The Before Times Are Over. What Next?

Woody Woodruff
Editor & Contributor


Adapting to life in the time of permanent biohazard is going to require permanent lifestyle and behavior changes, and we really don’t know which changes will be more or less pleasant and which ones not. Nobody believes we will go back to the everyday we had been used to in the Before Times, even though we are still in the eye of human society’s planetary Gap Year.

But wait – isn’t science, despite Trumplandia’s best efforts, going to come up with vaccines and therapies for COVID-19 that will allow us to return to the good old Before Times when capitalist growth called the tune for our everyday lives – working and consuming shoulder to shoulder in close quarters, knuckling under to bosses and bankers, voting for cleverly packaged lackeys because the money interests made them the only choices?

We can forget about that. And that’s because we can’t forget about the fertile opportunism of the biome with which we share the planet – and the compounding effects of human-induced climate change. As socialists, we need to remember what we are fighting for, but the new terrain will take some serious adaptation of strategy.

After lurking just outside our consciousness for several centuries while the Anthropocene’s growing carbon-fueled effects tightened their grip on the planetary environment, COVID-19 has signaled that the effects are here.

Increasingly hot, humid conditions stretching north and south from the equator have already enabled COVID-20 (what?) somewhere out there; it doubtless will be christened in our consciousness soon. Meanwhile the virus we know, as opposed to the virus we don’t, has moved opportunistically from droplet transmission to vapor-borne motility, taking on the nasty qualities of Legionnaire’s Disease. People around the planet have been poked consistently in recent decades by the migration of some vectors, like mosquito species, into new areas full of dense populations enticingly free of immunities to some of the planet’s oldest scourges, like malaria and dengue.

Urbanization, one of the principal human outcomes of the interplay of capitalism and climate change, has clearly set us up for the still hard-to-grasp body blow of the novel coronavirus, accelerating community spread. Increasing human encroachment on the natural world brings us closer to the critters who are ready to pass on new varieties. Alterations and adaptations to the urban experience, to city life, must follow.

What does this new landscape demand from us as socialists? Much of the web of experience and social practices that extends itself under the label of capitalism is in fact woven by the deformed exchange relations that allow for capitalist accumulation. That array of capitalist practices includes not just the exploitative, imposed overstory of workplace discipline, state capture by corporations, and consumerist imperatives. It also includes capitalist practices embedded in our own human agency, individual and collective everyday behaviors we have evolved, and self-initiate every day, that are the people’s understory, our acceptance, adaptation and coping with the exigencies of the capitalist regime.

(Please note that despite its superficial resemblance, the framework I am suggesting here is only distantly related to the always-debatable concept of base and superstructure.)

So we socialists, individually and as solidaristic organization(s), must struggle as we always have struggled to change our own behavior, the everyday practices of all the folks around us, and the role of the state in enabling the continuity of capitalist exchange relations. How will the pandemic – which, oddly, has ripped the web of capitalist hegemony as it has shattered our customary tools of solidaristic resistance – change our insurgent agenda and strategy as it makes irreversible changes to the societies in which we are organizing for change?

Both the scope and scale of that new organizing landscape are breathtaking, as becomes more apparent every day. Though the short-term effect of the collapse of standard commerce – a pause in greenhouse gas emissions – affords ironic pleasure, the longer-term effects of climate change in fact have a great deal to do with how this pandemic is unfolding and in what related biohazards are emerging alongside it.

Bottom line, COVID-19 is just one of many intrusions that will make big changes to all of our capitalist practices. Not many will interfere with human interaction, commodified or solidaristic, as much as the current virus is doing right now. But it sharpens our understanding of how many of our everyday pursuits and pleasures are indeed commodified capitalist practices masquerading – up until now – as entertainment in the broadest sense. And when they stop, the capitalist economy wheezes to a minimalist sputter.

