Friday, 27 March 2020

The Fall of the Neoliberal Empire

These are strange times we live in. One of the more disconcerting developments has been Martin Kettle talking sense, specifically noting that predictions about the lasting impact of Covid-19 on society and the economy are largely wish-fulfilment: "In some cases, the pandemic is merely vindicating whatever the thinker believed in the first place, before the outbreak began. All the pandemic has done is make them believe it more strongly than ever." Before you conclude that he has foresworn the neoliberal Kool-Aid, the dull reality is that Kettle is merely warning against any attempt to junk the centrist consensus: "The NHS needs whatever it takes in a crisis, but at other times health service spending is as long as a piece of string and there has to be a cut-off point, if only to allow spending elsewhere. The borrowing that may or may not save the economy from recession in a crisis will also have to be paid for when the crisis is over."

For all that, Kettle still makes a good point. Commentators have long distinguished between scandals that prompt no change and crises which do, but it would be more accurate to note that only a minority of crises themselves lead to substantive change. Most are simply weathered, like the Swine Flu and Foot and Mouth outbreaks, or their more worrying implications brushed aside, like the now-seasonal floods. More fundamentally, a crisis may reveal an underlying contradiction, but it may have little impact on the trend that this gives rise to. For example, Suez in 1956 was a political crisis, but it didn't represent a fundamental change in British foreign policy, it simply marked the public recognition of the retreat of the UK from superpower status that started with Indian independence in 1947 and continued through the decolonisation of the 1960s.

The belief that "All is changed, changed utterly" by Covid-19 is a form of catastrophism but it also reveals a degree of hope, even excitement, at the possibility of a radical disjuncture. These two tendencies - the one pessimistic, the other optimistic - are most obvious on the political left. In contrast, the right instinctively denies the possibility of change while the centre assumes it can be managed. While many on the left have ridden their usual hobby-horses, suggesting that the current crisis will lead to the adoption of Universal Basic Income or the frustration of Brexit, some have focused on the future of globalisation, reasoning that a global pandemic must affect the networks of trade and economic interaction built up over the last fifty years. This is a reasonable presumption, but I think at heart it is more of an assumption. In other words, there are grounds for believing that globalisation is in retreat but not that Covid-19 is to blame or even that it will accelerate an already-established trend.

James Meadway offers the optimistic view: "The virus is an acceleration of the tendency, apparent since the 2008-9 crash, of a shift away from the dominant version of globalisation. ... And where once the ideology of neoliberalism stressed the need for governments to do no more than create a 'level playing field' for markets to operate in, the post-crash period has seen overt state intervention and state-against-state economic clashes, of which the US-China trade war is the most obvious example … Covid-19, in this sense, is a solvent for deglobalisation. It is unlikely that global trade and travel will ever entirely recover from it once the costs of future pandemics are known and assimilated, just as the financial system never truly recovered from 2000-9." This takes globalisation at face value - the opening of markets - and ignores the reality of economic coercion practised through the "Washington consensus". The US-China trade war is not about halting globalisation but a tussle over primacy in a globalised system.

There is also ample evidence, not least the continuing hegemony of neoliberalism, that 2008 did not mark the pivotal moment when globalisation began to retreat, while the financial system recovered from the turbulence of 2009 and 2010 remarkably quickly, and not just because of the scale of state bailouts and the adoption of quantitative easing by central banks. Financial crashes have real world consequences, but by and large they are the destruction of paper wealth, not real assets. This last crash certainly saw a temporary collapse in cross-border financial flows, but global trade had been declining since the millennium and that trend has continued over the last decade. Some of this may be attributed to the growth in communications and digital goods, but the lion's share appears to be down to import-substitution and the deliberate shortening of supply chains, policies that were originally decried by neoliberals in the 70s and 80s as impediments to growth. In other words, a phase of globalisation is coming to an end as developing countries have moved up the value-chain. From the perspective of the West, the easy profits of the 1980s and 90s are over, but this shouldn't be taken as evidence that globalisation has ended. It is simply mutating.

