Spiritual traditions the world over, covering the entire range from Indigenous perspectives to monotheistic religions, teach us about oneness, about how we are all part of one interconnected web of life. There’s nothing like the Coronavirus, and the pandemic that we are now living in, to make this lesson much clearer, more immediate, insistent, pressing, material.
This is why I named the series that this piece is part of “Apart and Together:” to capture the paradox of interconnection of the Coronavirus situation. As I wrote in part one, “Responding to Opportunity in Extreme Times:” “We are made to be apart because we are so intertwined; we are together in weathering this well or not.”
If the teachings about interconnection are so widespread, why then, do we need wakeup calls to remember this?Why, collectively and often individually, do we not align our choices with this reality? The answer to this, as I see it, is that we made a fateful decision at some earlier points in our social evolution, wherever and whenever we took what I call “the patriarchal turn,” to declare ourselves separate from life and, at least in the Western “branch” of patriarchal societies, superior to the rest of life and with the mandate to control and use it for our own designs. Separation from life has also meant separation from each other and from our own selves, a move progressively intensifying since the emergence of capitalism and the severing of communities that capitalism entails. In the last few decades of globalization and neoliberalism, it seems that the more actual interconnection there is on the material plane, the more separate we have simultaneously become in our experience. It is from, and into this context, that the Coronavirus arrived. And, more urgently, it seems to me that our very future depends on our ability to quickly align our policies and practices with the reality of our embeddedness within an interconnected web of life. The changes this calls for are sweeping and profound: at one and the same time we are called to dramatically reduce the pressure we put on our planet itself, and to restore our care for each other. The two are of a kind: restoring reverence for life, seeing all as kin, seeing no one and nothing as “other.”
Environmental Destruction and Coronavirus
The Coronavirus is one of a growing number of viruses and bacteria that have “jumped” from non-human life to humans. There is no accident here, nothing predetermined by a wild “nature” that is hostile and thus needs to be controlled ever further. This is simply a cycle that keeps getting more and more intense and self-reinforcing. As Sonia Shah points out in a Vox article, it’s precisely our attempts to control and appropriate everything in sight for consumption and financial gain, as well as for control over the rest of life that isn’t human, that are creating the conditions for pandemics like this to happen. Both global warming and deforestation are encroaching on well-established ecosystems, stressing out animals, insects, and microorganisms, and bringing all in greater contact with humans.
Add to this social policies that can inadvertently create breeding grounds (e.g. empty houses with pools due to foreclosures contributed to Dengue in Florida), and mix in rapid movement of humans, food, and merchandise, and Sonia Shah’s analysis tells us we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing. As she says: “Human health is connected to the health of our animals – pets, livestock, wildlife – and our ecosystems and other societies.”
Shah is far from an outlier. The questions she is exploring, and most specifically the impact of climate change, are also expressed, by many others, including the UN’s environment chief (see this article in The Guardian). This topic is on the agenda for the next IPCC report, due in 2021, and was already mentioned in their 2013-2014 report. Nor is it a surprise that the failures in attending to the pandemic are consistent with failures to attend to climate change. In both instances, the evidence of fast approaching challenges and the need for fast action to prevent or mitigate impacts are dismissed, even ridiculed. The reason this is no surprise is that responding adequately to these challenges requires fundamentally changing course, and the political will to do so is lacking in most of the world. The commitment to limitless accumulation for the few and increasing levels of consumption for another portion of the population, regardless of the cost to the many and to life overall, persists. It is the latest incarnation of the millennia-old assault on life that most of us on the planet have lived within for so long that we don’t have any memory or model of what else is possible, and we no longer know how to care for the whole.
Neoliberalism and Loss of Solidarity
Capitalism requires at least three ingredients to be in place in order to function: a reliable labor force, access to land, minerals, or other elemental materials, and enough purchasing power somewhere to buy the finished products or services. For as long as people are in intact communities of subsistence economies, capitalism cannot come into existence except by force, and any resurgence of such communities poses a threat to capitalism.
