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Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy

Author(s):Tooze, Adam
Reviewer(s):Peckham, Robert

Published by EH.Net (September 2022).

Adam Tooze. Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy. New York: Viking, 2021. 368 pp. $28 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0593297551.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Robert Peckham, Department of History, University of Hong Kong.

 

The title of Adam Tooze’s latest book, Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy, is in some sense misleading in that it downplays the author’s ambitions. Shutdown is not so much a tome about a pandemic-shaken global economy as an exploration of how Covid has played into geopolitical and ideological struggles, both historical and new, and how, in so doing, it has disclosed fundamental structural and institutional flaws. The future as viewed from 2020, Tooze argues, looks worrying. “We ain’t seen nothing yet,” he concludes.

Written for a non-specialist readership, there’s an urgent, often giddy reaching for the facts, perhaps inevitable in a book written in the heat of the moment. The tone is set in the first chapter, where we’re given overviews of health disparities, infectious disease threats, the securitization of health, Trump America, and China. It’s a complicated story, to say the least, and Tooze provides a cogent and useful historical context to many of the key issues in 2020, rightly stressing how Covid has foregrounded the entanglement of economic concerns with shifting domestic and global politics. The pandemic, he notes, is a convergence and layering of biological, social, economic, and political risks, which makes interventions in any one domain challenging. Tooze frequently stresses the exceptional nature of the Covid crisis as—in the words of the IMF— “a crisis like no other”. As he asserts at the beginning of the book, “2020 turned out to be history with a capital H, something quite different from anything we had ever seen before.”

Because there are so many sub-arguments braided into Tooze’s multifaceted plot line, some are inevitably dropped before they are fully developed. The links between financial modeling and epidemiological projections, so central to the Covid pandemic–particularly during the phase Tooze is writing about–could have been expatiated on. As Adam Kucharski notes in his 2020 book, The Rules of Contagion, many infectious disease epidemiologists at the forefront of their discipline come from backgrounds in risk modeling for financial institutions. What kind of assumptions get transferred in this reorientation?

There are benefits but also challenges in rushing out a book about a crisis that’s still unfolding. Tooze acknowledges as much when he discusses his 2018 book Crashed, an account of the 2008 financial crisis. “Crashed”, he writes, “was itself a history that had been overtaken by events. I had set out to write a ten-year anniversary book and ended up, in the wake of Brexit and Trump’s victory, in the middle of a crisis that refused to end. At the time, a wise friend joked that I was laying myself open to the demand to write a never-ending new edition.”

Over two years since March 2020, when the WHO declared a global pandemic, the issues Tooze identifies have transmogrified, with the viral threat now embroiled in a war in Ukraine, an energy crisis, and spiraling inflation—not to mention the many unanticipated global ramifications that these disruptions have produced, such as the ousting of Sri Lanka’s president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in July 2022. Like Crashed, this is a book that could have never-ending new editions.

While China was viewed by many as a success story in 2020, in contrast to the belated, half-hearted, piecemeal, or frankly bungled interventions in the West, today China’s zero-Covid policy—its drive to eliminate the virus at all costs—is manifestly failing. Aside from the economic consequences of mass testing and isolation and the lockdown of cities such as Shanghai and Chengdu (where in early September 2022, the city’s population of 21 million were ordered to remain at home), there’s now a real crisis of trust. China’s belligerent stance on Taiwan and its muscle-flexing in the South China Sea could be seen as a disingenuous attempt to distract an increasingly frustrated citizenry from the social and political fallout of Covid.

Although he repeatedly alludes to global interdependence and draws on an essay by the Chinese politician Chen Yixin for insights on the nature of convergent risks, this is fundamentally a book about the shaky foundations of a Western-led global order exposed by Trump and Brexit, both symptoms and catalysts of decay, viewed against China’s rise as a global superpower. In some respects, then, it’s a familiar story of rise and fall framed by a familiar question: “Was this the death knell of neoliberalism?” The answer Tooze gives, while equivocal, suggest that it may be. Or at least, it’s another nail in the coffin.

To frame Covid in this way, as a neoliberal crisis, does several things. First, it tends to perpetuate a Western and largely US-centric view of the ongoing crisis as their crisis, which necessarily entails a Western-formulated critique to tackle. Therapeutic agency is one-sided, since only Westerners can put right a world that they’re primarily responsible for constructing. Second, and relatedly, it lets authoritarian regimes off the hook too easily, unwittingly aligning neoliberal critique with the liberal-loathing politics of Xi and Putin, who in a 2019 interview with the Financial Times, crowed that “the liberal idea” has “outlived its purpose.”

Third, viewing the pandemic as a neoliberal crisis precludes any in-depth discussion of the vulnerabilities that Covid has exposed within other regimes, as well as the opportunities it has furnished them with. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the radical extension of the surveillance state in China, so poignantly captured in documentaries on Wuhan and Hong Kong by the dissident artist Ai Weiwei, have been enabled, or at least facilitated, by Covid. “The rigor of China’s countermeasures was easily typecast as totalitarian,” Tooze writes. Yes, and perhaps with some reason.

In Hong Kong, draconian quarantine and isolation measures were mobilized to do Beijing’s work. “The pandemic provided the excuse for a crackdown,” Tooze concedes. However, his brief account of events there, which hardly captures the anti-protest violence on the city’s streets and the brutal dismantling of civil liberties, quickly moves on to the Trump administration’s anti-China campaign. Of course, Tooze is right to call out Western xenophobia and there may well “be something deeply wrong with America,” but in Hong Kong, where freedom is being lost as part of a concerted and brutal clampdown on basic rights, the battle has other fronts.

Shutdown is nonetheless a bold pitch for a blended genre of history that combines an immersion “in the immediate flow of events,” as Tooze calls it, with a big-picture view. The Covid crisis, he suggests, has not only brought to the fore inherent structural weaknesses in the world’s economic system, and placed unprecedented stress on existing institutions across sectors from health to finance; it has also pointed to new challenges ahead. This is ultimately a plea for a novel kind of joined-up thinking and collaborative action to ensure economic and societal resilience and help build the “standing capacities necessary to meet fast-moving and unpredictable crises.” What is refreshing, here, and especially heartening for a historian, is the central importance Tooze places on historical analysis as a tool in building this sustainable future.

 

Robert Peckham is Honorary Professor of History at the University of Hong Kong, where he was previously Chair of History, MB Lee Professor in the Humanities and Medicine, and Director of the Centre for the Humanities and Medicine. His research focuses on epidemic disease and the history of crisis, and his book FEAR is forthcoming from Profile Books in 2023.

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Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Health, including Medicine, Disease, and Pandemics
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):21st Century