The Cover Story and the Wakeup Call

You know the cover story: We have the best system in the world — the best economy, healthcare, government, and so on — but even the best system can’t fight off this foreign virus-invader in an instant. Trust your leaders and all will be well.

By now you also know the truth: the publicly funded machine that channels our commonwealth into the pockets of the one percent is unable to muster even a simulacrum of compassion in response to a rapidly mutating global pandemic. It is breaking under its own weight. But since it was created to do one thing — extract, consume, profit, rinse, repeat — it follows its prime directive even as bodies drop, as ordinary people sacrifice their lives to help, as people cry out for their parents and children, as they are answered with lies.

Mike Davis has an incredibly good essay in Jacobin. The bottom line: the pandemic has exposed the end of the late-capitalist era, throwing into high relief the urgent necessity that we — who vastly outnumber its operatives — take the reins of power:

[C]apitalist globalization now appears to be biologically unsustainable in the absence of a truly international public health infrastructure. But such an infrastructure will never exist until peoples’ movements break the power of Big Pharma and for-profit health care.

We who grew up in the post-WWII U.S. were expected to pledge allegiance to the vilification of share-the-wealth, popular control of the economy, equity-based economic philosophy. We were fed capitalist myths in school, on TV, even in cartoons. And until recently, what many of us obligingly lapped up trickled down to form the cover story for subsequent generations. The tropes of the Red Scare still echo through our national discourse, which repeats a simple tale of freedom (“Let the wisdom of the market work unfettered!”) versus Soviet-style state control. So many who internalized this ideology now find it nearly impossible (if they try at all) to see through the cover story to the truth.

In this cartoon of political discourse, the basic principles of social democracy go unmentioned. We need to be mentioning them all the time now, everywhere.

Try this on for size: there are social and public goods and private goods. Public goods are needed by all and ought to benefit all: air, water, the environment, education, healthcare, food safety and food justice, criminal justice, networks of communication, the right to culture. In a true social democracy, these public goods are nurtured and operated by the public sector at a fraction of the cost of operating them as private, profit-driven goods. And a robust economy can flourish via markets for all the private goods we choose to make and consume, creating jobs — and yes, profit — proportional to need and demand, rather than grotesque profit centers for CEOs who make a thousand times the salary of a worker in their companies and rent-seekers who devise new ways to heap up wealth without actually working.

I’m not an ideologue, not an anything-IST. I need to say this often because loyalty to an ideology is a type of dangerous self-hobbling, a mental tying-one-hand-behind-one’s back. Instead of enabling us to see clearly to the heart of what matters most, it interposes a grid of assumptions between ourselves and the world, distorting what the ideologically unencumbered would otherwise see clearly.

So while I’m not a capitalIST, I understand that markets are intrinsic to human culture, that trade is a part of every social system since the ancient people of the coast traded fish for fruit or meat with their neighbors over the inland hills. And while I’m not a communIST, pledging allegiance to a centralized state as the best apparatus to manufacture and distribute all goods and services, I understand that we can no longer sustain a social order based on draining the commonwealth for private profit.

This is not a case of a good system marred by a few greedy and powerful people, a few bad apples. It’s a poisoned orchard, a system doing what it was created to do. The foundation for Trump’s response to the pandemic was reinforced beginning in the 1970s by powerful profit-seekers alarmed at the expanding democracy of the period, who systematically set out to prepare every sector of the society to become an arm of capitalist globalization. (I wrote about this several times a few years ago to draw attention to the film Heist: Who Stole The American Dream, which lays out the history very clearly. (See “Fifty Years After” and “The Idiocy of The System: A Cultural Lens.”)

If this sounds like a conspiracy theory to you, think again. In a conspiracy theory, hidden forces work invisibly to control us, secretly bending the world to their will. But this system operates openly, increasingly without shame, without even troubling to hide. Case in point: the Texas Lt. Governor who said elders should gladly sacrifice themselves for “the economy,” meaning those who profit from suffering.

In a system of capitalist globalization, war, disease, and disaster are profit-centers. Prisons are profit-centers. Urgently needed drugs and medical equipment are profit-centers.

On Friday, the despicable Jared Kushner (who in the nightmare we see when the cover story’s veil is pulled away is entrusted with essential aspects of pandemic response), claimed that the National Strategic Stockpile of medical supplies and equipment is “supposed to be our stockpile. It’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use.” If you think that “our” means the American people, think again. Kushner is reflecting the shared belief in the current administration that our commonwealth as a whole is a profit center for the lucky occupants of the White House and their friends. Kushner’s friends will be making money on that stockpile, I have no doubt.

Before Kushner spoke, the Department of Health and Human Services website said this:

“Strategic National Stockpile is the nation’s largest supply of life-saving pharmaceuticals and medical supplies for use in a public health emergency severe enough to cause local supplies to run out…. When state, local, tribal, and territorial responders request federal assistance to support their response efforts, the stockpile ensures that the right medicines and supplies get to those who need them most during an emergency.”

Within hours, it was changed to say this:

“The Strategic National Stockpile’s role is to supplement state and local supplies during public health emergencies. Many states have products stockpiled, as well. The supplies, medicines, and devices for life-saving care contained in the stockpile can be used as a short-term stopgap buffer when the immediate supply of adequate amounts of these materials may not be immediately available.”

If unchecked, these people’s conviction that they own the country — its wealth, infrastructure, our freedom — will wind to its inevitable endpoint, the death of democracy along with the deaths of millions.

There are many organizations moving to meet this challenge. Yesterday, I watched a recording of Naomi Klein and Angela Davis, along with other eloquent and passionate advocates of liberty, equality, and justice, hosted by The Rising Majority, a growing coalition that crosses issues and constituencies to spur a movement as encompassing as the challenges we face. The only place I can see to watch it now is on their Facebook page, but it may become available elsewhere.

I have my quibbles, and they are evergreen. No one even mentioned culture, despite the critical role culture-makers and culture-bearers must play in the necessary shift of awareness and action. And in the many laundry-lists of the vilified speakers offered — the appalling verbal and physical violence that has stemmed from blaming Asians for the virus, for example — no one mentioned Jews, despite the rise in antisemitic scapegoating.

But what organization or movement is perfect? #RisingMajority is just as correct as Mike Davis about the need for intersectional, international solidarity, about the need to push to greater understanding of what moves people and how we can move together. The necessary steps aren’t going to be possible if the standard is perfection, but they can work if the people joining in coalition are open to learning from each other.

In a few days, on Zoom, my husband and will celebrate a Passover Seder with friends, in full awareness of the irony of commemorating liberation from slavery in a plague-ridden land while we experience a plague year in a society which must at last break its enslavement to the one percent. May all who are hungry come and eat! May all who are slumbering awaken to the truth behind the cover story! May all look forward to a time of well-being and safety, grounded in justice, equity, and love mobilized by millions.

Leroy Carr, “How Long Blues.”

Writer, painter, speaker, consultant activist. Learn more about arlenegoldbard.com.

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