This Storm Is What We Call Progress

Genealogies of knowledge are fascinating. Case in point, a friend wrote – in response to my first post on New York City’s long history of confronting epidemic disease: “An interesting question though these days is to figure out who is actually an authority.”

In the email exchange that followed, I wrote: “I’d argue that having networks of trusted individuals and institutions is core to the process of identifying authorities (eg, it was through Democracy Now! which I’ve listened to for 15 years and trust deeply, that I first heard Laurie Garrett in early Feb which shaped my understanding of the risk to the US and our utter unpreparedness, and I follow Bill Bishop’s Sinocism, which was taking the impact of the disease in Wuhan seriously from early January) but it’s hard when these sources are largely “niche.””

And then followed up the above with the following example genealogy of how I came to read Gotham in the first place: “I’d been looking to read a big NYC history, but there are a lot of them floating around, and I didn’t have a good sense of how to differentiate. I read a review by Kim Phillips-Fein of Wallace’s Greater Gotham in The Nation (though I probably came to it through social media, perhaps Twitter, as I’m not a regular Nation reader). I’d heard Phillips-Fein interviewed on Doug Henwood’s excellent radio program Behind the News and subsequently read her book, Fear City, on the NYC financial crisis of the mid-70s. She wrote very highly of Wallace’s book, and so I decided to read first the volume that preceded it which Wallace and Burrows had written together (I’ve now read both). Digging further back, it was a close high school friend of mine who’d recommended Henwood’s radio program in the first place, and not just any friend, but one whose thinking I respect and who’s very knowledgeable about Left politics. Further, I’d actually previously been a regular reader of Henwood’s discontinued Left Business Observer, which I’d in turn come to through the nexus of independent media outlets (Democracy Now!, FAIR, Free Speech Radio News) that had played a big role in my own political development during the height of the Iraq War. Those, in turn, I suppose I came to on my own, but through an intentional process of self-education that had started with obvious books by Chomsky, Zinn, Arundhati Roy, and others, and gradually led me to circuits of discourse outside the corporate media sphere.”

Of course, such unwinding can get tedious, but I think it at once sheds light on how we know what we think we know, and on the ancient oral histories of human knowledge.

Anyway, in the spirit of reference, acknowledgment, (and even intersubjectivity!), today I’m going to quote/excerpt pieces that have been informing my own thinking in recent days and weeks, but which (mostly) haven’t yet made their way into my writing. My hope is that – in the spirit of a great unfinished work by Walter Benjamin (a quote from whom gives this piece its title) – these fragmentary voices will tell a story from which emerges some coherence.

With no further ado, writing on “Zoonotic origins of human coronaviruses,” researchers from the University of Hong Kong summarize:

To conclude, the most effective way to prevent viral zoonosis is for humans to stay away from the ecological niches of the natural reservoirs of the zoonotic viruses.

Obvious, yes, but an important conclusion nonetheless. Building upon one important obviousness with another, here’s an anonymous “former high-ranking C.D.C. official” as quoted in this New Yorker piece:

We have the best public-health agency in the world, and we know how to persuade people to do what they need to do. Instead, we’re ignoring everything we’ve learned over the last century.

Looking to China, we should’ve known what was coming, and indeed – as extensive reporting has shown – we did, but today, the water’s have been muddied, as Bill Bishop eloquently points out [paywalled]:

To follow up on yesterday’s comment, one of the things I am struggling with is how to wade through the escalating information war, while watching what sure looks like the impending collision between the US and China. Seek truth from facts, wherever they may lead…

But if the news is bamboozling, still, history warned us – history, like this piece from 2004 on the “origin of the 1918 influenza pandemic” (which speaks to why I reiterated yesterday: “This pandemic is not unprecedented. It was not a black swan event.”):

In recent years the World Health Organization and local public health authorities have intervened several times when new influenza viruses have infected man [sic]. These interventions have prevented the viruses from adapting to man [sic] and igniting a new pandemic. But only 83 countries in the world – less than half – participate in WHO’s surveillance system […]. While some monitoring occurs even in those countries not formally affiliated with WHO’s surveillance system, it is hardly adequate. If the virus did cross into man [sic] in a sparsely populated region of Kansas, and not in a densely populated region of Asia, then such an animal-to-man [sic] cross-over can happen anywhere. And unless WHO gets more resources and political leaders move aggressively on the diplomatic front, then a new pandemic really is all too inevitable.

I repeat – from 2004 – “a new pandemic really is all too inevitable”; we must only hope that the following quote, from the same piece, does not prove grimly prophetic of what is to come:

Thirty of the fifty largest cities in the country also had an April spike in excess mortality from influenza and pneumonia. Although this spring wave was generally mild – the killing second wave struck in the fall – there were still some disturbing findings.

In the US, we’ve seen fascists, kleptocrats, and crony capitalist moving at lightening speed to capitalize on the opportunity of the crisis, while Democrats and progressives mostly look on in various attitudes of complicity, complacency, outrage, and horror. David Dayen has been offering keen insights on recent Machiavellian happenings in DC:

Because we have effectively a planned economy, planned by mostly one man named Steve Mnuchin, his whims form the basis for how our economy works.
Power has been handed over to an [sic] transactional mediocrity making monumental decisions seemingly based on personal relationships. Welcome to Mnuchin-mnomics.

