In both the international financial crisis of 2008 and the current corona crisis, a national crisis management is shooting up. Nevertheless, there are striking differences between these two crises. Not only in terms of their causes, their dynamics and the question of responsibility. It is the perception of relevance, that is now diametrically different.
By Jakob Tanner (University of Zurich, Switzerland)
In both the international financial crisis of 2008 and the current corona crisis, a national crisis management is shooting up. Nevertheless, there are striking differences between these two crises. Not only in terms of their causes, their dynamics and the question of responsibility. It is the perception of relevance, that is now diametrically different. In the 2008 crash, the focus of attention was on those corporations and companies that had embodied the triumph of shareholder value in previous decades: big banks and financial groups. As long as prosperity prevailed, they had privatized their profits – but now, at the moment of fatal danger, they became suddenly “national”, as it were, and the state had to intervene and rescue the banking system according to the motto “too big to fail”. Whenever there was talk of the major systemic risks and system relevance, the financial system was the focus of attention.
12 years later, there is also frequent talk of systemic relevance. But now the focus has significantly shifted and is on structurally indispensable and functionally vital professions in the health, nursing, education, training and therapy sectors. While these professions were previously overshadowed by the glittering financial world and consumer society, their vital importance is now suddenly recognised. And many citizens are only now realising that it is precisely these areas that have been downgraded even further as a result of the financial burden of the 2008-crisis. And that those working in the health system, apart from a few top positions, are underpaid and underfunded. A broad spectrum of care activities, most of which are carried out without pay, has also become visible. Overall, the social standing of these occupational groups, whose importance was generally underestimated, has increased. They are “too crucial to fail”. It is to be hoped that in the long term they will be held in a higher esteem and that political approaches that seek to reduce costs in this area with low wages and privatisation strategies will be effectively levered out.
It is still unclear to what extent the work of freelancers, self-employers and small businesses will be downgraded by the Corona crisis. The precarisation of work in many areas has led to an expansion of informal forms of work and new types of self-entrepreneurship in recent decades. In the broad field of cultural production – from theatres, operas, museums, public lectures, performances, etc. – and many service sectors – taxi drivers, hairdressers, flower shops, design studios, etc. – individuals, families or small groups bear the whole business risk and have lost their jobs overnight, as it were. While big business and large companies are currently receiving generous bridging loans and the state provides financial support for short-time work, in many countries – including Switzerland – these “little ones” are left out in the rain. It is not recognised that the aggregate work output of these disparate and fragmentated occupational fields makes an indispensable contribution to the material standard of living and cultural life in every democratic society. If this fact is not socially and politically acknowledged, these informal sectors will emerge from the lockdown as long-term losers.
The relocation of jobs back home across the board is extremely ambivalent. Since governments have declared a state of emergency and imposed curfews or other rigorous measures, information technologies, social media- and virtual communication platforms have gained momentum. Companies and educational institutions that took care of such decentralized forms of work and remote study at an early stage and invested in the requisite infrastructure are getting good marks, while those that have missed the boat are being criticized. Home office has made it easier to keep economic value chains and training processes going even during the shutdown of workstations. But because a return to normality cannot be expected so quickly, this “working from home” will become a new normal state of affairs. This may well have advantages for those affected because it may increase their disponibility in every-day life.
It is far more likely, however, that the disadvantages will ultimately outweigh the benefits. For the informalisation of industrial relations, which has been advancing since the 1980s, is one important aspect of the growing inequality in capitalist economies. Informal types of work have always played an important role in economic (re)production. Also in the phase of capitalist factory industrialization that has boosted the rise of the legally or contractually regulated normal working day, it was a largely hidden and therefore underestimated reality.
What is new is that for several decades now informal work has been on the upswing within the formalised sector of the economy and within well established companies. Thus, even jobs in areas that were characterized by high wages and social security in the post-war period are becoming more flexible and precarious. Home office does not simply extend the scope for employees to shape their own lives, but also represents a gateway for a cost-reducing deregulation of work processes and employment conditions. This is an enormous challenge for the trade unions, since it is necessary to convey historically new models of work with old demands for fair regulation of the labour market and working conditions that has not lost any of its topicality.
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