By Marina Gorbis, Executive Director, Institute for the Future
We are at Ground Zero — individually and as a society. COVID-19 has been the shock that is making many of us rethink life plans, reset expectations, change how we see what (and who) is essential. As a society, we are trying to grapple with an unending stream of revelations. How is it possible that in a country with some of the mightiest global companies, nurses and doctors have to sew their own masks and wash and reuse equipment because there is simply not enough to go around? Shortages of toilet paper? In the U.S.?! Before COVID-19, the only other place people would carry toilet paper around like a prized possession was the Soviet Union in the final days of its existence. In a place that is home to the most innovative technology companies, government agencies are relying on outdated systems, making it virtually impossible to get an accurate count of infection spread, conduct contact tracing, or issue unemployment payments on time.
The narratives and the images of ourselves we’ve created over many decades are being shattered virtually overnight. It’s as if we had been looking at ourselves and the world around us through a crooked mirror, and now that the mirror has been shattered, a different reality is confronting us. This is a sobering and painful experience — adjusting to a new image and identity for our country. However, as painful as it is, the process is much needed and long overdue. Eventually all the fragilities and distortions hidden by crooked mirrors had to break through — extreme wealth inequality, racial injustice, brittle supply chains, an underfunded public health system, outdated public technology infrastructure, and so much more. Our social immune system — our collective ability to withstand shocks — has been severely compromised as a result of decades of abuse and neglect. It took a tiny virus to shatter the mirage of might and prosperity.
Now that so many frailties are on full display, where do we go? What can we imagine and what do we need to build after the pandemic? These are the questions my colleagues at the Institute for the Future and I have been asking for the past three months. We’ve been looking at historical patterns, collecting data, interviewing experts in different fields, and conducting panels with workers and activists in order to develop a set of four alternative scenarios for a post-pandemic world. Our Growth scenario is about pursuing economic values — rapidly opening up businesses to return to some semblance of pre-pandemic economic growth. The Collapse scenario envisions sustained levels of militarized confrontations on the streets of America. The Constraint scenario involves reliance on data and algorithms to reorganize society around germ pods or clusters of virus-free communities under the guise of safeguarding health, but in the meantime justifying and entrenching existing wealth and racial inequities. The Transformation scenario moves us to a very different path of pursuing social rather than purely economic or technological agendas, ultimately leading to greater collective wellbeing, clearly a preferred option.
But how do we get to Transformation? The starting point is our deeply ingrained beliefs, the ideology that has resulted in fragilities that made us so vulnerable to the pandemic like COVID-19.
Prominent sociologist Max Weber described great ideologies as ideas generating “world images.” He compared them to the railroad “switchmen (signalmen) of history, switching it onto a different track.” And today we desperately need switchmen and switchwomen to put us onto a different track, the track of Mutualism. In biology, mutualism refers to a symbiotic relationship between two organisms from different species that benefits both. At a societal level, mutualism involves recognition that the social and economic well-being of any individual is highly dependent on the well-being of others in the society. We are all in a mutually interdependent relationship.
We see thousands of examples of mutualism on the ground today — people coming together outside of formal organizations to coordinate food distribution, provide free lunches or breakfasts, or delivering needed supplies in neighborhoods. Hood Squad — a group of artists of color coming together in East Palo Alto to provide free breakfasts in needy communities in the Bay Area. Organic farmers in San Bernardino donating produce to a community group called Feed Black Futures who deliver food to the formerly incarcerated and their families. PDX Covid-19 Mutual Aid Network, helping people in Portland get everything from masks to food and internet access.
The rise of mutual aid efforts during hard times is not surprising. Societies with limited financial resources and weak institutional infrastructures develop robust informal economies in which relationships and mutual support serve to fill the gap. While many economists dismiss such informal economies as inefficient or marginal, these are the kinds of social arrangements humanity has engaged in for most of our history. Mutual aid practices and the mutualist ideology behind them did not originate in business schools and economics departments. This is how people have and are managing to survive for millennia.
In the decades preceding COVID-19, however, we did our best to marginalize mutualism. Our policies, institutions, tax, and regulatory systems are based on what can be best described as the anti-mutualist agenda. COVID-19 is a warning of the danger of persisting on this track and an opportunity for us to act as the “switchmen of history,” putting us on a more resilient and healthier path.
To get on this path we first need to abandon ideas that have outlived their usefulness and replace them with ones that fit the social and economic realities of present and future generations, our globally connected world, and high levels of risk from extreme weather events and pandemic diseases:
● From Rugged Individualism to Radical Interdependence.
The notion that one can succeed entirely on one’s own, without any support from the government or anyone else, is deeply embedded in the American psyche. Self-reliance, perseverance, individual initiative, and entrepreneurship are prized qualities of our culture. However, pandemics and environmental catastrophes show how harmful these ideas can be when taken to extremes. Pandemics, by definition, are public or collective events and cannot be remedied without collective action. Viruses know no individual boundaries or geographic borders. When a virus appears in China, the whole world is at risk. When a homeless person down the street gets COVID-19, the health of many others in the community is threatened. Similarly, climate change is a collective catastrophe. When Amazon forests are destroyed or when there is ocean contamination in the Arctic, everyone’s air and food supplies suffer. In a globally connected and ecologically fragile world, we need to come to terms with the idea that we are not only in a state of mutual interdependence with each other but also with the natural world we inhabit. Viruses move from animals to humans, between humans and between countries. So do people, ideas, goods, and capital.
● From Exploitation to Stewardship.
