Now is the chance to take stock of society’s vulnerabilities and work for a better future.
In the space of a few short months, Covid-19 has brutally exposed the fragile nature of our lives and societies. It has reduced each of us to our vulnerable cores, forcing us to look at our own individual lives, another, on families, communities, neighbourhoods as well as wider society, and to ask hard questions. This realisation has set in motion a silent – for now – psychological revolution.
Knowledge of our vulnerability, the adjustments we make and our response to rebuilding society once the pandemic has passed will set the course for future generations. Although we are encouraged to believe that the individual is paramount, our dependence on one another, on families, communities, neighbourhoods and the state, has never been clearer. We are all experiencing vulnerability; while this is unevenly distributed, the interlinked nature of our lives means that none of us is free from fragility. Can we turn that interdependence and the reminder of the deep inequalities that preceded the pandemic into energy for the renewal we need?
As a response to the unprecedented times we find ourselves in, and in an attempt to direct some of this energy positively, the RSA rapidly developed its Bridges to the Future thinking in the early phase of the pandemic. We have brought together leaders, experts and Fellows to share ideas about how we can build a better future and create the change that our society so clearly needs. Our Bridges to the Future work recognises the precariousness many of us are now experiencing. Through a series of blogs, articles, reports and online events, we have encouraged people to imagine a better future together and to set in motion the change needed to get there.
For the young person in the city just starting out in life, trying to build their career and personal relationships but living in shared accommodation and now finding themselves without a job, the experience of precarity has been real. Grandparents, some isolated and at risk, wonder when they will next see their grandchildren, quietly anxious, knowing they are losing precious time. Young families wrestle with childcare and remote work, suddenly finding that they are not just professionals and parents, but teachers too.
Then there is the furloughed worker, with a secure (for now) income and plenty of time. Who could complain? Well, those seeming benefits are not going to last forever. Does furlough now mean redundancy next, to line up alongside an army of 4 or 5 million unemployed?
What of the artist and performer sat alone at home unable to continue with their chosen career, their income gone and the prospects of it returning in the foreseeable future very low? Because they ran their finances through a company, they were not eligible for Self-Employment Income Support. From a rich social, expressive and creative existence to Universal Credit and walking the dog in the blink of an eye.
Key workers carry on, under often intolerable circumstances, tending the sick and frail, ensuring we have food and essentials, transporting us and making sure that the courts stay open, the lights turn on, the bins are emptied and the gas boiler lights. Working long hours, many must also contend with worries about childcare and care for other family members and neighbours, as well as very real fears about their own health. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, many healthcare and transport workers have died of Covid-19, with a disproportionate number of these deaths among BAME communities. And yet, key workers keep on going, even running on empty.
For the young secondary school student, the first few weeks of lockdown were great fun; freed from the confines of the school day and able to relax in a perpetual weekend. Yet, as the weeks turned into months, what about those students who had relied on the emotional support of teachers and the school environment? The unstructured days stretch far ahead; motivation and support are harder to find. Those for whom home is not a safe place may be struggling without the structure of the education system.
Multi-generational families that live together and have had to continue to work through the pandemic have each other but also experience a collective fear. And again, for families from ethnic minority backgrounds, the evidence is that they are being hit disproportionately harder by the pandemic. When grandmother goes out for her twice-weekly walk, she wears a mask: but why are so few others doing the same?
And what about those who are re-entering lockdown? At the time of writing, that was the lot of the citizens of Leicester, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire, but when you read this I imagine other locales will have had to reintroduce lockdown rules; perhaps there is a second national lockdown. The uncertainty of what even the immediate future holds will weigh on people who find themselves in this situation: one reason the RSA’s Chief Executive, Matthew Taylor, and I called for a “year of stabilisation” with clear and sustainable policies on education, work, and community and income support.
Covid-19 has not just exposed health vulnerabilities; it has also shone a light on wider pre-existing inequalities and discrimination. When a police officer – with his colleagues passively looking on – killed George Floyd in the US in May, it set in motion protests against police brutality that continue to this day. This is not the first time Black Lives Matter protests have taken place, but these are the most well-attended and widespread protests yet. People have taken to the streets even while the pandemic rages on. On the surface, police brutality and a major health crisis are not related, but as we are seeing, it is the same systems of inequality that have meant that certain sections of society are more affected by both. George Floyd himself had been laid off from his job in Minnesota’s night-time economy due to lockdown. A population already under the immense stress caused by dealing with a pandemic and economic insecurity reached its breaking point in a video of a Black man being callously killed by a police officer. As a pastor friend describes it, the US has weaponised the rule of law while criminalising poverty.
Vulnerability has always been with us, but not since the Second World War have vast swathes of the population experienced it to any great degree. But if you are poor, from a minority ethnic group, or suffer from health conditions, either physical or mental, you have always known what vulnerability is. Now, that experience is universal; although, still, not evenly distributed, both at the national and international levels. The weakness of governance systems and national resilience has been exposed in the UK and US “failing states”, as Pankaj Mishra describes them but also in countries as diverse as Sweden, India and Brazil. Rich countries have struggled with the impacts of the pandemic; as it spreads through the developing world, we can expect these effects to be even more devastating. Crumbling healthcare systems, high levels of poverty and the prevalence of other life-threatening diseases will all magnify the direct and indirect impacts of Covid-19. The disease takes advantage of vulnerabilities; with more weak points, developing countries have more fires to fight.
Expanding the lifeworld
Vulnerability is experienced as psychological pain and it derives from our political, material, social and biological relationships with the world outside of us. These relationships can either be measured objectively (for example, income, or physical condition) or experienced as anxieties or a sense of powerlessness. Vulnerability and insecurity are closely related, as they share these material and psychological characteristics. It is worth saying something about the notion of the ‘lifeworld’. Within the lifeworld we realise ourselves, we craft a space to call our own. While this arena might be private, it is far from asocial. Within this space we develop our sense of self throughout life, but we also build our relationships of affection and trust, of caring and sharing. Our lifeworlds are fragile. In a recent edition of RSA Journal, I outlined how the health of our lifeworlds is dependent upon how we interact with systems of power, money, technology and ecology. When the values of the lifeworld are supported and reflected in these systems that make, shape and sometimes break us, then our lives can flourish and thrive. But when money, power and technology create psychological, material and physical insecurities, they accentuate self-doubt rather than wellbeing.
We should be expanding the ethic of the lifeworld into these systems, but too often the opposite has happened: these impersonal systems have encroached on our lives, with dire consequences. Persistent and spreading economic insecurity; a politics of expressive assertion that divides rather than unites; a relationship with technology which relies too heavily on the tools of manipulation, addiction and harm; and the reshaping of the planet’s ecology around production at all costs all exemplify the ways in which money, power and technology have been misused to significant detrimental effect. It has been one of the aims of our Bridges to the Future work to look for ways in which we can dismantle some of our acquisitive systems and rebuild them to be more inclusive, sustainable and founded in equality.
Courage, compassion and connection
The acceptance of vulnerability and its consequences is key to forging the path ahead. Brené Brown, an American professor known in particular for her work on vulnerability, has articulated three components of healthy engagement with vulnerability: courage, compassion and connection. These are a good guide to the type of society we want to evolve.
Courage involves accepting that vulnerability is not reserved for the unfortunate few, but is part of all our lives. We all need protection. At the core of this realisation is recognition of both the fact that we are all in this together, but also that the load and risk is unequally shared. Institutions should provide support and protection for all, but greater support for the most vulnerable. For example, for students facing educational disadvantage this means meshing together more tightly an array of educational, community and public services to provide constant support. The RSA’s Pinball Kids project is seeking to do just this to enable earlier intervention for pupils at risk of exclusion.
And over the pond, our RSA US colleagues have demonstrated courage and shown the importance of connection by challenging the system of mass incarceration in the US in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing. It is a debate we need in the UK too, and the RSA could well revisit its previous work on relational policing and rehabilitative criminal justice. We have recently highlighted the increasingly extensive use of AI-powered surveillance systems by UK police forces and the likely racially biased impact of these technologies: another example of systems of power and technology interacting in ways that exacerbate, rather than reduce, vulnerability.
Since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, health and social care services have shown an exceptional ability to mobilise and adapt. Yet enormous weaknesses have been exposed in the cracks between health and social care, between public services and private supply, between the ability to encourage volunteering at scale and using volunteers effectively. The RSA has recommended a People’s Health and Care Commission to the government, partly based on citizens’ assemblies, to help explore how the technological determinants of health – such as medicines, data analysis, individualised treatment (not least through genomics) and more resilient supply chains – interact with the social determinants of health, which are shared, based on caring relationships and deeply personal. Such a renewed system would be grounded in compassion and human relationships and connection, safeguarded by involving citizens in designing the deep ethical code of the health and social care services of the future.
As Alan Lockey, Head of the RSA’s Future Work Centre, explored in one of our Bridges to the Future essays, occupations that may have been poorly paid but certain, such as in hospitality and retail, have been turned on their head by the pandemic. A universal basic income, which the RSA has been proposing for some time, would provide a baseline of economic security for all, and would be most valuable for those whose circumstances are most precarious. Allowing workers to access their data so they understand how they may be monitored and judged; stronger, more flexible training; and support for innovations in worker representation and voice could further enhance the economic security and quality of work for all, and especially for the most vulnerable.
As it is for people, so it is for places. Analysis undertaken in the early aftermath of the lockdown by the RSA Future Work Centre showed the differential level of unemployment risk within different places based upon their occupational structure. Those places most reliant on the tourist or seasonal economy have suffered the most. Localities need the tools, resources and powers to respond to their own idiosyncratic needs. A powering up, alongside a levelling up, will be necessary in the coming months and years.
The RSA’s Regenerative Futures programme, designed by Josie Warden and Rebecca Ford, is considering how to develop circular local economies where local supply, economic opportunity and environmental sustainability are embedded in economic and democratic structures. Can ethical local supply systems compete with just-in-time global supply chains? With the right collective leadership, support for innovation and capacity-building we believe they can. Critical to developing local capacity is the re- capitalisation of local economies. That is why we have suggested democratic local coordination of grant, loan, equity and philanthropic investment. Local Investment and Finance Trusts could be created, with one purpose being the capitalisation of community banks, with local funds matched by endowments from the government or Bank of England.
Cultivating a nurturing future
These are just some of the proposals we have suggested as the pandemic has evolved. Ultimately, there are thousands of good ideas and the RSA’s contribution is not designed to come up with all the solutions or all the right answers. Instead, we will seek to collaborate ever more deeply with RSA Fellows, major partners in civil society, key figures in the business world, those in positions of political or policy leadership and, crucially, those directly impacted by the insecurity-generating aspects of big systems. We seek to nourish “ordinary virtues”, as Julian Sheather described them in his recent RSA essay, which encourage us to cooperate and regulate our selfishness. The search for ideas, innovations, new narratives and movements that can acquire enough energy to sustain deep reform over the longer term is on. In his essays that form part of the Bridges to the Future series, Matthew Taylor argues that ordinary virtues and new forms of leadership – that own and navigate tensions rather than ignoring or simply slicing through them – make deep reform more likely. We hope that the RSA can be a relentlessly positive partner for many in collectively cultivating a future that is nurturing of all our lifeworlds.
Time for political change
We do not yet know how Covid-19 will shape our politics and society. The hope is that the lessons learnt during the pandemic – about how interlinked we all are, and how we should treat the most vulnerable members of society – will feed through into a politics that will consider how we might create more space for security, creativity and wellbeing, and less for vulnerability, anxiety and insecurity. The worry is that politics will be guided by negatives, playing on our fears and turning us against the ‘other’, further entrenching the positions of the most vulnerable and most advantaged. Or we may just muddle through, stuck and insecure.
We should aim for a hopeful politics. Generous rather than ideologically pure, experimental and humble, seeking to build alliances between different value sets. Yet, we see divides between radical and liberal accounts of progress, with some wanting to see radical shifts of power, others wanting to seek careful, considered change. The pace of change matters: radicalism risks reaction; gradualism risks fatalism in the face of enormous existential challenges, most notably climate change. Conservatism is divided between its liberal and radical wings; given the recent electoral success of the latter in the UK and US, the challenge is to respond in a substantive way to the vulnerabilities we face. Will the US electorate impose the penalty of defeat on President Trump for extraordinary levels of incompetence over Covid-19? And can the populist right learn greater governing competence as part of the statecraft equation? On these questions rests the right’s relevance over the course of the next decade.
There is something that unifies the characters I outlined at the start of this piece. They all face vulnerabilities, albeit in many different forms and with different degrees of intensity. Power is distant; the system of money has been captured, generating deep inequalities; technology often feels more like it is shaping society than being shaped by society; and there is awareness of an impending climate emergency, even if the urgency of response is not quite there yet. All of this may seem overwhelming. If we sink into despair, if we are seduced by divisive narratives that separate us and stoke conflict, then the insecurities and vulnerabilities only increase. With courage, compassion and connection there is a more hopeful way, and we hope that we can explore it together.
In part two of the Our Way Through essay series, Anthony Painter considers whether our current relationships with money, power and technology are helping or hindering society's progress.
A new CEO, a new format and new ideas – Andy Haldane marked his first day as head of the RSA in September with our first virtual Fellowship Townhall.