I wake, stretch my toes, and make plans for the new day. I am alone and alive.
The colour of my eyes, the length of my arms, my memories of childhood and former prime ministers, my instincts to compete or share, complain or endure: I carry all this with me but have chosen none of it. The strands of my being are mysterious and sacrosanct. I have a soul.
I turn to the other side of the bed and, perhaps, a face I love and a world as unfathomable as my own. Privacy suffers its first gentle puncture, and a welcome one; a first renewal of love and friendship, and tensions too. Our next chapter is uncertain but today we write new lines, so that I become part of something else, one half of a whole. No longer alone, I belong.
I walk into the kitchen and, maybe, see a tiny angel or monster sat at the table, who is half-awake and munching on toast, waiting for me; or perhaps my partner and I are childless. Either way, we take on fuel for the day’s shift. We are family.
One of us might switch on the news: the first radio waves from beyond our walls, which bring familiar voices into our house, to reassure us that even though the earth has suffered another sleepless night, she is girding herself for a new day. Through the walls we hear the murmurings of our neighbours, drawn together as we are by language. We are citizens.
Two of us leave the house, hand in hand, and walk to a bus stop or train station. My child safely dispatched to her waiting classroom, I walk on through the next neighbourhood to a place of work – my counter, desk, booth, floor, station, or machine – and join the economy. I am a worker.
The waking hours of human life remind us who we are. They give us structure, rhythm and meaning; a sense of where we belong and what we share with others; a routine that we learn, adapt, subvert, and break as we age. By mid-morning, we have remembered who we are.
In a human democracy that aims to fulfil the material and spiritual needs of its people, we wake in those first seconds as unique individuals, shaped already in myriad ways by our genetic lot, social rank, education and lived life, but free to make our next choices. Nothing can violate this first moment of freedom when we open our eyes.
To imagine a human democracy through its morning hours helps us to think about what might replace our British and American models that are exhausted and beyond reform. The way we start each day reveals the values we share, the culture we feed, the relations we develop to one another, the goals we set for our community, and the institutions we build so that the whole hangs together, and follows the ground rules we have agreed.
In those two nations that have pursued individual freedom at any cost, until all social bonds are undone, each morning reveals the damage. Hundreds of thousands of Americans and Britons no longer wake in their own bed but on a cold pavement or in a shelter. Millions wake to depression and anxiety. Millions with jobs live on the edge of poverty, their children hungry. Millions who enjoy material comfort see their inbox invade their home and inner life, or become distracted from conversation by the dopamine rush of social media. No manifesto of reform can repair this unravelling because now it is too late and we have come too far. We can only begin again, and wonder how.
Can we build a society that respects the sanctity of each soul, offers the time and space for a life with family, and draws us into relations with neighbours, recognising that we are citizens before we are workers? Can we embed our economy in the culture we share? A human democracy continuously debates what goods and services have social value, so that everything we produce and trade responds to the needs and desires that we, together, have agreed. The market sets prices but not our priorities.
To pose these questions is to ask what it means to be human in 2020. If we cannot find the answer, the oncoming storms will overwhelm us: environmental devastation, artificial intelligence, and a feudal economy in which the human soul is the primary raw material. We must not only find new ways to share resources and wealth but also create a sense of purpose that amounts to more than the accumulation of wealth or, for those at the margin, physical survival.
The struggle to define and protect human dignity is one of our oldest stories. In Europe, human rights, the rule of law, democracy and social welfare emerged painfully and haltingly from two millenniums of debate and bloody conflict, only for the twentieth century to produce the totalitarian terror that would deny the very notion of a human soul. Entering the third decade of the twenty-first century, we must isolate the ideas and forces that would again deny our humanity. Two are most urgent, and they work in tandem: a capitalism emptied of social purpose and accountable to no one, and its new rogue offshoot that turns a profit from the most intimate surveillance.
