“Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change,” said famed American economist Milton Friedman, four decades ago. “When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”
Crises shape history. That’s why some believe that the global pandemic is our once-in-a-generation chance to remake society and build a better future. We need to seize this moment in time to act. Because if we don’t, those who don’t want the better world that we’re working towards will take power from us—in fact, they already are. But don’t panic just yet. There’s good news: ideas that can change the world for the better are lying around. The people who want to change the world for better are here. Now, we just need to bring everything into alignment.
What are we seeing?
Before we delve into the way forward, we need to make sense of what’s going on. Because social media fragments we catch glimpses of what’s going on in pictures, status updates, captions, news headlines, videos, stories. Airlines are flying empty flights to protect their slots on prime sky routes. Farmers are left with surplus perishables and nowhere to deliver them. Hedge funds have even been accused of raking in billions of dollars from market bets. Taking a step back from the unrelenting onslaught of information reveals a simple truth. Our society is absurdly broken.
“There are times,” says American academic and writer Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “typically in the midst of a crisis, when the true character of our society reveals itself, and the brutality of our social hierarchy is laid bare.” That normal is a crisis has never been clearer for all to see. Normal is a crisis. Let that sink in. Wealth inequality is normal. Exploitation is normal. Discrimination is normal. Profit over people is normal. This global pandemic is the great unveiling because now all we are doing is paying attention.
Normal is a crisis.
Because wealth inequality is normal, a pandemic for the wealthier among us looks like: staying at home for prolonged, ‘unbearable’ periods of time, in ‘claustrophobic’ spaces (aka: massive houses), having to cancel vacations and trade nights out for ordering in; while the very same pandemic, for the not-so-wealthy, looks like: not being able to pay rent and possibly losing your house, or worrying about whether you’ll be able to afford your next grocery trip, or working or studying in a home where domestic violence is a daily reality.
Because exploitation is normal, essential workers, who can’t afford to stay at home to keep themselves safe, have to go to work without adequate personal protective equipment or hazard pay. (And don’t even think about paid sick leave. The billionaires want people back to work as soon as possible. ‘It’s for the economy,’ they’ll say.) They have to go to work and are forced to put their lives, and their dependents’ lives, on the line.
Because discrimination is normal, the claim that the coronavirus is the great equaliser is absolutely false. Minorities, who are more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions, who have been struggling to be taken seriously by systemically racist healthcare systems, who have less access to healthcare, get hit harder.
Our existing economic model is flawed.
As author and activist Naomi Klein says, this economy “has always been willing to sacrifice life on a massive scale in the interest of profit.” She adds: “now, people who have been blind to that, are turning on their TV sets, and they’re going what? What kind of system is this?” But this is, as we’ve established, normal. “This is not new. This is not a more radical phase of capitalism. What is more radical is the scale of the sacrifice.”
Historian Mike Davis, renowned chronicler of the disasters incubated by globalisation, wrote: “In a rational world, we would be ramping up production of basic essential supplies – test kits, masks, respirators – not only for our own use, but for poorer countries, too. Because it’s all one battle. But it’s not necessarily a rational world.” The great irony here, of course, is that our economic model is supposed to be rational. It’s supposed to be efficient. It’s supposed to allocate resources to produce better living conditions for us all. And above all, it’s supposed to make sense.
It’s time to acknowledge the truth.
Times of crises reveal the true viability of the models we live by. As geopolitical and economic analyst Dr S. George Marano explains, our global trading order is predicated on the Ricardian theory of competitive advantage, on neoliberalism, on location economics, on the fetishisation of total shareholder returns, and more. These “have promoted the offshoring model, which excessively prioritised opportunism over risk in the pursuit of resource efficiency and profit.” But now, “intricate supply chains are showing signs of instability.”
“The cogs in our global trading system move in unison when well lubricated. Now that the lubricant has begun to dry up and friction between the cogs has started to increase, we are seeing a slowdown, much like a watch that loses time.”
It would be unfair to say the model has failed us. It hasn’t. At least, not entirely. Because it’s brought us innovation and growth. But these successes aren’t equally distributed. And it is partly because of that that the model is not a resilient one. That “one virus can wipe out the entire economy in a matter of weeks and shut down societies,” as activist Greta Thunberg puts it, is proof. It’s time to acknowledge that our neoliberal-capitalist model is flawed.
