Thoughts in lockdown: the view from my cage

I used to wonder, what and where was the Second World? I had heard the terms the First World (or the old World), and the Third World (which is now more often referred to a Developing Countries).

Finally I got it – slow on the uptake as I am. The New World (the Americas) was the Second World. Aha! Sorted.

But there’s much right now that isn’t quite sorted. When the world gets over the Covid-19 crisis, we will be facing another New World.

So much of our ways of life has changed – and it would be good to hold onto these changes as a kind of ‘late course correction’ to help us address the other, ongoing crises of climate change, the poverty trap, environmental degradation and its associated decline in biodiversity.

We have an election coming up in New Zealand September. We will have the opportunity to select the best people to lead us into the new New World. Here’s hoping wisdom will prevail.

Brian Easton, a long-time commentator on New Zealand affairs, especially economic issues, wrote recently of ‘Hinge Moments’ in history. We’re in one right now, he says; and we can oil those hinges to a less squeaky transition. “You might have expected the Global Financial Crisis, which began in 2008, to be a hinge for the world but there was really no new direction,” he opined. “Perhaps the Covid Crisis will lead to the new direction which the GFC seemed to presage.”

Views change. Hinge Moments open new doors, close others.

Once upon a time, a man, his partner and children, (and their dogs, too) looked out from the mouth of their cave home, and saw a world to live in.

There were seasonal pulses of scarcity and abundance, sure, but with enterprise and effort, there would be game animals to hunt, and roots and fruits to gather. And then there was the competition from the other human species – but that was not to last.

Our man and his family, and their descendants, made steady progress. They got better at doing what they had to do, over time. It was only when they mostly became tied down by a reliance on crops, that, for a long while their lives became tougher. B

ut the fittest survived, made more people, kept on striving, made bigger settlements and polities, and here we are.

Now upon this time, I look out at the world, emerging blinky-eyed from the comfort of my COVID-19 cave, and what do I see?

I see a near world on the quiet, but starting to hum again; a community cautiously venturing out as if there’s some great fear at large. Which of course there still is. Looking – or rather listening – wider, I learn of established systems of administration, government and business taking a gut punch, confused and struggling. And of their instinctive, cornered reactions.

I hear on the news that Air New Zealand, that recently great and profitable business, despite a massive cash grant from the government, will be laying-off 3,500 staff. What, I wonder will they do when they need these people again? When business returns to normal? Or if there will ever be a normal again.

I see how an inexplicable force of fate has demanded that we slow down our hectic pace, and sent a virus by way of practise. Naturally, this has led us to take another look at what, just till recently, were our fundamental, imperative systems. How we chased material advancement, and ever-increasing comfort and convenience. How we shopped, endlessly and as if there would be no limit to it all. (And quaintly, how some rushed back to take-away food when they could.) How we mostly drifted away from religions. How we counted our success in things and money. And how we had – and now have even more so – become reliant on a webworld seen through the window of the laptop screen.

The result, like one of those Magritte paintings of a window and a constructed view through it, is an outlook that says simply, Things are not what they seem. And like the repercussions of the surrealists’ worldview, our view may be forever altered.

In this lull, there’s time to consider what has built our society, our current culture and our economy. And how these foundations may not be as secure as they seemed.

Which leads to the thoughts: What is it we have built as our meta-system? What can governments do in the face of an unseen invasion? And how does that affect our markets, our economy, our lives? What happens to income? To money, and the ability to make it? What is the essence of capitalism? How come it is so easy to arrest? And, has it had its day?

In its pure dictionary definition capitalism is “an economic and political system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.” In practise it has come to be accepted, that as part of the capitalist system as we know it, is the ability to make money from money (considered a sin in the Muslim world), and the resultant fact that the rich get richer while the rest just hang on.

