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COVID-19 versus Leviathan

How a pandemic may set new limits on state power

Author: Bill Jordan

Since the early Middle Ages, war and pestilence have been the two forces which have transformed economies and societies; in the case of the First World War and the Spanish 'Flu pandemic, the two acted together to bring down the established order in Europe. This article will analyse what history can tell us about the possible outcomes of the coronavirus moment.

In his account of the origins and purposes of the state, Thomas Hobbes saw human beings as equally vulnerable and insecure in the face of disease as well as violence. His Leviathan design for political societies (the original frontispiece showed a gigantic figure composed of hundreds of nervous-looking individuals) is remembered for its depiction of their miserable isolation in a hazardous natural environment. Although two more centuries passed before governments started to sanitise urban conditions for the sake of public health and to supply skilled services for the treatment of disease, the principle that the state should care for those reduced to dependence by ill-health had become established through the Poor Laws.

So the Black Death had provoked many rounds of contested powers and liberties, a long process by which civil and political rights, first in England and then (by the beginning of this century) all over the world, had been – at least formally – granted to the great majority of humanity. This process had been specially conflictual in the twentieth century, when fascism, Soviet communism and colonialism were all eventually overthrown, often after long and bitter struggles.

Yet the new direction of this new century has not been towards an ever-greater flourishing in civil and political liberties, nor an expansion of individual autonomy and voluntary co-operation. On the contrary, we have seen an increased authoritarianism , first in relation to the issue of poverty and the conditions around which its relief has been provided, as well as in the processes of criminal Justice, and finally in the exercise of political power itself.

This article will analyse how this has come about, and whether it is now the inevitable direction of future change. It will start from the idea that the coronavirus pandemic, though not yet nearly so destructive of human life as the Black Death, might prove to be a turning point. It is not making human labour-power scarce, as in the medieval plague (which killed around a quarter of English feudal peasants, but allowed those who survived to gain their freedom in John Ball's and Watt Tyler's revolution of 1381); but it is causing an interruption in processes of increasing state coercion, and hence an opportunity for a fundamental assessment of the potential for alternative paths.

Why plagues have been transformative

The obvious reason why pandemics have allowed peasants and workers to gain rights has been that they, like wars, have made labour-power more scarce, and hence have given them more-bargaining power. But this has not been a universal phenomenon; for instance, in Russia pandemics did not have this effect for many centuries. What was distinctive about England was that, once the peasantry gained its freedom after the Black Death, a political culture of individualism on the one hand, and collective action in defence of its associated rights, became established.

This helps to explain why the seventeenth century in this country, although far more tempestuous and violent than the previous or subsequent ones, saw an eventual enduring political settlement in the Glorious (and peaceful) Revolution of 1689, while the religious wars in France and the Holy Roman Empire had resulted both in far higher tolls of deaths, and a new crop of absolutist rulers.

Furthermore, neither the French Revolution nor the Napoleonic Wars led to sustained violence in this country, and a series of gradual reforms in the nineteenth century widened the franchise and empowered working-class organisations. When the welfare state was created after the Second World War, the achievements of the Labour government seemed to have institutionalised the role of workers in political life. But once globalisation began to erode industrial employment in the later 1960s, and an inflation crisis threatened living standards at the start of the next decade, a key decision by the Heath government in 1973 set in motion a process which has increasingly divided the working class ever since.

Faced with the choice between enabling a large rise in the minimum wage or subsidising low-paying employers out of income taxation, Heath's cabinet opted to create Family Income Supplements, exactly as Pitt the Younger had done through the Speenhamland system at the end of the eighteenth century. Just as that system had operated, the FIS (renamed Tax Credits under Tony Blair) expanded their scope over decades to embrace over half the working-age households in the country.

Now, as then, the incentives to take the low-paid, part-time and occasional work which had come to characterise our labour market were so weak that penalties (then the workhouse or forced labour in the farmers' fields, now welfare-to-work or benefits sactions and disqualifications) were applied. Now, as then, these systems of state serfdom are more widely deployed here than in Europe.

Eventually, in 1830, the labourers took to the streets in violent protest, first in the rural South and East, but spreading to the country as a whole. It was these protests that alarmed the aristocracy sufficiently to approve the Great Reform Act of 1832, enfranchising the middle class, and the New Poor Law of 1834 to end the Speenhamland subsidies. It is easy to see the parallels with the mass protests here in 2011 and 2018, as middle-income workers grew angry about having to pay taxes for funding these wage supplements, yet also feared themselves becoming part of the stigmatised mass of state dependants.

A system in crisis

The impact of the coronavirus on this situation has been dramatic, as hundreds of thousands of workers are falling ill or being sent home because their employers are shutting down their enterprises. The complex means-tested benefits system, especially the shaky new Universal Credit administration, cannot cope with the urgent needs created by the emergency.

In this atmosphere of crisis, primarily of health care services, but also of supplying income support for those who want to avoid becoming casualties by following the government's advice to stay indoors at home, this is an obvious policy failure. It was a former Conservative minister, Greg Clark MP, who suggested in the House of Commons on 20th March that the government should instruct employers (many receiving state loans during the crisis) to reverse the process of PAYE tax deductions from their employees, and instead make payments to them, to tide them over during their sudden redundancy. This measure was adopted later that day, in a statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was effectively an unconditional Basic Income.

As Congress in the USA was debating President Trump's proposal of an even more comprehensive and generous pay-out, including almost all citizens in what would be a Basic Income, the anomalous position of the five million self-employed in the UK was being brought to government attention. This would demand a payment of a more direct kind, because of their different tax status.


The transformative effects of pandemics in British history have occurred at long intervals, and some plagues have had no such consequences. There need to be other conditions conducive to radical change if mass casualties are to produce lasting economic and political consequences.

But I have argued that this is exactly what our present circumstances supply. In many ways, successive governments of both major parties have been postponing the kinds of re-orientations and reforms demanded by the shift to a service-dominated labour market, and huge increases in poverty and inequality. Because the coronavirus pandemic will cause a sudden massive fall in national income, the ad hoc mechanism adopted for the relief of sick, redundant and destitute citizens will (like other measures adopted during earlier moments of crisis, including pandemics) be much more likely to be retained in the years of gradual recovery.

For those who, like myself, have been advocating its adoption for many decades, this unexpected advent of the unconditional Basic Income in this country and the USA is very welcome. Up to now it has been seen as a response to windfall mineral wealth, causing grotesque inequalities in income in societies which still number hunter-gatherers and nomadic herdsmen among their citizens, such as Alaska, Mongolia and Namibia (although trials and pilot schemes have been held in Finland and some European cities also). In the present circumstances it deserves a prolonged roll-out in the liberal democracies which have been most resistant to its principles. Once experienced for the duration of the pandemic, it is unlikely to be withdrawn again.

Bill Jordan is Honorary Professor of Social Policy at the University of Plymouth. He is the author of 30 books on politics, economics, social policy and social work, and has held visiting professorships in the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

COVID-19 versus Leviathan © Bill Jordan 2020.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.