For centuries, our ideology has been framed by the Lockean idea that a right to claim ownership as a natural right is based on “exerting labor upon it,” i.e. putting it to productive use. John Locke’s and his contemporaries’ writings have served as the basis for the expansion of everything from market economies and capitalism to appropriation of native lands. After all, Native Americans, according to this ideology, did not profit from the land they lived on, they did not cultivate it to accumulate more, thus wasting this precious resource. Viewing resources through the lens of productivity justifies their exploitation, including exploitation of natural resources and people. However, facing climate emergency (I am writing this as California is experiencing the worst fires in its history), unprecedented levels of species extinction, and shortages of clean water and air, we need to resurface and amplify the ideas practiced by many non-extractive societies — focusing on preservation and improvement. This is called stewardship, and we need to diffuse the tools and practices of stewardship into our organizations, governance systems, and resource management practices. We also need to create new types of organizations and institutions built on the principles of stewardship rather than exploitation.
● From Private Commodities to Universal Rights.
More than 75 years ago, in a book titled, fittingly enough, The Great Transformation, the political economist and historian Karl Polanyi warned that market economies typically beget market societies. Exchanges that were previously rooted in social relations because of communal obligations, needs, and norms become removed from their social context and are viewed only in market terms. Over the last few decades, we have indeed become an over-marketized society, increasingly taking things that in many countries are conceived as rights and a part of the social contract — things everyone deserves access to — and turned them into private goods — commodities one purchases. This includes housing, education, health, art, nature. Tensions between private accumulation and access to commons-based or universal public resources are an ever-present part of our social existence. Every age must find its balance between the two. Social and cultural norms dictate where the boundaries should be set, and one of the main functions of government is to create legal, regulatory, and enforcement mechanisms for maintaining the balance. Mutualism is not about getting rid of markets, it is about establishing a new balance between private and public. It is about re-defining what constitutes a set of basic rights that should be enjoyed by all people, no matter who they are.
● From Scale to Resilience.
Most 20th century organizations were built for scaling up — producing more, expanding market share, reaching more people while reducing costs, and maximizing returns on investments. Along with scale, productivity and efficiency became the bywords of the business world and beyond as these concepts bled into philanthropy and the arts. Business leaders have joined the boards of social sector organizations, and many leaders of these organizations have trained in business schools that espouse the nearly sacred virtues of scale. However, the pandemic revealed that while scale may indeed be necessary to generate profits, it often works against creating resilient systems. Unchecked scaling leads to high levels of market concentration and monopolies, resulting in dangerously fragile supply chains that fail to meet demand surges during crises. Pursuit of scale also leads to homogenization — “one solution fits all” — with a disregard for the nuance of local cultures and norms. Nuance simply doesn’t scale, it is an inconvenience, an impediment to the pursuit of grander scale and efficiency. Instead of single-minded pursuit of scale, efficiency, and profits, mutualism involves designing systems for well-being and ability to withstand stress and achieve quick recovery.
These four basic tenets of mutualism are a starting point, but by themselves they are not sufficient in moving us to a post-pandemic transformation. Beliefs and ideology are embodied in our institutions — our governance and educational systems, tax, legal, and regulatory tools and processes. It is these institutional arrangements that propagate ideological narratives and frameworks, reinforcing, shaping, and executing them on a daily basis.
The post-pandemic transition requires us to not only flip an ideological switch but also to build the new railway tracks for people, ideas, and goods. And this requires hundreds of new actions — from investing in universal public goods and services (or what we call Universal Basic Assets) to changing how we regulate corporations and incentivize mutual benefit business arrangements. Such mutualist, more distributive business forms exist on the margins of our economy today but were widespread in the past. It is hard to imagine, but during the early years of our Republic, the privilege of starting a corporation was granted selectively and only to enable activities that “benefited the public,” such as construction of roads and canals or educational institutions (the first public corporation was Harvard University!). Some of the initial conditions imposed on corporations 200 years ago would seem quite radical today. Mutualist, more distributive forms of value creation include everything from cooperatives to limited profit companies, non-profits, community trusts, and stewardship-based companies, in which profits cannot be privatized and are either reinvested in the company and its stakeholder or are donated. Mutualist agendas would entail regulation of private online platforms like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and others to ensure that they benefit not only investors but also those who make their livings on them. Platforms for exploitation of low-wage workers can be turned into platforms for empowering workers.
To enable these more distributive business arrangements, we need to not only change the tax system but also create a capital infrastructure that favors and channels money into mutualist businesses. Efforts in this direction could include creation of vibrant public banks and expansion of community banks, trusts, and development funds. Building the mutualist infrastructure for our economy requires revamping our tax code, which currently benefits wealth holders and upper income earners, closing various individual and corporate tax loopholes, eliminating preferential treatment of capital gains and hundreds of giveaways and subsidies to corporations and wealthy individuals. These are just some of the actions we need to pursue so that the seeds of the mutualist ideology become rooted in the lasting social and economic arrangements. Many other actions are needed.
The mutualist agenda cannot be fulfilled in a day or a year. Ten years, however is a reasonable horizon. Remember that the New Deal, a series of programs spearheaded by President Roosevelt to get the country out of a deep depression, involved hundreds of different initiatives — financial reforms, extensive public works investments, new government regulations and procurement policies, new forms of social insurance, and more. As a result of these actions, within ten years this country was barely recognizable. The stock market recovered, many people were pulled out of poverty, and the country was put on a decades-long economic growth path, pulling millions of people into the ranks of the middle class.
The beginnings of the transformation are already taking place on the ground all around this country. All we have to do is observe, learn, and make sure that these efforts are not something that end up on the margins. The margins have to become the mainstream of the post-pandemic Transformation. And the task of building the mutualist infrastructure for Transformation cannot be more urgent.
Visit www.iftf.org/whathappensnext to learn more about the 4 alternative future scenarios of the Post-COVID-19 world.
Photo credit: Shane Rounce