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Labour + Industry

What Did We Learn from the Great Pause?

Take a big breath before you step back out into the world. What do you want it to look like?

Dorothy Woodend 21 Jun

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

On my birthday last week, my sister and I had lunch at the Vancouver Art Gallery café. It was a bright and pretty afternoon, and everyone on the restaurant patio was sipping cocktails, looking at their phones or yammering away to their tablemates. A shockingly normal experience.

My sister posed the question that seemed to hang in the air, unspoken, yet loud as a shout: “What did we learn from all of this?”

She wasn’t referring to the patio scene, but rather the rush to return to the pre-pandemic era, which sometimes feels like the Triassic period. Had we humans truly gleaned any insights from the past year?

Already, the great gearing up is revving its engines. Tourism ads have returned on TV, along with other signs of a concentrated push to get back to the before-times. You may feel an urgency to start shopping, flying, vacationing and consuming, and do it even more than before, to make up for the many days lost to COVID-19.

This is understandable. It’s what humans do.

The rising and falling patterns of society are plottable by anyone with only the vaguest sense of history. After the First World War obliterated a generation of young men and rocked Europe to its core, what came next but the roaring 1920s. Bobbed hair, the Charleston and gin galore. This party raged for a soap bubble moment before popping, and then, oh no. The Great Depression. Bread lines, dust bowls and The Grapes of Wrath. A bit more war, then hooray the 1950s! New dining room sets and TV. Aw crap, Vietnam.

Boom and bust and boom again, over and over.

Not to make light of a century of human suffering and struggle, but my point is that for every pendulum swing, there’s a correction in the opposite direction following soon after, sometimes swooping back so hard it knocks the sense right out of people.

But as some parts of the world are poised to return to the way things were, there are other citizens standing up and saying: “Maybe not.”

For example, who wants to go back to spending $6 on commuting every day? The return to in-person work is a decidedly complicated thing, at least for us non-frontline folks. Some good aspects (water cooler talk), some bad (traffic jams). But as the pressure ramps up, Bloomberg reports, some people are opting to quit their jobs rather than be forced back into an office. The idea that your boss needs to see you working in the flesh has been rendered moot at this point.

But there are larger things at play too. As a worker interviewed in the Bloomberg article succinctly puts it, “A lot of people are afraid of the cycle where you work and work and work, and then you die.”

In fact, an entire generation in China has taken a look at the idea of working yourself to death — often referred to as 996 (9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week) — and said no thanks. Tangping (otherwise known as the Lie Down movement) began as a way to reject the idea that work is everything, but it’s taken on more political, even philosophical connotations.

A Washington Post article summed up the phenomena: “Some compare them to the 1950s Beat Generation in the United States. Others call their behaviour a form of nonviolent resistance or ‘ideological emancipation’ from consumerism. Supporters portray it as a rejection of struggle and endless striving. Critics say it is defeatist. Ultimately, observers say, tangping is a reflection of China’s disenchanted middle class, faced with stagnant wages in increasingly expensive and competitive cities.”

The article describes a generation that looked at what the endless cycle of getting and spending, working and buying had to offer, and simply said: “This isn’t a good way to live.”

There are echoes of this idea in other parts of the world too, sometimes in the most unusual of places, like your local McDonald’s. Workers are quitting at startling rates for many reasons: poor wages, crappy conditions, anti-maskers, but also because who wants to be almost-certainly abused by customers and potentially infected with a deadly disease for the sake of a terrible job?

As fast food restaurants across North America are forced to close because people don’t want to give over their lives for minimum wage, perhaps a new landscape is on the way. Maybe something more profound is shaping up.

582px version of HandsTimeoutDW.jpg
Take time for a time out. Illustration by Dorothy Woodend.

Emancipation from consumerism espoused by the tangping kids sounds a lot like the ideas explored in B.C. author J.B. MacKinnon’s new book The Day the World Stops Shopping, in particular the chapters that begin and end the book where the author spends time with the Ju/’hoansi people of the Kalahari Desert.

Ju/’hoansi culture has been studied extensively not only for the idea of affluence without abundance, but because of an even more unusual dedication to egalitarianism. As James Suzman, the author of Affluence Without Abundance writes, “The fact that hunter-gatherers such as the Ju/’hoansi enjoyed lives of ‘primitive affluence’ suggests our current preoccupation with productivity and growth is not an indelible part of our ‘natures’ — a preoccupation which, as environmental economists constantly remind us, risks cannibalising our species’ future.”

The idea of running below capacity, taking only what you need, and sharing whatever you have with others is fascinating enough, but the thing that truly lingered with me after reading MacKinnon’s book was the preciousness of time, specifically the excess of it when you’re not working like a crazy person, and what happens when you have room to think more deeply and carefully.

The other thing that leapt from these chapters is the value of time spent with other people in community. In describing daily life with the Ju/’hoansi, MacKinnon sketches out a typical evening meal, with people hanging out, telling stories and kids playing, all activity taking place in an atmosphere that he describes as festive. “The whole village, now, is together on the blankets, aloft in conversation and laughter. Loneliness here seems impossible. Almost every person is in physical contact with at least one other. Legs across legs, hands on shoulders, children across laps, back leaned against backs.”

When he asks one of the young women from the village if this is unusual, she gives him a confused stare and finally answers. “No… this is the normal way.” This image of people all gathered together in casual physical companionship and community has stayed with me.

It might seem difficult to imagine a world where everyone lives like this, but it’s not impossible. As author Ursula K. Le Guin famously said, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”

MacKinnon points out that for long periods of human history no growth, or at least very little, was the norm. Rampant consumerism and its attendant escalation in the production of goods is a relatively new thing. But this metastatic growth, as has been made explicitly, agonizingly clear in study after study, is not good for the planet or any species that currently lives here. It’s also not good for human happiness. In short: the more we buy, the more miserable we get.

But even in the face of this, shoving people back into the mad rush for more stuff is picking up. You can see it in the number of articles advising folks on what to buy for their new post-pandemic wardrobes, or where to go the moment travel starts up again. The pushback against this, whether it’s kids in China or people in the Kalahari Desert, offers up the idea that scaling back, whether it’s work, shopping or ambition, might be a better more humane way to live.

There’s a strange impulse, aided and abetted by consumer culture, to let events recede away — that if you don’t jump back into the rush of the world that you’ll be left behind, marooned and alone. But it isn’t true.

The previous year, when even a trip to the grocery store seemed to shimmer with the uncanny terror of a Hitchcock film, was one of the weirdest things we’ve collectively experienced. But humans adapted, like they always do, and it started to feel normal after a while. Zoom meetings, remote everything, the hunkered and bunkered sensibility. The fact that you couldn’t go anywhere was actually pretty nice.

In spite of the fear and uncertainty of the early days of the pandemic, something else has emerged. The idea that things could be different, that people could be different. The concept feels slippery as an eel and very hard to hold onto. But it’s critical that we do.

In this interstitial moment, like a massive inhalation before we launch back out into the world, redrawing the patterns might be a good idea, trying to think differently, to hold off and resist the urge to return to the familiar, even as the largest cultural and social forces are exhausting every effort to make this happen.

Now is a good time to pause for a moment on the threshold and think about what we humans want to return to. Or if we want to return at all.  [Tyee]

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