One opportunity for positive change opened by the terrible crisis we are in with COVID-19 is that people are beginning to question some fundamental beliefs about how society works. There is a chance we can shatter some of the toxic narratives that justify, and lend support to, the brutal systems of inequality, racism, and environmental devastation that are wreaking havoc on our lives. Those toxic narratives have been spreading for the past few hundred years in Western societies, and from them to the rest of the world. They gained extra traction with the neo-liberal revolution of Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s. Those narratives claim that the wealthy create the things we need to live well, that the poor take more than they give, and that those who pursue naked self-interest are doing good for us all.
Many of us have been fighting an uphill battle against those narratives for years. We have been arguing that labor creates wealth, that pursuing self-interest without regard for its impact on others is antisocial, and that we need to attend to the health of the social and ecological matrices that make our lives possible. COVID-19 has shown how crucial to our survival farmworkers, bus drivers, and janitors are. It has shown how better off societies are that have strong systems of public health. And it has shown the myriad ways that we are all interdependent for our survival. We need to take the opportunity that has been opened by the present crisis to amplify those stories in order to clear the way for building societies that work for us all. Now is the time to shift our view of who does the work necessary for our survival, why we need to invest in public goods, and the importance of the fabric of interdependencies in which all live. Now is a time for solidarity, public goods and attention to how we are all in this together.
Essential Workers vs the Predatory Elite
As economies all around the world shut down to get people to isolate, it became clear that some people would still need to work in order for us to survive. Those essential workers were the health care workers, the farm workers, the bus drivers, and the janitors. Those people do the jobs that our survival depends on. How did it come to be that much of that essential work is stigmatized, paid low wages, and comes with few or no benefits? In his book Status Anxiety, Alan De Botton argues that in the Western world for two millennia there were three main stories people told about wealth and poverty, which made it not shameful to be poor. One was the medieval view that peasants provided the basic needs of society and thus, it was honorable to be poor. The second was a Christian notion that all are beloved by God and poverty is neither shameful nor honorable. The third story was developed by thinkers such as Rousseau and Marx, and it claimed that the wealthy gained their riches through exploitation and robbery, and thus it was immoral to be wealthy.
This set of stories began to be replaced in the period of the industrial revolution. The new stories argued that the rich are the ones responsible for creating wealth; that wealth is a sign that one is favored by god and working hard in godly ways; and finally, that society is a meritocracy, so one’s wealth or poverty is a result of one’s own virtues. These stories are all with us in the present moment, each favored by different people and each emerging in different contexts. COVID-19 allows that older set of more positive narratives to reemerge. de Botton argues that the pro-wealthy set of stories set us up for deep feelings of status anxiety, as our success as a person, whether we are seen as good or bad, by others, becomes infected with beliefs that being wealthy and showing that wealth are virtues.
In the current world, almost everywhere, there is deep shame in poverty. Belief in meritocracy, the idea that society places people in a hierarchy based on their talent and drive, is widespread. The structural forces that deny Black people in the US the ability to buy houses, which leave huge parts of the planet deprived of investment capital, which allocate resources based on money and allow those with a lot to pass a lot on to their children, which give wildly different access to education to people of different classes and races, all show our world to be significantly less meritocratic them dominant narratives would have it. Living as a poor person under a meritocratic ideology is devastating for those people’s sense of self, and those narratives have devastating implications for social policy.
Just a few short years ago, tech billionaires were seen in mainstream culture as our primary creators of wealth and well-being. They, and not the people who work for them were seen as the ones making the things we need to live well. More recently some tech billionaires, such Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg are coming to be seen as having used manipulative forms of monopoly power to strangle out competitors and thus are seen by many as more predatory than productive, others are still seen as messiahs.
Some people see Elon Musk as a visionary because he is investing in the new green economy. And yet he has taken billions of dollars in public subsidies to create electric cars that use plugs that cannot be shared with other cars. Recently, he threatened local health officials with a lawsuit when they wouldn’t let him put workers back into factories where there was no plan in place to keep them safe. He called that fascism, because in the fantasy world where he lives, tech entrepreneurs are wealth creators, and their freedom to use their capital to shape society is an unmitigated good.
Bill Gates became wealthy by trying to monopolize a good invention. He is now using his tremendous wealth to wield unaccountable power. Gates has said that he would rather not go into politics, because as a billionaire philanthropist he can do what he thinks is right for society without being answerable to anyone. And so he has invested tremendous money into policy areas, such as education, where his ideas go against what most humanistic educators think are the right directions. And his interventions often lead to more profit for his business.
