5 things the government might not want us to learn from the fight against covid-19 and what it means for a different kind of economics

April 14, 2020

 

I was asked the other day, what keeps me up at night?

 

Beyond immediate concerns – my friend who is in hospital battling the virus, the vulnerability of some of those I love most dearly, how to continue to pay the wages of those I work with, how much loneliness I can take – what keeps me up at night is a crushing fear that once all this is done, we’ll just go back to ‘normal’; that we will fail to take on board what this awful lesson has taught us about how wrong we’ve got it; that we will miss this opportunity to reform how we live; that we will not seek to replace a broken economic system with a different kind of economics – one that values humankind more than shareholder gain; that we will forget everything that matters, all over again.

 

This crisis has already given us critical lessons that we must not forget.

 

1. There is more to life than this.

 

Taking away the noise of consumerism, generated by a market intent on selling you stuff you don’t want or need, has enabled us to see more clearly what it is that makes us human. The things people are reverting to, the things that are making us feel calm in the face of chaos, the things that are giving us comfort, respite and distraction from fear, are not material goods – not lip gloss and plastic slime and handbags – they are human ‘goods’. What matters now is friendship and connection, generosity and kindness, health and wellbeing, culture and music, togetherness and purpose. Materialism, it turns out, is immaterial.

 

2. Community is the first line of defence.

 

The exercise in social distancing has brought to the fore quite how vital connectedness is, not just for our wellbeing as social animals, but in our ability to protect the most vulnerable. Where I live and work – a small town in Somerset – we have known for a long time that it is social capital that gives us strength when all else fails us. We have the lowest wages, the lowest productivity and the lowest social mobility in the country here – by any government standard, we’re failing. But, we have each other – our community is strong enough to connect people and protect them. In this crisis, that has meant we are resilient in a way that so many other places are not.

 

While isolated people all over the UK wait for unavailable supermarket delivery slots and the government’s volunteer network grapples with how to put systems in place, community support groups have mobilised, devised systems, developed protocols and been delivering essential supplies and emotional support to the vulnerable for weeks already. Because we already had strong connections, because we knew, understood and cared for one another, we could make quick decisions grounded in mutual respect and trust. Because we were already networked closely into other sources of support – council workers, village agents, foodbanks, mental health services, youth clubs and hundreds more besides – we could design systems that were effective and efficient. We already knew who to direct people to and how. Because we had strong community anchor organisations in place – social enterprises, community groups – already deeply engaged with the many voluntary groups who make up a rich tapestry in this town, we were able to provide the leadership to bring people together, get organised and act fast. For many vulnerable people, community has provided a lifeline, much faster than the state could ever hope to do.

 

3. Trust, connection and belonging are infrastructure too.

 

In crisis response literature, it is an ability to act quickly, effectively and collaboratively that matters most – and this rests on connectedness and trust. It’s why response organisations find on-the-ground bodies to work with rather than helicoptering in. Consequently, places where community has been nurtured and valued, where strong community infrastructure exists, are proving to be far more resilient, far better equipped to care for the most vulnerable amongst them.

 

That is not in any way to underplay the vital importance of state infrastructure – hospitals, schools, social services, transport systems – but it would be a mistake not to recognise that the strength or otherwise of community has been a central determining factor in how quickly and effectively places have been able to mobilise.

 

For it is not just the existence of the state infrastructure that matters – it is the connectedness and interplay of that layer of support with the community layer – of community anchor institutions, of networks of friendship, of voluntary groups and so on. Places that are not starting from scratch in building the networks of connection that matter most in any kind of crisis response, appear so far to be needing less support from government agencies and emergency services than those where community has been hollowed out over decades – and where people are still waiting for a system that can help them when they are alone, scared and vulnerable.

 

4. We are all social entrepreneurs now.

 

Social enterprises marry an appreciation of business with a concern for humanity. They seek to fill the gap between what the profit-driven market cares about and what the state will provide. It is a model of a different kind of company that seeks to reconnect economy with society, in a way which was, incidentally, quite normal only half-a-century ago. It is epitomised by place-based social enterprises or community businesses – which seek to deliver all kinds of social, environmental, economic and cultural justice by being grounded in a valuing of connection, community and agency.

