It’s been difficult for me to write this, but here I am, jotting down words while Sydney looks more and more like a ghost town as more drastic measures are being introduced. As of writing this, the total of the stimulus effort is AU$320 billion (about US$195 billion). An estimation of a million people have already been stood down, and the unemployment rate is forecast to be 13% by June (currently 5.1%).
Those who are lucky enough to have a job have been forced to move to an online environment, including those jobs that were traditionally thought to be impossible to do so. Even many years after the dot com boom, many of us have never worked from home. Meanwhile, lockdown is expected to continue until the end of June. None of us knows what may come next. But one thing for sure, the very fabric of the current societal structure is being forced to change, dramatically.
Australia, like many places in the world, is pro-capitalism. Despite its flaws, clearly seen now than ever, the most vocal capitalism’s protectors around the globe continue to ignore the ramifications, arguing it is okay to let people die as long as the stock market is saved, and we should all get back to work. Human lives are just the cost of doing business.
Capitalism is not only abusive of the people whose labour builds the system and seizing natural wealth from both living systems and future generations but also complicates innovation. Yes, innovation needs money, a lot of it. Yet if the goal of innovation is to maximise profits, then the final product is contaminated with economic objectives, despite however socially promising the ideas. But not many people want to fund projects that don’t make back their money. No matter what they say, they have a business to run. Most companies, startups and corporations alike, are optimised for perpetual growth, by all means.
In 1930, experts predicted we should be working 15 hours a week by the year 2020, spending time doing what we enjoy. But what we got is this dystopia, where the backbone of society is being left to dry. If 1% of Americans die of COVID-19, that’s (another) 3.3 million deaths for the American dream.
On the frontline, healthcare professionals are being sent to battles without the gears they need. Others are dying, angry, tired, anxious, with no jobs and no toilet paper. Meanwhile, billionaires who pay no tax, getting saved the moment they’re in trouble, or rushing into their doomsday bunkers; and celebrities try to entertain us from their mansions, failing spectacularly.
Before the pandemic, the system required us to prioritise tasks to maximise profits, only now the system reluctantly prioritises for safety and inclusivity. Before COVID-19, the system had never worked for the disabled, un- and underemployed, and the marginalised population. It is, too, a privilege to only realise this fact when suddenly find oneself in a less privileged position, since the virus doesn’t discriminate.
COVID-19 also shines a light on other cracks of the systems, which are not as small as some people want to believe. Australians are paying for the delay in NBN role out. Employers had never offered working flexibility now realised the benefits. Scientists collaborate at a pace and scale that have never been seen before. The minimum wage workers are now the essentials. Hopefully, teachers, health workers, cashiers, waitresses; those that teach us, feed us, care for us, will get a pay raise and a better working environment when this is all over, maybe.
Besides the fallout of the economy, the pandemic has changed how we interact in the workplace. Since social distancing has become the new normal, many people, introverts and extroverts alike, are struggling with boredom, loneliness, and the lack of freedom. We see a rise in alcoholism and domestic abuse. On the other hand, misfits, digital nomads, and freelancers celebrate.
According to a study by Princeton, there is evidence suggesting loners exist for an evolutionary purpose. And yet society has never been built for this “minority”. If the number in this study applies to human society, our current system is not working for at least 30% of the population. 30% is not a small number. Furthermore, non-routine tasks (i.e. those tasks that require thinking) look different for everyone. For example, 9–5 schedule doesn’t provide those with the night owl chronotype with a productive routine.
For, I don’t know how long, our lives revolve around the workplace, not around the home. We move to where work is. We buy where we can get to work quickly. We schedule our lives around work even though work doesn’t even make sense anymore, not the way it is right now. Work sucks and commutes suck, but we like the way things are. The unknown is too scary.
And yet, and yet. Though work has often entailed subjugation, obedience and hierarchy […], it’s also where many of us, probably most of us, have consistently expressed our most profound human desire, to be free of externally imposed authority or obligation, to be self-sufficient. We have defined ourselves for centuries by what we do, by what we produce.
— James Livingston, professor of history at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Work-focused lifestyle also means there’s no workspace in the home. Living where work is means accommodation is a lot more expensive. Even those we can don’t have a workspace set up at home. We say to ourselves, “This is my home, I don’t work here.” and that’s that.
The lack of space also means there’s no space for our kids without driving us a little insane, no space for us to make a phone call. Worse yet, we have to be present on Zoom while the kids demand our attention. Most parents are also not armed with the knowledge to teach their kids. They’re too busy with earning a living.
