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Capitalism invented 'social distancing': what we've always needed is the opposite

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Image: Tristan Collicott‎/Caremongering-TO/Facebook

A paradox of this global pandemic is that -- as economic activity scales back and, resultingly, so do greenhouse gas emissions -- the deadly new coronavirus might facilitate the continuation of human life on a planet made increasingly unviable by climate change.

Another paradox is that a virus requiring us to physically separate has me feeling more meaningfully connected to others than I ever have been.  

As we confront our own fragility -- as individuals and as members of the human race -- our capitalist socialization is coming slightly unravelled. We're not merely economic units of production and consumption, as we've been implicitly told, but biological beings interdependent on one another for our survival.

The slightly less-serious parallel pandemic of toilet paper shortages has not only renewed an adult appreciation for scatological humour: it also reminds us of the basic needs common to the human experience; ones that our economy was designed to fulfill. As it turns out, we don't exist to serve this economy we've built but, rather, the exact opposite. Whatever the meaning of life is, we can't get on with it unless and until we've cleaned our butts -- and now, as many of us have altered work schedules that offer us unprecedented time away from our usual places of economic activity, we're realizing that the meaning of life might be less wrapped up in our roles under capitalism, and more related to the fulfillment of our physical, social and emotional needs, and those of our neighbours.      

And so, like thousands of others, I'm finding purpose, satisfaction and relief in turning some of my time and energy towards other people, even as my interactions with these people are increasingly mediated online. I'm part of a large geographic-specific Facebook group designed to facilitate community during this time of immense change, happening under conditions of physical isolation. 

On the forum I'm a part of, people have been posting almost non-stop: sharing information and resources; putting out offers, and responding to requests for material, social and emotional support; and coordinating resistance to a political and economic system that will unevenly distribute the burdens and gains of this crisis. 

The communal care being expressed on these forums is beautiful and invigorating -- even as it is imperfect -- and challenges some of my own assumptions about the ways of the world. Firstly, that our safe-keeping is primarily the purview of the state. Our country was founded upon and sustains itself through the restriction of care, and any exception to this rule happens precisely through the forced disruption of its normal operations. The needs being articulated through these groups mirror-image the failures of the governments responsible for addressing them -- while also showcasing the role that non-state actors play in compensating for these failures. 

Secondly, as calls-to-action are showing up on this page in between offers to drop off freshly-baked muffins, the assumed dichotomy between interpersonal care and political advocacy is being dissolved. As Cornel West has said: "justice is what love looks like in public" -- with justice and love representing differently oriented manifestations of a common investment in each others' wellbeing. And just as charitable giving is limited if it's not committed to eliminating the need for charity, so too is political organizing if it doesn't foster internally the kind of relationality it desires for the world at large.

COVID-era communal care offers us an example of how these seemingly distinct and often oppositional agendas can come together for what is, in fact, a common purpose: to redistribute the world's assets, towards the fulfillment of everyone's immediate and long-term needs. 

It should be sad that it takes a global health crisis to shake us out of our economic drone-like existences. But for many, this pandemic isn't a disruption of a status-quo state of physical security, but a continuation of limited access to it. A 2018 report by the government of Canada found worse health outcomes among "Indigenous peoples, sexual and racial minorities, immigrants, and people living with functional limitations, and ... socioeconomic status."

This reality is obscured by our country's claim to a universal system of health care; a system that is only "universal" if we remove from consideration the many health pre-requisites: access to non-insured services (dental, and pharmacare); adequate housing; safe working conditions; clean air and water; nutritious food; time and resources to exercise and sleep; social support; psychological wellness -- that it doesn't account for. And, depending on who we are (i.e. Indigenous, newly immigrated, asylum-seeking, undocumented, incarcerated, living in a rural area), even the basic guarantees of our health care -- a state-sponsored family doctor and fully-equipped hospital -- aren't a given.

Most of these health-relevant variables are, of course, related to how much money we have. Under a capitalistic system of resource distribution, our right to anything -- including life -- flows directly from our ability to pay for it. Studies show that the ability to make healthy decisions -- such as to not smoke or limit alcohol consumption -- are a function of mental and emotional wellness, which is itself a function of our economic security. 

