As part of DiEM25 TV, Srećko Horvat has a nice video series up called “Virus Mythologies” in which he examines the various novel ideologies of pandemic. In previous posts, I’ve drawn conclusions similar to some of his (about social distancing and pot banging, among other phenomena), but he does so at more length, with more philosophical insight, and – perhaps most crucially – with far more funny videos. I recommend you check out all four of them.
Umm, speaking of ideology – or something like it – the Pentagon released UFO videos (footage of “unidentified aerial phenomena” in official US military parlance) to almost no fanfare during the week. Most notable to me in understated coverage of the previously-leaked videos was the central role of a former Blink-182 frontman in trying to uncover what truth is out there. (Fun fact: As someone who works with teenagers, I can confirm that very few of them, at least in New York City, are aware that the music that accompanies the long-since-passé “Illuminati Confirmed” meme is simply the X-Files theme track. Given that the fetishization of youth has been a defining ideology of the post-World War II period of empire and mass consumerism in the US – perhaps now ending – maybe we can hope to move into something more like cultural adulthood, whatever that might mean, as we move beyond the pandemic, though as The New York Times cautions regarding the above mentioned UFO videos: “Don’t Hold Your Breath.”)
Lots of talk about Derek Thompson’s pessimistically optimist piece for The Atlantic, “The Pandemic Will Change American Retail Forever.” His thesis boils down to this: It’s all cyclical; it’ll get worse before it gets better; but in the long run, this will lead to a rebirth of cities from the low ebb of peak neoliberal homogenization, displacement, gentrification, etc. Fine. Nice piece. Whatever. But what sets apart thinking like Horvat’s from the dross we’re fed from our high-brow, mainstream-liberal publications (feel free to scare quote all of the preceding adjectives if you like) is the invitation to imagine a different sort of world. Thompson is very likely right – or at least, he might prove right if we don’t have a nuclear war, or a civil war, or an especially devastating superstorm, or some combination thereof, before his clockwork predictions can play out, or if we don’t collectively set a brighter path for the future instead – but why can’t we dream of and then work for different outcomes. Must things first bottom out before they start to improve?
Perhaps the answer is yes, for structural reasons, and we simply can’t hope not to suffer through a bad decade. (Tomorrow or Sunday, I’ll feature excerpts from Kim Phillips-Fein’s excellent Fear City in reflecting back on the start of the neoliberal era in New York City.) But look, Italian cities are going car-free in response to the changes brought on by COVID-19; Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, “has announced plans to turn the city into a vast open-air cafe by giving over much of its public space to hard-hit bar and restaurant owners”; New York itself has come a very long way with respect to public health and wellness (as I’ve written about extensively with respect to the cholera outbreak of 1832, the flu pandemic that coincided with the end of World War I, and the creation, here, of a whole then-world-leading public health system in the early decades of the 20th century); and Slate has some ideas about how US cities could follow these Italian and Lithuanian examples.
Sadly, those of us who were calling for a Green Stimulus have already largely lost, at least for now. The disaster capitalists had plans in place; they acted swiftly; and most importantly, they had power and we did not. Where does that leave us? Sitting at home. Sometimes, it’s hard not to despair, but the world moves very quickly – especially today – and refusal to accept canned versions of our foretold, so purportedly inevitable fate is part of keeping open the possibility of a different future. On March 15th, it was inevitable that New York City was sailing into a very rocky few months. As of today, it’s inevitable that the world is sailing into a very rocky hundred years. But we have choices about how we confront the inevitabilities entailed by pandemic or climate crisis mishandled (including the choice to learn from past mistakes so as to avoid repeating them), and we should refuse to allow ourselves to be so easily propagandized regarding the “necessary” shape of what’s to come.
Last night, I watched this surprisingly sweet and upbeat livestream featuring Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and Representatives Pramila Jayapal and Mark Pocan discussing “their shared priorities for the next coronavirus relief package.” Now, admittedly, this is a little fanciful of them, given that we’ve already had three and a half relief packages, none of which have come out terribly well, and yet, there was something funny and moving about listening to the four of them speak from their homes. In contrast to Joe Biden, who struggles to complete coherent sentences in his rare national television appearances and now stands credibly accused of sexual assault, Sanders seemed confident, relaxed, in command of the facts, authentically in touch with the grief and hardship rocking this country, and – as he joked, facilitated, and elaborated – at ease with the peers whom he’d assembled to Stream the Bern with him. Given the strained dynamic between Sanders and Warren in the waning days of their respective campaigns, I couldn’t help but wonder: Is this some type of hedge towards a progressive 2020 ticket that may still rise from the dead at the (virtual) Convention to come? We’ll see, but if ever there was a time for two aging (somewhat) leftists to sweep to power with a commanding mandate to chart a new course for the country, now is it.
As struggling small farms are sacrificed at the altar of Sonny Purdue’s bottom line; New York City doormen die by the dozens; and prisoner deaths spike (in New Jersey – where prison authorities are barely testing – as across the country) against the backdrop of the ACLU’s warning that “COVID-19 could claim the lives of approximately 100,000 more people than current projections stipulate if jail populations are not dramatically and immediately reduced”; Congress has quietly voted to increase the budget for its own concierge health clinic.
The volcanic rage is real and growing in this country. As has been obvious for some time, and the CDC confirmed this week, official figures regarding the national death toll are drastically understated. As mediocre nepotists like Jared Kushner brazenly declare the Administration’s catastrophic handling of the pandemic “a great success story” and “truly extraordinary,” while at the same time, reckless decisions at the national, state, local, and individual level around the country threaten to force us headlong back into a COVID-19 death spiral, we can only expect that rage to escalate.
What will it look like when it erupts? I hope for and work towards an eruption that looks less like the neo-Nazi-style rallies we’ve witnessed in recent weeks across the US (rallies which to me, as a child of Boise in the 1980s, are all too familiar from news coverage of the Aryan Nation rallies in Hayden Lake) and more like the upwelling of justified anger from a population disabused of its illusions and intent on finally breaking the back of the corporate two-party consensus that has, for more than 40 years, been gradually dismantling every public institution and rolling back every victory working people have won in this country.
On the path out of pandemic, we need not Three Percenters with AR-15s, but well-reasoned and deeply-knowledgable good sense like that in evidence in this short podcast from the New England Journal of Medicine “on Loosening Covid-19 Restrictions.”
On the path out of neoliberalism, the path beyond (fossil) capitalism and towards a just, sane world, we’ll need more voices than I can muster here. Right now, in New York City, New York State, the United States, and most places around the world, we are losing. Breaking the stranglehold on our minds of life-denying ideologies is a first step towards starting to win.
Postscript: What could it possibly mean that Tom Perez, Chair of the DNC, allowed his name to go out at the bottom of this email yesterday? Maybe just that the DNC is as far behind reality as it seems, or doesn’t have very good proofreaders, but I’ll let you be the judge:
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