by Nicolás Vargas
As little as a month ago, it was easier to feel a sense of revolutionary optimism than it is now. Multiple wildcat strikes paved the way to union victories, environmental justice found a place in the popular lexicon, spurred by tens of thousands of (mostly young) people demanding change, and a presidential candidate who championed working class values was gaining momentum and winning delegates. Then, amidst an oil-price war, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Capital markets collapsed. Supply chains started falling apart. Things went completely ass-backwards. Our political, social and economic spaces developed new schisms.
Under the current existential terror of a global crisis, our imaginations grow bereft of options, and we tend to drift towards unproductive pessimism. A recession looms over the global economy. The political and ideological iron curtains of nation-states are being drawn closed. People sit quarantined, limited to futures that lack certainty and mobility. With its exploitable workforce limited, American capitalism has ground to a halt, no matter how many trillions the Fed injects into the market.
As more information and tests come along, increasing numbers of people will be diagnosed with the virus. The dead are a growing number waiting to be tallied. We languish impotently, knowing which demographics are dying, while mainstream media reports on each celebrity with enough money to conveniently acquire a testing kit. But the facts of who’s doing the dying have always been known.
In 1951, the Civil Rights Congress presented a petition to the United Nations. We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People aimed to lift the veil of exceptionalism to the world and reveal the brutality of America’s racial capitalist system. Citing ritualistic public lynchings in the South, episodic police brutality throughout the country, and systemic healthcare inequality, they claimed the U.S. government was complicit in and in many ways responsible for acts committed with the “intent to destroy” black people, “in whole or in part.” The CRC set out to “prove that the object of this genocide, as of all genocide, is the perpetuation of economic and political power by the few through the destruction of political protest by the many”—with the many “segregated legally or through sanctioned violence into filthy, disease-bearing housing, and deprived by law of adequate medical care and education.”
The treatment of black and poor people—called the dispossessed because they are denied resources, property, humanity—as ‘disposable’ in America is predicated on a system designed to dehumanize and exploit. The dispossessed are forced into substandard accommodations, from prisons to economically segregated transportation, housing, and hospitals. The CRC claimed, as I claim now, that because of these conditions, “so swell the death rate and the death rate from disease” in these intentionally disenfranchised populations.
The oft-cited concept of Mark Fisher’s ‘‘capitalist realism’’ best describes the limited imagination and solutions on offer from our public servants during this crisis. To them, there is no other world possible outside the capitalist order. Their minds desertified, they look soberly at the constant failures of an overwhelmed, failing system and see no alternative to allowing millions of (poor, disabled, immunocompromised, expendable) people to die in order to keep the declining capitalist machine and its profits alive.
A macabre article in The Atlantic, “The Extraordinary Decisions Facing Italian Doctors,” draws from a paper from the Italian College of Anesthesia, Analgesia, Resuscitation and Intensive Care (SIAARTI) in seeking to justify the moral and ethical choices doctors will have to make in order to best treat sick patients within the U.S.’s underdeveloped capitalist healthcare system. Dysfunctional American healthcare institutions, under free-market limitations, will be unable to treat everyone because of “a total saturation of resources […] maintaining the criterion of ‘first come, first served’ would amount to a decision to exclude late-arriving patients from access to intensive care.” Experts warn of the coming surge in patients, when the overburdened system will “[force] doctors to make impossible choices—which patients would get ventilators and beds, and which would die.”
Yet as the SIAARTI report has made clear, triage—“the allocation criteria need to guarantee that those patients with the highest chance of therapeutic success will retain access to intensive care”—is proving necessary even under Italy’s universal healthcare system. In the United States, the situation will be far worse. If healthcare systems were directed towards people’s welfare instead of profit and received adequate funding for pandemic preparation, death-sentence triage would be far less necessary. Under a capitalist system, utility has always been tied to who can produce the most profit for the ruling class. The elderly are far less productive exploitable subjects than the relatively young, who heal quicker and can hold wage-labor jobs. “Vulnerable” demographics—the houseless, poor, colonized, imprisoned, femme, queer, black, and disabled—have all been excluded at one point or another from the criterion of utility by white supremacist patriarchal capitalism.
