Play The Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony in a random room, and soon follows a choir of voices belting the Britpop classic’s lyrics.
Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony this life.
Trying to make ends meet, trying to find some money then you die.
Its lyrics are enduring, perhaps because of a visceral relatability: it is certainly true that when you strip our lives within capitalism to its bare bones, it is mostly about trying to make ends meet, trying to make some money – one might even say we’re slaves to money – and then eventually, like everything else, we die. Perhaps no time has this been more literal than during this year’s Covid-19 pandemic, where hundreds of thousands of people have been laid off or furloughed, and many more jobs are hanging in the balance. And unfortunately, many people have also died because of the interlinked nature of the ‘economy’ and our public health.
A common refrain during the pandemic, amongst a smorgasbord of liberal and right-wing pundits and politicians alike, has been that we cannot let the economy suffer at the expense of tackling the pandemic. Some people, both economists, fringe public health experts and laypeople alike, have suggested that the elderly and those with underlying health conditions should sacrifice themselves – either by accepting possible death or by self-isolating indefinitely – as ‘the economy’ is rescued and the virus is allowed to slowly and insidiously ripple through society. Like sacrificial lambs at the altar of Mammon – the God of money. The consequences of this worship of ‘the economy’ at the expense of everything else – including our humanity – has made it difficult for people who are willing to self-isolate or stay at home as much as possible to do so, if consequently they might lose their jobs or their ability to feed their families. In addition, as mentioned on this blog before, the victims of this virus are often working-class and minoritised populations (and particularly where these two identities converge), as many work in essential professions and live in multigenerational households. Students are forced back to university, likely to provide the marketised institutions with a steady stream of tuition fees, and the university residence hall landlords with tenants’ rent, whilst lecturers are losing their already precarious jobs; workers who were furloughed are forced back to work; workers lose their jobs; healthcare workers are overworked and terrified of spreading the disease to their loved ones or their patients; those with chronic illnesses and disabilities and the elderly are isolated and treated like burdens. Twas ever thus.
The Western Church has as of the day of writing (29 November) entered into a new liturgical year which is also the First Sunday of Advent, the official start of the Christmas season. The season’s first Gospel reading starts with Jesus’s words to His disciples: “Be watchful! Be alert!” Advent is the season where we’re watchful for the Light of the World to come down to Earth, for the Word to become Flesh, for Hope to be restored. Winter, in its gloom and darkness, its withering away of leaves and flowers, makes us, I think, long for something more. For human contact, for something bigger, for something to thaw within and between us. In a similar way, this year seems to have been gloomy and dark for many of us. As of now, the much quoted adage that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism still mostly rings true. Especially as for many of us, this year indeed felt like the end of the world. We’re being watchful, waiting patiently for Mammon to be replaced with all that is good; something communal; something human; something True.
But there is more in it for us than being slaves to money until we die, and there is more than just being watchful and awaiting. There are times when we are to take action. Kropotkin, in Mutual Aid, wrote that “The mutual-aid tendency in man has so remote an origin, and is so deeply interwoven with all the past evolution of the human race, that it has been maintained by mankind up to the present time, notwithstanding all vicissitudes of history.”. Indeed, mutual aid and solidarity has found a way to grow and blossom through the arctic tundra that has been this year. Genuine solidarity and mutual aid, meeting people’s material needs and improving their conditions not in a top-down way but mutually, horizontally, is a radical alternative to the worship of the economy at the expense of human beings whose labour brings value to capital. In moments like this it is perhaps possible to envision a future beyond the current economic system. To quote Pope Francis in his timely encyclical Fratelli Tutti:
Once this health crisis passes, our worst response would be to plunge even more deeply into feverish consumerism and new forms of egotistic self-preservation. God willing, after all this, we will think no longer in terms of “them” and “those”, but only “us”. If only this may prove not to be just another tragedy of history from which we learned nothing. If only we might keep in mind all those elderly persons who died for lack of respirators, partly as a result of the dismantling, year after year, of healthcare systems. If only this immense sorrow may not prove useless, but enable us to take a step forward towards a new style of life. If only we might rediscover once for all that we need one another, and that in this way our human family can experience a rebirth, with all its faces, all its hands and all its voices, beyond the walls that we have erected.
It would be incumbent upon the ruling classes to remember that without human beings there is no such thing as an economy. But it is equally incumbent upon us not to let the current political-economic system – the current neoliberal order – steal our imagination. Even amongst the drudgery of life, the tundra of this Year of the Pandemic, and the desperate attempt to make ends meet, there has been an incredible impulse towards solidarity. In the depths of winter we found genuine care for one another and a sense of understanding that our futures are indeed inextricably tied together. It is only through that work, the work that starts on the ground and within our communities, that we can start to imagine a better future. It is true that we get to be watchful and that we ought to look forward patiently towards the Light, but it is equally true that we are called towards action and care for each other in the material world. This life might be a bitter sweet symphony, but when in our own lives and within our own community we refuse to let Mammon reign, refuse to deify the economy, and start building towards a world that ‘provides land, housing and work for all’, we move away from “capitalist realism” and towards a world where every human being’s life is truly inherently valuable rather than measured against productivity and the amount of use it has for Capital. That seems like a truly glorious start to this Christmas season.