Another World is Possible?

Aaron Lozier/ May 14, 2020/ Essays

In the years 2000 – 2005, I was part of the worldwide (though now largely forgotten) anti-globalization movement. We were, in reality, no less “global” than the multi-national corporations we opposed. We believed in solidarity, and people before profits. We weaponized the Internet, long before Twitter or Facebook, by establishing Independent Media Centers on nearly every continent. We marched in major cities all over the world, usually in response to the gathering of large, non-democratic entities such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the IMF/World Bank. We had many slogans that united us, such as “This is What Democracy Looks Like” and “The Whole World is Watching” (a bit optimistic, perhaps). My favorite, however, was “Another World is Possible.”

Another World is Possible.

These simple words evoked feelings of hope and possibility that lit my young heart on fire. But in the new era of a global pandemic, in which our current order seems more threatened than ever, who would dare to utter such hopeful words? This optimism seems strangely out of date, even though our hunger for new possibilities should be strengthened. Rather than hope for “another world,” we seem fixated on figuring out when we can return to the old one.

In my lifetime, there has never been a moment (and probably never will be again) in which we should be asking serious questions about whether the consumer capitalist society, now shut down, should ever be re-opened. Our economy, which for our entire lives has been assumed to be as permanent and unquestionable as the air we breath, has now become a choice. The other day, my son and I bought hamburgers and sat outside a row of closed department stores on 29th street mall in Boulder. Some of them were boarded up. Anthropologie, lululemon, Sunglass Hut. Once fixtures I never questioned, these establishments now seemed silly, vain and utterly redundant. It is as though a kind of spell has been broken.

How ridiculous, for instance, does celebrity worship seem now? I saw today that some outlets are trying to drum up interest in some new scandal involving Khloe Kardashian. Is it just me, or does this form of entertainment now seem totally foreign? It is like trying to understand a joke in another language. I know there once was a world in which we cared about which celebrities were breaking up or hooking up, who was spotted at what restaurant, who wore it best, etc. But now, what is there to be fascinated about? I assume celebrities lives, today, are much like my own (albeit taking place in larger houses). I assume they wake up each day, not knowing what the future will bring or whether they have a place in it. I assume they alternately struggle with boredom and anxiety. I assume they spend way too much time scrolling through their phone, that it makes them miserable, and that for some reason they are unable to stop.

What is this the purpose of human life? Is it to simply do something, no matter how draining, demeaning or trivial? Is it to pass time mindlessly staring at screens, craving attention? Is it to work in jobs we hate, or jobs that do not provide us enough money to live? Is it to fight endlessly with our political opponents, when all of us are completely powerless to change anything? Deep down, we have always wanted alternatives, but now, it seems, we have no choice but to find them. We cannot go to how things were before. Even if we tried, it wouldn’t be the same. Today, simply re-opening a bar or beauty parlor is a political statement, involving armed guards of would-be revolutionaries.

When the stay-at-home orders began in March, no one wanted things to go back to the way they were before more than I did. I moved to Colorado, in large part, to enjoy my favorite outdoor activities: rock climbing and trail running. The gyms closed, climbers around Boulder were urging people to not climb outside, and many were even clamoring to close the trails. While trying to remain compassionate and empathetic for those who undoubtedly were suffering far more than I was, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated and anxious for everything to return to normal.

As time has dragged on, the gravity of the situation has sunk in more and more. I am now convinced, not only that things will not return to normal, but that we are barely at the cusp of how dramatically things will change. Things will change. How they will change, however, is not yet decided. Furthermore, I am convinced that the harder we try to keep things the same, the worse our future will be.

It’s a simple fact that the vast majority of the recent $3 trillion stimulus package went to help large corporations. The portion responsible for the stimulus checks to families accounted for less than 10% of the overall funds allocated. This one-time payment of $1200 (in the best case scenario) was certainly insufficient to cover the debts of small to medium sized businesses. In the coming weeks and months, we will see small businesses fail in rapid succession, like the next row of dominoes following the unemployment numbers we have witnessed in recent weeks.

Large corporations, therefore, will survive – while small businesses collapse en masse. Many of these large corporations are going to invest more money in areas they already were focused on before the pandemic: automation. If they cannot depend upon a healthy workforce, after all, what could be more rational than eliminating the reliance upon human labor? With jobs created by small businesses eliminated, and jobs working for large corporations dramatically reduced, the levels of unemployment we are seeing now are likely to be permanent.

