Most of us have struggled to maintain our mental well-being throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Surrounded by fear and apprehension, it’s been hard to keep hope alive. In my experience, those who have managed to find ways to feel useful have fared better than most. I was lucky: well before the sudden appearance of COVID-19, I had already been writing about our shared forms of vulnerability, global interdependencies, and the need to place the complexities of care at the very heart of politics. Even timelier, four friends had joined me to study our culture’s historic refusal to value care work. Our resulting small Care Collective quickly produced a book for Verso, The Care Manifesto (2020), keeping us all busier than ever, as we connected with others around the world who were also addressing the politics of care. As we developed our vision of a truly caring world, we focused on how governments, municipalities, and media outlets might become more caring, working to promote collective joy rather than their current narrow and duplicitous concern with individual aspiration, knowing that so many will inescapably flounder. Understanding that we all depend on each other, and nurturing rather than denying our interdependencies, encourages us all to work to cultivate a world in which each of us can not only live, but thrive.
Such ambitions return me to the political milieu I encountered as a young adult in the 1960s. Young Australian radicals then were aware that appalling events were happening around the globe, but they rarely reached our doorstep, least of all in my “lucky” birthplace of Sydney. “Lucky,” that is, for its incoming settlers over the previous two centuries who barely registered the genocide of the country’s indigenous inhabitants, the Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders. We did hear about the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, with anti-Apartheid struggles often drawing us onto the streets in boisterous protest outside the South African embassy. By the close of the decade, however, we were rallying regularly outside U.S. embassies, with opposition to the Vietnam War quickly the imprimatur of progressive consciousness.
Optimism flourished on many fronts throughout the decade. Calls to “Make Love, Not War” rang around the world, and the graffiti adorning Parisian walls during the flashpoint of 1960s protest told us to believe anything was possible: “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible,” “Live Without Dead Time,” “Form Dream Committees.” Calls for hedonistic revolt reverberated, reaching even far-off Sydney. These calls were always laced with the thrill of unfettered sexual freedom. “We must make love / Instead of making money,” urged the gleeful British playwright and poet Adrian Mitchell. In 1968 the Beatles song “Revolution” entered the Top 20 charts in the anglophone world. “We all want to change the world,” they sang, calling for revolutionary and nonviolent change. Meanwhile, the term “sexism” was coined during that decade, as male braggadocio burgeoned at the barricades despite so many passionate young women joining the protests. These lively years of movement politics, awash with collective joys and occasional tears, would soon launch women’s liberation as its first and most persisting progeny.
This essay is featured in The Politics of Pleasure.
Indeed, the spirit of the sixties was the cradle of women’s liberation, which would be encompassed in second-wave feminism in the seventies. During that decade, ideas from the earlier New Left’s Herbert Marcuse, Raymond Williams, Edward Thompson, and Stuart Hall were imbibed with possibilities for critical engagement with the good life. Hall, the most charismatic of the New Left thinkers, became the founding editor of New Left Review in 1960 and set the journal’s early utopian tone. Quoting the archetypal nineteenth-century visionary William Morris, he called for the creation of a “society of equals,” where people no longer needed to escape immiseration but had the resources to pursue meaningful, pleasurable lives. “Life is something lived,” he wrote, “not something one passes through like tea through a strainer.” Thompson, a Marxist historian and later leading peace campaigner, was also determined to put Morris back on the left’s reading list, with hopes of achieving a new alliance between socialism and utopianism. Like French philosopher Miguel Abensour, Thompson argued that Morris’s goal was the “education of desire,” urging us to desire differently and reject the purely commercial reasoning of capitalism. These male mentors all spoke of the significance of culture and community life, alongside support for civil rights, while applauding calls for direct action and cross-class solidarity. It was into this heady mix that budding feminist voices placed women’s subordination, incorporating questions of intimacy and community life at the center of politics.
