In a parallel universe, the pandemic would have been different

The dark spectre of the Covid pandemic has been with us for over two years now and the virus itself is always likely to be with us. Our systems and institutions are in turmoil, our economy, our schools, our hospitals, are still reeling from what has happened, still struggling to cope as the virus continues to mutate and spread. It is fair to say that the entire experience has traumatised us individually and collectively as a species. Throughout this trauma, capitalism has not been good to us—although it has been very good to itself. As usual when things go awry, governments had to step in to provide both health and economic supports and in countries where they did not, people were left to fend for themselves.

The question is did it have to be this way?

Consider a few selected aspects of the pandemic and then consider how they might have been handled differently in a parallel universe where our economy was a Participatory Economic one and not capitalist.

As the first lockdown got underway in Europe and other parts of the West, there was a scramble for personal protective equipment (PPE)—masks, gloves, gowns, face shields, goggles. Before long, there was a shortage and in true free market style, prices rose to ridiculous levels and supply chains were disrupted. Shortages meant that medical staff and frontline workers were being put at risk because they couldn’t protect themselves. For a while, these products were going to those who could afford the bloated prices. This is how the market in capitalism works. It doesn’t have a conscience; it doesn’t have common sense; it doesn’t care about what people need or what they’re going through. It has a blunt brutish approach: if you have the money to pay, you’ll get the goods. If you don’t, even if that product is overpriced but essential to your safety or wellbeing, you’ll go without.

Lockdown rules forced all public-facing businesses to shut, apart from those considered essential, and staff able to work from home were required to do so. Employees whose workplaces closed but who could not work from home, like those in the hospitality sector, for example, were classified as furloughed workers. Employees with underlying health conditions or with caring duties that made it risky or difficult to continue to work, also needed to furlough. All of these people would have been left without income had governments not come to the rescue by part-paying their wages—yes, those pesky governments that capitalists tell us are just interference in the well-oiled capitalist machine. Additional government schemes were established to provide small businesses and the self-employed with money to stay afloat, and further government intervention made it illegal, for a time, for furloughed workers to be evicted from their homes. Even with those interventions, tens of thousands of workers and the self-employed didn’t qualify for the schemes or they found themselves out of work and depending on social security—which is typically grossly inadequate, if it exists at all.

The initial inaction on the part of capitalism didn’t last long, however. It began to catch up, adapting to the new situation and soon regaining control. Unfortunately, not in a way that was going to protect workers, nurture society or fight the virus, but in a business-as-usual mercenary, profit-seeking way.

One of the first manifestations of this was in public procurement contracts to supply goods and services like PPE and tracking-and-tracing of Covid transmission. The scandals became legendary of how corporations made billions on these contracts which were handed out by governments across the EU and globally with minimum scrutiny and diligence and often to suppliers connected to public representatives. The corruption of the British government’s procurement of PPE and track-and-trace services, for example, was outrageous with a fifth of all contracts reported to have signs of possible corruption. In multiple cases, the corporations who won these contracts had political links and in other cases they had no previous experience of providing similar goods or services.

Outside of public procurement we saw infamous examples of corporations exploiting the pandemic. The owners of these corporations are the richest people in the world and they just got richer over the course of the pandemic by taking advantage of government subsidies and the new buying habits of consumers, violating workers’ rights and avoiding tax. Amazon, for instance, remained open during the pandemic and enjoyed unparalleled profits but put its employees at risk because it didn’t implement Covid safety measures such as social distancing and PPE. This demonstrates yet again how capitalism exploits an emergency situation in a time of need.

The biggest travesty of all, however, lay with the pharmaceuticals and the production of the vaccine which, in the capitalist system, was ripe for abuse and profit extraction. When a vaccine was finally developed nearly a year into the pandemic, Big Pharma got the knives out. Despite having received public funding to help develop a vaccine, Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca—the latter of which ironically boasted a “non-profit” model—made billions from sales, often charging governments exorbitant prices. Pfizer’s revenues doubled in 2021 and they expect 2022 to be even better. The pharmaceuticals have also been accused of not sharing the research for their vaccines, something which would enable drug-makers in the Global South to manufacture cheaper versions. In fact, the Global North did little to help our fellow human beings below the equator, and a form of vaccine apartheid took place whereby countries in the Global South received a mere 2% of vaccine doses. Allowing Big Pharma to prevent the Global South from getting access to the vaccines was criminal. The result was preventable deaths and illnesses across the Global South.

