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Radical Rebellion Through Livelihood. By Katie Kish.

Updated: May 19, 2020

After the initial shock and lifestyle reorientations academics, journalists, commentators, and activists have started holding online panels discussing the implications of the unprecedented situation we find ourselves in. I tuned in to four events last week:

- The Leadership for the Ecozoic’s monthly seminar series Anthropocene to the Ecozoic Webinar Series with Sam Bliss, Juan P Alvez, and me.

- Haymarket Books’ How to Beat Coronavirus Capitalism with Naomi Klein, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and Astra Taylor

- EcoCiv and the International Council on Environmental Economics and Development’s Covid-19 and Global Systems Change with Mamphela Ramphele, Elliott Harris, Vandana Shiva, Gunna Jung, and Jeremy Lent

- Earth Initiative at Columbia University and University of Vermont’s After the Pandemic: Designing a Just and Resilient Economy for All, with Dale Willman, Juliet Schor, Jon Erikson, and Nate Hagens

Having events on my schedule, seeing everyone’s dog and living room, and engaging with ideas was very refreshing. Seeing everyone juggle the complexities of life really normalized the difficulties and stresses that we’re having at home with two working parents and two young kids in need of loads of attention and incredible amounts of food. If Naomi Klein’s kid and dog can interrupt a video call in front of 15 000 viewers and no one minds, then anyone’s kid and dog can interrupt a video call. Normalizing the current situation people are in and showing how life is still bouncing around is so important – so is remembering that this is all temporary and that moments of crisis create opportunity.

Nearly every panelist on every panel mentioned that our current crisis is a great moment for opportunity. This argument is regularly made in systems literature. Once a system reaches and passes, a critical threshold, we see a gradual or sudden breakdown of order and stability. The next stage in a cycle (according the panarchy theory) is movement out of collapse and into reorganization. The reorganization phase is the peak moment for opportunity to implement change.

Much the work of E4A and L4E students and faculty is already uncovering cultural and psychological dimensions that could act as, at least in part, elements of a new system. Existing social movements offer possibilities that taken together could now help tip the system in a new direction. Frances Westley refers to these as “shadow networks” – alternative social orders that can rapidly expand their reach in the wake of nonlinear systems change (Westley et al. 2011). In my presentation, I referred to this as “prefigurative politics” – social movements which create or embody the ontologies and structures they envision for a transformed society.

Most social movements in the 20th and 21st centuries such as those for women’s rights, the environment, peace, anti-globalization, anti-capitalism, economic equity, and Indigenous rights have included prefigurative elements. The initial concept of prefigurative politics is a politicization of everyday life (Williams 2017).

We need everyday life to function as radical acts of resistance.

Different livelihood radicalities were encouraged throughout the talks such as: a) the importance of non-market food systems in keeping communities fed and reducing reliance on global supply chains, b) resisting capitalism and refusing to partake in the financial system, c) shifting lived values toward more eco-centric and equitable approaches, d) enhancing local distribution and production, and e) supporting and encouraging the Green New Deal.

Whether prefigurative reorientations to life, political lobbying, or social movements - Elliot Harris urged that our response needs to be as quick as possible before the damage gets deeper. This urgency was reiterated by Vandana Shiva who reminded us that we’re not the only ones envisioning the future and looking for opportunity. The World Bank has already published ongoing plans to get things back to normal.

Much of the response of countries and communities has been responding to issues as they arise – but we need people thinking about how we can recover well and make the social protection measures permanent. Elliot pointed out that many of the responses have been ad hoc which represents a real lesson – if these ad hoc measures are what we need in an emergency how do we weave these responses into the fabric of our community so that that we may absorb shocks more easily in the future.

Similarly, Jeremy Lent noted that while in a year the virus may well be relatively under control, it is a catalyst to a set of interlocking systems that have been unstable for a long time – all built on the growth paradigm. His optimism that this may be the end to the neoliberal paradigm was nice to hear, but I’m still not convinced – largely because none of the panels really discussed the impossible power dynamics in maintaining such a system. In fact, some seemed to blatantly ignore it.

