After Covid : An on-line panel discussion with Adam Tooze, Hilary Cooper and Simon Szreter

Wednesday, 2 February, 2022 - 18:00

The WISER Political Economy Seminar, the Society Work and Politics Institute and the UJ History Department invite you to join us for an on-line discussion with the authors of Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World's Economy and After the Virus: Lessons from the Past for a Better Future -- Adam Tooze, Hilary Cooper and Simon Szreter.

Wednesday, February 2, at 18:00 SA Time

Please register to attend in advance of the event :

Cooper, Szreter and Tooze will be in discussion with the members of the seminar, answering questions that will be available here in advance of the event.

After Covid :  Questions

Where is the crisis?

The Economist has a useful table of the global data for Covid mortality on this page:  The "Excess deaths since country's first 50 deaths" can be sorted by  Excess Deaths per 100k people. The countries that emerge as the worst performers (to date!) are mostly Eastern European, with Russia arguably the top of the list with 1m excess deaths and 748 / 100k (compared with the US : also 1m excess deaths, but 322 / 100k).  South Africa is close to the top of the list at 408 deaths per 100k (between Ukraine and the Czech Republic).  The mortality data from our African neighbours (on this page is useful as a measure of the weakness of demographic surveillance -- Tanzania claims to have had between -10k to 100k excess deaths (with just 778 deaths tested positive for Covid). A more reliable measure is probably that all six of the heads of state who died of Covid, globally, were from African countries.  This excess deaths listing is very different from the one that motivates Hilary and Simon and it prompts some difficult questions about the visibility of the polycrisis that Adam describes. If excess deaths are a better measure of the real costs of the crisis, that qualifies the degree of the failure that Hilary and Simon set out in their study of Boris' Britain. It's interesting that Britain seems to have performed roughly similarly to the other European countries, notwithstanding the scandals and foolishness and the distinctive prelude of brutal cuts. [Keith1] What do you think of this table? And should we have another that looks at GDP per capita, or spending, or something else? 

What do you, all, think of the possibility that the most serious elements of the crisis are playing out in countries and regions that are very poorly documented? For Adam, does this mean that polycrisis is a product of a certain combination of visibility, scientific capacity and surveillance that is not present in many parts of the world? Or should we view the Covid crisis as a catastrophe for a certain kind of welfare state?

Hilary and SImon stress that neoliberal economics – and austerity in particular – are the real causes of the current crisis, arguing for a model of economically productive welfare solidarity that derives from the 16th century parish poor law. They acknowledge that local welfare had elements of paternalistic authoritarianism, but show that it generally encouraged the rich to invest locally in welfare, and gave the poorest the independence from life-threatening poverty they needed to experiment with new kinds of work and mobility. They argue for a return to a caring state and a new kind of collectivised individualism that is properly resourced – through expanded borrowing and tax -- especially of accumulated wealth (much of it in pensions and housing). Increasing corporate tax, as you suggest, seems achievable, and politically easy – especially the firms like Amazon and Facebook that have been freeloading on the public infrastructures. [Keith2] Yet going after a 10% cut of pensions and, for example, housing equity are likely to be very difficult democratically -- especially as they would have to be done quickly to prevent the richest from transferring their assets to Singapore. You don’t raise the example of Chinese “common prosperity” campaign, but do you not think it will require a state like theirs to implement these reforms?

[Stephen1] One of the most striking differences between Shutdown and After the Virus is the level of anger Simon and Hilary direct at corporate and banking bailouts during Covid, their call for ‘payback’ for the 2008 crash and subsequent bailouts, and greater conditionality in the latest wave of British Covid bailouts. Adam is certainly also critical, but a certain Keynesian optimism, the ‘lessons learned’ argument – or perhaps simply a pragmatism about the obstacles standing in the way of more utopian attack on the Washington consensus – holds sway. I’d like to hear the authors of both books reflect on this difference of emotional register.

Debt is a major theme in both books – but sticking with Hilary and Simon: How do you see the relationship between British financial power and empire in the period you’re writing about : 1550 – 1900? You make brief mention of Beckert’s book, and the opium war, but otherwise this is very much a domestic history. Isn’t it important to acknowledge that Britain's enormous debt binge from the late 17th century to the early 19th century was a tool of imperial expansion (what North really likes about the London capital markets). This is important because debt seems fine if it helps countries to win. Indebted countries that lost the imperial conflicts -- Egypt or Turkey or Russia or Argentina -- have had very different long term histories. Britain had explosive imperial growth between 1700 and about 1860 -- much of it funded by disreputable trade with India and west Africa. But these are surely very different times. The important question, which the book doesn't address, is [Stephen2] what happens to the pattern of debt management in this new context of demographically and environmentally constrained low growth (or degrowth) economies? In places the book suggests a new economy of green jobs but how realistic is the prospect of British dominance (perhaps too strong a word) in this new global economy, with China and India (and everyone else) all desperate to retool their work forces? You also suggest, very quickly, that immigration might soften the demographic crisis -- but how would that work politically?