Nowhere did this happen faster than in the United States. As one of its iconic chroniclers, Alix Kates Shulman, wrote in Burning Questions (1978), her semi-fictionalized memoir of women’s awakening in the sixties, “I find myself happier than I ever dreamed I could be.” She wasn’t alone. The ardent optimism of that time, expressed by Sheila Rowbotham, Ellen Willis, Adrienne Rich, and Audre Lorde, quickly joined by the voices of thousands of women globally, seemed to suggest that the space between desiring change and realizing it was shrinking. And there were many victories, however short-lived some proved: new laws supported women’s rights and equality in the home and workplace, alongside a growing cultural acceptance of women’s reproductive autonomy.
Antiracist struggles were occurring simultaneously, as the civil rights movement in the United States had for years influenced U.S. activists. Millions of Black people had listened to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legendary speech “I Have a Dream” during the March on Washington in 1963, demanding civil and economic rights for African Amercians. Though it never proved easy to unite across class divides and diverse “identity struggles,” the collective effervescence of such varied rebellion provoked deep-rooted conservative panic, which explains why the sixties and its legacies have been trashed in conservative retellings.
Looking back today, we seem so very far from the spirit of jubilation that energized those street-fighting years. It was perhaps best captured by the words of charismatic British Trotskyist Tariq Ali, who placed this bold proclamation on the front page of the first edition of The Black Dwarf in 1968: “WE SHALL FIGHT, WE WILL WIN, PARIS, LONDON, ROME, BERLIN.”
After sixty years of consistently engaging in radical thought and action—picket lines, marches, and fervent writing—it’s daunting to see that we now face a world that looks more unequal and uncaring than ever. It’s a glum outlook for progressives of any stripe. Progress and improvements for some is matched by continuing poverty and decline for many others. Once we add the impact of a global pandemic and an overheating planet, it’s clear why dystopian scenarios have become more seductive than ever.
Yet the recent combination of COVID-19, worsening climate crises, and other calamities did also convince more people that something is drastically wrong with a system in which many of us no longer have the time or resources to care adequately for each other or for the world at large. The result is two radical imaginations pushing in deeply contrasting directions.
For some, we are finally leaving behind the mayhem of capitalism, but only for something even worse. The entrenchment of unregulated corporations is threatening to sideline the state and render workers’ struggles futile. After seeing the trillions the U.S. government handed out to corporations during the COVID-19 pandemic with no strings attached, Marxist historian Robert Brenner concluded in the New Left Review, “What we have had for a long epoch is worsening economic decline met by intensifying political predation.” Similarly, witnessing the widespread acceleration of workers into precarious gig economies, with digital platforms amassing free data from us all, Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis insists that we are now living in a postcapitalist, techno-feudalist dystopia. Building on the work of Marxist feminist McKenzie Wark, Jodi Dean also asserts that capitalism has reverted to a form of “neo-feudalism,” with the extreme wealth of the few reliant upon a perpetually precarious, impoverished underclass.
For those not resolutely blind to the suffering of others, such thinking resonates with our awareness of the difficulties and despair of so many who are deprived of any sense of control over their lives. Yet such pessimism can dangerously align us with a form of reactionary conservatism, merely gawping at the dire state of things, apparently helpless before impending disaster. This dystopian imagination has hovered around popular culture for decades, with any form of utopian yearning all but obliterated in fantasies of frightful futures: Hollywood offers us visions of a wasteland where teenage Amazons compete and die (The Hunger Games, 2012–15), a United States in which half the human race is enslaved as breeders (The Handmaid’s Tale, 2017–22), and a society in which disposable people are bred for their body parts to be harvested by the rich (Never Let Me Go, 2010).
Such scenarios at least partially mirror a reality where unrestrained corporate power has been allowed to invade much of the former public sector, enabling rocketing inequality, government corruption, police brutality, rising racism, and fatal cruelties toward refugees and the vulnerable. Such market fundamentalism has encouraged an uber-individualism dismissive of weakness, one that disavows our basic human interdependence or need to preserve the planet on which we all depend.
Yet this market mindset has never gone unchallenged, least of all in recent years, during which we have seen growing calls for collective resistance to our governments’ capitulations to corporate interests. Like other progressive activists trying to stay buoyant today, I often borrow Raymond Williams’s 1980 reminder in New Left Review that radical politics must be about “making hope possible, rather than despair convincing.”
