Owning our crises

Julie Mehretu – Looking back to a bright new future (detail)

The climate emergency and environmental degradation, the Covid-19 pandemic, the injustices of systemic racism, wars and their humanitarian consequences, the sharp rise in the cost of living… As one crisis succeeds another in dominating our thoughts, it’s easy to see them as a series of disasters. We stagger from one to the next, each ‘new’ one demanding our attention before we’ve had time to take in the implications of the previous one.

How are we to deal with this succession of challenges coming at us one after the other with so little time for reflection, learning lessons and longer term resolution? How are we to get any sense of proportion or priority when we are presented with what appear to be separate threats; some closer, others further and more remote in time and space? Should we rank them by urgency, by scale, by impact, by proximity to our own lives or by the degree to which we can do anything about them?

Each of us constructs our own sense of proportion and our own narratives about how we might get through, but it’s hard to hold on the idea that we could exercise any agency over the way things are going. Seeing these challenges as ‘one thing after another’; a series of external events entirely out of our control, can just make us feel hopeless and disempowered. This can lead us to turn our gaze away and inwards towards the small things in life over which we have some limited control.

However, every global crisis we face belongs to all of us, however remote it may seem. We all inhabit our one shared world, we each have our one life to live – and we can make a difference. Because they are happening in the same world and are the result of human action, these crises are connected; they are the consequences of human-made systems. We need to look for these connections and build some kind of world-view which is capable of ‘joining the dots’ and generating long term solutions.

Seeing our various crises as being caused by the way we are currently doing things is also to see that this way of doing things cannot continue. The systems and structures of our current world order – economic, social and political – are the very things that are delivering crisis as opposed to security, development or progress. They are the cause, not the cure.

Joining of the dots of system crisis also means recognising that both the problems and the solutions are political and that the actions needed will be political and therefore collective. This means taking sides and making choices. We have seen states respond to crisis in ways which would have been unthinkable until recently: promoting rapid global vaccine development and mass vaccination programmes, mass behaviour change in the interests of public health, large scale state intervention on a massive scale to prop up the economy and support employment, state support to underwrite popular solidarity towards refugees. Most of these measures are presented as temporary fixes, but the very fact that they were implemented has changed our sense of what is possible. When the activist, enabling state mobilises to tackle some of the challenges we face, it also opens the door to wider change.

What was inconceivable yesterday becomes essential today and we see that it is possible to break with our current system in significant ways. And we look at these interventions and ask “if this can be done in a crisis, why can’t it be done all the time?” or “If this can be done here, why can’t it be done everywhere?”  

We have to question a system which cannot ensure the basic necessities for everyone, which extracts wealth from the poorest and channels it to the wealthiest, which consolidates privilege and injustice of every kind, which is built on an assumption of continuous and unsustainable growth in production, consumption and waste, which marketizes essential goods and services and continues to produces energy by generating dangerously high concentrations of atmospheric CO2 and produces food using intensive, unhealthy methods, which stokes nationalism, xenophobia, insecurity and war. It would be negligent not to be questioning these assumptions.

Just as our economic system is not fit for purpose, our current politics also seems ill-equipped to respond to the challenge. Faced with system failure, we cannot rely on a politics of ‘getting back to normal’ or ‘keeping things broadly as they are with a few tweaks and mitigations’. Trying to solve a crisis with more of the thinking which caused it is starting to look like a dangerous view rather than a moderate one. The narratives which are extreme are surely those which deny the systemic nature of our crises or fail to challenge the reach and use of corporate power to drive and amplify inequality, or the need for superpower war machines that threaten annihilation.

So what’s the alternative? There is no single programme which will solve all the challenges we face, but we need to start from some assumptions about how the global economy and global society could work to meet human needs. We need to ask how we could guarantee everyone a basic living income, decent housing and social care as well as health and education. How could we live well without consuming natural systems faster than they can be regenerated? How could we build a culture of peace and make the world safer while shifting away from military spending, arms production and the organised barbarism of war?

A new common sense will need to be built from these assumptions and will require profound system change. New social and political forces will need to emerge and if existing political parties cannot rise to this challenge, they will find themselves superseded.

Nancy Fraser called her brilliant 2017 analysis of our predicament ‘The old is dying and the new is not yet born’, borrowing the phrase from Antonio Gramsci’s ‘Prison Notebooks’. And this feels like a good description of the dangerous and hopeful period we are now in as a species globally.

The solutions start in our imagination. Can we conceive of a broad global movement based on a commitment to equality, democracy, solidarity, sustainability and peace? Such a movement can build on the traditions and practices of union, community, liberation, resistance, social justice, peace and environmental movements. Translating this into a coherent and powerful progressive force for global change isn’t easy and does not guarantee success, but doing nothing will certainly guarantee disaster.

See also:

Finding our voice in a crisis (January 2022)

Rebecca Solnit on Hope (April 2020)

An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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