UK activist educator Natasha Adams looks at the opportunities for system change during the Coronavirus pandemic, the centrality of care and collectivity, and the implications for campaigners. This article was originally published on the Thinking, Doing, Changing blog on 3 April 2020.
Covid-19 is bringing out the best and worst in us. Mutual aid, hoarding toilet paper, uncertainty… What might it all mean for social change?
I’ve just about recovered from three weeks being wiped out by suspected corona virus myself, self isolating well before the rest of the UK went into ‘lockdown’. I know many working for social change, and indeed just living their lives, are struggling to find firm ground to stand on as the playing field shifts so dramatically day by day.
This global pandemic has taken the rulebook, shredded it, set it on fire and thrown it out of the window. There is much to grieve and much to celebrate in the midst of this unprecedented crisis. At the same time, fundamental shifts to our economic systems, culture and way of life have never seemed more possible. Everything has changed so fast already.
The system is shifting fast
The neoliberal version of capitalism I grew up in has competition at it’s heart. The idea driving our economic system is that if we all act in our own self interest, the ‘invisible hand of the market’ will steer private business in the right direction with minimal need for government involvement. This logic tells us that if we look out for only ourselves, the sum total of our activity will take care of everyone (and if some people fall through the gaps, that’s probably their fault for not working hard enough).
Covid-19 has split open the huge cracks already existing in this system, and it’s fallen apart in weeks. With most people unable to work, governments across Europe are bailing out companies, employees, and freelancers with billions. Of course there are significant gaps, and multiple problems with what is being offered. Those already on low wages can’t afford to live on the 80% of their salaries the UK Government are subsidising; the 100k+ new universal credit claims show this is all that is available to them (and it has never been enough to live on); many more (like undocumented migrants) are going without any support at all.
But the end result of support packages being rolled out is nodding in the direction of a universal basic income – and coming from this rightwing Conservative Government that would have been unthinkable a month ago. We’ve seen evictions banned. Homeless people housed in hotels. The Government has written off more than £13 billion in NHS debt. Stockmarkets are in freefall, and people are starting to ask if there would be any real impact if trading just ceased? Things cannot straightforwardly return to ‘business as usual’ after this crisis.
Collectivity vs competition
In contrast to the logic of competition, our newfound isolation shows just how fundamental collectivity is to humans. In this moment, we’re all alive to how important connection is to every one of us. Not being able to see friends or loved ones in person, to touch and share space, to grieve and celebrate, is a pain we’re all becoming familiar with. Zoom is a poor substitute.
The pandemic also illustrates how we’re dependent on a web of care and work that spans the globe. Low paid workers that were previously sneered at by society as a whole – refuse collectors, supermarket staff, hospital cleaners, delivery drivers – are now being celebrated as heroes for the essential contributions they make. There’s a national callout for people to pick fruit and veg and efforts are being made to fly in workers from Eastern Europe, to stop food rotting in the fields.
And as the weeks turn into months, and impacts on supply chains from the crisis all over the world become apparent, we’re going to start to understand how much we rely on farmers, factory workers, miners – jobs we never give a thought to but who supply us with the products and goods we consume so voraciously. Our lives are fundamentally interconnected with others all over the world.
Of course collectivity and competition are both strong human impulses – but running a society focused on one at the exclusion of the other has led us to the multiple crises (climate, migration etc) we found ourselves in before Covid-19 hit. The pandemic offers a window into how things could be otherwise, if we prioritised our collectivity and connection.
“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” David Mitchell
It’s clear just how strongly people want to support and care for each other right now. The growth of local groups inspired by Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK has been the fastest growing local organising movement I have ever seen or heard of. At time of writing there are around 3,000 groups registered on the central site, and these are just the larger area coordination groups, most of which have split down to a ward and then street level.
These groups began with a clear focus on supporting elderly and vulnerable people who are self isolating, as well as those who are sick, dropping flyers door to door with offers to help get food and medicine and offer friendly local connection. I started a Whatsapp group for my street and have already ‘met’ many neighbours I never knew before. A different atmosphere is starting to emerge in my corner of south London. Neighbours are smiling at each other, sharing plants, sour dough starters and frogspawn. People are actually saying hello when we pass on the street.