Next, let’s take a look at artists, disabled people, queer people, people of colour, those communities that have been living outside of the system, willingly or not. Marginalised people understand this truth, only now the world sees it.
Despite the opportunities the internet offered, politicians continue to ignore the arts. Art is underfunded in most countries, and the artists are not being protected legally. If you scroll down to the bottom of your Netflix account during the last two weeks, I hope you also have more appreciation for art and artists. Being an artist is a real job. Most don’t earn a living wage. Yet, when everything fails, there’s only art.
“The true source of the wealth of a nation is the creativity and innovation of its people.” — Joseph E. Stiglitz
Art also has been proven to improve our mental health. Seth Godin said, “The best way to complain is to make something.” Without art, a healthy form of expressing oneself, we are more prone to depression and other mental illnesses. But not everyone finds and accepts art. Art is difficult. Most find relief in alcohol and drugs.
Have you recognised a theme here? Capitalism is literally killing us. If a system can’t hold itself together during a crisis, it has failed us as a society, why are we still clinging to it? Socialist policies are saving society where capitalism fails, no matter what neoliberals desperately want you to believe.
Progressive capitalism is not an oxymoron.
— Joseph E. Stiglitz, recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences
I’m a big believer in balance. Capitalism may have a place in post-modern society, but it can’t be the running force of the world. Capitalism has no morals; it puts no value on you, me, or the goddamn rivers. Markets only don’t provide insurance against mortal risks like unemployment, sickness, or disability. The whole world is convinced that wealth-grabbing is wealth-creating.
“The last global crisis didn’t change the world. But this one could.” After COVID-19, there could be a rise in the basic universal income (UBI) movement. There are not enough jobs and the world is not getting any better, so what’s the point? Most of us are clogs in the productivity machines that create no value. But what comes after work (work in the capitalistic sense, trading labour for money)? Without work, is there… anything?
According to UBI’s supporters, if everyone is provided with basic food, shelter and the ability to seek knowledge, in a system that puts less emphasis on success but growth, encouraging learning through failure instead of results. When people don’t have to worry about putting food on the table, they have more time and energy to learn and create real values. The other side of the debate would argue we’ll probably just do nothing all day, and society goes nowhere. Who knows? But we don’t know unless we try.
The argument that the collective wealth of the world is not enough to re-distribute is also nonsense. In Australia alone, there are a total of 117 billionaires, with a total wealth of AU$378 billion. The wage subsidy for the estimated 6.5 million Australians who will need support during the pandemic was $130 billion (better-known as the JobKeeper package), created based on the outdated trickle-down economics that seems not to be working.
Say, if we tax the rich more, use that money to improve social infrastructure, which means better housing, healthcare, and education. Our lives could be, finally, revolving around, um, life, ourselves, our family, not working to death for someone else’s luxuries.
Maybe the future is not not work, but better work. Work that doesn’t put profits above all else, but prioritise our needs as people, real, valued people. Work that keeps us alive and healthy. Work that encourages creativity, collaborations with no borders, and innovations. Work that heals.
Distributed teams have been reported to have a healthier life, especially those who embrace the medium such as Automattic. In Utah, a four-day workweek was implemented in 2008 (4 days a week, 10 hours a day, compared to more recent experiment in Japan and Australia). 79% of employees reported a positive experience and 63% of the employees reported increased productivity. Changes in the way work works are also having a substantial impact on the environment.
Admittedly, not all work can happen online. Teams need to bond, and people need to get out of the house once in a while. A hybrid model could tick all the boxes. An exact model would depend on organisations and industries to work out.
Years from now, 2020 will be remembered. This, this reality, this hell, is history unfolding, and we’re in the middle of it. Although the numbers of deaths could have been lower, this crisis has revealed issues that are usually harder to grasp. If a UV light can show us the virus, the virus is showing us clearly what’s broken with the system. We need to do better, and we can.
A crisis can heighten the authority of scientific thinking, matters of life and death occasion more drastic shifts in policy than economic indicators ever can.
— William Davies, English writer, political and sociological theorist
To say it bluntly, I’m not the biggest fan (who is besides neoliberals?) how the world has been run lately and I still crave for the normalcy of predictability. Capitalism is something I understand. Hell, my family could be the poster child for meritocracy, but I also know it doesn’t work, not for my partner, not for my queer friends, not for artists, not for poor people, and absolutely not for sick people.
George Monbiot said, “you do not have to produce a definitive alternative to say that capitalism is failing.” Admittedly, I have no clear solution; I’ll leave that to the experts. For now, I’m going to do my part, stay at home, wash my hands, and perhaps, one day, learn to stop touching my damn face.
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