The need to resist is stronger than ever. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The Coronavirus Crisis Is Disaster Capitalism In Action. Here’s How the Left Can Respond.

Naomi Klein, Astra Taylor and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor offer strategies for resistance and collective action in a time of social distancing.

BY Amber Colón Núñez

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The real pandemic here is capitalism.

On Thursday, over 14,000 viewers from across the globe tuned into an online teach-in featuring left-wing activists and authors Naomi Klein, Astra Taylor and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor who discussed how to pull the plug on disaster capitalism in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, Klein coined the term ‘disaster capitalism’ which she describes as “the way private industries spring up to directly profit from large-scale crises.” Of the latest corporate bailout in the coronavirus bill, Klein said in her remarks: “The crises are actual. But we are seeing a very selective use of emergency measures, of the utilization and the instrumentalization and the weaponization of states of emergency to offload risks onto individual workers and families, while the people who are already most cushioned are getting these no-strings-attached bailouts.” 

Writer and organizer Astra Taylor directed last year’s documentary film What Is Democracy? and is the author of the corresponding book Democracy May Not Exist, but We'll Miss It When It's Gone. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, is the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective.

“We’re used to hosting in-person events,” said Anthony Arnove of Haymarket Books, who acted as facilitator of the discussion. Along with Haymarket, the event was co-sponsored by the Debt Collective, The Leap and the Democratic Socialists of America.

The speakers were surprised at the number of viewers that tuned in to hear the teach-in. “To put this in perspective, Joe Biden had just under 3,000 people tune into his happy hour yesterday,” Klein said. Her dog, Smoke, made an appearance early on in the call. “It’s really hard to pretend my home is a workplace.”

Among the issues discussed were the tendency of U.S. governments to exploit disasters and crises, how to organize while social distancing, and the need to uplift frontline workers who don’t have the luxury of working from home or receiving paid time off. Some selections of their remarks are included below.

Naomi Klein:

I am very happy to hear that we have people turning in from around the world because it is a global crisis, and unfortunately we have leaders around the world who are swapping worst practices. [U.S. President] Trump, Bolsnaro, [president of Brazil], and Modi, [president of India] and so many others are looking at the way each is exploiting the crisis.

As some of you know, I have been writing about how traumatic disasters are systemically harnessed by elites in order to push through the “the ideas that are lying around.” Milton Friedman wrote, “Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

The crises are actual. But we are seeing a very selective use of emergency measures, of the utilization and the instrumentalization and the weaponization of states of emergency to offload risks onto individual workers and families, while the people who are already most cushioned are getting these no-strings-attached bailouts.

Our daily caloric intake is being delivered to us by Amazon, DoorDash. All of these gig employees and the people who are doing the work are incredibly vulnerable. We are getting a glimpse of the world that Silicon Valley would like to deliver to us and it isn't the way we want to live. We don't want our social lives to be mine-able, survey-able. This is the future that Silicon Valley has in store for us. I think we should in a sense see this as an opportunity to refuse that future in the way that we come out of this crisis. People are using social media but we cannot be reliant on them for the ways in which we will organize true resistance, because the attacks will come and we have to be ready for that.

We can see the grotesque economic divisions widening further. We are trying to deal with the impacts of this pandemic within the fallout, within the rubble of the austerity policies of the foreclosure crisis, and the decimation of labor standards that grew out of the last crisis. How hard it is for southern Europe. We cannot forget that southern Europe was ground zero for the 2008 financial crisis. Is it any surprise that those hospitals, despite having public healthcare, that those hospitals are ill-equipped?

Many people talked about what happened in Puerto Rico as an unveiling of what was already there, of the existing crisis. We have to remember that normal was a crisis. Is it normal that Australia was on fire? California? Is it normal that their electricity was cut off?

Normal is deadly. We don’t need to stimulate the economy. We need to build an economy that is based on protecting life.

Now people who have been blind to that are turning on their TV watching Fox News saying “maybe we should sacrifice your grandparents,” and they’re going, “what?

What we need is rescue right now. What we need immediately is, “you do not pay the rent this month.” We need recovery for the workers. These are the core principles of a just recovery for workers, not the corporations.

Maybe it’s because we are so physically divided that we are determined to reach out to each other. I really see that happening in a lot of really exciting initiatives out there.

The labor of care is so denigrated, devalued and trashed. We don’t want to admit we are interdependent, we never want to admit our success is not only our own. Our interdependency is being made visible for better or worse. There needs to be a grounding of whatever is next and valuing of the labor of care.

