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Apocalypse or Opportunity?


As it is April 16, 2020 I must make note of the ongoing collapse of the world economy at the hands of a tiny, but deadly, virus. As per usual here in the United States BIPOC, the poor, the working classes, the elderly, the weak and vulnerable are being hit hardest both by the spread of the virus and the resultant economic fallout. The rich are serenading one another across well-apportioned balconies and expansive vales, clapping while we die. We need immediate material support that in most places is not forthcoming. They need a fucking guillotine. Many of us have been waiting weeks for unemployment benefits, food aid, or that one-off-signed-by-a-sociopath-stimulus-check. If the pandemic has dramatized anything it’s the fragility of the neo-liberal consensus. But the left remains largely incapable of mounting a ‘counter-hegemony’. Perhaps the far right has a better angle on exploiting such fragility? I sincerely hope not, but that remains to be seen.

The most visible opponent to the current Republican Cult of Death is New York governor Andrew Cuomo, a soulless political prevaricator whose contributions to ending the pandemic include forcing Rikers Island prisoners to make hand sanitizer and scolding working class Americans to simultaneously ‘stay at home’ and ‘go get a job’–all without a hint of cognitive dissonance. Liberalism is dead. Don’t expect this sudden, half-assed, altogether pathetic expansion of the welfare state during the pandemic to revive it. Stick a fork in it already. The other Left Coast leading liberal light, California Governor Gruesome is no better. Behind every plutocrat and celebrity clapping on their doorstep for an essential worker risking their life is a lib-con telling us all to get back to work and appreciate the fact we have a job at all. We know the bar for humanitarian response is perilously low when these clowns are regarded as leaders. We leftists have always argued for re-valorizing essential work and the workers who perform it. This system of organized theft will cough up a begrudging acknowledgment of our humanity about the time there is no longer a humanity left. 

The contrast between something so small having such a large impact is instructive here. Throughout human history radical political ideologies always, by definition, start on the outskirts of accepted public opinion. Then, that Overton Window we are all so fond of referencing suddenly and quite unexpectedly opens up, moves to another building or is shattered altogether by a projectile. Such ideas and the people who promote them grow in influence during times of major disruption. Twenty-six million unemployed in five weeks, mile-long lines at food banks and overflowing morgues are terrifying testaments to our current predicament. We just cannot say what is coming, only that it will likely be something different from whatever we have experienced before. The depth, breadth and velocity of the current economic upheavals are just too extreme not to produce some kind of political fallout.

The WWI era, for example, was characterized by a devastating inter-imperialist global war and was the hand maiden for both Bolshevism and fascism reaching for and grasping state power. However one chooses to understand and assess those radical ideologies, it is undeniable that they began among a few adherents and under certain circumstances became normative. So today, as we confront a pandemic driving an unprecedented economic contraction throughout the entirety of organized human life we should perhaps ask ourselves: What might be the character of any political upheavals that follow? What small group of conspirators–10 good comrades for Lenin, a handful of putschists for Hitler–might be waiting in the wings? How best to identify such actors so we can accurately assess their prospects and join or fight them?

By way of clarification, I don’t mention Bolshevism and fascism in the same sentence so as to suggest they are moral or political equivalents. That’s what lib-cons do–a fools errand that only perpetuates capitalist exploitation and domination or, worse, ensures the return of fascism. We need a revolution, but a deeply socialist, anti-racist and democratic one. My point here is that both movements came to power during times of extreme duress. We are now in the midst of such a global disruption, one without any precedence in human history. As the cliche goes, great peril is often accompanied by great opportunity. It’s a cliche because it’s true. For all its gruesome effects, this post modern plague has (miraculously) emptied out stadiums, office buildings, concert halls, NASCAR tracks, ocean liners, jumbo jets and golf courses. Behold: the bluest of blue skies and the brightest of stars at night, the re-wilding of diverse habitats, the disappearance of traffic overnight, the great grinding to a halt of capitalism and its ravaging effects on this habitat we call earth, albeit amidst great horror. One can marvel and dream of a different future without succumbing to eco-fascism. It might be possible to theorize an eco-socialism from the realization that the spread of this other plague (capitalism) can be arrested. Which brings us to my last point.

As working class, poor and vulnerable people struggle to survive this latest crisis of capitalism and the hollowed out democracy that provides its ever thinning legitimating narrative, we may find ourselves confronted with a choice that comes around only once every few decades. Whereas previous crises always involved some governmental intervention to temporarily discipline the capitalist casino class so as to reestablish an equilibrium of inequality that the poor and working masses could not find a way out of or around, today the shock is an exogenous one, although magnified a thousand-fold by wholly endogenous factors. It may be that no such equilibrium will be forthcoming in the aftermath. The wheels may have come off permanently. The center may not hold. Everyone is running for the exit. There are only two: socialism or barbarism. 

Whatever consensus preceded this conflagration it will hold only on a steep upward incline such that it will be driven inexorably back toward fascism. If and when it slides it won’t slide half-way; it will smash back into the 19th century but with 21st century tools of repression to hold it there. Another way of putting this: if revolutionary socialists fail to effect a revolution this time we may all be doomed to fascism. Anyone who argues that that slide is already underway is probably correct; anyone who argues it is inevitable should be pilloried. The slide can be arrested, even reversed. Rosa Luxemburg wrote:

The “golden mean” cannot be maintained in any revolution. The law of its nature demands a quick decision: either the locomotive drives forward full steam ahead to the most extreme point of the historical ascent, or it rolls back of its own weight again to the starting point at the bottom; and those who would keep it with their weak powers half way up the hill, it drags down with it irredeemably into the abyss.

Neither the slide back to fascism nor a successful ascent to socialism are inevitable. It’s up to us. 

Capitalism is the virus. To kill it we must enforce and extend the current shutdown. The only thing capitalism is congenitally allergic to is a limit on growth. It must expand. It must grow, preferably at exponential rates. 

Our logic of revolutionary redistribution should be premised on a slowing down and de-commodification, on a decentralization together with a re-valorization, and on a democratization of equality.  We must try and refocus our horizon from those narrow, two-party recapitulations of that which is possible forever chained to “There Is No Alternative” to the centrality of essential work and the essential workers who perform it: first responders, mutual aid providers, wage laborers, agricultural workers, gig workers, service workers, frontline fighters, etc. The only jobs worth protecting are those worked by essential workers. Think about that. What is the point of having ‘inessential’ jobs?Collectively, essential workers and the essential work they engage in comprise that which we cannot do without. In a collective sense such work is also desirable and, conversely, the work carried out at stadiums, golf courses, banks and so much more is inessential, that which we can (and should) do without.

What I mean here is that we should support social distancing and shelter at home policies not only because they are necessary to fight the pandemic at hand, but because they embody a better future. To that end, emerging from this crisis should be a robust challenge to the follies of perpetual growth and increased velocity that fuel inequality. We may have a unique opportunity to challenge, in a popular way, the commodity form and the logic of exchange value and pricing so central to it. In other words, the social distancing and stoppage of so much work is not only necessary to defeat the spread of Covid 19, it is necessary for any socialist future, perhaps any future at all.