What has happened to work – a concept that was already on the skids, as the visibility and popularity of such Universal Basic Income plans as Andrew Yang’s has demonstrated? The class differences between isolated “knowledge” work (and its less-stable counterpart the “gig economy”) and the subaltern class in the “service sector,” where direct human contact is necessary (hospitality, entertainment) has been etched into public consciousness by the COVID-19 statistics. Workers in bars, restaurants and other gathering areas – the activities that quarantined bourgeoisie most want to get back to – have higher rates of infection, hospitalization and death than the folk they serve because they are being forced back to workplaces by censorious bosses who threaten their ability to stay on unemployment insurance. If the extreme commodification of service work isn’t tempered by organized workers and their supporters, workplace discipline will be Murder, Inc.

The relaxing and then re-imposition of partial or strict commercial lockdowns, now erratically hopscotching across the Red states with disastrous results, is creating the public mood most inimical to a stable capitalist system: fear. Hospitality and entertainment sectors, especially any mass gatherings, may become permanently suspect for economically significant numbers of potential consumers.

The Frame Works Institute, a think tank, advises against rapid, sporadic re-opening of local economies because, well, duh: “Widespread fear is bad for business: consumers won’t flock back to restaurants, book air travel, or spend on activities that might put them at risk of getting sick.”

Fear is most likely in those most unregulated places, public gatherings – from small restaurants to multiscreen cinemas. Bars, cafes and restaurants, almost uniquely a feature of modern capitalism since the seventeenth century, present dangers across the lines of exchange relations – patrons endanger one another and employees endanger patrons and each other, all dependent in the pandemic period on pretty enlightened management by owners to improve safety, probably pushing costs up. These apparently most human of encounters are, a quick observation concludes, more deeply commodified the more they present as careless and raucous venues.

Why the entertainment and hospitality sectors are such parlous crossroads – in the US as elsewhere – indicates that the US has enough of a colonial history to, like many rich societies, put a distinctly subaltern cast on class relations. Workers in the service sector are, in the contemporary usage, necessary to the identity formation of their customers, in a broadly “Downton Abbey” fashion. The Tea Party 2.0 bourgeoisie in the Trump-loving Red states can’t get the satisfaction bringing home takeout or ordering from Amazon Prime that they can from being waited on, up close and personal.

The effect of these tendencies has been more than 146,000 deaths in the US (as of July 26), where the death rate continues to climb, and disproportionately higher deaths among low-wage workers and people of color – who are disproportionately the service-sector subaltern class.

The avid customers of restaurants and bars, though, are seeing their own infection rates climb as well, in a direct fashion that is making the connection between flocking to re-opened interior crowdspace and their own health clear for those who pay attention. Increasingly, as Trump’s poll numbers seem to indicate, they are.

There’s not a lot of clarity at this point about specific solutions to the longer-term impact of the virus, stretching into 2021 and beyond, that can keep more working people alive, well and supported – whether employed or not.

Public workarounds for a healthy fear of unmanaged human contact include taking advantage of a largely virus-free outdoors. Montgomery County is opening pocket parks with appropriately spaced picnic tables in a commercial area with many food outlets to encourage takeout and the semblance of an outing outside the home for the quarantine-deprived. As fall and then winter approach, different ways to keep things exterior may have to evolve.

As the British capitalist tool The Economist also notes (July 12 issue), manufacturing workplaces can more easily maintain near-full output while socially distanced than impulse-fueled service industries like bars, restaurants etc. The Taylorist bias of the factory floor enables a safer workplace, and the sharpened worker awareness and concern about safety may, as in the age of the muckrakers, boost empowerment and union membership. The ability of service industries to survive – bars, cafes, restaurants – will probably be aligned with their success at emulating the rigid social distancing of the factory floors.

The question of whether or not to open schools for physical class attendance – crucial to freeing parents to work if they want to and can do so safely – is suffering from insufficient imagination and an either-or approach. Schools are also a commodified terrain, conveniently enabling adults to return to the workplace as well as reproducing a work-adapted cohort to join the dominant/subaltern framework.

There are certainly few places in the US that could be said to have reliably got the virus under control – a first requirement for even socially distanced, hybrid schools. School systems are probably thinking too much about how to utilize existing school buildings despite their inherent unhealthiness; many other kinds of space have opened up during the Great Shutdown and may be ripe for repurposing. Or, while the weather holds, school as Tent City may be optimal. School systems may have learned enough from the chaos of the past school year to make serious attempts to bridge the digital divide, make more use of TV in conjunction with laptops, and give the students the structure that they (oddly) crave, to the endless surprise of newbie teachers.

