Looking ahead, one thing should be clear: if we treat this period as something we must suffer through, or just get angry about, we will fail. We will be impatient to return to “normalcy,” then tempted to think we’re on its track, and inevitably disappointed with another wave. Not only will this make us miserable wrecks, but we’ll be turned towards events external to our will and thinking —the battles of politicians, government, and experts—as controlling what is possible and unable to achieve any clear sense of direction for ourselves. We would have wasted this time, like sleeping through it and waking up incapable of grasping the new reality. We’ll be missing what seems obvious to me: This virus is a gift of energy, of re-thinking to the root the situation of our lives.
We are living inescapably in the present, and it’s a new experience. It’s like being born into another world: what the fuck are we doing here? What knowledge of the past will guide us into the future? The 9/11 moment was not nearly so predictable as the pandemic but once it came, and it was clear no new attacks were coming, the future was predictable. The Afghanistan invasion was obvious, and it was highly likely to expand into the forever-war situation we’re still in. The pandemic had recent, smaller precedents and a massive one was predicted as “not if but when.” That governments would be taken by surprise was also predictable, based on their past behavior with pandemics—as soon as one was over, the certainty of the next one would be ignored.
We’re in a situation now where the future is unpredictable, for unlike the 2008 Great Recession our rulers are in a rock and a hard place situation and have no unified position. Back then, with the collapse of the pillars of neoliberalism by their own doing, spreading ruin to all but the wealthiest, the license of that social order to run things became a political issue for the very first time. “Too big to fail” was its counter-threat of nihilism, the total collapse of life’s essentials. Absolute rather than relative ruin was effective in pressuring us to accept the bailout. Occupy created a unique combination of indignant protest and egalitarian community but refused to challenge power with power, which it moralized as inherently evil, and institutionalized that refusal as a virtue. It feared that if we used that moment to envision a different social order we would be seen as utopian; moreover, the value placed on the primacy of each individual voice would have prevented unity around any one vision. The virus, on the other hand, speaks with the non-human voice of nature. It is like climate change, only immediate and not gradual, and it has no consciousness or means to attend to our debates. Now nature is too big to fail, a third and uninvited party, reducing our rulers to equal ineffectiveness with us. Just maybe, the ball is in our court.
In the absolute present the past gives no guidance and the future is totally unknown, including how we will feel about ourselves six months or a year from now. We are like the classical musician, who knows how to read the score but for the first time is given a blank sheet and told to play it. It is frightening, and that’s what this version of “Be Here, Now” is about. It is the dark twin to ecstasy, literally, to be outside of stasis, the normal struggles and conflicts of life that we’re used to handling. In the dark side of being in the present all bets are off. Normally we are gambling that tomorrow will be somewhat like today; our routines and habits are built on that kind of bet. Now the gambling tables are closed–at least very few cards and chips.
We can be certain at this point we haven’t peaked yet, but every expert is saying “That is the limit of our knowledge.” They even change the rules they’ve given us to cope with this, demonstrating how confused and in error they have been right before our eyes. They don’t know any more than they’re telling us–we are their equals of the experts in this regard. When has that happened before? Are we just waiting for their next press conference? Then they will tell us we’ve peaked and will start planning the return to normalcy, which would be the reestablishment of our trust and dependence on them. Yet they won’t know if it’s too soon, and their judgment will be upended; they can only think of trying to look like they’re in control of events.
Fully in the present means that what we, the human populace, can be and do is up to our widest and wildest imagination. Yes, we are physically restricted as never before, but freedom of movement isn’t all there is to life; there’s more, and the more becomes a huge expanse as soon as we turn to it. The present has revealed our fear of freedom, of loss of routine, but the flip side is to think what has been unthinkable, to feel what has never been felt, and to be what has never been. This is a good way to go.
The public health scientists use reason and evidence to predict the pandemic’s course but they are not taking our creativity, our thinking and possible action into account. Nor has it been their concern to analyze the larger picture of political and social forces. The unspoken assumption of the government, the scientists, and the economic giants is that they are the only forces, too big to fail. The worldwide spread is no accident and the larger picture shows why, and why the expert’s plea of “Next time, listen to us” will either be forgotten once again or become just another thing we’ll have to pay for.
This below is an attempt to construct that larger picture, which is the means to see our true options, on which thinking and action can ground itself. It is focused primarily on the US but can be critically expanded by other voices working collectively:
The dispute over the approach to the pandemic is a continuation and expansion of the red/blue political divide. We are no more a unified nation than we were during the Civil War, only not quite as clearly divided geographically. But almost. The initial coronavirus map was roughly the political map, as if superimposed over the map of those most concerned for climate change. As for that, the blue states are coastal and the continued existence of their largest cities, except for a few in the Midwest, is threatened by the rise of oceans. Realistically, that matters little to those of the red states. Blue states are also the most urban and populated, and so right now are the most prone to coronavirus.
For Trump this is a game of winners and losers. He is gambling that red state populations would, like himself, not be terribly upset if a lot of democrats suffered and even died, then were weakened in time for the Nov. election. He has been encouraging his followers to think of themselves as strong, and he’s the tough Father. They’re better able to withstand the virus than his enemies, on whom he continually projects weakness, dependency. His delay was not a conscious strategy to bring this about, but given his public expressions of vindictiveness and mafia-boss cruelty, when the virus first appeared on the West Coast he was doubtless thinking “Aren’t those states against me; why should I care?”
Besides that, he is not just interested to win the election; he needs rallies to satisfy his sense of himself, and the sooner he can selectively open the red states the sooner he can hold them. That’s his expectation; the daily “briefings” are just a temporary substitute. He counts on the continued intense resentment in the red states towards “the liberal elite” on the two coasts, even heightened by the belief that the lockdowns have been a political conspiracy against Trump. Of course they don’t want the anti-Trump coastal populations to actually die, but we’re all capable of showing compassion with one hand while the other wants the dig our enemy’s grave.
Trump’s strength is that he has no ideology. He operates on personal need—to be re-elected and to be surrounded by yes-men, and beyond that cheering crowds. He acts like an unenlightened absolute monarch, bothered by the claims of traditionalism, such as the Constitution. This is not what capitalism has needed, which has used government to mask its rule (which Biden would represent). For instance, the time span he is working with, the November election as the terminus, is shorter than the corporations’, which know that long-term planning to keep profit alive means being realistic about this virus. Investors in the stock market, which he sees as the index of his political fortune, are more realistic in assessing what will happen if the virus causes the coastal cities to need to continue the lockdown, and would be unable to resume full-scale corporate activity.
There’s a practical concern here. Can the corporations and stock market be run entirely from the burbs and second homes to which its employees have fled? Can they get up to speed without actual face-to-face meetings, any more than the schools and every institution? Are they going to move their headquarters to Indiana? Can the economy be said to function with only rural populations going back to work while the big cities are idle? And on the other side of the equation, will even the most avid Trump followers be willing to risk their lives by going back to work, as they will be urged to do before the virus is completely eradicated?
The third bill that passed congress is not a stimulus but a stopgap; the virus will recede and return, as it has elsewhere, and the market will plunge again. The Chinese government did not put Wuhan through the lockdown in order to save lives but to put itself in a more competitive position by getting people back into production as soon as possible. The aim was to get a jump on the others, which they knew would be even more crippled. The same goal animates Trump’s economists, who are thinking correctly but only in terms of the immediate needs of Trump’s reelection time frame.
The weakness of that is not just that we, the populace, will want more checks to pay our bills but that we will take a look at “work,” especially a life of two jobs and continual insecurity, and say “we’ve had enough of this shit.” I doubt the economists are thinking that could happen, any more than the public health scientists, but we can.
This is being treated as a crisis for humanity, but before that it is a crisis for capitalism. Capitalism no more than the feudal order it replaced can function by considering human life as its value. The government is not in a position to question this, it can only put a human face on this system, and do its best to keep people from imagining any other arrangement.
No government can ignore that the world order is based on ensuring the continual flow of surplus value (profit) back into the hands of capital, motivated by the constant never-enough-security of the rulers. Government has no other reason for its existence. This affects every epidemic; this one and the ones that are coming. Under the globalization of capitalist social relations, the first priority of every government is to keep their interdependent economies expanding or at least not retreating. When there is no immediate demand, or demand is “soft,” such as the concern for human life or the planet, there is no legitimate reason for industry to crank up production of things like ventilators and masks, or for government to pay for it or to expend the effort to put make adequate preparations for it. The government response to climate change has been working the same way; so long as oil is cheaper than the alternatives, the responses to it will merely mitigate the damage, slow but not flatten the curve, just as now containment of the pandemic must be abandoned and mitigation is all we can expect.
It’s not ideology or greed, it’s the very internal laws governing every corporation and business to maximize profit. The system operates through competition of the major corporations, not only to go as far as the law allows but to make the laws through its representatives, the government. To say, let’s just do away with this, stop this nonsense–fine, but we would not get housed, fed, entertained, and satisfied.
What the virus has done is what people have been unable to do politically: it has stopped the nonsense. The violence of that microbe has substituted for the violence of revolution. It’s the virus that has called for a General Strike, and we’ve obeyed. That raises the question for every individual on the planet, do I want to start it up again? We are in trouble but so is capitalism and the governments on which it depends. Here then is the rock and the hard place, the contradiction. To get our assent governments have pledged to protect human life, which means they must not only slow and stop the virus but provide the material means for us to live. Your check is in the mail, not that the legislators care about you but because otherwise consumption, rents, credit, etc. will create instability. The situation is reversed; we’re now the landlord who can feel justified to bawl out the tenant: “Where’s my money! And next month too, every month after that!” People will be hard pressed when the government tells us, “Oh, that check we sent? It actually comes out of your pocket.” On the other hand, to get elected and stay in office, government is pledged to protect an economic system that cannot concern itself with this.
Whether governments can make good with the hand it’s been dealt and fulfill both obligations is more in question now than any time in memory. Thrown into the mix is that fewer and fewer of the world’s population have been able to share in the profits of globalization. It’s not just “the poor we shall always have with us” but what used to be called bourgeois society, the middle class, further stripped of its equity and security by the 2008 crisis. At this moment the corporate planners see how they can use this situation to further automate and eliminate jobs, beyond what capital has done the past twelve years. And capital is readying itself to take over the small businesses that will surely collapse, and turn them over to chains, reducing workers to Walmart and McDonald’s employees. It is realistic to think that a significant number of people will become more alienated from the social order as the loopholes are closed and they become more like slaves to it. Will the patterns that began when neoliberalism was introduced in the late seventies simply extend? Is this the only possible outcome?