A new podcast, Inherent Worth, which talks about the intersection between the political left and the liberal religious tradition of Unitarian Universalism, is out! “Interdependent Webs” talks about environmentalism, ethical consumption, what’s essential and what’s BS in the 21st century capitalist economy, and the ups and downs of UU online worship and community-building.
So, it’s an election year. The country is falling apart- both in the long-term crumbling of infrastructure, education, and health care, and the short-term of the COVID-19 epidemic killing thousands of Americans a year. The President, obsessed with “re-opening the economy” to prevent an (inevitable) massive recession just before the November election, is trying to rally people to engage in mass protest to attack sensible Democratic governors who are ignoring him and choosing to side with public health- and acting in regional cooperation (in the Midwest, West Coast, and Northeast regions to name a few) as states rather than taking advice from the federal government. Trump is seeing his authority slip through his fingers, and is thus stoking popular fury in an attempt to win it back. Whether this is just mass protest, which will spread coronavirus faster, or armed attacks, remains to be seen. What is clear is that the country has conclusively and thoroughly gone to Hell.
This isn’t the first election year that’s taken place in Hell. There was 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression. 1940 and 1944, while World War II was raging. 1968, as the Vietnam War was peaking and left-wing mass protest threatened to overwhelm a divided Democratic Party, which ultimately lost due to Nixon’s subterfuge and the racist Southern Strategy.
But this is 1860. As the prospect of an anti-slavery (or anti-expansion of slavery, which to slave owners were one and the same) candidate becoming President, states began to engage in furious rhetoric, voter suppression, and unilateral actions. A Civil War was the fallout of the election, which killed probably about 750,000 people by recent estimates. The country was falling apart, after decades of strife, compromise, and a rising and militant abolitionist movement- ultimately leading to the raid on Harper’s Ferry by John Brown, which drove the slaveholding states into an absolute fury and created a revolutionary situation.
The issue here is that the 1860 election also brought us Abraham Lincoln, one of the best Presidents we’ve ever had- a savvy politician, a strong leader, perhaps the most gifted public speaker in American political history. His strength made both the campaign season and the aftermath of the election a more optimistic time for abolitionists and antislavery states. Though from humble origins, he had by then been proven to be a masterful orator and campaigner who would transform America in his four years in office.
In 2020, we’ve got Joe Biden. Biden is not a great orator- he routinely forgets his train of thought and can barely read from a teleprompter. His leadership is lacking, as he largely disappeared from national view during the initial period of panic about coronavirus, ceding all media time to Donald Trump. And his entire career has been filled with terrible decisions (the Iraq War), racist politics (busing, the crime bill, the War on Drugs), and naked corruption (the bankruptcy bill, Hunter Biden’s $600,000 salary for a Ukrainian energy company during his vice presidency). He is not Lincoln. He’s not even George W. Bush. He has no leadership capability, and thus he might just blow this whole thing.
Biden holds about a five point lead, without having had to debate Trump or make any public appearances. He’s the most sheltered political nominee in history, with the exception perhaps of Reagan during his decline in 1984. Five points nationally is not much, as Hillary won by three and still lost all the key states. Swing state polls have things generally within the margin of error, especially Wisconsin. Biden looks like he will be fighting a defensive war to hold traditional Democratic states Clinton lost (Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin). Talk of taking back Ohio or Iowa seem like a pipe dream. And Florida, which would make the Midwest results irrelevant, is filled with voter suppression, attempts to overturn a voter initiative to re-enfranchise ex-felons (which likely will confuse these people and many will not vote due to that confusion), and a crooked Republican governor who will do anything to keep his state red, despite sliding approval ratings in a time where most governors have had residents rally around them. The map is small, the margins are thin, the suppression is total (remember all the 2016 suppression happened in spite of a Democratic president). Biden isn’t Lincoln. And that’s a problem when the country is tearing itself apart.
Years ago, I wrote a post entitled “The BS economy“, reflecting on David Graeber’s superb essay “On the Phenomenon of BS 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:
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 polling, a 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.
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.
I assume UU General Assembly 2020 is not happening in Rhode Island. It’s in June, large gathering will still be a terrible idea if not outright banned, and a lot of high risk people come to it.
That being said, Rev. Chris Rothbauer, minister of the Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and Sharon Welch, professor at Meadville Lombard, along with me will present a workshop called “Building Communities to Counter White Nationalism/White Power”which deals with political extremism, radicalization and counter-radicalization, and the role of new forms of media on progressive and right-wing sources reaching audiences.
I hope you’ll join us (probably on Zoom). More details forthcoming.
Content Warning: This post discusses mass shootings and other acts of terrorism, along with the racism and xenophobia that surround it.
It is uniquely American that, for record-keeping purposes, I have to mention at the beginning of this post which mass shootings I am writing in response to. When I began forming this post there was white supremacist shooting in El Paso, Texas. That has been joined with another mass shooting, again by a young white man with access to high-end body armor and weaponry, in Dayton, Ohio.
Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, noted the importance of naming the ideology of the El Paso shooter, and how that aligned with the policies and rhetoric of the Trump Administration:
The manifesto of the El Paso shooter indicates that white supremacist violence is an international contagion, wherein earlier shooters form a model, in their rhetoric and actions, for later terrorists. Though most mass shootings, and most mass shootings by white supremacists, happen in the United States, high-profile terrorist acts like the Christchurch shooting earlier this year in New Zealand, and going back further, the violence of Anders Breivik in Norway in 2011, show that this is an international phenomenon in white, developed countries.
Efforts to address white supremacist terrorism at the state level have been largely token, and programs started under President Barack Obama have been either reversed or cut. White supremacist violence has spiked since 2016. Even admitting that white supremacists are the top terrorist threat, and that home-grown terrorism is much more an existential threat than Islamic radicalism, remains a political third rail. Thus discussions after white supremacist attacks often avoid ideology and instead talk about mental health and video games (among the right) and gun control measures (among mainstream liberals).
It’s important to avoid political amnesia and treat this phenomenon as uniquely connected to Trump. The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Rightby David Neiwert, which talks about white supremacist rhetoric and how it informed violent acts against liberals, people of color, and other communities, was published in May 2009. Even it is quite dated, because of the many acts of violence tied to an ever-radicalizing media and conservative establishment under the Obama Administration. But white supremacist terror has existed my entire lifetime, going back to the Patriot movement of the 1990s and acts like the Oklahoma City federal building bombing.
What has existed for a while, and is most nakedly apparent since January 2017, is a rise in state-influenced stochastic terrorism (n.), which is defined as:
thepublicdemonization of a person or groupresulting in theincitement of a violentact,which is statisticallyprobablebutwhosespecificscannot be predicted:
Thelone-wolfattackwasapparentlyinfluenced by therhetoric of stochasticterrorism.
Acts of terror presently are in essence state-sanctioned, in that the President, and his political party which holds most of the power at the federal level, operate under the same rhetoric and influences.
The increasingly-punitive immigration policy, family separation, and demonization of asylum-seekers, all aim to do the same thing the El Paso shooter was doing- reverse demographic shifts that lead to white-minority societies.
I’m 29. Of all the presidential elections held in my lifetime (seven of them), the Republican Party has won the popular vote in exactly one of them (2004, which many would argue was the result of a badly botched Democratic campaign). Despite arguments made that the Republican Party needed to broaden its base and become more competitive among non-white populations (which followed consecutive defeats in 2008 and 2012), the Party has just steadily migrated further to the right, becoming even more the party of a particular sub-set of white people. The links between Republicans and evangelicals, forged in 1980, have continued to deepen. 2016 saw the “death of a euphemism“, as the latent white supremacy in conservative arguments about immigration and diversity was brought forward and made the explicit policy of a winning presidential campaign.
The American Right has gained and retained power through victories in low-turnout elections, widespread vote suppression, and policies of intimidation that maximize the political power of an ever-narrowing white majority. In many places, like California where I grew up, and in Texas where the mass shooting was, the society has become “majority-minority”, presaging a time about thirty years from now where the entire country will be white-minority. Texas especially is a point of huge right-wing anxiety, as demographics and organizing make the possibility of Blue Texas more possible, which would fundamentally change American elections. About half of white people are deeply fearful and apprehensive about these demographic shifts. Changes, made clear by developments like a rise in progressive legislators of color, threaten white elite rule. “Lone-wolf” stochastic terrorism is just another tactic to sustain minority white rule, one that is at a surface level condemned by the right-wing establishment, but below that is clearly being encouraged.
Some issues that are emerging in the past few years include three shifts in the media landscape:
The rise of Sinclair Broadcast Group and its consolidation of local news stations. Many people avoided being radicalized by Fox News- even at its peak, most Americans don’t watch any cable news, including Fox. But an entire population that thought they could trust the local news is instead exposed to a right-wing reactionary politics.
The talk-radioization of cable news. The rise of outright white nationalists like Tucker Carlson has made cable news more like the more radical, openly white supremacist talk radio landscape. Talk radio has always been a beta test for televised news- new reactionary arguments emerge there then are laundered into Fox News and Sinclair. The separation between talk radio and TV news has become increasingly blurred.
The rise of predatory online reactionaries. As I stated in the “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?” series, especially part IV: Anatomy of a Pipeline, the online right-wing landscape has become filled with figures whose job it is to hook people on far-right politics and talking points. Individuals like Dennis Prager, Ben Shapiro, Dave Rubin and others make their money through radicalization. Spaces like 4chan and 8chan are so toxic now that they are dumping grounds for mass shooter manifestos, like the El Paso shooter’s.
More must be done than trying to wait out the clock until November 2020. The actors moving to preserve white minority rule never rest. And the policy of the state, and the actions of “lone wolf” terrorists, are ever-more entwined.
Since the 2016 presidential primary campaign, Chapo Trap House has been one of the most influential podcasts in a growing network of often humorous, but strongly leftist media. Matt Christman, one of the five co-hosts and the host with the most interest in political history, posited in early 2019 that “owning the libs” had become an influential component of consumption patterns and the United States economy in general.
Though this obviously connects to the rise of Donald Trump and “Make American Great Again” from 2015 to the present, the origins of decisions made primarily to outrage political opponents goes back at least a couple of decades. The modification of diesel trucks to produce plumes of dark smoke, called “rolling coal”, is often done at least in part to anger environmentalists. With the rise of right-wing talk radio after media deregulation during the Reagan administration, a confrontational political culture emerged that not only blamed “liberals” for the failings of the American political and economic system, but sought actively to antagonize them. What also emerges from this is the polarization of everyday consumption and decisions on political lines- the anti-LGBTQ activity of the leaders of Chick-fil-A spawned both protests and support-by-consumption by conservatives. The strongly reactionary nature of Barack Obama-era right-wing politics, embodied by the Tea Party, was rooted in opposition to everything that “liberals” (often centrist neoliberals like Obama and Hillary Clinton, in reality) wanted, and that liberal support of an issue was reason in itself to rally resources and people against it.
Now, in 2020, a pandemic with all the deadly potential of climate change with a much more compressed timeline has arisen. The Trump administration has been marked by a permanent mobilization of the electorate and an end to off-peak electioneering. The President’s decision to file for re-election on the day of his inauguration, and holding mass rallies years before the 2020 election, fits with this new reality. Much like with climate change, there is a desperate attempt for the scientific establishment to get the whole of the population to heed its warnings. But defiance of social distancing and flattening the curve has emerged as about spurning liberal politicians (or public health officials who are seen as being such) than anything else.
One Mississippian asked the governor why the state was not emulating China, the first country to detect COVID-19 and the first to control the spread of the virus. “Mississippi’s never going to be China. Mississippi’s never going to be North Korea,” Reeves responded. He added that “when looking at the numbers China’s putting out, claiming that they have no new cases over a period of time—I’m not entirely sure we can trust that data.”
Reeves’ skepticism of China’s control of the COVID-19 pandemic is incorrect, however. In areas across China most heavily affected by the novel coronavirus, the extensive lockdown, testing and case isolation protocols have eliminated the spread of the virus to the degree that the imminent danger for these areas is not community spread, but reinfection from travelers returning from abroad. Dr. Bruce Aylward, World Health Organization senior advisor, explains the dedication of the Chinese model. “They’re mobilized, like in a war, and it’s fear of the virus that was driving them. They really saw themselves as on the front lines of protecting the rest of China. And the world,” he said.
At least in some places (including Fox News) have been ratcheting down the refrain that the United States needs to “restart the economy” and lift public health restrictions. However, even as more recommendations come in, the President gives them a political dimension. Upon announcing today that everyone should wear a face covering in public, he immediately pointed out that he himself would not be doing it. For the 40% of the country in lockstep with the President, such public statements dramatically undermine the efficacy of public health measures that require near-universal adherence to work within the confines and limits of the health system.
We are less than a month into any kind of response to the coronavirus and COVID-19. Pre-print academic research on the UK indicates a need for periodic lockdowns (far stricter than shelter-in-place, which is a broad term that may or may not be sufficient) well into 2021. Lockdowns are the only measure that has a chance of reducing R0 (the rate of infection) below 1, which was critical in keeping the Wuhan crisis from continuing to spiral further out of control.
Both right-wing elites and their base will become increasingly restive the longer this goes on, especially as the recession and unemployment deepens, and the calls for increased social spending increase. Asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic people continuing to move in public and not taking sanitary precautions due to the discourse of conservative media figures and politicians is a real concern. Also, the need for shelter-in-place or lockdown measures will straddle a presidential election. Joe Biden has been reluctant to criticize Trump’s coronavirus response (to me, this underlines what a political relic he is, basing his instincts on a pre-1994 vision of what Congress was like), but coronavirus is clearly going to be a major election issue. Debates about policy, like economic stimulus and bailouts, may merge into debates about public health practices, with political divisions emerging as some governors and mayors move unilaterally relative to the federal policy, for or against. While “owning the libs” acts with regard to climate change, like not recycling or “rolling coal” only have long-term, aggregate impact, even a small sliver of people who want to enrage whatever they think liberals look like could mean thousands more dead.
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.