COVID-19: An end to the world (or to capitalism?)

There is a quote, which Capitalist Realism author Mark Fisher attributes to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek that “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” I will say that this is likely not a recent insight among leftist thinkers. Acute crises like the First World War, which involved countries with high numbers of left-wing intellectuals and political parties, very well saw the imperialist carnage of European nation-states in apocalyptic terms. Though these crises can create a revolutionary situations (the February and October Revolutions in Russia came amidst a long period of defeats on the frontlines), they may also make it seem more likely that the world will end than a definitive end to the capitalist era. The subsequent Spanish Flu pandemic, coming at the tail end of the war, killed more people than the war.

Most people, outside of infectious disease experts, who worry about the end of human society as we know it, probably thought until a few months ago that the existential crisis was climate change. And indeed, it still is in the long-ish term. But COVID-19, which is ravaging countries with the most developed healthcare systems in the world, and is beginning to affect the Global South with very limited resources, has taken end-times thinking from about a decade out to week-by-week. Under one projection, even U.S states that have enacted shelter-in-place are looking at aggregate casualties in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, depending on how strictly these advisories are imposed and the amount of assistance supplied by a generally oblivious federal government.

Climate change and COVID-19 have several important similarities. They both expose a general lack of intra-national and international cooperation in issues that ignore borders. Likely, by the end of this, poor countries will be the most vulnerable and the least likely to gain access to treatments discovered in the next year or two. Both reveal a critical lack of attention paid to infrastructure and creating excess capacity. And both have shown in the U.S the power of special interests to siphon of needed money for bailouts that are in large-scale firms largely crises of their own design (i.e spending most of their profits on stock buybacks rather than keeping cash on hand). I think some countries will learn valuable lessons that they will apply to combating climate change, but also that some countries are so deeply dysfunctional that they have both a lack of short-term and long-term planning when it comes to existential threats.

Lenin once wrote “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” COVID-19 has compressed decades of climate change damage into a couple of months. The end of feudalism occurred over several centuries, where the ancien regime of France fell in a couple of years. The question is whether the obstacles faced in confronting a pandemic will be used later on, or will we learn nothing from the tragedy.

The bullshit economy II: Bullshit-ish jobs and the coronavirus recession

BulllshitJObs

Years ago, I wrote a post entitled “The bullshit economy“, reflecting on David Graeber’s superb essay “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” that ended up being a runaway success. By the time his full-length book Bullshit Jobs (2018) came out, a poll had already been conducted that a substantial portion of people in developed countries believed their work had no societal value at all. And though bullshit jobs have in media discourse focused on the bureaucracy and public sector, many people from the private sector reported useless levels of middle management, creation of reports nobody actually reads, and people who exist to duct-tape together something that doesn’t work but could probably be fixed if that was the actual goal, rather than maintaining the status quo.

The spread of COVID-19, which has now enveloped many developed countries, who, with huge amounts of international air travel and centralized urban societies and health systems, were always going to be the first to be slammed by a pandemic. Italy is the post child of how bad things are now, with Spain currently outpacing them in terms of the rate of increase in death rate. The United States is in waves reaching and going beyond the saturation point of its gutted hospitals. According to World Bank data, the US has, per 1,000 people, about a third the hospital beds it had in the 1960s:

Screen Shot 2020-03-25 at 1.46.26 AM
Source: Trading Economics

The de-development of the US, wherein infrastructure is either destroyed deliberately (see, the auto industry buying and dismantling extensive and cheap electric streetcar systems in many cities) or through general neglect in the neoliberal era. The decrease in hospital beds, however, is astonishing not only for how much it digs into American Exceptionalism narratives, but also how it falls consistently even prior to the usual starting point of American neoliberalism in the Reagan era.

It is abundantly clear that the US will have the highest total deaths of any country, by an order of magnitude or more. The President wants to already roll back very inconsistent containment methods by Easter, in order to “restart the economy”. My state has still not adopted shelter-in-place, despite Boston being a major city with a large amount of imported cases and community transmission. It seems clear they will never receive federal assistance in going beyond current containment measures, let alone the medical supplies they need through the use of the Defense Production Act. The government, as most neoliberal governments in American and Western history, is basing their crisis response on handshake deals with large companies and promises of no-strings-attached bailout money.

