Another aspect of the current pandemic I’m beginning to pay more attention to is the emerging discussion about its potential long-term implications (post-pandemic). Some folk are saying things like, in essence, ‘nothing will be the same again’, suggesting the pandemic may reshape our politics and other aspects of society, and others more skeptically suggest that post-pandemic things could fairly quickly revert back to how they were pre-pandemic (e.g. link). Related to this ABC journalist Ian Verrender asks “Is capitalism dying or just in isolation during the coronavirus pandemic?”, whilst Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis is much more definitive in asserting that the coronavirus pandemic “has deepened and accelerated the non-stop [financial] crisis that began in 2008” and arguing it will further deepen (or accelerate) in the near-future. Other folk are proposing and strategising ways of proactively leveraging this moment to advance particular agendas (e.g. link). Some are further calling for this moment of crisis to be a major “social reset” and are seeking to stimulate related political debate. How could we think about this a bit more deeply? What theory or ideas might be drawn on when pondering or investigating this?
If I think about my own country of Australia, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Ministers are downplaying the longer-term implications of many the government’s policies and related actions deemed inconsistent with their political ideology. PM Morrison routinely emphasises that measures are temporary and that, post-pandemic, there will be a “snap back” to previous arrangements. Others doubt that things like free childcare will ever be removed or that social security will return to pre-crisis levels. Political commentators on the current affairs program Insiders were more skeptical, suggesting that it might be politically difficult for governments to later take back what they have provided.
Below I note a few ways of beginning to think about this and the potential consequences of moments of crisis like the current pandemic. I present an eclectic mix of relevant ideas and concepts I’m currently reviewing for other inquiry I’m conducting:
Theories of the policy process offer different views. One is Policy Feedback Theory which focusses on the “feedback effects” of public policies and the related claim that “policy, once enacted, restructures subsequent political processes” (Skocpol, 1992). Such feedback effects may be ‘positive’ or ‘negative’: “Civil War veterans’ pensions prompted their recipients to organize in order to protect and expand them, an example of positive feedback. The pensions, which grew to be quite generous and widespread […] promulgated negative feedback as well, as policymakers came to associate them with corruption in patronage politics, which dampened their willingness to embrace other types of social provision in the early twentieth century” (Mettler & SoRelle, 2014). Policy feedback inquiry has examined four key processes whereby policies influence: (i) the meaning of citizenship; (ii) the future forms of governance due to their impact on the capacity of government and political learning by public officials; (iii) the power of groups; and (iv) political agendas and the definition of policy problems (Mettler & SoRelle, 2014). Additionally, policies engender resource effects (e.g. due to the provision of payments) as well as interpretive effects (shaping norms, values and attitudes). The broad argument is that policies introduced at Time 1 influence public policies at Time 2. It’s possible that Australian politicians underestimate the potential for such political processes, and similarly those who expect ‘positive’ feedback (entrenching policies) may be surprised by potential forms of ‘negative’ feedback. Other policy process theories are potentially relevant such as the Advocacy Coalition Framework. For instance, policies and their effects could stimulate the emergence of new coalitions of actors that then attempt to influence subsequent policy processes. Additionally, Cairney and Heikkila (2014) note from the Social Construction Framework how “actors using biased judgements with selective information” work to “support or institutionalize their understanding of the problem and its solution”, pointing to the potential for long-term change.
The pandemic also appears to offer policy process scholars a unique opportunity to study the policy process. Concepts like windows of opportunity – which sometimes colloquially get expressed in forms like ‘never waste a good crisis’ – are given new meaning. Many policy process studies emphasise the rarity of major policy innovation, but the pandemic and its longer-term consequences may offer more case studies of such policy innovation.
Crisis narration and the resolution of interpretive ambiguity: something that’s quite striking (to me), regarding the developing coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis, is the emergence of diverse arguments about what the crisis reveals, implies and demands (as a response). For instance, building on the work of political scientist Colin Hay we can consider how actors narrate and link aspects (or symptoms) when constructing larger crisis narratives which contend that the pandemic represents a crisis of a particular kind requiring an associated policy response (or wider social interventions). We see instances of this in terms of specific issues such as healthcare, pandemic preparedness and government investment (along with neoliberal forms of health policy and service provision), but we also see broader narratives. For instance, we see actors in environmental policy fields asserting that “nature is sending us a message”, and arguing that the present crisis is just a symptom of a much broader human-nature relations crisis. Indeed, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) describes the pandemic as “another wake-up call”. Others contend that the pandemic is fundamentally a consequence of globalisation and therefore call for a rethinking of contemporary forms of globalisation. Related to this, we already see Australian political commentators asserting that the “COVID-19 pandemic will kill globalisation”.