No one would get up in the morning to do the work that the overwhelming majority of employed people do all over the world if they had other options to care for their needs and their families. This is why capitalism must – and does – come into existence through force, tearing communities apart, separating people from land, enslaving people, colonizing other lands, and assaulting women’s reproductive freedom. That all these horrors are interrelated and form the basis of capitalism wasn’t known to me until I read Siliva Federici’s Caliban and the Witch. That was when I finally grasped in full that the emergence of capitalism cannot be separated in any way from slavery, colonization, land enclosures, or the witch hunts in Europe and North America. These are not historical accidents that can simply be mourned and forgotten; they are integral to the process, all essential to the creation of a labor force necessary to carrying out the expansions of capitalism. And their present forms are just as integral to the continuation of capitalism, now in its virulent form known as neoliberalism. Undermining of solidarity is intrinsic to neoliberalism, as are phenomena such as child labor and trafficking, degrading conditions of migrant labor, prison labor, sweat shops, and at least some instances of violence against women. While they tend to be seen as aberrations that can be fixed through regulation, I see good reason to believe, as Neil Howard argues in this article, that there is no way to eliminate them without doing away with capitalism altogether.
The welfare states, the apparent crowning achievement of modern capitalism, could only be sustained so long as some others bore the brunt of the overconsumption that continued to be nurtured within them. Exporting violence and extreme exploitation and continuing to encroach on communities and ecosystems in a finite world cannot continue indefinitely. Nor can economic growth be sustained, and, even more potently, after a while growth no longer supports well being (as visionary economist Manfred Max-Neef illustrated in an article as early as 1995). Both within welfare states, many of which have been continually diminishing their safety nets, and around them, walls of separation continue to exist, and they continue to be necessary for economic activity as it currently stands to continue. We must be led to believe that the conversion of subsistence economies and ecosystems into cash crops and factories is development and will, eventually, benefit the places on the planet where it’s happening. We must be led to believe that if we are not doing well it’s either because of a deficiency of ours or because some roving “other” category of humans are taking away our place in the endless line in which we all stand, as individuals, waiting for our turn to get ahead. This is the hotbed of fascism, as Walter Benjamin saw already in 1936: “Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property.” (Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction)
The persistent encroachment on solidarity through separating narratives is also the seed of racism, and has repeatedly been used to intensify and foment racism in the US and elsewhere. Few know that whiteness as a category was brought into being as a conscious decision of colonists to separate European workers from African enslaved people and to direct their loyalty up, in the direction of the ruling elite, through focusing on accentuating similarities between them based on identity: European, Christian, and, gradually, white. This was in response to the threat of workers, based on their shared experiences rather than identities, banding together horizontally with other workers against the ruling elite. (See Thandeka, “The Whiting of Euro-Americans: A Divide and Conquer Strategy”.)
Lack of solidarity has been with us since time immemorial, since accumulation started and those without have been made to seem deserving of hard labor and slavery in the early days of states in the Near East, China, and India. All along, despite cruelty, violence, destruction, and continued pitting of people against each other, it’s been impossible to root it out completely, because, as I believe, solidarity is part and parcel of what it means to be human. Even as I now speak of some glaring and intensified examples of absence of solidarity in response to the pandemic, I soon turn attention to the opposite and profound phenomenon of outbursts of solidarity the world over, which coexist with wrenching signs of serious unraveling in the human fabric.
Neoliberalism has been undermining every last vestige of solidarity, thereby leading the anxious towards the right. That millions of people in the US are buying guns at record numbers is a particularly frightening demonstration of just how anxious and alone so many feel during this time. That angry groups are storming governors’ offices demanding to go back to work is explained, in an analysis by Cat Zavis in Tikkun, as a reaction to the stripping away of meaning and the reduction of identity to being able to compete in the marketplace. Calling people “a basket of deplorables” for acting in these ways is, in itself, another form of lack of solidarity because, as many liberals don’t see, the suffering is real and is part of a system in which only few people can have meaningful and rewarding work and are then led to believe in some version of superiority – innate, political, cultural – over others. This contempt for segments of the population that are Donald Trump’s base, is one more manifestation of lack of solidarity, which is multi-directional, within and between groups and societies.
