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No Turning Back

May 15, 2020

We’ve just finished playing the ‘Village Game’, a rambunctious route to understanding economics and, in particular, economics as the root cause of violence. Over a couple of hours, participants have had the opportunity to imagine and create, at least on flipchart paper, their ‘idea village’.  The six or seven villages then give a village tour for the others, pointing out the beauty, the self-sufficiency in governance, education, health care, manufacturing and food production. They have given their village a name that reflects the passion they have put into the exercise. Suddenly, into this idyll marches a trio, dressed up as developers, international financiers and a recognisable, if not particularly trustworthy, collaborator. They are suspicious, but they are polite, inviting the visitors in for tea and conversation that becomes increasingly heated. 

The villagers decline the offers of ‘development and assorted emoluments’—and then the action takes off as the visitors wield magic markers like bulldozers, chainsaws and tanks, destroying forests and fields, playgrounds, river beds and neighbourhoods—to ‘improve’ them with McDonald’s, Walmarts, oil rigs and gold mining—with the tailings dumped in their river. As the financier starts to rip off pieces of their villages, the resistance mounts. Villagers form tight circles around their villages. At one point, one of the villagers takes what is left of his village and stuffs it up his shirt. The visitors stop and everyone goes quiet.  ‘Oh, that’s actually against the rules,’ the developer says. Painfully, slowly, the young man removes it from his shirt and lays it back on the floor.  The financier grabs it and walks off.  The game is called.

The Village Game, the Philippines, Economic Literacy/Conflict Transformation Training, 2013

It is difficult to wrap words around the emotion in the room. There is a grief that is palpable.  As we begin to unpack the experience, the observations, feelings and meaning, one elderly man cries out, ‘Why didn’t you come years ago when we needed you?’ He weeps. They talk about what their economy used to look like, their proud exports of rice and a fish caught off Panay that was a delicacy; now reduced to imports from Vietnam, their share of the ‘export quality’ fish reduced to the heads.  The public services privately owned; their largest export now—people: to raise other people’s children, tend to other people’s sick, to the sex trade.

It is a powerful exercise designed to invite participants into a new understanding of their own local and national economies—within a global pandemic of neo-liberalism. In the course of the training, participants move from a sense of despair to a sense of agency. 

Covid-19, as with the rest of the world, has confined me to barracks, with training projects in the Philippines, Uganda, Ecuador and North East India postponed indefinitely.  It took me awhile to accept the gift—because everyone doesn’t have it—for what it could be. These are, after all, days of reckoning, a ‘portal, a gateway, between one world and the next’.  ‘Normal’ is not our destination.  This virus has irrevocably severred our future from our past.  And what arrives is up to us.  It is going to be either much worse under the business-as-usual types; or it is going to be much better, guided by what Otto Scharmer calls ‘a new superpower in the making: citizen activism’. 

The deficit-slayers are strangely silent. 

Right-wingers are fretting about people in precarious work who might ‘fall through the cracks’, sounding like born-again socialists.

Leading climate-change deniers are urging us to listen to doctors and scientists. 

Government leaders are frankly admitting that they don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who tended to the cooking, cleaning and the kids, as well, while his wife, Sophie Grégoire was ill with Covid-19.

And then people begin to say out loud:  If precarious work with no sick-days or long-term care facilities cut to the bone or underpaid and over-worked Personal Support Workers and those who are keeping our supply chains functioning, cutbacks to everything that matters, is wrong during a pandemic, it’s always wrong. There is no turning back.

Instead of the $30B they requested, the oil patch got $1.7B—to be used to create jobs cleaning up their mess. Calls for transition funds—out of tarsands and into green energy—are coming from across the political spectrum.  The post-NAFTA signing crowing has been muted as it becomes clearer every day what a doomsday machine we have created, how fragile the systems that support us.  With trade agreements founded on just-in-time manufacturing, lowest-wage migration of jobs, and neo-liberal economics,  disaster capitalism has a free hand. Not this time.  No way.

There is a great uncovering taking place, a shaking off of a deadly complacency. We know things now that we didn’t notice before or couldn’t name. We know that this pandemic is a dress rehearsal for climate catastrophe. We now know that the next time governments say they cannot afford something, a social benefit necessary for wellbeing—clean water in First Nations communities, pharmacare, home care and oral health care, clean waterways, legal aid—we will not believe them.  We know that our future requires a pivot from war. Tell Lockheed Martin that we can do without those warships; I’m sure they’ll understand. And for God’s sake, end the shipments of LAVs to the Saudis.  We’ve shown we haven’t forgotten how to retool:  but this time not for war but for jobs bent to human need and creation care.

We must hold tight and continue to pull back the veil.

We cannot return to normal because the normal we had was precisely the problem.

A version of this article is being printed in the summer 2020 issue of Baptist Peacemaker.