I will revisit the difference between “the economy” (the method by which people obtain goods and services, through work or a welfare state) and “the Economy” (a reified concept based on a few stock indexes and how well billionaires and their conglomerates are doing) at a later date. I will focus on this post in how much the economy has been stripped down. Finding out which jobs are “essential” (largely the supply chains for food and medical equipment, along with education, though they are full of administrative layers and do-nothing middlemen skimming money off the top) and which are not is instructive. This is a natural experiment to go beyond the Bullshit Jobs framework, which relied on above-mentioned pollinga few hundred people who emailed about the bullshit parts (or wholes) of their jobs, and Graeber’s mastery of theory creation from an anthropological lens.

Landlords? Pure parasites, who get others to pay their mortgages and expansion, avoiding providing services as much as possible, which could be done collectively by tenants anyways.

Office jobs? Bullshit-ish, at the very least, if not total bullshit. The mass movement to working from home and teleconferencing within a couple of weeks indicates what a useless, environmentally-destroying artifice the office is. The office is an instrument of social control, whereby the bosses use the magic of at-will employment to add unneeded stress on people who know how to do their jobs infinitely better than management. With a huge drop in commuting, Los Angeles has some of the cleanest air it has ever had in the automobile era. Millions of hours of commuting and busywork have been cut, and people are able to balance whatever workload they actually have with accomplishing creative pursuits or otherwise having more time in the day. Graeber perceptively points out that many jobs have huge amounts of busywork because some jobs (like system administrators) require people to be on-call for a certain number of hours, but may frequently have no urgent work to do. Management hates to pay people to do nothing of substance, so they use the artifice of the office as a social control mechanism to feel they are getting their money’s worth and justify their existence.

DilbertBullshitJobs

It is clear that many jobs have bullshit-ish aspects to them. Some aspects, like interminable face-to-face meetings that could be sorted out in a ten-minute Slack chat, still persist. The “essential”, who are generally treated like dirt when there isn’t a crisis, show how little match-up there is between pay and social usefulness. A grocery store truck driver has orders of magnitude more importance than his superiors, and they could collectively management the supply chain with their co-workers, having so many years of combined experience on how food goes from farms to shelves. Countries like Denmark are paying a majority of laid-off workers’ salaries, though it should be re-evaluated what these workers should be paid given the social value of their work. 75% of salary seems okay (not ideal, but better than the nothing coming from America), but 75% of what, exactly? Marx’s labor theory of value has come into acute relevance in the past month, as it becomes clear who actually creates value (workers), and who is expendable (administrators, corporate executives, and industries like cruises and shale oil that have no future in a decarbonized economy).

What does the future hold? The idea that the economy can be “restarted” while every hospital is flooded with sick and dying people, and people on the frontlines in healthcare and essential goods production get sick, is insane. There will be a recession, as long as the current range of workable proposals in Congress are where the imagination stops. The stock indexes, which were swollen from deregulation that made once-illegal stock buybacks driving share prices far beyond what assets and earnings a company actually has in meatspace. Bailout money without regulation will go to buybacks, which is just another version of bonuses given out by AIG and Goldman Sachs after the 2008 bailouts. But real-world growth, unemployment, etc. will spiral upwards. A contraction of over 20% of GDP is now being predicted this coming quarter, with Great Depression-levels of unemployment.

A select few elites will benefit, although largely being old men, they will be vulnerable to COVID-19 just like everyone else. A New England Journal of Medicine article on the inevitability of rationing PPE and medical care notes that wealth should not be a factor in testing and treatment, though it inevitably will be to some point. But nothing prevents the wealthy from having severe cases and dying, even if medical care was available. This is not Ebola, it is not confined to the developing (or “developing” but really gutted) countries. And the frontline employees who prepare your food and serve you don’t have paid sick leave and will transmit COVID-19 to others no matter what your bank account balance is.

Press Kit: Help spread the labor struggle of #Greenpeace canvassers

Here is a collection of all the major media we have available to media. Please spread this as far and as wide as you can, because the GP strike is going well, but it needs media attention to sustain its push- we’re talking three weeks into the strike.

