And finally we have all landed in our homes and have begun working from there. Online meetings, online teaching, online studying. Some of us are emotionally better prepared for this than others, but very few have been able to handle it with complete sobriety and equanimity. And yet, being members of the creative class who can sit comfortably on a couch as the crisis goes by, we should realise what it does with less lucky ones who cannot escape physical and financial risks and prepare for a post pandemic future without a return to our previous unsustainable lifestyles. Creative couch-sitters of the world, unite and rethink what inclusive prosperity may look like in the future.
Getting adjusted and thinking of the future
While working from home, those with children have to divide their time between babysitting and their professional duties and accept lower levels of productivity. Those with only their partner around have a great opportunity to get to know him/her (even) better. Those who live alone have to struggle with imminent loneliness and may become addicts of long-distance video-calls with relatives and friends. Given that I have to try and keep my small children engaged with their school tasks (with only very partial success), I spend only a few hours each day in front of my computer writing, reading or communicating with peers. This made me worry that I would not be able to catch up with my academic and managerial duties. But to my great relief, many emails remain temporarily unanswered, documents others had promised are not delivered to my inbox and attempts at making updating phone calls to others often prove unsuccessful. Could it be that everybody else is also stressed out and taken aback by the impact of the pandemic of the century? Are we all mentally struggling to come to terms with the new circumstances and making sense of what was actually going on? Can we foresee how long it would last and how far a return to normal life is removed from here? The above is not to say that no online gatherings take place or that people are not trying hard to get their life and senses together and live up to what they thought are decent work standards. It is simply that part of our brain is paralysed, captured by something bigger than us. Hijacked by a phenomenon only known from movies or history lessons: a large-scale epidemic with potentially ravaging effects on lifestyles, economies and civilizations.
The question, however, is actually whether Covid-19 is really the one that does this level of damage. Various experts have predicted that after SARS, MERS and Ebola, other viruses could leap from animals to humans and spread across the world. It was only a matter of time that such a pandemic would come over us. And in fact, Covid-19 may not even be the deadly enough viral species that bodes ill to affluent society as we know it. This is potentially good news for now: with some prudence and patience, we may be able to pick up our regular lives again. But for the long term, this does not bring particularly comforting tidings — there may be much worse to come in the future unless we change our interaction patterns with various forms of wildlife. So the message we should read into this is: while coming to terms with our temporary homebound context, we should prepare intervening profoundly in social, economic and environmental ways to prevent larger-scale system breakdowns in the coming years and decades. Besides, when facing a rather serious economic downturn after the epidemic, would we even wish to return to a rather raw consumerist system to fulfil our needs? One where more and bigger is better, where the biotic is industrially exploitable at any price, where rising disparity in capital and income leads to mounting societal instability and where climate change destroys the viability and availability of natural resources on which our livelihood ultimately depends? A crisis is an opportunity. And even if we do not see it as such yet, we are well-advised to start doing that soon.
Sitting on the couch and waiting to be served
At present, most of us see tons of corona jokes daily on our WhatsApp, WeChat, Line, Telegram or Instagram. They can act as a medicine for our pain, although the level of social acceptance depends on the acrimony of the joke and the mental resilience of each individual. A significant one I received read:
‘Your grandparents were asked to go to war. You are asked to sit on a couch. You can do this!’
I found it particularly funny, not only because it portrayed us new generation of academics and professionals as wimps, but also because there certainly was a kernel of truth to it. Given the fact that we are in a position to lock ourselves up in our homes, and are not immediately cut off from regular income and physical safety, many of us are actually the lucky ones. Urban scholar Richard Florida would call us members of the creative class. In his famous books, he coined and elaborated on the idea that modern capitalism no longer consists of just the capitalist and working classes already recognized since Karl Marx (though they both still exist), but that since the late 20th century two more classes have been added to the equation: the service class and the creative class. While the capitalist class is as before small in numbers but overwhelmingly large in capital, the working class has dwindled very significantly in numbers because of the declining share of extraction and manufacturing in total economic production. In have come two new classes, intimately tied up with the service industries. While the service class consists of manual, vocationally trained, easily substitutable and often temporary service jobs for which in principle a great many people qualify, the creative class counts people with higher levels of academic or professional training working with their minds rather than hands. And while the former represents a new rather vulnerable group of just-have-enoughs, the latter is significantly more privileged in terms of income, employability and access to various tangible and intangible societal resources. Seen from an urban perspective, capitalists live in urban villas at the most attractive spots in town (or outside it), the creative class gets second choice and occupies much of the more comfortable and attractive neighbourhoods, and the working and service classes have to make do with what is left after that. And they can merely hope that dwellings there are and will remain affordable.
