Wise people always remind us to never let a good crisis go to waste.
Wise people with evil inclinations have, of course, taken this sage advice to heart, often exploiting crises, sometimes even arguably manufacturing them, in order to achieve nefarious ends. Naomi Klein, for example, in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, develops precisely this thesis. She studies crises, such as the Iraq War or Hurricane Katrina, as moments when political and economic leaders took advantage of people’s physical and emotional distraction, their fear and vulnerability and desperate need, to push through neoliberal policies that effectively rolled back civil rights and democracy, furthered economic inequality, and basically consolidated power even further in the hands of the few.
So, the question before us is whether we can make the crisis of the coronavirus outbreak an opportunity to clearly see the flaws, or perpetual and ongoing crises that are typically less visible, in U.S. society that any major crisis tends to draw into relief, or whether the coronavirus outbreak will further threaten the health of our already weakened and teetering democracy in America.
What can we learn from what is going on, if we are paying attention?
Well, here are a few thoughts:
Perhaps the defining hallmark of neoliberalism, as I’ll discuss throughout this piece, is its rejection of any concept of a determinable public good and its insistence that there are only private interests. This neoliberal kernel of thought undergirds the bootstrap ideology so prevalent in American culture, the idea that people need to pull themselves up through their own efforts and stop asking for help or blaming societal conditions for their miseries and deprivations. On a more extreme level, this thought kernel is also the premise for attacks on the social safety net, on so-called “entitlement” programs like Social Security and Medicare, and generally on progressive policies that want to leverage tax dollars to provide vital social services, programs, and infrastructure for the American people. Neoliberal voices frequently refer to this package of programs as “free stuff,” even though the programs that provide safety nets are typically insurance programs into which most Americans pay.
The conditions drawn into relief by the coronavirus make clear, however, that we cannot separate private interests from the public good, or, more to point, that serving the public good is vital to our abilities to pursue and further our private interests. The two are intimately intertwined. We must ensure others are taken care of if we are to be taken care and be able to take care of ourselves and get the care we need.
Let’s look at the situation in concrete terms. A person with coronavirus without paid sick days who can’t afford to miss work shows up to your workplace, to the school your children attend, or to the cafeteria where you eat. What’s worse, the person has poor or no health insurance so he can’t get tested, and there are no public provisions for testing. You are now at risk. Your private interests are impacted by the fact that we do not have an adequately resourced public health system and response.
Or, think about the healthcare workers who contract the virus because of an inadequate public health response and thus cannot be available to treat you when you are in need.
It is not uncommon in our American world to hear people complain about taxes to help support someone else or give someone else a lunch or a doctor’s visit. But the bottom line is that we all need to participate in taking care of each other out of our own self-interests. And the reality, if we’re honest, is that we already do this.
Stop and think about all the people you depend on—whether you ever see them or not—for the food you eat, the medicine you get, the information communicated to you, the heat in your home, the water you drink, and so on and so on.
Albert Einstein stopped to think about our inevitable interdependence in 1949 when he reflected on what he termed “the essence of the crisis of our time.” He wrote:
“It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration.”
Einstein profoundly asserts that dependence is not weakness but strength—and, more to the point, undeniable reality. Our fear and denial of this dependence is actually what threatens us.
If I deny my dependence on others, will I seek to make sure those others are healthy, well-fed, housed, have the basic conditions necessary to sustain their lives? If I don’t do that, I actually end up endangering my own existence because I need them to make my life possible.
As Einstein reminds us, “In relatively densely settled populations with the goods which are indispensable to their continued existence, an extreme division of labor and a highly-centralized productive apparatus are absolutely necessary.”
We tend to de-value others and their labor in the U.S., arguing over which lives matter, often insisting some don’t.
And yet, as Einstein explains in the essay I’ve been quoting titled “Why Socialism?,” valuing others’ lives is essential to sustaining our own.
Recognizing the reality of our mutual dependence may be the basis for actually developing a democratic economy that properly values people’s lives and labor, including our own, ensuring access to all the resources that make our lives possible.
If we pay attention, the developments of the coronavirus crisis might provide the insight and impetus to realize this transformation.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.