After the Virus has great time-depth, benefiting from the kind of focused historical explication which historians find persuasive, though, curiously, empire only appears through a glass darkly. As with Shutdown, a strength is also something of a weakness. Of course, Hilary and Simon’s audience is chiefly a domestic one, and it is probably unfair for this South African audience to demand they write another book, though I’d like to hear their thoughts on what lessons the English sonderweg sketched in After the Virus might have for the rest of the world, and how they think the odds of success of their ‘seven pillars’ might be impacted by the realities of demographic decline and the political challenges of immigration from ‘emerging markets/’failed states’.

[Laura] My broad question to Adam is about the relationship between the ‘elite’ of the Central Banks and the broader political environment. Is there any difference between what motivates the central bankers of Crashed compared to the bankers (many of them the same, as I understand it) of Shutdown? As laid out in the book, the strategies the Central Bankers of 2020 developed were based on understanding Covid as a crisis situation and on their experience and expertise of 2008/2009. But how affected have bankers and policy makers been by the dramatic political changes in the past decade? One gets a sense from the book that the changing debate about ‘green new deal’ etc. has shaped the world in which these bankers operate, but are they just picking up on a changing zeitgeist? Are there particular voices that have the ear of these bankers? And do you have a sense of how central bankers and policy makers outside of the US and Europe - especially those for whom green new deals etc. have not been at the forefront of national discussions - have been shaped by their political environment?

[Lumkile] On the same theme, Adam highlights a new Emerging Market toolbox that has allowed countries like SA (and many of the other mid-level emerging market economies) to control the macro-economic shocks generated by the Covid crisis. In combination the toolbox amounts to an overthrow of the Washington consensus -- relying on a combination of massive foreign reserves, local currency debt, free-floating currency markets, and capital controls. (Adam doesn't say it, but he knows that it also involves an embrace of the massive global derivatives' markets generated by the US mutual funds).  This has given countries like SA a much softer landing than most people expected, and we probably deserve. But if you look carefully at the emerging markets what's clear is that they're in a truly shocking state, not much of it generated by the pandemic -- Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Turkey, Russia, India and SA, not to mention Nigeria or Ethiopia. In the past, monetary crises have generated domestic crises. Isn’t there a real danger now that the EM states will not respond to their domestic crises because they can keep the lights on with the money markets?


Both books lay great stress on the achievement of the biopolitical remedies for the pandemic: testing, tracing, vaccination. The books were written and published before Omicron, which seems almost designed to devastate these (very expensive) remedies. [Lucy] Do you think that the successes (and reforms) you’ve described and proposed – especially the effectiveness of local state forms of welfare and care and the new macro-economic tools that central bankers have developed for managing shocks – are reinforced by the new characteristics of omicron, especially its ability to infect the vaccinated (and the young)? And, for Adam, do you think that omicron may weaken or strengthen Chinese geopolitical momentum and domestic control?

[Karl] To push this a bit further, both books imply that Covid has, finally, been decisively dealt with in the developed economies. Yet its resurgence, and the emergence of the Omicron variant, seems to be taxing the anti-Covid strategies in many countries, and particularly in the US and in China. Perhaps more significant even than the public health implications are the political consequences – contributing to the fall in public confidence in Biden, and with as yet unknown consequences for the Chinese Communist Party with its strategy of strict zero tolerance for infections. Have you underestimated the ongoing capacity of the virus to inflict political damage on regimes?


In the conclusion to Shutdown, Adam, you argue that neither revolution nor radical reform are remotely possible projects in response to the escalating global crises, largely because of the decline of the organised labour movement and its political parties and the absence of any other anti-systemic movement, which leaves only ad hoc crisis management to shore up the status quo. The question is whether there are any signs of a more fundamental shift. Specifically, [Karl2] Biden’s proposed spending bills have been called evidence for a break with neoliberalism by some, while Xi’s recent move to exert new state controls over Chinese corporations and markets may signal a re-regulation of rampant markets and corporate autonomy. Do the recent political moves in the two biggest economies in the world perhaps signal something more serious and long-term than ad hoc crisis management?

For both books, my takeaway as a reader is that there is very little in the real response to the current crisis to give rise to any optimism about our future as humanity – Tooze because this is pretty much his own conclusion, Hilary and Simon because there seems to be so little likelihood that their proposal will find real traction.

[John] Will Hutton in his brief review of “Shutdown” and “after the Virus” in The Guardian (3 October 2021) says: “Tooze offers no solutions.” My sense is that that may not be quite right. There are, at the minimum, pointers in many places such as in the diagnosis of “our institutional lack of preparation” and that “we needed a society that gave far greater priority to care” (p.11). And in the final chapter: “.. we depend ultimately on technoscientific fixes. Generating these depend on our willingness and ability actually to mobilize the scientific and technical resources at our disposal” (p.292). But what would your response be to Hutton?




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