So all-encompassing is the experience of economic class that it even informs the "choices" we make for ourselves. Being marginalized by race, immigration status, sexuality and ability also negatively correlate to health outcomes, in large part (although not entirely) because they predict our class position; this underscores the need to understand systems of oppression as more than interpersonal discrimination but as material denial.  

Those who live everyday with these health-denying realities are, in some small way, having their day in court, when this infectious disease turns health into a collective experience. 

Anti-poverty activists have decried for years the state of overcrowded and under-resourced homeless shelters, but they are finally becoming a problem for the rest of us, as we realize these conditions that 'only' affected the poor now also affect the rich because they undermine efforts to curb COVID's proliferation.

Other capitalist-era phenomena -- climate change; mass migration and international movement; under-resourced public health-care systems; unfair labour practices; national borders; restricted access to medications; and mass incarceration -- will also contribute to the spread and lethality of COVID-19. And so, it's not surprising that in this moment when we're experiencing en masse the failings of our status quo we're also overcoming one of its central features: social distancing.

Like many, I hadn't heard of "social distancing" before becoming acutely aware of its importance over this past month. But the name for this emergency public health protocol -- misleading because what is being called for is physical withdrawal -- is better suited as a descriptor for business-as-usual under capitalism.

As Professor Mark Rifkin describes, one of the critical tasks of the North American settler-colonial project was, in fact, the enforcement of "social distancing" -- disrupting the extended kinship networks around which Indigenous governance systems were organized, and which posed a distinct threat to the imposition of capitalist economic relations.

Introducing the concept of private property, and redirecting material, social and emotional responsibility towards small nuclear family units, was crucial for capitalist market expansion: the smaller our networks, the more reliant we become on the market for the fulfillment of our needs. Further, the withdrawal of love and investment from those outside of our capitalist-defined family makes acceptable a world order that demands ruthless competition and denies well-being to so many. 

Given the reach of capitalist operations into every aspect of our lives, it's unsurprising the extent to which we are subjectified by its logics -- even when acting in supposed resistance. Women's rights activism concerned with "breaking the glass ceiling" reveals the capitalist-engendered desire to be validated through participation in the formal economy. And just as this feminist movement has expanded the labour market, so too does has it expanded the consumer market -- now, literally, entering our homes to fill voids in household labour (through cleaning services, ready-made meals and child care, for example). 

Global "human rights" activism also assumes as its subject the capitalist-compatible "human," one whose "rights" are, as Karl Marx articulated: "the rights of a member of civil [market] society, that is, of egoistic man, of man separated from other men and from the community … it is the right of self-interest." Ultimately, this seemingly apolitical discourse instills, globally, a vision of wellbeing indexed to individual rights within a free market; a vision that contradicts, undermines and distracts from the collective right to subsistence. 

Just as a pre-requisite for capitalism is "social distancing," so too is its effect. I'm not the first millennial to bemoan having to schedule social time with friends months in advance, and with the help of a Doodle poll. So busy most of us are earning a living, and working to ascend the capitalist hierarchy, that unstructured and "non-productive" time with friends can't take priority. 

But its not just the scarcity of time but also of place, with every square inch of our world increasingly subject to private ownership. The phenomenon of "defensive design" -- the architectural strategy of using planters, spikes, armrests and other features to deter "loitering" on outdoor benches, sidewalks and staircases -- corresponds to the belief that our right to exist isn't one of birth, but of wealth. 

As someone reminded me: libraries are one of the few remaining places that care more about us than our wallets. It's hard to imagine the concept of libraries being piloted under current conditions -- their mission of making space, knowledge, connection and goods accessible to the masses is so sensical yet so contrary to the sensibilities of capitalism. And so, like almost anything today, nurturing relationships comes at a cost -- in this case, the cost of purchasing the right to congregate (in a private establishment).

This requirement prices some of us out of regular social access; for others, it involves us in downloading the burdens of a socially distant world onto others. Meeting at a coffee shop requires availing of the labour of a minimum wage worker who, in Toronto for example, would have to work 79 hours a week to afford rent in a one-bedroom apartment. It is unlikely she has the luxury of time or place to nurture her own relationships. 