They Made Us Vulnerable
The dog-eat-dog socioeconomic structure we live under has made possible this dark state of affairs. Weakened immune systems, deep epigenetic trauma, and rap sheets—created by the interlocking structures of discrimination and antagonism stacked against marginalized people—will put millions at a disadvantage. Why must we allow the state to decide people’s utility? Whether they deserve to live? Why do we allow it the authority to create the odds by saddling certain people with special adversity?
If the intentions of the state mandate to disempower the many are overlooked and erased, then so, too, are the lived experiences of communities whose houses were bombed and burned; whose civil-rights and labor leaders were assassinated; who are shuffled in and out and back into the prison system in the age of carceral capitalism; whose water is poisoned; who were corralled into dilapidated housing by redlining; who were denied loans for housing on the basis of generational wealth accumulation; and who were unethically experimented on by the racist state.
Gentrification and the skyrocketing cost of living have caused homelessness in New York City to soar to heights not seen since the Great Depression. 200,000 people in U.S. prisons are over the age of 55, nearing the threshold for the Italian paper’s utility cutoff. Now, packed in torture facilities, prisoners on Rikers Island are ironically forced to make hand sanitizer for slave wages, while most cannot get soap to wash their own hands and prisons operate without clean water. Immigrants who fled their homelands torn by western imperialism, who crossed the border “illegally,” are less likely to go to hospitals out of (valid) fear of deportation. When they are arrested by ICE, the American Gestapo, they will be held at a detention camp, confined to a cramped cell with at-best insufficient, and likely nonexistent, medical treatment, allowing disease to spread and kill more vulnerable people.
As Frances Ryan writes in The Guardian: “There’s privilege in being able to cut yourself off from the world—like having enough disposable income to stockpile food and medicine, or having a job you can do at home (or indeed, one that provides sick pay if you’re not there).” People unable to do so, like the poor and disabled, are left to suffer. Governments tend to respond to crises with blanket solutions that often marginalize disabled people even further. Professor June Andrews even went so far as to praise COVID-19 for helping hospitals with delayed discharges because these people would be “taken out of the system” and no longer be a burden to keep alive.
In the absence of proactive measures or adequate handouts (read: human rights) the vulnerable are hung out to dry. The healthcare system of the United States has not been equipped to help people survive. Doing so is simply not profitable. In contrast, China was able to mobilize resources quickly and build brand-new hospitals in a matter of days, as well as disinfect cities en masse. The World Health Organization states that China has stopped the virus in its tracks. Yet many Western countries, especially the U.S. and U.K., have essentially handed a death sentence to their vulnerable populations—the perpetually oppressed people that Professor Andrews called “bed-blockers.”
While we struggle to live during a global pandemic, while shelves in American supermarkets start to look like the ostensible dystopias of ‘socialism’ in the Global South, while there are people unsure if they will receive paid sick leave or if their landlord will capitalize on their heightened precarity—the rich plan to exploit the situation, using a familiar roadmap to profit off catastrophe while millions die.
When the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina, the poorest neighborhoods were disproportionately devastated. Since then, nearly one-third of the black population has not returned. In the ten years post-disaster, the New Orleans neighborhoods most affected are the most likely to be gentrified. Wealthy politicians, economists, and corporations immediately swarmed the area, calling it a “clean slate” and an “opportunity” to rebuild the city into something that it never was before. Their goal was to wipe out the old, poor, pre-hurricane city to make way for more profit. New markets. New capital. New residents.
Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, notes the groundwork being laid by the capitalist conglomerate to capitalize on the despair brought on by the panic and fallout of COVID-19. Klein quotes noted free-market ghoul Milton Friedman to highlight that in times of crisis, ideas that seem radical become possible:
“Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”
In a rare occurrence, Friedman was actually right about this. (Though so was Lenin). Klein asks an important follow-up to his statement: “Whose ideas become possible?” To answer this, one must become familiar with the U.S. government’s tendency in times of crisis to hand authority over to the free market and the rule of capital, leading to austerity measures and neoliberal policies that further enrich the unimaginably wealthy. As such, capitalizing on the moment, Trump pushed to suspend the payroll tax, which in all likelihood would bankrupt Social Security, making possible the longstanding bipartisan dream of full privatization. Trump also hopes to bail out heavy-polluting industries: airlines, cruise ships, oil corporations.
The big-money private healthcare and retail CEOs showed up on national television, rubbing elbows with Trump during a public address and claiming they have a common enemy in the coronavirus. The reality is that they hope to win bids when the pandemic response is outsourced to the private sector. As the world economy takes blow after blow, the Fed’s first move was to offer up huge installments of quantitative easing to try and save the decrepit markets. First it was a 1.5 trillion-dollar stimulus, then a 500 billion-dollar injection into the repo market, and there may be more to come.
Meanwhile, gig workers and freelancers are uninsured and unlikely to get a handout anytime soon. No money so far has been allocated to families around the country, who have been forced to quarantine, and who are losing wages and gaining debt by the hour. The plans being brought to the table are pathetic crumbs in relative terms. Profit continues to flow to the ruling class at the expense of the rest of humanity.
Disaster Solidarity: A Revolutionary Situation
It is no time for defeatism in the face of uncertainty. It’s time to seize this unique moment when the impossible becomes possible. The atomized many must come together as a collective and synthesize our immediate demands, must put into practice working models of alternative futures, and must imagine a world outside of this system of constant crisis.
A revolutionary situation is a moment in history where systemic change is possible. We may be arriving at one—even the bourgeois media thinks so. In such times, the inherent contradictions of the system reveal themselves. The cracks grow wider. As mass animosity towards the ruling class builds during a crisis like this pandemic, talking heads hope that reform will ameliorate the escalating class tension. We would be best served to look beyond the inevitable band-aids and demand the most expansive measures. We only have ground to gain.
We should all support the emergency program put together by the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL). The PSL has successfully articulated a broad spectrum of voices on the marginalized left who call for a moratorium on all evictions and rent increases, making COVID-19 testing free, housing the homeless with the use of eminent domain, universal healthcare and sick leave, releasing prisoners, and more. These are ideal first steps to take towards real change. Revolution is a continuum. It is built from the ground up. It is the opposite of spontaneous: it is planned, prepared for and well-organized.
In describing how to capitalize on the revolutionary situation, Cornelius Castoriadis proclaimed:
“Self-management will only be possible if people’s attitudes to social organization alter radically. This in turn, will only take place if social institutions become a meaningful part of their real daily life.”
We have the chance to build direct democracy, mutual aid, solidarity, and sustainability into the political space. New institutions take root in the husks of the old. This new order must then struggle for legitimacy against the institutions of capitalist society that have failed the masses. Take for example the People’s Medical Care Center organized by the Black Panther Party, or the occupation of Lincoln Hospital by the Young Lords Party.
This crisis has revealed that the social contract with the state has been voided. It should be clear now that the State serves only as the guardian angel of the rich. To the rest of us, the state is Nietzsche’s demon that tells us we will live this life at its worst “innumerable times more.” Yet thousands of dual power and mutual aid networks across the world have responded to the lack of leadership by turning to the power of the people. Bricks are being laid to build a base of working class power that can be leveraged against a Leviathan-like state that actively works against our interests. This is the way we end the eternal recurrence of exploitation and oppression under capitalism. This is how we subvert the authority of structures of unequal power that decide who lives and dies. This is how we kill the demon. ♦
Nicolás Vargas is a poet, writer, and organizer in NYC. Their organization Freedom Arts Movement seeks to liberate the creative consciousness of the masses by abolishing capitalism. They tweet @pigmentpariah.