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!
Tony is President and former CEO of Sussex Wildlife Trust and has written widely on nature and climate change themes. He is a member of the SECA Steering Group. This article appeared first on Tony’s blog site (you can browse his blog archive here) and is reproduced by permission.