Branko Milanovic offers the pessimistic view: "But if the crisis continues, globalization could unravel. The longer the crisis lasts, and the longer obstacles to the free flow of people, goods, and capital are in place, the more that state of affairs will come to seem normal. Special interests will form to sustain it, and the continuing fear of another epidemic may motivate calls for national self-sufficiency … That process of unraveling might be, in its essence, similar to the unraveling of the global ecumene that happened with the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire into a multitude of self-sufficient demesnes between the fourth and the sixth centuries. In the resulting economy, trade was used simply to exchange surplus goods for other types of surplus produced by other demesnes, rather than to spur specialized production for an unknown buyer." This is an analysis in which the political response to the pandemic determines subsequent economic development. It is also one that employs the vocabulary of the debunked "Dark Ages", such as unravelling and disintegration.

The historic analogy is misleading. The majority of large-scale specialised production in the Roman Empire was based on trans-Mediterranean trade, such as grain from Egypt, wine from Italy and olive oil from Spain. Land transport was too expensive to support long-distance trade in anything other than luxury goods. This maritime trade was stimulated by both the exceptionally large imperial city (and, to a lesser extent, established cities in the Eastern Mediterranean) and the province-based legions, both of which created concentrations of demand that couldn't be satisfied by local supply. Sea-borne trade declined both due to the diffusion of this demand and because Mare Nostrum became the frontier of Christendom after the Arab and Ottoman conquests rather than the central nervous system of the economy. Mediterranean trade did recover after the Christian and Muslim worlds achieved a modus vivendi, but it now concentrated largely on luxury goods, notably those from Asia and Africa.

The point is that Western Europe did not turn in on itself economically because of its political fragmentation but because specialised Mediterranean trade dried up due to the diffusion of demand and the difficulty of trading across an intermittently hostile border. Reduced to land transport, trade necessarily became more localised in the main and more focused on portable luxury goods when it came to exchange. The collapse of the slave economy and the adoption of feudalism in Western Europe, which was driven by the poor productivity of the slave mode of production and the drying up of slave imports due to the end of imperial expansion, was a progressive development, not a retrograde one. In other words, the material factors of production determined the social formation and ultimately the political superstructure (the Holy Roman Empire of the Medieval era was more than just a conceit). The "multitude of self-sufficient demesnes" was the evolution of the Roman empire not its disintegration. Rome didn't fall.

Milanovic has simply got the causal relationship the wrong way round, but the emphasis on a reading in which collective will, or its failure, is the motivating factor allows him to indulge in some blood-curdling prophecies familiar from fiction: "If more people emerge from the current crisis with neither money, nor jobs, nor access to health care, and if these people become desperate and angry, such scenes as the recent escape of prisoners in Italy or the looting that followed Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 might become commonplace. If governments have to resort to using paramilitary or military forces to quell, for example, riots or attacks on property, societies could begin to disintegrate." Most developed economies (the focus of Milanovic's worry - the less developed already have to deal with a lack of money, jobs and healthcare, plus often repressive policing) have already taken steps to provide temporary income support, buttress healthcare and minimise the potential for riots (a lockdown was inevitable once social sites that might contain dissent, like pubs, were obliged to close). The zombie apocalypse isn't going to happen.

Will Davies offers a more clear-sighted analysis of the current context: "For over 40 years after Thatcher first took office, many people on the left have waited impatiently for a successor to the 1970s, in the hope that a similar ideological transition might occur in reverse. But despite considerable upheaval and social pain, the global financial crisis of 2008 failed to provoke a fundamental shift in policy orthodoxy. In fact, after the initial burst of public spending that rescued the banks, the free-market Thatcherite worldview became even more dominant in Britain and the eurozone. The political upheavals of 2016 took aim at the status quo, but with little sense of a coherent alternative to it. But both these crises now appear as mere forerunners to the big one that emerged in Wuhan at the close of last year." There is much to applaud here, but that last sentence is a non-sequitur. There is no good reason to think that Covid-19 is going to finish a process initiated by the events of 2008 and 2016, an assumption that smacks of progressive ideology and a denial of the random in history. Indeed, the persistence of both neoliberalism and the Conservative party suggests business as usual is more likely.

