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Dark times

from David Ruccio

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Motto

In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.

– Bertolt Brecht

( trans. John Willett, from the Svendborg Poems)

 

I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus for the past two months (the last real post, aside from daily cartoons, was back in January). But readers have encouraged me to get back in the game and resume my “occasional” commentary on economics, culture, and society.

Right now, in these dark times—as the number of confirmed cases of and deaths from the novel coronavirus pandemic, in the United States and around the world, continues to soar—we’re focused on immediate measures, individually and socially, to stay safe. And, of course, capitalist economies are in meltdown, not only in stock markets, but with massive unemployment (which the Trump administration wants states to hide from view) and increasing precarity for millions and millions of already precarious workers.

The provision of much-needed medical supplies, school closures and other measures that encourage social distancing (or, my preference, distant socializing), “stay at home” orders, lots more testing—all are desperately required. As well as are funds and policies that protect workers who have few protections against unhealthy and unsafe working conditions and, through no fault of their own, are losing their jobs and being forced to find ways of surviving in the midst of the current chaos.

Immediate measures, then, to keep people safe and financially secure.

But we also need to be thinking about what all this means, for ourselves and for our economy and society going forward. We need to discuss and debate not only the immediate measures being proposed and adopted, but also what this portends for our collective future.

As for myself, I am particularly interested in the way the existing common sense may be shifting—in darker directions, to be sure, but also in opening up new possibilities. As a friend wrote to me just yesterday, maybe there’s some hope in the fact that “at least some governments feel compelled to feed, house, and save people, [which] may be a great lesson in the reality that stands behind property and the ‘laws of economics’: social labour that we can socially allocate.”

That, it seems to me, is our challenge in the days, weeks, and months ahead—to think seriously and critically, perhaps against all odds, about our current situation and to be ruthless in that criticism “both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”

  1. Helen
    March 22, 2020 at 8:28 pm

    In Canada, we have a publicly owned Bank of Canada. For several decades until 1874 the Bank of Canada provided interest free loans to various levels of government to build infrastructure, including foundational social programs, such as Baby Bonus and Old Age pensions. We don’t need private banks right now. We need peoples’ banks to issue Basic Incomes, called National Dividends. Tax free credits issued to the population from a public institution for the common good.

  2. Ken Zimmerman
    April 4, 2020 at 2:16 pm

    Since our evolutionary split from chimpanzees around 7 million years ago, humans have become increasingly dependent on complex communal cooperation arrangements to survive and thrive. People sometimes think of humans as fundamentally selfish or violent, but anthropological research shows that we have evolved to work cooperatively and live in supportive communities. COVID-19 is now testing that evolved tendency. It’s not the first nor will it be last time that tendency is tested.

    Most of the evolution of this tendency was cultural rather than biological. Making it faster but also more vulnerable to subversion by cultural dysfunctions. Such as modern neoliberal economism and neoconservatism. COVID-19 has highlighted these threats to humans’ communal cooperative arrangements. The arrangements underlying not only human well-being but human survival. Study after study have shown that disruption of these arrangements leads humans’ lives quickly becoming disoriented and isolated such that death is the preferred path.

    According to anthropologist George M. Leader,

    “For humans, cooperation has become a deeply rooted evolutionary strategy. It allows us to split up the tasks of finding food and raising young, to share information about toolmaking and other survival skills, and to support one another in times of need to raise the chance of success for a community as a whole.

    We have evolved to sit around a campfire trading stories of our successes and failures, to learn from one another and enjoy each other’s company. Modern studies in psychology and economics continue to show that people tend to cooperate rather than acting selfishly; we act for the benefit of the community more often than we act in favor of our own self-interest. The pull of collaboration makes its mark in the dating game: Research has shown that women find altruism very desirable when looking for a long-term partner.

    All this collaboration and kindness might sound like an obvious survival strategy, but it hasn’t played out this way for all species on the planet. Consider the chimpanzee, our nearest genetic relative. Many studies have shown that chimps are very intelligent and will cooperate to a degree, but they still maintain a high level of impulsive selfish behaviors.”

    Simply put, chimpanzees can’t do what humans can do because they cannot cooperate as well as humans. For over a million years our cooperative tendencies and skills have been humans’ most important evolutionary advantage.

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