Well, it is here that sitting on the couch becomes a relevant category. When we as academics and professionals let the new prospect of sitting on a couch for X weeks and months to weather the corona crisis until the end sinks in, we should not forget that as representatives of the creative class we are effectively shielded from the most unsettling consequences of the epidemic. We tend not to be cashiers in supermarkets, delivery boys and girls for food or packages, hairdressers, street cleaners, bus drivers, bartenders, shopkeepers or dishwashers reliant on variable income and/or flexible hour contracts. We are not subject to the risk of relatively close interaction with customers and clients who may or may not behave responsibly or be sent home with uncertain wage prospects for the coming months and possibly even years. We are not people living in elderly homes protected from possible infections transferred by younger relatives in exchange for loneliness. We are not the vulnerable service class, where chances both of infection and of dropping out of the labour market are very real. We are the creative couch-sitters. Why should we complain?
Let us do something right
That awareness of being a member of the creative class and thereby dodging some of the danger should reassure many of us. But this luck should be accompanied by a peculiar awareness and responsibility. As creative couch-sitters we will only be able to make it safely through these times of crisis because there are others who keep essential services running. Some of them are special specimens of our own creative class, such as doctors, nurses and school teachers: their daily bread may be secure but they do run far higher health risks than we do. But most others represent members from the service class and working class. They are in most circumstances neither physically safe nor financially secure. They do not completely control their chances to be infected by individuals around them and they are very likely also be hard-hit when it comes to job security, flow of income and eventually living conditions in the neighbourhood where they reside. These people deserve all our support (well beyond a minute-long round of applause), not only because it is a matter of justice, but also because any complex society needs the input and involvement from various segments of society to remain stable and vibrant.
Before the corona crisis overran the globe, a trend had begun to set in where both experts and companies recognized that since the 1980s the mechanisms underlying our interaction with the physical and social environment around us led to socially, economically and ecologically unsustainable patterns of production and consumption. Social movements, progressive businesses and forward-looking governments had spotted this plight and were willing to act on this. In order to remedy shortages of affordable housing, income inequality, systematic undervaluation of human and social capital, animal abuse, climate change and overriding risks to public health due to air, water and soil pollution, they came to promote concepts such as complete capitalism, inclusive capitalism, inclusive prosperity, inclusive wealth, doughnut economics and stakeholder-oriented business. On the 9th of March, our Erasmus Initiative for the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity jointly with The Economic Summit organized a conference to launch the Centre for Economics and Mutuality, which we consider a vehicle for testing new sustainable solutions in the world of business. That event immediately became the last before the corona virus drove me and most of my colleagues home. Since then, we have unwittingly become creative couch sitters. The capitalist class has withdrawn in its luxury bunkers, while for us creative class our comfortable couch is our home. The service and working classes are still out in the cold and will need support now and in the future. Given their voting behaviour in recent years, it is unlikely that they have found political representation which can really do the job for them. This puts us in the driving seat:
‘Creative couch-sitters of the world, unite!’
We know it was a naïve idea of Karl Marx to think that the wretched ones will defend their own interests. They do not, and they may even follow demagogues not acting in their interest. It has always been the middle classes who came to the rescue of revisionism, proposed green capitalism, established welfare systems and cared for animal life. So it comes down to us, passive, reflective couch potatoes, to grab our keyboards and exchange ideas on what inclusive post-pandemic patterns of production and consumption should look like. What conception of human nature should underlie it? What (if any) incentives for good behaviour will be provided? How will we protect the livelihoods of our working and service class? What will be the social status of cows, pigs and sheep, cats, rats and bats? And, last but not least, who gets the capital? We are familiar with path-dependency, so we will not make the mistake of thinking we can build a new society from scratch. But we also know that struggling hard to return to the unsustainable practices we came from is a dead-end road. Change is needed. Let us use these couch-sitting months well, and anticipate a brighter post-pandemic future.