It’s one thing to survive a catastrophe, or any kind of trauma; it’s another thing entirely to recover and start to rebuild. While it’s heartening to have discovered a strength I was only partly aware of before now, it’s also sobering to realise that withstanding shock and mourning is only part of the journey. I’m waking up to the fact that having withstood “the bomb” of Mark’s death, there’s still a long hard road to travel if I am going to create a new life…
This cafe was once a restaurant called The Green, and it was there we had dinner with family and friends when we got married. It’s changed hands twice since, and split into two different establishments. I’ve been here countless times before, but today as I sat down with a cup of coffee, something about the afternoon light reminded me of that beautiful October day 10 years ago and tears began streaming down my face. I have many beautiful memories of our time together, but they often collide with the pain I feel that Mark’s no longer here. I know that sadness, hurt and loneliness are not only shaping my present, but could shape my future if I don’t work consciously to try and face it with something like hope. A number of things I’ve done in past months count as bold gestures towards the kind of future I sometimes dream of, but they don’t yet amount to recovery. I can’t yet say I’ve built a new, different life without Mark – too often it’s more a case of living with his absence, of survival and getting through the days.
This realisation that rebuilding after a catastrophe requires strenuous effort, a different emotional engagement to “getting through”, has woven itself into my to reading of Paul Mason’s new book Postcapitalism A Guide to Our Future. Mason’s acknowledgement in it that what he describes as postcapitalism will likely be birthed amid crisis and conflict interests me because it touches on questions of how we navigate the experience of suffering, crisis, loss and somehow move forward towards the future with hope.
Mason’s argument about the replacement of capitalism by postcapitalism is essentially optimistic, but the comparison with the end of feudalism 500 years ago and references to “external shocks” that will speed the process all point to difficult times ahead. The financial crisis that began in 2008 marks not only the end of neoliberalism, but also signals “a longer-term mismatch between market systems and an economy based on information”. What began as a financial crisis seven years ago has “morphed” into a social crisis and escalated to a crisis of the global order. There are, on the face of it, only two ways it can end, argues Mason. In the first
the global elite clings on, imposing the cost of crisis on to workers, pensioners and the poor over the next ten or twenty years. The global order – as enforced by the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organisation- survives but in a weakened form. The cost of saving globalisation is borne by the ordinary people of the developed world but growth stagnates.
The second scenario, says Mason, is a variant of what happened in the 1930s that could happen again.
the consensus breaks. Parties of the hard right and left come to power as ordinary people refuse to pay the price of austerity. Instead, states then try to impose the cost of the crisis on each other. Globalization falls apart, the global institutions become powerless and in the process the conflicts that have burned these past twenty years – drug wars, post-Soviet nationalism, jihadism, uncontrolled migration and resistance to it – light a fire at the centre of the system. In this scenario, lip-service to international law evaporates; torture, censorship, arbitrary detention and mass surveillance become the regular tools of statecraft.
Hope for an alternative scenario comes in the form of a new route out of the ruins of capitalism created by technology, Mason argues – the old system will finally be abolished by a new dynamic emerging, breaking through and reshaping the economy around new values and behaviours. I’m only a few chapters in to the book, so I’m looking forward to reading more about the “emergence of a new kind of human being” who Mason believes will shape this future, and also about the nature of the more socially just and sustainable global economy that could emerge from the ruins of neoliberalism and capitalism.
Having experienced loss, having seen friends go through the trauma of the crisis in Greece, both the short term shocks and long-term pressures, my sense is that the process of imagining a new future and building towards will be an extremely costly, demanding process. Not only can letting go of the old narratives and certainties be disorientating and chaotic, we will surely have to go very deep, to a foundational level – individually, collectively, institutionally – if what we rebuild is going to be truly of a new order.
The question of what is required of us personally and ethically if we’re to build a more sustainable and socially just future of the kind Mason envisages fascinates me. In any situation we find ourselves in, we are presented with choices about how to respond, how we engage with others. On what basis can we be confident that we will choose into something that transcends our own subjectivity, our own narrow concerns?
Pat Kane, in his review of Mason’s book, focuses on creativity when he addresses the question about who will be part of this emerging movement and what drives the desires of contemporary radicals and progressives:
Human imagination irrepressibly bubbles up through the cracks of brute survival. The current tumult of digital culture only hints at the kind of world we could forge if those exigencies of survival were radically reduced.
This paragraph pinpoints a tension needs acknowledging between the experience of tumult and our drive to imagine and build anew. When times are tough, it can be tempting to try and short cut the pain, to project forward and focus on the prospects for a better future. It’s a slow and difficult path to tread, eschewing escapism and facing up to all the inconsistencies and contradictions of pain and suffering, while at the same time avoiding getting mired in, or overly-influenced by, the negative perceptions that result. If you rush ahead you might fall down the gaps; you have to slow down, take time to make sure the stepping stones are in place.
If I’m honest, life often feels very bleak these days and I struggle to look towards the future with anything approaching hope. I’ve survived the shock and devastation of Mark’s death, I’ve had lots of experiences, done lots of things that have reminded me that life can be good, that there is beauty in the world. But day to day, it’s a struggle with, as yet, no real core or focus, no sense of what new life might emerge from the ruins of the old. I have lots of ideas, countless dreams, but achieving them often feels impossible. The feelings that flare up when pain, loneliness and loss are so frequently with me make it difficult to face the future with optimism, not only that, I feel the pull towards isolation, a vague sense of hostility towards others who seem to inhabit such a different world to me.
Although it’s tempting to look for the ‘what’ I keep coming back to the fact that there’s also a question of ‘how’ that’s more about me examining these feelings, making choices that mean I remain open to people and to life. It’s not the case that time heals, you have to keep choosing it, and do a lot of work if you want to recover and rebuild.
A Youtube video by Mark Gonzales confirmed my thinking about the way our personal landscape impacts our life, and pushed it on, when he said that the “most pressing problem facing human beings these days is that we only know how to feel two emotions: Rage and numbness”. The problem isn’t a shortage of brilliant ideas that can resolve the problems facing humanity at this specific time, he argues, but the fact that we don’t have a strategy for engagement that enables us to embody them.
We need ways to fall in love with feeling again. Because without that, nothing else is possible. So are emotions the answer? No. They’re just the prelude to every other answer on the table.