Astra Taylor continuously encouraged people to stop paying their rent and bills – that if we collectively did this, the powerful would fall. Who needs a good credit score, anyway?

Unfortunately, many of us do need to be concerned about credit scores. If you don’t pay your rent, you could be evicted. If you don’t pay your bills your necessities could be cut off. In 2008 we saw a lot of people stop paying their mortgages and it wasn’t the fall of the capitalist system, it was the first time we saw that extent the 1% will go to ensure they remain rich and powerful.

In the same vein, Lent, Elliot and Mamphela Ramphele all agreed that neoliberal values are unacceptable. But rather than potentially ineffective and self-detrimental acts of financial resistance, they encouraged the development and sharing of a new set of values focused around community collaboration, sharing, reciprocity, and equality. Elliot so rightly commented that the inequality of different societies and communities is being severely exposed as many lack buffers for shocks, less access to care, and many disadvantaged have more underlying health conditions. They all suggest we need to deal with this head on but lacked specifics on how to bolster that kind of system.

Ramphele hinted that localization is very important for such a future. When people at the local level become aware of the kind of future they want, they can begin to shape it (prefigurative politics, back again!). She argued that liberation happens at the local levels, with moms, dads, and kids – their raised awareness and actions pressure national-level politics by using the leverage points of where we are situated and eventually there is a networked domino effect across broader regions. Which begs the questions: What are the local leverage points?

Jon Erikson referenced the Green New Deal as a possible place to start – clean energy strategies, invest in a new workforce, and making investments in radical and fast transformations. These approaches are not really prefigurative politics for individual lives. Rather, these work for a broader national strategy. While communities can look to the GND for lessons learned, localized strategies are more difficult to suggest as it is all quite community dependent. But this is the time for creativity!

Lent so brilliant stated, “all of the sudden we’re seeing that the things we’ve been told are impossible, are totally possible”.

A positive narrative we can all share is that things like universal basic income are now all the sudden on the table and that the vital importance and weight of the care economy is so visible. From front line nurses endlessly working and risking their lives to keep others healthy to parents thrust into a new, tiring, and difficult home life where they are meant to be a professional, a teacher, a parent, and a partner, care is holding us up.

Naomi Klein so rightly pointed out those working within the care economy are holding society on their shoulders and supporting them holds the secret to creating a more resilient future. If the normal is to grow up and get a productive job and feed into the workforce, we quite clearly need a shift to ensure we’re sufficiently feeding into the care workforce.

After all the flights were grounded, the hotels shut down, the factories stopped, and the market crashed

– what did everyone’s priority shift to? This pandemic has clearly demonstrated what is truly important

– food, well-being, childcare, and health care.

While Shiva was quick to throw the “false religion of technology” under the bus, Juliet Schor discussed how technology can help us bolster the care network. She rightly shamed the tech giant companies. Instead, Schor noted the usefulness of the technology by pointing out that peer production and localized distribution have answered many important calls – such as 3D printers making medical equipment.

Schor discussing the importance of localized production and distribution and Nate Hagens arguing that we need to find esteem and dopamine hits from elsewhere directly linked to my argument that a wider adoption of making could help bolster localized resilience while also improving mental health issues.

Picture: Kitchener Library Instagram Account. 3D printing of masks.

Issues of mental health, changes for education, and discussions of non-human relations were all missing from these talks and seem like places that the E4A and L4E researchers are well suited to contribute to. I urge you all to use this time to this about how we may overcome the alienation characteristics of capitalist labour and replace it with work and activities that are fulfilling, voluntary, and social useful.

All these discussions highlight the sentiments of one thinker I deeply admire, John Holloway (2010), who argues that for those seeking to fundamentally transform society, the solution is simple: Refuse and create! The route for overthrowing capitalism lies in the rise of small-scale rebellions against capitalist logic – localization, making, sharing, caring, reciprocity, and relations.

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