Social Instability and Community Opportunity During Pandemic Season (Coronavirus Reflections)

Author: A. Hannah Spadafora

Last year included surreal predictions of an impeached president getting a swing at a re-election campaign announced alongside terrifyingly heartbreaking images of large swaths of Australia on fire, endangering cities and animals alike. A year later, and things feel no less surreal, as the Coronavirus is on every airwave and Facebook post--anxiously stuck on everyone's mind as we commit to community support via social distancing practices. There are many sites, videos, and other media out there delivering vital information on how to minimize the chances of catching and spreading COVID-19, also known as the Coronavirus. Alongside statistics and poignant coverage and nods to the work being done by medical professionals and essential workers, the rest of the news is largely focused on how a handful of elite political and economic actors are working to restabilize society and return us to order. A few have noted, however, that within catastrophe lies opportunity. The scale of the opportunity is grand, too, given the series of disasters we find ourselves in. Pandemics and other catastrophes provide powerful impetus towards political and social power-shifts. There is precedent for significant social change to occur in the following of a disaster; a prime example is New Orleans post-Katrina, when attempts to speed up processes of gentrification and whitewashed, rich-washed revitalization were met with a number of social organizations mounting organized resistance. Communities who normally suffer from these events can change the narrative, and do so more effectively when coalitions are formed across borders of difference in name of a common aim. Recent suggestions that we should value the economy over human life, as well as the stimulus relief bill that still set aside a decent buck for corporations while providing what many have criticized as meager help for individuals and their families, both fit well within the logic that organizations that benefit the elite take priority over the people who labor on the ground, despite the fact that it's not the ownership class maintaining daily organizational functions for minimum returns on overall corporate profits. In events like these, we find ourselves at the mercy of the more vulnerable side of our mortality--the fragility inherent in possible illness, death, loss, or destitution. We are made more aware of the necessities required for survival, and of the things we grow to take for granted for our comfort--namely, of everything that lessens the chance of death and all that enriches the quality of life. We also find ourselves with an opportunity for change. While we're considering whether or not we should open back up our communal spaces, exchanging human life seen as a cost for an economy seen as a value, we should consider how backwards the world has become. Socioeconomic systems that benefit the elite rely on a low wage/high rent/high debt model to maintain a workforce for easy exploitation; our labor and consumption are manipulated to continually feed back into a machine that feeds an addiction to things, to ownership, to possession, to power, to greed, to hoarding of the rich, and the striving, struggling, drooling, desiring, grasping, dreaming of those who like the system the way it is because either it could one day be them or because they fear being equal rather than superior to those they disdain (disdain, but use the labor of, to do their dirty work and their busy work.) The biggest questions that should be pressing in a time like this are: How do we use this point of seeming fragility--of ourselves and our society--to shift things drastically to favor systems that make our lives better and transform our societies into networks of strength? More simply, how do we survive and thrive when the elite decide that we are not worth surviving or thriving if it costs them money? Can we rally to deny them the excess they unfairly hoard, triumphing over systems of inequality that lock many into continual exploitation? Can we take ourselves back from a system that bogarts our precious and limited time in life while denying us equal share in the reward of living in a (usually) well-stocked nation? And, if so, how? *** When struck with the problem of reliance on exploitative and corrupt organizations and systems for our material subsistence, the first inquiry to make is where both your labor and capital go to. Labor is straightforward; what work do you do? Who do you work for? Do you make a living rate and a fair rate and a steady rate? Do you have access to human-welfare related needs [health, food, shelter, opportunity]? Capital and consumption is just as interesting, if not moreso, however. The 'system' demands we pay fees for living--that spending 1/3 (one-third) to 1/2 (half) or more of what you make working full time on rent and utilities becomes normalized. Who would put up with bullshit kinda jobs if not threatened with homelessness and hunger if not forced to pick one of many exploitative choices to live? When you're struggling to stay above water, any flotation device will do, even if you dream of a lifeboat (or, tragically, giant yacht.) As of now, many of our basic needs along with our more comfort-related wants currently are provided by individuals working at organizations that keep them stuck--lower pay than cost of living, sometimes too low to afford the items at the stores they work at or living expenses with hard labor involved [on the physical body and emotional self.] This is despite the fact that nearly everything we eat, we could, theoretically, grow and make--if we just weren't so damn busy. To put it plainly, people without money or with significantly less money find themselves working for people with money, and the latter often determine the possibilities of the arrangement--that you will clean their houses, flip their burgers, deliver the packages, organize their schedules, fix their houses up, and depending on