An Expanded Community Of Fate

We are now in an expanded community of fate that COVID-19 has created. This could become the basis of mobilization for a new moral political economy.

Tyler Comrie for Noema Magazine
Margaret Levi is the Sara Miller McCune director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, professor of political science and senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford.

It has always been obvious that occupied states — Palestine, for example, or Northern Ireland — do not perceive their host states as legitimate. But now we’re seeing similar sentiments in non-occupied states. Black Lives Matter and some of the populist and nationalist movements in capitalist democracies have widespread and strongly held beliefs that governments, or at least significant agencies of government, are acting in illegitimate ways. Students and young people have lost faith that governments will act to mitigate climate disasters, undermining confidence in government itself.

At the root of this contemporary political crisis is the failure of government to be trustworthy in its delivery of promised services and protection, as well as legitimate in relation to the norms and values of much of the populace. Governments are no longer delivering on their promises to provide a path to the middle class. Indeed, far too many people are seeing the end of a stable job, affordable healthcare and retirement benefits. And this is not just an American problem; countries such as Germany and Sweden that have done so much more in providing a safety net are also feeling pressure. Nor is it just an economic problem. There is a widespread perception of a decline in security and safety — international, domestic and digital. Political sclerosis and polarization are the result. No longer do our publics or our elected officials perceive themselves as part of a common whole, what my colleagues and I call an “expanded community of fate.”

We are living in what the researchers John Seely Brown and Ann Pendleton-Jullian call a “white water world,” where change is constant and new forms of flexible learning and action are increasingly necessary. It is a world that demands a new political-economic framework, one that serves the interests of society as a whole, that builds on and produces shared values and that institutionalizes trustworthy and legitimate government. This is what I call a moral political economy.

Every political-economic framework embeds values and encodes standards for behavior and choice. All are moral political economies. Neoliberalism is no exception. It enshrines the rational individual as decision-maker and centerpiece; it then emphasizes the importance of rational choices defined narrowly in terms of personal costs and benefits. It is normative about firms, governments and the economic system itself: Firms should single-mindedly maximize profit, governments primarily protect property rights and provide the infrastructure that the market will not, and relatively unfettered capitalism will ultimately benefit all who work and strive. It is also normative about individuals: Freeriding is expected, and economic failure generally reflects personal, not structural, problems.

The major achievement of neoliberalism — and all prevailing political-economic frameworks since Adam Smith’s — is to make normative prescriptions seem like descriptive statements of the natural behavior of people, governments and organizations. We come to understand the system as given and natural; it can be tweaked but not fundamentally changed. The fact that some prosper while others do not is an effect of choices or luck, not of system design.

“We are now in an expanded community of fate that COVID-19 has created.”

This belief in the system as natural is a parlor trick. Economies are the result of moral and political choices, which can be made and remade — and they have been in the past, with one political-economic framework giving way to another. In the past century, we’ve seen Keynesianism replaced by neoliberalism, which has held sway since the 1980s when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. and President Ronald Reagan in the U.S. enshrined it as the doctrinal road map for government, while international aid agencies imposed neoliberal terms on developing countries. This framework is as subject to being superseded as its predecessors were.

So how do we go about constructing a new moral political economy? The keystone is generating an “expanded community of fate.” For societies to survive and thrive, a significant proportion of their members must engage in reciprocal altruism. All sorts of animals, including humans, will pay high individual costs to provide benefits for another perceived as part of their family, herd or tribe. Indeed, this kind of altruism plays a critical role in producing cooperative cultures that improve a group’s welfare, survival and fitness. This is what constitutes a community of fate. 

What we want to do, however, is stimulate an expanded community of fate, which goes beyond the limits of a particular group’s boundaries. Our goal is a form of farsighted reciprocal altruism in which members are willing to make costly sacrifices on behalf of those with whom they believe their fates, and their descendants’ fates, are entwined but who may never be able to directly reciprocate. An expanded community of fate is critical to the survival of humanity, extended human cooperation and the development of societies in which people flourish. 

We are, in fact, now in an expanded community of fate that COVID-19 has created. Our destinies are clearly entwined as we join together to fight this virus and protect ourselves and our societies. The pandemic makes us aware of our reliance on and obligations to a wide network extending beyond family, friends and neighbors to all those who contribute to our health care, supply chains, child care and more.   

The origin of this concept comes from a study that the academic John Ahlquist and I undertook of unions — organizations created to serve economistic self-interest. Some unions, most notably the dockworker and longshore unions on the west coast of the U.S. and in Australia, were able to mobilize their members on behalf of distant others who could never reciprocate. They achieved this with governance arrangements that made leaders highly accountable, introduced members to events in the world and then allowed them to come to a determination about whether and how to act. In these unions, leadership successfully delivered what their members rightfully expect of unions: better wages and working conditions, job security and safety, social insurance. But the union also offered education about history and current affairs. It was built on democratic processes that allowed for discussion and confirmation of information about atrocities and for voting for the appropriate actions to take. A critical part of the formula was the constitution of democratic institutions that encouraged challenges to leadership and expression of voice.

“An injury to one is an injury to all.”