This came most intensely together for me when social justice educator and my friend and thought partner Victor Lewis connected solidarity and racism for me in this almost verbatim short segment from one of our many conversations:
“Within our current system the key function and meaning of race is to undermine solidarity. It does this by establishing a hierarchy that is presumed immutable and has white people at the top. It has nothing to do with biological difference.”
This hierarchy determines massive amounts of our lives. In a time of pandemic, it statistically even determines who lives and who dies: in the US, African-Americans are dying at two to seven times the rate of white people. It also determines how seriously this information will be taken, as the Trump administration has not addressed this particular crisis except by dismissing it as stemming from the prevalence of underlying conditions within the Black community. (Never mind that the higher incidence of diabetes and high blood pressure within the Black community are, themselves, the direct and indirect result of racism.) Additionally, even during a pandemic, police brutality in relation to Black people has not paused, as evidenced by the killing of unarmed and already handcuffed Black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis. The hierarchy also features into how things are framed. As David Sirota points out, “working-class people pilfering convenience store goods is called ‘looting,’ while rich people stealing hundreds of billions of dollars is deemed good ‘public policy.’”
The definition of “looting” that Sirota uses (see image, left) invokes images of war, violence, and corruption and associated them with mostly Black people and not with whites. The context within which he writes only intensifies the framing disparity: “between March 18 and April 10 2020, billionaire wealth in the US increased 9.5%. During that same period … 22 million Americans filed for unemployment.” (See here for more details.) Such differences in framing shape how people are viewed and, I believe, in turn make it easier for a police officer to be so completely disconnected from the humanity of a Black person that he could continue to choke George Floyd by putting his knee on his neck even while he called out for help and said explicitly “I can’t breathe” and “don’t kill me;” even while onlookers were trying to intervene, and stayed in this position for three minutes after George Floyd was unresponsive. Rather than being isolated events pointing to specific “bad apple” police officers, I see this and other incidents as specifically the result of hundreds of years of the persistent erosion of solidarity actively engendered by both policies and official narratives, then baked into how police departments function. That the officer had multiple incidents of causing harm before, none of which were attended to, is one pointer to such systemic failures. For me, the words “Black lives matter” are specifically designed, in an anguished and clear way, to unsettle the unconscious willingness on the part of many to look away from such events, demanding attention, insisting on solidarity and humanity.
Nor are such incidents limited to North America. For example, police killings in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil occur at wrenching frequency: in 2019, 1,810 people were killed by police (see here). Both that this happens and that most people in the global north don’t hear about it are an ongoing demonstration of the mechanisms that undermine solidarity, pitting groups of people against each other. Similarly, in another part of the world, the pandemic in Israel has not led to reduced pressure on the Palestinians in order to support their own capacity to respond to the pandemic. Instead, actively oppressive aspects of the occupation continue. (See http://972mag.com/ for ongoing non-mainstream journalism and documentation.)
If we are to create change, then, and come out of the ongoing crisis that we are unleashing, we will need to take on truly foundational changes to our entire outlook on life. This means adopting an outlook of liberation which Victor Lewis, in that same conversation, described using these words:
“Liberation involves the liberation of the earth to restore maximum creativity and vitality within the earth system. On the human level, that means deep, universal, and unconditional solidarity.” (See here for ongoing classes that Victor is co-leading about these topics: a liberation-based entryway into understanding racism and whiteness.)
This, then, is the potent possibility that the pandemic exposes: it shows us that solidarity is possible, because it’s happening at this time, even while it’s breaking down in some places. Seeing the entire extractive machinery slow down to almost a total halt, and the amazing acts of solidarity and care that are unfolding, we can begin again to imagine that the existing social order and the assumptions underpinning it are not the only reality possible. Then we can begin to mobilize within and around us to create changes on the microscale, as well as come together with others to bring about changes on a larger scale.