The profiteering of the pharmaceuticals was and is so bad that the British Medical Journal called it a human rights violation that must be investigated. The BMJ has gone as far as to say that these deaths have been caused by free market profiteering aided by patent and intellectual property law. Considering we can’t achieve anything like herd immunity, in any ethical or safe way, without at least 60% to 98% of the world’s population being vaccinated, it means that we will struggle to get Covid under control. So, regarding the health of humanity as compared to the profit of the few, it didn’t make sense to restrict distribution of the vaccine and actually ensuring the Global South was vaccinated too was the most promising way out of the pandemic. Restricting distribution of the vaccine only makes sense if profit is the goal.

As we are forced to move on from Covid, with the call from governments and mainstream media that the pandemic is over and normal business must be resumed, and with the removal of precautionary measures such as social distancing, mask-wearing, hand sanitising, self-isolation, tracking-and-tracing or testing, capitalism is failing people once again. Any governmental financial supports for Covid that were put in place for furloughed workers or those on low incomes have been stripped away. And now we’re facing a global cost of living crisis with the prices of essentials such as food, housing, fuel, energy and utilities rising beyond what already low incomes can support. Inflation is reaching highs not seen in decades. The war in Ukraine is being used as an excuse to increase energy prices, in spite of many energy companies making huge profits. In the early months of the lockdown, reduced demand for energy brought about a global decline in energy consumption. Around the same time, prices were dropping due to a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Both factors meant that oil and gas companies experienced losses. It seems that now they intend to make up for those losses, while at the same time, continuing to receive enormous government subsidies.

All of this is a lot for society to deal with, on top of the normal pressures of life in a capitalist society, world events such as the war in Ukraine and the perpetual threat of ecological catastrophe. What’s most depressing, frustrating even, is that it doesn’t have to be like this. Capitalism is not our only option. There are better alternatives. One such alternative is Participatory Economics or Parecon, also called Participatory Socialism. Under Parecon, the pandemic and its aftermath could have been so much different.

Parecon is an economic model that promotes economic democracy, economic justice and ecological sustainability. It replaces private ownership of the means of production with non-ownership or the social ownership of the productive commons. It removes the capitalist class and the coordinator class and, with them, economic hierarchy and authoritarianism. In their place is a “full employment” economy with non-hierarchical workplaces self-managed by worker councils. In Parecon, the corporate division of labour, in which about 20% of employees monopolise empowering tasks and 80% are left with rote, obedient, disempowering tasks is no longer the means by which work is apportioned. Rather, workers have what Parecon calls balanced job complexes where each worker does a fair mix of rote and empowering work. Instead of being based on reward for how much productive property or “human capital”, you have income is based on effort and sacrifice or on how hard and long you work, and on the onerousness of the conditions under which you work. Implementing these practices nurtures cooperativism and solidarity in Parecon workplaces. In addition, the annual participatory planning procedure in Parecon (which is discussed below) also requires workers and consumers to consider the full personal, social and ecological costs of producing goods and services, and incorporate what economists call “externalities” that are ignored in market prices.

Nothing about Parecon stifles creativity or freedom. The opposite is true. Workers have more scope for creativity because their work gives them a mix of rote and empowering tasks and because they self-manage in the workplace. Workers no longer have to take orders from owners or coordinators. They negotiate working conditions with their fellow workers. All of this allows for greater freedom and creativity in the workplace.

Cooperativism and solidarity would naturally permeate to the international level so that internationalism takes primacy over war-mongering. Under Parecon, we would also have universal social provision of public healthcare and third level education. Everyone would have the opportunity to develop their preferred skills and talents. Those unable to work would get a full average societal income.

A primary function of any economy is allocation which involves: distribution of resources, labour and intermediate goods among producers; and distribution of final goods and services among consumers. In capitalism, allocation is facilitated by market exchange that is dominated by those who have the most bargaining power. Markets foster competition and division by forcing consumers to buy cheap and producers to sell dear. Markets force producers to sell as much as they can which means inducing consumer dissatisfaction to encourage excessive and unnecessary consumption. Markets compel business owners to cut costs any way they can, for example, by reducing wages and benefits to workers and avoiding the costs of environmental protections.

