From the ashes of covid, a new understanding of human and economic value must rise
2020 saw an unprecedented event in our collective global history. Confronting a global pandemic forced us to explore new conceptions of normal life and saw a change in emphasis of our priorities in response to an evolving situation and imperatives of the new health crisis. In this article, I argue that these priorities fall outside of, and are antithetical to, capitalist imperatives and pose an opportunity for sustainable and positive change. The pandemic has offered an unlikely juncture that should inspire new means and ways of living that would prioritise health, wellness, the environment, community, mental health, creative pursuits and meaningful social engagement.
I define ‘doing’ within this essay as activities that are reliant on extrinsic validation and ‘being’ as activities that have intrinsic value. Here, I mean extrinsic values to be those that are imposed by the inescapable drivers of global capitalism. In contrast, intrinsic values are those activities that are more innate drivers born from our fundamental needs as human beings. There is a clear tension between these ends and value sets, which have been particularly highlighted by the pandemic.
During the height of lockdown, multiple day-to-day activities that many of us engaged in before the pandemic became absent from our lives. This left us a chance to reflect and contemplate different ideas of the self that are not shaped by constant activity and a compulsion to be productive. Although many of us faced serious challenges such as bereavement, illness, working from home, loss of income, loneliness, boredom and isolation, a steep adjustment was made and we were asked to relinquish activities and habits that had previously informed our sense of self.
This radical change in our lives holds potential for meaningful change going forward. Any progressive or radical movement seeking to shift the paradigm always confronts the challenge of getting conservative people to see how things could be different. Before Covid, we could never imagine what it would be like to actually experience and live with clear skies and roads, quietness in the cities that allowed a chance to hear the birds and more localised activity and more community offerings of support. Environmentalist movements have been making the argument for years, trying to find ways to persuade and prick the conscience of more people to awaken them to different ways of living. The passage of time has shown this to be somewhat futile as it is not just that things have to change, it is that we as people also need to change and awaken to what is possible. I believe this is more likely to happen through new conceptions of the self that the pandemic has exposed and less so from theoretical persuasion.
Due to the global lockdown, society has been exposed to other drivers more concomitant to activities and ways of being that enrich our lives and place less strenuous burdens on the environment such as gardening, walks in the park or time outdoors, creative pursuits, cooking, learning new skills, being more active and generally being more concerned about our health. I describe these as ‘slow’ pursuits that are contrasted to the hectic and fast paced timetables that filled our lives before the pandemic.
In addition to the focus on our wellbeing, the pandemic has also laid bare the importance of our key workers, often the lowest paid in our society (also often BAME) that have kept our country running in this moment of crisis. This has exposed who among us have the most essential (and often least rewarded) jobs that genuinely make a difference to our lives. Transport staff, nursery staff, teachers, bin collectors, carers, NHS workers, manual labourers, creatives/artists, delivery drivers and all roles connected to bringing food to our tables have (if you were not persuaded before) shifted our concept of value and productivity. This shows whom the economy is actually powered by and that it can and ought be used as a resource for the betterment of society, instead of speculative wealth accumulation for private interests of a very small percentage of the population. For what is the point of ‘strong economy’ if we are not able to utilise and reinvest in trajectories and things that really matter to us and make a real difference to our lives? This is the unfortunate Faustian pact that our society has made with the liberal market agenda – we obsessively create wealth, yet even in the midst of such abundance we are never able to direct this wealth towards meaningful and collective welfare. To provide security for, and to fundamentally value, those services that directly impact our lives for the better or in meaningful ways. As Robert and Edward Skidelsky suggest in their book, How Much is Enough? (2012) – ‘We have at last achieved abundance, [yet] the habits bred into us by capitalism have left us incapable of enjoying it properly’
Since the global financial collapse of 2008, the UK has pursued an ideological austerity agenda that has seen the gutting of public service investment in health, social care and public institutions that would have strengthened a more robust response to the pandemic. A recent YouGov survey found that over 80% of the population in England, Scotland and Wales felt that the priority for the government during the pandemic should be health and wellbeing. It is unsurprising that people would want to prioritise their health during a global health crisis, however, 60% maintain this should still be the priority after the pandemic. We already have around 16% of the population suffering from common mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety and addressing this should also be the priority during this time and in the future. It is likely that investing and creating more cultural norms around ‘slow’ activities could also go a long way to addressing common mental health conditions that are a crisis response to, and exacerbated by, our ever more complex and pressurised lives.
There is a sad irony that those who bear the greatest brunt of the capitalist juggernaut, are also the most integral to it’s continuation. These are also the same people that decline in health and wellbeing outcomes for being on the frontline of a global pandemic. Often the argument for the continuity of this sacrifice is the necessity of constant economic growth. Governments and economists always use GDP and growth as a barometer for economic health but this is misleading for at least two reasons. One is that economic growth does not take into account the heavy environmental and ecological costs (often called externalities) and two, it does not tell us anything about wealth distribution and equality. In fact, a recent study by OECD looked at the connection between an increase in GDP and tracked this to concomitant rise inequality. The UK is one of the richest countries in the world yet over the last 20 years, it has a seen a fall in (per capita) life expectancy rates. In a recent article, Jason Hickel argues that life expectancy is actually impacted more by education and universal healthcare, rather than excessive wealth accumulated by capitalist activity. The main point is that it does not take an extreme excess of wealth in a country to create meaningful improvements in health and wellbeing outcomes, which begs the rhetorical question about who this system of wealth creation is truly benefiting.
The pandemic has slowed economic activity but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Environmentalists have argued for decades that many models of de-growth or circular economies would have a positive impact on our health, wellbeing and the environment. In economic terms, productivity is almost always associated with GDP and value is defined by the amount of capital that is generated. This is why GDP is an inaccurate measure for the general wellbeing of the population, as it does not include any activities that may be socially and qualitatively enriching but that fall outside of economic measurement and maybe go unpaid. This was summarised by Robert. F. Kennedy who in his infamous 1968 speech stated, ‘[GDP measures] everything except that which is worthwhile’. Additionally, GDP does not tell us about wealth distribution, equality or quality of life of the population. This creates a warped sense of what is of value in society and the activities that are significant to the quality of our lives. This is how, as a society, we have come to associate productivity with the extrinsic values imposed by global capitalism. For example this is reflected in the way many caring roles, mostly done by women, are little valued or remunerated. Like many other important and valuable activities, these kinds of caring roles fall outside the barometer of ‘productivity’ even though they help others with health needs, loneliness, sharing burdens, offering education and support and generally helping people to grow and live better lives.
Having more time and less distractions, has given us the opportunity to find different ways to define our concepts of living. Questions must surely arise around the idea of ‘doing’ as a sole arbiter of purpose and value. Many people may be itching to get back on the treadmill but must surely take away one key lesson from this experience. This is that ‘doing’, as invigorating and as important as it is, is completely extraneous if it is not directed towards the goal of being.
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Image credit: Sam Sharma – Creative Commons