Seeds of Solidarity
When the pandemic was just beginning to hit New York, Andrew Cuomo, Governor of the state, was quoted saying a simple statement that captures one of the basic forms of solidarity that are easily understood: “We need everyone to be safe. Otherwise no one can be safe.”
When I talk of solidarity, though, I mean something that goes way beyond “we’re all in this together,” though of course we are. Victor Lewis has found a way to capture the depth of the issues in one simple sentence: “We’re all on the same boat. Not on the same deck.” Global warming, for example, if we don’t turn things around, is bringing us to the brink of species extinction – that’s the boat we are in. And it’s not all in the future: we already have hundreds of millions of climate refugees. People in the global south and in many communities of color are affected first – that’s the different decks.
The pandemic, unlike global warming, is a specific event with clear and direct impacts. It doesn’t take any power of abstraction to grasp what is happening. The same is at least partially true of the measures used to respond to the pandemic. Both have disproportionate effects on people on the lower decks, who die or sink first. The impacts are visible enough that many more than usual are mobilized.
This leaves many painful questions unanswered: why are we collectively more willing to take drastic measures, such as massive closures, when a pandemic is declared, and barely give collective media attention to the many many more who die, daily, from basic hunger? Why have governments been at least partially able to respond to the pandemic, however inadequately, and entirely unable to respond to the increasing stresses on the environment that are largely causing it?
And, still, the opportunity is here, because both the impacts and the mobilization are visible in ways that neither was before. The world is harsh now, and also full of generosity. A new website called Karunavirus sprang forth (a pun based on the word "karuna" meaning compassion in Sanskrit), curating hundreds of stories, large and small, of such acts. Looking through some of them, I see, repeatedly, evidence of the willingness to take risks in the name of greater care. Two of my favorites are the truce between rival gangs in South Africa joining together to distribute food to those in need, and the delegation of doctors from Cuba going to Lombardy to offer support. More stories are added daily, reminding us of the true possibilities of who we can be as humans. The site has this to say: “We feel that these acts will far outlive the virus, and if enough of us presence it in our consciousness, it just might architect a new future.” One particularly poignant example of solidarity was an offer of support by an Arab town in Israel to an ultra-orthodox Jewish town that was a major Coronavirus hotspot in Israel. I was heartbroken to hear that the offer was turned down, an indication of solidarity not necessarily going both ways.
Both the huge tears in our human fabric and our capacity to mobilize care and generosity, including at risk to ourselves, are present. What are the chances that this crisis will serve as a turning point for the whole, not just for many of us as individuals or small communities?
Liu Yi, a friend and colleague from China, shared on a Facebook post that according to ancient Chinese medicine, “to live through plague, dwell on half moon under three mountain, which is how ‘heart’ in Chinese is written,” which she restates as: “the antidote to plague is staying connected to heart.” This is leaning into interconnection and strengthening our capacity for solidarity. None of it will happen through intention alone. What is it that we can actually do?
In the long run, if we even have a long run, massive changes are needed. There is no way we can maintain our current ways of living in much of the global north and small pockets in the global south. By reminding us that our fates are, indeed, intertwined, with each other and with all life on planet earth, the Coronavirus may indeed serve as a wakeup call, a message from Nature as many have suggested, including the UN environment chief I mentioned earlier. As Deena Metzger recently said, up until this current crisis, “We didn’t know [our way of life] was killing us though we knew it was killing someone in Africa, Latin America or the Middle East, somewhere away from us, maybe someone in the Inner Cities, or living on a Native reservation, but still a distance.” Now we know, more than ever, that the rich and the powerful, though somewhat more protected than others, are also at risk, and that in not caring for the more vulnerable and for non-human life, we are making all of us more vulnerable, at a level of risk previously unheard of for reaching the end of human life altogether.
