Re-imagining a better kind of society

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One of the things that has struck me during this pandemic is how clearly it has highlighted the precarity of the lives we lead. Obviously, this includes our actual lives — especially in places where the rates of infection and the death toll are still rising exponentially. But it also includes so many other things we often take for granted — our jobs, our homes, our way of life.

Woman approaching forked path (Photo by Einar Storsul on Unsplash)

But just as the frighteningly precarious nature of our lives has been thoroughly exposed, so too has the inequality of it all. Even in a pandemic, we aren’t all suffering equally. Across the globe, the lowest paid communities are dying the fastest, in addition to falling further into poverty. And lockdown is markedly different for those of us living in comfortable homes, as compared to those confined to tiny apartments or informal settlements. Even in a pandemic, structures of privilege continue to operate.

As I contemplate these realities, a number of things occur to me.

First, in many ways this is a high-speed test run for so many of the issues we are facing due to climate change. People are already dying from the impacts of climate change. And people are already losing their livelihoods, their homes, and their way of life. But this will continue, because we have accepted this human sacrifice in order to protect ‘the economy’ and our own way of life.

Second, it doesn’t have to be this way. We are capable of fundamentally rethinking significant aspects of our property and labour systems overnight. We can impose a moratorium on evictions, double jobseeker, and introduce a whole new scheme for basic income protection. The choice to lift people out of poverty and to prevent homelessness has always been there.

Third, the current push to get back to ‘normal life’ as quickly as possible includes continuing to accept the ecological (and related human) cost of climate change, as well as rapidly discarding the barely nascent social safety nets that have been introduced to reduce the unnecessary suffering caused by unemployment and housing unaffordability.

 

'There are so many systems that do not serve (the majority of) us well, but which we have accepted as immutable for too long.'

 

Is this really what we want?

Throughout human history, periods of upheaval have led people to question the fairness of their social order. After the plague — or ‘Black Death’ — reduced the English population by half, from around 5 million in 1348 to 2.5 million in 1377, a shortage of labour and tenants shifted the balance of power away from the landed gentry. In the years that followed, the manorial system slowly collapsed, as serfs took the opportunity to liberate themselves and labourers successfully resisted historically exploitative arrangements by refusing to accept long-term contracts and negotiating higher wages than those that were established under the Statute of Labourers.

Of course, change didn’t happen overnight — and there were some serious setbacks, such as the failed peasants’ rebellion of 1381 — but, over time an economic and social system that had once seemed unassailable was ultimately dismantled.

Another example comes from 1649, in the unsettled period after the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I. On St George’s Hill in Sussex, a man named Gerrard Winstanley sought to establish a new utopian community in which the commons would be claimed ‘for and in behalf of all the poor oppressed people of England and the whole world’ and communal farming would create a society free from exploitation. Winstanley named his community ‘the True Levellers’, but they came to be called ‘the Diggers’ and this was the name that stuck.

To justify their occupation of St George’s Hill, and to promote it as a model for a new society free of the exploitation of wage labour and private property, Winstanley and the Diggers argued that the commons had been stolen from the people and hedged into ‘enclosures’ by the rich leaving the poor to live in miserable poverty.

Ultimately their argument did not win the day. In fact, the Diggers colony survived for less than two years before being evicted, but Winstanley’s vision for a new society did live on through his writing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that we should pick up where Winstanley left off. For one thing, he took a very conservative approach to the position of women (even for his time) by arguing for a strong patriarchal role for husbands and fathers, and only limited education for girls. But I do think that we should draw inspiration from those who have been willing to reimagine society from the ground up. There are so many systems that do not serve (the majority of) us well, but which we have accepted as immutable for too long.

The sheer precariousness and injustice of our current system has been laid bare by this pandemic, and the cracks that have been exposed are only going to deepen in the coming climate crisis. In our haste to get back to ‘normal’, let’s not be too quick to re-embrace the bad with the good. We can re-imagine a better kind of normal. We just have to be brave enough to try.

 

 

Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a human rights specialist. Her work focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.

Main image: Woman approaching forked path (Photo by Einar Storsul on Unsplash)

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, COVID-19, auspol, inequality, Gerrard Winstanley

 

 

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Good morning Dr Clark. May I suggest you read the book "Shock Doctrine" by Naomi Klein. She describes how international policies as to supposed well-being of the have-nots in poorer and "unequal" nations are/have been determined on the highest levels (IMF/WorldBank) with disastrous results and for the benefit of elites. Please read this book if you have not already done so. Best wishes, God Bless. Marcel.
Marcel WERPS BSc | 12 May 2020


Cristy, I share your hopes that a better world will emerge from this Pandemic .As a teacher of history and climate, I taught one and researched the other, now as retired, I research climatology full time. It is interesting to see the approach of our politicians to the image of the "other side". All they can think of is getting back to "business as usual" with the economy bouncing back ; particularly the PM Scott Morrison. The State Premiers seem more focused on health issues and personal safety, certainty obvious in last night's Q&A. In the States, President Trump seems hell bent on getting America back to work, even if it means more carnage for those who can't afford not to work. I share your dream, but short of a social revolution by workers and the exploited, I fear there will be no change and no lessons learnt. Climate Change, as you rightfully point out will be the next pressure point on our fragile society.The consequences our our inaction will dwarf the enormous impacts of this current pandemic. Gavin A. O'Brien FRMetS.
Gavin O'Brien | 12 May 2020


Dr Clark, while I read this, our Federal Government is advancing its Class Warrior Vanguard under cover of the current coronamania, objectifying its greedy bourgeois puppetmasters as "the Economy" - like providence, beyond human control. To save this avaricious avatar of Mammon, they'll reduce worker's hard-won protections against injury & exploitation, & the exploiters' obligation to pay their share of taxes. The failure to pay, immediately, a fair wage to any worker ranks, in the Catholic canon, with sexual cruelty or exploitation and wiful murder, as one of "the 3 sins that cry to heaven for vengeance". Watch your step, Frydenberg.
James Marchment | 12 May 2020