More than a decade after the global financial crisis of 2008, the American and British democracies are still chained to a blind individualism that drives much of our economy and erodes every social bond, locking corporations into a spiral of short-term financial gain, shifting wealth upwards to a shrinking class of asset-owners, and leaving any notion of the common good diminished and derided. No government in Washington or London will repair this damage until it breaks free of the dogma that has confined economic thinking for decades, starting with the myth of an autonomous rational individual who knows and masters her own desires and interests, understands the world from within her own mind, and who must therefore be freed from every social or cultural constraint – not so that she may discover the good life but merely compete without end or purpose.
Ironically, the sole threat to the myth of individuality comes from the surveillance capitalism of Silicon Valley, which not only predicts but increasingly manipulates our behaviour by rendering our every act and emotion as data for sale. If the earth’s nature has fed industrial capitalism, our human nature provides the raw material of surveillance capitalism. Behind the glossy rhetoric of social connection, creativity, self-development, and lifestyle convenience, the tech giants want to herd and tune our behaviour so that tomorrow we are perfectly predictable. It is a war on humanity’s oldest truth and capitalism’s worst nightmare: uncertainty.
To remember what it means to be human is to protect ourselves from such forces, and to refuse that our inner lives become the raw material for the profit of others; to remember that we are individual souls, children, parents, neighbours, and citizens before we enter the economy. Our culture and values must shape that economy, and not the reverse. Only then can we see that all human exchange is inherently moral, and only then can we begin to undo the indignities of modern life. We will not end our spiralling inequalities until we see them as a moral problem and a collective failure.
The countries of the European Union have taken a different path. Their internal market is not an absence of borders and tariffs but a political project of rules and institutions that express the countries’ shared values. Their founding treaty pursues a “highly competitive social market economy, aiming at full employment and social progress, and a high level of protection and improvement of the quality of the environment.” Member states have agreed to “combat social exclusion and discrimination, and promote social justice and protection, equality between women and men, solidarity between generations and protection of the rights of the child.”
The corona crisis will not spare Europe’s economies. Even before it arrived, the eurozone was half-finished and fragile, the wounds of the financial crisis still sore, and solidarity between north and south strained to the limit. And yet, the Union has shown that economics can be rooted in values: it has defended human privacy against the arrogance of surveillance capitalism; kept the highest standards of consumer protection across its internal market; embedded labour and environmental standards in its new trade agreements; and imposed sanctions on the Putin regime for the last six years. The Union’s greatest failure, to uphold the rule of law in some of its own member states, may yet be its undoing.
What, then, has the corona crisis changed, on either side of the Atlantic? So far, debate has struggled to move beyond the oldest questions about the size of the state, when the state and its size have nothing to say about what we value and what we want to produce. We haggle over bail-outs for the airlines without asking what we want those companies to be. We calculate a trade-off between economic recovery and our response to the climate emergency when, if we want a human future, they must be one and the same.
As the world turns upside down, our minds struggle to turn it back. We consult our files on the Spanish flu or the Great Depression or 1945, as if they might help us to see what comes next. Our lack of imagination is one of capitalism’s deepest wounds: we disrupt and invent and create and toil each day, but with no shared vision of where it all leads. We are tethered to an almighty machine with no compass.
Yet, how could we not see our confinement as a chance to imagine something else? What stirs within us when we witness the generosity, spirit of cooperation, and thirst for social purpose that have risen from our streets to confront the pandemic? Do we see only an outpouring of goodwill, no more and no less than the proper human response, or do we recognise some of our deepest instincts: to work together, support our weakest, find new ways of living in a city, and replenish our store of trust?
If any good is to come of this crisis, we should look to the first hours of our day and the human bonds they reveal. We wake as individuals, alone and free, but who need each other not only for love, friendship, and solidarity, but because alone we cannot understand the world we live in. True freedom comes when we work together, building families and neighbourhoods, values and trust; a culture that grows richer each year, and a soil in which a human economy can grow.