More important is the service concept that accompanies the school experience. One longtime education practitioner in a Brookings Institution roundtable noted that given the inequalities among students that were exacerbated by the chaos of the spring semester, a stronger focus on the wrap-around services afforded by community schools should be toplined.

Transportation is already returning to “normal” – auto transportation, that is. Most of those emerging from quarantine see their cars (accurately) as a mobile extension of the at-home bubble. But the critical role of mass transit in the lives of low-wage workers has to be reformatted. The current demographic of service work – low-wage and often with long commutes from congested low-income neighborhoods to commercial centers of employment – makes service workers disproportionately vulnerable to disease at work, at home and between, as the path of COVID-19 through communities of color is cruelly demonstrating with every daily statistical uptick.

Mass transit systems around the nation are mirroring the 90 percent ridership and revenue drop of the WMATA train and bus system in the DMV and some may not survive. To the extent there is a return to work, class relations will re-emerge. One manager of millions of square feet of commercial-office real estate recently told the BBC that the return to the office was largely a matter of “how you get to work from home.” As she explained, people who drove to work would (unsurprisingly) feel safer, and be more likely to return to an office environment, than those who had to take mass transit. The practices that will constrain workers in the commodified service sector will keep them off mass transit and traveling in old and perhaps poorly maintained private cars over long distances to chancy, gig-type intermittent work (still, of course, low-paid). Because they are low-wage in an era of exploitatively-priced housing, they must live so close together that their housemates, too, endanger them. Socialists, who have embraced housing issues as a pandemic crash program, have to address these long-term issues as well.

The conundrum of refashioning mass transit for safety from the virus is one of the peskiest problems facing planners of the new normal. Social distancing on a subway car will equal ruinous revenue loss at best, collapse at worst. As Forbes notes, “The pandemic raise[s] old questions and some honest, needed reflection about the purpose and role of public transit as an essential public service–not a money-making enterprise.” But of course this will be a hard sell to already-strapped municipalities that may be asked to underwrite the bulk of the transit system’s cost in order to allow confidence-building social distancing and its enforcement on buses and trains.

Exchange relations will be altered, perhaps irreversibly, and not only in the areas of the workplace and the commute. Consumer behavior was already veering toward online commerce before the pandemic, and being newly shy of the crowded interiors of bricks-and-mortar stores in recent months, consumers are staying online. New costs of doing business replace the old – one consultant told The Economist that online advertising was “the new rent.” Though able to shuck the cost of a bricks-and-mortar storefront, retailers would find it necessary to maintain a bigger digital presence.

How will socialists and our allies manage strategy as these significant changes play out? We see the habits and preferences developed by commodified service sectors – some of which we share as individuals and comrades – persisting even as the service sectors themselves struggle and decline. Facing a new world without cafes and bars is not an appetizing idea for most of us. Food shopping has developed new, safer routines but is still an edgy experience. The appeal of the out-of-doors as safe haven wobbles considerably with the seasons. Schools have become in effect a commodified necessity to free parents to work if they choose.

All of these aspects of our lives are familiar and cozy but few can survive on a for-profit basis. And that may be the message we want to advance as socialists. We have already embraced a version of defunding policing that emphasizes harm reduction – diversion of the price tag of militarized warrior police to rapid-response public entities for mental health, domestic distress and persistent poverty effects. Harm reduction in this wider post-pandemic context means decommodification of the (up to now) privately provided service sector features that can continue to provide safe human interaction and, yes, comfort. Our goal is to decommodify the useful, let the commodified useless tip into the dustbin, and accelerate the parallel creation of Universal Basic Income, and the equally important Univeral Basic Services, as a human right.

We socialists have always been in the business of shifting human activities from the sphere of commodified private profit to democratic, public ownership and control. Many aspects of the Before Time may vanish if they do not make that transition. Our task should be to identify the ones that matter and make the case for the shift to a socialist, communal engagement with the specific exchange relations that merit retention in the near and not so near future.