The pandemic has disrupted our lives in a very short space of time, being a highly contagious deadly virus which has necessitated strong action, most especially to protect vulnerable people in the community. With climate change there has been a difficulty in grappling with its consequences because it has been possible to ignore it or lessen its seriousness in our own minds. There is also the problem of just how to overcome such a serious threat to our environment. We do need to re-imagine society and the ongoing battle with the pandemic will change us, hopefully for the better.
Pam | 12 May 2020


Thanks you Eureka Street for what you send. Christy Clarke's piece on seeking a better world will be slipped into our Senior History Club's weekly sharing on zoom. We are all in this together as we experience the pandemic and we here in America appreciate input that stirs our aging minds. As coordinator at age 91 I enjoy new education as well as the sharing with my peers . We stay focused on what history can tell us about the good that can come from epidemics. Tommorrow we study" quaranten " as opposed to our civil rights. ." Thanks Christy and Eureka.
Tom McMahon | 13 May 2020


The future will undoubtedly be far better from the end of t.his month when Alan Jones is finally off air.
john frawley | 13 May 2020


Well said Cristy and some interesting historical examples. The aristocratic mansions and landed gentry are alive and well in the UK today. I recently watched Charles and Camilla bushwalking near Balmoral. A basic wage and a safety net do not exist for many homeless in Australia. The same occurs in the UK. The class system is more defined over there with their Constitutional monarchy, idolisation of the young Royals, romanticising their bloodline and "brand" and their historical ownership of many palaces and buildings that were won by force of arms. Ireland and India are cases in point. New Zealand and Australia still have the Queen as head of state. During the Eureka Stockade the miners rebelled against the mining tax levied by the bluecoats in the service of Queen Victoria. The result after the carnage and imprisonments was the right to vote. Now Extinction Rebellion are back blocking the streets. We need to embrace new technologies, the direct fuel cell, graphene oxide batteries, river diversions, new hydro schemes (rather than noisy wind farms where much of the equipment is made in horrific environmental wastelands in PRC). Water cooled solar cells, sun track systems, electric motors in wheels of cars like formula 1.
Francis Armstrong | 14 May 2020


I agree with Pam. I hear so much talk about climate change but definitely not solutions to the problem of overcoming it.
Mary | 14 May 2020


Three Cheers for John Frawley! And, Mary, I suspect that part of the plethora of impressive responses inspired by Christie Clark is that the means of radical change are multi-facetted, rather than seen to be in competitive rivalry with one another, clamouring, as it were, to be simultaneously unleashed while at the risk of drowning one another out in the doing. Therefore ES's implied editorial decision to privilege a discussion on the aftermath of the COVID-19 theme could play a valuable role in this ordering. I, for one, am interested in learning about how our individual identities can be garnered into supporting the cause of post-coronaviral change. Some further reflection and selection for publication of an article on the dreaded lurgy's impact on group psychology, individual behaviour and human development growth response could provide the nest stage of a critical road-map for action, progressing this discourse from the wrist-wringing stage to another in which we can more clearly see a pathway that, however blurry, will encourage us to move ahead and commit ourselves to abandon the armchair and rise towards trying something new.
Michael FURTADO | 15 May 2020


Our national and global civilizations are managed through the mechanisms and assumptions of Classical Economics. It is a dismal science based on false assumptions about the nature of production, materials, labour and capital. Economics was conceived without taking into account the real nature of human existence. Capital (money) is regarded as the basis of 'Capitalist' economies. Daily reports on the state of the stock markets are considered as more important than the weather, and far more space in the media is devoted to analysis and speculation about capital than the real drivers of the economy. But the truth is there can be no economy without the willing (or grudging) cooperation of the workers. Slaves who gain minimal benefit from their work are the poorest workers, while worker-owners who add profits to their wages and are invested in the communal value of their product will work till they drop, with enthusiasm, creativity and determination, in pursuit of their shared goals. But they cannot work without materials, especially the constantly renewed air, water and soil that classical economics fails to value. In truth 'social capital' is worth 2 x money capital, and 'ecological capital' courtesy of a flourishing ecosystem is worth 10 x money capital. Re-drafting the economy with those radical re-evaluations of the inputs will lead us directly to the 'better world' you seek.
John Saint-Smith | 15 May 2020


Pam says (12th May), "We need to re-imagine our society . . ." A significant progenitor, perhaps the greatest, of current indifference to God in affluent western countries is the illusion of self-sufficiency that regards recognition of contingency and the admission of need it implies as weakness and an inhibitory slighting of our human stature, undermining the self-vaunting notion - not a new one - that we are "the measure of all things", including God. Perhaps the current Covid-19 crisis will help us rediscover awareness of our creaturehood and its origin and potential in collaboration with our Creator, as well as our collective interdependence on God and one another.
John RD | 22 May 2020


Reimagining society from the bottom up can, unfortunately, result in a bogus Utopia which is, in fact, a Brave New World. That is what happened and is still happening with Communism. I am a great believer in evolutionary change through a decent system, which works, like ours, such as happened with the Abolition of Slavery within the British Empire. I would argue that slavery was as destructive as climate change is. Certainly the number of lives lost and societies destroyed by that vile trade were immense. People like Wilberforce worked through the system but they were certainly not passive. The likes of Innes Willox of the Australian Industry Group are talking about a radical change and resurgence in manufacturing based on renewables. There are many things which we can do here which can both benefit us and have a beneficial effect on the world.
Edward Fido | 08 June 2020


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