If my piece yesterday was a meditation on historical remembering, today, I’d like to focus on the mechanics of our forgetfulness. It will be said, and perhaps rightly, that it is human to forget, to lose sight of past traumas, to stumble back into past errors, to repeat history, but beneath the surface of our amnesia lurks the malignant force of corporate power. Certainly, the Anti-Vax Movement could only have meaningfully taken hold in a population privileged enough to largely be sheltered from endemic infectious disease and multiple generations removed from the miracle that was Jonas Salk’s breakthrough. Yet, what lurks in the shadows behind the too-bright (and California white) veneer of the Movement’s conspiracy theorizing, are the entrenched interests, powerful almost beyond imagining, of the big agri-chemical companies. If I understand correctly – after ChemChina’s acquisition of Syngenta (2017), the DowDuPont merger (2017), and the acquisition of Monsanto by Bayer (2018 – there remain only four major such mega-corporations in the world (BASF being the fourth). It is a fact, hidden in plain sight, that the flooding of the biosphere during the Great Acceleration (that is, post-World War II to present) with toxic, carcinogenic, mutagenic, and endocrine-disrupting synthetic chemicals – chief among them herbicides and pesticides – is a root cause of the observed spikes in Autism Spectrum Disorder, auto-immune disorders, and digestive diseases in human populations to name just a few of the maladies that can be linked back to persistent toxification of the Earth, but, one imagines, the executives of such agri-chemical multinationals as those listed above have been all to happy to foment anti-vaccine sentiment (eg, through supporting debunked claims about the connection between the MMR vaccine and autism), even if that meant promulgating false science and smearing conscientious researchers whose conclusions aligned with the facts, but not with corporate interests.
We live in a supremely fucked up world, and corporate malfeasance (a generous word for the willingness to lie, cheat, steal, murder, and corrupt that is characteristic of global corporate culture in our era) generally shows its face when one digs deep enough into the misery. (This long, interesting article – shared with me by my friend Alex, who makes paintings like these – which I’ve still yet to finish, refers dismissively to “a simple “Scooby-Doo Marxist” exercise of pulling the mask off the villain to reveal that, yes, indeed, it was capitalism that caused coronavirus all along!”, and I’ll do my best here not to be guilty of any Scooby-Doo-ism.) I’ve linked previously to thorough analyses of the dynamics of industrial agriculture, urbanization, and neoliberal corporate globalization which have given rise to conditions ideally suited to the jumping species and rapid global spread in human populations of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, but here, I’m thinking more about the immediate dynamics that have deepened the crisis of this pandemic in the United States. The greed, negligence, and short-sightedness of a corporate class and culture that is willing to lie, for the PR benefits, about paying employees during pandemic-related closures, and then to do the opposite; to expect warehouse workers to work through illness with no meaningful protections, then smear organizers who stand up for worker rights, while all the while lying publicly about the wonderful measures you’re taking to keep your workers safe; to tell grocery store workers that they can only be paid COVID-19 sick-leave if they test positive for the disease, knowing full well they’re unlikely to be able to get a test at all (therefore ensuring that those workers, desperate for income, come to work sick); to expect farm workers – many of whom are already made vulnerable, beyond the shared vulnerability of much of the working class driven by the casualization of much of the US workforce, by immigration status – to work sick, with no protective equipment, and to provide them no information whatsoever about the threats posed by the rapidly spreading virus that has paralyzed much of the global economy.
As Janine Jackson put it on the latest episode of FAIR‘s CounterSpin: “Strikes going on around the country right now are an indication of how workers themselves are reacting to this moment, in which it’s being made painfully clear that they are deemed both essential and expendable at once.”
It’s an easy, intellectually-sloppy gesture to evoke the authoritarian surveillance state of the Chinese Communist Party in defense of American Exceptionalism, but how much does Chinese-style authoritarianism (terrifying as it is) really differ – save in scale and centralization – from the ambitions and ethos of “Corporate America”? Critics of China love to point to the Social Credit System as an example of actually-existing Chinese dystopianism, but what of the corporate “reputation scores” in fear of which US workers live or the panoptic workforce management softwares that drive employees to ever greater feats of productivity, self-injury, and dehumanization?
