COVID-19 and the “Lib Ownership Economy”

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.


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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.

Triggered
A book that only would exist in a lib ownership economy.

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.

A Tampa megachurch continued to hold mass services, even as social distancing was becoming a universal recommendation (or order). The pastor was subsequently arrested and charged with unlawful assembly and violating a public health order. It’s easy to see this person becoming a martyr in the way Kim Davis was for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses. A California megachurch gathering is now associated with at least 70 COVID-19 cases. Tate Reeves, Republican governor of Mississippi, rejected a shelter-in-place order well after many other states had implemented them. Quoting from the linked piece in the Jackson Free Press, emphasis added:

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.

Reeves ultimately did issue a shelter-in-place order over a week later, but ultimately wasted valuable time at a political level (and not admonishing individuals for risky behavior).

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.

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In-progress research by Davies, Kucharski, Eggo, CMMID nCov working group & Edmunds (2020). 

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.

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.

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.