How we choose to recover will set the tone for the next century

What is required is a new foundation, a new American story that redeems everyone who has been forced to accept that their value, the meaning of their lives is defined primarily in economic terms, to survive and to recover into a new future. We have been sold this idea slowly over the course of generations but are now at the peak of the exploitation of humanity as an economic input, as a unit of labor for the purpose of creating wealth at the expense of meaning and our spiritual lives. We don’t want to go back: we want to be free.

The democratic primary is over, and we have selected a nominee who may be exactly the right leader for the moment — steady, known, transitional — but who may also be the least ambitious about our future. Throughout the process I have been frustrated by a specific and consistent deficit of ambition, creativity, and genuine transformation in our Democratic primary. The final debate of the primary featured two septuagenarian white men (after a competition of 20+ potential leaders of greater diversity than we’ve ever seen at this level of American politics) arguing about positions they held in the 1990s. Our arguments are stale. Our ideas are incremental (wealth tax, UBI, higher minimum wage, free college) masquerading as revolutionary — some of them would expand the equity or ameliorate the cruelty of our current system, but none of them really offer a path to something new. In this moment, change is insufficient: we need transformation.

We live in a country of increasing futurelessness — where people both feel and live outside the possibility of an American Dream that has felt more and more like a lie or a trick to more and more of us over time. We live in a country of cruel inequalities and decreasing mobility where a small group of people live in an exponential economy of growth, abundance, and near-infinite opportunity while the vast majority survive in a flattening linear economy without hope of new horizons. We live in a country of less trust, less cohesion, less capacity to argue in safety. When we live with no sense of the future — or at least no sense that we have a role in it — and fragile connections to others, our lives get mean and anxious. Our conflicts become cruel, and all disagreements begin to feel existential. And our horizons become so short that solving complex, long-term challenges like living in balance with the earth or managing a pandemic are not only impossible, but not worth attempting.

Pulling down the exponential fraction of our country by begging for scraps in the form of a wealth tax may generate some revenue for more social programs, but it does not get the rest of us out of the linear economy. It doesn’t allow any more people to share in those infinite possibilities, and it certainly doesn’t ask those exponential economy people to change their behavior, to stop being modern robber barons, to include more of their neighbors on whom they rely (whether they see them or would admit it or not) in their thinking or share their thriving with them. Lifting up the linear portion of our economy with a universal basic income will certainly lessen the cruel anxiety many people live in every day and provide some safety that would enable some greater creativity and new behaviors to emerge, but fundamentally it only lessens the suffering of a broken system rather than actually transforming it. Both of these ideas would help an inhumane economy that has always been built on exploitation become more just, but neither of them create a humane economy. Neither demands a new social contract where we are all elevated, where we all have horizons of hope and opportunity, where ideas like automation and artificial intelligence can be welcomed as part of the emancipation of the working class rather than greeted with fear and terror at our own replacement, where we all have the safety and confidence to strive for lives of joy and meaning, where we are all (and not just some privileged portion of our citizenry) invested in each other’s health and success.

At this unprecedented moment — when we face a collective challenge that is utterly indifferent to both our small, partisan thinking and our large, fundamental differences — I worry that our recovery from this crisis will be shaped by the same values and principles that set us up to suffer through it. That the inequality of our lives makes our suffering unfair and unequal in a moment when our fates are more obviously inextricably bound than usual. That our intentionally undermined government underperforms as designed and further undermines our collective expectation that we can do big things. A “return to normal” that too many of us want no part of is not good enough.

Over the last century, we have consistently freed private markets that were never meant to elevate everyone rather than freeing people. Freedom accrues with wealth so the richest are the freest, and because our history of wealth (and citizenship) disparity goes back to our founders, the freest in America are also almost always white men. A basket of vast new policies without a clear and coherent thread of belief, of conviction, of why they are needed is not going to carry us into a new era where freedom is not a feature of wealth or manhood or whiteness.

What is required is a new foundation, a new American story that redeems everyone who has been forced to accept that their value, the meaning of their lives is defined primarily in economic terms, to survive and to recover into a new future. We have been sold this idea slowly over the course of generations but are now at the peak of the exploitation of humanity as an economic input, as a unit of labor for the purpose of creating wealth at the expense of meaning and our spiritual lives. We don’t want to go back: we want to be free.

We will not be the same coming out of the first wave of this crisis as we were coming in — not as individuals, not as a society, not as a country. What we need is to re-engage a conversation about what we want to define our lives and how we want to define meaning that forces us to reckon with the inherent inequalities and gross inhumanity of an industrial system of exploitation. The fear and anxiety of futurelessness are a form of tyranny just like others we’ve hoped to cast aside. We can discover a path that not only allows us to live lives of meaning and joy but also ensures the safety and confidence necessary for true freedom for everyone if we are willing to pick our heads up and explore. We have been told that conversations about the meaning of life are too “out there” to matter, that they are a distraction from the work that is expected of us, that they are impractical. But that story — that they are impractical rather than essential — is part of what keeps us locked into a system that defines our value in purely economic terms and not as whole human beings. If we can slow down our reactions to these questions, our knee-jerk defense of the stories we have been taught, we can find language each of us is comfortable with to start a conversation about what we want for ourselves and our families, about the kind of communities we want to live in, and to demand from our country the leadership and systems that support the lives we want, lives guided by the priorities that matter most to us — family, community, possibility, effort in service of progress not just wealth — rather than the lives a cruel economy of efficient exploitation demands of us. We deserve nothing less.

Share


Welcome to 7 Bridges — a conversation about the future of humanity and democracy in America. If you’re joining us for the first time, hello! Subscribe via the button below to get this in your inbox for free.

Please consider becoming a paid subscriber to support this work, too. Subscribing to 7 Bridges is the best way to keep it free and open to all — and to support new voices and independent media.