The chaos and uncertainty of the global pandemic in which we awoke nearly 8 months ago now has quietly been replaced by a sense of mundane unreality. It is as if we awake each day into the still frame of an action scene. We cannot place quite how we got there, and we are unsure if those bullets flying our way are real or just imaginary, nor do we know when they will cease.
Yet the enormity of the movement all around us is felt, as we sit unable to perceive it frame by frame, unable to do anything about it if we could. We are daunted - not only by the new powers we didn’t know could be harnessed over us - but also by the rootlessness of it all. Each decision to lock down or remain open feels to be a bitter fight between danger and safety - “it is between life and death!” we are told daily. And of course it feels cold to choose continued economic prosperity over the life that might be lost at the hands of this virus. Yet it now seems increasingly obvious that it is just as cold to treat the economy as an abstraction rather than being grounded in the collective outputs of all of our lives. We must speak of the economy, of course, but it will never tell the story of the man who lost his livelihood, that which kept him engaged and in service to the world. It will not speak of the child, who now must attend school on Zoom, and the subsequent familial chaos. It will never tell the story of the elderly woman who expects to live the rest of her days isolated, confined to a room which is not her house, visited only by strangers wearing masks. Our fear of death left us unprepared for a life robbed of substance, of the rhythm through which we found meaning.
This collective lurch has exposed some of the flaws in our old rhythm which brought us here in the first place. The ravenous hands of the capitalist economy have demanded more and more of our lives, and have devoured everything we have given. Through the financialization of the economy, the offshoring of productive capacity, the massive trend towards a rental economy and career idolization, we have lost touch with the intimate foundations of economic activity - namely the private domain of the home. We live dependent on a system which is abstracted from our own lives, dreams, and capacities. We have been living in a shell of a society, and amidst the rubble of collapsed normalcy we now see how empty it was. Having lost our daily routine; our engagement with the world confined to four walls, we must stop and take stock of what was really ours to begin with.
What has gone wrong? Marc Andreesen’s answer, presented in his article IT’S TIME TO BUILD, is that America has stopped building, and we must set aside our political differences and sum up the will to start again. According to Andreesen, we have the capacity, we just lack the will. Isaac Wilks, writing for Palladium Magazine, presents the counter argument that our lack of capacity and lack of shared vision are the cause of this stagnation. If we are to build again, Wilks claims, we need a shared vision of the good to inspire us, and the construction of this vision is inherently political.
This conclusion leaves us in a bind. In our atomized and polarized , and now socially distanced society, the construction of a shared vision feels like something of a pipe dream. We have lost the capacity to build, but we may also have lost the capacity to engage in politics which is at least one necessary step for constructing the shared vision of what to build. Recovering both may rely on the same first step.
The Private Realm Precedes the Public RealmYou are part of a family before you are part of a society. It is the primary building block of society - creating the foundational stability which allows us to build higher. It is the thing you always return to, it is yours for keeps.
What do we get to keep when what we had been given was taken away—our jobs locked down, social gatherings banned? A stimulus check? What does that mean when so much has been lost? We are lacking critical infrastructure, not just in the public sphere, but also privately, which would have made this crisis easier to bear.
We are lacking in a kind of wealth our grandparents had, even when they were poor. We are more materially wealthy in the West than we have ever been, yet this wealth is unstable because it is impersonal and transactional. Take down a supply chain or a major employer, and a whole network of individuals are left without means to provide for themselves. The means by which we survive have largely been removed from us, they happen elsewhere, out of sight. In this, we have a clear loss of capacity. If we no longer have to tend to our daily needs, we stop knowing how. How many people in the last generation have lost the ability to fix their own houses or even cook for themselves? When the link between our day-to-day activities and our survival is clear - we grow our own food, build our own houses, care for our own children - our place and purpose is clear. It is more stable - we rely on fewer external factors to keep us floating. It is also more personal. Instead of being paid, we are loved. But when we spend all day working to make money to rent an apartment, get our food at the grocery store, and pay someone to take care of our children, our place becomes blurred, depersonalized. We do not see the rewards of our work - an endless stream of emails sent to people we will never meet to pay for someone else to teach our children about the world - what kind of life is this? Yet - this arrangement creates more jobs, GDP goes up, so it is good for the economy. But is what’s good for the economy good for us? The more we rely on this outsourcing, the more we relinquish our control over our own lives.
Many of the horror stories of the pandemic have featured the intense desolation and neglect experienced by people who greatly relied on social services which were shut down. These have been interpreted as failures of our social services and public infrastructure - yet why do so many people rely on these in the first place? We need these services as a way to protect the most vulnerable in our society, but they should be a backup, not our main lifeline. We should be encouraging the highest degrees of robust self-sustainability in the population, not just because it protects against external disruption, but also because it allows people to live a good life.
The over-reliance on social services signals a crisis of the private realm. To build things together as a society, we do need a common vision, yes. This is a question of the public realm: what is our shared purpose?
However, before we can answer this question, we need to know who we are. We need to rebuild the private infrastructure in our own lives; to create a place of belonging for ourselves.
The private realm is the space which protects a person from the world. It is a safe haven, a place which does not demand of us performance or politics. It is the necessary base of operations from which political and public life springs forth. This is the sphere of family life. Here - relationships are bound by care, love, and necessity. If we look at the state of the American family today, there is disorder; divorce rates are high, it is untenable to live on a single income, children are disengaged at school, and their relationships with their parents are suffering. Very few homes are now intergenerational. The young and the old are tucked quietly away at school and in senior’s homes, while working adults have increasingly less time for them. The model of the family household as the basic unit of society - running shared ventures, caring for one another, passing on family land and assets - has been traded for individual upward mobility in a rental economy - which leaves us constantly striving and always coming up short, whether it be for money or meaning. It is the private realm which we first need to rebuild, for it is there that the well-being and stability of a society is protected.
