Beneath our current problems lies a deeper crisis: a crisis of imagination. But the ideas we need to fix the world are already here. By Laura Basu
The pandemic is very quickly teaching us what’s important: health, love, food, a safe and comfortable home, creativity and learning, connectedness, and being able to get out into nature. Shouldn’t those things be the pillars around which our societies are organised? The virus has also shown how it is possible to make drastic changes in an incredibly short space of time. Now we need to transform the structures of our societies so that changes which put the brakes on climate disaster don’t bring recessions, unemployment and poverty, but health, nourishment, time with our loved ones, safe and comfortable homes, opportunities to learn and be creative, and to be in nature.
This is not a pipe dream. Our interlinked economic, political and environmental crises are just as much crises of the imagination. Often when I suggest that we can do better than the status quo, the response I get is ‘yes things are really bad, but what’s the alternative – communist Russia?’ We have been convinced that as a species we are incapable of creating good societies. But the idea that humans by our nature are selfish and greedy, that we have insatiable needs, is a lie. Our needs are finite, satiable and unsubstitutable. The virus has taught us that. When given the opportunity, we want to help each other and contribute to the good of our communities. The virus has taught us that also.
We need transformation not just in our economies but across the whole of our societies – from the economy and our politics, to our family structures and media and communications systems – as all these social spheres are interlinked and all are fundamental to our well-being. And while we’re at it, we should think about the question of scale – how are we all connected in this world and on what scale should we be thinking about new ways of organising these systems?
What kind of a daft system means that if we put the brakes on for a few weeks the whole thing implodes?
Not only can think along the lines of multiple social spheres but also multiple timescales – at least two. We know that we have less than ten years to make ‘unprecedented’ changes to the ways our societies are run if we are to halt the climate catastrophe we are already in. But we don’t have to limit our imaginations to the next ten years. The changes put in place over the coming decade – as epic as they will be in themselves – might be just a jumping off point for something even more marvelous. It’s not that we have to have a blueprint for what this future will look like, it’s about well and truly breaking the chains of TINA (There Is No Alternative) and capitalist realism, and opening up our imaginations to other, better, possible worlds.
So, what might these ‘good societies’ look like, and how can we get there?
An economy for you and me
We are heading for the biggest global economic crisis since the Great Depression, bigger than after the financial crash in 2008. Half a billion people could fall into poverty. What kind of a daft system means that if we put the brakes on and calm down for a few weeks the whole thing implodes? Sadly, this is the exact same dynamic that has brought on our existential climate and environmental crisis. At the same time, big pharma and others are set to profit from the death and suffering being caused by the coronavirus, just as the fossil fuel industry, airline industry, and finance sector have profited from environmental breakdown.
Transformative change over the next ten years has to be about Green New Deals that will create millions of high paying public sector jobs insulating homes, building renewable technology and constructing green and affordable public transit. How will this be paid for? Taxes, for a start – including wealth taxes. At the moment, taken as a whole, our tax systems are regressive, with less well off people paying a higher proportion of their income than the rich. This needs to be reversed. And of course, the trillions lost to tax havens need to be recovered and corporate tax abuse prevented in the future, partly through a unitary tax on multinationals.
A rethink of work is also central to building good societies. Just as the virus has made it painfully clear who ‘key workers’ are, it has also shown that much of the work we do is not particularly necessary or enjoyable – we do it purely to get money to survive. This wasteful work is not just socially useless but is actually destructive, both to our wellbeing and to our natural environment. We need to be able to get rid of bullshit jobs without millions falling into poverty. Universal basic incomes sitting alongside universal basic services and shortening the working week are good starting points.
Perhaps most importantly, we need to pivot wildly away from GDP growth towards more care-based economies. This means reducing consumption and waste for the better off, and being a lot smarter about what and how much we produce globally. We can be much more efficient in our resource use by using the decentralised planning tools already used by multinational corporations. For most of those who will need to reduce consumption, this is unlikely to be much of a sacrifice. The drive to constantly accumulate profits means that pointless trash is pushed onto us through advertising, and obsolescence is built-in to the products that we do really want or need. Building things to last and having social spaces where it isn’t compulsory to consume would make our lives better.
The key principle in all this is removing profit from a significant portion of economic activity, and bringing democracy in. It isn’t economic growth that drives environmental destruction and inequality. It is the driver that lies behind economic growth: capital accumulation and the profit motive. This does mean, then, transitioning away from capitalism to post-capitalist societies.
