The order which has been taken for granted suddenly appears queer and contingent. There is an appearance of the contingency of order. This is the main value of utopias. At a time when everything is blocked by systems which have failed but which cannot be beaten…utopia is our resource….The utopia seems to say something plausible, but it also says something that is crazy. By saying something crazy, it says something real.
Millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members. Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals. Nothing testifies better to the awesome power of culture.
The first part of this post came just before the Covid-19 lockdown. Needless to say, the virus has changed the world drastically, in expected and unexpected ways, most of them bad. But as many of us have become detached and alienated from many of our day-to-day support mechanisms and regimes, we have been given a unique opportunity to see our economic and social systems almost as outsiders, as alien observers. Deprived of the busy-ness and fullness of our regular lives, the status quo arrangement of things has started to look “queer and contingent.” Things which we have taken as set in stone — jobs, offices, shopping, physical contact — have been thrown into stark relief as fragile and arbitrary. And as stories emerge about businesses pivoting to a new normal of smaller staffs and more remote work, with the predictable exultation of Wall Street at the prospect of such permanent cost-shedding, the future suddenly looks terrifyingly different and unsettled.
With this impending meltdown of our socioeconomic systems, the last remaining payouts from our 70,000 year odyssey of nature-conquest are disappearing. Those of us fortunate enough to live in rich industrialized countries could turn a blind eye to collapsing biodiversity, deforestation, fresh water drawdown, soil exhaustion, global warming, etc., as long as we were getting tech goodies, cheap food, easy credit, and ‘full employment’ as part of the bargain. But with that gamble now starting to come up snake eyes, many of us are now seeing all of that faux solidity melting into air.
As it turns out, an economy where most people live paycheck to paycheck is not “great.” A society in which wealth and power are hyper-concentrated at the top is not stable. A system built on the relentless exploitation of nature and labor, in pursuit of endless growth inside a finite ecosystem, is not sane. If the coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that our current way of doing things, our organization of the basic principles of our lives and livelihoods, is, in a word, madness. Industrial society may be a lot of things: rational, efficient, productive, powerful, creative. But that does not mean that it generates health in people’s bodies and sanity in their minds. And as part of an overall project of controlling, dominating, and exploiting the natural world, our current arrangements certainly do not produce sustainability and stability for the future.
But what comes next? It is fairly easy to observe the precariousness of our current way of life, but changing things is a different animal. As Karl Rove famously said (maybe): “While you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Before Covid-19, Rove’s sneer was absolutely in full operative effect, at least in the US. Our two-party duopoly chugged along, serving the interests of the already wealthy and powerful, while regular people’s rage and frustration were channeled into the safe, expansive tributaries of the Divided America culture war (see here and here for more background). The status quo was solidly-entrenched, with little prospect of substantive change, especially after the Democratic Party dispatched every last young, minority, female, and/or progressive Presidential option, in favor of a white, late-stage septuagenarian. It looked like we were just on our way to another scripted electoral battle, with the spoils of victory to be either another tax cut for the wealthy, or some half-measure sops given pre-approval from the establishment (Day care assistance? Two weeks of maternity leave?).
But the coronavirus has wrecked that normal progression. Even though both sides of the political establishment are working overtime to reinforce the partisan bickering format that has long defined our cultural discourse, events on the ground are going to blow that apart. As states start to ‘re-open for business,’ there will likely be a quick second wave of infection, death, and then retrenched personal withdrawal. But even if some states are able to manage this reopening without steep increases in virus spreading, their economies will still be heavily depressed. Covid hasn’t just put a pause on our economic lives. It has already created permanent damage. Laid-off workers are not magically added back to payrolls, just for the hell of it. Small businesses that have gone under are not happily handed money by banks, so that they can quickly re-capitalize and open up their doors again. And most importantly, people are not likely to start making all of those frequent and regular trips to bars, restaurants, and malls, no matter how safe the powers-that-be say it is, until we have much more widespread testing and/or treatment. Other countries have taken a different approach, basically hitting the pause button on the economy, by suspending mortgages and other debts, bolstering income more broadly, and enhancing other already-robust social support mechanisms. But in the US, where the thought of someone getting ‘something for nothing’ is the most reprehensible idea in all of eternity, anything that is given is allotted grudgingly and unequally, which ensures devastating impacts on the economy.