Please direct any questions or requests for interview to Bryan Kim (619-382-7888). 

A labor strike based in San Diego and Sacramento is now three weeks old. Greenpeace Frontline staff, the people who raise money outside of supermarkets and at farmer’s markets, are striking because the quota system they are all held to means no job security- have two bad weeks in a row and you’re fired, no matter how much you raised before then. 

Please check out recent San Diego news stories on the strike:

http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2015/aug/27/ticker-pay-decent-greenpeace/

http://sandiegofreepress.org/2015/08/san-diego-takes-the-lead-in-greenpeace-strike/

Also on the strike Facebook (facebook.com/GreenpeaceOnStrike) gained the endorsement yesterday of Paul Watson, original Greenpeace member, founder of Sea Shepherd, and star of Whale Wars on Animal Planet.

Here is a letter signed by 66 ex-Greenpeace staff, including city and regional coordinators:

Solidarity Forever – An Open Letter in Support of Greenpeace on Strike Additionally the Change.org petition (here) shows international supporters for the strikers. 

Check out video from an 8/19 rally in Balboa Park, including Kiku Adair, a striker:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MD2Wj0q01V8

And Sarah Saez, program director of United Taxi Workers, based in City Heights:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eV1LA_tOKOk

The strike is working, but more people need to be circulating the information. It’s the only way to keep things running and potentially expand the scope of the strike.

No other way: radical movement against climate change

Meditating on the climate actions on Sunday and the more radical movement on Wall Street the next day (with large-scale arrests and direct action), something that socialist Seattle city councilwoman Kshama Sawant said on Democracy Now! resonates with me. Others have articulated it, but this gets at the core of the mountain we all must climb:

“what we were talking about last night was that this collective action needs to be channeled into a really radical, militant, nonviolent mass movement that will raise concrete political demands.

What do we need to end, to really fight climate change? We need an end to fossil fuel use. We need a rapid transformation of the global economy into renewable energy. We need a massive expansion of mass transit, which will generate millions of unionized, living-wage jobs. And also, we don’t buy into the false dichotomy between jobs and the environment.”

These adjectives get at the meat of how the movement against climate change has to shift. It needs to go beyond the solutions offered by the political and economic establishment. It needs to be stout in the face of obstacles and oppression. It needs to keep the campaign in the nonviolent sphere, for violence is the strongest point of the groups that are responsible for wide-scale environmental destruction. And it needs to be big. Way bigger than 400,000 people in New York City. It stretches from rural cornfields in Iowa to sweatshops in Bangladesh and Vietnam. The entire energy economy has to be overturned. Whole communities must be placed on sustainable footing- the vast regions of coal fields and tar sands cannot be exploited if a thriving Earth is the objective.

Historian David Blight states bluntly in his marvelous free course on the Civil War and Reconstruction that at a certain point the abolitionist movement realized it had to move beyond mere reform and become extralegal. The crisis was so vast, with millions in chains and slavery on a path towards expansion, there was no other path than to break the law. The establishment will only give so much. Those used to signing MoveOn and Change.org petitions and holding carefully sanctioned protests will need to radicalize. Our communities, our countries, our planet is on a trajectory of great danger and destruction. My family down in Florida will find their homes underwater within my lifetime. Only radical movements can seize the initiative and put business and government on their heels. Action must be faster, more frequent, and more willing to take risks. The most effective activists are those that have worked through their fear.

Be flexible: The long march to environmental justice

At the San Diego People's Climate march.  Photo by Andrew Mackay
At the San Diego People’s Climate march.
Photo by Andrew Mackay

There is tension in the movement attempting to prevent or mitigate the effects of climate change.

There is always tension in any coalition of people. Historically, the center-left and left have been prone to splits and animosity – even if they all agree on the major issues of the day. Climate change is no different. In New York City, a vast collection of groups and the unaffiliated came out and broke all the expectations of attendance, ending up in the vicinity of 400,000 people.