The return of public ownership needs to be high on the agenda, but in a more democratic, decentralised way than we have seen before. In particular, the foundational economy should be brought into democratic control. We know what is foundational because the virus has shown us – healthcare, food, water, energy, education, housing, care. Our good societies will also be freed from the tyranny of private finance – through public and mutual banking as well as banning most speculation and closing tax havens. Money creation too, can come into public and democratic control.
But this doesn’t mean replacing capitalism with state socialism.
To begin with, we can think about what Hilary Wainwright calls diversified ‘ecologies of ownership’, where co-operatives and community owned enterprises sit beside publicly owned initiatives.
The example she gives is a combination of local energy co-operatives and regional public energy companies in the framework of a cap on energy prices and a publicly owned national grid – all based on renewable energy.
Later down the line we can further reduce the role of the state, or, hell, why not think about removing the state entirely? The founder of social ecology, Murray Bookchin, wrote that the state institutionalised hierarchy, and with capitalism, state domination and bureaucracy reached into every corner of society. While we may think of capitalism more as the absence of the state in favour of the market, in reality, the domination of the market is impossible without a domineering state to impose it.
Bookchin’s vision for a good society is for a sort of confederalism where small-scale communities manage their own provisioning systems, working in partnership with other communities where necessary. Resources, or what he calls the ‘means of life’ aren’t owned by anyone, they form a commons based on the principle of ‘usufruct’ – everyone is free to use them as long as they do not damage or deplete them. The principle of the ‘irreducible minimum’ means that everybody is entitled to the means of life no matter what they contribute – an even more generous maxim than Marx’ famous ‘from each according to his [sic] ability to each according to his needs!’
Versions of eco-feminism have similar ideas, of ‘eco-sufficiency’ or ‘the subsistence perspective’, in which communities are autonomous and relatively self-sufficient. This doesn’t have to mean going back to the stone age, though we might want to tone down calls for full automation. Technology will have an important role to play, but the principle has to be that the technologies we develop will enhance rather than harm our relationship with nature. What is certain is that technology won’t save us while the current drivers of the economy – capital accumulation and the profit motive – remain in place.
This brings us to the question of scale. One of the most important lessons this virus has taught is that we are all connected. It has reached almost every corner of the world and attacks the body in the same way. Countries are having to work together to pool resources and develop a vaccine, although there is also the reality of intensified trade wars and competition.
But the impacts of the crisis are far from egalitarian. The same economic process that allowed the virus to spread so far so quickly – neoliberal globalisation – also creates grotesque wealth for some and hardship for many; maldevelopment in some parts of the world and underdevelopment in others. Why should our life chances be so far determined by the accident of where we are born? Why would we want to live in societies that benefit some people in some places at the expense of other people in other places? The good societies that we build now, during the ‘great pause’, need to work for everyone in the world.
There’s a tension when we’re thinking about scale – when formulating alternatives, should we be thinking global or local? The universal or particular? Our current capitalist economy is certainly global – there probably isn’t a person in the world whose life isn’t integrated into it somehow, though in different ways in different places. So it makes sense to start there.
This means that Green New Deals need to be Global Green New Deals, not ones based on extractivism and green colonialism. Similarly, if we’re thinking about living wages, why shouldn’t they be global living wages? Since capital is transnational, maybe unions should be transnational. Wealth taxes should be global wealth taxes. We also need to think about reparations and far-reaching technology transfers.
Open borders could help focus minds on global justice, eradicate ‘hostile environments’ and eliminate the detention centres and refugee camps that the virus has revealed to be houses of horror.
Crucially, structural adjustment programmes and the ‘Washington Consensus’ need to be replaced – though preferably not by China simply replacing the US as the global hegemon. Yanis Varoufakis and his colleagues propose a new global economic architecture whereby, to keep the world economy in balance, national surpluses and deficits would both be taxed, with the funds raised being channeled into a Global Green New Deal. They also want to change property rights, so that 10% of the shares of large companies are placed into a global equity fund and the dividends disbursed as a global universal basic dividend. Over time this percentage could increase until we end up with a kind of world-wide market-based socialism.
An alternative vision is for deglobalisation. Instead of entire countries being turned into massive export processing zones, Walden Bello’s deglobalisation paradigm advocates production primarily for local markets. Trade and industrial policy – including subsidies, quotas and tariffs – would be used to protect local markets from flooding by corporate-subsidized commodities and strengthen manufacturing sectors. Measures for land and income redistribution would be taken, helping to create vibrant local markets and local sources of financial investment. Meanwhile, the multilateral bodies like the WTO, World Bank and IMF that have been vehicles for neo-imperialism would be replaced by regional institutions built on cooperation instead of free trade and capital mobility.