And even those of us with the privilege of social access still primarily experience our non-nuclear-family relationships superficially; time with friends is a break from life, not structurally integral to it, since we're still directed towards satisfying our "real" needs through the market. And so, we're lonely -- more so than ever before, studies show. 

And this isn't just emotionally destructive, but also physically so, with some research suggesting loneliness to be as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes per day, with socially isolated people being 50 per cent more likely to die prematurely than those with robust social networks.  

But of course, keeping us busy and separated from each other is the best thing for the status quo. The decried closure of an old McDonald’s restaurant in Toronto's gentrified Parkdale didn't just open up space for condo development -- it also closed space for co-ordinating resistance to these very condo developments. 

Even beyond explicit political action, however, having the time, space and inclination for substantive extended-network relationships enables withdrawal from exploitative markets, which in turn effects structural change. Having the conditions for human connection might allow us to, for example, sustain more community gardens to address local food insecurity, while also circumventing reliance on the indentured labour of agricultural workers; to collectively repurpose, restore and exchange old clothing or fashion our own, instead of regularly purchasing attire made artificially cheap through the use of sweatshop labour; to develop networks of reciprocal aid, meeting our needs for child care, dog walking, transportation and plumbing through mechanisms of mutual reliance rather than monetary exchange; to share tools, appliances and vehicles, instead of buying them anew. It might, even, diminish our need for alcohol, iPads and international trips -- because our lives aren't ones we need to routinely escape from.      

Listening to my parents and grandparents speak about their childhoods, one of the primary differences was the structure of social life. Evenings were spent in the mosque, which functioned as a hub of after-work activity. Unlike the purposeful, discrete and exclusive nature of my social engagements, their socializing happened in spaces of intentional unintentionality -- where people who didn't necessarily know (or even like) each other agreed to co-exist, in large numbers and without explicit invite, in the same geographic space, based on a desire for contact and a loosely shared subscription to a religious philosophy. 

These spaces were free to access and ungoverned by the capitalist motive of profit; they further side-stepped its logics by offering a forum for social fulfillment, relationship-building, political and philosophical discussion, networking, information-sharing, resource distribution and mutual support -- roles we now turn towards the market to fill or that otherwise remain vacant.

I'm recalling this now, and appreciating how the communities borne out of COVID-19 represent, in some way, a modern and online version of this collective spirit.  

Of course, just like institutionalized religion -- which is often exclusionary, and violently so -- these COVID-era e-communities aren't accessible to all: people working on the front lines or who are otherwise experiencing first-hand the urgency of this crisis and who don't have the time or energy to engage; the homeless and non-homeless poor priced out of internet access (who now can't even access libraries for their connectivity); Indigenous people and others without reliable internet infrastructure; those incarcerated in prisons and detentions and denied regular communication with non-imprisoned society; those who are old, neurodivergent, and/or disabled who can't tolerate extended screen time, navigate internet etiquette or linguistic norms, or who don't even know how to log on; and colonized and persecuted people living under war and blockade. And of course, these e-hubs still exist within a broader context of violence -- governed by norms of settler-colonialism, white supremacy, nationalism, ableism and capitalism -- that inform their orientation, and limit their capacity for change.     

So, without overstating the significance of what's happening here, or romanticizing this moment, I'm still fantasizing about what's possible when our shared and mutually dependent humanity -- rather than our differential productive potential and socio-economic status -- become central to our worldly engagement; when our capitalist-prescribed identities are subsumed in favour of our social ones; when we're valued and rewarded for embodying a spirit of collaboration, collectivity and sanctity of human life instead of competitiveness, individualism and human disposability; when we're encouraged to check out of work, and into each other. Instituting these ideals post-pandemic and long-term is a far way-off, but community care in response to COVID has given us a taste.  

At the very least, this pandemic has reminded me of who my family is: more than the small and distinct group of people that this system has educated me to love, it is all those people vulnerable to the ravages of this disease. That is to say, it's everyone. And overcoming the capitalist phenomenon of 'social distancing' -- even during a time of physical distancing -- means operationalizing this definition of family, personally and politically.   

Khadijah Kanji holds a masters in social work. She works in therapy, as well as in research, programming, and public education on issues of Islamophobia, racism, transphobia/homophobia and other areas of social justice.

Image: Tristan Collicott‎/Caremongering-TO/Facebook

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