You’re Not Being Bold Enough

by | Mar 25, 2020

You’re not being bold enough. I don’t mean that you should be going out. Stay at home, covidiots! I’m writing this from home in Italy – and just as it is said that the past is another country, right now this other country, Italy, is probably your future. So stay home.

And I don’t mean the nurses and the frontline workers – you are heroes. You are the boldest and the best of us.

I mean you policy wonks and thought leaders and popular economists. Seriously, you are not being bold enough.

I know you’re feeling that you are being bold. I know you are feeling that, hideous as this crisis is, now is at last your time. You are no longer being ignored. You dusted off the old policy demands that everyone called too bold and are now saying “See?” and you are right. Then you dug up the old drafts that you couldn’t get sign off for and you are sneaking them out in blogs. And you are right. And people are listening. But you are not being bold enough.

All changed, changed utterly. We are in a situation that we have never been in before. And the one thing about this moment is that there is no one thing. Yes I know you spent ages fighting for a Universal Basic Income. And it’s important that now Mitt Romney is calling for one. But that’s also a sign that it’s not enough. Thank you, next!

There is no reason to conclude that this epidemic will lead us through choppy waters to better times. In a brilliantly written but depressing book, The Great Leveler, the historian Walter Schiedel implies that beating inequality requires a catastrophe. His argument looks in particular at the contribution of the legacy of World War II in the development of more egalitarian societies to conclude that only events like World War II can overcome inequality (other cheerful examples include England’s “Black Death” plague that killed so many ordinary people that the remaining ones had better bargaining power in the labour market!). Sadly though, catastrophes are not only awful in themselves but are very unreliable handmaidens of progress. We cannot rely on shocks to fix things on their own.

Crises have often been important in enabling progress – creating critical junctures or moments of possibility – but crises alone have never been enough to secure success for those fighting inequality. The 1929 crisis was followed by progressive change in the US, but was followed by fascism in central Europe. The oil and debt crises helped facilitate neoliberalism. The 2008 crash, which “should” have led to a resurgent progressive movement internationally, was instead more marked by the rise of the far right and the mainstreaming of xenophobic politics. They are moments to seize, but we are not the only ones who have seen that – the supremacists and oligarchs have seen that too, and they are making the case for a world that accepts mass suffering for the market.

Make your case. “Go large or go home”? Nope, stay home, and go largest. This is a time for radically new policies. The bravest ideas of yesterday are the weak tea of today. Set out now your ideas for a bold tomorrow. Many will be shocked. Who did a 1966 Gallup Opinion poll show was viewed unfavourably by 63% of Americans? It was Martin Luther King. Because by 2011 Dr King was viewed unfavourably by only 4% of Americans, people often read the recent consensus back into history and assume that he was always broadly accepted, and learn therefore a completely false lesson, that change comes from people and movements who never offend anyone; whereas the true lesson of Dr King and of other change-makers is that fighting inequality requires us to disrupt, to confront power and to take on prevailing norms. Throughout history, progress has been won through people’s own collective struggle. Alone, we may indeed be trapped by the structures in which we find ourselves, but history shows that acting together we have the capacity to remake them.

This crisis is awful, terrible, terrifying. I’m scared. I long to get back to normal. I long for boring. But boring is not an option. Normal is not coming back.

This requires a bold response. Radicalism has just gone mainstream. How mainstream? Well, Britney Spears has just called for redistribution of wealth. You too, or are you still that innocent? Don’t let them hit you one more time.

Solidarity. Courage. And love.


  • Ben Phillips is Campaigns and Policy Director of ActionAid. Previously, he worked for Oxfam in the UK. He has lived and worked in four continents and 10 cities including New Delhi and Washington DC, as well as with children in poverty in East London. He began his development work at the grassroots, as a teacher and ANC activist living in Mamelodi township, South Africa, in 1994, just after the end of apartheid.

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