Scarcity is a central driver in the operating of markets in the capitalist system, for it determines prices. Of course, scarcity can be manipulated for profit advantage. One example of this is De Beers Corporation’s monopolising and selective marketing of the world’s supply of jewellery diamonds, to maintain their high value.

Hart Buck, a statistician at the Toronto Dominion Bank says “The basic idea of capitalism is that if we are left free to choose what we want most, we’ll get the most of what we want.” But right now, we mostly have vastly reduced freedom of choice. And as we have seen, even in normal times, that choice is not always unfettered.

Capitalism has evolved to depend on constant growth in the economy. The proponents and beneficiaries of the system are adamant that we need growth to survive. One of the biggest fears of capitalist economies is recession, defined as ‘negative growth.’

But endless growth is a futile dream. The choice thing may be fine, but there is the irrefutable observation that pure capitalism can and does lead to a continuum of exploitation, depletion and eventual extinction of resources. And taken in a wider view, this can trigger starvation, pollution or environmental collapse – which hardly gives people a platform of choice then, does it?

The earth, our planet, large as it seems, is a finite system. This may seem like a statement of the obvious. But it seems to have eluded the designers and proponents of capitalism. Earth only has so much in the way of resources. It has only two inputs: solar energy, and that of the gravitational force of the moon that powers the tides in the oceans. The deposits of coal, or other fossil fuels, for example can, quite simply run out if exploited endlessly. Then what?

The defenders of capitalism will respond that human ingenuity, which has always been rewarded in this system, will be inspired/motivated/incentivised to invent other methods of energy transfer. And you could say this is happening right now, with the advancements in photovoltaic energy systems harnessing solar power, and the rapid improvement in storage mechanisms through improved battery technologies and design. On our island, the rapid uptake of electric cars and bikes.

To look at our supporting ecosystems as essentially and ultimately finite, then it follows that eternal growth is self-destructive. An analogy would be the unstoppable proliferation of cells in a body that is the driving force of cancer. And we know the disease does not have good outcomes.

Paul Mason, a writer for The Guardian newspaper, and author of the book Postcapitalism writes: “As with the end of feudalism 500 years ago, capitalism’s replacement by postcapitalism will be accelerated by external shocks and shaped by the emergence of a new kind of human being. And it has started.”

He cites three factors in the development of information technology in the last generation that are pivotal to this change. “First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages.

“Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant.” The giant tech companies that have developed, he says, cannot last: “By building business models and share valuations based on the capture and privatisation of all socially produced information, such firms are constructing a fragile corporate edifice at odds with the most basic need of humanity, which is to use ideas freely.” In a way, it’s a case of capitalism destroying itself. The e-business model, built on the premise of holding, monopolising and controlling data – and charging for it – simply cannot last.

And third, “We’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy.” Take a look at Wikipedia, he suggests. It’s the largest information product in the world, yet it has no private profit motive or outcome, being the product of an army of volunteers. It has already destroyed the encyclopaedia industry, and deprives the advertising industry of billions of dollars.

To look at it from another perspective: while capitalism relies on the exploitation and manipulation of scarcity (often by remote elites), and rewarded unequally by hard money, the currency of postcapitalism is centred on free time, networked activity and free stuff.

Money is having its own inversions in these odd days. In the USA, that temple of Capitalism, people are queueing for hours to get food for free – because they have no money to buy it. But somehow, they have money for petrol for the cars they drive to get to the food hand-outs. Funny that.

And oil, the great driver of their economy, now has the value of minus $40 per barrel. That’s because the wells that pump out the oil, have no place to store it, so they must give it away – or, rather, pay the refineries to take it. Whether the gas stations will pass on this boon remains to be seen. Imagine the retail price of fuel inverting. Imagine if they paid you to fill up!

Coming out of the Covid-crisis, forward-thinking people everywhere are imagining a New World that might work better for all of us and ensure our survival and wellness – and that includes all plants and animals and fishes and the other lifeforms too. Except for uncontrollable viruses. Bring on the New World I say!