Wales Arts Review asked some of Wales’s top writers to pen some thoughts on the future. This new series brings together a wide variety of perspectives and ideas in a vibrant array of styles and forms, expressing hopes for a new way of doing things when the Covid-19 coronavirus is finally overcome. Political, personal, sociological, ecological, cultural – this is an evolving tableau of ideas. We begin with Horatio Clare‘s When This is Over, an essay discussing the prospect of a happy world through the lens of economics.
How shall we be, next? There will be less money around. If we share what there is better, that does not have to make us less happy. The world that has gone did not make us very happy anyway. How we raced around, getting and spending; what a trance it was! We awake sadder and wiser.
History says there are two ways we can go, in the coming depression: towards extremism, nationalism and war, or towards co-operation, cohesion and greater equality. A century ago, Finland emerged from a vicious and devastating civil war (talk about a divided society – we barely know we’re born). Today Finnish children are the happiest and least stressed in the world. How?
The Finns achieve their pre-eminence through a strong state and huge investment in child and parent welfare, in education (free to degree level), in teachers (a highly competitive, well rewarded and desirable profession, there), in healthcare, and all paid for by taxation, a model all the Nordic countries use, which makes people happier – rich and poor.
Behavioural economists have shown that the optimum salary for happiness is around fifty grand. After that, the stress and time it takes to make more means someone on £180k is statistically less happy than someone on a third of her wage. What on earth were we thinking, all those years?
Partly, we were hypnotised by shiny things, by the remorseless manipulation of advertising and brands. It’s all trash. In Grenoble, they banned all adverts bigger than a sheet of A4 from public spaces, including shop windows, on the grounds of mental health. The idea was to make a city fit for children. It worked. Grenoble is a calm, lovely place, ideal for humans. If we want an internet fit for humans, we should think about restricting advertising there, too. It is time we brought those companies down to size: their manipulation of our lives and elections has shown how dangerous they are.
When this is over, we must redistribute. The world we were building of billionaires and food banks, with robots poised to come in and enshrine it, was an obscenity. There are two arguments against taxing wealth: it disincentivises people and scares away the very wealthy. Good! Good riddance to the dodgers, obviously. Beyond the shysters and their lobbyists, many good wealthy people will happily help pay for a fairer, happier country for their children. And if we educate people better, they will do better. Drain the superclass and the underclass and we all benefit: it is not complicated, or Communism. It’s – Finland.
Going for continued growth is planetary suicide on a false promise. Over the last decade, I have taught the generations of students have become steadily less happy and more anxious, though they had more of everything – clothes, possessions, tech, choices – than each preceding year. Many barely seem young or carefree at all. Why?
Because the old world looked so miserable, so hard to make a way in, so expensive, so hidebound – and melting. How would they ever get on the housing ladder? Barely half the Germans own their own homes but they are happier than we are. Now many of us know we can work from home, we can also avoid the stress of cities. Why not choose to live somewhere lovely, pay less rent, work less, earn less and buy less, if it will give you a richer life? Smoke and mirrors, monetised by Google and pedalled on Instagram, were making us mad and miserable. I have known the homes and the super-wealthy yachts (through travel writing) – they aren’t especially happy or interesting. There is no higher life. But there is a richer, deeper, more meaningful one.
Good information, strong infrastructure, rich nature and vibrant culture are what we need. Three things have held us together, these terrible weeks: the NHS, the BBC, and good old nature with her birds and bees. None of them is arguments for privatisation: quite the opposite.
It has been salutary for the political and media classes to have the press’s daily briefing by the executive broadcast live to the nation. We should retain it: in a real democracy, the kind we need now, that sort of unmediated transparency is fundamental.
As ordinary people, we retain two great levers: our votes and our purchasing power. We must vote for parties that will give us the world we need, not for hazy promises of more cash, Singapore-on-Sprouts, or whatever Cummings’ ‘vision’ is. And we must spend less, use less, waste less.
When this is over, we will run the incompetent and hypocritical current government, their Brexit-backing millionaires and all their sordid ilk out of Westminster. Rather than wait to be told by politicians – most of whom have limited life experience – what variations on failed old themes they can offer, we will be loud and adamant about what we desire and deserve.
When this is over we need to think about a greener, slower, kinder, more prudent, fairer country, which puts our children and their futures first, which values the collective above the individual, the meek over the strong, the needful over the dominant, the good and the useful over the rich and privileged? It was not a great surprise to discover that Boris Johnson, Richard Branson, Rupert Murdoch, Mike Ashely, Priti Patel, ‘Sir’ Philip Green and so many of the so-called rich and powerful turn out to be entirely pointless and impotent self-servers. But it has been extraordinarily salutary to discover that in place of all of them, all we need is a nurse with safe working conditions, a kid stacking shelves in the supermarket, a lady behind the counter and a man who drove all night to get the food thereby opening time?
This, we must never forget, turns out to be our real world, the ordinary people’s world. Today is the day to begin to take it back. It really is now or never: if we let them, the masters of the old world will put tech and false promises together again – the Chinese model of social control looks good to them – and when this is over they will burn our dreams and our children’s prospects on the rubbish fires of a poisoned planet. It is not that they are evil, our ruling class, who have been so terminally exposed by the catastrophe – it is more that they are empty, untalented, bereft of understanding and vision. Like the virus, they take over and break things. They are not good at making anything: they hoard money and power for the sakes of money and power. We should pity them.
For a few months, this dreadful virus has let us see behind the veils of the system, the power and the promises. There was nothing there. When this is over we need to stand fast for what we need and want, if we can only hold more tightly to our convictions than our opponents will theirs, we will win. We must win.
Horatio Clare is a Welsh-British travel writer, memoirist and children’s author. He read English at the University of York and later worked as a BBC radio producer on cultural programmes ‘Front Row’, ‘Nightwaves’ and ‘The Verb’. As a freelance journalist, he has contributed numerous travel pieces to newspapers and magazines and ‘From Our Own Correspondent on BBC Radio Four.
For other articles included in this collection, go here.