The Corpse of Neoliberalism

Today, the rain is heavy and soothing in New York City. We have lunch plans, of a sort, and so I’ll simply offer some excerpts that have tracked with and shaped my own thoughts.

In early April, Arundhati Roy wrote:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

So far, those in power seem inclined to opt for the former alternative.

Mike Davis opines that “People are not going gently into [the Administration’s] good night. They’re fighting like hell.” But he points out that the struggles of working people against workplace dangers and political austerity are receiving next to no corporate media coverage, even as the astroturfed men with guns besieging Democratic-held state houses dominate news cycles. Davis argues further:

Well, some people seem to believe [the Administration’s response is] all a matter of [the President’s] disorganization, the chaos in his mind, his incompetence. It’s all been bungled.

I don’t think that’s really true. I think, from very early on, in the White House, they’ve embraced this theory that in order to keep the economy open or to quickly reopen it, to rely on herd immunity, let people get infected.

And regarding the global situation:

And one thing we know for sure is that if a vaccine is developed in this country, it won’t be going to Africa, probably won’t be going to South America. I assume it will go to red states first and then maybe trickle down to blue. But it’s not simply abandoning the existing institutions of internationalism. This is a kind of triage of humanity, where wealthy countries have retreated from even the pretense of moral obligations to the poorer countries.

In the first session from this excellent online conference (to which my friend Emily pointed me) from the American Association for the History of Medicine, Charles Rosenberg repeats the common phraseology that COVID-19 – like any epidemic or pandemic – serves as “a stress test” for the stricken societies, while – interviewed on Democracy Now! – barnstorming independent journalist (and founder of the People’s Archive of Rural India), P. Sainath, goes further in claiming:

COVID-19 has presented us — and, I think, much of the world — with a complete and total autopsy of the corpse of neoliberal policy of 28 years in India.

[W]e’ve all accepted […] that healthcare is something to be bought, sold, traded, and that health insurance equals health. This is neoliberalism. We have a country where the maximum amount of the health system is in private hands — I mean, where the maximum expenditure on health is from poor people, from their own pockets. That’s one, on the health [system].

On the education system, now what happens — all the rich schools and the colleges and private universities will switch to “online education.” What happens to the tens of millions of children? What happens to the tens of millions of children in government schools where you’re lucky to have a decent blackboard? What happens to [them]? So the education system is smashed. This was also the pushing of so-called affordable private schools. All this stuff came with neoliberalism. So we’ve been smashed on the hunger front, on the education front, on the health front.

And we now face a very serious crisis in the coming monsoon crop season, because after 25 years we promoted, like anything, cash crop for exports. If we repeat cash crops in the coming season, you’re going to have starvation, right?


Each and every node of neoliberalism is now standing naked.

COVID-19 is a portal, a triage, a stress test, an autopsy, an X-ray. Something which sorts and separates, allows us to see, or shows us what – hidden – was already there.

Writing for The Caravan, Vidya Krishnan references the “frustration and dismay” of “several scientists” “at science having to play third fiddle – coming after politics and theatrics – during this public-health crisis,” and goes on to conclude:

The first week of May appears to show that India is on the cusp of a tailspin that will witness an exponential growth in infected cases. It has brought to the surface an issue long ignored in independent India: the need to invest in science, listen to scientists, and allow room for evidence-based policies. Cardiologists, paediatricians and private-hospital entrepreneurs cannot substitute for epidemiologists, scientists and health-policy experts. If the government continues to sideline scientists, while relying on ignorant political and theatrical measures, India will turn into a disastrous incubator for the virus.

The details may vary slightly, but the essence of her assessment could apply equally well in the United States as in (at least) dozens of other countries around the world. We stand at a precipice, or on the threshold of Roy’s portal, or at a beyond-Frostian fork in the road. According to Vijay Prashad, “Half of the world’s population fears going hungry as a result of the pandemic” – and even pre-pandemic, “2.5 billion” people were already underfed as “[measured] by caloric intake” – and yet, a recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies suggests that the wealth of US billionaires has increased by $434 billion in just the past two months, even as nearly 40 million people have filed for unemployment insurance in the United States.

Meanwhile, the New York Times advances the notion that “Bill Gates Is the Most Interesting Man in the World.” Does Timothy Egan’s glowing puff piece mention the various disastrously failed efforts at “education reform” of the Gates Foundation? I may never know.

As a friend wrote to me last night in sharing the “Most Interesting” link: “NY Times Op-Ed just jumped the shark. Truly the dumbest of all possible worlds we are living in.”

With the corpse of neoliberalism now festering like ruins all about us, I liked the Panglossian resonance of his conclusion, and replied: “Oh yeah, this just popped up on some feed for me as well. Fucking absurd. Gates is a very smart and accomplished guy, but also a ruthless one, and this fawning obeisance is just obscene.”

To which he replied: “The Gates philanthropy machine is mostly a tax dodge too. I mean I’m jaded about the op-ed section but that’s just straight up trolling or insane. Or just like a secular indulgence a la the robber barons. I really think the centrist galaxy brain is turning to slush atm.”

Now, I don’t know if it’s “mostly a tax dodge,” but there is certainly a tax avoidance component to all this philanthropic giving, and so, as the paper of record, and New York’s beloved Governor, and Wired magazine, and the Federal Reserve, and Congress, and really the entire corporate media and US ruling class give the superrich a free pass and dutifully serve their class interests, let’s remember, today, that billionaires are not our friends. That they are the robber barons, the people who sympathized and collaborated with the Nazis, who worked tirelessly to destroy the New Deal, and who continue, to this day, to assiduously strive to dismantle our miserly social welfare state and with it our democracy. They are the aristocrats, whose iron stranglehold on the lives of the many was centuries or millennia in the breaking, and no matter how much servile media or spineless and captive politicians sing their praises, they are not our friends, our allies, our saviors, or even, necessarily – as we’re constantly told – geniuses, or visionaries, or any of the other inanities we hear so often bandied about in our age of billionaire-ocracy.

We don’t need their charity; we need their fucking tax dollars. We don’t need their self-serving ideas for “rethinking” education and “reimagining” healthcare. We need them to take their feet of the world’s neck, and to stop undermining our democracies and driving planetary civilization into ruin. Out of the corpse of neoliberalism will grow fascism or (democratic) socialism, maggots or flowers, private wealth or public luxury. The choice is ours, but to the extent we choose freedom for the many, and not the few, the billionaires must be stopped.

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