“What did you learn in (Corona) school today”

Frank Moulaert augutstus 2020

Frank Moulaert

In these Corona times my subconscious as well as my occasionally rational mind led me back to the song, ‘What did you learn in school today?’ by Pete Seeger in the 1960s (lyrics and vocals by Tom Paxton).

This was most likely prompted upon hearing Ministers of Education from a range of countries warn that Corona is a threat to the quality of education and that subsequently new subject matters should be offered to pupils in order to avoid delays in student learning.


‘What did you learn in school today’ was a song we had heard at many sit-ins in the late 1960s and the 1970s; a song that reached across borders and cultures and translated into many languages. 

It is a song that foregrounds the fake truths which US and Western schools taught kids about the supposed strategic importance of the Vietnam war and the trustworthiness of the political leaders of that time. It radiates the spirit of the rebellious 1960s and 1970s, questioning assumed values, systems and beliefs. Its message has significant contemporary value.

I feel especially challenged to answer the question ‘What did we learn from Corona these weeks?’ What should we understand by new subject matters? And who are these new authorities that we are instructed to put our trust in?’ 

These weeks and months have offered many of us the chance to reflect upon our respective circumstances —work, love, family, health and so forth. It is a critical juncture or hiatus that communities, cultures and systems have undergone and it is absolutely imperative to ask what we learnt from it. At the same time, it is equally crucial to ask, how do we now want to move forward, or perhaps, using a similar phrasing of Seeger: What should we learn (in school) tomorrow?

What should we learn (in school) tomorrow - or rather today?

I am concerned about what could be the (post) Corona new subject matter for society and its members. What did we learn from Corona and what does it mean to me?  Let me connect to my own shared learning trajectory. At the end of the 1980s, together with my beloved colleagues and friends, we started working with a ‘new’ view on the development of economy and society, i.e. the Social Innovation view. For scientific, political and pedagogical reasons, we developed a social innovation view on development. To put it simply, ‘we were fed up’ with the exaltation of technology, managerialism and economic rationality as drivers of societal progress through economic growth and we made a strong plea to reconsider the social dimensions of human action and progress. We proposed: no longer development through growth, but growth through development; a development in which cultural emancipation and social bonding would be put upfront.  No longer providing social welfare by offering cherries to the various well-disciplined and patronised categories of excluded populations, but building truly solidarity-based relations of communication, justification through co-creation. No longer Research and Development on hardware, technology and biochemistry only, but also on cultural emancipation, democratic governance, democratic and society-based education, solidarity building experiences and pilot projects, sustainable development in its various facets, … No longer top-down or front-back (of the classroom) pedagogy but interactive pedagogy, in which the concerns and questions of ‘those to being taught’ play a primary role.  These concerns led us to an understanding of a tridimensional definition of social innovation, based on a combination of needs-satisfaction through collective action, inclusive social relations and political empowerment leading to deep democracy as a ‘new’ view on human development at the community or local level, but with connections to social change at the supra-local scales.

It is clear that these Corona-times present a critical moment for reflecting on what is relevant knowledge to be learned, developed and acted upon in terms of shaping society. And yet I am worried about the predominance of the economic and the material criteria in the change intentions of political and economic leaders and how these could affect our future (un)learning. This worry brings me back to early discussions on social innovation, namely that the relationship between social economy as a solidarity-based way of satisfying needs and organising the economy and innovation in social relations in terms of solidarity, reciprocity, association, communication and mutual respect. With Diana MacCallum, in our 2019 state of the art book on social innovation[1], we wrote

[1] Moulaert, F. and D. MacCallum (2019) Advanced Introduction to Social Innovation. Edward Elgar Publishers.

“More specifically, SI requires attention to changing social relations through creating new forms of collaboration and reconfiguring the institutional forms that have (at best) neglected and (at worst) directly created or exacerbated the needs and problems. Thus, SI is widely promoted as a people-led
initiative capable of providing a remedy for the externalities of technological and economic innovations (such as social exclusion or environmental degradation). (p. 31)

” we examine each case in relation to how its social innovations meet human (and other) needs, its strategies and organising principles, its values and ethics, and the types of leadership that emerge. We also look at the social relations behind the organisational dynamics, including how they are territorially embedded and whether they sow the seeds of bottom-linked governance, i.e. new forms of democratic governance collaboratively built between SI initiatives and activists, their scalarly dynamic networks and state institutions and agencies.” (p. 50)

