The American response to COVID-19 has taken a myriad of daily twists and turns. Last week, the buzz was all about getting us out of our sheltering in place and back to work. By Easter (April 12), the president expressed hopefully, we’d see the churches packed with people!
My thought at the time was, migod, do they really want to kill us?
It may sound like hyperbole, if not paranoia, but the more I thought about it, I actually think it’s true. Let me try to explain.
First of all, where does the call for Americans to get back to work come from? From people in the workforce? Absolutely not. Of course workers want to work and get paid, but they are rightfully being advised to stay home. The only workers eager to report for work every day are those in truly essential jobs, like grocery and transport workers and, obviously, hospital, medical and nursing personnel, whom we should be getting down on our knees every day to praise and thank. Besides which, as essential workers, that’s how they get paid, however badly in many cases.
The strong manufactured populist opposition to immigration and the potential for upsetting historic racial majorities has led to a shortage of workers to keep the economy going.
The call comes from Wall Street and Big Business, who just can’t bear seeing workers idle and not producing profits for them. Even worse, they’re idle and then have the gall to ask for wages and benefits to be paid to get them through the crisis, not to mention allowances on rent, mortgage, and debt payments.
“We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem.” Surely this Pronouncement of Sagacity (POS) by the president will go down in American history as one of the greatest tragic flubs ever to come out of the White House. It soon got picked up by Wall Street and its echo chamber Faux News—or maybe it originated there.
In other words, they’d rather have hundreds of working people tightly massed in factories, restaurants, and schools—and getting each other sick and dying—for the greater good of “the economy.” Even now, one of the most active industrial sectors is agriculture, where personal protections and safety precautions are scant—and largely out of view of most Americans. Guess what? A high percentage of those workers are immigrants, an already despised group in the right-wing playbook. The only reason more of them are not being nabbed by ICE and deported is that, hey, people need their meat and potatoes. Who else is going to pick our crops and process our sausage patties under those conditions?
Wall Street has no problem with a certain percentage of them dying off if it continues to fatten their portfolios. But hasn’t that always been the case, long before we ever heard of coronaviruses? The boss class and their enablers in the White House, the legislative branch, and the courts, have always opposed worker safety protections, the 40-hour workweek, a higher minimum wage, overtime pay, paid vacations, paid sick days, paid family and bereavement leave, advancement for women, a work environment free of racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism, decent medical care for employees, a respectable pension, employer contribution to Social Security, educational and training opportunities, affordable housing, recreation and culture, and of course the very idea of unions, which are formed to demand all those things.
“Those things” are what keep a workforce population and their families healthy, educated, productive, and optimistic about the future.
Working people are not in the business of picking off the weakest and most vulnerable members of society in the morbid triage that is the essence of capitalism in America.
Whatever very, very late-stage decisions President Trump has announced to help in the current health crisis, such as finally embracing social distancing and finally calling on the 1950 Defense Production Act to get more ventilators manufactured, these fall far short of mitigating the disastrousness of previous decisions. We cannot forget his having slashed the budget for the Centers for Disease Control—after all, “who knew” that a pandemic might be around the next corner? Even in his most recent budget proposal, there’s an additional CDC funding cut of 16%.
Soon into his tenure he also disbanded the National Security Council’s pandemic response team. That sure showed Barack Obama who’s in charge now!
And from the beginning he dismissed medical outbreaks as a liberal “hoax” created by China to throw his presidency, and his re-election, off balance. Instead of learning from China and other nations, instead of accepting the COVID-19 test that the World Health Organization had created, he wallowed in a nationalistic carnival of name-calling and jingoism that set our response back by two months.
Let us not forget—though you won’t hear it from the president—that during his term of office so far the national life expectancy has declined with each passing year.
I’m Not Finished Yet. Not By a Long Shot
The ruling class has always opposed Social Security, which was established in the 1930s to help assure that once a person’s working life was over, they’d have a dignified old age. Poverty rates (and concomitantly, premature death) among the elderly declined rapidly. That was the effect of the “scourge of socialism” the program was accused of being. And that’s when people only lived on average into their late 60s or early 70s. Most assuredly, Congress would never have passed Social Security if they knew that decades later they would be paying it out to millions of retired workers now in their 80s and 90s. And why are people living longer? Because of “those things” the labor movement fought for and won!
Yet Social Security is still always under attack. Trump has promised it will be on chopping block in a second term (obviously not right now, months before the election). Doing away with Social Security: Isn’t that one more way of killing us off? If someone’s not productive anymore, why pay them to stay alive?
And if we can’t quite yet get rid of Social Security completely, how about privatizing it? That way at least Wall Street can make a profit from all those retirement dollars the government collected over the years. And if the market goes down, as it has recently in a most dramatic way, and elderly people lose their nest egg? Oh, well. They must not have invested wisely, Wall Street will tell us, or they’ll say such are the day-to-day vagaries of the free market system. Whose concern is it if those seniors won’t live long enough to recover their losses if a rebound ever comes?