Capitalism relies 100% on constant, limitless growth. It can’t even survive a 2 week slow down to adapt to the needs of human lives. Imagine thinking this could last forever.
— waria ☭ (permabanned in DC) (@EternalDago) March 24, 2020
Change is needed—and change is possible.
We must not be defeated by the thought of how much needs to be done. And we certainly cannot give in to the return to business-as-usual. As writer and director Julio Vincent Gambuto warns in his poetic call to arms, we must prepare for “the greatest campaign ever created to get you to feel normal again. It will come from brands, it will come from government, it will even come from each other, and it will come from the left and from the right. We will do anything, spend anything, believe anything, just so we can take away how horribly uncomfortable all of this feels.”
We must embrace this discomfort, and remember how much change has already happened during this time. The scale at which governments, institutions, corporations, societies have moved at is remarkable. In response to the crisis, governments have thrown together some of the largest economic stimulus packages in history. In some places, rent has been cancelled, payments have been delayed. Homeless people are being housed for free. And to varying degrees, we’re seeing government provision of basic incomes.
And this isn’t to say that we should be celebrating the pandemic—please keep fascist tendencies away—but that we should remember that in this time, we’ve seen that another, more humane world is possible. We have grown used to governments and corporations denying calls for more humane policies and ambitious changes because they’re ‘too risky’. But here we are.
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"Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next," writes novelist Arundhati Roy for the @financialtimes. We must be ready to imagine another world and we must be ready to fight for it. If you're not ready, get ready. We need each other. An incredible piece shared with us by @jungwon217 of @rainforestalliance #arundhatiroy #pandemic #imagineanotherworld #ready #bereadyorgetready
We’re not in 2008 anymore.
“Any glance at history reveals that crises and disasters have continually set the stage for change, often for the better,” writes The Guardian. “The global flu epidemic of 1918 helped create national health services in many European countries. The twinned crises of the Great Depression and the second world war set the stage for the modern welfare state.” There is reason to be wary, of course, since crises can also lead to less than favourable conditions—”the 2008 financial crash, was resolved in a way that meant banks and financial institutions were restored to pre-crash normality, at great public cost, while government spending on public services across the world was slashed.”
But we’re not in 2008 anymore. “I think we’re just so different to how we were before we saw the aftermath of the 2008 crash,” said the American writer Rebecca Solnit, one of today’s most eloquent investigators of crises and their implications. “Ideas that used to be seen as leftwing seem more reasonable to more people. There’s room for change that there wasn’t beforehand. It’s an opening.” Unlike 2008, the pandemic is relatively easy to understand. Unlike in 2008, we can clearly see the failures of the system. And unlike in 2008, “for people of a certain age, their only experience of capitalism has been one of crisis. And they want things to be different,” remarks Naomi Klein.
The policies we want aren’t radical at all—they’re sensible and humane.
Millennials are angry. Hell, even Generation Z are angry (just look at the anti-capitalist memes, tweets, posts, and even TikToks). Indeed, “just like the virus itself, political consciousness is rapidly spreading.” Those who are paying attention are spreading the word, and worldwide, people are beginning to realise that education should be a right, that debt should be cancelled, that landlords, bosses and CEOs are non-essential, and that a for-profit economic system is simply uncivilised. People are understanding how housing, healthcare, food and education should all be basic human rights, and that “industrial production and technology should be directed toward meeting human need first and foremost.”
Perhaps the most striking change of all is the change in the way people are viewing governments. As Pankaj Mishra writes: “It has taken a disaster for the state to assume its original responsibility to protect citizens.” People are now realising that the state needs to be held accountable to its duty to act decisively in the common interest. People are also realising that policies serving the common interest, demanding governments to enact such policies, and those demanding them, aren’t so radical after all.
I just cannot get over the fact that the universe has foisted upon us the perfect illustration of literally every failing of capitalism and people are still like we can't be communists cuz there won't be enough types of soup
— Megan Amram (@meganamram) April 7, 2020
(Well, most people, anyway.)
STEP 1: Beware of disaster capitalism.
As we’ve already alluded to earlier, there are people who are trying to profit off of this crisis. They want to rebuild a world that only benefits a few while sacrificing many. Naomi Klein, who wrote an entire book about this in 2007, dubbed the term “the shock doctrine”. It describes the phenomenon wherein polluters and their government allies push through unpopular policy changes under the smokescreen of a public emergency. Sounds crazy? It’s already happening.
