Whenever there is a crisis, commentators say that things “will never be the same again”. In the moment, when life as we know it has been pulled apart, thrown up in the air and nobody really knows where the chips will fall, it feels a compelling argument. The coronavirus crisis has been no different. From abortion provision to the lack of childcare, from race-based inequity to the cost of housing to the fact that the environment we inhabit appeared to be healing itself after carbon emissions fell sharply when we went into lockdown, the ways in which our society was broken were exposed like falling dominoes as the daily death toll rose from March.
While some (particularly women) struggled to balance vital work with childcare and many lost their jobs, others watched from the safety of their homes as videos of clear water running through the canals of Venice went viral and marvelled in disbelief over the appearance of blue skies above Delhi. There were calls for a complete overhaul of the way we live: a working from home revolution, addressing of gender, class and race inequalities, a reassessment of capitalism and our relentless consumer culture.
As the virus challenged our way of living, the politically impossible became possible. Ideas which were deemed too naively “nice” to be realistic, like free broadband for everyone, a four-day working week, mass building of social housing and the radical expansion of childcare, which had seemed far-fetched when mentioned in the last Labour manifesto by Jeremy Corbyn, suddenly made complete sense. And briefly, at least, the progressive became conservative. The government’s “everyone in” strategy set about getting all rough sleepers somewhere indoors. Rishi Sunak’s Job Retention Scheme, for instance, was a form of Universal Basic Income (UBI) – an idea that had previously only been discussed in utopian terms by economists and historians – in all but name.
Despite how they are presented both in politics and the media, environmentalism and social equality are, so often, two sides of the same coin and not mutually exclusive issues. As multiple UN reports have confirmed, there is a vicious cycle whereby those who have the least are often the most impacted by climate change and people on low incomes are, at once, the very people producing fast fashion and consuming it, all of which only results in greater subsequent inequality in the long run.
So how do we break the cycle once and for all? Kate Soper is a British philosopher and author of Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism. She thinks that while it is undeniably causing great human misery, the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis it has caused presents an opportunity for us to think about how we want to live and, finally, how it impacts the planet we all share.
Forced temporarily to loosen its hold on people’s time and activity, the work-and-spend existence gave way to a less consumerist and pressurised way of living. Private preoccupations yielded to altruistic concerns to help out.
“The lockdown period has provided some insight on alternative ways of living – and this may indeed prove to have an influence in the longer term,” Kate explains. “Not everyone was in a position to have this experience but more than would normally be the case, we were given some sense of the pleasures and benefits to both people and planet of slower ways of living and travelling. Socially, too, something shifted during the worst of the pandemic, a new sense of community emerged, and a more republican spirit. Forced temporarily to loosen its hold on people’s time and activity, the work-and-spend existence gave way to a less consumerist and pressurised way of living. Private preoccupations yielded to altruistic concerns to help out.”
As she sees it, “the citizenly self” which has been sidelined over the last few decades in favour of a more individualistic and consumerist self “staged a surprising comeback” as a result of the coronavirus crisis and the state – our government – was forced to step in too and give “essential forms of help and provision it was alone able to supply”.
However, Kate adds, “there is a real risk that the economic fallout from the pandemic will be met in ways that erode rather than bolster existing forms of social and environmental protection because the aim is to restore the system to growth as soon as possible.”
She’s not wrong. In June, Boris Johnson donned a high-vis jacket and hard hat to announce his supposedly “groundbreaking” £5 billion “new deal” for infrastructure as part of his plan for our economic recovery. This was an ideological choice – to put building roads ahead of investing in universal childcare which, according to independent think tank the Women’s Budget Group, would produce 2.7 times as many jobs as any equivalent investment in construction, not to mention freeing parents up to contribute to our economy in other ways.
This might sound pie in the sky, the stuff of Labour’s “For The Many” manifesto, but a recent poll conducted by the very same think tank found that 69% of people would be willing to pay more tax to support well-paid and secure jobs for everyone. Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of the Women’s Budget Group, told me that we shouldn’t underestimate the significance of people saying that they would be prepared to pay more tax if it meant investing in properly paid care work as infrastructure.
I ask Kate what she makes of this approach. She says such changes would be “essential aspects of any green renaissance”.
“In line with many other environmentalists,” she adds, “I insist that there can be no sustainable global future without the promotion of much greater equality both within and between nations, and that this in turn will require commitment to a radically revised economic order – one much less dependent on continuous growth and profit.”
Kate’s notion of “alternative hedonism” she explains is a refusal to accept “affluence as providing the ideal model of the ‘good life’ because of its emphasis on the more negative aspects of the consumerist lifestyle: time scarcity, stress, insecurity, pollution and ill health, road congestion, excessive and often toxic waste, the commercialisation of children and the general dominance of the work-and-spend existence.”
It’s now October and, while things have hardly returned to normal, we aren’t exactly in the middle of a radical revolution in how we live. We find ourselves in a strange state of limbo. We are in a huge recession and our politicians seem to be more concerned with ensuring the survival of Pret than embracing new ways of living.
Indeed, just last week, the Department of Education ordered schools in England not to use resources from organisations which have expressed a desire to end capitalism, categorising anti-capitalism as an “extreme political stance” which Kate dismisses as “absurd and philistine” before pointing out that “this is a ban that could appear to rule out instruction in any number of our more respected works such as Plato’s Republic, parts of the Bible, the thought of William Morris, some key historical writings, together with many great novels and works of poetry.”
According to independent think tank the Women’s Budget Group, investing in universal childcare would produce 2.7 times as many jobs as any equivalent investment in construction.
The move came despite the fact that, at the end of June, a poll from YouGov found that just 6% of the British public wanted to see a return to our “pre-pandemic economy” and favoured a “fairer and greener” system.
We know that people’s lives are already being transformed for better and for worse by the coronavirus pandemic: in my own social circle, people are leaving London, some are never going back to the office and others are losing jobs. The pressure to “go back to normal” has been applied to us by our government and a system that only works if we return to our old ways.
But we should resist that pressure and remember that as the Second World War swept across Europe, devastating towns, cities and lives in its wake, women in England took to the streets in protest. Pushing their young children in prams, their placards read “We Want War Work! We Want Nurseries” and “Nurseries For Kids, War Work For Mothers”. What resulted from their decision to make a stand was the implementation of state-sponsored childcare for the duration of the war. From 1945 onwards, the Ministry of Health withdrew its funding and what could have been a monumental change was quietly undone.
What might our society be like if it had remained in place? Going “back to normal” is not inevitable. Why can’t we have policies that benefit our community as a whole and not only us as individuals? Better environmental policies? Free broadband? A four-day working week? Better support for people on low incomes? Affordable housing? Universal childcare?
Over the last decade, I have fallen into the trap of girlboss hustle culture, bought into fast fashion and enjoyed the fact that a Pret £1 filter coffee is available to me on almost every street corner. But if the coronavirus crisis has taught us anything, surely it’s that things need to change and the state can, and should, step in to improve life for us all. As a nation, we overwhelmingly voted against these ideas at the last election but, perhaps, this pandemic could yet provide a tipping point.
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