Coronavirus demands radical transformation, not a ‘return to normal’

By Robert Raymond, Coronavirus demands radical transformation, not a ‘return to normal’ on Shareable

Early last week, when Republican Lt. Gov. of Texas, Dan Patrick, suggested that the elderly should be willing to die from COVID-19 to get the economy back in action, something major shifted. If just briefly, the mask came off. Here was an elected official explicitly offering human sacrifices to appease the market. Texas Lt Gov Dan Patrick went on national tv & argued elderly people should die for the health of the market. Capitalism is a system that priorities profits over people. This fight is literally a matter of life or death. Battle lines are being drawn. Which side are you on?

— Chris Brooks (@chactivist) March 24, 2020Texas Lt Gov Dan Patrick went on national tv & argued elderly people should die for the health of the market. Capitalism is a system that priorities profits over people. This fight is literally a matter of life or death. Battle lines are being drawn. Which side are you on?

“Capitalism has always been willing to sacrifice life,” author and activist Naomi Klein told an audience of 14,000 people last week on an online teach-in hosted by Haymarket Books. “[It’s an] economic model soaked in blood. This is not a more radical version of capitalism; what is more radical is the scale.”

It’s unfortunate that it’s taking a global pandemic to reveal it, but the unprecedented crisis catalyzed by the coronavirus has exposed our capitalist economic system for what it has always been. From the early history of colonialism, slavery, the enclosure of the commons to the ravages of industrial capitalism, and into modern austerity regimes, capitalism has always put profit over people.

This is exactly why any calls for “returning to normal” are so misguided. “Normal is deadly, normal was a massive crisis,” Klein emphasized last week. “We don’t need to stimulate the death economy, we need to catalyze a massive transformation into an economy that is based on protecting life.”

In 2007, Klein presented her thesis of disaster capitalism to the world in her groundbreaking book, “The Shock Doctrine.” Her ideas seemed to perfectly explain much of what was — and still is — taking place globally. The thesis is fairly simple: When a crisis unfolds, disaster capitalists will try to create an opportunity to advance their nefarious agendas. One obvious example of this is the stimulus bill signed into law late last week which showers trillions of dollars onto Wall Street and giant corporations with minimal oversight or regulation. Nothing suggests a “return to normal” more than another corporate bailout that will never “trickle-down” to the rest of us. 

Instead, what Klein and others demand is a bottom-up bailout that goes well beyond simply surviving this acute crisis. Throughout the teach-in, Klein and her co-panelists Astra Taylor and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, offered a variety of solutions that could be applied to both the short- and long-term crises of the coronavirus and capitalism — both relief and recovery. An example of immediate relief would be a moratorium on rent until the crisis is over, while an example of recovery would be passing policies that would guarantee affordable housing to everybody living in the United States. The former is a stopgap measure to mitigate immediate harm; the latter is systemic transformation.

Part of the economic recovery package which just passed congress includes a one-time payment of $1,200 to individuals making less than $75,000 annually. There has been quite a bit of criticism coming from many different communities suggesting the figure of $1,200 is too low. The number was likely derived from the federal minimum wage wherein a full-time worker making $7.25/hr grosses $1,160 per month. Rounded up, this explains the $1,200 figure that the Republicans and Democrats agreed upon. 

If we utilize the framing encouraged by Klein and others we can begin to see how the coronavirus pandemic simply reveals the more chronic disaster that is the Federal minimum wage. If $1,200 is not enough in an acute crisis, then it’s certainly not enough during “normal” times. 

Of course, affordable housing and an increase in the minimum wage are not new ideas. In fact, many of the structural policy proposals put forth by Klein and her co-panelists are ideas that have been on the agenda of the left for quite some time. “We need to reimagine in this moment,” Klein argued. “And the good news is that we aren’t starting from scratch.”

Policy proposals like the Green New Deal, universal health care, universal basic income, and labor protections such as raising the minimum wage to $15/hr and democratizing the economy, for example, have all — as Klein puts it — been “lying around” for quite some time. She borrows this phrase from the economist Milton Friedman, who argued that radical transformation can only take place during periods of acute crisis. It’s during these periods that the ideas “already lying around” will step in to fill the gaps. 

Friedman was an American right-wing economist whose ideas are largely responsible for the rise of neoliberalism and austerity politics that have shaped the last 40 years. He utilized a crisis in capitalism during the late 1970s to help usher in a sweeping transformation that ended the Keynesian, New Deal-era in the United States. 

“The scale of the coronavirus crisis is so profound that there is now an opportunity to remake our society for the greater good, while rejecting the pernicious individualism that has left us utterly ill-equipped for the moment,” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor explained during the teach-in. “The class-driven hierarchy of our society will encourage the spread of this vicious virus, unless dramatic and previously unthinkable solutions are immediately put on the table.”