I believe the knowledge about what needs to be done is already here, and many of us know it. In my previous piece in this series, I put forth restoring the commons and shifting to a gift economy as key to long-term capacity to survive and care for needs. There is little sign that those who are making the decisions that affect all of our lives are heeding such calls. We don’t know what else is in store, nor what it would take to create massive shifts at such significant scale, nor even more modest pathways that put care in the center, emphasizing togetherness and solidarity.
Meanwhile, as I have looked at the huge variability of the trajectory of the disease in different countries over some time, I am left wondering about how much a focus on care, embedded culturally (as in collectivist cultures) or also held from above by a head of state, is a factor in explaining the differences. One striking example is Vietnam, a country of almost 100 million people, sharing a long border with China, with very limited access to resources, and, still, with only 328 cases and no deaths. I only know about this because of a personal connection, as Vietnam’s success story hasn’t made it to major headlines. It is, after all, one of only five remaining countries in the world that are calling themselves socialist or communist. Is it a coincidence that one of them is one of the biggest success stories in the world, and the others have also done well, including China? As one article about the Vietnam success story suggests, “It appears the global response in most sensible countries has been to embrace a measured collectivist response, so maybe Vietnam already has a head-start on this one.”
And, on another note, is it a coincidence that several other countries that have done better than others are headed by women? And this information is coming from no source I would consider actively feminist – it’s based on an article in Forbes! I am not forgetting for a moment that the UK, for example, has had two female heads of state deeply committed to neoliberalism; I don’t have any sense that there is something essential about being female that makes a difference. Rather, I believe that women are much more likely to be raised to perceive of care as important and to act accordingly. The article unabashedly suggests that love is one of the reasons female heads of state have done better, suggesting that “the empathy and care which all of these female leaders have communicated seems to come from an alternate universe than the one we have gotten used to.”
Both socialist countries and female-headed ones took seriously the risk of the disease. Vietnam, for example, began implementing measures to prevent the disease before it had its first confirmed case. What I pieced together as common to at least some of these countries is that information was widely shared with the public, lockdowns were earlier and more attuned to actual cases, testing was extensive, and the good of the whole was put ahead of infringing on individual autonomy or on profits. As my friend Liu Yi said about what was done in China, it “has worked due to the folk spirit of mainland Chinese.” In New Zealand, prime minister Jacinda Ardern has declared capitalism to be a “blatant failure” and an article in Left Foot Forward mentions that since her election she “has advocated putting the wellbeing of citizens before traditional bottom-line measures like productivity and growth.” All that I hear about some of these countries leads me to believe that what they are doing is what some version of solidarity from above means. Can such measures in response to so many other, less immediate and equally or even more devastating crises indeed happen when the vast majority of the world is still in full commitment to policies and practices that entrench and intensify our separation from each other?
In closing, there remains, as always, the question of what we can do within our own sphere of influence. A later piece in this series with the subtitle of “Accepting Our Vulnerability to Consume Less,” focuses, in part, on deep and raw questions about how to restore our willingness to accept our fundamental vulnerability to death, itself an aspect of our interconnection with all life on a finite planet.
That acceptance is one pathway to dramatic reduction in consumption that can also be fueled largely by care – for ourselves, for others who are impacted by our choices, and for all life. Within the focus of this piece, the most significant change we can make is to examine the roots of our persistent separation from others and life, and to embrace practices that take us out of our comforts, whatever they may be, and into greater contact with the vastness of challenge and suffering on planet earth. Once there, the incessant question then becomes, every hour of every day, how to exit the trap of our separate existence and step into the willingness to be together, fully. I end with a quote from Red Sea, a poem by friend, writer, and activist Aurora Levins Morales:
This time we cannot cross until we carry each other. All of us refugees, all of us prophets. No more taking turns on history’s wheel, trying to collect old debts no one can pay. The sea will not open that way. This time that country is what we promise each other, our rage pressed cheek to cheek until tears flood the space between, until there are no enemies left, because this time no one will be left to drown and all of us must be chosen. This time it’s all of us or none.