The United States is being scrapped for parts. We put predatory lenders and real estate hucksters at the levers of power, and now shouldn’t be surprised that what they’ve delivered is an over-leveraged buyout of the entire country.
Of course, comparison is odious and – as Susan Sontag taught us – metaphors often deceive just as much as they instruct. The debt, after all, is not what concerns me in these nascent days of our national calamity, but the uses to which all that leverage is being put and by whom.
Picking up where I left off yesterday, the Democracy Now! headlines from this morning alone paint a grim picture of the authoritarian uses being already made of the pandemic (links that follow are to sources beyond DN!): Amazon has fired a leader of the strike at its Staten Island warehouse (workers are demanding that basic measures be taken to protect them from COVID-19 in their workplace); Federal judges thankfully struck down abortion bans in Texas and Ohio (but the bans, to be struck down, had to be instated in the first place); in Hungary, Victor Orbán has capitalized on the pandemic to take major steps towards establishing himself as a dictator; the political pressure generated in Israel by COVID-19 has given Benjamin Netanyahu yet another lease on political life; the situation in India is awful, where documentary evidence suggests that pandemic-response measures are failing miserably, but people are nonetheless being arbitrarily subjected to harsh and dehumanizing treatment by a government with an undeniably fascist agenda; in the US, multiple state governments have quietly taken the opportunity to push through legislation to “criminalize protests against the fossil fuel industry” in the name of defending “critical infrastructure”; in my own birth state, Idaho, the governor chose yesterday (the day before the International Transgender Day of Visibility) to sign into law two anti-Trans bills; and in Rhode Island, the Mashpee Tribe has announced its intention to resist attempts by the President’s Administration to “disestablish” their reservation, with circumstances suggesting that plans to build a casino on the Mashpee’s territory threatened nearby casinos that have close ties to the President.
This is necessarily an incomplete and somewhat random sampling, and yet it points clearly to the reactionary agendas afoot as much of the world’s population sits, for good reason, at home – our ability to physically organize, radically curtailed – and people are understandably afraid. Edward Snowden is warning about potential lasting implications of increases in government surveillance – justified, now, in response to the pandemic, but, in his view, likely with us for years to come – and, of the utopian and dystopian potentialities of our current moment, Rebecca Solnit wrote recently in the New York Times, “the possibilities for change, for the better or the worse, for a more egalitarian or more authoritarian society, burst out of the gate like racehorses.”
In search of the “egalitarian,” one need look no further than DiEM 25 and its vision for a better Europe; GE workers protesting to be allowed to produce ventilators; and ICE detainees organizing to protect themselves. There is always a bright side, but I feel at once at risk of redundancy – in always juxtaposing the grim signs with the not-so-grim – and of lapsing into dishonesty, for, to me, it seems plain as day that we – those of us who imagine some version of that “egalitarian” world that Solnit (in, of all places, the pages of the NYT) points to – are losing and that on the other end of this global trauma, we will face a world even more disfigured, a set of power structures even more stacked against us.
I have no idea what we do about this, though I do suspect that – just as we’ll see explosions of consumption and revelry when this is finally over (and perhaps before, fueling second or third waves of infection) – the massive popular uprisings that will follow the pandemic will likely dwarf those that were already escalating globally through 2019. We can hope.
Turning back to New York City for a moment, either The Post is correct, and 124 died in six hours yesterday from COVID-19 at the City’s hospitals, or the City’s own reporting of mortality figures is simply inconsistent and the rise in death toll has actually been steadier than the official numbers suggest. Here, too, I don’t know the answer. Overnight, the night before last, the official death toll rose from 776 to 790, and then – in that “horrific six-hour stretch” yesterday during the day – 124 new deaths were tallied, raising the official count to 914. Overnight, last night, again, the toll was comparably low – “only” 18 additional deaths to raise the current official total to 932. I expect another spike to be announced in the coming hours, and with reference to the graph above, the number of daily deaths from COVID-19 will likely soon be triple or quadruple the average number (~130) of daily deaths in the City.
On that morbid note, so rapidly have things continued to change of late, I’ve found it useful to regularly reflect back on the weeks just passed. (It was, after all, only on March 14th that the first official COVID-19 death was recorded in NYC.) Last night, a high school friend prodded me on Twitter in response to my piece from yesterday that I needed to, “Get to the point” and should have led with the quote from Mike Davis (“If we don’t debate a democratic response to pandemics now, we risk ceding leadership to tyrants”, from this piece) but that I was on “on the right track though”; this is a friend who walks the walk on his politics, so I was open to the criticism, but on this front, I was pretty sure I’d been getting to the point for some time, and told him as much.
On March 16th, I wrote: “And now? We have a long, slow, grueling struggle ahead of us, the ramifications of which, around the world, it is impossible to foresee. I do not think it is advisable to compare it to war, as this is a struggle that has to be conducted collectively, with love, in community (which, given the call for isolation, is supremely ironic and will no doubt reinforce the dominance of the data monopolies), and centering the individuals, populations, and communities hardest hit by the health, economic, and social impacts of the pandemic. These past two weeks have been dizzying. The next two will be more so, and we have to brace ourselves, and do our best to stay healthy of body, strong in spirit, and sane and loving to ourselves and each other as we come through this”
And on the 17th: “Barring the widespread social and political collapse that some people fear, I’d say the concern which sits forefront in my mind is how we rebuild public space and public goods in the wake of this catastrophe. Right now, we rightly fear what is shared, but it would be a tragedy if going forward we turned our backs away from everything that is beautiful in our public parks and public transit, our town squares and varied meeting places, our bars and restaurants – these are ancient institutions, and for a reason, and I’m confident we will return to them, but in the face of ongoing climate disruption and neofascism on the march, only concerted global effort by the majority of us – a majority who want to live in peace and justice, and I think increasingly recognize that the choice is actually socialism or barbarism, or, to sidestep, once again, the risk of ideological discord, that we either choose public wealth and private sufficiency, or the world burns – and only concerted global effort will ensure that that burning does not happen.”
And on the 18th: “Predicting the behavior (in spreading through a human population) of a virus is one thing, but foreseeing complex human dynamics at a global scale quite another, and as I wrote yesterday, my energy is increasingly focused on: 1) mitigation strategies; 2) the needs of populations now subjected to immense shocks and stresses (especially those most vulnerable); and 3) strategizing for a just and sane post-pandemic world.”
These three priorities remain my focus, although I’ve grown increasingly concerned about the rapid moves toward authoritarianism all around the world and thus worried that we don’t have the luxury of only strategizing now because post-pandemic, to act, it may already be too late. What we do about this authoritarian threat continues to be my preoccupation. What it is we do, as I wrote above, I have no idea. There is no shortage of great visions, and no shortage of energy, but what it will take to mobilize that energy to realize those visions in the face of the forces arrayed against us, I don’t know; the “debate” Davis calls for is a good starting point, but it will take much more than that.
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