One take on the above process and its potential outcomes emphasises the importance of the differential power of actors. For example, Hay argues that “the capacity […] to project inter-subjectively one’s subjective interpretation of context is the key to political power”, and different actors have more or less capacity to do this (e.g. differing positional power, resources, etc). Additionally he mobilises an associated constructivist perspective, emphasising “the contingency of the moment of crisis itself and the political character of the process of interpretive contestation in and through which the ambiguity of the crisis is resolved” (Hay, 2016). He further suggests that “success in the narration of the crisis is […] likely to have enduring political and economic implications”. At present we can see processes of interpretive contestation which are still playing out, but the implications as yet are unclear. I would further observe that whilst different crisis narratives can be credibly grounded in relevant evidence it also appears to be the case that the meaning of relevant facts gets interpreted differently by actors promoting different narratives.
‘Practice-driven institutionalism’ theories: proponents of these theories argue that more attention should be given to the every day efforts of professionals to accomplish their work (whatever that happens to be). In particular, they call attention to microlevel improvisations related to an urgent need (real or perceived) to cope with novel exigencies. We can see this in the case of decision-making in national governments, but equally this focus on situated improvisation is highly relevant to the efforts of many professionals (in a wide range of fields) to carry on despite new physical distancing requirements. Smets et al (2012) further call attention to two processes: ‘normative reorientation’ and ‘unobtrusive embedding’. Normative reorientation entails a pragmatic process of theorisation and justification (of the new practices being adopted) with a focus on gaining the support of key audience(s) from whom approval is sought. Perhaps in some instances ‘pragmatic’ need trumps the requirement for theorisation (an example could be online teaching) but equally theorisation of new practices may occur simultaneously with their increased adoption. Unobtrusive embedding is argued to involve improvisations trickling up to the ‘field’ level, as “diffusion and cognitive legitimation occur through the interactions of professionals engaged in work practices” rather than via “disaffected actors seeking to mobilize support for change” (Smets et al, 2012). Overall, these theorists suggest that “over the course of numerous improvisations, the logic governing the practice begins to shift” and – via interactions with peers (e.g. outside the organization) – “practice improvisations and their inherent logic diffuse relatively quietly and become embedded at the field level without attracting the attention of possible resistors” (Smets et al, 2012). Additionally, potential enabling dynamics are considered. It will be interesting to the see whether some new practices will become theorised and embedded in such a fashion over the coming weeks and months.
Clearly shifts in professional practices are a different case to political change, but some similar processes may be at work. For instance, Jansen’s (2016) theorisation of political innovation contends that innovation (of new modes of political practice) emerges “only when collective political actors, constituted in part by the situation, recognized a crisis in the applicability of routine practices to the present situation”. There are other factors and processes but this aspect links strongly to practice-driven institutionalism.
Institutional entrepreneurship: for another research project I’ve been looking into theories about institutional entrepreneurs (actors who play a leadership role in creating or transforming institutions) – and related forms of ‘institutional entrepreneurship’ – and some of these ideas are relevant to the questions being considered here. Seth Abrutyn’s work is interesting and potentially relevant as he conceptualises them as actors (and/or groups) who perceive real or imagined crises and pursue ‘institutional projects’ meant to resolve the crisis (link). Additionally, building on the work of Max Weber he argues that such entrepreneurs “are historical contingencies […] capable of taking advantage of structural opportunities to innovate”. He also observes that sometimes such institutional entrepreneurs emerge when “elites “authorize” a secondary elite to resolve a problem and this secondary elite leverages their monopoly over the solution”, whilst “other times, they fill a vacuum left by environmental or ecological change; still other times, a faction breaks off or a new movement emerges to contest existing normative, symbolic, and organizational frames”. The idea of elites authorising a ‘secondary elite’ to resolve a pressing problem made me think of the way PM Morrison here in Australia engaged not only medical advisers but also many others such as Greg Combet to advise on the resolution of emerging economic crises (see the recently established ‘National COVID-19 Coordination Commission’). In the latter case, the work of such actors may be extremely important as – depending on how the policy process plays out (see above) – it may not only have immediate effects via new policies which address current economic issues, it may also have longer-term consequences.
The above brief outline of some relevant ideas and concepts (which, it must be said, barely touch the surface of potentially relevant theory and perspectives) suggests some factors worth paying attention to as well as the potential value in considering insights from a wide range of academic disciplines. It will be fascinating to watch how this plays out alongside efforts to mitigate health risks and minimise the associated loss of life.