Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy

Adam Tooze

Allen Lane, £25

Review by Jamie Maxwell

The year 2020, historian Adam Tooze writes in Shutdown, his brilliant, bracing account of the Covid pandemic and its protracted political aftermath, was “merely a moment in a process of escalation”; a trial-run for the “systemic mega-crises” to come. The “shocks of the Anthropocene”, he warns, are not going to arrive “in neat sequence”.

Tooze is dazzled by the power of two radically different institutions: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Xi Jinping and the US Federal Reserve. Beijing’s hard-line response to the virus meant that China had effectively contained its domestic Covid outbreak by the end of February last year, just as the chaotic liberal democracies of the West were beginning to grapple with the reality of SARS-CoV-2. At the same time, without the extraordinary borrowing and liquidity measures enacted by Fed Chair Jerome Powell, the entire global financial system could have buckled under the weight of an unprecedented economic contraction.

More than three billion adults were furloughed or forced to work from home during the first half of last year, Tooze writes. Some 1.6 billion children had their education disrupted. $10 trillion worth of earnings were lost. Never before have so many people simultaneously suffered “such serious interruption to their daily lives”.

Xi understood the significance of the moment in a way Western leaders did not, Tooze believes. With Europe and the US riven by domestic political disunity, and Britain distracted by Brexit, China seized the geostrategic initiative, striking massive new trade deals in the Asian Pacific, writing off huge chunks of Third World debt, and positioning itself at the head of the global fight against climate change. The year 2020 marked a turning point; the end of the long neoliberal arc that began in the late 1970s. It’s no coincidence that Covid death rates have concentrated in Latin America, the most socially stratified continent on earth, and the US, where healthcare is administered by a patchwork of private companies. The UK’s capacity to deal with the pandemic, particularly in its early stages, was hampered by a decade of Tory-imposed spending cuts.

At 300 pages, Shutdown is half the length of Tooze’s last book, Crashed, which covered the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. Yet it is similarly nuanced and wide-ranging. Tooze has the impressive ability, as a writer, to contextualise historical events as they unfold. Trumpism, he argues, is more an “attitude” than an “articulation of social forces” and shouldn’t, therefore, be thought of as fascist.

The increasingly urgent reality of environmental breakdown surfaces time and time again in Tooze’s thinking. The defeat of organized labour in the 1980s and 1990s has hobbled the left and robbed Europe and North America of the revolutionary pressure needed, at previous points in history, to prompt far-reaching social change. As the experience of Covid has demonstrated, Western market democracies are weak; their political systems deadlocked by obstructionism. Only enlightened elites, like Jerome Powell, and authoritarian technocrats, like Xi Jinping, are equipped to manage the looming climate turbulence of the 21st century.

This vision of the future sounds grim, Tooze concedes, but time is running out and humanity’s political horizons are narrowing. We are entering a new era of policy “ad hockery”, in which the challenge, for our leaders, will be “to rationalise a path between ‘one size fits all’ and ‘anything goes’.”

Tooze’s assessment of China’s post-Covid ascent may be overstated. How much of the CCP’s rhetoric of recovery should we take at face value? But his damning appraisal of the West is impossible to refute. We knew another major pandemic was coming and we had the resources to cope. If, as Tooze suggests, Covid has been a testbed for climate, the outlook, from this part of the world at least, is not good.