It’s tempting to believe that the dangers and calamity imposed by COVID-19 are unique and exogenous. But COVID is only capable of mass proliferation because it feeds on the long neglected externalities produced by our current arrangement of work and life. Where access to healthcare is limited and contingent on employment, we are dissuaded from or wholly incapable of seeking out testing or treatment before outbreak takes hold. Where individuals are required to dedicate a majority of their life to work, we are made more susceptible to illness and risk of contagion through public space. Where stability and access to basic necessities are a direct function of your checking account, it necessitates a commitment to competition and hostility among each other that prevents a level of social trust from forming that is necessary to engage and encourage mass action. This arrangement, which we had normalized as immutable and unchanging, created the conditions for mass pandemic to arise. So here we are.
The mandate of social distancing requires us to abandon, forego, or bulwark (with socialized dollars via federal reinvestment into the social-safety net and broader economic stimulus) this new mode of work-life in order to ensure that our society is kept safe from and cured of the virus. But in order to apply this treatment, it requires us to completely renegotiate the boundaries of our society. It requires us to stop or halt unessential labor indefinitely. It requires us to spend our time caring for our families and neighbors. It requires us to think about the impact our actions and habits have on those around us. It requires an acceptance of socialized economic resources to deliver equitable and sustained relief through government action. It requires the socialization of private industry to provision and distribute core utilities to abate mass panic and fear. And it requires reinvesting or wholly rebuilding an equitable education system that empowers us to coordinate against the spread of infection, panic, and misinformation.
In a market-driven world, where the creation of profit and efficiency are the primary cues that organize our lives, these steps are unacceptable. And so the capitalists find COVID to be ‘unanswerable.’ When your entire philosophy is organized around the guarantee of efficiency, the fulfillment of market-based dogma, and aversion to any strain of socialization, COVID is a crisis. The idea that we could or should distribute resources based on need rather than market demand, is unacceptable to this order. And as a result, conservative leaders have begun actively pondering an old strategy: allowing the vulnerable to die in order to “save” capitalism.
Conservatives are not wrong to fear the economic quandaries erupted by COVID. The financial and business models that inform all manner of economic organizing are under severe and acute stress, not least because we are learning that we are capable of mass change without social ruin or collapse. This is the biggest risk to the capitalist system, and where society learns that there is an alternative to extant power structures, capitalism might observe end. But where those impacted by capital’s terrors have basic needs met, the potential for revolution or change is blunted. The US welfare regime is theoretically designed to insulate our society from mass panic by provisioning a basic level of sustenance and security to those impacted by economic collapse. And certainly, the welfare state will observe a significant increase in use through expanded unemployment claims, loss of collections for Social Security, significant strains on health insurance provision, and mass increase in use of public assistance programs such as food stamps or TANF.
The American social safety net has always been meager and hardly universal; but these systems were not designed to deal with this sort of calamity. These systems were developed to alleviate an extremely limited range of stressors under very acute conditions; they were not designed to deal with a mass influx of recipients driven to dire need due to a near complete cessation of work-life. The financial solvency underpinning these systems were calculated under a set of assumptions about economic activity and rate of use that COVID will completely obliterate. But COVID doesn’t only strain the safety net; it’s hard to consider any part of society that is not impacted by the disruption of work-life caused by COVID. Children are out of school; universities have to completely reorient their means of grading and instructing students; transportation systems will go unused and thus under-financed; justice systems will see their backlogs expanded and called into ethical question. I could go on, but I think you get the idea; every facet of our life is now exposed to dissolution, and the market-based dogma that informs this system lacks a clear answer to the scope of this upheaval.
Typically, neo-liberal (Keynesian) economic thought suggests that the appropriate response from a government during times of crisis is to do anything in its power to induce economic activity. There are two broad ways a government will want to respond to this sort of crisis: active use of monetary policy to encouraging lending, or directing economic activity by expanding the government debt to stimulate economic activity. However, these channels have been completely exhausted since the last systemic crisis back in 2008. Grace Blakeley has summarized the ill-straits of government’s capacity to address this crisis, and I highly recommend this piece for anyone seriously interested in the theory that inform neo-liberal economic policy. But in her review, she suggests that there is only one way out: government engagement and direction of economic activity on a scale unobserved since the Great Depression.
But this sort of action would completely upend the walls of political reality, transgressing the limits on government action imposed by capitalist thought. And so, our political system is dearth of leaders who seem up to the task of charging this sort of effort. The President is actively spreading misinformation and stoking public panic, and the Democratic heir apparent is still figuring out how to set up a Zoom call. Only Bernie Sanders seems to have a vision that gives us a way out of this crisis, but unfortunately he and his movement appear to be completely isolated from mainstream political discourse.
So I fear that conservative voices will win-out, and that the steps necessary to not only stop COVID but address the economic uncertainty caused by it will be deemed too costly. Similar to government responses to previous health crises, such as AIDS or Tuberculousis, we will allow “undeserving” populations to suffer while those with means get by. Or, as followed the crash of 2008, we will again return to an austerity politics that pits poor against poor while the powerful sweep up the remains, preventing us from fundamentally reorganizing our society and returning us to a work-life expectation that launches us from crisis to crisis.
It is natural to ponder all this and be scared. But where this system breaks, there is potential to rebuild and renegotiate the social contract. This is no doubt hard work, but for many people who had dreamed of a better way prior to COVID’s desolation, this is the opportunity. The most fundamental first step in all of this is rejecting a return to normal. Normal means returning to a mode of life that caused the virus in the first place: where we accept mass inequality, inequitable access to healthcare, miserable jobs, unending work and endless competition. If we take that road back, we will observe horrible action: the poor and vulnerable will wither so we can go back to waiting for Big Mo.