Market prices only consider the immediate buyers and sellers involved in direct market exchanges, and don’t take into consideration the broader social and environmental costs, i.e. the externalities, of goods and services. And markets are highly inefficient. They produce goods and provide services that don’t always have social value. They waste resources by building in obsolescence. They disregard the potential skills and talents of about 80% of the population by forcing them into rote and disempowering jobs. Ultimately, markets lead to ever worsening social and ecological outcomes.

Despite the harm the market inflicts, we are so indoctrinated into the belief that the market is irreplaceable that it can be difficult to imagine an economy without one, never mind an economy that might be better without one. But in Parecon, we are asked to do just that: envisage an economy without a market. Allocation in Parecon takes place through an annual participatory planning procedure that results in the creation of a production and consumption plan where scarce productive resources are used efficiently. This is achieved through an “iterative” planning procedure in which worker councils, neighbourhood consumer councils, and federations of councils participate by making “self-activity” proposals in response to ever more accurate estimates of the full social and ecological costs of producing and the full social and ecological benefits of consuming different goods and services. In this way, participatory planning arrives at indicative pricing that reflects the true costs of products. Under standard assumptions economists make about preferences and technologies, it has been proved that the procedure will yield ever more accurate estimates of social and ecological costs and benefits.

From this very brief overview, it is clear that Parecon is a radical alternative to capitalism. With that established, let’s enter our parallel universe and imagine what the pandemic might have been like under Parecon. Keep in mind that while Parecon has a solid theoretical underpinning, it should be seen as a scaffold and not a blueprint worked out to the nth degree. The scaffold is enough to provide a vision of an alternative to capitalism but it will be up to each individual region or country to decide on the implementation details that take into consideration their particular needs and circumstances at a particular point in time.

From the outset, it is debatable whether the pandemic would have happened at all had Parecon been in place. There is strong evidence to suggest that the excessive deforestation done in the name of capitalism created the conditions that incubated the virus, and that the Covid pandemic is only the first of many more to come. When we consider the importance of ecological sustainability in Parecon, the absence of profit as a motivating factor, and the emphasis in participatory planning on accurately reflects the true ecological costs of products and the implications of those costs, it is unlikely that deforestation would be deemed acceptable.

But, we can put that aside and start from the position that the pandemic has happened in our parallel Parecon universe and the demand for PPE has skyrocketed. At this early stage in the pandemic, this extra demand may have caused no shortage of PPE because the public healthcare system—now not driven by profit or existing in a market economy—would have been free to stockpile PPE and other medical goods for the eventuality of a virus outbreak. However in the case of a shortage of PPE, given the nature of participatory planning, the consumer councils at national level would immediately increase their demand for PPE, as well as tracking-and-tracing and testing products. Since the increase in production of these medical goods and services would require a shifting of resources out of production of private goods into more production of these medical “public goods”, that would happen by an adjustment in the annual production and consumption plan for the year. Most importantly, these medical goods and services would be supplied free of charge using medical triage criteria to prioritise who was served first, not who had the most of the money to pay. In such a system, there simply couldn’t be any profit-seeking or denial of essential medical goods or services to anybody.

Once the lockdown descended and it became apparent that some workers had to furlough, in Parecon no one would feel the threat of destitution. Because Parecon is a full-employment economy, furloughed workers would continue to draw down their full income and avail of universal services such as healthcare. Some furloughed workers might decide to transfer temporarily to other sectors struggling to meet demand, for instance, essential services or the production of medical goods. And because people would continue to receive their full income, the threat of being evicted would not exist.

Then there’s public procurement. The practice of public procurement as we know it today would look very different under Parecon. Sure, the government would still need to procure goods and services but that would happen according to participatory planning rules and not via markets. Corruption in the allocation of contracts for PPE, tracking-and-tracing or testing, through excessive pricing, would not happen because participatory planning removes the ability to amass profits. But profiteering is also pointless since participatory planning prevents anybody from spending excessive amounts of money without revealing their having stolen it; however, that’s a story for another day.