In a recent webinar, Klein remarked: “We are seeing a very selective use of emergency measures, of the utilisation and instrumentalisation and weaponisation of states of emergencies to offload risks onto individual workers, onto individual families, while the people who are already most cushioned are getting these no-strings-attached bailouts.” We saw the US Environmental Protection Agency announce that it won’t be punishing violations of pollution regulations so as long as companies can link the violations to the pandemic. China has started waiving inspections that assess the environmental impact of industrial facilities. Singapore has just confirmed a continued partnership with and multi-billion dollar expansion of offshore facilities by ExxonMobil.
All these policies are under the guise of stimulating the economy and going back to business-as-usual. Such short-termism will only lead to devastating consequences in the long-run—felt mostly by the working class. But how do we fight disaster capitalism?
Know thy enemies: first up, Big Oil.
Disaster capitalism’s mastermind is, of course, Big Oil. This week, news broke that carbon emissions from the fossil fuel industry are dropping at a record rate. It could fall by a whopping 2.5bn tonnes this year, because of unprecedented restrictions on travel, work and industry. This would eclipse carbon slumps triggered by the largest recessions of the last five decades combined. Combined with price wars pushing global oil prices to multi-decade lows, producers struggling to find storage space for the excess oil, the forecasts of a record number of bankruptcies among oil companies for 2020, and the perceived low profitability of future investment in new oil and gas fields versus in renewables, some commentators have speculated that this might be the good news we so desperately need.
The pandemic could “kill the oil industry and help save the climate,” a headline in The Guardian exclaimed. But as academic Adam Hanieh explains for The Atlantic: “Such rosy scenarios, however, tend to abstract from the realities of a “catastrophe capitalism” that is inexorably tied to the extraction and exploitation of fossil fuels, and which has deeply embedded “Big Oil” in all facets of our lives.”
In his incisive analysis, he points out two key observations. The first: that mega-firms collectively known as “Big Oil” (ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, etc.) are more likely to survive this crisis than smaller producers. In fact, they’re expecting the wave of bankruptcies. This crisis is likely going to centralise control by these oil majors. The second: the reduced environmental regulations as outlined above. These two, Hanieh says, can come together to create “an emboldened and resurgent oil industry, positioned ever more centrally within our political and economic systems.”
Know thy enemies: comin’ in hot, Silicon Valley.
Naomi Klein observed that we’re seeing is “a glimpse of the Silicon Valley dystopia, that was already in store for us, but we’ve all just been catapulted to it faster.” Digitalisation has never been more prevalent. “Our social relations are being mediated by corporate platforms like Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, and so on. Our daily calorie intake is being delivered to us by Amazon Prime.” The monopolisation of Big Tech aside (more on that in a bit), more and more of our data is being surveilled, mined, profited off of.
Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, highlights that before 9/11, the US government was actually developing serious regulations regarding web users and their choices about how their personal information was being used. “In the course of a few days,” Zuboff says, “the concern shifted from ‘How do we regulate these companies that are violating privacy norms and rights’ to ‘How do we nurture and protect these companies so they can collect data for us?'”
“For governments looking to monitor their citizens even more closely, and companies looking to get rich by doing the same, it would be hard to imagine a more perfect crisis than a global pandemic,” The Guardian writes. Drones are searching for people without facemasks in China. Germany, Austria, Italy and Belgium are using anonymised data from major telecommunications companies to track people’s movement. Israel’s national security agency has access to infected individual’s phone records. Singapore has even created an app that allows citizens to snitch on others who are not safe-distancing (encouraging citizens to surveil each other). Of course, technology can help us fight the virus.
But Zuboff worries that “these emergency measures will become permanent, so enmeshed in daily life that we forget their original purpose.”
The greatest danger to systemic change isn’t related to how Big Tech might threaten privacy.
Many are sceptical of the privacy argument. ‘They’re overreacting,’ is one response. ‘This isn’t some sort of dystopia,’ is another. But the real problem here runs far deeper than a privacy concern. Author Evgeny Morozov argues that the dystopia is a “solutionist” one. “Solutionism”: “because there is no alternative (or time or funding), the best we can do is to apply digital plasters to the damage. Solutionists deploy technology to avoid politics; they advocate “post-ideological” measures that keep the wheels of global capitalism turning.” Today, it has become the answer to many of our problems.