Equally important were the norms of fairness, solidarity and shared destiny with others that defined the common ethos of these unions. Through a combination of socialization and civic education, the members came to believe that they had an obligation to defend against violations of human rights across the globe. They came to believe that if you tolerated injustices against populations anywhere, you opened the floodgates to the possibility of rights abuses everywhere. In the words of the legendary Knights of Labor and later the Industrial Workers of the World: “An injury to one is an injury to all.” This is the slogan adopted by the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union (ILWU), one of the principal unions we studied. 

The workers in these unions developed an expanded community of fate in which they recognized that their wellbeing and destinies were entwined with those of others. They engaged in costly actions — risking loss of pay, loss of jobs and even jail time — in the interest of others but against their own material interests. For example, in the late 1930s, both the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and the ILWU voted to protest the occupation of Manchuria by refusing to load ships with scrap iron destined for Japan. Purportedly, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called Harry Bridges, the president of the ILWU, and asked him to get the union to load the ships. Bridges responded that given U.S. policy, the union members were exercising their rights as citizens.

In Australia in the late 1940s, when the “wharfies,” the nickname for Australian dockworkers, learned that the Dutch ships they were to load were carrying armaments for Dutch troops in Indonesia, they voted to stop work, even if it meant losing pay. As one former wharfie explained to us: “I loved and respected our union leader, but I never understood his communism. But when I learned we were being asked to load guns on ships to shoot down the rebels in Indonesia, I said, ‘That’s not fair dinkum.’ I joined with the others in refusing to load the arms.” Similar protests continue to this day.

Our study also revealed how the actions become a benefit unto themselves that, at least to some extent, balance out the costs. Union members experienced “the pleasure of agency,” as the political scientist Elisabeth Wood describes in a different context, the civil war in El Salvador. The emotional pleasure derived from acting in the interests of others becomes motivational.

“They engaged in costly actions — risking loss of pay, loss of jobs and even jail time — in the interest of others but against their own material interests.”

Using digital technologies now available, numerous organizations are experimenting with creating new bases for communities that extend well beyond family, friends and tribe. Code for America uses digital technology to build “delivery-driven government” responsive to user needs. Societal collaborations, such as Wikipedia, not only swell the ranks of those engaging in a cooperative endeavor, they also develop novel forms of governance to correct mistakes and guard against false information. Other efforts, such as Democracy Earth or Urban Array, use blockchain to facilitate decentralized government, voter mobilization and community building. Their strength lies in creating networks of people across multiple boundaries to solve common problems. They offer novel approaches to drawing on the variety of skills and expertise within their relevant populations.

Although they may sometimes foster a wider circle of obligation, responsibility and even empathy, these approaches, exciting as they are, are not enough. Fundamentally, they represent technical, engineering approaches to governance. Expanding a community of fate is a cognitive-informational issue. It involves changing citizen beliefs about how the world works and who is winning and losing. It requires internalizing norms of fairness and equity into citizen thinking and practice and clarifying how these norms apply in unfamiliar circumstances and contexts.

Even when these critical steps are achieved, there is the question of scaling — how to mobilize enough people around shared norms and destinies to actually stop objectionable policies and practices. One tactic is to change the debate. The political scientist William Riker introduced the notion of heresthetics, using rhetoric, storytelling and strategy to redefine the situation in a way that changes the choices for a significant proportion of the populace. They come to see that the only alternative is to band together for a common cause.

Greta Thunberg is but one shining and well-known example of a modern, if perhaps unintentional, heresthetician. A Swedish teenager whose depression kept her from attending school, she found her voice and the voice of a multitude by mobilizing young people to speak truth to power about climate change. Worried about their futures, they articulated the existential threat to not only themselves but to all citizens of the world. Their movement is encompassing and welcoming to all, and it is based on identifying a common interest and entwined fate that crosses multiple traditional divides. Their emphasis is on shared destiny.

“Their emphasis is on shared destiny.”

The contemporary U.S. student movement to make university endowments “fossil-free” may have started before Thunberg came on the scene, but it has gained strength, momentum and enhanced power from what she jumpstarted. The fossil-free groups have gotten to the point that we reached in the anti-Vietnam War protests and in the opposition to apartheid. The students (and not just the students) have lost faith in the national government to act, and they perceive few, if any, leverage points to make things happen. Thus they, as those of us engaged in those earlier movements did, are putting pressure on the one place they do have some leverage: university boards and administrations. Moreover, those boards and administrations have other forms of leverage with companies and governments that students don’t. But the bottom line is that the activists are contributing to the construction of an expanded community of fate by making so many, both on and off campuses, cognizant of their shared destiny.

All of us have some community of fate — those with whom we perceive our interests as bound and with whom we are willing to act in solidarity. But sometimes that community is exclusionary, emphasizing race, nation or religion rather than common humanity. The existential crises we face today, caused by climate change, pandemics, the threats to democracy and the deepening of inequality, provide many candidates for collective action. 

While it is not anything any of us would have wished for, the COVID-19 pandemic does make us aware of the invisible workers who enable us to survive: the grocery clerks, the cleaners, the sanitation personnel. Our new expanded community of fate cuts across polarization and has the promise of becoming the basis of mobilization for more equitable policies. A common ethos, a commitment to the flourishing of humans and the earth, is the first necessary condition for needed change in our governments, economies and societies. It is now our shared responsibility to create and sustain a more encompassing moral political economy.