Things are Built for People, Not Abstractions
How can we have a vision for the future of our country if we cannot see a vision for the future of our lives? How are we to build anything for people when they are constantly moving? Perhaps this is why craft and quality of construction have been falling since the age of mass travel. Perhaps we are seeing something similar in the industry of service and technology. We are building for people in the abstract, with the bare minimum care, investment, and personalization needed to maximize profit. The trouble is that people are not abstractions. Who are architects designing and building for? If the answer is not somebody specific, why should they care? The rootlessness of modern life has diminished our ability to make things shaped specifically to place. Consider the power a person has to make a house their own, fit to their needs and tastes when it is an apartment they are renting for six months from an absentee landlord as opposed to a home which they own for life. Home has gone from being a permanent foundation of life to “where I live right now.” Something of the old meaning has been lost - the importance of a physical base for our body and soul, somewhere we can fully unwind and come to know intimately. We have a rootless population which is losing the ability to maintain long-term ambitions and visions - perhaps because we are less and less capable of seeing how they could manifest in the world around us. The indefinite preservation of optionality can bear no fruit, and to truly build a life of our own we must close doors and make commitments to place, path, and person.
We cannot answer questions about the public realm until we know what its bounds are: what belongs to the care of the household, of private citizens, and what belongs to the collective - community, county, or state? These questions are critical to ask today, because without asking them we will begin building without a real understanding of why we are building and for whom.
The Personal is Not Political
To know what is good in one’s own life is in fact not a political question, but rather a personal one. We cannot properly engage in politics if we have a population with no real stake in the future. We must take whatever measures possible to restore this stake, to give people a chance to build beautiful things of their own which they might take pride in and pass onto their children.
There is historical precedent for this kind of life. In 1862, America passed a series of laws called the Homestead acts, through which 10% of public land was given away to those willing to work it and make a life from it. Variations of these acts encourages different types of development - reforesting, settlement of marginal land, and ranching. The life of homestead pioneers was difficult - many people died, and it was not materially plentiful. However, the experience of hardship, of carving a place to belong against the odds - brings a deep satisfaction and sense of purpose. The felt necessity cultivates will.
While it may be political to create national policies which facilitate the reinvestment in the home, personal life and space, it must be one of the least political acts we could take - for it sets out to protect the private world from the public. It would give something other than a political cause for us to fight for, work hard at, and tie our identities to. Perhaps with this, we might see a return of vision and vitality which might spurn productive political discourse and action. It would lay the groundwork for a return to common sense, the ability to rely on our own judgements, and reestablish our identities as communities, and then as a nation.
What if we built for ourselves and our communities? What if we built things we can pass onto our children, which they too might add to and build on themselves?
What would the world look like if we built spaces we would like to occupy, grow food we would like to eat? We could make movies we would like our friends to see and create services which would help our grandparents live richer lives. The impulse to build for ourselves is natural, and it stabilizes our lives and enriches the lives of those around us. It gives us a kind of wealth which we truly own - a wealth that can’t be taken away from us. We have skills which multiply when shared instead of depleting. We need to encourage people to build their own homes - teach them to design, unleash their creativity to create something lasting and stable. With this, they can share the food from their garden, a seat at their table, the spare room to a friend or passing traveler.
Where do we start?
What does this look like on a policy level? It looks like taking some small risks. It looks like finding ways to loosen the grasp which fear of liability has on our collective creative energies. It looks like removing bureaucratic hurdles and fees for building permits for owner builders. It looks like finding some way to create an economy in which it is feasible to get by on a single income. It looks like letting people have gardens and chickens in their backyards, allowing people the chance to sell things they make in their kitchens at farmers markets, to their communities, or letting them start small businesses and ventures with their friends. It looks like letting people buy cows without being regulated by the dairy industry. It looks like breathing life back into local communities. We need a modern day Homestead Act. We could provide tax breaks to anyone building their own home. We need to discuss how this looks. At the very least, we should encourage local communities to build things for themselves.
Perhaps amidst the tragedy which this pandemic and it’s lockdowns have wrought, there will arise an opportunity for new life. Remote work could let people live in the country or small towns, afford to have families, and maybe spend their spare time with their hands in the dirt.
Yet we find ourselves here. We do not know how to build public infrastructure because our private infrastructure and private lives are so critically depleted. As countries, we have off-shored our necessary economic functions, and as families we have outsourced the functions of the home to the world of capital - cooking, mending, and nursing ailments have been replaced with takeout, online shopping, and pharmacies. Perhaps we didn’t realize how much these things held us together. Before we can answer questions of what the basic functions of the economy are, we need to understand what to protect from economic activity and how. We need to know what we should be building ourselves and providing for our families. Then we can begin to understand what to build collectively and perhaps we will have gained the capacity along the way. As Andreessen considers “…I think building is how we reboot the American dream...What’s the American dream? The opportunity to have a home of your own, and a family you can provide for. We need…to make sure that every American can realize the dream and the only way to do that is to build.” If we are to revive the American dream, then we must provide space for people to play again, to build for themselves, and to have a piece of the world which can truly give them a place in this country. We need to regain capacity, drive, and will, but that isn’t going to come from, nor be motivated by glass skyscrapers and improved delivery services. It will come from our personal investment in our own future. It will come through becoming settled in our own little piece of the world, and making something beautiful.