Some are squeamish about the idea of deglobalisation, worrying that it means nationalist isolationism – and indeed, that is what the term has come to stand for in its nativist iteration (though this is wildly different from what Bello has in mind). More fundamentally, there is a question mark over whether a system of nation-states competing within the framework of global capitalism – no matter how attenuated that version of capitalism might be – can ever really transcend economic imperialism and trade wars (or actual wars for that matter).
Yet shortening supply chains, at least for essential items like food, seems like a no brainer from an environmental as well as a global justice perspective. Let’s carry on our thought experiment of imagining a future beyond the nation-state: instead of states competing for resources on a lopsided playing field, we can envision the stewardship of commons by local communities that are relatively self-sufficient but networked transnationally. There would be no need to squabble over resources because instead of a logic of scarcity there would be a logic of abundance. This doesn’t mean that everyone in the world would suddenly be able to fly every week or own a Ferrari – we are living within planetary boundaries here. Murray Bookchin wrote that real abundance is not about being able to satisfy an infinite parade of desires, but having the collective autonomy to choose our needs (i.e. decide what’s important), and work out how to satisfy them together – therein lies true freedom.
The response to Covid-19 has put us at risk from encroaching authoritarianism and has further exposed the lack of trust people already had in their political systems. In liberal democracies, the decades of neoliberalism have hollowed out democratic institutions, as power has been transferred to transnational corporations. Politics has become about marketing and spin, and citizens are treated as consumers.
Meanwhile, spreading ‘democracy’ has been a cover for the invasion and occupation of territories that were supposed to be sovereign by imperial powers. Marxists, anarchists and feminists have long asked whether capitalism is compatible with democracy at all. The gap between what liberal democracy promises in theory and what it has delivered has led to many people punting on ‘illiberal democracy’ instead, with anti-democratic leaders being democratically elected.
If we are going to put the brakes on the ecological and social catastrophes under way, we will need to democratise democracy. It’s not for nothing that one of Extinction Rebellion’s key demands is for citizen’s assemblies. The rapid transformations we will need to our social structures will have to be decided upon collectively, if we are to avoid ‘eco-authoritarianism’ or ‘eco-fascism’. People’s assemblies, town halls, participatory budgeting, citizen’s juries, and properly resourced, empowered local governments will be key.
Democratising democracy obviously means taking big money out of politics, but it also means removing the line that separates politics from the economy. In liberal democracies, huge swathes of society are out of reach of the decision-making powers of the citizenry. That will need to change. As discussed, we will need workplace and economic democracy, where fundamental decisions about provisioning are made by everyone, not just ruling elites.
The question of scale arises again here.
Democracy isn’t really democratic if the resources people are enjoying in one part of the world are actually being pilfered from other parts of the world, or if they are producing environmental impacts felt elsewhere.
One proposal to ameliorate this is to introduce democracy on a global scale through a world parliament, where every citizen in the world would be able to directly elect representatives.
Others have criticised the idea of a world parliament as universalising a single version of politics and imposing it onto the entire globe, thereby reproducing the colonising drive it is supposed to combat. They prefer the idea of unity in diversity – in the Zapatista’s words: ‘one world where many worlds fit’. In this vision, the issue of scale would be addressed horizontally rather than vertically – with autonomous communities working together to solve large-scale problems.
Citizen’s assemblies and town halls are about supplementing representative democracy with more direct forms of democracy. Down the line, we could take this much further. The horizontal, confederalist approach described above has direct democracy at its core. Direct democracies already exist – Chiapas and Rojava are famous examples, and there are many impulses towards what Ashish Kothari calls ‘Radical Ecology Democracy’. Here, the commune or neighbourhood is the basic political unit, with people meeting face to face to make the decisions that affect their lives. For larger-scale issues, there are representative local assemblies and municipal councils, but these are accountable to the grassroots level.
These movements reject the nation-state as the locus of sovereignty, viewing the state as inextricably bound up with environmental destruction, repression and patriarchy. Radical Ecology Democracy instead advocates local custodianship of the commons combined with bio- and eco-regionalism. Crucially, to avoid repeating the patriarchy of the state, these direct democracies must be and are explicitly feminist, enshrining gender equality in their constitutions and instituting women-led committees on women’s rights. And again, thinking about local communities as the locus of sovereignty doesn’t have to mean parochialism and isolation. On the contrary, going beyond the nation-state can mean removing borders to the free flow of people and ideas.
Globally, women carry out 76% of unpaid labour – mainly domestic and care work, which takes place inside the home. The family home can also be a dangerous and even deadly place for queer people and women, as one in three women suffer violence, usually by an intimate partner. The pandemic has intensified these problems and brought them further into the light. Given the reaction to an article we published on ourEconomy on the coronavirus and the family, challenging this most fundamental of institutions can make people, erm, emotional. If you’re lucky, the family is also the source of deep bonds of love – the stuff that makes life worth living, another thing that the virus has driven home.
