Thrown into inequality

Image by Korhan Kalabak

We are shaped by time and place as much as by heredity. The collective outlook of each generation is moulded by the interweaving factors of the time and environment we are born into. History is alive in the lives it has helped to forge. The “Generations” that the media love to demarcate and critique, are manifestations of being thrown into this time. The German Philosopher Martin Heidigger referred to this as “Thrownness”, saying that we are at the mercy of the past, the time and place we are born. We are also at the mercy of the present, one which is characterised by our moods.

According to Heidigger, our being is always shaped by some mood or other. Mood is not a subjective veil that is draped over a “truer” objective world, but the essence of what it is to be in the world at all. Talk of being “in a mood”, rather than a “mood being in us” is an example of how each of us describes this sense of mental life being synonymous with life itself. This centrality of mood to experience explains how there can be a “public mood”, or a “mood of the crowd”. Examples of this include a crowd at a sporting event, a collective whose moods rises and fall with the fortunes of a team. A concert is a similar example, so is a political rally. People like to attend these events in person, rather than just watch them on TV, so they can share in the energy of a collective momentum, gyrating in response to a shared focal point. This is something that not only energises and provides catharsis, but also allows us to transcend our own individual experiences. 

The mood of a generation whilst more amorphous, follows in this vein. It is a vague collective feeling or outlook shaped by the time and place into which we are thrown at birth. The events of the last few weeks have been the flashing culmination of years of frustration against inequality that feels embedded and intractable. The tragic example of George Floyd is the tip of a centuries old problem of racial disenfranchisement that has its origin in early capitalism and colonialism. The mostly young protesters who have galvanised around the Black Lives Matter movement, have for years been burdened with expensive higher education, unreachable housing and employment uncertainty. Prior to COVID, this group of people consoled themselves with experiences, forming the basis of the ‘experience economy’. It is no surprise that the shutdown, the economic effect of which has removed this outlet and extinguished the employment that supports it, has led to this explosion of unrest. 

The sacrifice of the shutdown has been borne primarily by workers who have the least employment security, or those essential (i.e. low paid) workers who are putting their lives at risk so that the economy doesn’t completely collapse. These George Floyd and indigenous incarceration protests are a global movement of solidarity against racism, but they are also energised by a simmering resentment of growing inequality. 

The generation gap is always determined by chasms in time, chasms which result in difficult to understand attitudes and behaviours from one generation to the next. What those of older generations don’t understand when they criticise the protests is that they are beneficiaries of a system that is no longer working in the way that it worked for them. A lot of those who are protesting are doing so because they see in George Floyd and indigenous incarceration an inequality that is endemic and fundamental. 

Inequality’s natural mechanism is to compound itself. It compounds via the returns of wealth, but also in the regulations established by politicians to placate those with wealth. The validity of the Black Lives Matter protests is supported by the broader outcry against systemic inequality. The looting, vandalism and “defund the police” sloganeering is an excess that undermines the overall aims of the movement, but they don’t make the movement itself invalid.

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