Where Davies subscribes to crystal ball-gazing is in his musing on the possible impact of Covid-19 on society (hardly surprising for a sociologist), and in particular its global dimension: "the spatial aspect of this crisis is unlike a typical crisis of capitalism. Save for whichever bunkers and islands the super-rich are hiding in, this pandemic does not discriminate on the basis of economic geography. It may end up devaluing urban centres, as it becomes clear how much 'knowledge-based work' can be done online after all. But while the virus has arrived at different times in different places, a striking feature of the last few weeks has been the universality of human behaviours, concerns and fears. In fact, the spread of smartphones and the internet has generated a new global public of a sort we have never witnessed before." The idea of a global public implies the potential of global public opinion, and this in turn opens up the possibility of a global demos at some point in the future. It's no coincidence that Covid-19 has triggered such internationalist speculations among British progressives depressed by Brexit.

This is an idea that James Meadway subscribes to as well: "A global, connected public exists today in a way it did not previously, and it has clear impacts: would the UK government have reversed course so speedily if we had not been able to see and understand what China and South Korea and Taiwan were doing, and what Britain was not?" The government did not junk its "herd immunity" strategy because of TV reports from East Asia but because it realised the NHS couldn't cope. I personally doubt that a global, connected public really exists today, or at least any more than it has done in the past. That we are able to consume news and information from other countries in real-time and connect with almost anyone on the planet does not in itself create a global community. To believe that it does is to subscribe to the democratic constructivism that has long been central to the media's mythos (albeit in a national tenor), and which was also a particular feature of the utopianism of the early Internet.

Against this desire for the emergence of a global public we should set the further evidence of dysfunction among the members of the European Union, suggesting that a more modest European demos is still a distant prospect. Of course this reflects the institutional grip of the nation state and doesn't preclude the emergence of an international consciousness, but there is little evidence of the latter struggling against the fetters of the former. The demands for national solidarity (and the concomitant xenophobia) will outweigh the calls for international solidarity, while the interventions taken by government will marginalise mutual aid and class consciousness. There may be moves towards greater national self-sufficiency in certain industries, but this will be in line with existing developments, such as near-shoring, not an inflexion point. The growth of international public opinion, like the market convergence in digital goods, will reflect the evolution of globalisation, not its supersession. Ultimately, the significance of Covid-19 may turn out to be the social atomisation of self-isolation. While that may present a combined supply and demand shock to the economy in the short-term, it is psychologically congruent with the neoliberal trend over the last half century.

Friday, 20 March 2020

You Can't Take It With You

The government's bellicose language around Covid-19 has raised the spectre of rationing and triggered panic-buying. While this may partly reflect a realistic fear about the fragility of supply-chains, it also reflects a folk-memory about the unwillingness of the state to protect the people. Despite the mythology of welfare and collectivism, the state's strategy since the start of the 20th century has been to talk about protection while doing little of substance, all the while treating people as an expendable resource. In practice this only differed from the aristocratic disdain of the 19th century, most famously on display during the Irish and Scottish famines, because of the need to pay lip service to popular security in the democratic era. For example, little provision was made to protect the population from the bombing that had long been anticipated in the 1920s and 30s, hence the London Tube had to be used during the Blitz in place of the deep shelters that weren't built, while the public issue of essentially useless gas-masks was little more than a PR exercise.

There was a time when the welfare state provided adequate social security, though this was largely limited to the 1960s and 70s, and there is clearly substance to the argument that the capability and capacity of the state has been stripped back during the neoliberal era, but that was also a period when civil contingency for a national existential threat was little more than the now-traditional "Britain can take it" defiance, culminating in the ridiculous Protect and Survive leaflets of the 1980s. This habitual attitude was all-too evident in the clumsy discussion about "herd immunity", which highlighted both the instrumentalism of the state's strategy and its fundamental disregard for the safety of the population. The suggestion that this changed once they appreciated the likely scale of fatalities is not evidence of sympathy but of a fear that crashing the NHS would be politically damaging. Of course, such cynicism is not confined to just the Tory party. Consider the latest centrist calls for a government of national unity.