Astra Taylor:

The real pandemic here is capitalism. An unfathomable amount of people are going to die, deaths that can be prevented, because they do not have adequate heal care. It’s not a question of paying for things, it’s a question of who’s going to profit.

On a state level, on a city level, internationally, we’re seeing all kinds of things happening: evictions have been halted, prisoners let out, transit made free. Meals are being distributed, and workers are finally getting paid time off and sick leave. There have been protests in Chile. In Uganda, rents aren’t being collected. Other places around the world understand that it’s not the economy that needs to be saved. It's the economy that’s killing us right now.

In 2008, there was a massive economic crisis caused by people basically playing with these mortgages and in the years since they’ve basically just been rewarded for their bad behavior. They’ve pushed money out the door to their shareholders and enriched themselves and poor people have just become more vulnerable.

The majority of Americans are in debt. We don’t have any wealth. Our debts are other people’s assets that they buy and sell and trade and profit from. People literally have less than nothing. People are not going to be able to pay rent and people should feel no shame about that, they should feel outraged.

There’s going be a moment where this goes from bad to worse. People are going to go into medical debt. These debts are immoral. Nobody should have to go into debt because they’re sick. Debtors need to collectively come together and demand higher wages and public goods.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor:

The challenges that we face are more than just physical distance. I think that we have to figure out as a left how to bridge some of the things that have constrained the capability of our social movements thus far. I think some of the issues tied into that are, ‘How do we work towards a common view of the challenges and problems that we face? How do we work towards our connection as ordinary people? How do we build on the connection and solidarity between the 99% that puts us in a situation where protests are not just viable, but effective?’ I think that this is a challenge. It's been a challenge when so much of the struggles of people are hidden from our society more generally.

There are times, typically in the midst of a crisis, when the true character of our society reveals itself and the brutality of our social hierarchy is laid bare.

In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath ravaged the Gulf Coast, it too provided a look into the darkness of U.S. inequality. As actor Danny Glover said at the time, “When the hurricane struck the Gulf and the floodwaters rose and tore through New Orleans, plunging its remaining population into a carnival of misery, it did not turn the region into a Third World country, as it has been disparagingly implied in the media—it revealed one. It revealed the disaster within the disaster. Grueling poverty rose to the surface like a bruise to our skin.”

If Katrina exposed the racism and inequality of the American South and the Gulf Coast in particular, the coronavirus crisis shows that these overlapping issues of class, race, inequality and oppression are not regional afflictions but are endemic to American society. The news asks, “how could this be?” about all of the articles that they are now being shared about inequality in the U.S.

These are problems of American capitalism. You do not have a society with 607 billionaires, fully 200 more billionaires than there were in 2010, without having crushing poverty. There are 38 million people living in poverty in the U.S. because of 600 billionaires. They are wealthy because of low wages. They are wealthy because of the absence of sick days. They are wealthy because of homelessness. They are wealthy because of foreclosures. They are wealthy because of evictions. Some are wealthy and will become even wealthier because of coronavirus.

It is important to name the problem, because people will tell us that markets can work. That we can fix the problems with American society without radical change. But there has never been a single moment in the history of this country where capitalism has not created enormous misery and oppression for tens of millions of ordinary people.

This is a country that is founded on the genocide of its native population, that relied on enslaved labor, working that land to generate enormous, unprecedented wealth, that then relied upon the oppression of successive waves of migrant labor to multiply that wealth a million times over. And even in the so-called “Golden Age” of U.S. capitalism in the 1940s and 50s—it came with the exclusion of black workers and women.

In fact, there has been no Golden Age of American capitalism. It is an unbroken cycle of extraction, poverty, racism, sexism, oppression, exploitation and struggle. Part of the mythology of American exceptionalism and the idea that this is the most just place on Earth, is the accompanying idea that it is a society that is inherently progressive, always improving and moving forward. In reality, the only forward movement has come through struggle.

In these moments that create opportunity for the forces of reaction, there are also opportunities for ordinary people to transform these conditions in ways that benefit the mass of humanity. The scale of the coronavirus crisis is so profound that there is now also 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. The class-driven hierarchy of our society will encourage the spread of this vicious virus unless dramatic, previously unthinkable solutions are immediately put on the table.

As Bernie Sanders has counseled, “We must think in unprecedented ways.” This includes universal healthcare and indefinite moratorium on evictions and foreclosures. The cancelation of student loan debt. A universal basic income. These are the most immediate solutions that can staunch the immediate crisis of deprivation.

We can never go back to the conversations of “how can we pay for it.” How can we not?


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Amber Colón Núñez is a winter 2020 editorial intern for In These Times.

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