“What’s the benefit of all this cruelty?” my partner asked as we watched (a recurring theme, I know) yesterday’s episode of Democracy Now! The features had been, respectively, on the suffering of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who face now, on top of the threats of genocide and pandemic, the challenge of recovering from damage wrought by Cyclone Amphan; the threats to refugees around the world from both the pandemic and its secondary effects; and a new study suggesting that more than a million children, and tens of thousands of mothers, could die over the next six months globally owing to the impacts of COVID-19, but her question, I think, had been regarding, specifically, events in the United States.
I’ll quote a recent post of mine here, because I still don’t have any better answer: “The explanation to which I circle back for the unfathomable cruelty and incompetence issuing from DC centers less on grand plans (though, of course, McConnell and others certainly have those, as the reconvening of the Senate to appoint Federal judges makes clear) and more on opportunism, greed, ignorance, and incompetence. I believe the strategy which has now taken shape among the people in power is to rob and upwardly redistribute to the fullest extent the intersecting crises allow, while making token gestures to the population at large, resting assured that not nearly enough has been given to prevent most working people from being starved, prematurely, back to work. It is a strategy that is already badly backfiring, but has enabled a great deal of wealth transfer, and – from the perspective of people who don’t care at all about mass death of the poor – may yet work out “favorably”.”
It was in the work of Arthur and the late Marilouise Kroker that I first encountered the concept “abuse value,” and while it may not be altogether operative in this instance, just such cruelty as that to which my partner spoke is central to an essay of Arthur’s which I’m in the process of revisiting and from which – regarding ISIS execution videos – I quote:
With fast circulating media imagery as the skin of the planet […] in this scenario of 21st-century cruelty and humiliation […] in the spreading wasteland of the 21st century, it is no longer possible to speak meaningfully of a necessary conjuncture between absolute murder and absolute justice. When murder is put on public display for global media circulation, and when the question of justice itself is reduced to a carefully staged communication […] violence and justice are finally blasted away by the powers of the phantasmagoria. Here, murder and justice have no meaning in themselves, but become [only the] vertiginous flow of the media spectacle.
Their writing isn’t for everyone, but in certain respects, I believe they were prescient, especially in their analyses of digital media culture through the joint lens of Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty and Debord’s Society of the Spectacle.
Anyway, even as we all make our way in confusion through the haze and phantasmagoria of mis- and disinformation and propaganda, still, sometimes, good sense and common decency prevail. Merrill Lynch, of all sources, is reporting that, based on data from Denmark and Sweden (which have pursued radically different approaches in confronting the pandemic):
The paper finds that consumer spending dropped by 25% in Sweden and by 29% in Denmark. The […] difference between the two declines quantifies the cost of lockdown policies. While 4% of consumer spending is not trivial, it is a small share of the total decrease in consumer spending. Therefore the data indicate that most of the slowdown occurred due to voluntary social distancing rather than lockdown policies.
As David Dayen pointed out in yesterday’s Unsanitized newsletter, in the United States, “the public isn’t joining in the optimism of the policymakers [regarding reopening]” which may partially explain (along with incomplete or doctored data) why Georgia hasn’t seen a significant spike in COVID-19 cases post-reopening. This is, of course, a cause for real optimism, and a sign that even the lies and sociopathy of much of the US ruling class has not fully blinded a majority of the population to an obvious truth: The pandemic is dangerous, and, to actually reopen the economy, we have to do the hard work of confronting the pandemic first. (In the meantime, as the Rev. Dr. William Barber put it: “Stay at home, stay alive, organize.”)
Unfortunately, with enhanced unemployment benefits slated to expire at the end of July, and the Congressional relief efforts proving – no doubt, by (Republican) design – insufficient for tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people across the United States – especially in view of the utter failure to (even try to) bring the pandemic under control in this country – it seems likely that economic desperation may yet tip the balance between popular fear and good sense, and elite sadism and greed in favor of the latter and toward renewed explosive spread of COVID-19. (I recommend this interview with Mike Davis on the subject of organizing to resist workplace exploitation.)
Meanwhile, regarding US-China relations, poor Bill Bishop of Sinocism apologizes [paywalled], “I wish I had something more insightful to write for you but my heard hurts too much from banging it against my desk.” I generally find him insightful all the same, and I learned something from listening, per his link, to this interview of Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) by Mike Green of CSIS. (I recommend skipping over their stroking of each other’s egos and talking about service in the Marines, etc. so to the 26 minute 40 second mark.) Gallagher is an unapologetic advocate for US power whose politics align very little with my own, and yet, as David Dayen writes in today’s Unsanitized, there is an “Emerging Bipartisanship on Supply Chains and China Policy.” On the one hand, some on the left seem at risk of focusing so intently on US misdeeds (colossal and numerous as they are), that they either give China a free pass – as FAIR sometimes seems to – or become outright apologists for the Chinese government – as Vijay Prashad unabashedly has. On the other hand, I agree with Glenn Greenwald that obsession with Chinese misdeeds among US elites (and especially among Republicans suddenly concerned, after decades of the so-called War on Terror, about the suffering of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang) is generally dangerous, self-serving, and disingenuous. Remember all the Bush Administration handwringing about the well being of women in Afghanistan?
History – like that covered in Doug Henwood’s interview with Vincent Bevins regarding “the US-sponsored strategy of mass murder during the Cold War” – reminds us of just how horrific US imperialism continues to be, even after 400+ years, but as a practical matter, the case remains that the US and China have become deeply culturally and economically entangled and that the geo/politics between the two countries will likely be central in shaping the coming decades (and to any hope of confronting the global climate crisis). The greed of US corporations in looking to the Chinese labor market, and the arrogance of US politicians in imagining that they could control China even while facilitating its rise as an economic and political force look now – nearly 20 years after China joined the WTO – highly ironic in view of the growing hysteria in this country about Chinese power and “the Chinese threat.”
Clearly, it’s Yellow Peril-ism all over again, and yet, there is no neutral position from which to survey the scene; caught between superpowers is not a comfortable position for a lone individual. I worry about Hong Kong, as I worried for Aleppo. Going back centuries, if not millennia, cities – even with their filth, inequality, illusions, and phantasmagoria – have been magnets for freethinkers and those seeking opportunity. They have also been sites of extreme exploitation, and destinations for forced migration, so I won’t pretend to tell a single story about cities – especially in our current age of highly unequal urbanization – but just as we only have one planet, we only have so many places on the face of it, and some of them – New York, Hong Kong, Aleppo – offer something rare to find on the face of the Earth. The crushing of the spirit of a great city is a monstrous act, and as we face a century that may soon witness many of our global centers menaced or destroyed by climate crisis-fueled storms, droughts, wildfires, sea level-rise, etc., we should think hard about what it means to resist imperialism, authoritarianism, and fascism coherently, even as we sit, complicit, within countries which are, at present, guilty of some, if not all, of the above.
In the meantime, the COVID-19 “Game of Whack-a-Mole” continues with no evidence, in many countries – like this one, Brazil, Russia – that the governments are even trying, and no immediate end in sight.