The current crisis is not like a war. In wartime, the priority is supply - chiefly of military personnel and materiel - and its deliberate destruction. To that end, demand is artificially suppressed. For example, in World War Two Britons ate a basic diet and wore plain clothes not because there wasn't enough food to go around, or because all the silk was requisitioned for parachutes, but because foreign currency was diverted from food and cloth imports to weapons and oil while marginal domestic production was switched from non-essentials to the war effort. The current supply shock - the absence of labour due to self-isolation - will be temporary and quickly reversed (fatalities will be relatively light and will disproportionately affect non-workers), and it is already apparent that many businesses are able to operate while maintaining "social distance". The far bigger issue is the demand shock, notably in non-essential sectors such as leisure and entertainment.

That shock will be amplified by uncertainty over future income. Basically, a lot of people fear being laid off or asked to take a pay cut and are therefore loath to continue spending at their normal rate or make significant financial commitments. While it's true that people aren't going to up their frequency of going out to restaurants or the cinema later in the year, in order to catch-up on what they missed during their isolation, it is also true that monies saved over this period are likely to be spent, even if some is used to pay down household debt, which means there will be a boost in demand after the epidemic is over. This is the point at which a fiscal injection might be helpful, as a way of turbo-charging that growth in demand and offsetting any increase in household saving, but how best to do this is a debate about ends as much as means - i.e. the resulting balance between labour and capital. Two ideas have gained traction in the discussion of means over the last week: basic income and helicopter money.

The sudden rediscovery of the state's ability to directly intervene in labour markets is striking, as is the absence of the usual "How will we pay for it?" bleat, but the idea that one simple trick can get us through the hard times indicates that UBI is being thought of not just as equivalent to a cash handout but as an exceptional bridging loan. Implicit is the expectation that this would eventually be clawed-back at the aggegate level through higher taxes on income and spending. This is to misunderstand that basic income is a permanent social dividend, not temporary relief. It is the counterparty to accumulated wealth, so it can only meaningfully be funded by capital, not by labour. The sudden liberal interest in basic income appears to be partly motivated by a desire to avoid burdening businesses and asset-owners with any social responsibility. Like Richard Branson's plea for a state bailout of the airline sector while threatening redundancies, it privileges capital.

The alternative solution of helicopter money, such as the US proposal to send everyone a cheque for $1,000, is similarly wrong-headed, but at least has the virtue that it doesn't corrupt the concept itself. This is a solution whose time has not yet come. It might be appropriate in the period after the epidemic has passed when you want to stimulate demand and supply is no longer constrained by missing workers, but prior experience suggests that a flat cash grant has a weak effect. The US Economic Stability Act of 2008, which provided tax rebates of $300 per person, was aimed at averting recession after the financial crash. In the event it was relatively ineffective as much of the money was simply used to pay down existing household debt, pointing back to one of the underlying causes of the crash. The issue today is not the need to stimulate demand but the need to compensate workers who are unable to earn because of "social distancing", but the amounts being mooted are woefully inadequate even for a furlough as short as a month.

There is an ideological division between those proposing UBI versus those advocating helicopter money, with the former favoured by centrists and the latter by the right. The reason for this is that basic income has gradually been framed in recent years as a benefit, while helicopter money remains conceptually linked to tax rebates. The liberal mangling of the concept of basic income has come in two flavours: an optimistic one that sees it as a means of smoothing labour market frictions in the modern economy, such as gig-working and the impact of automation, and a more pessimistic one that envisages it as another necessary reform of welfare focused on efficient targeting. As a benefit nominally funded by tax (i.e. by the working population), this would inevitably be parsimonious and might even be largely payment in kind - "universal basic services" rather than cash.

The term "helicopter money" originates with Milton Friedman, who wasn't advocating it as such but merely conducting a thought experiment about the money supply (in other words, it is an artefact of monetarism). However, that he was also an advocate of negative income tax is not coincidental. The term's popularity on the right as an unconventional measure owes much to his authority as a critic of fiscal policy and the historic growth of the welfare state. Consequently, much of the vulgar justification has revolved around "giving people their money back", while the current proposal has also been hitched to a three-month tax deferment. The unstated assumption is that the cost of this addition to the national debt would be recouped after the epidemic has passed not through tax rises but through further cuts in government spending.