As it becomes increasingly evident that there is not going to be any ‘back to normal,’ people will become impatient with the usual finger-pointing from their leaders. The Divided America trope will sputter, lurch, and crash. People will then do one of two things: they will either demand a New Normal, or they will succumb to the Burn It All Down course of action. The future of United States will hinge on this choice.
The good news is that Covid-19 makes this choice easier, or at least clearer, because the facade of stability has been torn off of our creaky socioeconomic infrastructure. Ideas that once seemed outlandish are now seen to be just as plausible as the concepts that are failing us, if not more so. And our patience for excuse-making and scapegoating will finally run out, I hope. People will finally demand a real answer to this question: why, in the wealthiest country in the history of civilization, are regular people’s lives filled with stress, anxiety, uncertainty, rage, and depression? The answer we’ve been getting for 40 years (“it’s those other guys’ fault”) will not be accepted any longer. And even though they look unshakable at this moment, personified demonization and conspiracy theories will finally exhaust themselves, because they are ultimately just another flavor of excuse-making and buck-passing. And the time for those distractions is quickly coming to a close.
But there is work to do, to steer us towards a New Normal and not burn it all down. What to do, and how, specifically? To that end, here is a 3-pronged proposal for a New Normal:
- Universal Basic Income
- This has to come first, and is the prerequisite for anything else we might want to do. Yes, there are many other worthy causes to eventually fight for: free daycare, maternity and paternity leave, higher minimum wages, disincarceration, free college, term limits, election reform, a constitutional amendment depersonalizing corporations, etc. But none of these things can be done right away, when the economic boot is on people’s necks (Andrew Yang’s metaphor). When the economy is imploding, especially in conditions of demand destruction, which is what we have under Covid, there is no substitute for giving people money. There is no need to worry about deficits, as Modern Money Theory explains, and the federal government has already had to open the spigots more than once, with more relief certainly in the offing. And even though the Republicans are balking at more money for people right now, as the state re-openings fall flat and households continue to sink beneath waves of debt, there will be no alternative.
- As I proposed in the Transparent Trojan Horse, UBI should be an easy sell to all business sectors, except for credit card companies and predatory lenders. Smart lobbying could bring full pro-business pressure on the GOP to enact UBI, because consumption drives the US economy, and people need money to consume. With UBI, the steam would start getting let out of the pressure cooker that is our public discourse, where the warring sides of Divided America are currently ready to tear each other to shreds. No other major constructive tasks can begin until regular Americans have some financial breathing room, so that they are not constantly on the precipice of disaster. With a UBI in place, the doors of possibility are thrown open, and we can start to entertain actual options for creating meaningful social change.
- A Larger Domestic Format
- One of the most important things that the coronavirus has demonstrated is that our domestic social forms are too small. The individual, couple, and nuclear family are not economically or psychologically stable enough to persevere through difficult conditions, especially in a country that has been shrinking down its public infrastructure for decades. Collective national wealth covers a lot of blemishes, and the anesthetizing effects of consumer capitalism have allowed the US to hide just how dysfunctional our basic units of existence have become. Most Americans are just one lost job or medical emergency away from having their lives massively derailed, which is not a sustainable way to run a society. As the economic noose has tightened over the last decade or so, with businesses relentlessly shedding all excess employee expenses, we have seen spikes in depression, anxiety, stress, and suicide. And life expectancy has actually started to come down, which should be unheard of in a wealthy country like the United States.
- The simple fact is that we are evolved to be tribal, social animals, with robust exposure to a sizable group of intimates. That is what our brains and souls want, but we have been chiseling away at that structure, with predictable psychological and social despair. And if many businesses move to even heavier loads of remote labor, then the workplace, which has served as the main social platform for many people by default, will become that much more dismal and pointless.