Similar accusations of “creeping socialism” have been levied over the years against such programs as the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Medicare, Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Aid for Dependent Children, and food stamps (SNAP), not to mention unemployment insurance, free lunches in schools for poor children—hell, public schools period!—disaster relief (remember Katrina? Puerto Rico?), and investment in housing for homeless people driven into the streets by those precious “market forces.”
It all comes down to the same thing: Why give money and support to people who aren’t producing? In the end, aren’t such people frankly expendable? The opioid crisis is taking quite a few folks out too: More expendables the government is doing nothing about. So isn’t an attack on those programs equivalent in the end to murder?
The nerve of ACA opponents charging Obama’s signature program with setting up “death panels!” Talk about projection! Depriving people with pre-existing conditions, students, the poor, and working people of healthcare—and how about immigrants—is no different from sending them to an early grave on account of medical conditions that could readily be resolved with access to a national healthcare or Medicare for All system. And that’s without vision, dental, or mental even on the table.
Now I don’t mean to imply that Trump has no charitable impulses whatsoever. True, he is proposing critical cuts to access Social Security disability insurance and to food stamps, and punishing the poor with humiliating and futile work requirements, with a total annual saving of just under $4 billion. But, as Bryce Covert points out in The Nation, he is most generous with farm payouts, to the tune of $19 billion, which go to 99% white farmers and the majority to already wealthy farmers (mostly in the breadbasket states he needs in his re-election pocket). Which would not have been necessary had he not imposed punitive tariffs on China, which in turn retaliated by canceling orders for American soybeans and corn. The racial disparities are nothing short of stunning.
This dystopian vision of America is not out of some futuristic sci-fi horror fiction. This is clearly the kind of America our parasitical ruling class envisions for us and would be enacting into indelible law (hey, how about that 2017 tax reform!) were it not for some pockets of opposition that still remain. What kind of country would we be living in if we didn’t now have a Democratic majority in the House?
In more normal times, we might have asked the faith community to step up and defend those of us who happen to be living. And major swaths of mainstream religion do indeed stand opposed to the draconian policies of the Republican Party and its standard bearer in Donald Trump. But the ones who have the most influence are the white evangelicals, along with many Roman Catholics, who, with some exceptions, have made a Faustian tradeoff. The politicians give them unbending hostility to reproductive rights, including abortion, and are open to Religious Right privilege to discriminate against anyone they choose (the main current targets being the LGBTQ community and independent-thinking women) as well as to the introduction of religion into the public sphere and the right of churches to endorse political candidates.
OK, so Why do They Want to Kill Us?
But why? Why does our body politic—or the leading sectors of it right now, anyway—want to kill us? After all, aren’t we consumers as well as producers? Don’t we keep the economy going with the homes we buy, the cars we drive, the vacations we take, the restaurants we patronize?
In my view—and here I hasten to invite further discussion—capitalism instinctively recognizes that we are approaching a certain point in the production model where we know certain natural resources are being used up, fossil fuels are on their way out, more and more automation is driving people out of work, the economy cannot thrive forever on the service sector alone, and most essential manufacturing is being done more cheaply abroad.
In that world that we are looking at, we will simply have too many people, too many mouths to feed, too many to keep alive, too many to support in old age and infirmity. And we certainly don’t need more immigrants coming in to claim a piece of that more limited future. If Thomas Malthus (1766-1834)—“The histories of mankind are histories only of the higher classes”—felt the answers to overpopulation were war and disease, we are not very far from embracing those solutions ourselves. Perhaps adding in global self-destruction now too for good measure.
Conn Hallinan has recently expounded on “How austerity and anti-immigrant politics left Italy exposed to viral blitzkrieg,” in terms that reflect much of the thinking in North American and Western European countries. As these societies age with relative prosperity, the birthrate has gone down to less than replacement levels. If the “invisible hand” of the marketplace didn’t respect national borders, there would be enough immigrants arriving here and there—as they did for many years until recently—to fill positions in the service, garment, and food industries, and in healthcare, the traditional first-generation immigrant occupations. But the strong manufactured populist opposition to immigration and the potential for upsetting historic racial majorities has led to a shortage of workers to keep the economy going.
It’s the perfect storm: Fewer workers needed at one end of the spectrum, and not enough workers at the other.
I think it is possible to argue for population control—and even natural, not imposed, decrease—at the same time arguing for elevating the status of work on any job that society deems worthy of performing to the level of general security and satisfaction with life. The fast-food worker should feel no less confident about their housing and healthcare, and the welfare of their children, as they get on in years, than the doctor, politician, or industrialist. We can reinvest in a new green infrastructure with good union jobs, while reinventing ourselves as a culture that values both essential production and leisure time in equal measure for all. And we’ll have no need to kill anyone off.
Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic.