Photo credit: Alexandra Waespi
It’s hard to define what or who you are without comparing yourself to others. The wealthy are not poor, liberals disassociate with conservatives, and corporate values surely aren’t grassroots. But, we all – well, nearly all – have one thing in common: we are the 99 percent. The global economic system encourages us to compete (be in a state of rivalry) against that which we are not, in order to gain more money and ownership for us but not them; me but not you. Resources essential to everyday modern life such as land, oil, and even water, are increasingly monopolized to the great advantage of the few and diminished access for the many. The immense political power of business elites in the ‘free’ United States of America is now more likely to govern everyday people’s lives than those people’s democratic participation, and the richest 1 percent will own more than half the world’s wealth by 2016. Essentially, what’s left of the resource pie is too small for almost ALL of the living people in the world to share, let alone to continue to compete over.
But is competition among humans inevitable? A little bit of ‘friendly’ market competition is fair, claim free market advocates such as Friedrich Hayek and Robert Nozick. Hypothetically, individuals can get as much of what they need and want according to their own free will combined with the willingness of others to pay for what they produce. However, in the chance that a person can’t get what he or she needs based on the circumstances – ex. ability, nationality, class – into which one is born, theorists John Rawls and Martha Nussbaum argue that everybody should receive at least a social minimum (welfare), in the name of fairness. In other words, the playing field should be levelled out so that everyone can participate in the market in the first place. Even with the best of intentions, such an ideal scenario is becoming less feasible. The Western response to the economic crisis has largely been austerity measures. In the UK for instance, 40% of local public funding will be cut by 2016, despite a rising demand for social care, housing, transportation and healthcare. Even public parks (ie. the commons), threaten to become exclusive spaces. At this rate, the average person who can’t afford private services will either have to “Breaking Bad” their way into accessing care, or hope to humbly rely on the kindness of others. This brings us to another thing that we have in common: the need for support.
The basic foundation of friendship is not so different from that of community: empathy and a shared intention for achieving mutual wellbeing. As someone once explained to me, “every monkey has its own branch” (read: we are what we are and we like who we like). Not everyone can be best friends, and it isn’t easy to overcome differences in beliefs. Nevertheless, due to the market’s current failure to provide everyone with basic human needs, more people are beginning to realise that it may be in their own interest to befriend others and re-democratise the spaces where elitism largely reigns.
Beyond protests such as Occupy, signs of empathy are scattered all over the map. After Greece’s bailout, nearly a third of the population was left in poverty with no access to affordable healthcare, accompanied by mounting mental health and social isolation issues. In a reaction to extreme austerity measures, people across the nation banded together, with farmers for instance, sharing their crops with the hungry. In January 2015, this overwhelming sense of community resulted in the success of Syriza, the country’s far left wing party that ignited hope for people worldwide in the fight against economic injustice. Elsewhere, the New Era Housing Estate protests in Hackney (London, UK) last winter united residents of 93 flats – including children and participation by Russell Brand – to successfully stop New York development company, Westbrook from evicting tenants with the intention to refurbish and sell the flats at full market value.
Softer forms of people power are also emerging. Community marketplaces such as Couchsurfing, Airbnb and giffgaff have created a counterculture to mainstream capitalist competition. Couchsurfing allows people to share their homes and even build companionship all over the world, for free. Airbnb users can offer, book and rate personal accommodation across the globe at lower price points than multinational hotel chains, with the bonus opportunity to develop genuine cross-cultural friendships in the process. Fellow ‘giffgaffers’ can actively and transparently discuss their significantly cheaper-than-average mobile plans to affect actual change in their phone service. As the giffgaff manifesto asks: “Haven’t the big networks become a little too faceless with their massive call centres, their glossy TV ads, their high street shops full of shiny-suited salesmen, their endless handset “deals” and their long contracts so indecipherable you sense the penmanship of Dan Brown?”
Whether or not people are returning to the notion of community out of financial necessity, alternatives to conventional economic competition are growing; trending, even. Initiatives such as Skillsbox online and others on the ground create communities for members to trade their time and skills through a ‘credit’ system. Plus, with recent research evidencing that the effect of social isolation on mortality exceeds risk factors such as those associated with obesity and smoking, such initiatives provide a timely opportunity for people to get out, make friends and improve overall wellbeing. Currencies like the Brixton Pound promote local spending instead of purchases from multinational corporations, and food cooperatives establish locally-produced organic food supplies. These alternatives are increasingly popular for all kinds of people, because regardless of local people’s differences, financial and environmental uncertainty is a shared and uniting reality.
In 1940, George Orwell suggested that ten to one should be the maximum difference legally permitted between people’s wages on the grounds that “[a] man with £3 a week and a man with £1,500 a year can feel themselves fellow creatures, which the Duke of Westminster and the sleeper on the Embankment benches cannot.” Since grossly unfair market outcomes are yet to be resolved, we in our disposition as the 99% have the chance to come together as ‘fellow creatures.’ Imagine widespread community-based healthcare schemes, water and energy bill sharing and so on. If the economic bubble bursts again, heightened austerity measures might follow, and ‘the public interest’ could become more of a good idea than a reality. Given that everybody inevitably needs support, even if only during the last few years of a long-lived life, it would be more preventative to join forces today, rather than out of desperation tomorrow. It is now in all of our interest to take a genuine interest in others.