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Post-lockdown world: Will the Government step in or let the market dictate recovery?


Campaigning for the US presidency in 1959, John F Kennedy told his listeners that “in the Chinese language, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity”.

As it happens, Kennedy’s etymology was faulty, but the notion itself has stuck around regardless, popping up like a bad penny in countless business motivational speeches and political hot takes. It’s hardly a surprise that it has resurfaced during the current health crisis.

Around two or three months into the pandemic, there was a wave of chin-stroking thinkpieces about The World After Coronavirus. Would we ever agree to return to the bleak greyness of the open-plan office? Had athleisurewear permanently replaced all other forms of clothing? Could we grab this opportunity to fix homelessness, the health service and climate change in one fell swoop?

In the mainstream media at least, these pieces tended to cleave to a mildly progressive vision of a more communitarian world with more bikes, fewer cars, a larger and more generous state and greater potential for individual creative fulfilment. Lovely, although on the obverse side of the political coin, a flourishing internet conspiracy theory claimed the whole Covid-19 thing was a hoax devised by elites/liberals/globalists (take your pick) to “re-set” society in a way that suits their aims.

The notion of a re-set is thought-provoking, whatever your personal view may be. Coronavirus seems to have given fresh impetus to a range of ideas that emerged from the fallout of the 2008 financial crash, about new and radical ways of reordering our economies, societies and environments, with culture and ideas at the centre.

The urban theorist Richard Florida, for example, in his 2010 book The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity, argued for new forms of urban living that embraced and encouraged a burgeoning post-industrial creative class. You can see the undertow of Florida’s ideas in some of the opinion columns and features about what, say, a reimagined Dublin should look like.

The idea endures that a moment of turbulence and uncertainty offers the potential for significant and positive change

These and similar proposals failed to achieve critical mass during the post-crash years, when austerity politics for the most part held sway. It’s also true that Florida’s ideas were by no means universally welcomed. You can arguably see his privileging of a highly-educated urban creative elite as just the sort of thinking that has contributed to a nativist backlash  across the western world. And look no further than San Francisco for an example of how his dream city can become an economically segregated nightmare.

But the idea endures that a moment of turbulence and uncertainty offers the potential for significant and positive change. As we gaze glumly towards a bleak midwinter of continued restrictions, local spikes in infection, economic doldrums and who knows what else, that may seem fanciful, or even self-indulgent . But change of all kinds, good and bad, is coming, whether we want it or not.

Where are the opportunities in these crises and who – apart from the Amazons and Googles – is best equipped to take advantage of them?

It’s a very safe bet that the world on the other side will be different from the one we knew before. Tectonic plates which were shifting already in the globalised economy are now accelerating. The collapse of retail chains and the consequent emptying out of urban centres is one example.

Another is in the mainstream movie business, where the production and distribution of big-budget films ground to a halt in March, at the same time as cinemas across the world shut down. Currently, the exhibition sector is in the midst of a massive experiment, with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet as the canary being lowered into the coalmine of the world’s multiplexes. But, like retail (with which it has a symbiotic relationship through shared commercial property interests), cinema’s business model was already threatened by digital disruption. There’s a very good chance it might similarly tip over into deep crisis.

Empty cinemas, closed theatres, deserted streets… Where are the opportunities in these crises and who – apart from the Amazons and Googles – is best equipped to take advantage of them?

For the moment, we’re still at the stage of the pandemic where the imperative has been to keep ailing enterprises on life support. That phase will have to end soon. The last time around, the government of the day let the market do its worst and relied on international capital to pick up the pieces at knockdown rates. This time, the Irish State seems inclined to be more interventionist, but it will need to show a level of creativity and imagination it has only occasionally displayed in the past. What are the bets on that happening?

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