Morozov observes that neoliberalism and solutionism “have an intimate relationship. Neoliberalism aspires to reshape the world according to blueprints dating from the cold war: more competition and less solidarity, more creative destruction and less government planning, more market dependence and less welfare.” Digital plasters, then, are the best types of apolitical solutions. “Neoliberalism shrinks public budgets; solutionism shrinks public imaginations. The solutionist mandate is to convince the public that the only legitimate use of digital technologies is to disrupt and revolutionise everything but the central institution of modern life – the market.”
And so what’s the real risk here? It’s that the solutionist toolkit will become “the default option for addressing all other existential problems”—and yes, that certainly includes climate change. “After all,” Morozov concludes, “it is much easier to deploy solutionist tech to influence individual behaviour than it is to ask difficult political questions about the root causes of these crises.”
Have we talked about Amazonification yet?
Not unrelated to the problem of solutionism is the growing Amazonification of our planet. The term, as explained by VICE editor Brian Merchant, refers to the shift of traditional jobs and local, small businesses to “unreliable, part-time work for tech giants that distribute and products and services through online platforms.” And it encompasses all kinds of e-commerce and delivery platforms. Amazon just hired 100,000 more workers to cope with the exploding demand for online services. Instacart, Walmart, Grocery and Shipt are seeing record downloads. Blue Apron’s, a meal kit delivery service, stocks jumped 70%.
All across the world, we’re seeing small businesses get swallowed up whole by this revolution. Merchant explains that the average small business only has enough cash on hand to operate for 27 days without going under. Coupled with dwindling demand and rent pressures, Amazonification is only going to be sped up even more. “If restaurants, bars, and local shops close permanently while app-based monoliths hoover up the customers and the jobs, the trendline may be very difficult to reverse as we wade out of the wreckage. And this,” Merchant writes, “is not a future we want.”
What would Amazonification do to our local economies?
Merchant goes on to elaborate on the Silicon Valley dystopia that is Amazonification. For one, he writes, it means “an increased reliance on precarious, part-time labour in the form of seasonal and highly replaceable warehouse workers or Flex delivery workers, who work gruelling hours with no benefits.” These so-called ‘essential workers’ are rendered ever more disposable. We’ll have more and more people on minimum wage. And let’s face it: as long as we’re not willing to pay more, as long as we want cheaper and faster and more convenient, the margins are going to get tighter, and the minimum wage, if not stuck, may even become lower and lower.
Second: we’ll also see “monopolistic control over platforms that can make or break business on a corporate whim.” Decisions made by these platforms will have far-reaching effects on the livelihoods of thousands. Amazon, and platforms like it, control the rules. We’re already seeing the effects of this. Amazon announced that it would suspend shipments of all non-essential items in the US, devastating many third-party sellers. We’re also seeing how food delivery platforms take huge cuts from local food businesses. Those businesses are now calling on platforms like GrabFood, Deliveroo, UberEats, DoorDash and more, to do them justice.
Lesser humans, lesser care, lesser community.
You thought it ends there? It gets worse.
We’re going to see fewer jobs. Amazon is working “toward a vision of automation designed to inspire investor confidence, stoke public fantasy, and keep laborers from agitating for higher wages.” How soon? 2030. Fully automated warehouses by 2030. It doesn’t matter whether or not they meet it, it’s the intention that should scare us. Companies in China are using the pandemic as an opportunity to introduce more automation. Google is very much on board too. “After all, a perfectly efficient human-free logistics company is the stuff of corporate wet dreams.” (Jeff Bezos‘ wet dream, more specifically.)
And finally, Merchant concludes, echoing Klein, that Amazonification’s “clearest invocation of a techified shock doctrine” yet: the privatisation and techification of healthcare. Before the pandemic, Amazon was apparently already planning to launch Amazon Care. And now, they’re looking at teaming up with the Gates Foundation to deliver test kits. “Needless to say, the transfer of public services to for-profit enterprises rarely bodes well, especially when it comes to matters of human health. (See: Flint, Michigan.)”
Perhaps this is the new normal we’re going to have to get used to in a post-viral world?
STEP TWO: Reject the new normal.
We don’t have to accept the new normal. Evgeny Morozov proposes a “post-solutionist” politics and asks the question: “what institutions do we need to harness the new forms of social coordination and innovation afforded by digital technologies?” Indeed, there is no way back from here. No more romanticisation of a device-free world. We shouldn’t reject and alienate Big Tech entirely either (assuming this is even a choice; the gig economy is here to stay). That would be a folly of purity politics, as Alexis Shotwell puts it. Instead, we need to work towards a world that keeps Big Tech in check. One that ensures it owns up to its imperfections and strives to do better.