Anyway, lest I rant on here for days – or find myself accused of what-about-ism (relative to which, please bear in mind that I am attacking US-style surveillance capitalism, not apologizing for socialism with Chinese characteristics) – let me come to the point: As our ignoramus President grows suddenly somber and “presidential” in the United States; as our blustering Governor thanks the billionaire owner of the New York Nets for his generous gesture of trans-national solidarity (in donating 1,000 respirators); as our shrinking violet of a Mayor largely recedes from the scene – his errors in the early days of the pandemic’s visible onset in New York City somehow magnified in inverse proportion to the Governor’s successful laundering of his own tawdry record; as all these elected executives scramble and prevaricate and attempt to re-write history, we should remember – and not forget – that this was a preventable tragedy. That better than fake solemnity from a vicious buffoon who has just (further) mortgaged our generation’s future in the name of corporate welfare; better than 1,000 respirators from China; better than suddenly brave words from a Mayor who Rolling Stone characterized as “Out to Prove That [the] GOP Have Not Cornered the Market on COVID-19 Ignorance”; better than all this would have been planning, preparedness, prevention, and a real, timely response to COVID-19. I would say a real response to the pandemic, but had such conditions as those I’m laying out been met – not just here, but around the world – we would have had no pandemic to speak of at all. We would have had only another successfully contained novel zoonotic disease.
Of course, better still would be working to undo the conditions – created by corporate capitalism – that are so conducive to zoonoses in the first place, but barring that unlikely development in the near-term, then, certainly, we must demand comprehensive public health measures and sane pandemic preparedness.
I’m happy to wear a face mask in public now that the CDC is (finally) calling for that measure, but just as we shouldn’t kid ourselves that perfecting our home recycling is a meaningful “solution” to the climate crisis, we need to recognize that these small steps we’re taking now mean that we already lost what I persist in pointing out is not a “war” against this virus. My privilege may allow me to find humor in having to don a bandana to cover my nose and mouth, but the optics of such a look are not lost on (and in fact discomfit) me, and it’s a sad commentary on our history and society that the following Twitter post from @KieseLaymon needs no further explanation: “I had the Bane mask. Forgot I’m Black. And big. And ancestrally red-eyed. And of the United States. New mask is floral. Don’t shoot. Naw, for real. Don’t shoot.”
As is often the case, I turn to The Intercept, in which Jon Schwarz writes today – in a piece entitled “The Democratic Party Must Harness the Legitimate Rage of Americans. Otherwise, the Right Will Use It With Horrifying Results.” – that:
The political possibilities of this moment are different than anything we have ever experienced. We possess a once in a lifetime opportunity to make the United States a more humane country. But if we fail to seize it, we will face mortal danger from the right.
That’s not hyperbole. The anger of Americans, once they figure out what’s being done to them right now, is going to be volcanic. The fallout from 9/11 and the great recession of 2007-2010 will be imperceptible in comparison.
And to Vijay Prashad, who – with Sudhanva Deshpande – writes for Scroll.in to the soon-to-be-jailed Indian dissident and Dalit rights activist Anand Teltumbde: “You are being sent to jail because you are part of a tidal wave of dissent against this government and what it has done to Indian democracy.’”
The New York Times reports that “Italy’s Virus Shutdown Came Too Late.” The City [the publication, not the municipality] reports that “Bronx Residents [are] Twice as Likely to Die From COVID-19 in NYC“. Looking heartbroken, my partner lets me know, “Ten nannies have died” in New York thus far from COVID-19. A friend in New Orleans shares that her mother – a home hospice nurse – is considering quitting her job because she’s high-risk for the disease and being asked to care for people dying from it without adequate PPE. A friend in Brooklyn reports that his sister’s boyfriend “had to get a CT scan of [his] lungs” before he could even get tested for the virus, and is now “in the throes of battling COVID […] pneumonia” while in self-quarantine at home.
Our Mayor wanted to keep the schools open because he couldn’t see another way for New York to stay “open for business” and now, NYC public school teachers have started dying of COVID-19. Our Governor was slow to act, but now, in playing the hero, will much sooner cut funding for our schools and hospitals (!!!) than countenance a tax increase on the rich to address our our yawning state budget deficit. Our President really deserves nothing more than to be a cautionary tale for generations to come, but otherwise forgotten and erased from our public life.
The stories two paragraphs up are a result of actions – taken and not taken – by the men in the paragraph above and their counterparts around the country and the world. (Literally, as I write this sentence, an email alert pops up from Axios informing me that Boris Johnson has been admitted to the hospital.)
These days, I’m telling time in lots of ways. By how long my unaccustomed beard has grown; how many pages of Boccaccio’s Decameron I’ve read; how much rice we have let; the comings and goings of the flowers on the trees in the world beyond our apartment into which I now very rarely venture. As we stare down the barrel of a corporate bailout that could see a wholesale (further) return to the Gilded Age with all its abuses, excesses, and horrors; confront the immediate crisis of the pandemic, and the almost-immediate crisis of global climate disruption; as we think about the world we want to (and have to) make, time-keeping, record-keeping, history-keeping – these are tasks to which we are all now called.