Solidarity is Moving in This Pandemic Moment

This guest post by UEP Professor Penn Loh was first published on his personal Practical Visionaries blog. Read the original article, posted on Mar. 27, 2020, here.

First and foremost, I hope that you and your loved ones are surviving and getting what you need in this trying time. “Are you okay” and “what can I do to help” are now meaningful questions that many are asking.

For those of us fighting for justice and solidarity, these questions have always been real, as love and care are at the heart of our efforts. It is not new or novel to support one another, love our neighbors, and build collective power. These are our resilience strategies.

So what happens as our entire world is thrown into acute crisis? We know – and have already seen – that some will try to blame and demonize others, building up the walls of hate that divide us. Yet, this crisis seems to be like no other in recent (and perhaps human) history. Unlike “wars,” the enemy is not another person or set of people (though not for lack of trying). Unlike the 2008 Great Recession, the 1% are not immune (though immensely more resourced to respond). Unlike the climate crisis, there is no denying that a virus is causing illness and is spread from person to person, and that it is happening right now.

Our mutual interdependence and global interconnectedness has never been more visceral and in our faces. Because we are all potential carriers and spreaders, every decision we make to be near another person has consequences. Every object that we touch may affect others and ourselves. The veil of the market that obscures our interrelations is being shredded.

Shifting Intentionally to a New Normal

In this crisis, there will be suffering and tragedies to endure. But there are also opportunities to see and walk a different path towards solidarity and a just transition. The fog of neoliberal free market ideology is lifting. The care and support to all that is necessary in the short term for defeating this virus should become the new normal in the long term. Our efforts to dismantle and transform dominant political and economic systems (that some call racialized neoliberal capitalism built on settler colonialism and heteropatriarchy) can accelerate as “normal” life is disrupted. As social movements of the past have taught us, it is in these times that large collective shifts in consciousness are possible and major shifts in political and economic structures can happen.

Physically Distanced, but More Social – and More Kind and Caring

As we practice “physical distancing” (the term encouraged by Maria Elena Letona of Neighbor to Neighbor), we are finding ways to connect from beyond six feet. Countering the isolation and loneliness that were already endemic problems of our shallow over-consumerist culture, there are now calls to connect with neighbors and at least acknowledge the existence of the fellow humans on our streets. Even safe distancing can be seen as an act of mutual care. While some turn inward and become more defensive, many more are saying hello and checking in on one another. We are now forced to care about the well-being of all the people we rely on to live our lives – not only local healthcare providers, grocery workers, and delivery people, but also the farm and factory workers from around the world who produce the things we need. Value and attention are now directed to people whose lives and labor were otherwise made invisible previously.

Solidarity in Emergency Response and Mutual Aid

The impulse to provide immediate and direct aid has never gone away but has been selectively activated only to those who seemed “deserving.” Now, the well-being of those who have been and continue to be most vulnerable are a matter of great importance to all, as their health is directly tied to everyone else’s. Caring for everyone is not just a moral entreaty, but a practical necessity. An explosion of mutual aid networks is making visible the solidarity economy practices and desires that already existed. Many new initiatives are being created and replicating. While these efforts may be seen as ephemeral and lasting only until we get back to “normal,” they are showing that it is possible to care about (and for) everyone, particularly the most vulnerable. They are building our capacities to live more collectively and in solidarity with others.

A call to action from a Massachusetts mutual aid network, one of many to spring up in recent weeks. Image credit: MAMAS

Opportunities for Transformation

Beyond “getting through” this crisis, opportunities for systems change are emerging that seemed infeasible or only pipe dreams a few weeks ago. Congress is not fighting over whether to give cash aid to all taxpayers, but how much. Housing evictions are being halted for the duration in Massachusetts. There are calls to move the most vulnerable out of prisons and jails, to forgive student debts, cancel rents, halt utility shut offs, and more. Many are heeding the call for a progressive version of Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” – that now is the time to “fight like hell” for a Green New Deal, national single-payer health care, public ownership, universal basic income, housing as a human right, broadband for all, etc.

Making the case for these changes is becoming easier as the control myths of free market ideology are loosening their grip on our minds. The economy is not its own free-standing organism to which we are beholden. Saving the stock market is not about saving all of us, but rather the 1%. The world does not implode when we break the supposed “natural laws” of the market by setting prices based on ethics, instead of just selling to the highest bidder. Many necessities can be more effectively distributed by government than private businesses motivated by profit. The “economy” is a system that is produced by and comprised of people. As such, we can collectively self-organize in democratic, inclusive ways to ascertain and meet needs in our respective places. We can build and demand public support for solidarity economies.

What to Do Now

In the chaos of this moment, it might seem like everything we knew no longer applies. But our charge remains to organize, fight, and build. More people are becoming open to fundamental change. More people are participating in collective work based on solidarity and justice. That doesn’t mean that people will automatically gravitate towards our movements. There are, to be sure, forces recruiting people to the dark side of fascism and authoritarianism as the solution, which will protect only the chosen few.

We still have lots of work to do. Here are just a few thoughts about what we are called to do in this moment:

Slow down to Take Care of Ourselves

Amongst the rapid changes and shutdowns, we can get disoriented, being pushed and pulled in many directions at once. Now is the time we’ve been waiting for to pause our “go, go, go” impulses and make space for reflection and find our new center. Now is the time to practice being kinder to ourselves and nurture our physical, mental, and spiritual health to do everything else on this list.

Care for One Another

That means acting as if we are all interdependent and that our lives depend on it – because they are. That means providing mutual aid, whether material or emotional support. Make kindness and collective care the new normal.

Organize and Fight Like Hell

We will need to return to old ways as well as innovate new ones. Door-to-door communication is still possible with physical distance and may be even more effective with many now at home. How can we occupy the streets that are increasingly empty? How can we build new capacities to organize through online spaces and communications technologies?

Build Solidarity Economies

Now is the time that our cooperatives, community land trusts, time banks, credit unions, public banks, etc., can show that these ways of doing “business” not only work, but can do better in meeting the needs of all.

Beat Our Narrative Drums

Let’s amplify and harmonize our collective stories, which is in itself a form of organizing. We can march to our own beat, which calls out unjust structures and calls for a people’s bailout.

Author’s note: Many thanks for feedback and discussion with Elena Letona, Ariel Brooks, Jackie Cefola, Boone Shear, and members of Tufts New Economy.

Cover image: homemade face mask by J Cefola