What the economy needs today is comprehensive income support. It is reasonable for the left to advocate increased benefits for the sick and unemployed - every opportunity should be taken to reverse austerity - but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that what is most urgently needed is security for those in employment who provide the bulk of economic demand. How this is done is a secondary issue, but the debate should avoid notions such as basic income, where the emphasis will inevitably gravitate to "basic" and thus inadequate, and arbitrary helicopter money. More fundamentally, the debate should focus on who should ultimately pay for this: capital or labour. Given the historic shift in power between them over the last 50 years, Covid-19 offers the opportunity to genuinely rebalance the economy before more lasting reforms, such as UBI, are considered. Every indication to date suggests that the government will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to any consideration of increased taxes on capital or the expropriation of historic wealth. That's one parallel with wartime that will not be highlighted.

Friday, 13 March 2020

We Are All Critics Now

We have become used to the idea that budgets should be viewed through the lenses of market confidence and personal impact - what it means for the FTSE-100 or a couple in a civil partnership with a dog and a Range Rover. As a result, we now struggle to analyse the politics of the Chancellor's announcement in anything other than the most superificial terms: that the left has somehow won the argument on investment or that the Tories have parked their tanks on Labour's lawn. This obviously highlights the extent to which class has been marginalised in mainstream discourse since the 1980s, but it also points to the way that budgets, as set-pieces of political theatre, have become dramatic "works" whose critique is dominated by the fisking of the IFS (Paul Johnson now has the equivalent clout of Frank Rich, the 1980s New York Times critic dubbed the "Butcher of Broadway") and the hunt for plagiarism (the "already announced" numbers that pad out the new). A consequence of this is the expectation of novelty and surprise, which obscures the extent to which budgets, as progress reports of a ship of state that has very limited manoeuvrability, reflect continuity. This is most obvious in the claim that this week's budget marks the long-heralded "end to austerity".

If you were serious about making the case, you would start by defining austerity. Living within our means hardly qualifies, given the continuing if shrinking deficit since 2010 and the steady rise in the national debt over most of the last decade, while the idea that we were doing more with less is flatly contradicted by persistently poor productivity. The belief that austerity is merely a ruse to shrink the state is also not borne out by the data. Though the public sector share of GDP has declined since the artificial highs of 2009-10, the current figure of just under 40% merely takes us back to the levels seen in the 2005-08 period. Though the cuts to public services have been severe, this has been offset by increasing demographic demand and poor GDP growth. Even the claim that austerity is more of a moral stance is belied by the triviality of its cultural impact, from Keep Calm and Carry On to the vogue for home-baking. What did change over the last ten years was a steady shift in public resources away from the poorest and most vulnerable. We were not all in it together. In the final analysis, austerity has simply been an active policy of inequality and there is little evidence that the government intends to bring that to an end.

Aside from the targeted funds for the NHS and the police, and the now traditional protection of old-age pensions, the punishment of public services continues. Despite election campaign promises there is no "solution" to the growing care crisis and I wouldn't hold my breath for anything radical turning up in the autumn. In reality, much of the extra funding for the government's nebulous "levelling up" will find its way into council care services, though this will undoubtedly be insufficient to both patch the holes and meet growing demand. Sending Treasury officials to a business park off the M1 or M6 doesn't distract from the lack of any substantive move towards greater fiscal devolution or the continuing squeeze on local authority budgets. Much of the promised infrastructure investment follows the usual pattern of preferential help for motorists and rail commuters. There is to be no large-scale investment in housing - i.e. social infrastructure - and the environmental measures are nowhere near sufficient to address climate change.

The investment in R&D is positive, but this has not really been an area that the UK has been lacking in. The perennial problem has been translating research into viable businesses and jobs, which is ultimately about the willingness of private sector investors to prefer domestic over foreign opportunities. The scaling back of Entrepreneurs' Relief is an admission that subsidising "value-creators" hasn't worked to boost British industry, but has rather served to further advance rentier interests. The failure to scrap it altogether indicates a continued desire to indulge an already advantaged class fraction that is a major contributor to the low productivity that bedevils the economy. Like the Catapult innovation centres, which sought to bridge the "valley of death" between primary research and commercialisation, the thinking behind this relief was that the state's role is to cultivate a climate of exploitation and hope the market takes the hint, rather than to seek to direct capital. As such, there has been no Damascene conversion to the merits of the postwar national economy. There will be no National Enterprise Board, let alone a Department of Economic Affairs.

The Covid-19 measures are focused not so much on stabilising the wider economy or supporting precarious workers as protecting small businesses through the suspension of business rates and the subsidising of sick pay (if the expectation is that most people will be infected then a blanket award of cash - i.e. helicopter money - would arguably be a sensible strategy, solving the gig worker problem at a stroke, but this would simply offend too many conservative sensibilities). One consequence of this SME indulgence will be the continued depression of productivity, essentially because more underperforming firms are being offered an end-of-life extension. Along with the likelihood that high street lenders, encouraged by the Bank of England, will show forbearance on loans, this means that the zombie army will march on. One potential consequence of this temporary relief is that reversing it later will become politically unappealing, just as unfreezing the annual increase in fuel duty has, so either business rate relief may become semi-permanent or pressure will increase for a downward revaluation, or at least reform of the current transitional rules.

The response to the pandemic is driven not merely by scientific advice but by assumptions about public health and governance. The suggestion that the science is being influenced by behavioural psychology more than epidemiology points to the voguish influence of the marketised approach to social control, in which the self-interest of utility maximisation is held to be the most powerful force that operates on society, but underlying this is an older policy tradition of "let nature take its course" that reflects a de haut en bas pessimism about both the morality and effectiveness of state intervention. This has echoes of the response by the British government to the Irish famine of the mid-nineteenth century, which was equally informed by the enlightened view of scientific experts influenced by contemporary political economy. Where once the population could be dismissed as "feckless", now we are told that the interventions being adopted by other countries would be counter-productive because of our susceptibility to "fatigue", a politer way of saying the same thing.

Martin Kettle was typical of the centrist response to the budget in evoking the halcyon years of Butskellism. The "postwar consensus" is an historical given among press commentators, but it has long been contested by actual historians. The Tories certainly accommodated themselves to the welfare state after 1945, but they voted against the NHS and consistently sought to support private healthcare thereafter, which established a consistent pattern: resist the extension of public welfare, concede it under electoral duress, and then work to preserve a private sphere that could form the foundation of an eventual reversal. For example, they supported comprehensivisation after Butler's tripartite education model was shown to be inadequate to the needs of a modern society, but they insisted on maintaining the privileges of public schools. Today, they hold the latter up as exemplars for privatised academies. Likewise, their attitude towards organised labour and their willingness to make concessions in the face of its demands was always grudging and reluctant, even before Ted Heath tried to take the miners on.

Kettle revealingly interprets the budget as not only a break with the post-1979 past but as a repudiation of the Conservative party's critics: "It is now lazier than ever to dismiss the Tories as mere neoliberals, compulsive austerians or even as the same old, same old". Given that the budget does not diverge from neoliberal orthodoxy (those infrastructure funds will predominantly go to private contractors), maintains austerity for most of the public realm, and is wholly consistent with traditional Tory practice, this is a heroic determination to refuse to see what is at the end of your nose. The Guardian editorial - We are all Keynesians now (a phrase misattributed to Richard Nixon in 1971) - was more sceptical, correctly noting that this budget was not about to empower workers or advance redistribution, but it revealed its impeccable Oxbridge breeding by wheeling out the old essay trope about the Tories' ruthless pragmatism: "Conservatives, however, are prepared to give up their principles for power. It is what makes the party such a formidable political force."