But, as the authors of ‘Feminism for the 99%’ point out, the unique feat of capitalism was to separate the public from the private, delegate the private to women and banish it to the home. Without the unpaid and invisible domestic, care and emotional work of women, the capitalist economy would not be able to run. Because it is women who carry out most of this ‘reproductive labour’, it is also women who are on the front line of environmental breakdown; as they are the main providers of food and fuel, they are worse impacted by flooding and drought. The U.N. estimates 80% of those who have been displaced by climate change are women.
Under neoliberalism, women are being more and more squeezed, making up an increasing proportion of the paid workforce as well as doing the vast majority of unpaid work. This has led to the erection of vast global care chains, as women who can afford to outsource their unpaid work to less well off women, often from the global south, who have their own families to care for. These gendered and racialised structures need to be transformed.
At the moment, one kind of family format is privileged – think tax breaks for married couples. That sounds like the ‘nanny state’ to me.
At the very least, this has to mean free daycare available to all (paid for by highly progressive taxation), and paid parental leave that parents have the option to split equally. It also means closing gender pay gaps so it doesn’t become the default option that the man keeps working while the woman takes maternity leave (for those lucky enough to be in that situation). Shortening the working week with no loss of pay can mean people of all genders have more time to take care of their reproductive labour. Universal basic incomes and a higher ‘social wage’ (better public services) can provide recognition, support and some form of remuneration for reproductive labour. Again, we should be thinking about these rights and conditions on the global scale, as well as open borders that will help equalise pay globally, so people are not having to do other people’s reproductive work.
But we can go bigger than this, with a more comprehensive socialisation of reproductive labour. Think community kitchens and community child-raising. Collective housing and communal living for those who want it. One other thing Covid made painfully clear in my privileged circle – when the news came that schools and daycare centres were about to close, my women friends who were going to have to look after their own kids for an indefinite period of time entered a state of dread. Sophie Lewis’s call for ‘Full Surrogacy Now!’ is a call to stop the privatisation of the family and child-raising, so that all children have multiple strong bonds with adults and other children and can feel safe and loved both in their homes and in their wider surroundings.
And it’s not just about the young. Care and residential homes have become spaces of terror, showing quite how inhumane they were to begin with. This is not to blame those working there, who are often on minimum wage, overworked and under-supported. But instead of outsourcing care, wouldn’t we prefer to be cared for in our extended families of choosing by those we love and who love us?
At the moment, one kind of family format is privileged – think tax breaks and citizenship rights for married couples. Why should there be one way of having a family that is sanctioned by the state while those in other kinds of relationships are excluded from those benefits? That sounds like the ‘nanny state’ to me. The point is not to impose one family structure on everyone but to create societies that are flexible enough to accommodate a wide variety of different family forms and kinship structures, supported by economic and political structures that allow these bonds to flourish.
Comms for commies
The virus has made it clear how important it is both to be able to connect with others and access knowledge and information. At the same time, the ‘viral’ spreading of misinformation, and the misuse of data by corporations and governments bent on mass surveillance shows how deep the crisis of our media and communications systems runs.
We know the dangers involved with huge corporations sucking up data on the most intimate aspects of our lives – how they collaborate with governments to enable wholesale spying, crackdowns on democratic freedoms, and dystopian predictive policing and facial recognition practices; how voters are manipulated during elections; how discrimination is built into algorithms; how the data-based business model encourages fake news, polarisation and hate; and how these companies resolutely dodge tax.
The data frenzy is also wreaking havoc on the environment – a 2015 report found that data centres are responsible for about 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, putting them on par with the aviation industry. And it’s exacerbating global inequality. It is China and the US who are set to reap the biggest rewards from AI, while Africa and Latin America will see the lowest gains. It is unlikely that the profits accrued to multinationals based in the US or China from data mined in lower-income countries will ‘trickle down’ to those supplying that data. The concept of cultural imperialism has been around for decades. Now we can also speak of data imperialism. Again, it is the profit motive that’s at the bottom of all this.
And again, democratisation is at the heart of the solution. When it comes to data, Anita Gurumurthy proposes a new data constitutionalism, where through a collective process we decide what data should be collected and what should not, and how that data is used, culminating in an international covenant on data rights. The advertising industry has too often avoided scrutiny in discussions about data and surveillance.
After all, the main reason these companies gobble up our data is to sell advertising back to us.
We also need a public conversation about how much advertising we want in our media and communications systems and alternative ways of funding these systems.