The central coordination team never intended to start this huge movement – groups started in Lewisham and Haringey, then stepped up to help others copy their work. They’ve done an incredible job promoting these initiatives in the media, developing a central website and offering a whole host of resources to help groups coordinate. But exactly as you would expect with anything that has grown at this speed without being designed to spread, without training, and dropping into the pre-existing culture, the local groups are not without their problems.
Solidarity not charity
The concept of mutual aid centres around the idea of a group of people mutually supporting each other, not of some ‘doing good works’ for others. It’s the idea that everyone has something to contribute and we flourish when we support each other. But many in these groups are joining wanting to be the one that helps others, not being willing to ask for help reciprocally. We’re seeing all kinds of power imbalances manifesting in these new networks – white saviourism, patriarchy, ableism – the list goes on.
Another issue is that complex networks of support which already exist can be bypassed and ignored. Before this crisis there were residents associations, community groups, advice centres etc. If mutual aid groups jump in without trying to connect to what already exists, they can unhelpfully duplicate efforts, trample over communities, and may simply not reach those most in need (as marginalised folks are understandably much less likely to trust complete strangers).
Task, process, relationships
One of the recent offerings of my Organising for Change training collective is a session exploring group dynamics through the personal roles taken in groups (gratitude to Kat Wall for leading this work). We ask people to identify which role they normally play in their group or organisation. Are they focused on:
- Task – getting the work done, achieving the goal?
- Process – how should that work be done, how should things be organised? Or
- Relationships – how to relate to others while doing this work?
Neoliberal culture is generally focused on ‘productivity’ – we value ourselves according to how busy we are and how much we get things done. Consequently leaders are often task oriented people, focused on the ‘what’ of the work. The process people are also fairly prominent, championing the ‘how’ of the work. Less often leading, and often invisible, are the relationship people, those focused on ‘who’. This work is often referred to as ’emotional labour’. Its the work that folks do to make sure everyone is taken care of, and in order to facilitate the smooth running of tasks and processes so humans can do these things together.
My experience in the multiple levels local mutual aid groups I have joined has been that the harmony of the group is closely linked to the strengths of relationships within it – where these were existing strongly before, things are going well. Where relationships are new and where focus has been all about task and process, difficult conflicts are arising. Of course it is hard to build relationships at speed online, but more can be done if this is recognised as integral to the success of those groups. As Organising for Change we are considering an online training offering which may explore this.
‘The times are urgent – let us slow down’
This quote from Bayo Akomolafe is incredibly relevant right now. As I’ve watched this crisis has unfold from my sickbed, I have felt huge frustration at not being able to charge into ‘urgently doing’ work to respond. And I have noticed this tendency much wider, in grassroots organising, colleagues and friends.
“…History teaches us… moments of shock are profoundly volatile. We either lose a whole lot of ground, get fleeced by elites, & pay the price for decades, or we win progressive victories that seemed impossible a few weeks earlier. This is no time to lose our nerve” Naomi Klein
We do indeed face a huge crisis, with far reaching jeopardy and potential, and it is important we not lose our nerve. Quick wins have already been game changing, and more can be won.
But if we do not slow down and reflect, we will inevitably replicate all that is wrong with our society.
The tendency to be productive and respond urgently is rife, especially among those of us working for change, and it burns us out. We cannot afford to burn out.
Understand that this is a marathon. If you sprint at the beginning, you will vomit on your shoes by the end of the month. Aisha S Ahmad
We need to rest, to take time to adjust to the new normal, to come to accept what is happening and be with it. Only from that stillness and silence can we begin to explore how to be ‘otherwise’ so we can start to build a new post pandemic system from the ground up without replicating the failings of the old one.
We are facing unprecedented collective grief. Those working for change have already been grieving the impacts of the current system on human suffering and the web of life we depend upon. Added to that, we’re now grieving for the suffering of all those around the world affected by and dying from this new disease, and those suffering from the wider economic fallout which is exacerbating all the suffering that existed before. On top of that, we’re grieving the loss of the future we thought we had – all our plans, our certainties, the fabric of our lives as we understood them.
