The Covid-19 crisis is a wakeup call. It is a literally once in a lifetime opportunity for every single person in the world to stop and question the status quo.
This crisis has shown everyone that real, meaningful change is possible. Governments around the world are issuing Universal Basic Income to their citizens during this crisis. The US 2.2 trillion stimulus measure is the largest federal response in history. Things we were long told were impossible are now simply reality. Now that this is undeniable, it is up to each and every one of us to make meaningful change.
All human institutions are simply stories. In other words, every human social institution is real only because a group of people agree that it is real – a social construct if you will.
An easy example to point to are nations. Despite being the global hegemon and the most powerful country in the world right now, the United States of America did not exist 300 years ago. Looking at a map, it seems so substantial, but in a very real sense the border between the U.S. and Canada does not exist. A black bear has no idea that it is passing from one country to another when it crosses our invisible line. To that bear there is simply the land, regardless of whatever stories we humans tell ourselves about it. America is a story that enough of us hold in common, and for that reason, and for that reason alone, it exists.
For just about all of us, we live almost entirely inside of these social constructs. Property is a story. Money is a story. Religions are stories. Political ideologies are stories. Culture is a story. We live in a world that is built out of stories. What makes stories like these so powerful is that few recognize them as stories. Most of us take them to be as real as gravity. It of course makes complete sense to think of them as real, because they are. But they are only conditionally real. Their reality rests on the agreement, the belief, of enough people.
This belief is implanted in us as young children and then continually reinforced as we grow older. Social science refers to this process as enculturation and/or socialization. It is through enculturation that societies keep themselves alive. Human cultures maintain continuity and perpetuate themselves as each generation passes on its stories to the succeeding generation. Thus we inherit the bulk of our stories – our agreements – from those that have come before us. It is through this process that we are taught how to see the world, our worldview. We are taught right and wrong, what is and what is not acceptable behavior in our society. It is through this process that we are taught the shape of the world.
Many of the things we are taught are ultimately arbitrary; learning English instead of Spanish for example. Others are just plain incorrect. I believe that is the responsibility of each of us to critically examine the beliefs we were raised with, and see if they are true and worthwhile. It’s not your fault if you were born to a racist household and raised with racist beliefs, but it is your responsibility as a moral adult to challenge that belief in yourself.
It has long been my position and message that the current social institutions of the world have not been serving us for a long time and need to be changed. By us I mean all of us. Every single person on this planet. The few benefitting at the expense of the many is not in service to all.
The beauty of this is that our institutions are ultimately arbitrary and thus are able to be changed. All it takes is the breaking of old agreements, and the creation of new ones.
The Covid-19 crisis is just one of many facing us as a species. What makes it special is that it’s sudden, highly visible, and can affect anyone and everyone (most notably the rich and powerful). This is in contrast to the many other crises facing us, which are much slower moving, less visible, and disproportionately affect the poor and other marginalized peoples.
Let’s look at world hunger. Around the world, 821 million people do not have enough of the food they need to live an active, healthy life. One in every nine people goes to bed hungry each night, including 20 million people currently at risk of famine in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria. About 9 million people die of hunger every year – that’s 25,000 a day. At the time of this writing, I would be very surprised if the death count of Covid-19 will reach that high.
The problem isn’t that there’s not enough food in the world – there is – the problem is that it is not worth it to those that have the food to give it to those who don’t. Put another way, 821 million people go hungry and 9 million of them die each year because the rest of us don’t care enough that they do. This is a systemic issue. A feature – not a bug – of capitalism. As long as we continue to practice global capitalism the way we have been, this will continue to happen.
To bring it closer to home, Covid-19 is highlighting other crises here in America. Many people are predicting domestic violence to spike because of quarantine. Our response to this crisis as a country was incredibly impaired due to the polarization of our social discourse – half of the country can’t talk to the other half (I examine this in detail in my last post). Even before Covid, America was in the midst of several “epidemics,” including obesity, opioid abuse, and child hunger. Our population is not a healthy one, despite our spending more money per capita on healthcare than any other country by a good bit. Perhaps the largest pre-existing crisis that Covid is both highlighting and exacerbating is economic inequality.