- It is becoming increasingly obvious that we need a larger basic social form, ranging anywhere from 10 to 50 people, to provide a more stable and resilient launching pad for economic life. Living in larger groups will make us psychologically healthier and economically more dynamic. Functions that currently have to be purchased through the marketplace could be brought back in-house, and domestic maintenance could be tackled through a division of labor, instead of each individual or couple having to purchase their own provisioning. The accumulated capital of a larger group, buttressed by the combined resources of UBI, would make small business startups more secure and less dependent on bank financing. And larger group living would also pull people out of the general workforce to maintain in-house functions, which would result in positive upward wage pressure in the job market, as businesses would need to compete for the remaining talent.
- Basically, a larger domestic format would harness the tools that businesses utilize — economies of scale, division of labor, integrated supply chains — but to the direct advantage of regular people. In a sense, these would be ‘domestic corporations’. We’re not talking hippie communes here. This is a practical, innovative, nuts and bolts response to the difficult conditions that are being created by our current system, which tries to maximize profit by isolating individuals and by minimizing their ability to control their own life conditions. And while there are certainly different levels or locales that have been proposed for empowering people in a similar fashion (ESOPs, re-invigorated labor unions, free college, universal basic services, etc.), we have to comes to grips with the fact that the economic value of human labor is going to continue to decline, no matter what we do (see here for more background). So any approach that does not recognize the need for people to have a larger domestic unit from which to operate is going to be swimming against a tsunami of countervailing forces. Only larger domestic groups can provide economic, psychological, and ecological stability and sustainability at the same time.
- Embodied Utopias
- So if the first two items go as planned, we’ve got Universal Basic Income in hand, and an overarching goal to create larger domestic platforms for people to operate out of. How the hell do we do that? Obviously, our housing stock, zoning laws, home financing standards, and cultural expectations are all set up for individuals, couples, and basic families (nuclear, single parent, alternative, extended). How do we swing our economy and society in a different direction, when the status quo is so entrenched and seemingly intractable?
- It is here that we can glean some hope from Yuval Harari’s reminder that we human beings derive our power from our fictions, not from any particular physical system or material resource. And fictions can change, often quite rapidly. But digging deeper, we discover that fictions are a double-edged sword. As Paul Ricoeur explains, our social imagination (our fictions) are made up of different facets. Ideology is the side of our myth-making that reproduces power, solidifying the status quo. It is the social imagination’s other facet that creates substantive social change: the Utopia. “The result of reading a utopia is that it puts into question what presently exists; its makes the actual world seem strange. Usually we are tempted to say that we cannot live in a way different from the way we presently do. The utopia, though, introduces a sense of doubt that shatters the obvious” (Ricoeuer, 299-300).
- The substance of utopia as a concept is largely lost today, because the cultural function that literary utopian novels once performed is now obscured by the operation of consumer capitalism itself. The present world is constantly being shattered by the potent forces of technology and production, and there is no dearth of dreams for a brighter tomorrow, mainly through improved and novel products. But the optimism of the advertising and techno-utopian mindsets is not the only approach to the future. This rosiness is countervailed by the heavily dystopian visions of the horror, fantasy, and science-fiction genres. It is as if there are two massive forces clashing over the meaning and destiny of our civilization: the sales department vs. the artists/skeptics, each envisioning disparate visions of our future.
- The missing element here is the true cultural utopia, an optimistic but realistic vision of the future that is not entangled in the business of business, something that stands outside the need to sell widgets and boost market value. And the technological landscape today actually opens up a possibility that did not exist for the literary utopias of the past: the ability to create real utopias in real time, in real places. The immediacy of modern communication instruments allows for the creation of concrete manifestations of a New Normal, places that instantly challenge and shatter the status quo. These would be embodied utopias, noplaces brought to someplace. If we want to rapidly pivot to a different way of living, then we need to harness the power of embodied utopias. They can do the heavy lifting for us, mapping out a tangible path to the next human chapter.
Next time: Part 3: Constructing embodied utopias
Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens. Harper, 2015
Riceour, Paul. Lectures on Ideology and Utopia. Columbia University Press, 1986.