As we build our way out of the COVID-19 crisis, we need to amplify the narratives that are emerging about who the real heroes are in our society. We need to grab the moment we are in to argue for a new set of narratives about the meaning of wealth and poverty, and use that to solve the multiple crises we are experiencing. The labor of essential workers is what creates wealth in society. If people believed in that, then it would be easier to build support for policies such as taxing the wealthy, raising the minimum wage, eliminating tipped wages, and expanding labor law to cover farm and domestic workers. Doing those things would go a long way in treating the heroes of this moment as the heroes we say they are.
The need for Robust Public Goods
COVID-19 has also helped shatter the myth that we are better off when resources go to the private sector and that public goods are a waste of money. Our private profit driven medical system has proven to be one of the core drivers of the disastrous response in the US to the pandemic.
Even California, a hub of innovative biotech companies, many of which are working on cures, vaccines, and tests, has not been able to roll out a decent system of testing and contact tracing. This is not because the money and the biomedical know-how don’t exist in the state. They do. But ever since Proposition 13 was passed in 1978, which allowed commercial and private property taxes to remain absurdly low, and which required a 2/3 majority to raise taxes, California has had an impoverished public sector. As the title of one movie suggests, our schools went “From First to Worst.” California is one of the richest places in the world, but there’s almost no money in the public sphere because our tax rates on corporations and the wealthy are too low.
When the pandemic hit, our public health labs were so underfunded that tests piled up on the floors of private testing companies as well as public health labs. The biotech companies are all competing for a way to profit from the pandemic and there is little capacity at the state level to coordinate the development, manufacture, and deployment of tests.
The California town of El Centro has an 80% Latinx population and a high percentage of people living in poverty. People who become infected with COVID-19 there have no option but to go home to families living in cramped quarters, and have to go back to work when they are sick. Employers cram people together on production lines with no protection, hide the reality of COVID-19 cases from employees, and fire people who take time off because they are sick.
Compare that with the Indian state of Kerala, which like most of India, has very little money to invest in public health or anything else. But public health has been a priority of the left-wing government there for years. And so, when the pandemic hit, every small village had a local clinic. People are aggressively tested, and given income support, and places to go to isolate themselves, where they receive food, shelter, and health care. Kerala is one of the global bright spots for containing COVID-19. And El Centro, California has been one of the worst.
We are only as well off as the worst off among us. Our public health systems and other social safety nets provide the systems we need to keep everyone safe. When we live with solidarity as a strong value, we all do better when it comes to pandemics, and when it comes to other problems that arise in our social matrix, such as climate change. There are many policy options that can be pursued when people believe in the importance of public goods. In California there is a ballot initiative for November 2020 which will roll back the commercial property tax limits set by Prop 13. Medicare for all would be another policy option. So is mandatory sick leave.
WITT vs YOYO
We are at a crossroads in the history of our country. For the past forty years, since the dawn of the Reagan revolution, the view that we are all on our own has been rising and the notion that we need to work together for common good has been under attack. The economist Jared Bernstein calls these two approaches to society WITT (we are in this together) and YOYO (you are on your own). Many people have pointed out that the same system of exploitation and dehumanization that has made Black lives expendable, has also put profit over environmental sustainability, and has also led to the public health disaster we are mired in with no clear way out.
At the beginning of the pandemic there was one meme that stood out for me:
Your grandparents sacrificed for the nation in World War II by going to war, growing their own vegetables, and recycling metal. You are being asked to wear a mask, wash your hands, and sit on the couch watching Netflix, and you are saying it is too much.
While an older conservative movement that believed in sacrifice for the nation, the present conservative movement is more single mindedly committed to the ideology of YOYO- you are on your own. Any calls for solidarity are seen as calls for the bogeyman of socialism.
People who see the world in terms of YOYO can’t understand how it is that the government can force us to put something on our faces. They see themselves as fundamentally individual and things that call out our interconnectedness seem like impositions. And yet, just as my right to independence does not allow me to punch you in the nose, so should it not allow me to breathe a deadly virus into your face. The requirement to wear masks only seems like government overreach to people who live in the fantasy world that we are fundamentally disconnected from one another, and who see calls on our connections as violations of the normal state of affairs of independence. That independence is one of the most pernicious illusions of pro-capitalist thinking. The reality is that we are all connected by systems of food production and distribution, the rules and social norms that regulate our behavior, and our relationships to the natural world.
There is nothing like a deadly virus to show how we are interconnected, how we are better off when we act with solidarity, and how we are all in this together (WITT). Now is an excellent time for those of us who want to build a world that works for all people, and for the natural systems that make human life possible, to radically shift the stories we tell about how society works, about who matters, and about the importance of investing in the health of our shared social fabric. We need to value the labor of those who do the things needed for our survival. We need to advocate for investment in public goods. We need to talk about the ways that we are all in this together. We need to advance notions of solidarity. We need to make visible the fabric of interdependence so that we can attend to building the things that strengthen that fabric.
Teaser photo credit: By Scott Ehardt – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63102