The coronavirus is an unprecedented event, but it’s the sharpening of class divides, the gutting of our social safety net and the mentality of selfish individualism encouraged by capitalism which have turned this pandemic into an unimaginable crisis.  Things like eviction moratoriums, stimulus checks, or extended unemployment benefits will not fundamentally address the conditions which allowed the coronavirus to unfold so disastrously. They also won’t address the many chronic disasters that plague capitalist society on a daily basis. As Klein and others argue, these things can only be addressed through radical, systemic transformation


Charles Komanoff, economist, directs the Carbon Tax Center.  Christopher Ketcham is author of “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West.” 

Environmental legal scholar Michael Gerrard wrote this week, the climate change lessons of Covid-19 are to heed the warnings of scientists, do everything possible to minimize the hazards they predict, and prepare to cope with the impacts that remain.

Second, the crisis is helping us see just how much our well-being depends on muscular, proactive governance. Government of the people and for the people is literally the thing that’s now needed more than ever.  The people must be sovereign over corporations and not vice versa — a point driven home by the tepid response of big business to Trump’s exhortations to step up manufacture of equipment to protect health care workers.

Third, we may be shaking loose the defeatism that nothing can be done quickly. Take the example of those of us sheltering in place: We are learning, overnight, that simplicity isn’t necessarily austerity, frugality need not be privation, and that we can forgo quite a lot of our leisure and consumer entitlements if it serves some higher purpose — at present, to stop the sickening and death of our fellow human beings; in the longer run, to bend the rising curve of carbon emissions and put a hard stop on climate chaos.

Moreover, if our society can act, finally, to manufacture a million ventilators and a billion protective masks, surely we can within a few years act on a far grander scale to erect, say, a million wind turbines, insulate and solarize a hundred million buildings, carve ribbons of bicycle paths throughout our cities and suburbs, and so on. With the pandemic enforcing a brutal but necessary reset, the NIMBYism that has impeded this kind of progress practically everywhere might be swept into the dustbin for good.

Most hearteningly, the crisis is instilling a renewed appreciation of social solidarity. The more we are forced to quarantine and isolate, paradoxically, the more we become cognizant of the need for mutuality and social relations and social conscience.

WASHINGTON, DC  - APRIL 01: Volunteers for nonprofit organization Martha's Table Chantasia Beatty, Kiara Brown and Stephanye White load bags of fresh produce to distribute to people in underserved communities during the novel coronavirus outbreak April 01, 2020 in Washington, DC. The pandemic has forced many people out of work and unable to reach healthy food so Martha's Table has extended until April 24 its COVID-19 emergency response of financial and food support for people in need, including distribution of 6,570 bags of groceries at its public food sites in Southeast Washington, DC.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Volunteers for nonprofit organization Martha’s Table load bags of fresh produce to distribute to people in underserved communities on April 1, 2020, amidst the coronavirus pandemic in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

My well-being depends on your not being sick. My ability to be fed depends on your ability to grow and transport and distribute food. My life is now literally in your hands, as you make decisions whether to restrain your activity in the public sphere, keep your distance, self-quarantine.

If we so fully need each other, how can I abide your not having affordable health care? In this moment when the precarity of half or more of American households is laid bare, how can I abide a government that places the well-being of billionaires — whose wealth each week generates more money than many of us earn in a lifetime — above that of the 90 percent of Americans who make less than $100,000 a year?

What does solidarity have to do with climate? Everything. People whose health is tenuous and whose pocketbook is empty can’t easily stand up for climate action, but they may do so if government has put them on a solid footing and, in the Green New Deal, provided a framework for paying them good wages to actually implement it.

Synergies abound. With the U.S. government providing direct payments to American households, it’s only a step or two to paying coal miners and cattle ranchers to become solar installers and wind farm maintainers. Enacting some form of guaranteed income, even just temporarily, could pave the way for the “carbon fee and dividend” approach to taxing carbon fuels without further burdening the less well-off. In a different vein, trading frenetic foreign travel for staycations could downsize socially destructive companies like Airbnb, making rental apartments more affordable and in turn diminishing long-distance commuting and slashing carbon footprints.

As for the super-rich, never have their fortunes been so fully revealed as hollow and corrosive. Worldwide, the wealthiest 5 percent of households collectively burn more carbon than the entire bottom half, according to a comprehensive new report from the University of Leeds. Could the past decade’s research and agitation on economic inequality now culminate, in the pandemic’s wake, in an insistence on transmuting extreme private wealth into a new collectively shared wealth of renewable energy and sustainable communities?

This, more than fossil fuel divestment or class-action litigation, is the kind of program that will actually cast off the yoke of the fossil fuel empire upon which the portfolios of the super-rich depend. In the process, the toxic aspiration to join the super-rich could be swept aside. Bye-bye, lusting after commuter helicopters. Bye-bye, hungering for one’s own island. Bye-bye, legislatures purchased by dark money.

As for those in the rarified upper classes who, in Margaret Thatcher’s iconic phrasing, embrace the libertarian right-wing precept that “there is no such thing as society,” let’s hope they will be answered by the millions of commoners who see clearly, as the pandemic rages, that we are all in this leaky boat together.

Charles Komanoff, a New York City-based economist and activist, directs the Carbon Tax Center.  Christopher Ketcham, an upstate New Yorker, is author of “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West.”