organizational culture, whether this will happen for a livable compensation or company excess profits made off your back, whether you will get breaks sufficient to stay well--to be able to eat, pause, use the damn restroom, clean your hands during a f*ing pandemic, whether you will have benefits that cover you if you get sick, whether you will have paid days off when you need them, or whether the CEO's next yacht is prioritized over your health, despite the fact you've traded your time--precious time of life that you can't get back--to repeating a speech, doing menial or hard manual labor, and completing all the essential and busy-tasks that literally keep social organizations running, that without which, as successful don't-cross-the-picket-line strikes and union building activities show, everything grinds to a halt. If we don't do what they tell us, for the price they set, then we'll be in debt to them, denied access by them, and extinguished in a system where there's always someone desperate for the things they provide--shelter, food, and the building blocks of the Maslow pyramid; no less, the requirements for survival as human beings and living as people. There's two sides to this busy-ness, however: while on one side, a) mortgages and other rental situations alike require participation in organizations that run on and distribute capital, regardless if we enjoy the work and even if it does not directly produce subsistence products [growing food, building houses] or serve any of our own goals; it is also true that, b) specialization grants us the privilege of surpassing mere subsistence--we can pursue work that doesn't involve toil of subsistence farming/living, careers that are wide and varied, and pay someone else to do the manual labor. Organizational participation can itself give life meaning, and feeling like one shapes their life--supporting themselves and/or doing something intrinsically or externally valuable--is itself a natural point of fulfilment and pride. Moreover, we can find purpose and meaning and reasons beyond necessity to perform certain types of labor that we deem essential not just to life but to living--that work is (at least sometimes) (at least for those with the privilege) something that we enjoy. Well, some can. The idea that people won't work if they don't have to is undermined by the existence of enjoyable work--passion. While there is not always a clear distinction between work that is enjoyable, work that is necessary for survival (freely chosen), work that one does in service to community, and work that becomes necessary for survival because it is coerced by threats of, or experiences with, poverty, there is no mistaking the inequality of society when these designations do not coincide for so many people--and when the menial work is accompanied by low paychecks, no benefits, poor treatment, high micromanagement, and denial of the humanity and human needs of the working populace. To prioritize ourselves as a united working class across fields means learning to build more equitable and supportive communities with shared ownership of organizational rewards for labor activities, shared responsibility of ensuring nobody in society is left behind or marginalized, shared care and resource management for the earth we live on, and tactical use of technology and coordinated activity to outwit people with money, guns, and mythologized, concentrated power on their side. Equalizing the field is one way to upset the us/them dynamic; promoting alternate values of human life, diplomacy, and shared power is a way to overturn it. Organizations are social constructions. They were collectively built and are regularly collectively reorganized, disbanded, and replaced. As many places remain halted to preserve safety against coronavirus risks, we are face to face with an opportunity to not just care for each other, but to break free collectively from uncaring structures. With any luck, this public health crisis can turn into a communal opportunity to redesign our relationships with others, with our work, and with our lives. Instead of letting greed, violence, and coercion continue as the backbone of our social-political-economic communities, let's socially construct organizational and individual practices that honor our humanity, and break free of oppressive and exploitative legacies. To put it plainly once more, They can't survive without us, but with modified practices, we can survive--and thrive--without them. Together.

Stay tuned for future articles on concrete solutions....

Hannah Spadafora is the founder and editor of The Conscious World, and a researcher currently focused on economic anthropology, public policy, and social change (see: The Meaningful Work Project.) She is trained as an applied social cultural anthropologist (M.A.) with a heavy background in social political philosophy (B.A.), comparative religion (B.A.), English (minor), psychology (minor), and journalism/mass media (HS), and has experience across the ground level of office, academic, publication, and service industry professions. Previous research projects have focused on justice and human rights, and music fandom. Former classes taught include introduction to anthropology's four subfields (biological, archaeological, social-cultural, linguistic) and student success/first year program classes; these featured themed content on history, performance, ethics, imperialism, biographies, media, and contemporary events. Manuscripts in the works include a fantasy/sci-fi influenced dystopian novel series, as well as non-fiction writing projects on Buddhist/anthropological ethics and public policy; visual anthropology and community performance; and a more informal funny/self-help centered book, How to Fail at Buddhism.  These are written around remote jobs that pay the most basic of bills, but not the soul. An Idealist to the end, clearly.

Article: Social Instability and Community Opportunity During Pandemic Season (Coronavirus Reflections). Column: The Activist Platform

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