This year, in Taking Control! Humanity and America After Trump and the Pandemic (2022), English writer and campaigner Anthony Barnett offers his own tempered optimism for sustaining progressive, democratic spirits. With Williams, Barnett served on the editorial board of New Left Review, and he praises the prescience of his old colleague on two points: first, for noting the necessity of aligning economic arguments with ecological ones, and, second, for warning against the urge to treat people as “available raw material” for profit. Like Williams, Barnett applauds the significance of feminism and attempts to shift away from an exclusive focus on market production. He instead advocates for a notion of “livelihood” to help us gain “confidence in our own energies and capacities.”
Barnett draws hope from the surge in climate activism in recent years. He turns to the works of influential left economists—such as Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics (2017), Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014), and Marianna Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything (2018)—to suggest that more people are realizing that we must replace old commitments to endless growth with regimes prepared to invest in diverse forms of social and shared ownership, alongside ecological preservation. As Raworth spells out, wishing for constant growth is a planetary death wish. Instead we must create economies that promote a flourishing web of life for humans and the world at large.
We remain so far from true human and nonhuman flourishing. This awareness triggered my recent involvement in producing The Care Manifesto, an appeal to address our continuing failure to value the crucial labor of care. Market logics lack the vocabulary to genuinely understand the complexities of caring, despite the many forms of “care-washing” smearing the packaging delivered by insecure, underpaid delivery workers.
Unlike commodity production, care work is not quantifiable. It is relational, and requires time, flexibility, and creativity. However rewarding and meaningful it might be, it is often challenging work that ideally ensures some reciprocal sense of agency and well-being between caregivers and receivers. Women were traditionally charged with supplying care work, but now most are in the paid workforce. Neither the United Kingdom nor the United States has passed any meaningful legislation acknowledging the care work women are often shouldered with providing; to the contrary, both countries have made substantial cuts to welfare provisions. These factors have combined to create an alarming care deficit. This gap has been largely filled by global care chains that exploit Black and migrant women. Thus, earlier feminist demands for the sharing of caring responsibilities, alongside the necessary resources and welfare provision to enrich our households and communities, are now more urgent than ever.
Much political energy is currently returning to centering these demands. We see it in the confident growth of the Global Women’s Strike movement which calls attention to the universal failure to value care work. Indeed, women are mobilizing around the world, from the nationwide Polish women’s strike against their government’s 2016 attempts to criminalize abortion, to the tens of thousands of women in Argentina who took to the streets in 2015 to protest against femicide as part of the militant #NiUnaMenos (Not One Less) movement. And we see it happening now across the United States, as women take to the streets to protest the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.
There is hope—and joy—in this kind of collective action. For despite the neoliberal propaganda that we only have ourselves to rely on for our well-being, the opposite is true. More of us are becoming aware of the dishonesty behind the myth of self-reliance and self-fulfilment, when the rich and powerful always have an army of helpers at hand to serve them. We know that people are more likely to find pleasure and well-being through their encounters with others, in sharing their joys and sorrows whenever they can.
I wrote about the significance and pleasures of collectivity in Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy (2017). There I drew upon Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution (1963), in which she suggests that no one could be called either happy or free without feeling they had some ability to shape public power. For Arendt, it was only through public engagement that people might consolidate a feeling of democratic belonging, as well as what she called amor mundi, love of the world. Arendt valued a sense of agency that arises through collective action and deliberation. Judith Butler has often echoed this sentiment, stressing the importance of realizing a sense of public belonging through the possibilities available for participating in shared action and debate. Care theorist Joan Tronto agrees, albeit from a slightly different perspective. In her book Caring Democracy (2013), she argues that once we acknowledge that dependence is a fact of all our lives, freedom lies in our capacity to care for others and commit to who and what we care about.
The significance of caring and collective engagement was at the fore during the challenging years we just faced. Despite government and corporate failures to prioritize all the lives affected by the pandemic, especially globally, extraordinary grassroots action offered support to those most in need. Globally, mutual aid groups flourished. In the very first month of the virus, voluntary workers from all walks of life signed up to help those self-isolating. In the UK, millions of volunteers in local communities supported food banks, with many offering their time to tackle issues of homelessness, debt, and mental distress. Over the last decade, we have seen democratically run neighborhood forums and caring hubs spring up globally, helping communities to resist and survive austerity regimes. To be sure, these activities can help all involved; 2021 research at the London School of Economics (LSE) found that volunteering gave people a sense of purpose and pleasure, increasing their overall well-being.
