by Lisa McKenzie
20th March 2020

As I write this, our food supplies are being kept open and moving by an army of people who wear bright-coloured fleeces to work every day as they stack shelves in the supermarket and man the checkouts. Last week that job was a shit job, a job that had no meaning and didn’t matter – now they are emergency workers.

Meanwhile, the rest of us panic buy toilet roll, and worry about whether to use Zoom or Skype for those online meetings that now seem far less important than they did last week.

If there has ever been a time where we need a prosocial politics, education system, business model and society, it is now.

In 2015 Rowland Atkinson put together a seminar in Sheffield which was about the ‘prosocial’, and, to be honest, I had no idea what that meant at the time, beyond it being yet another pretentious sociological term. The two days of the seminar were filled with discussion, debate – and sometimes argument – between the wide range of activists, journalists, students and academics that attended about what the prosocial actually meant. We disagreed on many things, but what we all agreed on was that the system we had at the time wasn’t working for anyone.

We all left that seminar both exhilarated by the passion in those debates but also depressed at how bad things were and how much work was to be done in order to change our societies from one that valued only the economic, rather than the social value of its population and institutions. We envisioned a prosocial society that valued interactions, relationships, business, creativity, education, architecture, politics and work first and foremost.

Rowland Atkinson, Simon Winlow and myself thought this debate was important and far reaching. We invited some of the participants from the seminar to work with us on an edited collection in which we would make the arguments for the prosocial. We realised very quickly that this term was probably not going to work for a wider audience – prosocial sounds a bit odd – so we decided on the title Building Better Societies: Promoting Social Justice in a World Falling Apart. It was meant to be catchy, if not a little dystopian, and would do what it said on the tin.

As with all edited editions, the book took a lot of work and thought, but this one seemed more difficult. We felt that we had something important and crucial to say, but that time was running out. Those of us who work within the grass roots, and amongst the poorest and least resourced communities, knew that 40 years of intense neoliberal politics and policy, years of austerity and severe cuts in the social budget had led to deeply unfair and unjust societies. Wealth had been totally redistributed from the bottom up. The wealthy have never been as wealthy as they are now, and the power they wield in order to protect that wealth is enormous.

Building Better Societies was published in 2017 as the Brexit crisis in the UK was in full swing. We, as editors, understood that this crisis had come about because our society was focused on pro-finance, pro-wealth and pro-growth, rather than the prosocial that values community, care, wellbeing and health for all. Brexit was a consequence of our skewed politics, and a social attitude that celebrates a winner takes all approach.

In many ways, publication of this book came too early. At the time, we were focused on the minutia of Brexit rather than stepping away and seeing our social problems in a wider context. The book looks at solutions, causes, and ideas, but perhaps it’s only now that academics, students and the general public are ready to think seriously about revolution and change?

The coronavirus outbreak has meant that the words of Peter Kroptokin – known as the father of modern anarchism – on human evolution and mutual aid have become mainstream. They are on everyone’s Facebook feed where, just a week ago, they would have would have only been known by a small group of people sitting around independent radical book shops waxing lyrical about the revolution. I know this because I am one of them.

I hope that, out of this crisis (of which none of us yet understand the full weight of its consequence), something positive will come. I hope we recognise that the politics of value for value’s sake means nothing when we are naked in front of our own mortality, and that power that feeds up, excluding and alienating the majority so the minority can be free, hurts us all.

We will realise that this power melts into air when we stand on the edge looking out at our collective pain.


Building better societies coverBuilding Better Societies: Promoting Social Justice in a World Falling Apart edited by Rowland Atkinson, Lisa Mckenzie and Simon Winlow is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £15.99.

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