We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately. – Benjamin Franklin
Day 1 of self-isolation and it’s a window into a new world – is it one that we will embrace or is this the end of civilisation as we know it?
Times like this bring out the basic instincts in us.
We respond with fear and greed – and much of what you see on social media falls into these two buckets.
People are afraid, for their jobs, their industries, their future.
Others are looking for opportunities, pushing their services, angling for position working out new scams and profiteering.
So far, so natural.
And then you have behavioural responses – social, cultural ones.
These are empathetic acts – where you reach out to those who are afraid and reassure them.
Or more practically you organise into local support groups, helping those affected by restrictions on movement or those that are more vulnerable.
People rail against the selfishness of others – but also marvel at the unselfishness and community spirit of even more.
And then you have the responses of governments – and that’s a different kind of approach depending where you are and the kind of economics they believe in.
We’re seeing at least three kinds of responses then – instinctive, cultural and economic.
What should we make of all this?
The instinctive response is the one that has worked for many millions of years – find a safe place, keep a stockpile of stuff you need – depend on yourself and try to survive.
This is the world of the doomsday cults – the ones who believe that the world is going to end and that this is divine retribution.
Or, in a less extreme fashion, they’re conservative.
The kind of people who live within their income, have a decent savings pot and know they can ride out three to six months without an income.
But they’re probably in the minority, in developed economies anyway, because of the link between consumerism and economic growth.
Developed economies depend on people going out and spending money, keeping money circulating.
That stop in money circulation is devastating for individuals and industries.
It’s a connected web and while we all have a place to stand, things are ok – we keep bustling along and living our lives.
But what the people in charge know is that all this is built on a web of confidence – on the belief that we can live this way.
The social reaction to people in trouble is to reach out and help.
But not all the time – most of the time we ignore what’s going on.
The fact is that lots of people fall off our social web all the time – some were never on there in the first place.
We respond with social action – we raise money to help, there are charities that do what they can and philanthropists who spend money to solve the biggest problems.
But when we have a crisis, like the one we have now, the biggest thing a government has to do is maintain confidence.
And the way they do that is by not allowing anyone to fall – by helping them through this difficult time.
And you can see that happening – with loans and payment holidays and help of various kinds.
Help, you should note, that is given now but will need to be paid back later.
That way it’s not a handout but help to put people back on their feet – so they can carry on participating in the confidence game we call a modern economy.
What’s going on right now is a forced social experiment in creating a post-industrial society.
This is one where we work at home, get everything delivered and only go to a place of work when we have to be there because it’s critical for operations.
But we’re probably going to realise that there are few of those situations.
Most factories, docks, warehouses and places where things happen can be managed with a small staff – only a few of whom have to be on the premises.
A lot of things run themselves these days – and what we’re seeing at the moment is a good reason to make more things that way.
If you live in a modern economy it is probably a scary time, especially if you aren’t in a situation where you can survive on your own resources for very long.
And the thing people should realise is that it isn’t their fault – these kinds of shocks are a characteristic of the system they live in.
And it’s the people who are in charge of the system who need to make sure that a short-term shock does not result in a long-term impact on the people living in that system.
There are many reasons why this needs to happen – but the simplest reason is that people have long memories.
If you fire your staff now or make them take pay cuts when times are bad now – then when times get better you’ll find that they’ll get even by leaving.
Look after them now and they will repay you with loyalty in the future.
This is counter-intuitive behaviour for our basic instinct.
That just wants to run and hide, cut away the costs, pare to the bone, hunker down in order to survive.
Which is a little last century, perhaps even Jurassic.
What we now need to do is make sure no one falls off the web – by helping now.
Well – governments – the owners of the system need to do that.
Because this crisis will last a short time and then there will be a long period of growth and recovery.
That’s how these things work.
And why should governments act this way?
Once again – because people have memories.
A government that fails to act to support the system it manages will not stay in government very long.
So, there are two things we should remember.
There will be – there has to be – a safety net for people who are in trouble.
But you also need to help yourself – the changing economy will create new opportunities – for new products and services delivered remotely or by post.
The online economy will accelerate along with all its support services – see this post for the list.
Here’s what it comes down to.
You aren’t going to be allowed to fall – governments can’t afford for you to fall.
Not these days, with everyone watching them – urging them to do the right thing.
If you fall, we all fall.
So stop being afraid.
Take a helping hand, if you need to – and start thinking about what you’re going to do next to participate in the economic and social web we’re all clinging to.
Because that’s what matters now.