Tuesday 7 April 2020

Death of the “me first” society

The coronavirus pandemic has claimed the lives of many people, and many more will be lost before the crisis is over.  But one death that we will not mourn is the death of the “me first” society.

For decades we have been told that humans are inherently selfish.  We are all out for what we can get, the winners win and the losers lose.  Hard luck on those who lose.  We only care for ourselves, there is no such thing as society, the market will sort it all out.  It’s a kind of immutable law.

The opposite of each for themself, we are told, is the state.  If you are against the free market then you must be some sort of communist where the state controls things and individual freedom is removed.  And if you are against state control then you must be a neoliberal capitalist!

But “me first” is not the natural state of human existence.  We became the dominant life form not because we were stronger, walked upright, made tools, were most competitive or even because we were clever.  Humans dominate because we are hyper-social.  We work together in huge complexity on a massive scale, far more so than any other animal.  And this is inherent in us.  The aggressive, competitive, grab everything, me first approach is not human – it is our lizard brain taking over. 

COVID-19 has shown people around the globe naturally re-organising into mutually supportive groups.  No state forced them to do it, no market paid them to do it.  In many countries, Britain included, the government has been woeful.  Late, disorganised, counter-productive, chaotic, misleading – and often blaming others rather than taking responsibility and getting on with it.  Local communities, on the other hand, have often been the opposite.  Reacting effectively, in advance of government and establishing positive, supportive actions. Again, nobody paid them to do it (market) and nobody forced them to do it (state).

Within this, I see something quite fundamental emerging, and this was articulated in George Monbiot’s excellent article.  This also reflects a pattern explained by Kate Raworth in her book “Doughnut Economics”.  Bear with me….

We are told that we have either the “free market” or the “state”.  If you are against one then you must be in favour of the other.  Kate Raworth, however, explains that this binary choice is artificial.  There are at least two other aspects to our economy – the “commons” and the “household”.  All four have a role and they need to be in some form of balance.  By squabbling about the market and the state, we have forgotten the other two.  For a good insight, read Kate Raworth’s book – I have only a slim understanding!

In my view the response of “ordinary people” to COVID-19 is a re-emergence of the commons and the household in our society. 

By “commons”, what do I mean?  Commons are things held in common, things that we all need access to that are shared across a community.  Historically we think of common grazing on the commons of a village.  Everyone had access, according to a firm set of rules, but no one had total ownership.  Today, however, we can think far more broadly.  Most environmental assets are commons – think of oxygen, fresh air, wildlife, landscape, natural processes like nutrient and water cycling, and so on.  They sit uncomfortably with the market (can’t be bought or sold) and the state (can’t be controlled).  You could argue that information (with access through IT seen as an essential and ubiquitous part of a modern digital society) is also a commons, not something that can just be bought and sold.  These are assets held in common.

COVID-19 has shown that human health is also something we hold in common, not just something we have as an individual.  A free market approach, whereby the rich get cured but the poor get ill, is simply not workable.  Whether they actually care about the poor or not, even the rich will fall ill if there is a vast reservoir of infected poor people.  The population really is only as healthy as its most vulnerable people (and this is true on a global scale not just in one country).  It is in everyone’s interest to raise the health of everyone – it is a commons.  The natural desire in “ordinary people” to make sure that even the worst off in a community are cared for in times of need, reflects this common need.

And COVID-19 is also showing the re-emergence of the “household” in our society.  If we expand this to mean almost anything that we do voluntarily, without any expectation of reward or even recognition, then we can see this growing everywhere.  The world over, people are helping and supporting others who they may not even have known before the crisis. 

The commons and the household have taken over where the state and the market have failed.  Indeed, we might argue that while the state and the market caused our problems, it is the commons and the household that are curing them.  It is the free market that is driving the destruction of wild land everywhere, forcing remaining wildlife into closer, less natural contact with humans.  It is the free market that supports the “wet markets” in China, the origins of the disease.  It is the free market that drives factory farming, another link in the dangerously close relationship between unhealthy animals and people.  Far from ameliorating market forces, the state has been complicit in its expansion.  Far from allowing failing destructive businesses to fail, the state intervenes in the market to enable them to continue (eg bail outs to the fossil fuel industry).  On the other hand, people’s natural concern about each other, the natural desire to share and look after assets and the natural ability to self-organise, are the counter-balancing forces to the un-naturally dominant market and state sectors.

