The success of Mutual Aid groups across the UK is the unexpected plus of the COVID-19 pandemic. All take a secular approach to helping the neighbourhood without profit in mind “united by a belief that social exclusion increases individual and community vulnerability.”
As the UK negotiates its path outside the EU, it is faced with a choice in approach. Does it build on these community-led initiatives and the widespread feelings of solidarity to bring about a new path for society? Or does it go blind into the embrace of trans-national corporations who are ready to impose their untested technical solutions, backed by a government more than willing to hand over control.
It is not just the top-down nature of these technologies that is causing widespread fear. There is also the danger that the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) would draw us into a de-humanising spiral of digitalisation, surveillance and control that will sink the climate and our food system.
Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates is already selling his 4IR dream of farmers replaced by drones, mini robots and extreme forms of genetic engineering. Though the virus has taught policymakers the value of the precautionary principle in one context of public policy, the 4IR fan club – which includes the influential World Economics Forum – doesn’t appear to understand that their techy-AI vision must also be subject to precaution.
The disruptors’ motto to “move fast and break things” is the polar opposite of precaution. No-one wants a vaccine to COVID-19 that is more deadly than the disease. A precautionary approach to 4IR wouldn’t stop people having clever ideas for fixing things, but it would force potentially risky research to open itself to public scrutiny – allowing time to assess potential harms as well as benefits.
In the past capitalist systems have taken resources from the poor to allow accumulation of new wealth by elites, despite this leading to simultaneous human and ecological disasters from asbestos, lead, benzene, pesticides, ozone-depleting chemicals, super-trawler fishing and GM crops.
The twenty-first century scientism’s core myth, that of the selfish gene, guides many of those who back 4IR. Their save-the-world mantra tends to a kind of neoliberal transhumanism – that humans are robots controlled by our genetically-encoded competitive desire for individual gain. This will see many of us replaced by robots in the service of corporate profit.
Happily, 4IR’s normalising of selfish individualism appears to be contradicted by the spectacular blossoming of groups of solidarity and mutual aid across the world since the pandemic. In the UK, 4,000 local groups were created by the grassroots within a couple of weeks of the 23 March lockdown.
Despite its core position in capitalist economic theory, the basis for the claim that competition is the main driving force in the living world has always been suspect. It has bizarrely become a “myth that we live by”, to quote philosopher Mary Midgley.
Now an increasing number of ecological researchers are concluding that living things actually thrive through their interconnections and mutual dependency. It started with the young Beatrix Potter, a pioneer Victorian scientist before she became a celebrated storyteller. She was among the first to notice that lichens, those curious encrustations living on tree trunks, seashores, and walls, are made up of not one but two organisms in intimate alliance. A century later, Lynn Margulis, a celebrated biologist, referred to this relationship as “symbiosis”, literally “living together”.
Most plants receive essential nutrients via their underground microbial symbionts, to which they supply sugars in return. Plant-eating animals can only digest the tough cellulose in their diet because of symbiotic bacteria in their gut. The very plants and animals that make our parks, gardens and rural landscapes, even the food we eat, all depend on symbiotic associations.
In the same way the emergence of human civilisation was profoundly shaped by mutual childcare and the sharing of food. Really it should come as no surprise that the UK’s thousands of COVID-19 Mutual Aid groups should function well. Competition may be one feature of our existence, but so too is interdependence. This is at the core of groundbreaking economic research that shows how cooperation is central to building collective prosperity.
After so many weeks of clapping key workers, will our population still accept a society in which nurses and carers are paid a tiny fraction of the salary of a hedge fund manager? What about the other jobs without which society can’t survive, but are often rewarded with a minimum wage – farm labourers, rubbish collectors, public transport and nursery workers, not to mention the countless unpaid and largely invisible care-givers – almost all of them women?
Mutual aid and global solidarity are now phrases much used at the United Nations, who meet with global civil society networks today to chart a course post-2020. But can the world claim mutualist values if our economics values some people so much less than others?
What hope for all humanity’s survival if we continue with the economics of consumer capitalism – encouraging us to measure our freedom by the amount of things we buy that we really don’t need? Or by allowing the post-coronavirus corporate-government complex to gather digital data, compute and monetise every action we take inside and outside our homes, everything we say, where we go, who we meet, what crops we plant, what food we eat?
Rather than accept a fourth industrial revolution that goes against the values of equality and solidarity but surely is a source for collective suffering for much of humanity, COVID-19 gives us the opportunity to pause and collectively envision how the UK could move to Mutualist New Deal – a post-capitalist future that uses co-operative modes of organisation, based on the values of mutual aid. This New Deal would also be guided by precaution and democratic accountability, without an unquestioning rush to adopt new technologies, particularly those owned and controlled by corporations or nation states which give scant attention to people.
- ETC Group held a webcast and live-chat on 21st May which discussed data giants, food systems and community responses to COVID-19. You can re-watch it here.