To say that the Trump administration responded inadequately to the COVID-19 pandemic would be the understatement of the decade. Trump’s response was chock-full of misinformation, racism, dangerous proposals, dangerous policies, and a strain of conservative anti-intellectualism that ignores public health experts. It has even been compared to former president Ronald Reagan’s botched response to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. This comparison also contains an important historical lesson: The Reagan and Trump administrations are bookends for a disastrous American political tradition marked by deregulation, austerity, and corporate-funded governance.
Though many liberal pundits decry him as an uncharted divergence from “normalcy”, Trump is simply the hideous, unmasked expression of neoliberalism — a ghastly gremlin our decaying society has vomited up after four decades of germination. In short, neoliberalism created Trump. Year after year we witnessed the dismantling of labor unions, the passing of job-killing trade deals, the gutting of social services, and the continued stagnation of wages. These policies tilled the political soil for an outgrowth of right-wing populism that attempts to harken back to the “great” white supremacist legacy of America. It is a faux-populism that scapegoats immigrants and minorities, blaming the most marginalized for the societal rot produced by the implementation of free market fundamentalist ideology. Trumpism as a specific historical phenomenon is certainly new. But, in terms of the systemic nature of this barbarism, Trump is not an “aberration” — he is an inevitable extension of the existing system.
During the spread of the coronavirus and the subsequent economic crisis, Americans are learning the true nature of neoliberal disaster capitalism, or what journalist Naomi Klein has referred to as “Coronavirus Capitalism.” This current iteration is part of a disturbing historical trajectory. In short, corporate entities and powerful individuals have repeatedly exploited crises by swiftly implementing policies that further enrich the ruling class at the expense of everyone else — a phenomenon Klein has elucidated more broadly in her 2007 book “The Shock Doctrine.”
As we are quickly realizing, the entire system is callous and predatory, and the tattered safety net that once existed has vanished long ago. But, just like the virus itself, political consciousness is rapidly spreading. Every day on social media, I am heartened to be reminded of the true heroism of cashiers, sanitation workers, first responders, warehouse workers, grocery stockers, and delivery drivers during these perilous times. While these seemingly undesirable jobs are proven to be essential by this crisis, it has also become evident that the captains of industry don’t have any verifiable role other than extracting profit from our labor. As Jasmine Duff reminded us in a recent Hampton Institute column, “these so-called wealth creators can spend months isolated in their mansions or country estates without this having any impact on the basic functioning of society.”
During a time of crisis, the wealthy can hibernate in the midst of their infinite resources. But to average workers, every dollar counts. Many will have to decide which bills to pay in order to leave enough money for groceries and other essentials. Because of this traumatic situation, the very concept of a student loan payment is being re-examined. People are realizing that education should be a right, and that it is profoundly immoral to enslave college graduates with insurmountable debt simply for the crime of seeking knowledge to improve their life prospects. There are currently 45 million Americans saddled with a cumulative $1.6 trillion in student loan debt — an enormous burden on both individuals and the economy as a whole. In times like these, the burgeoning student debt strike has the potential to gain significant momentum toward its ultimate goal of student debt cancellation and free public college.
In addition to the inherent injustices of the student debt crisis, our current pandemic is also laying bare the glaring inhumanity of a for-profit healthcare system. As Senator Bernie Sanders is fond of pointing out, the U.S. is the wealthiest country in the world, yet we are the only major industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee healthcare as a human right. This “profit over people” mentality leads to tens of thousands of annual deaths and immeasurable suffering. But, when a deadly virus is expanding across the nation, these realities are magnified. When young people are dying of COVID-19 simply because they lack insurance, and when people are continuing to work because they don’t have guaranteed sick leave, we realize the terrifying truth of the old labor slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all.”
During a pandemic that is exacerbated by neoliberal capitalism, people are quickly becoming radicalized. We are realizing that we don’t actually need landlords, or bosses, or CEOs — these parasites that bleed the working class dry. They are, in other words, “non-essential.” In any civilized society, housing, healthcare, food, and education would be provided as a prerequisite to the mere concept of justice. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.” This means industrial production and technology should be directed toward meeting human need first and foremost. We are human beings, and our lives can no longer be commodified.
One concrete action American workers can participate in is an ongoing, nationwide general strike beginning March 31. Organizers and activists are committed to withholding their labor, their rent payments, and their student loan payments until their demands are met. As the General Strike 2020 website explains, “We are a grassroots, decentralized, non-hierarchical movement of the working class. We are a diverse, inclusive organization dedicated to building a coalition of organizations and individuals of various political tendencies to save the lives of vulnerable, marginalized people in the USA and around the world.”
The demands of the general strike include:
- paid leave for all non-essential workers through the duration of the pandemic
- personal protective equipment and hazard pay
- the suspension of rent, loan payments, utility payments, and interest accrual
- the distribution of free meal assistance, free medical care, and free protective equipment for all — prioritizing those most at risk, including front-line healthcare workers
- an end to immigration raids and sweeps of homeless camps
- the release of all occupants of detention camps and holding facilities
- guaranteed housing for all persons lacking shelter to self-quarantine
At this pivotal time, American workers are once again realizing the power of their labor and their strength in numbers. They’re realizing that their participation is literally essential to the functionality of our society and that simply withholding that labor, that rent check, that student loan payment, can bring the entire system to its knees.
Indeed, there is great revolutionary potential in this time of heightened class consciousness and political awakening. Even Britney Spears gets it.
This article has also been published by The Hampton Institute.