Radical Times Require Radical Measures


There have been protests in Oklahoma and Michigan calling for the “reopening of the economy,” protests that very likely can be classified as AstroTurf — or organized and supported by (in this case) the Republican Party but made to look like spontaneous grassroots uprisings. This likelihood makes them seem easy to dismiss, but progressives need to be cautious about how we respond.

Yes, these calls are connected to the GOP. And, yes, ending restrictions now would be premature and dangerous, especially to the already overworked and vulnerable workers on the front lines — warehouse and factory workers, drivers, field hands and produce pickers, and of course the medical professionals tasked with treating those who have fallen ill.

But we can’t dismiss the motivations of some — possibly many — of these protesters, given the economic damage that is happening in parallel with the medical fallout. The federal government reports that about 22 million have claimed unemployment benefits over the last four weeks, an obscene number that should not be viewed as just another statistic. There are 22-plus million who are now subsisting on a temporary benefit and living under precarious economic circumstances.

So, protesters marched in the state capitals in Oklahoma and Michigan — where “some were masked and armed with rifles,” while other “unmasked people defied stay-at-home orders and jammed nearly shoulder-to-shoulder,” according to the Associated Press.

“This arbitrary blanket spread of shutting down businesses, about putting all of these workers out of business, is just a disaster. It’s an economic disaster for Michigan,” protester Meshawn Maddock told the AP.

But the shut down is not arbitrary, though there have been ideas floated that are excessive and potentially damaging to our democracy — road check points, vaccination IDs and the like. The stay-at-home rules, the restrictions on business activity and building occupancy, the mask requirements are necessary to minimize the spread of COVID-19, which already has killed 137,000 globally, a number considered only a conservative estimate.

At the same time, the economic concerns are very real. Fern Weinbaum of Manhattan told The New York Times that she’d already “dipped into savings to cover the rent in April,” which appears to be common among so many these days. This should not be a surprise, given that the economy had not been working well for everyone before the virus ravaged the economy. While unemployment had been low and the stock market was humming, many continued to live with a razor-thin margin, surging rather than thriving.

Here in Middlesex County, for instance, a family of four needs about $70,000 in income (according to the United Way) to meet all basic needs and cover all necessary expenses — housing, utilities, food, clothing, insurance, transportation, taxes, child care, and some miscellaneous costs. The number varies by county and state, but it indicates something very real: about four in 10 in New Jersey were already living at the precipice, making enough from their jobs to sustain themselves. One major economic shock — a major car or house repair, a health scare — and they are tossed over the edge. This is backed up by federal data that shows that about 40 percent of Americans do not have enough in savings to cover an unexpected expense of $400 or more without borrowing money.

I’ve written about this quite a bit — with the 37 Voices 12project and more recently when I talked with some of my contacts from that project after the virus broke out — but they continue to be relevant. These numbers have to inform our responses to the current COVID-19 crisis, because the virus has proven to be the largest economic shock many of us have ever seen.

The Community Food Bank of New Jersey writes in its blog that we are facing a national “shortfall of $1.4 billion in additional resources needed over six months to meet the rise in need caused by COVID-19” as the number of people who are expected to struggle with hunger at some point will climb by nearly 50 percent.

This has caused many who never expected to be in this position to turn to the food banks and other private aid organizations for help.

Paul Jayme, for instance, told NJ Spotlight that he had worked for a heating and air conditioning company but lost his job a month ago. The 39-year-old has since moved in with his mother, “because I don’t have any money.”

As NJ Spotlight reports,

That is 577,000 New Jerseyans in a state with a workforce of about 4.2 million in February, meaning 13.5 percent, or about one in seven workers have lost their jobs.

This, I think, is the genesis of these protests, with significant help from a Republican Party that sees them as a way to shift blame for what is happening from President Donald Trump’s slow response to the virus and the economic crash onto Democrats who have been forced to take extreme measures to protect the health of Americans.

There is an analogue to this — the 2009 Tea Party response to President Barack Obama’s efforts to expand health care and stimulate the economy. As Jeremey W. Peters wrote in the Times last year,

This was followed by “mass gatherings across the country called ‘tea parties’” that had “a specific set of demands: Stop President Barack Obama’s health care law; tame the national deficit; and don’t let the government decide which parts of the economy are worth rescuing.”

Activists claimed at the time that this was about accountability, though it quickly was taken over by the extreme right wing of the Republican Party, with calls not just to gut government but to impose draconian abortion rules and other long-standing conservative policy goals. The grassroots were easily coopted and, now, the movement appears dead — but only if one accepts that the calls for cutting debt were part of a coherent ideology. They weren’t. The tea party — which became the Tea Party — was always about outrage and anger, which is why there was a wave of hard-right conservatives winning primaries who ran not so much on fiscal conservatism, but on abject anti-immigrant policies, racism, sexism and anger. It is why Donald Trump and his policies have not triggered a conservative backlash. He is the backlash.