All administrations trim and compromise, but the suggestion that the Tories are particularly prone to this is a myth based on assumptions about their innate skill and temperament as "the natural party of government", not to mention starry-eyed biographies of Peel, Disraeli and Churchill. The history of the Conservative party over the twentieth century is one of a reluctance to give up old principles, from empire and public schools to the under-taxation of property, combined with an irreconcilable dissatisfaction with the postwar dispensation. This was obvious both in their attitude to Europe, where a deliberate self-delusion about free trade and a refusal to acknowledge the logic of integration led inexorably to Brexit, and in their ambivalence over Keynesian demand management and the narrowing of inequality, which eventually led to the embrace of Thatcherite neoliberalism. Commentators who claim that the Tories have wisely adjusted to changed realities are invariably liberals projecting what they consider to be the wisdom of centrist governance, hence their tendency to wheel out the quote usually misattributed to Keynes: "When the facts change, I change my mind". The truth is that Rishi Sunak's first budget is business as usual, and that would be even more obvious were it not for Covid-19.

Sunday, 8 March 2020

Coronavirus as Metaphor

In her 1978 extended essay, Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag contrasted the cultural role of tuberculosis and cancer. Just as Walter Benjamin defined Paris as the capital of the nineteenth century, so Sontag saw tuberculosis as the emblematic disease of that epoch, associated with the artistic and romantic and famously represented in the Paris-set operas La Boheme and La Traviata. But Sontag's real subject is cancer, from which she herself was suffering at the time she wrote the essay, and which she characterises as the emblematic disease of the twentieth century (you may also assume that she would similarly consider New York as the capital of her own era). If TB was thought to be a product of an excess of feeling, or the sublimation of disappointment, particularly in love, then cancer was seen as the malign product of repression and depression, an internal rot caused by inadequately expressed emotion or the failure to adjust to everyday life. The parallels with Romanticism and Modernism are obvious.

While TB was thought of as a complete mode of life - a delayed death sentence that restricted living and required changes in behaviour and situation - cancer was thought of more as a project, with clearly defined pathological stages and an emphasis on how the sufferer could minimise disruption to their lives, or at least prepare responsibly for death. The one was an excursion, often in the literal sense of a move to high or dry places for their assumed health benefits, the other a deviation that could be bracketed and potentially overcome. If TB was artistic, cancer was scientific, despite the continuing mystery of its etiology. Indeed, it was this mystery that Sontag saw as the factor common to both: "The fantasises inspired by TB in the last century, by cancer now, are responses to a disease thought to be intractable and capricious - that is, a disease not understood - in an era in which medicine's central premise is that all diseases can be cured." That last remark must be seen as the product of the years immediately before the discovery of AIDS, a subject on which Sontag subsequently wrote, and its explosion in popular consciousness as an incurable "plague".

Cancer gradually lost its role as the paradigmatic disease of the twentieth century from the 1980s onwards. This was not so much because it was supplanted by AIDS, which affected relatively few people and had well-known transmission routes, or because of improvements in treatment and survival, but because it was increasingly seen as a product of the environment rather than a reflection of the personality. Sufferers became victims. All diseases are seen as judgements upon the person, regardless of how arbitrary they may be, but cancer has increasingly been seen as a judgement on industrial society and in particular its callous disregard for public safety. In popular culture, this is the trajectory from Dark Victory (1939) to Erin Brockovich (2000). No longer seen as the outward manifestation of personal maladjustment or a lack of virtue, cancer was now a societal failing. One consequence of this was that cancer as a metaphor came to be promiscuously applied to all sorts of social ills, from inflation to football hooliganism.

Cancer was also a metaphor for existential dread during an era of imminent nuclear annihilation. While TB was associated with cities and its treatment was thought to be aided by particular climates (mountain sanitoria and arid deserts), cancer was truly global: there was no safe-zone, no bolt-hole. It was pervasive, implacable and could strike at a moment's notice. In recent decades, as medical science has advanced, the public health approach to cancer has been geared to screening in order to improve "early warning". Many of the metaphors associated with disease are military - battle, advance, retreat - but in the case of cancer this went beyond analogy to the practical deployment of radiotherapy, applying the science of selective mass destruction on the body's cells. That this metaphorical dimension "went into remission" after 1989 is not entirely coincidental. Cancer is now increasingly seen as a manageable disease and has lost its central role as a judgement on character to "diseases of affluence" like diabetes, obesity and clinical depression. It has also lost its metaphorically apocalyptic role to climate change.

