Throughout the lockdown I’ve been nagged by a persistent thought. As I sit indoors and read the news; as I alternate between cooking and takeaways; as I venture outside into the socially-distanced streets; and as I listen to commentators catastrophise about lockdown Britain, it is there. The thought is simple: what if all this – the confinement and the fear and the confusion and the ever-rising death count – what if all this is the good part?
True, we are stuck indoors, but the scaffolding of our world looks much the same, even if we are not allowed to move about in it. What happens when the time comes to restart? When the shops finally reopen how many will still exist? And even then, how many will be able to survive the reduced custom that will surely result from people now wary of congregating in traditionally crowded places? What will happen as the months wear on and we have to start paying for all this? What will happen to inflation as trillions are pumped into the global economy? And what will people say and do when they no longer have jobs? When they can’t pay their rent or mortgage? And when they are poorer and sicker and angrier?
In terms of the economy: well, quite a lot, it seems. According to the Bank of England, GDP could fall by 25 per cent in the second quarter of this year. For 2020 as a whole, the economy could shrink by 14 per cent. Unemployment is predicted to more than double to around 9 per cent. In short, our economy will look the same but be diminished, its edges sanded down. The Economist calls it the ‘90 per cent economy’.
I’m not an economist though; what I do is watch society – particularly its most dangerous elements. As I have written previously, the pandemic has been a gift for society’s most malign and extreme; propagandists of every stripe have made hay while the corona sun has shined. They have taken advantage of our fear and confusion in a health crisis – imagine what they will do when the likely devastating economic crisis hits.
In the last financial crisis in 2008 the banks almost failed but the economy still moved. People went to restaurants and bars, they bought ice cream and lipstick and iPads, and social media was still in its infancy. Now we are all stuck indoors, and every nutjob with a grievance can broadcast it to the world.
Which brings us to the nub. JM Berger’s social identity theory of extremism argues that extremist ideologies are rooted in a ‘crisis-solution construct’ where ‘in-groups’ facing what they believe are existential crises think they can only be solved through radical, supremacist and often violent means. To see how it affects us now, we need only look at two of today’s most threatening extremist ideologies: Jihadism and the far right.
As the researchers Milo Comerford and Jacob Davey of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) have noted, Jihadism is based upon a supremacist vision of Islam devoted to establishing an Islamic state ruled by the strictest Sharia law. There is a religious duty to defeat unbelievers. The far-right, meanwhile, is rooted in ethnic, cultural or national supremacism, generally geared toward establishing an ethnostate. Terrorism is an accepted means by which to hasten societal collapse.
Right now, the far right is flooding social media with posts about ‘elites’ – like Jeff Bezos, the Rothschilds, George Soros and Bill Gates – and the ‘deep state’, both of which they blame for causing the pandemic. According to Chloe Colliver of ISD, the scale of all this is ‘humungous’. Jihadist groups like the Somalian Al Shabaab, meanwhile, claim that coronavirus is being spread ‘by crusader forces… and the disbelieving countries that support them'.
Coronavirus has turbocharged the crisis-solution nexus. When I trawl the chat boards and the Jihadi messenger groups it’s clear that they are preparing to exploit the economic crisis to come. Who is to blame for our predicament? They ask. The other, comes the near universal reply.
As Comerford notes, ‘dramatic socio-economic shifts are always co-opted by extremists to lay blame at the door of specific groups - mainly minorities - resulting in conspiratorial, hateful or even violent consequences.’
This is already happening. Right now, be it by their employer or the government, most people are still getting paid. No major institution has failed; the markets have rallied, and we aren’t yet in the grip of inflation or a depression. But it’s coming. When the lockdown ends the real pain will begin, and not just economically. We must be ready, or as a society we will pay a heavy price indeed.