Over the past 20 weeks, we’ve spent time looking back in order to remind ourselves that things were once different in a positive way. We built more public housing, we had more public ownership, and there was more energy to reimagine the way we work.
I think it’s important to know that history and to understand that things were different, but we also can’t fall into a nostalgia that blinds us from seeing that there’s no going back to that time and also how we got from there to here. That latter point is very important.
It’s not uncommon to hear people talk about how things were better in the past. Old people, in particular, harken back to the ‘good old days.’ They remember a time when they might not have had much material wealth, but there was a communal ethos where people looked out for one another.
They talk about taking a break from work or school to go home for lunch in the middle of the day. They tell stories of helping friends and neighbours build houses. They reminisce about the big community gatherings and events they would have, and how even though they didn’t have much, the door was always open if someone needed a meal or some assistance.
When telling these stories, they contrast it with the present, where their communities have been eroded, people don’t lend a hand like they used to, things that used to be done communally now have a price tag, and, while they have more materially, on an emotional or spiritual level, life simply seems duller.
But what surprises me is how rarely these people put the blame for this social change, often spanning the course of a half century or more, on capitalism. It’s so common to hear the young — the millennials! — blamed for the problems with modern culture, as if they have much power to affect those kinds of changes. If they did, we might be acting on climate change right now.
There are certainly many factors influencing long-term social transformations, but the most fundamental one is the driving force of the economic system. In a past issue, we discussed how postwar changes to the design of communities and the shift to a consumer economy were driven by the need to increase corporate profits and spur GDP growth.
We live under an economic system where the core measure of progress is an increase in measurable economic activity, and that has required, over the course of many decades, commercializing more aspects of our lives and making more of the informal economic activities of the past measurable by bringing them into the formal economy.
Take the example of neighbours, friends or family members helping someone build a house. In that scenario, the purchase of the materials may be recorded as contributing to economic activity because there’s a record of the transaction, but the labour provided by all those people to turn those materials into a house is not. And, from the point of view of the capitalist system and those in charge of it, that’s a problem.
There have certainly been benefits to formalizing housing construction, most notably the higher quality of housing (at least in most cases) that has accompanied steadily improving building standards. But when a contractor is hired or a construction company builds a suburb, that’s measured, while helping out a friend is not — so the latter is discouraged.
And now that we’re all on the hamster wheel, trying to make enough to survive and to accumulate more possessions — because, after all, that’s what the deluge of advertising we encounter every day is convincing us to do — we don’t have the time that we used to have to contribute to community or help a neighbour.
In my view, it’s wrong to see this as just a fundamental change in human nature. Rather, it’s a change that has been encouraged and cemented by an economic system that requires the continual commercialization and privatization of more aspects of our lives so it can record increases in economic activity, regardless of whether those increases correspond with better quality of life and wellbeing.
When I write about the need for public luxuries and for a renewal of that community life — which I see as a core piece of the modern socialist project — I’m surprised that more people aren’t on board, as this renewal very clearly tries to revive some of the aspects they claim to miss about the past.
But building those public luxuries will not be a return to the past. We can’t go back. Just as the changes over the past number of decades were driven by the economic system, realizing a more communal world will also require contending with and, ultimately, reorganizing the economic system that underpins it in a way that enables a new way of life to flourish.
And I simply don’t see how that can still be one that treats perpetual economic growth as its gospel.
Perspectives from around the world
Emily Callaci, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, reviews Julie Livingston’s Self-Devouring Growth: A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa, about how privileging economic growth is devouring our world.
Nora Loreto, a columnist for Passage, argues the Liberal government’s talk of national childcare is designed to distract us from the effects of ending the CERB.
Elba Bendo, a Vancouver-based human rights lawyer, as well as Deb Bryant, Shannon Daub and Viveca Ellis, argue British Columbia’s election provides an opportunity to demand a better post-pandemic future.
Radhika Desai, a political studies professor at University of Manitoba, explains that Canada is an imperialist power in its own right, not just a tool of US power.
Thea Riofrancos, author of Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador, argues we need to listen to the movements on the frontlines of resource extraction and envision post-extractive futures that transform existing norms of production and consumption.
This week on Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to Popula founding editor Maria Bustillos about a lawsuit by major publishers against the Internet Archive that could have major consequences for libraries, culture, and our ability to own digital goods. I also wrote a critical review of Netflix’s The Social Dilemma for Jacobin.
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