In the first part of a two part series, “What if?” Todd Chretien talks Trump, capitalism and Covid-19.
At the writing of this article, the Covid-19 death toll in the US has surpassed 1600, although casualties are mounting so fast this number will seem impossibly old in a day or two. More than 100,000 cases have been confirmed, but the total is likely ten times greater as testing remains criminally restricted by a lack of kits. Nearly half of those cases are within fifty miles of Manhattan and there is no end in sight.
Additionally, unemployment claims topped 3 million this past week, five times greater than the previous record set in 1982 at the height of the Reagan Recession. The current unemployment number significantly undercounts those who have lost their jobs because the system simply couldn’t process all the claims; millions who do not know they are eligible for benefits; and millions more who are simply crossing their fingers that things will “go back to normal” in a couple weeks.
On top of this, though still being paid, almost all public and private school and university workers in the country are working from home after every school in the country was closed. By any real measure, roughly twenty percent of the American working class lost their jobs last week, perhaps 15 or 20 million people. Nothing remotely like this has ever happened. And as Brazilian socialist Valerio Arcary put it, “Nothing will be the same.”
Donald Trump, the self-described “stable genius,” didn’t see it coming. Claiming, “it’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear…maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows.”
But frontline health care workers saw it coming and knew we were one crisis away from potential catastophe. “I work in a pediatric emergency room,” explains New York City nurse Sean Petty. “When our staffing started to get cut, we complained. We were told explicitly by management that we can longer staff based on a “what if” scenario. Well, of course, an emergency room is one giant “what if” scenario in normal times, but then “what if” a pandemic comes?”
There is nothing accidental about the fact that the U.S. health care system is uniquely ill-prepared to confront the coronavirus contagion. As Mike Davis, author of The Monster at the Door explains, “According to the American Hospital Association, the number of in-patient hospital beds declined by an extraordinary 39% between 1981 and 1999. The purpose was to raise profits, but management’s goal of 90% occupancy meant that hospitals no longer had the capacity to absorb patient influx during epidemics and medical emergencies.” Covid-19 does the killing, but two generations of neoliberal austerity drove us to the slaughterhouse doors.
Health Care in America
Most obviously, the coronavirus has called the American health care system’s bluff. As socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders says in every speech, “30,000 American die every year waiting for health care because of the cost.” Meanwhile, big pharmaceutical companies and private health insurance companies reaped one-hundred billion in profits last year, literally sucking the life out of American workers. All along, Republicans have claimed that America’s health care system was the “best in the world” while Democrats like presidential front-runner Joe Biden claim the system needs minor tweaks, to “expand on Obamacare.” The coronavirus has laid those myths to rest once and for all.
Ronald Reagan justified his attacks on working-class living standards by claiming that benefits would “trickle down” from the top to the bottom. Since then, the Democratic and Republican leadership have been united behind Margaret Thatcher’s “There Is No Alternative” (TINA) banner, swearing allegiance to free markets and the 1%. As Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi put it, “we’re capitalists, that’s just the way it is.” Even progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren is more insistent, claiming she is “a capitalist to my bones.”
The result? Neoliberalism has wrecked working-class life in the United States. Real wages are the same today as in 1970, and they will be driven down significantly in emerging recession. The average college student graduates with $30,000 in debt. 2.3 million people are in prison today, of whom 40 percent are African American. Women make only 82 cents to the dollar compared to men in comparable jobs and 17 military veterans commit suicide every day. 41 percent of transgender people, and 54 percent of transgender people of color, report having attempted suicide. Nearly 12 million workers do not have resident documents and millions of immigrant workers have been caged and deported by Obama and Trump alike over the last decade. Public schools are radically underfunded to the tune of almost $2 billion per year. And the federal minimum wage has remained stuck at $7.25 per hour for a decade, approximately 50 percent lower than it was in real dollars in 1970.
On top of all of this, today’s youth live in fear of school shootings, climate disaster, and declining economic prospects. If today’s teenagers and twenty somethings are neoliberalism’s grandchildren, then they are the Great Recession’s children, and they know it.
The center holds, for now
Politically, Trump broke the mold. He has rehabilitated white supremacy in official Republican politics, cut the American-led international trade regime to ribbons, up-ended the “norms” of the U.S. state (the real motivation behind Pelosi’s failed impeachment bid), and adopted an isolationist view.
Yet, despite all this, Republicans and Democrats in Congress, along with Trump himself, put aside their cold war to unite behind the largest economic bail-out package in history in little more than a week. When the coronavirus posed a threat to Wall Street and big business, they quickly came to a consensus whose tracks were laid back in 2009 under the Obama bail out, which included the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Although more than four times as large, Trump’s bail out is built around the same core as Obama’s bail out: $500 billion for corporate relief with little to no oversight. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnel claimed the crisis called for “a wartime level of investment into our nation,” which is true enough insofar as McConnel sees the “nation” as an interlocking boys club of CEOs. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve has pledged to provide Wall Street and the big banks virtually unlimited free credit to protect their balance sheets.
Alongside the torrent of aid to big business, the deal directs $100 billion towards emergency aid for hospitals and $350 billion to small businesses, extends unemployment benefits and increase payments by up to $600 per worker – thanks to Sanders fighting for it – and will send one-time $1200 checks to most workers, with an additional $500 per child. Undoubtedly, the emergency measures will be popular in the short term (Trump is betting his reelection on federal largesse), but as Laia Facet predicts with respect to Spain, “If the government continues its elevated public spending policies without taking any extraordinary measures to tax big business in order to raise money, then the public debt will rise and, just like in 2008, they will turn to austerity to cover it.”
Remember, what followed Obama’s bail out was not a return to prosperity and a rise in living standards, but rather a remorseless cut in living standards and emergence of Occupy Wall Street. “The banks got bailed out. We got sold out!” went the cry. The 1 percent is preparing to repeat the trick this time around, but the 99 percent today is angrier, poorer, and better organized than in 2009-2011 and the system’s TINA song rings hollower than ever.
Socialism, mutual aid, and fight or die
During the Great Depression, the Communist Party USA popularized the slogan, “Fight or Starve.” All around the world today, the coronavirus is forcing workers to fight or die. Strike actions have proliferated as those workers not laid off are forced to work under increasingly dangerous conditions. Workers have responded to Trump’s desire to have the country “open by Easter” by making #Dontdieforthedow go viral and, more importantly, going on strike to demand that their non-essential businesses close or for medically-necessary protective gear if they have to keep working.
Many corporate chiefs see a crisis to exploit. UPS package driver Nick Perry writes that “My employer isn’t concerned about exposure. In fact, they are excited for all the business opportunities it will bring… I interact with 75-100 people daily; 300-500 packages move through my hands on a given day. I open who knows how many door handles and touch even more handrails. Two thousand people move through a guard shack at work which you have to push your body against, and all of this is done without a single care from my employer to sanitize ANYTHING.” This kind of corporate recklessness has unleashed a wave of wild cat strikes in auto, agriculture, Amazon, fast food (including Starbucks), public transportation, and ship building, spreading the lessons learned in strikes by teachers, nurses, and university workers over the last two years.
At the same time, tens of millions of ordinary people are establishing mutual aid groups to help their neighbors, even as they are subject to quarantines or “shelter in place” orders. And with schools closed, educators are working to “thicken networks of collaboration and collective action with parents and students” by continuing classes online, maintaining relationships with their students to counteract isolation and stress, and working alongside school food service workers to deliver tens of millions of free meals to students and their families every day. In the midst of this outpouring of working-class solidarity, the growth of socialist ideas and organization will only accelerate.
If will be the most important role of all for socialists to be catalysts for that acceleration.