This week’s apparently well-orchestrated rallies appear to lack the grassroots impetus behind the original tea party revolt, but they are no less a microcosm of the current political moment. Then, as now, fear and uncertainty dominate the discourse. Then, as now, we watched as federal and state governments struggled to understand and then address the crisis. Then, as now, we fall prey to obsessions over national debt and the deficit — even though what we needed was a stronger dose of Keynesian economic stimulus than the government was comfortable offering.

The economic stakes appear much higher this time out, with the record number of unemployment claims, but there also are health and safety considerations that are at least as urgent. Opening the economy — an imprecise term to be sure that really means lifting restrictions on social gatherings and how businesses operate — offers no guarantee that jobs will come flooding back or that things will get back to the pre-virus normal. And if we move ahead with it too soon, on Trump’s irrationally expedited timeline, we will lose more lives — and that stark reality has to be what guides us.

At the same time, we can’t ignore the concerns of those who are watching their economic lives swirl down the drain — and it is here that I make my pitch for building something new from the rubble created from COVID-19. It will not be enough to go back to the way things were before, because the way they were before left us unprepared medically and economically for the virus. It is not enough to call this a once-in-a-lifetime event, because we know it is not. We’ve been lucky that recent coronavirus spreads and other contagions have been easier to manage and control, but this virus proves that may not always be the case.

COVID-19, even as it has forced us to wear masks, has unmasked the flaws in our dominant ideologies: corporate capitalism, which privileges the creation of profit above all else; nationalism, which privileges country above all else; and violence. Here I am paraphrasing and recasting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s three-legged stool (materialism and/or poverty, racism, and war) and expanding it for our times. King called for the nation to “undergo a radical revolution of values.”

King was not a policy maker or theorist. He was a preacher and activist. His call lacks the kind of specifics we expect from elected officials because he was not an elected official, but it should not prevent us from exploring what his goals might have been.

Cornel West, in the introduction to The Radical King, describes him as a “democratic socialist who sided with poor and working people in the class struggle taking place in capitalist societies.” This struggle, West says, “rages on in a fight over resources, power, and space” (xiii), and it is clear that it informs our responses to this virus. African Americans and Latinos are being hit hardest by the virus, in no small part due to the economic circumstances in which we have ensured they live. Redlining, home-rule, suburbanization, white flight, restrictive immigration, and a host of other government and corporate policies have restricted class mobility among black and brown people. They are more likely to live in dense, urban areas, and underserved rural areas. They are less able to work from home and more likely to serve in front-line jobs — as nurses, EMTs, home care aides, warehouse workers, train conductors and bus drivers, delivery drivers, and grocery clerks. This puts them in greater peril. And our food system, with its incomprehensible subsidies for sugar and corn products, encourages low-income people to eat poorly, which elevates their instance of health problems, leaving them less able to combat the virus once infected. This class war has been waged in a bipartisan fashion, though Democrats at least have recognized the need to ameliorate some of the absolute worst aspects of capitalism even as they defend it.

But benefits like unemployment insurance, stimulus checks, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are not enough. King, according to West, understood this and his response

It’s easy to dismiss this — as the Democrats have done to Bernie Sanders’ message in 2016 and again in 2020. It is easy to say this vision is too bold or too far-reaching. These responses, however, do not answer the urgent questions being posed by the disaffected. And because there is no answer — and no real sense among most mainstream Democrats that there are deep structural problems in our economy and health system (if they thought so, they would be proposing much more extensive reforms than they are, possibly even calling for a massive restructuring) — the right-wing populists and demagogues can run to their left on many economic issues. It’s what Trump did in 2016, framing both his protectionist trade policies and his racist immigration plans as populist and pro-worker.

The protests in Oklahoma and Michigan are part of this dynamic. The protests and calls by small business groups and “worker props” to “open the economy” are likely to gain traction as more families face economic pain and are offered little beyond the half measures that already have b even put in place.

As Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher writes in his new book Pandemic!: COVID-19 Shakes the World, we face a “profoundly political” situation that will involve “radical choices.” He says we need to embrace a “‘disaster Communism’ as an antidote to disaster capitalism” and not leave the fate of millions “to mere market mechanisms or one-off stimuluses.”

We need to be bolder. We need, as King might say, a revolution of love that unifies the world.

Poet, professor & longtime newsman, who covers economic & other issues for NJ Spotlight and other publications. Check out my blog @ http://hankkalet.tumblr.com/

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