I came of age in the United Kingdom in the 1970s, a glorious decade when beer was 1s 11d (later 10p) a pint, the three-day week brought random power cuts and the 1973 Arab-Israeli war sent oil prices rocketing. Perhaps not surprisingly it was also a golden period for paranoia movies. One of the best was “Network”, in which a chat show host played by Peter Finch had a mental breakdown on live television, and exhorted his viewers to go to their windows, lean out and shout, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sdQCPlAZjbY)
Well, I feel like I have got to that point, and I think a lot of other people have as well.
Came the 1990s, and the German sociologist Ulrich Beck started writing about what he called the ‘risk society’. He argued that modern society was characterised by increasing risk as we became more and more knowledgeable and sophisticated, living in ever more complex and interconnected societies. He also considered climate change, and proposed that as people around the world became increasingly aware of an impending catastrophe that they would “have to conduct and understand their lives in an exchange with others and no longer exclusively in an interaction with their own kind” (Beck, 2010, p. 259). In other words, that as the reality of disaster became more apparent, that we would start to realise that the way the world is currently working was just not working.
Systems thinkers like Stafford Beer have pointed out that the purpose of a system is what it does. From that perspective the purpose of the economic system that we live in is to increase inequality, poison the environment and individualise society so that we pay little attention to the shabby reality of modern life. As long as we have gadgets to buy and a credit card.
However, the Coronavirus may be changing that perspective. Our interconnectedness has led to a pandemic where societies are being locked in their homes and told not to socialise, but at the same time it is making us aware of what is happening, while vacuous politicians put on serious faces and tell us they will save us.
In Italy, people confined in their apartments are going to their windows and singing to each other. At the moment they are singing songs and playing music and making us smile.
But in reality they are as mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it any more. It’s time to change the purpose of the system.