 

Now as the crisis unfolds, the true values of many of our local businesses, not just the social enterprises themselves, are revealed to about so much more than economic value. The linkages between community and local businesses have been vital to resilience and responsiveness too and are clearly driven as much by purpose as by profit. For example, our locally-run green grocers and butchers have offered a life-line of food to the town –delivering food to front doors and reducing the need to travel. Our pubs and cafes have redeployed to provide meals to the elderly, vulnerable and hungry – filling the gap when the local housing association pulled its meals-on-wheels service (yes, really). Our local Co-op has worked with our volunteer community response team to devise a system where volunteers can take payments at the doorstep using SumUp card readers but we only pay for the goods at the end of the day – meaning we can reach more people more quickly but without overburdening the already busy shop workers with the need for phone payments.

 

In all these examples, it is the interrelationship between social enterprise, the local community and local businesses that has mattered – and in each case, this has been possible because we know and trust each other and because we all care about more than just the bottom line. Just as social enterprises have long argued, now there can be little doubt. This crisis has made overwhelmingly clear that small and big businesses country-wide – from corner shops to car manufacturers – care about much more than money – that social purpose and human kindness can as much be driving economic forces as profit margins and personal wealth.

 

5. A better way is possible

 

As anyone who follows me on twitter will know, I have been increasingly questioning just why it is that the government is so dismissive of social enterprise in this crisis – when it seems to offer a much better model for the future. I have begun to wonder if it is precisely because government has realised that social enterprise offers a genuine alternative, which marries the best of the market with the best of human value, that has got it running scared. Have they have seen what we have seen? That up and down the country, businesses are acting like social enterprises, caring about more than money and that it’s much, much better? I have begun to wonder if it is this that scares the government right down to the bottom of its wealth-driven, neo-liberal, soul.

 

None of this is to suggest that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Materialism is not fundamental to humanity, as brought to the fore in this crisis when the number of non-essential businesses is blindingly apparent, but that’s not to say that the jobs that are supported by those non-essential businesses are not essential – even selling lip gloss puts food on the table for thousands of people. The problem is not a market that creates a whole host of products that we want rather than need – the problem is when the noise created by selling us all that stuff obscures the things that really matter, when the balance is all wrong. If that’s the case, if we only remember what matters when life and death are on the line, if it is only then that society and the economy reconnect, then you have got to start asking whether a different kind of economics is needed?  

 

And we can take our cue from all the new social entrepreneurs amongst us – it is not just the what but the why that matters. It is getting fresh fruit and veg out to your neighbours not just because you need the income, but because you care that they are well. It is freezing 100 lasagne portions for delivery to the old and housebound, not just because no-one is buying pints of cider anymore and you need to make a living, but because those people are your customers’ parents and your community elders. Hell, maybe it’s even repurposing the factory floor from hoovers to ventilators, not just because it’ll win you a lucrative contract, but because it is the right thing to do.

 

All of this socially-entrepreneurial activity should cause us to ask the question the government hopes we will not ask: whether an economic system that requires us to abandon or ignore all the things that really matter when the chips are really down – purpose, kindness, protecting the vulnerable, human connection – is really the kind of system we want when we come back out the other side?

 

And before the collective neo-liberal gas-lighting ensues, let me say, caring about social value is not to counter the benefits of the market. An economy founded on a socially-enterprising model does not reject the market as a powerful mechanism – for adaptability, efficiency, innovation; it does not say you can’t have material goods if you want them; it does not ask that we sacrifice jobs or even necessarily growth; but it does ask what is the purpose to which all this effort should be put – what is it that really matters? Has this crisis not shown us that it is not money, economic exchange, profit and wealth that is the reward we want to work hard for, but rather it is people, humanity, perhaps nothing less than life itself.

 

If how we respond in a crisis tells us a lot about who we really are, then the kind of economy we accept when we come out of it will say everything about the kind of society we want to be.

 

We need a different kind of economics. One built on the things that really matter.

 

These could be the days that change the world. Maybe that’s what is scaring the government.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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