It is in the United States, however—with its daunting levels of inequality, racism, police brutality, incarceration, and extreme suspicion of politicians—that grassroots activism has been most pronounced. When COVID-19 arrived in March 2020, widespread aid networks grew immensely in most major cities, with armies of volunteers raising money for those who needed help with food and rent. Researching these initiatives for her 2020 New Yorker essay “What Mutual Aid Can Do During a Pandemic,” staff reporter Jia Tolentino pondered the origins and long-term significance of this extraordinary burst of solidarity and support, while herself active in aid networks on her doorstep in Brooklyn. However, knowing that feel-good stories can be leveraged by conservatives wishing to champion volunteerism over state welfare programs, Tolentino stressed that such projects would only survive in the long term if backed by public support. The researchers at LSE came to similar conclusions; volunteering and mutual aid need public funding to flourish in the long run.
Nevertheless, activist and perennial optimist Rebecca Solnit, covering the rise of mutual aid for the Guardian in May 2020, suggests that radical collective moments can sometimes manage to sustain enduring resistance and networking. For example, she references the Common Ground Health Clinic that formed in response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, which has managed to continue delivering free medical care for over fifteen years. With no foreseeable end to job losses from the pandemic, Solnit suggests that this sudden spread of generosity and solidarity foreshadows what is possible, and certainly necessary, for our future survival. Many volunteers may return “to normal,” but some will retain a new awareness of who they are, their ties to others, and what matters most. We can renew our attachments to life by embracing its sorrows as well as its joys, which often feel far larger than our own concerns. Coming together in moments of collective fear and despair to work on common ground also enables moments of collective joy even with small victories.
There is a certain energy that comes with envisioning a more equitable, peaceful, and fairer world—and sharing such imaginings. Some psychologists, including Tim Kasser and Malte Klar, report links between political activism and feelings of well-being. Kasser and Klar interviewed hundreds of college students about their levels of political engagement, optimism, and overall happiness, finding that student activists showed greater signs of well-being than other college students. Their shared political work gave them a sense of purpose, meaning, and pleasure in life. Given that most young people today are experiencing some form of anxiety around climate change, climate activism—the feeling that one is acting to effect change and has agency in the face of disaster—can offer significant remedial benefits.
Eventually we will all find that our corporeal bodies fail us, and our desires will be frustrated or rejected. Yet our own miseries often recede when paying heed to the lives of others, as poet Adrienne Rich often noted, using her own experience of early-onset rheumatoid arthritis to unite her in solidarity with the suffering of others, with the “pain on the streets.” Rich also spoke of the “radical” happiness she could share with others in moments of heightened political engagement. Similarly, another well-known American feminist, Lauren Berlant, argues in their influential book Cruel Optimism (2011) that “the political” is “that which magnetizes a desire for intimacy, sociality, affective solidarity, and happiness.”
This may sound idealistic, yet the pervasive epidemic of loneliness today, along with soaring levels of clinical depression, suggests that the power of collectivity and the spirit of solidarity might be our best hope. Hope can come from the feeling that our actions matter, which explains why shared exuberance so often accompanies moments of intense collective endeavor. While helping to sustain individual confidence and preserve community life, greater openness to others also allows us to enjoy rather than fear diverse forms of inclusive hospitality, lessening our own inner terrors or sense of hollowness.
Rather than simply facilitating forms of predatory capitalism, which will always feed off ongoing calamities, the many present crises can encourage us to find better ways of seeking change together. Despite all impediments, watching the vitality of today’s progressive movements—from radical eco-warriors to Black Lives Matter and disability rights activists, and the surge of union activism now occurring in the UK—I see some return to the longing for a better, more equitable world that defined earlier decades. The pleasure of acting in concert to assert our need for each other and our natural world can, and must, hold us together in the challenging years ahead. There may well be dark times, but there can also be singing, at least when we gather to work toward better futures.