“The horror films got it wrong. Instead of turning us into flesh-eating zombies, the pandemic has turned millions of people into good neighbours.
“Power has migrated not just from private money to the state, but from both market and state to another place altogether: the commons. All over the world, communities have mobilised where governments have failed.
“In their book Free, Fair and Alive, David Bollier and Silke Helfrich define the commons as “a social form that enables people to enjoy freedom without repressing others, enact fairness without bureaucratic control … and assert sovereignty without nationalism”. The commons are neither capitalist nor communist, market nor state. They are an insurgency of social power, in which we come together as equals to confront our shared predicaments.
“You can tell a lot about a society from its quirks of language. We repeatedly misuse the word “social”. We talk about social distancing when we mean physical distancing. We talk about social security and the social safety net when we mean economic security and the economic safety net. While economic security comes (or should come) from government, social security arises from community. One of the extraordinary features of the response to Covid-19 is that, during this self-isolation, some people – especially elderly people – feel less isolated than they have done for years, as their neighbours ensure they are not alone.
“We still need the state: to provide healthcare, education and an economic safety net, to distribute wealth between communities, to prevent any private interest from becoming too powerful, and to defend us from threats. It currently performs these functions poorly, by design. But if we rely on the state alone, we find ourselves sorted into silos of provisioning and highly vulnerable to cuts. Rich social lives are replaced with cold, transactional relations. Community, then, is not a substitute for the state, but an essential complement.
“There is no guarantee that this resurgence of collective action will survive the pandemic. We could revert to the isolation and passivity that both capitalism and statism have encouraged. But I don’t think we will. I have the sense that something is taking root now, something we have been missing: the unexpectedly thrilling and transformative force of mutual aid.”
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