Per the American Payroll Association and the National Endowment for Financial Education, 74% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. In the wealthiest nation in the world. Examining the causes of economic inequality is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that they are systemic, and not just people making bad decisions. With many businesses closed due to quarantining, many people have lost their jobs and will run out of money. America’s social safety net is minimal compared to most other developed nations, and will be stretched to the ends of its ropes by this crisis. I will state, without making the case for it, that economic inequality is another feature, and not a bug, of capitalism. Furthermore, people living in poverty are much more likely to have already had health issues, and thus Covid-19 will be much more severe and deadly among the poor.
There are too many existential crises facing us as a species to go into them all, climate change, AI, ocean warming and acidification, and ecosystem loss being just a few of them. These, as the ones we explored above, are all consequences of what has up until now been the norm. Normal, our system of relating to each other globally known as capitalism, is the problem. And these crises, when they hit fully, will be far, far worse than Covid.
Luckily capitalism, like all our other social constructs, is not a fact of life but simply one out of many possible ways we could relate to each other. It is a choice. We can choose other possibilities. It is this knowledge, that we don’t have to accept the status quo, that we do have a choice, that I hope I get across in this post.
But it is we, the ordinary people, the 99%, who must make this choice. Real, meaningful change will not come from our so-called leaders. Our current leaders are in the position they are in because they have sought power and attained it, and it is this self-same pursuit of power that created the mess we now find ourselves in. Those in power will make only the bare minimum concessions to the rest of us, just enough to prevent outright revolt, while making no real changes to the underlying system that is the cause of all the symptoms.
The truth is, those in power are in power only because the rest of us agree that they are. The French Revolution, and the many revolutions that followed it, proved once and for all that the true power lies in the people. It is they who need us, not us who need them. They have gotten very good at tricking from us our agreement, but that is only because they need it so badly.
As Charles Eisenstein often points out, none of the challenges and crises facing us are technically difficult. We have all of the knowledge and technology that we need to solve them. What we lack is the political will. The system, and those that rise to the top of it, have failed us.
So, what are our alternatives? I will offer two different ones. One that I consider idealistic, and one that I consider realistic.
We collectively realize that we are all equal members of one human family. It is globally agreed upon that every human being deserves to have their basic needs met. This, and repairing the damage we’ve done to the environment, become the priorities of the world. This could look like:
- Universal basic income for all humans on the planet
- Universal healthcare for all humans on the planet
- A wealth cap. Say $10M
- An income cap. Say $1M/yr.
- Removing fossil fuels from global supply chains as quickly as possible
- This would entail massive relocalization, which is great for the environment and human well being (it restores the basis of community, which is just about destroyed here in America)
- Eventually switching to a closed loop resource cycle.
- Remove the economic necessity of growth by switching from our current debt-based money system to an alternative model, perhaps demurrage.
- The global economy becomes centered on meeting the needs of each human, and preserving and restoring the environment.
As I said, idealistic.
The above does not happen. Not enough people are willing to challenge the status quo. Instead, we get disaster capitalism. The rich get richer, the poor die or get poorer. Covid-19 is used as the reason to increase totalitarian measures – increased surveillance, mandatory vaccinations, etc.
However, even though there isn’t a sufficient critical mass of people willing to challenge the status quo, this crisis is the final straw for some people. These people realize that the system is irredeemably broken, and start to look for alternatives to it. They realize the system is based on power-over dynamics and built on taking advantage of the weak. No longer wanting to contribute to it, they realize that if you’re not meeting your own needs yourself or locally, then you are dependent on and contributing to the system. There’s a new Back to the Land movement as more and more people reclaim their personal sovereignty by growing their own food. They realize that there is no freedom without food security.
These people realize that to directly fight the system is to lose. The only way to win is to not play the old game. They see the truth of Buckminster Fuller when he said, “In order to change an existing paradigm you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete.” As the old system and its stories fall apart, these people will be the seeds of what is to come.
Normal was not serving us. Rather than seek to return to it, let’s instead create The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible.