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

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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:

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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.

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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.

Stein, vaccines, and the new, better Green Party

Jill Stein has gotten some negative media attention due to an answer in a Reddit AMA regarding vaccines.

Part of her statement:

“I think there’s no question that vaccines have been absolutely critical in ridding us of the scourge of many diseases — smallpox, polio, etc. So vaccines are an invaluable medication,” Stein said. “Like any medication, they also should be — what shall we say? — approved by a regulatory board that people can trust. And I think right now, that is the problem. That people do not trust a Food and Drug Administration, or even the CDC for that matter, where corporate influence and the pharmaceutical industry has a lot of influence.”

followed up later with this, mentioning controversies with the use of hormone replacement for menopause, and treatments for Alzheimer’s that backfired:

it’s really important that the American public have confidence in our regulatory boards so that all of our medical treatments and medications actually are approved by people who do not have a vested interest in their promotion.

and clarification on Twitter:

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Snopes also lists the claim that Stein is anti-vaccination as unproven.

My mother, a psychiatrist, was concerned about Stein’s take on vaccines, so I did some research to make sure I had all the needed context.

The Washington Post story, which is the norm among large, nonpartisan media outlets, takes a skeptical look at Stein’s claims, assuming that the formal independence of the FDA more or less as true.

The closest Stein gets to anti-vaxx arguments is here:

“There were concerns among physicians about what the vaccination schedule meant, the toxic substances like mercury which used to be rampant in vaccines. There were real questions that needed to be addressed. I think some of them at least have been addressed. I don’t know if all of them have been addressed.”

Pretty different from what her remarks were being portrayed as. At its core, Stein doesn’t believe that vaccines have any of the purported negative effects that are common currency among anti-vaxxers. Nor does she see any existing issues as overriding the massive public health necessity of vaccination. In fact, she specifically says vaccination rates need to go up in light of Jenny McCarthy and others. As she said on Twitter, the issue is that government agencies have a credibility problem. Even if their statements are 100% true, the intensive lobbying by pharmaceutical companies, and a revolving door between the FDA and private industry, invites skepticism. And indeed that is part of why parents may choose to ignore warnings about things like vaccinations. Even if “the FDA is a tool of Big Pharma” is unrelated to “vaccines are essential for public health,” it can muddy the waters.

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The pharmaceutical lobby is incredibly powerful. A 2005 piece by the Center for Public Integrity pointed out over $100 million annually in lobbying. To quote, emphasis mine:

The industry’s multi-faceted influence campaign has also led to a more industry-friendly regulatory policy at the Food and Drug Administration, the agency that approves its products for sale and most directly oversees drug makers.

Most of the industry’s political spending paid for federal lobbying. Medicine makers hired about 3,000 lobbyists, more than a third of them former federal officials, to advance their interests before the House, the Senate, the FDA, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other executive branch offices.

A 2015 story in TIME about the now-current head of the FDA, Robert Califf M.D pointed out that he was making six figures in consulting fees annually from pharmaceutical companies. Pharmaceutical companies were instrumental in the passage of Medicare Part D, which is a cash cow because it has no price controls unlike most government health programs. Pharma is also the only part of the health system that was not impacted by the Affordable Care Act, trading perks in exchange for not blocking the bill.

I’ve been a registered Green from mid-2009 until today, minus the time myself and many others registered independent to vote in the Democratic primary this year. In years past, Green ideology was a complete mess. It was sort of socialist, sort of capitalist, and alternatively enthusiastic about and skeptical of science. Going to a party conference, I was frustrated by the lack of coherence and a tendency towards conspiracy theories and quack medicine.

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This election cycle is different, because the primaries have manufactured a large disenchanted bloc of voters who see Stein as an answer. This has had the effect of making Green ideology more consistent, and pushing out its more kooky aspects. An amendment to the 2016 platform was passed by the National Committee to make the Green Party explicitly anti-capitalist and move towards eco-socialism. This would resolve the ambiguous take on economics in Green politics and give the party something to stand on. The party this year also voted to remove support for practices like homeopathy. I do believe that Jill Stein has been part of the solution rather than the problem- her status as a doctor makes outsiders more likely to listen, and since her run in 2012 there has been pressure to move beyond a niche party.

Your vote in November is yours alone. Don’t let people bully you into a decision. If you are in a swing state, it’s a tough decision and in some sense I’m glad I don’t have to make it. If you live in a safe state, a vote for the Greens would be huge. A large result would secure millions in public funding, improve ballot access. Minor parties spend more money on litigation to get on the ballot than anything else. And even if Clinton wins, a 5%+ for Stein shows that the Sanders movement against politics as usual has survived.

Enough is enough. Vote Stein.

The lone woman: standing outside the UU liberal consensus

SEVERAL years ago, I attended the “morning forum” at my local UU congregation. It was a current events discussion group that started a half-hour before the first service.

It was the end of the year, and by then a standard topic was a year-end review for President Obama. There were about twenty people in the room. Most of them were Kennedy-era liberals, with some of the older participants having grown up worshipping FDR.

The facilitator had developed a detailed handout, covering each aspect of the presidency. At the end of the session, each person gave a letter grade to the President- they were tallied on an easel.

Almost everyone gave Obama either an A or B on every segment- mostly A’s. Only one woman, along with myself, gave the President a failing grade in anything. We agreed that it was absurd to view the ever-lengthening Afghanistan conflict, or his deportation-heavy immigration policy as anything other than serious, systemic issues. Income inequality was getting worse, and the ‘recovery’ in effect at the time didn’t benefit people outside the top tax bracket.

Afterwards, it felt pretty awkward. Clearly I had intruded on people’s long-held worldviews. And as outspoken as I can be, I never dissent just to be shocking. The woman who joined my mini-protest came over. She was older than me, but a bit younger than the Kennedy-era liberals. Apparently she was often the lone critical voice in the forum, and she thanked me for keeping her company. It was clear that she was uncomfortable with the situation. But a forum is supposed to be a free discussion, and her contributions were both eloquent and well-grounded.

Two things Unitarian Universalism stands for are freedom of expression and against ignorance. But I felt a narrow political consensus gripping the forum that Sunday morning. This part of the congregation was so used to defending the president from conservative attack that they were uncomfortable with a progressive critique. Yet if the critique wasn’t there, the forum would have been fine living in a world where the President could do no wrong.

I never felt this way in a religious context. Atheist, agnostic, polytheistic, Eastern, ancient, contemporary. Congregants were always open to new religious concepts, and had often moved significantly from their previous beliefs. But there wasn’t much dynamism in politics. In many places, UUs come from well-off liberal families, and have held the same basic ideology since they were children. Like I said, the older members of the forum came from Roosevelt families, and still spoke of him in godlike terms.

Unitarian Universalism is a religion. But it wears its politics on its sleeve. I’ve written that UU politics and UU ideals do not link up. The ideals call for liberation. The politics call for institutions of injustice to behave themselves.

IN 2014, a couple of years after the forum, I gave a guest sermon at the same congregation (“And in Society at Large”, the text of which you can read here). My politics here were different, and my point of critique was systemic rather than focused on one man. But the same tension emerged. After the second service, a woman stood up during announcements. She applauded me for my sermon, but then tied it into her work she was doing- opening up the local Democratic Party office ahead of the 2014 midterm elections. At no point did I mention party politics as the solution- nor do they fit in a call for economic democracy. I felt being co-opted right in front of my eyes, in front of a group of people. I personally felt humiliated that my weeks of preparation had been twisted so quickly.

Afterwards, most people gave me pretty brief, nondescript feedback- good sermon, thought-provoking, the normal. A woman came up later, around my age, and thanked me for bringing up so many things- like cooperatives, corporate greed, and the need for workers to control their lives. She also noticed the lack of tact shown by the person advertising the Democratic Party (in a house of worship, additionally).

The woman at the forum, and the woman after the sermon were different. But they had a similarity: they were the only one. The liberal bubble was large, but there were UUs who wanted better political discourse within the church. How many people stopped attending services because of the narrow politics? How many people shut up when their fellow UUs praised an administration that had been at odds with communities of color on many occasions?

If diversity is an issue, and at every congregation I’ve been to oh god it is, politics is a real, tangible issue. I often see a politics that works and makes sense, assuming you’re white and financially stable. The Black Lives Matter resolution passed at General Assembly in Portland was fraught with conflict, essentially because the act called for prison abolition. Abolition is a step too far for mainstream liberals, but for people of color living in an age of mass incarceration, it is a cause for survival. It is great to have radical ministers and congregants offering a different way forward, but I’ve seen what happens if a church doesn’t have those people.

Or if they only have one. Always standing alone.

 

From a college UU: value people, not brands

Yesterday in the weekly meeting for Unitarian Universalist students on campus, our service leader gave us definitions of “personal brand.” The discussion was interesting, but I felt nobody delved into how much conflict exists between the concept of a “personal brand” and a UU worldview. Since there wasn’t a good opportunity to explore my feelings then, I’m writing a response now.

Personal branding is emphasized in business circles, particularly among entrepreneurs. Just like with a traditional brand, participants attempt to broadcast a positive portrait of themselves, that uses whatever skills and resources they have. The idea, in theory, is to have a unique profile that makes you special.

Advocates of this process say that everything you do contributes to personal brand- education, work, choices regarding romance and children. One definition says that you need to define what you really find important.

But here’s the short-circuit. One thing you can value is not being bound by business concepts like brands. Thinking of people as brands is profoundly dehumanizing, and conflates personal identity with capitalist practice. Personal identity is broken up into quantifiable traits, because brands have no need for intangibles. “Value” is given a crass, narrow definition. Emphasis on personal branding- where everything, not just work-related, is crucial- fundamentally clashes with a spiritually fulfilling life. American capitalism is many things, but it is not a very spiritual realm.

It is depressing to read my life trajectory described in five-dollar word business speak. To bring up personal branding is important- I think UU young adult groups should discuss it since it’s ever-present in the adult world- but not with a starting assumption that it’s a positive thing. That needs to be proven. Forbes is not the arbiter of what principles we should hold.

Uniqueness is an empowering trait, but the flip side should be considered. Thinking in terms of brands atomizes people- existing in tension with the collective. Collective experience, religious, social, and economic, is essential to existence. When we are together, concepts like equality and dignity have meaning. For me, Unitarian Universalist spaces allow refuge from a world where nearly everything has adopted a corporate mindset. The campus that we had this meeting on is in crisis because the administration has become more like corporate executives and less like public servants.

What I ask here is to think about identity, and then personal branding. To you, are they similar, or not? What unites or separates the two?

 

Bernie Sanders and the Graveyard of Social Movements

In the final hours before the Iowa caucuses, it’s productive to take a step back and look at the Democratic presidential primary from a structural perspective.

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Sanders at a rally in Charleston, South Carolina. August 2015.

American presidential campaigns used to be managed exclusively by machine bosses. There were no democratic primary elections- there was a convention, the candidate was often a compromise made in a smoke-filled room. Money and patronage were divvied among those who could mobilize resources. Popular participation did play a role, but party leadership counted for a lot- and much of the mobilization was under political machines controlled by said bosses.

All that has really happened since the 19th century convention-based system is that there are now primary elections. Of course that’s a big addition to the process, but the old forces haven’t been replaced. Party elites still try as much as possible to make the primary elections a coronation process; they also have the advantage that those with the most party loyalty are the main electorate. Thus even in a competitive race like 2008, the party structure was not threatened. A couple people got mad and said they wouldn’t vote for Obama, but otherwise unity was quick and very few people in power changed ideology as a result.

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Lance Selfa on the role of the Democrats since the 19th century (The Democrats: A Critical History, Haymarket Books, 2008)

 

This is a meandering way of getting to the relationship of Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party. As Matt Karp writes today, the inner core of the Party has been nearly unanimous in endorsing Clinton, or at least not endorsing Sanders. Even second and third-tier primary candidates of elections past got at least a small handful of national figures, even if they never polled in the double digits.

Sanders is far from the first major candidate that the leading cadre have despised. The Democrats did have a chance to move leftward (to essentially the social-democratic politics that Sanders triumphs) in the late 60s and early 70s, but conflict with the conservative establishment caused so much chaos that there was little time to, ya know, campaign and win elections. If you’re wondering whether the Party will ever embrace a truly different direction, ask whether the people that control it would benefit from higher corporate taxes, more regulation, and eliminating industries like private health insurance.

So the institution doesn’t like him because of his politics. A factor that I’ve yet to see someone articulate clearly is an issue for both officials and primary voters. Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat and has never been one. I’ve run into plenty of people for whom party identification is a core part of their personal identity. They are Democrats. Their parents and grandparents, going back to the New Deal, were Democrats. Partisanship has an ideological component, but it also has the same nationalist substitute you get with sports teams and Kirk v. Picard. The instant Sanders decided to run as a Democrat he entered foreign turf that he doesn’t fit into well.

If history is our guide, the Sanders movement is not going to fundamentally change the structure. My stance on the Party has been consistent to the point that friends are surprised when someone else invokes it- “the graveyard of social movements.” The radicalism of groups since the 19th century has been neutered to the point that once the most militant of working class organizations run away from any genuine progressive politics. Clinton, who has never supported a $15/hr minimum wage, won the endorsement of the SEIU. Currently, their signature campaign is Fight for 15. Much of labor has been so institutionalized that its leadership will choose party loyalty, even if it undermines fast food workers who have lost their jobs advocating for $15.

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From Mike Flugennock: sinkers.org/stage/?p=1707

So as this primary season begins, the question of change needs to be separated. Can Bernie Sanders win despite near-universal Party opposition? Maybe, I don’t know. My concern is that even if he wins, the Party is not the vehicle to achieve progressive change. We have seen how much a President can be handcuffed by Congress- the opposition, yes, but also within the delegation.

I’ve seen people make the argument that Clinton v. Sanders is a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. I don’t buy that interpretation (Don’t Believe the Hype!), nor any analysis that says the Party is destined to end up at this or that ideology. The best predictor of the future is the past, and the Democratic Party has been around for about two hundred years now. American party politics has flipped multiple times, but the Democrats were never radicals. When the Democrats fought in the 1890s over the Pullman strike, a Democratic president overrode a Democratic governor to crush it. Attempts to form a progressive, radical opposition has never lasted. Odds are that the Democratic Party will continue doing what it’s been doing, with no substantial change.

It is good to see more independent organizations liked National Nurses United bucking the trend of contradicting policy goals and endorsements. In their last post about the Sanders campaign before the caucuses, a nurse going door-to-door said:

We talked about what it means to have someone who is a champion, but also has a movement behind him. You have to have both to achieve change.

She’s right. You need both. But is that movement to come from a Party run by his opponents and funded by many of the same heinous corporations that fund the Republicans? Perhaps these buried organizations need to rise from the dead.

Because despite claims to the contrary, I think people power still has some life left in this country.

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.