As if that wasn’t enough, we’re also likely to be worrying about vulnerable loved ones who are already ill or who are at greater risk of complications. Some of our loved ones will die, bringing intimate personal loss connected to wider collective grief.
Kubler-Ross’s well known theory suggests there are five stages of grief:
- denial (shock, paralysis and numbness)
My partner who works in palliative care tells me that these stages are no longer at the forefront of understanding grief because they suggest a linear progression to a final state of acceptance – although they might still be a useful guide in understanding some of the feelings and processes that come up.
The Dual Process model introduced by Stroebe and Schut has proved more helpful because it accounts for the dynamic and messy process of grieving. This model suggests that the grieving process involves an oscillation between two processes – loss and restoration.
- Loss processes are oriented towards the experience and emotions the loss triggers, such as remembering loved ones and mourning them.
- Restoration processes allow a person to accept the death of a loved one and adjust to a world without them.
According the the Dual Process Model, when we grieve we swing back and forth between the poles of feeling the acute loss and finding a way forwards. Instead of resolving into acceptance, this oscillation tends to reduce over time. This means grief is an ongoing process, and we need to make emotional space for it. We’re likely to need a lot of that space right now.
What does all this mean for campaigners and activists?
Make space for grief and self care
It’s an emotional time, and one where our feelings may change fast and fluctuate widely. Sometimes we’ll feel pretty good, other times we will despair, with a plethora of other feelings in between. All of these feelings are OK and appropriate. We need to slow down and spend time doing things that nourish us, and this might just mean that right now we need a lot of rest. If we feel like it, we might want to explore stretching, exercise, meditation, listening to music, getting creative – but I’m working hard right now to resist making another ‘to do’ list filled with things like this when space is what is needed. We’re going to be far from our most ‘productive’ in an external ‘task’ focused sense but feeling our feelings and taking care of ourselves is an important part of the work.
Understand that good strategy begins with collective care and relationships
If we start with tending to our immediate relationships – friends, family, colleagues, fellow organisers, hyper local communities, we’re laying the necessary foundations for building a more just, equitable and sustainable world. This is what is meant when we talk about transforming ourselves to transform the world – we need to honour the fractal patterns of social change.
How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale. The patterns of the universe repeat at scale. adrienne maree brown
In campaigning, grand strategy on a macro level is often at the centre of our theories of change, without due attention being paid to how we can prefigure and embody that change at the micro level, in the way we work towards the change.
Coach Emma Taggart has written some excellent advice for leaders of teams on how to take care of our immediate relationships, but much of her advice can also apply to more horizontal organising.
Work out how to respond to immediate need
There is of course work to be done. We’re still working out what the lockdown means for campaigns, in term of survival of organisations, how to reach and engage deeply with people online, what to do with issues that seem sidelined by the pandemic etc.
We’ve seen some stunning campaign successes in recent weeks; getting the Government to put a temporary ban on evictions, pay support to the self employed, write off NHS debt to name just a few. While we’re in lock down, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask and push hard for what is needed. But all this work should be done at an appropriate pace, with space for reflection, without falling into panic and urgency and burnout.
Look forwards for transformational opportunity
There is a danger that if we only react at this time, we may lose wider opportunities to fundamentally transform things for the better. The right have been growing in strength and the danger that we slide further into authoritarianism is stronger than ever before – beginning with police abusing their new powers and targeting marginalised groups. At the same time, the impacts of this crisis are so big and far reaching, they do offer the opportunity to really shake up economics and actually overthrow capitalism.
As the dust starts to settle a bit in the next few weeks I’m going to start convening conversations between people working in social change to explore how we might dream big and evolve new transformational strategies. I hope to develop some tools and workshops around this.
Note from the author (April 2020): If you’re interested in joining an online meeting to discuss the impacts of Covid-19 on your social change work, and how to make the most of this opportunity for transformational change, please fill out this short form and I’ll be in touch in the coming weeks.