Back to the Future: America After Covid-19

by J. Richard Marra

A few days back, while on Facebook, I asked a psychoanalyst friend what he thought folks should do to reduce anxiety during this present unpleasantness. Avoiding talk of Ids and Egos, he simply suggested that people stay informed and safe; and not spend a lot of time with pandemic news coverage. After enduring the endless babble of corporate coverage myself, I decided to accept some prudent advice. 

For now, I am comfortable waiting it out, watching American Capital respond to an unprecedented shaking of its foundations. What I see is frightening and astonishing. It is frightening in the stealth and savage viciousness that governs its treatment of humanity during this crisis. Its capacity to maintain the allegiance of millions who struggle under its brutal and consuming presence is astonishing. At this writing, a Hill-HarrisX poll from May 12 indicates that neofascist Donald Trump’s approval rating was 51% among registered voters.

When Tina Phillips, Editor of Everyday Socialist, asked me to write a piece on Covid-19, I was happy to help. Yet, I was uncertain about which corruption of the Covid-19 virus I might focus on. Much is written about the virus itself, the pandemic and its effects, its origins (including capitalist ones), the failed responses of world leaders like Donald Trump, and inequality in testing and treatment. While I struggle to find something to share that would be helpful, yet not yawn inspiring; I can at least celebrate the rich series of Covid-19 articles being posted here on Everyday Socialism. These are the personal stories of fellow workers as they confront a frightening and vivid threat. Essential healthcare and social workers pleading for needed supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE), while their workloads dry up due to contagion fears. The elderly in assisted living facilities isolated from their families, with no end in sight. Unemployment soaring. Working parents struggle to find daycare for their children. Those without health insurance, with student loans, or with mortgages worry over the uncertainties of a lifelong and debilitating debt.

While some people die, others defy the danger. They tempt the deadly virus, while enjoying the well-funded revelry of an armed protest against social distancing. These fighters for the freedom to sacrifice themselves to a deadly disease, and the right to sacrifice you as well; get their prescriptions from the Leader of the most powerful nation on the planet. It is an elixir of science denial, humbug, self-congratulation, inanity, lies, lies, and more lies; intended to entice a few to harm the many. To this potion is added the intoxicants of intolerance, fear, patriarchy, salaciousness, and fascist idol worship.

The result, as expected, is catastrophe. Perhaps Trump feels, “Apres mois, le deluge” – “After me, the Flood!” But for the rest of us, the tsunami is more than upon us. His unique ineptitude and profligate narcissism swamps the imagination. Thousands will die directly due to Donald Trump’s incompetence. Yet, he lives; and deeply in the needs and aspirations of millions of Americans who voted for him in 2016.

As I watch, Capital is writhing in a metamorphosis brought on by growing environmental, social, and economic threats. It wrenches and twists its neoliberalism in order to reinvent itself in the face of the growing wrath of the workers it has brutalized since the glory days of Ronald Reagan. Well before the advent of Covid-19, and still stinging from the 2008 meltdown, Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild appreciated the challenge to neoliberalism, as she explained to Chinese business leaders in 2013.

“At the moment, that faith and confidence is under siege in America… As business people, we have a pragmatic reason to get it right for everyone – so that the government does not intervene in unproductive ways with business… I think that it is imperative for us to restore faith in capitalism and in free markets.”

Lady Rothschild’s complaint might be addressed by the burgeoning “inclusive capitalism” that she supports, along with Bill Clinton and junk-bond scam artist Michael Milken. As David Hunt explains:

“Since the Global Financial Crisis, there has been a growing focus on the need for a more inclusive capitalism, driven in part by increasing inequality of income and wealth over the last 25 years. Simply put, inclusive capitalism is a refutation of the Milton Friedman view that maximizing shareholder returns should be a company’s only goal. Instead, proponents of a more inclusive model argue that the interests of employees, communities, clients, and other stakeholders should be explicitly addressed in a company’s purpose.” [my bold]

Inclusive capitalism intends to provide more value to “stakeholders” (including customers and investors) by enhancing the appeal of a product through a marketing campaign that portrays the company as both kindly and socially responsible.  Already, a reimagined, socially inclusive neoliberalism responds to their customers’ suffering during the pandemic. General Motors is offering a 60-month 0% annual percentage rate (APR) on gas-guzzling SUVs (75 months for preferred customers). Pfizer commercials celebrate its quest to develop a Covid-19 vaccine. Abigail P. Johnson, Fidelity’s Chairman and CEO, comforts fidgety customers by reminding them that 

“…Fidelity has lived by a core value– to always act in the best interest of our customers. This lasting value guides us during this challenging time. As the coronavirus (COVID-19) and the related market volatility continue to evolve, I want you to know everyone at Fidelity is completely committed to helping you during this unprecedented time. Serving our customers and supporting our associates who help you are our top priorities.”

While I appreciate being appreciated, I am concerned about the business community’s, and conveniently Trump supporters’, urgent pleas to get back to “normal.” This is because I remember “normal:” climate change, privatized (and therefore costly and uneven) healthcare, burgeoning prescription costs, an inflated and unstable stock market, along with deep weaknesses in employment, economic inequality, unmanageable personal debt, and worker insecurity. A newly normalized “normal” will bring with it a massive bailout of the capitalist class, intensified calls for privatizing the public commons (e.g. the United States Postal Service, social security, public education), more tax breaks for the wealthy, and more cuts in general welfare programs.

One lesson Covid-19 offers to America involves the manifest fragility and self-destructiveness of the nation’s economic and social system. Given this, and remembering Lady de Rothschild, getting back to normal won’t cut it anymore. From deforestation, to climate change, to health and safety regulations, to the exploitation of increasingly remote natural resources, to “just-in-time” public health planning, to insufficient testing and treatment facilities: Each thread intersects with others in novel ways with the arrival of Covid-19. Together, they reveal the need for deep systemic remedies. 

Hopefully, enough Americans will become intolerant of Donald Trump’s special capacity to bungle, misunderstand, and bully; that they remove him from the Oval Office. If this happens, Joe Biden will bring America back to a neoliberal normalcy, one refreshingly wrapped in his signature “Nice Guy” persona. As Frank Bruni, for The New York Times, reports, one Biden supporter

“…showed up to hear Biden in Waukee and said that she’d caucus for him on Monday night. ‘Trump has empowered people to be hateful,’ she told me, adding that the answer to that is a leader who’s ‘decent, kind and loving.’ Biden checks those boxes for her. Biden makes her feel good about things.”

Regardless of the outcome of the election, I personally wish that the American working class, after enduring four years of a corrupt and debilitating neofascism, finds the fortitude to agitate against Wall Street excess, and for governance that serves people before profit, securing justice and freedom for all citizens. If “Apres Trump,” comes Joe Biden, then American workers will enjoy a rebranded inclusive capitalism, which once again promises to rescue us from itself. But, no one should be fooled: We all know what capitalism brings.

It will be interesting to watch how it goes this time.

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