The march I went to in San Diego had both those that oppose current environmental policy in a general, non-specific way, and those with narrow issues of focus. There are the cyclists, those that oppose factory farms (or meat altogether). People advocate for solar energy, or curbing population growth. Some want to work through existing institutions (in this case, the San Diego City Council and eventually state and federal authorities), some want to create new ones. For some the solutions are simple, for others they are brutally difficult. As with any march, the question after all the inspirational rhetoric and empowering community is: what now?

A poster on the march Facebook page was fed up with the whole People’s Climate movement. Certainly there are glaring flaws in the event: corporate sponsors that are not only unpopular but environmentally damaging. A regimented march structure that kept radicals from the parts that were going to get media coverage. And the main point that popular protest has not accomplished anything beyond symbolic progress with the U.N and major polluting nation-states.

Such is the eternal split. Working within the system versus working outside of the system. Even now, 5 1/2 years in, I hear people say when a new crisis comes up, “this will really get President Obama mad, and implementing real change.” Hundreds of people in SD, and thousands in the many other marches in solidarity with NYC signed pledges and petitions. Symbolic acts like petitions and marches often yield symbolic reaction from politicians. Groups are welcomed, in this area into the Democratic machine. Their anger is used to further the institution, and the power of mass social movement is lost. Gaining currency is the phrase “graveyard of social movements” going back to the Civil Rights Movement and before that with Protestant reform efforts that used women’s issues as a springboard. Both modern parties do it, because motivated people win elections.

Socialist Alternative talking with the community. Photo by Andrew Mackay
Socialist Alternative talking with the community.
Photo by Andrew Mackay

In the end, I participated with Socialist Alternative- we sold papers and booklets about the environment, and how a new economic system could stop the exploitation of the Earth and its inhabitants. People were receptive, and eager to engage in conversation. Even if I had no group affiliation, I still would have gone as a show of solidarity. Flexibility of tactics helps keep groups united and working in the right direction. Even if a protest is not organized exactly as I would have liked, it shouldn’t prevent participation.

These marches are a starting point, or a recharge to get people moving to the next step. Despite its flaws, I will one day have to justify to the next generation my actions. That is not only my carbon footprint, but also my moral philosophy, and affirmation that their lives and happiness are essential to my being. Few here think one march will create real progress, but it’s important to show up. All justice in the world was gained by those that showed up and used their will and tenacity.

California’s drought: how long until this is the new standard?

Made by Richard Tinker. Found http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Home/StateDroughtMonitor.aspx?CA

The drought marches on.

Though I’m hardly an old sourdough, I have been through resource crises. In third grade we often had to switch to writing or going on early recess because the rolling blackouts didn’t allow fancy-pants pedagogy. Yet the energy crisis was relatively short-lived. This drought period- far from the first for older Californians- is serious and has no end in sight. People are running out of tap water. All of California is growing taller because of the lack of heavy water to press it down.

One cannot overstate the importance of water. Not only do humans need to drink it, it comprises a majority of our body mass. Down to the cellular level, water-based chemistry is all there is. Those extremophile bacteria that can resist heat, cold, radiation, can’t live in an environment with no water. An old trope is that cockroaches will be the only ones left after a nuclear war. Cockroaches couldn’t survive a waterless Earth.

Collectively, we must deal with resource anxiety. Many resources globally may be running out, or becoming scarce and expensive. With California, my anxiety is fundamental: how many more droughts do we have before it’s just the new state of climate? Put simply, is drought the current reality, or is also transitioning into the reality in my state.

When climate change worsens, every event connects to the split between temporary and a new standard. Temporary droughts, hurricane seasons, heat waves etc. give people some chance to make right. Even if they don’t cut carbon emissions, you can build a new infrastructure to mitigate future disasters. Yet at some point, time runs out. California should have built a larger water storage system. It should have set up fines for excessive water use. It should have yelled at Homeowners’ Associations until they allowed drought-resistant landscaping. It should have invested in more reclamation and grey-water usage. But infrastructure built in reaction to something is never as good as infrastructure built in expectation of something.

This drought has knocked an existential fear into many citizens and officials alike. But fear must be made into policy; future action may be more difficult and expensive. We are procrastinating on a project, and the project is the future of the planet.

