Reject the Return

Gary Zottoli
Editor and Contributor


It’s tempting to believe that the dangers and calamity imposed by COVID-19 are unique. But COVID is only capable of mass proliferation because it feeds on the long-neglected externalities produced by our current arrangement of work and life.

Where access to healthcare is limited and contingent on employment, we are dissuaded from or wholly incapable of seeking out testing or treatment before outbreak takes hold. Where individuals are required to dedicate a majority of their life to work, we are made more susceptible to illness and exposed to greater risk of contagion in public space. Where stability and access to basic necessities are a direct function of your checking account, it necessitates a commitment to competition and hostility among each other that prevents a level of social trust from forming that is necessary to engage and encourage mass action. This arrangement, which we had normalized as immutable and unchanging, created the conditions for mass pandemic to arise. And so here we are.

The mandate of social distancing requires us to bulwark (with socialized dollars via federal reinvestment into the social-safety net and broader economic stimulus) this new mode of work-life in order to ensure that our society is kept safe from and cured of COVID. But in order to apply this treatment in full, it requires us to completely renegotiate economic arrangements in our society. It requires us to stop or halt unessential labor indefinitely. It requires us to spend our time caring for ourselves, our families and neighbors. It requires us to think about the impact our actions and habits have on those around us. It requires an acceptance of socialized economic resources to deliver equitable and sustained relief through government action. It requires the socialization of private industry to provision and distribute core utilities to abate mass panic and fear. And it requires reinvesting or wholly rebuilding an equitable education system that empowers us to coordinate against the spread of infection, panic, and misinformation.

In a market-driven world, where the creation of profit and efficiency are the primary cues that organize our lives, these steps are unacceptable. And so the capitalists find COVID to be ‘unanswerable.’ For a philosophical theory that mandates the pursuit of efficiency-at-all-costs and fetishizes self-interest, COVID is certainly a crisis. Distributing services and resources based on need, as opposed to market demand, is unacceptable to this order. As a result, conservative leaders have begun actively dusting off an old strategy: allowing the vulnerable to die in order to “save” capitalism.

Conservatives are not wrong to fear the economic quandaries erupted by COVID. The financial and business models that inform all manner of economic organizing are under severe and acute stress. But the biggest risk to capitalism has been revealed: where society learns that there is an alternative to extant power structures, society may learn to toss the underpinnings of this system outright.

Enter the US welfare regime, which is designed to insulate our society from mass panic by provisioning a basic level of sustenance and security to those impacted by economic collapse, blunting calls for reform or revolution. Certainly, the welfare state will see a significant increase in use through expanded unemployment claims, loss of collections for Social Security, significant strains on health insurance provision, and mass increase in use of public assistance programs such as food stamps or TANF.

The American social safety net has always been meager and hardly universal; but these systems were not designed to deal with this sort of calamity. These systems were developed to alleviate an extremely limited range of stressors under very acute conditions. They were never designed to deal with a mass influx of recipients driven to dire need due to a near complete cessation of work-life. The financial solvency underpinning these systems were calculated under a set of assumptions about economic activity and rate of use that COVID will completely obliterate.

But COVID’s wrath is not only observed in its decimation of the safety net; it’s hard to consider any part of society that is not impacted by the disruption of work-life caused by COVID. Children are out of school; universities have to completely reorient their means of grading and instructing students; transportation systems will go unused and thus under-financed; justice systems will see their backlogs expanded and called into ethical question. I could go on, but the point is clear: every facet of our life is now exposed to dissolution, and the market-based dogma that informs this system lacks a clear answer to the scope of this upheaval.

Typically, neo-liberal economic thought suggests that the appropriate response from a government during times of crisis is to do anything in its power to induce economic activity. There are two broad ways a government will want to respond to this sort of crisis: active use of monetary policy to encouraging lending, or directing economic activity by expanding the government’s budget to stimulate economic activity. However, these channels have been completely exhausted since the last systemic crisis back in 2008. Grace Blakeley has summarized the ill-straits of the current government’s capacity to address this crisis. In her review, she suggests that there is only one way out: government engagement and direction of economic activity on a scale unobserved since the Great Depression.

But this sort of action would completely upend the walls of political reality, transgressing the limits on government action imposed by capitalist thought. And so, our political system is short of leaders who seem up to the task of taking charge of this sort of effort. The President is actively spreading misinformation and stoking public panic, and the Democratic heir apparent is still figuring out how to take a Zoom call. Only Bernie Sanders seems to have a vision that provides a path through the crisis – not just a retreat from it. But unfortunately, he and his movement appear to be consistently isolated from mainstream political discourse despite the actions of himself and his campaign in response to COVID’s spread.

In contrast to the optimism I had just a month ago, I have fear that conservative voices will win out, and that the steps necessary to not only stop COVID but address the economic uncertainty caused by it will be deemed too costly. I fear we will mirror government non-responses to calamity in the past. Similar to previous health crises (such as AIDS, tuberculosis, or the ongoing pool of uninsured persons suffering under a private health-care regime) we will allow surplus labor to suffer while those with means get by. And, as followed the crash of 2008, we will again return to an austerity politics that pits poor against poor while the powerful sweep up the remains, preventing us from fundamentally reorganizing our society and returning us to a work-life expectation that launches us from crisis to crisis while the reign of Capital is preserved.

It is natural to ponder all this and be demoralized. But where the system breaks, there is potential to rebuild and renegotiate the social contract. This is no doubt hard work, but for many people who had dreamed of a different way of organizing our economy prior to COVID’s desolation, this is the opportunity. The first step in all of this is rejecting a return to normal. Normal means returning to a mode of life that created the conditions for COVID’s tyranny in the first place: where we accept mass inequality, inequitable access to healthcare, miserable jobs, unending work and endless competition.

See other articles in the April 2020 Edition