That is not to say that the Anthropologie, lululemon, and Sunglass Hut’s of the world will not reopen their doors. They will – or many of them will – but soon they will be managed by automated security and checkout systems. The number of people who can afford their items will be drastically reduced, however.

What about our social fabric? We were coming apart at the seams as it was. There was, maybe, a brief moment in the early days of the crisis where we thought a global catastrophe might actually help us set aside our differences and recognize our shared humanity. If this moment even existed, it evaporated quickly. New ruptures are appearing daily. Those who believe the threat of the virus is real, versus those who believe it is overblown. Those who trust authority versus those who question it. Those attacking people wearing masks, versus those attacking people not wearing masks. Those who say “re-open now” versus those who seem content to wait indefinitely. As mentioned earlier, we have armed protesters assisting businesses in re-opening. If we have enough armed protests, the day will come when someone decides to fire. Bloodshed, at this point, seems almost unavoidable. This will set off an entirely new row of dominoes.

I could continue expounding upon dystopian futures, but this is not my purpose. You need only acknowledge the possibility of these outcomes to begin taking seriously the task of actively choosing the future we want, rather than let it be decided by the same patterns and institutions that got us to where we are today.

The last time I took seriously the slogan “Another World is Possible,” I was in my early 20’s. I am now in my 40’s. Hope does not come as easily to me today as it once did. I have seen too much disappointment. People, places and events have consistently failed to meet my expectations. And when it comes to our current systems and patterns – war, capitalism, greed, polarization – no force has seemed as powerful as the one that keeps things from changing.

I studied History in college, and I came to see history as not exactly cyclical, but wave-like in nature. What rises must fall. Tides go in, and out. Near the end of my protest days, it felt like I was struggling to work up a big wave that wasn’t ready to appear. Rather, I was splashing in the wake of the one that had already passed. That’s when I decided to walk away.

Now, it seems, another wave has arrive – this one larger than any we have seen before. There is no escape. This one will come crashing down on all of us, and our entire world will be turned upside down. As scary as it sounds (and it is) it is not without its upsides. Because then, for the first time in our lives, we will have a chance to rebuild things better.

Does this seem impossible? Of course it does, because the extreme polarization of our current society seems as permanent fixture as restaurants and department stores seemed only three months ago. But how much of this is real, and how much of this has been distorted and magnified through the lens of social media? Online, we adorn ourselves with ideological armor and go out to do battle and score points for our own “side.” But in person we (most of us anyway) are far more generous to one another. We judge someone’s character based upon their actions, not their beliefs. But online, character is judged entirely based beliefs.

We must find a way to cross the digital divide and connect with one another as individuals. That is more challenging now than ever. However, I am convinced the problem is not technology per se, but the means with which it has been implemented. It is a well-known fact that social media is algorithmically wired to reward outrage. We need new platforms that reward thoughtfulness and empathy, rather than impulsiveness and hostility. When we began to value the former, rather than the latter, these technologies will surely arise to supply the need.

The time has come to find ways of building community outside the mechanisms of monetary exchange. There is an opportunity, in some ways, to wind back the clock. Before the proliferation of restaurants, there were community gatherings and pot-lucks. Churches were held in each other’s houses. If we do not want the things we value most in our culture to disappear completely, we may realize we are the only ones who can ensure they survive. And that they may only survive if they change form.

The dangerous trends we recognized in the late 90’s/early 2000’s have not only advanced, but are on the verge of achieving their ultimate dream: the total annihilation of the “local” and elevation of the “global.” Businesses of all kinds are being forced to move their presence online. At first glance, this might seem like a positive opportunity. After all, they now have a global audience. The truth, however, is most of them will be unable to compete with the already global players on the scene: Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. We need to make a conscious effort to support local businesses, rather than sitting idly by as they are consumed by the machinery of e-commerce.

It has probably been necessary, for a long time, to resist these trends: the addiction to screens, the automation of our lives, the mediation of all relationships through social media. But on both the macro and micro level, humans rarely find the will to break habits or addictions until we forced to. It is in this fact, today, that I have hope. However, we only have so much time. We must come to believe that another world is possible soon, and work together to achieve it.

Share this Post