by Hendrik Wagenaar and Barbara Prainsack
11th October 2021

There is a phrase for it: ’The Great Resignation’. Recently, people have been leaving their jobs, or they have not returned after the pandemic-induced business closures. Many economists and politicians see this as a vindication of what they knew all along: Generous unemployment benefits and COVID-19-related financial support take away the incentive to work. However, evidence suggests that this is not the case.

Something else is going on: a larger shift in people’s values and priorities. Things that people have done for years, or even decades, without thinking about it – commuting for hours, hanging on to an unhealthy or mind-numbing job that does not pay enough for a decent living – they are no longer willing to do. They are looking for jobs that offer better work conditions, or to fulfil a longstanding dream by starting their own business. The Great Resignation is only one of the many symptoms of the breakdown, and tentative transformation, of the economic, social and political order whose fault lines the pandemic has so painfully exposed.

We started working on our book The Pandemic Within: Policy Making for a Better World during the first months of the pandemic. We wanted to understand what was going on, and felt that the common explanations – political polarisation, the failures of political elites to handle the pandemic, and even the critique of neoliberalist capitalism, true as that may be – didn’t go far enough. Moreover, we wanted to diagnose problems, and also sketch ways to get out of the mess we are in. In addition to deepen understanding, we wanted our book to provide a statement of possibility and hope.

The book offers readers four conceptual tools to understand the crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, and to imagine solutions and ways forward. The first tool is the idea of complexity. In the words of the complexity scholars Robert Axelrod and Michael Cohen (1999), a system is complex ‘when there are strong interactions among its elements, so that current events heavily influence the probabilities of many kinds of later events’. Complexity is an insight that is easy to grasp but hard to accept. This has to do with its many far-reaching implications. Complexity is an essential feature of the world. Just as a stone is hard and fire hot, the world in which we live and work is complex. We can deny complexity, but it will always catch up with us. Complexity also makes for unpredictability. It frustrates good intentions, and results in policy resistance, ‘the tendency for interventions to be defeated by the response of the system to the intervention itself’. Another implication of complexity is that we can’t step outside of a complex system. We are always part of the system we try to change – even if we think otherwise. Thus, complex systems cannot be controlled, only harnessed. That is, acting sensibly without fully understanding how the world works.

The second concept we introduce is hegemony, which is best understood as a form of cognitive capture. It is the incapacity to look beyond our mental, practical and institutional horizons. We all know that certain ways of seeing and doing have attained the status of the real. Think of concepts such as the market, or money or bureaucracy. They are hardwired into our language, and above all our social practices. They are self-evident to the point that it is hard to imagine an alternative. But it is these very understandings and practices that have got us into trouble.

We call our third tool utopian-reimagination. We think of utopian thinking not as mere fantasy, fanciful but ultimately useless, but instead as a systematic method to think through the problems and injustices we now face and envision better alternatives. Utopian imagination is a way to escape the hegemony that holds us captive. And finally, we propose to exchange the widespread engineering ideal of social reform – think of the currently popular moonshot metaphor, or the labelling of the EU’s Green Deal as ‘Europe’s man on the moon moment’ – with gardening. While engineering requires analytical skills and aims at control, gardening requires us to observe, to listen, to cooperate, to be patient and inclusive. Gardening is not mastery but relation. As an approach to reform, it is more respectful of the human predicament of complexity.

With these tools we discuss seven societal domains, or foci of public policy, that taken together are essential for collective human flourishing. That means that the optimal functioning of one is a condition of possibility for the others. These domains are: social infrastructure, housing, work and income, government, corporate responsibility, money and banking and our relationship with the natural world. In each we discuss what doesn’t work and how we can do better. Our discussion is guided by both empirical reality (our solutions have been realised somewhere, sometime and have been shown to work) and utopian imagination. We end with a plea for a richer form of democracy – associative democracy – based on human cooperation and self-determination. Associative democracy is a necessary condition for successful reform in the other seven domains.

Finally, why do we speak of the ‘pandemic within’? We do not wish to apportion blame to everyone, or to suggest that our wasteful and self-indulgent personal lifestyle in the West has resulted in a pandemic of global proportions. Instead, we want to express that in our everyday lives we are part and parcel of a web of social practices that shape and sustain the world as we know it, but that also have very damaging effects on the natural and social domains. It is our biggest collective challenge to change these practices, so that they harmonise better with the needs and demands of the world we have inherited.

Hendrik Wagenaar is Senior Academic Advisor at the International School for Government at King’s College London, Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna, Austria and Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra.

Barbara Prainsack is Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Vienna and Director of the interdisciplinary research platform Governance of Digital Practices. She is also Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney and Honorary Affiliate at King’s College London.


Three Roads to the Welfare State cover.

The Pandemic Within: Policy Making for a Better World by Hendrik Wagenaar and Barbara Prainsack is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £19.99.

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Main image credit: Orbon Alija