While also providing compassionate commentary on the nightmare of this unfolding train-wreck for everyday residents of the United States:

In this crisis, the government has offered some relief to debtholders, whether for mortgages or student loans. But all of the relief programs put the burden on the individual, requiring them to reach out to their servicer and seek the relief. Servicers have a fun way to respond to this: they don’t take the phone calls. Borrowers constantly report that they can’t get through to their servicers, and this keeps them from the options they were promised. It also helpfully keeps costs down for the servicers; they’re literally incentivized to have no contact with their customers.

Writing for The Intercept, Jon Schwartz opines that “The Corporate Right Is Giving Us Two Choices: Go Back to Work, or Starve” – elaborating that, from the perspective of the above mentioned fascists, etc.:

The short-term danger is that Americans will resist the push from business to get us back on the job and making money for them. Their plan is simple: Starve us out. They know we can’t survive indefinitely without a continuing government bailout focused on regular people’s needs. So they’re going to stop that bailout from happening.

The longer-term danger they face is that we’ll make the government work for us in the short term — and then we will realize we could make it work for us all the time by removing the threat of starvation from their arsenal. This would totally change the balance of power in society. This is their deepest fear, one that’s consumed them since World War II, the first time in history that everyday people gained consciousness that it was possible for them to use the government to create a world that puts them first, not their bosses.

While on a similar note, outspoken (and largely single-issue) anti-monopolist Matt Stoller (who is not without his critics, and whose singular focus on the admittedly key issue of the power of corporate monopolies I fear may be blinding him to the danger of allying himself with charlatans of the Far Right) argues:

We have to restructure our social hierarchy, so that people who do the work have control over the work, instead of the middlemen and monopolists.

At any rate, it’s time to think big, and to start from the premise that big business, at least temporarily, is going to be structuring the response to the pandemic. A new generation of leaders and thinkers is not going to tolerate that kind of governance for long, but we will still have a lot to clean up after this mess is over. So what are the policy levers to shape the world after we decide that we actually prefer our public democratic institutions to govern?

That’s the question that we should be thinking about.

Sadly, in New York State, we see a monopoly of a different sort consolidating before our very eyes – that is, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s monopoly on power:

In recent weeks, Cuomo has been lavished with national praise for holding nightly briefings about the pandemic, seemingly filling a leadership vacuum left by the federal government. But not only did Cuomo fumble his state’s response, minimizing [sic] the risks of the virus in early March, but he has also used this political moment to cement his authority and that of his political allies. Over the past month, Cuomo has canceled six special elections and used the state’s annual budget process, over which he wielded great influence, to enact some of the most strict ballot access laws in the nation and expand his budgetary power. Progressives say the combination of moves amount to a power grab, given cover by the ongoing pandemic.

Is it always darkest before the dawn? I’ll give the final quotes to the always-astute Mike Davis – writing in this instance for Labor Notes. Here he is on preparedness:

For nearly a generation the World Health Organization and all major governments have been planning how to detect and respond to such a pandemic. There has always been a very clear international understanding of the need for early detection, large stockpiles of emergency medical supplies, and surge capacity in ICU beds. Most important has the been the agreement of WHO members to coordinate their response along guidelines they all had voted to accept. Early containment was crucial: comprehensive testing, contact tracing, and the isolation of suspected cases. Large-scale quarantines, sealing off cities, shutting large sectors of the economy—these should be only last-ditch measures, made unnecessary by extensive planning.

Or lack thereof:

In other words, the U.S. was not ready and the government knew it was not ready.

Fantasy:

The proposal to test people’s blood and then issue back-to-work certificates if they have the right antibodies is mere fantasy at the moment. Washington has allowed more than a hundred different firms to sell serological kits without human trials or FDA certification. The results they give are all over the map, just a mess.

Reality:

But most recent research […] suggests that conferred immunity is very limited and coronavirus could become as entrenched as influenza. Barring dramatic mutations, second and third infections will likely be less dangerous to survivors, but there is as of yet no evidence that they will be any less dangerous to uninfected people in high-risk groups. So COVID-19 will be the monster in our attic for a long time.

And its ramifications:

A volcanic rage is rapidly rising to the surface in this country […]

In the genealogical spirit, I came to this Davis piece through the DSA’s COVID-19 Bulletin whose style of organizing and “building power” hints at how “volcanic rage” might be used to “shape the world” anew. Sadly, we’ve already largely missed the initial opportunity the pandemic presented. Cuomo, McConnell, and others of a similar bent – if nominally, but meaningfully different politics – have long since seized the initiative out from under our powerless noses. It was always a generational struggle though, and a trans-generational one, so we can at least hope that Stoller is right and we don’t “tolerate that kind of governance for long,” as the messes we have to clean up are big ones.

5 thoughts on “This Storm Is What We Call Progress

    1. Hi Larry, great question. The title is drawn from an English translation of Walter Benjamin’s commentary on Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus,” but I suspect that Anderson may have been referencing the same if the wording is similar. She’s been on my mind recently because Srećko Horvat has been using her “Language Is a Virus” to intro his “Virus Mytholgoies” series 🙂

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