We are nothing if we are not together


This article originally appeared in the Local Government Chronicle

The Covid-19 pandemic has destabilised our present and will profoundly affect our social, economic and political future. Whilst we do not know how events will progress, we can be sure that things will never be the same again. There will be no going back.

The immediate government response must be to tackle the public health crisis, shore up businesses and the economy and help people with their personal and family finances. However, other recent crises – the financial crisis of 2008, the ongoing climate emergency – have made clear that we are ill-equipped to deal with systemic shocks. Longstanding flaws and cracks, which have been papered over for years, have now been blown apart by this virus. Our society – despite having made stunning technical advances and delivered unprecedented concentrations of wealth – has been overstretched for many years.

Some painful truths are now apparent:

  • Austerity has left our public services critically weakened – it is now clear that we should never allow the evisceration of vital public services to the same extent again.
  • Precarious work has left people and families vulnerable to sharp economic down turns– this is no way to organise employment.
  • Our global economy – hooked on fossil fuels – favoursshort term profit and efficiency over planetary limits and economic stability.

“An economy based on excessive wealth extraction, accumulation and runaway individualism has had its day.”

We now know and are sadly experiencing, on a global scale, what happens when society and the economy lack resilience. An economy based on excessive wealth extraction, accumulation and runaway individualism has had its day. In this, I am reminded of the great trade unionist, politician and philosopher Jimmy Reid. In his famous alienation speech in 1972, he said that society had led us to a form of estrangement, that “de-humanises some people, makes them insensitive, ruthless in their handling of fellow human beings, self-centred and grasping” and that instead we needed to restore the “essential elements of our common humanity. Man is a social being. Real fulfilment for any person lies in service to his fellow men and women.” Reid decried the “rat race” and the dehumanising and alienating qualities of competitiveness, one-upmanship and the way in which social progress is too readily aligned with material success

“A bigger and deeper democratic state…will emerge from the ashes of this crisis.”

From now on, we must accentuate the ”we”, the ”collective”, the ”our”, and downgrade the ”me” and the ”I”. This is the beginning of the development of a new social contract akin to the welfare state of 1945 and a new economy for our post-carbon age. A bigger and deeper democratic state with greater capacity to be generous, resilient and fair, working with citizens and community power will emerge from the ashes of this crisis. We need to humanise the economy, build community wealth and socialise the state.

We have already seen an unprecedented interventionist response from the UK government. This will not be temporary. We should see it as the fledgling, bold, first steps toward a very different and better future. Devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the English city regions and local government must be bold, take risks and be creative like never before.

“The key insight of the community wealth building movement is that local authorities can make a real difference”

Our local state has been undermined for far too long. Local government powers are weak and English devolution is a saga of false dawns. Over coming weeks and months, the local state will have a crucial role in the delivery of frontline services, and will play a much deeper role in the economy. Local government workers will be mobilising and reprioritising workloads in ways few of us would have imagined only a few days ago. No doubt new powers and responsibilities will come, and these will foreshadow what the future should be. The key insight of the community wealth building movement is that local authorities can make a real difference, but this requires throwing off years of stifling economic thinking and practice.

“What we do in the next few months should foreshadow a new common sense.”

We have a long way to go and a lot of work to do. We must pull together to beat this virus, solve the crisis and build a new economy from a position of generosity, openness, inclusion, non-competitiveness and reasonableness. We do not need petty political point scoring. What we do in the next few months should foreshadow a new common sense, where we finally banish the mantra of material progress at all costs and, with it, alienating individualism. We can and must create a new economy where markets serve society, collective endeavour trumps individualism and where we all know that we are truly nothing, if we are not together.