There are a host of critical voices commenting on the repair strategies ‘post Corona’. These strategies rightly focus on saving jobs, incomes, livelihoods etc… They are visionary in recognising the opportunities for reinforcing short-chain food supply systems, the implementation of more city-oriented policies along sustainability criteria, alternative modes of transportation, … At the same time the contradictory or incomplete character of some of these strategies and visions becomes clear: is densification still possible? Will C-fear discourage the use of public transportation? Will people continue to rely on honest food supply systems once they will be ‘released’?
I am not addressing these questions directly. My concern here are the social relations (in the many meanings of the term) that are emerging or are magnified in these C-times. The most visible are probably also the most contradictory: people fear each other as possible sources of contamination; but people also support each other by talking in the streets to people they never communicated with before; by providing assistance to elderly, lonely and sick people; by providing financial support to NGOs helping poor people, refugees, sans papiers, etc.; by organizing and participating in bear and other pet hunts for quarantined kids etc. But at the same time a growing share of the world population, also in Western countries – is bumping into its financial and material limits. Economic poverty is spreading along with social poverty. The solidarity of the lock-down risks not having a follow-up in a renewal of social relations. Social relations adopt many different forms in diverse contexts and these forms affect each other in different ways. 


Social relations in post C-times

Socially concerned citizens, activists and politicians point at the disastrous consequences of the C-crisis for individuals with a low income and/or an unstable job. They refer to the poor housing conditions which turn quarantine into imprisonment and physical distancing into street-wise slaloming. Many vulnerable citizens and migrants with low-paid and unstable jobs are the ones that are still in what are considered ‘essential occupations’, such as in logistics and food production or in lowly-skilled cleaning and caring jobs in hospitals and care houses. For them ‘home-work’ is far from home. The chasm between the rich and poor experience of the corona quarantine further exposes certain realities of social relations that have hitherto remained relatively obscured.  Recommendations to privilege home delivery from local firms as a substitute for in-person shopping, not only further expose a certain economic class of workers who work in warehouses and delivery but the very act of online-shopping is beyond the reach for a significant part of the population: too costly, inaccessible without use of new information technologies, falling outside the consumption patterns of the working poor, etc …[1].   Moreover, preventive medicine and reinforcing the immunity system are still the luxury of the middle and upper classes, while lingering diseases are overrepresented among people doing hard labour in unhealthy work conditions or living in unhealthy housing and neighbourhoods.

The same socially concerned citizens, activists, politicians, who make strong pleas for economic initiatives to support vulnerable  populations, to speed up the upgrading of social housing and build additional good quality social housing, to increase the income and improve the legal status of employees in the mentioned strategic but underpaid jobs; to plan and implement more public and green spaces within existent and newly developing neighbourhoods; to shift the focus from curative to preventive health care and make the latter financially accessible to the entire population; encourage and proliferate short-chain agriculture and food production, a.s.o.

This focus on ‘what’ could or ‘should’ be done leads us back to the first dimension of social innovation, i.e. the satisfaction of individual and collective needs through collective action. But if this is the only focus, it will obscure the essential importance of both other dimensions of social innovation: solidarity-based social relations and empowerment for socio-political transformation. History shows that materialising another, more just economy requires both these dimensions as much as the material acts of producing and consuming differently and redistributing resources in a more even way. Many community and social economy initiatives, communist and socialist experiments and systems failed not because the basic ethics of e.g. redistribution of resources were wrong or disapproved of, but because of autocratic leadership, underestimation of the role of shared values in development initiatives and of the burden of shared responsibility, etc. When system failures occurred even more stress was put on strong leadership with oppression of the critical voices and actors.

So how can post Corona do a better job and put social relations upfront? I want to examine how social relations can become more solidarity-based in (post) C-times and how such positive evolutions are under threat by overcontrol and whipped-up collective anxiety.

[1] For example, it is estimated that 15% of the Belgian population does not have ICT devices at home, excluding them from the ‘web of home deliveries’. Of course, some local firms also accept orders by phone.

Solidarity-based social relations in (post) C-time

Social relations in their most general meaning can be defined as relations between people and between groups as determined by their role in such relations. I do not mean to become functionalist in the interpretation of both ‘role’ and ‘relationship’. People have roles as workers in production relations, as consumers in the consumption system, as citizens in the political system, etc … These roles and relations are rather economically and formally/institutionally determined as they take shape in the capitalist market economy and its institutions. Yet these roles and relations can be changed, through socio-political mobilisation and socio-political transformation. Other roles and relations between people, among groups and in groups are less system or institutionally determined than the more system-bound social relations and roles. And there are ways to exit the latter and enter in so-called autonomous or post-foundational relations; as there are ways to create alternative niches within the system.

