By Annabel Adams

Sometimes it takes a dystopian state of affairs to bring utopian ideas to fruition. That’s something Aaron James, a philosopher at the University of California, Irvine, says he sees happening during the otherwise awful days of the COVID-19 pandemic. In his books and research papers, he’s been defending a universal basic income along with a new mindset about work, money, family and leisure. He’s always assumed that, wedded as we are to the Protestant work ethic, these ideas would not catch on very quickly. Until, suddenly, they did, almost overnight, in response to the pandemic. Now the question is not whether they are “realistic,” but only whether or how far they might be sustainable.  

Aaron James
An avid surfer, Aaron James is a professor of philosophy at UCI and author of three books. Credit: Steve Zylius/UCI

Drawing from an interview with James, what follows are five ways, surprisingly, the pandemic may be changing the status quo for the better:

  1. Telecommuting and flexible work schedules are being normalized. For many workers, Zoom calls have replaced in-person meetings, daily commutes have ended, and there is new flexibility to work around household and familial obligations. When James wrote his book Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning (Doubleday, 2017), he held up the surfer as an icon for the life of “adaptive attunement,” a way of living in skillful harmony, not just with the waves, but also with other people and our quickly changing natural environment. In the big scheme of history, the “leisure revolution” within capitalism, including the 40-hour workweek and basic social insurance, made it possible to enjoy freedom from endless toil and a life of greater leisure. For decades, new technologies have allowed employers and employees to begin to experiment with more flexible, remote work arrangements. Yet the pandemic has forced everyone to quickly discover what is possible. Once the pandemic subsides, James doesn’t see business going back to usual. “While I’m sure people are reminded of the value of face-to-face interaction in the same building, not to mention getting out of the house, they are seeing how much they can get done without the old assumptions about working long hours in the same place,” James explains, adding, “Much of that was originally about bosses monitoring workers rather than about what makes people feel creative and more productive.”
  2. Universal basic income is gaining bipartisan support. The pandemic has made clear that the economy does not have mechanisms in place to ensure most Americans can weather big changes to their employment. Though universal basic income has always had proponents on both the right and the left, we’re seeing a surge in bipartisan support for giving Americans money directly, often with few or no strings attached—through stimulus payments, rent relief and easy central bank loans to state and local governments, which benefit people directly. In Money from Nothing: Or Why We Should Learn to Stop Worrying About Debt and Love the Federal Reserve (Melville, 2020), James and co-author Robert Hockett, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s economic advisor and co-author of her Green New Deal, lay out how we can all bank directly with the Federal Reserve. Our central bank can put real money directly into the bank accounts of each and every citizen, while avoiding unwanted taxes, added regulation, and increased inflation. The book was completed before the pandemic, but as it broke, the Fed quickly adopted policies the book recommends, and the federal government is now giving people new stimulus payments, with calls for more streamlined and digital methods of speedy delivery. All this will continue to be necessary, James says, because “we’re living in a new world of constant adaption, with not only the current pandemic, but also all the new pandemics and other problems climate change will bring. We need a monetary system that constantly adapts, too.”
  3. Contributing to society is about more than making money. Service workers ranging from medical professionals to grocery clerks and delivery drivers are being celebrated as “heroes” for making pandemic life possible for the rest of us. But as so many of us stay home, we are all doing our bit as well, making an essential contribution toward “bending the curve” in our management of the disease. To James, this is refreshing our notions of what contributes to society. In Surfing with Sartre, James argued that surfers and others who are less fond of work can contribute to society’s efforts at climate adaption simply by working less and surfing more often, in a lifestyle that’s less consumptive of ecological resources. We’re now doing much the same by staying home to prevent the spread of infections. And, James adds, “There’s no going back, at least not easily, to a world in which a financial speculator is breathlessly celebrated for his market winnings while the people stocking grocery store shelves are ignored. Those workers are already better respected; hopefully they’ll be better paid as well.”   
  4. Climate change progress is being driven by renewable energy capitalism. With the United States pulling out of the Paris Accord and lack of bipartisan political support for federal government efforts to ameliorate climate change, citizens, business owners and corporations have been taking the lead. The last decades brought truly remarkable improvements in green energy technology. Big investors have been taking note, in many cases shifting their portfolios away from traditional fossil fuel. While the pandemic and recession will slow some of that progress, the stay-at-home orders also brought sudden improvements in air quality and related health issues. To James, that shows how much a cleaner economy can accomplish, very quickly, and it will not be forgotten. “After people have seen what can really happen, they are only empowered to expect and demand it. Given the remarkable pace of green energy progress in technology and in finance, those demands will seem ever-more reasonable in the future.”
  5. Turns out the pandemic may be a vaccine against assholes. You’ve heard of the “Covidiot”—but what about the “Coronavirus asshole?” James is an expert on asshole behavior, which he defines in his bestselling book, Assholes: A Theory (Doubleday, 2012) and in the recently released documentary "A Theory," available on Amazon Prime. The asshole is the person who allows himself special advantages in cooperative life out of an entrenched sense of entitlement. While the “asshole pandemic” that seems to have taken hold in recent years has hardly been vanquished—indeed we’ve seen plenty of Coronavirus assholery in people hoarding toilet paper, ignoring public safety protocols, and protesting stay-at-home orders without practicing social distancing—James suggests that the pandemic makes it more difficult to be a brazen, defensive, defiant asshole. Suddenly more people have to care about the reality of the disease and notice how interconnected and mutually vulnerable we are in society. With all of our lives at risk, the stakes are just too high for asshole business as usual.