As yet there is no leading candidate for the disease of the twenty-first century. Ebola and SARS, with their high death-rates, revived the anxiety of infection, but the difficulty of contagion hasn't shifted them out of the same category as AIDS. The great fear is of a new disease that is easy to catch and near-fatal, but such diseases tend not to become pandemics because they kill their hosts too quickly. A truly effective pandemic needs to have a long enough incubation period to aid its spread, as well as being easy to catch and difficult to treat (i.e. infection outpaces fatality). The early signs are that Covid-19 corresponds with this profile but that its fatality rate will probably be lower than the advertised 3-4%, perhaps around 1%, though this is significantly more than seasonal flu (0.1%). As a result, its metaphorical role is currently oscillating between the traditional view of a character judgement (the obsession with personal hygiene) and the more modern view of an environmental hazard (the speculation about the origin of the virus in dubious Chinese food practices and the focus on transport and tourism as vectors).

As cancer overtook tuberculosis as the paradigmatic disease, the traditional concern with virtue shifted from the patient's culpability to her response: a lack of "fight" or a lapse into fatalism being seen as a failure of character ahead of the failure of the body. In the case of Covid-19, the search for virtue has largely been societal, from the criticism of the state's initial response to the lauding of unflappable experts. The suggestion that the lack of a free press in China has worsened the situation, like the belief that the Johnson administration cannot be anywhere near ready because it certainly isn't ready for a no-deal Brexit, is obviously ideological. The lockdown of Hubei province will probably prove more efficacious than free copies of the Daily Mail. The UK government's strategy for Covid-19 - containment, delay, research and mitigation - is metaphorically a mix of the military and the technocratic: an appeal both to robustness and expertise. But the reality has been mostly dither and delay.

Containment has already failed and research cannot be accelerated further. Mitigation will be patchy, a lottery dependent on employment status and care responsibilities. The core strategy is delay. There are parallels here with climate change: the inadequacy of flood defences and continued building on flood-plains; the constant pressure to relax decarbonisation targets or seek market solutions such as offsetting; the foot-dragging on responding to research; the bias of mitigation strategies to gestural greenwashing or the scientific never-never. What underlies this commonality is the association with the economy. Covid-19 won't be an emblematic (or "idealised") disease in the way that TB was until the 1940s or cancer until the 1990s, not just because it isn't likely to be around for more than a couple of years but because it is seen not as a personal misfortune, whether as the result of a lack of virtue or social externalities, but as a symptom of a globalised economic model that is decidedly under the weather. Seasonal flu is not an inappropriate metaphor for secular stagnation, but it will never have the psychological power of TB or cancer.

The metaphors of the economy are often medical, essentially because we see it in corporeal and organic terms (much as we do the "nation"). We take the economy's temperature, we worry about it catching a cold, we equate consumption with healthy growth (rather than, as with TB, the body turning on itself). But the metaphors we apply to the economy are noticeably antiquated in their language - depressed spirits, sclerosis, equilibrium - reflecting the origins of political economy in the 17th and 18th centuries. The metaphorical impact of psychoanalysis on the vocabulary of the economy has been slight, despite the best efforts of Keynes and behavioural economics, while the impact of genetics is limited to waffle about corporate DNA. Marxian economics remains current in part because its language of systems and contradictions is recognisably modern, the vocabulary of cybernetics and engineering as well as critical theory. This antiquated language partly explains why the association of Covid-19 and the economy has tended towards another round of Enlightenment-worship, rather than the more useful task of "turning hysterical misery into common unhappiness".

The chief metaphorical value of the coronavirus is that it allows us to articulate anxieties about the economy, not just in the overt sense of concerns about demand and supply shocks but in the more generalised fear that modern society is fragile: that a small disruption could bring the economy crashing down - a concern that has been lurking in the background since 2008. Will Hutton has directly equated the response to Covid-19 to the Gordon Brown-organised response to the banking crisis: "Now, one form of unregulated, free-market globalisation with its propensity for crises and pandemics is certainly dying. But another form that recognises interdependence and the primacy of evidence-based collective action is being born." The claim that "Coronavirus won’t end globalisation, but change it hugely for the better" reminds me of the joke about the patient who asks the doctor if he will be able to play the violin after his operation, "because I couldn't play it before".