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

Amber Colón Núñez

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

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?