Recently I was captivated by an interview Anton Roux at ADC conducted with Martin Wolf — the Associate Editor and chief economics commentator at the Financial Times. What I heard were fascinating and compelling insights from a very experienced journalist I have long admired. For the most part I was in furious agreement with Martin’s analysis, and his compilation of surface litanies made utter sense. But I was left with an uneasy feeling that was all it was. A veneer. I felt as though he had been talking about things we can all see and agree upon, having faith in their corporeal nature, without actually peering into the deeper recesses beyond that façade.
I do not ascribe my uneasiness to Martin, his analysis, or even what he was saying — but rather to what he was not saying. Of late I have listened to many experts in the know. Deep thinkers all of them. They include a cadre of eminent commentators and informed journalists who have earned the right to speculate about what is happening in our world.
These pundits seem always to trust their hypotheses about how society works and should work. In return, we implicitly trust them and their views. And that is what really disturbs me. There is something missing from public inquiry. It is systemic insight. I wait in vain for dialogues that probe more deeply than mere patterns and trends, inquiries that expose the flaws in our most common myths and that reveal the potency of the metanarratives upon which we construct our reality. These kinds of discussions are certainly taking place. But they are few and far between, outside the mainstream of public awareness and commentary.
I have written many times about the cognitive gridlock we appear to be in — unable to push through the threshold that keeps us trapped in prisons of our own invention — thus incapable of resolving some of the more pressing issues facing our species as a result. Nor do we like to be told that we are stupid or ignorant for not seeing the obvious.
The truth is we are incapable of seeing, or reluctant to acknowledge, the epistemology of market capitalism to which we are so addicted, as being responsible for the situation in which we now find ourselves. If the push towards more economic growth remains unrelenting, if the demand for greater productivity and material possessions continues to spin around a cycle of desire and consumption, if exploitation and greed remain our driving ambitions, and if the chasm between the poor and the wealthy widens much more, we will either face revolution or extinction. Why? because none of these are economically, politically, socially, or morally viable.
Surely then, the imperative must be to change direction — to make a collective cognitive shift away from accepting the hazardous future we are blindly stumbling into, one that Wolf and many others admit is unknown, to a more conscious evolutionary design based on what we actually must do now to survive?
For example, how can we interrupt our dependence on material productivity — attenuating the desire for more and more stuff that is literally killing us? How can we abandon the culture of separation — from each other and from nature — that is the root cause of so many of our problems, including the current coronavirus pandemic? How can we go about reimagining the nation state as a community with a commons infrastructure and a “commoning” culture? What might it take to repurpose the military to wage peace across the community of nations, or for the police to stand for the public good rather than the government of the day? How will we evolve a regenerative consciousness to halt and reverse the deterioration of our soils, oceans, and forests? How can we rid ourselves of deficient cognitive habits — like dualism, for example, that dominates party politics and the market-government archetype? How can we advance a resilient, more moral economy that serves all of mankind by decommodifying assets and recirculating value?
Numerous individuals and groups are already addressing these questions. They are working on small experiments and prototypes that can be scaled up in the creation of a world that works for everyone — from “commons transition” initiatives in cities like Ghent, to open source projects like Drawdown, novel models advocating democracy upgrades like MiVote, community-owned food production systems in places like Fresno, platform cooperatives and a proposal from the city of Minneapolis to adopt a community-based model of public safety in the wake of George Forde’s killing.
Because of the promise inherent in these and similar initiatives it is easy for us to refute the old Thatcherite fiction that there are no viable alternatives to neoliberal capitalism. In fact there are many substitutes that are preferable to the way we have allowed capitalism to run rampant as a survelliance scam, from which obscene amounts of money can be accumulated by a minority through a brutal exploitation of the majority.
The fundamental questions posed here should be driving the collaborative efforts of every leader in every country. Indeed these questions should keep them up at night. Assuming that everything will (and should) go back to business-as-usual as quickly as possible is to ignore the message that nature has sent us with this COVID-19 pandemic. Hit the reset button or perish.