Let us look at one initiative put forward by activists, progressive political leaders, philosophers, diverse analysts, etc. … to deal with the socio-economic threats emerging from C, but also the opportunities rising from C-time livelihood conditions. Let us look at the social relations that (should) come with the ‘buy and produce local’. The limitation of the action radius for work, consumption, leisure, etc. has refocused our attention to the local economy. The short-chain food suppliers have in several places tripled their output. And the shortage of essential medical equipment ‘made in China’ have put the finger in the wound of deliberate globalisation cum free trade conditions. What are the relevant social relations to be discussed in relation to these observations? Let us work with the simplified distinctions we just made. If communities (NGOs, concerned citizens, local authorities, …) want to reinforce socially innovative short chain initiatives in food provision and beyond, relations of production in these initiatives need to be (re)considered from an economic democracy point of view (who owns the capital? who decides? how are decisions made?). But economic democracy only works if relations of trust, mutual support, reciprocity in work tasks, etc. are taken on board. This means that not only values of fair distribution but also of interpersonal respect and support should be part of the social interaction modes between both producers and consumers. This should be expected at the level of the local firms and their clientele. But do these attitudinal changes suffice to form a local economy or a  local food system? There are examples of city-wide short-chain quality-oriented food systems that are managed by a food council (or a similar institution) in which all relevant actors are represented: regular food business to CSA and short-chain eco-growers and distributors, (idle) land-owners, land banks, production and retail coops, professional training institutions, schools, etc. Within food councils new articulations between the existent market system and the emergent locally controlled emerge. The operation of such council requires a complex hybrid of social relations, again ranging from the interpersonal to the formally institutionalised modes of operation and cooperation.
We could extend this analysis to other actors and segments of the local economy – see the Foundational Economy, Integrated Area Development and the Social Region – but here again the features of formal and informal social relations should be at the forefront. A local more democratic economy will only work if: a significant part of the population changes jobs from the capitalist to the post-foundational, autonomous or mixed economy; if people keep changing their consumption norm, by reducing their junk consumption, privileging local (food) quality a.s.o; if alternative funding institutions are re-established (see the regional banks that existed in the past); if economic advisory councils are opened up to social innovation voices; if the local state transforms to work in a bottom-linked way; … a.s.o

Overcontrol and collective fear and how to overcome them

As in previous times of hardship, C-times have shown that local, autonomous and solidarity can work. But the social relations needed to make them work are exposed to at least three threats: collectively whipped up fear, overcontrol – mutual and state-imposed – and cultural change pessimism. The three threats reinforce each other.
Collectively whipped up fear has different sources: biased and incomplete information, the autonomous development of fake truths regularly contradicting each other and the particular type of fear among individuals and households living in a capitalist society where most people have lost control of their income and health conditions. In a recent theatre play on the life of Marx, Marx returned to the earth and revisited, among others, his theory of the proletarian reserve army. The monologue written by Stefaan Van Brabandt and acted by Johan Heldenbergh explains how contemporary capitalism survives because people are all the time tightrope dancing between staying healthy to be able to sell their labour power and being an unhealthy consumer being constantly in need of the medical and big pharma industry to survive. This double dependence, each embodying a high level of insecurity, is a structural source of fear in contemporary capitalism.
But collectively orchestrated fear is also reinforced by ‘control’. Keeping corona away from our hearths was possible through quarantine, keeping physical distance and early large scale testing. If the latter had been possible in the very early stage, quarantine and lockdown could have been organised in a more relaxed way; or would not have been necessary at all. Physical distance and good civil behaviour would have been sufficient to keep the beast at bay. But in most countries, it did not go that way. Reliance on citizen sense in combination with an arsenal of control and sanctioning measures had to make sure that quarantine and lock-down were respected. The higher the fear, the less control would be necessary, one could argue. But it does not always work that way: for a significant part of the population fear transforms into panic leading to unpredicatble behaviour going exactly against the imposed rules. Strict control rises the tension in people’s minds and catalyses fear, a.s.o. We end up in a vicious circle with an increasing number of very frightened people, which through their mindset and cerebral activity reduce their mental and physical resistance capacity.
Naturally fear is also about the risk of losing jobs, a fear that is real. But a fear that could be countered by experts, political and economic leaders, financial institutions, development agencies, … to name just a few. Instead we notice experts feeding a growing panic based on figures of hundreds of thousands if not millions of job losses, and with very little attention given to economic restructuring. While creative analysts, social innovators, new technology and alternative agriculture experts have identified a host of opportunities to redirect the economy in support of a post-corona society, cultural pessimists are preaching that the only way to solve the [job] need is to bring the economy back as soon to as possible to the usual. Will the innovators, especially the social ones stand up please? Will we become serious about a real Green Deal, an inclusive health and wellbeing system? And will the specialists in all these fields be invited to have an active role in mouth-masking doom-thinkers and systems sclerosis?

This is what I learned outside the C-school today.

See also https://www.insist.earth/cahier-4/prologue/seeing-the-crisis-through-the-lens-of-social-innovation, a project made by graduate students while quarantined in Leuven during the first lock-down.

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