With private ownership a thing of the past, there would be no capitalist getting rich off the misery of the pandemic. Individual workers would not unfairly or excessively gain financially because each worker is paid a socially equitable income that is a function of their effort and sacrifice and that is not dependent on how much is produced but instead on their work being socially valued which in turn derives from what is required by consumption proposals. Further, the notion that any workplace would put its workers at risk or violate their rights by not introducing Covid safety measures would be highly unlikely because workplaces would be self-managed by workers themselves. They would decide collectively what safeguards were needed and apply them accordingly.

Most crucially, the development and rollout of the vaccine, a medical good, would be based on need, not on maximisation of revenues as there is no such thing as maximising revenues. Under Parecon, there would be no patents or intellectual property. The vaccine research would be part of the intellectual commons and accessible by all countries. Of course, the scientists who invented the vaccines would be lauded and recognised but they wouldn’t be in any position to hold the population to ransom and deny life-saving medication just so they could maximise profits. Profits simply do not exist in a Parecon. With participatory planning, the necessary amount of vaccines would be produced and the vaccine would be made available, free, to everyone across the globe. That doesn’t mean it would have no costs, but the costs would be handled socially in each country, like the costs of education and healthcare, and so on.

And as Parecon is a full employment economy, producing more vaccines and Covid-related medical goods and services would require producing less of other goods and in turn would mean shifting resources. That would happen by adjusting the annual production and consumption plan during the year when Covid struck. In the following year, the national consumer council would begin with a much bigger order for vaccines and medical services for Covid patients, and the budget for the public health service would presumably be larger. Shifting resources also means not over-working hospital staff but adding additional personnel as needed.

This leads to another point: the vaccine apartheid witnessed during the pandemic has meant we have yet to build up herd immunity to resist the virus and reduce the prospect of future mutations. In all probability, the opposite would be true under Parecon. Leaving aside the anti-vaxxers—who are unlikely to even exist in Parecon because their anger is probably stemming from issues that Parecon eradicates such as poverty, inequality and authoritarianism and not the vaccine per se—the free availability of the vaccine to all would have us in a position where herd immunity has been achieved.

And with Parecon informing our decisions, in the aftermath of the pandemic would there be the same pressure to simply move on and forget the virus exists? Without the profit motive in the driving seat, and with the financial security and universal services inherent in Parecon, workers could rationally determine what a return to work would look like and what safety measures were still needed. Universal healthcare would ensure that free tracking-and-tracing and testing continued.

That a pandemic is followed by a cost of living crisis would not happen in Parecon. To start with, under Parecon, there would be no unemployment or business closures that would result in reduced, inadequate incomes. Further, much of the increase in living costs can be attributed to rising energy costs which in turn are caused by our current over-dependence on fossil fuels. Since Parecon achieves ecological sustainability through the need to balance the social and ecological costs and benefits of products and services, it is reasonable to assume that high environmental costs that risk our natural world—such as the extraction and burning of fossil fuels—will have meant the long-ago rejection of fossil fuels. Under Parecon, we will have made the transition from fossil fuels to renewable, non-fossil fuel sources of energy, as well as energy efficiency and conversation measures, and our dependence on fossil fuels would no longer exist.

It would be nice to think that in a parallel Parecon universe, other versions of us are living this kinder, more just existence and that a global health pandemic would be a very different experience, or maybe wouldn’t even happen. Back in our own universe, we’re left with the pain and suffering that capitalism rains down on a daily basis, with crisis after crisis that we have nothing to throw at only hopelessness and anger. Arguably even worse, set aside the current crises and make believe capitalism wouldn’t generate them at all. Life would still be restricted because capitalism would continue to offer, as best case, business as usual, class division, subordination of the many, rat-race anti-sociality, commercial homogenisation, vast inequity, and ecological degradation instead of Parecon’s classlessness, self-management by all, solidarity, diversity, equity, and sustainability.

That this is the reality of our world, it is worth remembering: capitalism isn’t the best we can hope for and Parecon doesn’t have to be a fantasy of science fiction. It can be ours.

Bridget Meehan is a writer and activist based in Ireland who is co-founder of the Northern Mutual bank campaign and member of Collaboration for Change, a grassroots activists’ network promoting collective activism. Bridget is also an advocate for a participatory society and is a member of Real Utopia, an organisation dedicated to advancing participatory society.