British Columbia, in all its forms

Panorama of Salmon Glacier; Hyder, Alaska. Photo taken by Andrew Mackay
Panorama of Salmon Glacier; Hyder, Alaska.
Photo taken by Andrew Mackay

Western British Columbia is some of the roughest country in North America. Any traveler has to drive east into the main road system, as there is no road down the coast to Vancouver. That means little internet, no cell service, and towns that challenge an urban or suburban dweller’s idea of scale.

Whirlpool Canyon, British Columbia. two rock formations have been tilted over time. Photo by Andrew Mackay
Whirlpool Canyon, British Columbia. two rock formations have been tilted over time.
Photo by Andrew Mackay

Stewart, B.C., for instance, is the sister town of Hyder, Alaska. The latter is the only SE Alaskan town you can reach by road, and has a population of about 85. Stewart is immense in comparison, at just under 500.

Despite that, the almost-wilderness of the west is much preferred to the oil and gas boomtowns in Alberta and northeastern B.C. While both sport many small towns, the coast has been settled longer. Stewart is in mining country, and is surrounded by historic buildings. A place like Fort Nelson or Grade Prairie has no history, they were built yesterday. Anything cultural is superior in these settled towns, as businesses and traditions have had generations to germinate and thrive. Notably the food. Oil country is a mix of fast food, bar food, and the occasional high-minded restaurant that seems unsure of its clientele or purpose. Stewart has the superb Bitter Creek Cafe, which would gel with upper-tier San Francisco eateries in terms of decor and quality. Before that, the Bell 2 Lodge on the way south from Watson Lake, Yukon has an incredible restaurant that understood the beauty of a butternut squash puree not nuked by heavy cream. If my hometown had one excellent restaurant for every 500 people, I would be ecstatic.

Boya Lake, British Columbia. Photo by Andrew Mackay
Boya Lake, British Columbia.
Photo by Andrew Mackay

One trip, two provinces, two Canadian territories, and two U.S. states. Today I saw my first traffic light in six days, and 980 miles. What you learn about any rural community is that it’s not about size, but trajectory. Some energy boomtowns are growing so fast that you will routinely see 18-wheelers hauling entire prefabricated houses. Often the largest settlement is the worker’s camp just off the highway, rather than any established towns. Others are in sharp decline, on their way to ghost town status. There were people, once, but they have died or moved on to better and brighter opportunities.

Most, however, lie on the chain that ties ascendency to decay. They exist. In time, many mining communities like Anyox fell apart, their economies stalled and the sky came crashing down. Rule of thumb dictates that given time, what towns do survive will eventually become historic. Places like Stewart get a sort of interest added each year. Just like mass-produced crap from the 50s gain value in part because much of what was originally made was thrown away, th

West of Muncho Lake, British Columbia. Photo by Andrew Mackay
West of Muncho Lake, British Columbia.
Photo by Andrew Mackay

Like many long road trips, the path reveals contrasts. Look west, and it’s the unaccessible coastal range of B.C., look east and there is a massive set of power lines been constructed across the province to assist with energy extraction. Look south, it’s the vibrant and diverse city of Vancouver and its metropolitan area. Look north, and witness a series of First Nation communities that still deal with a great deal of inequity and isolation.

The northwest of the U.S. and Canada are a great experience, and there is some value in driving a circle route, rather than cutting across the provinces between Jasper and Vancouver. Beauty can often come from a view at a remote turnout. It doesn’t always show up in a guidebook.

Edit: Per the comment posted, I will reformulate what I said about Nelson and Prairie. Part of history is the present moment. What both communities have right now is sprawl and a whole town geared towards business executives, with tourists as a distant afterthought. This is unfortunate, as one is the main city before the Alaska Highway, and another is on the Highway itself. In terms of poorly-planned sprawl and hostility to pedestrians, it reminds me much of interior California, or the main freeways going through the American South.

Perhaps these communities will regain a sense of heritage that isn’t drowned in giant rigs and clearcutting. One would hope they are not consumed by the oil boom, and their scenery and appeal is not irrevocably harmed. Though Grande Prairie is quite a bit older than Stewart, no part of it would give you that idea. It’s one thing to have no history and be a sprawltastic community, it’s another to have history but be indistinguishable from one that does not.