How can we take these concepts forward post-COVID-19? 

With just 10 years to solve the climate and ecological emergency we need to heed the messages that are coming out of the pandemic.  Many will push to get back to normal, and some are already pushing to entrench the damaging approaches that caused our current problems.  But there must now be a new normal.  We need to step out of the frame of market versus state.  These now seem like spoilt children in a family where the adults are the commons and the household.  The desire to get / own more (when we are already the richest society in history) should now come very secondary to looking after the assets that a society holds in common and the higher values of sharing and community support.  Let’s hang onto the contacts, networks, approaches and friendships that have built up during the corona crisis.  What makes us human is the complexity and supportive nature of human relationships (household), looking after essential assets that we all need (commons), supported by agreed rules (state) and enabled by fair exchange (market).  And note this is in priority order!

Wednesday 1 April 2020

We are here to serve (the economy)

In a previous blog I presented the argument that money is a virus that owns us – we are its servant, indeed its host, not its master.  The events around coronavirus (COVID-19) in Britain seem to underline this.

The early approach by the UK government to the virus (now discredited) was to allow the infection to work through the population in order to develop “herd immunity”.  This is a point at which so many people are infected, and then recovered, that the virus can no longer move through the population – it runs out of new people to infect.  Superficially this might sound sensible.  But epidemiologists considered it was so mad that it must be a joke!  Herd immunity is an outcome of a vaccination programme, not a plan for disease management.  Allowing herd immunity to build up through mass infection in a population would (perhaps still will) result in thousands of extra deaths.

The root of this disastrous approach seems to go back to a statement, reported in The Times, from government adviser Dominic Cummings.  Allowing the infection to move through the population to build up herd immunity would protect the economy.  Everyone just stays at work and carries on - and if a few pensioners die then so be it! 

This may be true to some extent if money is your highest priority.  Methods used to slow the spread of the virus (ie staying home) will have a huge negative impact on the economy.  Continuing to work and allowing a few elderly people to die would have less impact.  But this ignores the long-term impact of a sick and dying population (such long-term affects often being ignored by economists).

To sensible people, this is an outrageously callous approach.  It underlines that the priority is the economy and humans are secondary to money-making.  We are here to serve the economy – not the other way around.  Humans have now been totally infected by a virus; but the virus is not COVID-19, it is money.

That we are here just to serve the economy is not limited to our response to COVID-19; there are numerous other examples of decisions made in blind faith to serving the economy rather than for serving human wellbeing.

  • Our money is being used by the government to subsidise ever more fossil fuel exploration and extraction.  However, we must stop extracting fossil fuels.  Even burning the reserves we know about will drive our climate into meltdown. 
  • We must reduce travel and drastically reduce the amount of fossil fuels we burn in vehicles.  But again, our tax revenues are being used in a road building bonanza which will only ramp up congestion and greenhouse gas emissions further. 
  • Air travel is probably the most effective way to cook the planet, yet the aviation industry is demanding government bailouts to continue / accelerate its disastrous trend. 

The examples go on and on.  We have so much finance invested in the current economic system that we are locked into destruction way beyond the point of logic.

All these decisions are being made because they claim to be the correct economic thing to do.  And maybe it is not the individual decisions that are the problem, more the framing of our whole economic system.  Currently, decisions are made to support the growth of money not for the growth of human wellbeing.

If anything good comes out of the pandemic, it will be a move away from seeing humans as mere units of consumption whose only purpose is to serve the economy.  Maybe we do need herd immunity, but built up against a virus called money, not against COVID-19.  If enough of us have passed through this infection and become resistant to a disease that demands its own growth whatever the cost, then maybe we are starting the fight against that disease.  The economy must return to being our servant not our master.  As we see with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the human qualities of compassion, empathy, community and society that are the higher values – not growth in Gross Domestic Product!