Joe Waters discusses the impact of Covid-19 on society.
Right now, we are all mourning futures. Covid-19 has wiped out everyone’s plans – from holidays, to gigs, to graduations. Strangely, though, this doesn’t feel new.
It is hard for any young person in 2020 to predict where they will be in five years, let alone in decades’ time. Jobs are scarce and precarious. If your profession isn’t replaced by automation or made financially inviable by the internet (or the market), then it will likely be low-paid and hotly contested. In 2019, the Office for National Statistics reported that 1.5 million workers in the UK are at risk of losing their jobs to automation. McKinsey have asserted that digital technologies (including AI) will account for “about 60 percent of potential productivity growth by 2030.”
Housing is expensive and equally volatile. The post-war ideal of a comfortable, stable working life has disappeared but the gig economy offers nothing in its place. All this does not even mention the impending upheaval of climate breakdown (with current actions leading to a devastating 3.5°C rise by the end of this century) - a spectre that haunts, or should haunt, every person living in our era. With the newest developments in the hands of the global super-rich, we cannot expect technology to save us. Clumsy philanthropy will not suffice (you only need look at Jeff Bezos’ measly $690,000 donation to the Australian bushfires, even as his net worth exceeds £180.4 billion).
The no-demands tradition of what Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams call “folk politics” and Rutger Bregman refers to as “underdog socialism” has been prevalent for decades. Occupy voiced its general dislike of capitalism but did not deign to elaborate. Extinction Rebellion have successfully instigated the declaration of a climate emergency in the UK but, in their lack of other demands, they are powerless to enforce it.
A movement that has recently bucked this trend is Black Lives Matter. It has promoted detailed policy proposals in both the #DefundPolice and #InvestInCommunities campaigns. This has gained real momentum and, in U.S. cities such as New York, Minneapolis and Portland, change is on the horizon. Kailee Scales, managing director of BLM, has outlined in detail how these proposals support “healthy, safe futures for our children [… and] our elders.” The invocation of an alternative future is a powerful step in the right direction.
This spirit of direct action combined with policy proposal should be seen as a blueprint for a new kind of protest. We need a grassroots movement that thrives on ideas: real alternatives to our current economic, environmental and cultural situation. Sadly, it is not possible to rely on political parties alone to provide this. To really change attitudes and think beyond the margins of the perceived “possible,” it is necessary, just for a moment, to forget the specifics of point scoring. Manifestos are important but they live and die on the attitudes of society as a whole.
In the mid 20th century, the Mont Pelerin Society, masterminded by Friedrich Hayek and later Milton Friedman, kickstarted a global cultural shift toward the unbridled veneration of market economics. Through networking with political elites and engineering public opinion, they created the conditions for the Thatcher and Regan administrations of the 1980s and much of what followed. Surely, the way out of this is to beat them at their own game. To win the ideological battles of the 21st century, we must develop policies, aesthetics and values that stem from the lived experience of those failing to find a future in our current world.
Covid-19 is a crisis point from which to begin. So much of what would be considered “normality” has been put on hold. As it begins to return, we must hold it to account. How much of “old normal” do we really want in our lives? What can take its place? It is at times like this that possible futures can be seen through the fog of the current trajectory. It is up to us to bring them into reality. Your holiday may be cancelled but the future is certainly not.
Joe Waters am a first-year student of Politics with International Relations at the University of York. He is interested in feasible, fallible utopian thought that champions mental health, sustainability and synthetic freedom. He is currently interning at the Next Century Foundation for Peace.
He tweets at @cinnamon_worms