic principle, and like state capitalism, the state steps in to help. The difference here is the mindset.
When the state steps in and nationalizes hospitals and extends welfare to workers, the goal of these steps is not to protect markets, but to protect life. In this approach, the state protects the parts of the economy that are essential for life, such as food, energy, and shelter.
With the basic necessities of life no longer susceptible to market fluctuations, all citizens will have access to the goods that are produced with a reduced workforce.
The same payments are distributed to everyone on the basis that they deserve to be able to live, and on the usefulness of their work. If this pandemic continues on for too long, this scenario may emerge as states take overproduction.
While this sounds like the perfect situation, there is the risk that we could turn into an authoritarian-style system. If this can be avoided, however, a strong state intervention could protect the core of our economy and society .
In this scenario, the protection of life is the guiding principle, but unlike state socialism, individuals and small groups organize care within their communities, rather than the state.
The issue here is that small groups may not have the means to get the kinds of resources they require during a crisis. The upside, however, is that by building community support networks to protect vulnerable people and enforce isolation rules could be a more effective way to prevent the transmission of a virus.
We have already seen this occurring as a response to the failure of the state to provide adequate support, and it can be effective. According to Mair, this scenario can happen as a way out of barbarism or state capitalism, or as a support for state socialism .
Change is on the Horizon
Three months ago, the current actions being taken by our governments would have sounded impossible, but as this crisis has unfolded, many of our ideas of how the world works are changing rapidly.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the shortcomings of our economy in a profound way. Muir insists that to prevent such a disaster from happening again, we need to change our mindset surrounding what the economy is.
Currently, we think of the economy as the way we buy and sell goods, but he argues that this is not the way it should be.
At its core, the economy is the way we take our resources and turn them into the things we need to live,” he explains. “Looked at this way, we can start to see more opportunities for living differently that allow us to produce less stuff without increasing misery.” 
If we want to reduce our impact on the planet and avoid future crises, we must figure out a way to produce less, while still keeping people employed. It is clear that our economy needs to change, and after this pandemic, it likely will. The question, then, is will it descend into ruin, or change into a system that values care, life, and democracy?
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