Which also means a conversation about ownership.
Instead of trying to regulate and tax the social media behemoths, some are calling to nationalise them. (Or could we think about internationalising them?) Better still, we can create public alternatives. In the UK, the BBC is under threat from the Conservative government. There are serious problems with the BBC but the solution is not to abolish or impoverish it. One proposal is to create a British Digital Corporation instead, which would include socially useful platforms that are subject to democratic control. It would form part of a diversified media ecosystem, sitting alongside media collectives that are supported by public funds, paid for through progressive taxes. There are valid concerns here about governments having too much control both over information and our data. However, with proper structures in place this risk can be reduced, making such enterprises recipients of public money but run independently.
And in the long run, can we think about our media and communications systems beyond both the market and the state? If a kind of democratic confederalism and commons-based approach would be desirable for our economies and politics, could this also work for media and communications? Data commons already exist, which enable members to pool their data, anonymously, for social benefit. This philosophy could be extended to other parts of our media. The P2P and open source movements help point the way to alternative ways of organising these systems so that they are not enclosures for profit-making but are autonomous, participatory and accessible to all.
At the same time, we can consider the benefits of unplugging, at least for many. The lockdown has exacerbated the digital divide, showing just how essential connectivity has become. As with all other means of living well, connectivity needs to be shared better and its footprint on our environment greatly reduced. There are wonders to be found online that we all want access to. But let’s face it, most of the stuff out there is just rubbish to make us spend time and money. Many of us would be happy to spend a bit less time glued to our screens, especially if we had the time, opportunity and energy to do other enjoyable things – which we could if we reorganised our economies, politics and family setups.
Making it happen
Given where we are, it seems almost impossible that we will be able to create good societies, let alone within the next ten years. Yet this is exactly what we must do, if we are to prevent things quickly deteriorating into something even worse.
The even better news is that all the people who have joined mutual aid groups during the pandemic are now part of this tsunami of change.
Nobody said it was going to be easy. This will be one heck of a struggle because it means reversing the decades-long class war that has transferred wealth and power to the top, and those with vested interests in the way things are won’t give up without a fight. But there are a lot more of us than there are of them, so it’s a fight we can win.
The good news is that there are literally millions of grassroots groups and organisations all over the world trying to change things, whether they are fighting for climate justice, economic rights, women’s and trans rights, or global justice. The even better news is that all the people who have spontaneously initiated or joined mutual aid groups during the pandemic are now part of this tsunami of change. Reaching out to each other and keeping up momentum is a key challenge to all of us.
There are ongoing attempts to actively forge alliances across these struggles to create a ‘movement of movements’ that builds capacity and momentum. Ideally, these movements would have allies in political parties representing their interests and winning elections. In this regard, recently we have had hopes and we have hopes dashed in different parts of the world. International alliances of fearless political parties created out of and pushed forwards by linked social movements is still something we can strive for.
Taking this idea further, there are fertile discussions taking place about the possibility of creating a new International. Sahan Karatasli argues for not one but two Internationals: a horizontal, fluid ‘movement of movements’ and a vertical, structured world political party that would articulate the connections between all these movements, build unity out of their diversity, and represent the totality of their struggles. We return once more to the question of scale as well as structure – the idea here would be to combine the locally rooted and horizontal with the global and vertical.
Many social movements aren’t waiting for the war to be won but are busy creating ‘nowtopias’ in the present. From Rojava to Chiapas to Freetown Christiana, these places show that there are viable alternatives, even in the most hostile of political conditions. Imagine what could be achieved given the right conditions? These might seem far removed from most people but it’s not difficult to find initiatives in every community, from local currencies to community gardens to communal kitchens. These projects are not only improving the lives of those who participate in them. They are strategically vital – they build capacity and sow the seeds of future societies in the here and now.
Lastly, let’s not forget about the power of ideas. Milton Friedman famously said that, during a crisis, the actions taken will depend on the ideas ‘lying around’. Since the last global crisis in 2008, a huge array of great ideas have been generated, forged in the heat of social struggles and by an ecosystem of new and established organisations. More work needs to be done to bring those think tanks and NGOs closer together to grassroots movements.
One of the aims of this essay has been to gather some of the ideas that are lying around and help fashion them into a vaguely coherent vision – or multiple visions – of the kinds of worlds we can and might want to live in. It’s just a start and is part of a big conversation to which many are contributing. The coronavirus is taking our loved ones. It has shown us what is important and has shown us how short our societies fall of prioritising what is important. It has hit ‘pause’ on our lives (at least, those of us who are able to pause).
Let’s use this time to open our imaginations to what is possible, and start building better worlds.