We need to do this too, generally speaking, if we want to come out into a better post-viral world. “The political outcome of the epidemic,” says Mike Davis, “will, like all political outcomes, be decided by struggle, by battles over interpretation, by pointing out what causes problems and what solves them. And we need to get that analysis out in the world any way we can.” There are many, institutions, governments, Big Tech, Big Oil, etc., who will argue that business-as-usual is the only way back up. That we should go back to what feels good. What feels… normal. And so we need communicators, like you and me, to get the message that we don’t need this kind of normal, out in the world.
And sometimes we’re going to need to get off our phones to do that. As Klein reminds us: “The biggest risk for all of us is going to be frittering away this time sitting at home on our social media feeds, living the extremely limited forms of politics that get enabled there.”
STEP THREE: Reframe the narrative.
Problematising “normal” and “business-as-usual” is only half the battle won. As Ted Nordhaus and Alex Trembath at environmental research centre Breakthrough Institute advise, “environmentalists will need to spend more effort making the economic case for the infrastructure they want to build, and less time making the climate case against infrastructure they want to stop.” I don’t fully agree with this statement, but the sentiment isn’t wrong.
We need to show the viability of our alternative models. Alongside, not necessarily instead of, pointing out how the existing system fails us. Luckily, there are already many studies that prove the cost of inaction is far greater than the cost of getting climate on the agenda. (Read: here, here and even a whole project dedicated to this here.) Now, it’s about making sure that our communities know it and the media amplifies it. And that our politicians hear and act on it.
Rebuilding for better is already happening.
Key figures are already listening, as author and journalist Fred Pearce notes. Faith Birol, director of the International Energy Agency, advised the G20 governments, who are pledging around $5 trillion to stimulate their post-viral economies, to “put clean energy at the heart of the stimulus plans”. The EU says that its economic stimulus package will be consistent with its recently announced Green Deal policy. There is pushback, of course: the Czech Prime Minister called for the Green Deal to be abandoned. The Polish government thinks that the EU’s emissions trading scheme, which penalises carbon emitters, needs to go. But the European Commission vice-president is Frans Timmermans, and he’s in charge of the Green Deal. This is what he tweeted from self-isolation:
We are rightfully making many sacrifices right now, and staying inside to keep people safe.
But when the better days come – and they will – we will be more determined than ever to protect our people and planet and enjoy the nature around us. #DontKnowWhatYouveGotTilitsGone
— Frans Timmermans (@TimmermansEU) March 24, 2020
(And for an extra dose of hope, check out this green stimulus plan for the US.)
Pearce observes that some market analysts are aligning with Naomi Klein too. They’re arguing “that the shock of the pandemic crisis could be just what is needed to consign old energy policies to ash heap of history.” Even more encouragingly, Amsterdam just announced that it will be embracing the “doughnut” model of economics as they work towards its post-viral city. This model is one that works towards an economy that is about meeting the core needs of everyone. While, at the same time, working within the means of the planet.
We have our work cut out for us.
We know what to do. Academic Simon Mair writes for the BBC: “Social change can come from many places and with many influences. A key task for us all is demanding that emerging social forms come from an ethic that values care, life, and democracy. The central political task in this time of crisis is living and (virtually) organising around those values.”
Ideas that can change the world for better are lying around. Consider Kate Raworth’s model of doughnut economics and her message that a healthy economy should be designed to thrive, not grow. Or George Monbiot’s proposition for a new political story. Or activists like Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Naomi Klein, who constantly remind us of the need to work towards a world that sees our connection as ordinary people. The need to build a truly regenerative economy.
The people who want to change the world for better are here. These people are all around you. You are probably one of them. And so am I. There is rage (protests, strikes, anger and rebellion). But there is also love (mutual aid, check-ins, novel exchanges of care and unprecedented levels of solidarity). We just need to stay vigilant, be ready, and actively bring ideas and people together. In every way we know how.
“When the isolation is over, we will awaken to a world where competing regimes of vindictive normalization will be at war with one another, a time of profound danger and opportunity. It will be a time to rise and to look one another in the eye.”
— Max Heivan
History says, Don’t hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.
— Seamus Heaney, “The Doubletake”
Featured image credits: Pixabay