This is part two of a five-part essay that highlights lessons from the coronavirus pandemic which could advance the fight for a Green New Deal. Part one (published on Resilience.org here) argues that money is not scarce. Part two argues that control of government policy by wealthy elites tends to produce unnecessary suffering and inadequate responses to major crises. Part three argues that plutocracy is incompatible with serious climate action. Part four explores how the public can easily draw very different conclusions and argues that the climate movement must undertake mass education to ensure these lessons are learned. Part five outlines a broad curriculum containing these lessons and many more.
Lesson 2: Plutocracy’s Deadly Cruelty
Many Americans recognize that their government does not represent them. Political scientists have shown that we live in a vastly unequal society where the wealthiest individuals and large corporations control not only the economy, but the political system as well. When the policy preferences of the superrich diverge from the rest of the population, those are the policies typically implemented. Though it possesses some essential elements of a democracy, the US political system often operates as a form of plutocracy. However, discussions of politics tend to explore the surface phenomenon of Democratic and Republican politicians’ approaches to social issues like the pandemic. Seldom does the public hear serious discussion about how political decisions reflect the dynamics of a profit-maximizing economy and the priorities of the wealthy elites that control both parties.
Many crises facing society can be explained simply by reference to the economic goal of profit maximization. When greed is an economy’s central organizing principle, it means that financial self-interest is pursued even at the expense of diverse public interests. That principle alone is sufficient to cause extreme harm. Think of a pharmaceutical industry that pushes the sale of powerful drugs which produce an epidemic of addiction and broken families. Or a finance industry that peddles profitable subprime loans and inflates a housing bubble that obliterates the homes and wealth of millions when it bursts. Or a fossil fuel industry that obscures science and promotes carbon-intensive development until all life on the planet is threatened by climate breakdown. Business is a force that frequently undermines the well-being of the population and is now poised to destroy society itself.
These dynamics become entrenched because profits flow incredibly unequally, mainly to major corporate shareholders and executives. With wealth concentrated into the hands of this elite minority, they become society’s ruling class. They dominate the landscape of campaign finance and political spending in general, installing government officials who share their worldview and advance their interests. This makes it extremely difficult to create a new economy that prioritizes public well-being. The population is also forced to endure decisions arising from the ideological characteristics of the most powerful elites and those in government who serve them: different levels of inclination towards authoritarianism, hostility to government action in the public interest, aggression towards other countries, religious fanaticism, disregard for the poor, disrespect for facts, and on and on. At the least, this class will share an interest in maintaining social conditions favorable to keeping it in control. That means acting to ensure the public lacks the ability or desire to create a democratic society where decision-making reflects the will of the people.
The inevitability of unnecessary suffering
The devastation wrought by the pandemic is not just a matter of the strength of the virus but the background social conditions in which most people live. Those conditions are in large part a reflection of elite priorities. Decisions made by the wealthy minority in power to treat money like it is scarce and constrain government spending, siphon society’s wealth into their own pockets, and dismantle vital public institutions set the stage for a catastrophe.
One major background condition is our healthcare system. As for-profit institutions, health insurance corporations maximize earnings by denying people the care they need. In the 20th century, US elites were able to fend off moves towards government-run healthcare systems that made public health a priority in Canada and many European countries by branding it as a nightmarish Communist takeover. Though such propaganda is still used, today single-payer healthcare is one of many progressive priorities deemed impossible due to “scarce money.” In the recent Democratic presidential primaries, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were asked again and again by debate moderators and the other candidates how universal healthcare could possibly be afforded. Efforts to make Medicare for All seem totally unworkable have succeeded to this point. The result is the continuation of a patchwork healthcare system that the poorest households pay more than one-third of their income for but often cannot use, and the development of numerous preventable health conditions in the population that increase the deadliness of coronavirus. And with health insurance tied to private employment, millions thrown out of work also lost whatever access to healthcare they had.
The state of the average household’s finances is another major background condition. The neoliberal legacy of the past 40 years is widespread financial insecurity. One key reason is a bipartisan commitment to withering union power. While Republican administrations have been enthusiastic in their attacks on worker organizations, Democrats helped into office by union support have generally left them to die thereafter. Ceaseless campaigns against unions by businesses and government since 1980 shrank their membership rate from 20% to 10%, significantly limiting the public’s means of fighting for wage gains. That’s why, despite increasing worker productivity, inflation-adjusted wages for most people are essentially the same as they were in 1980. The cost of living since then has, of course, increased dramatically. This is how we became a precarious society in which around 40% of workers struggle to afford an unexpected $400 expense and about 30% cannot even entirely cover monthly bills. The income reductions brought on by pandemic-driven economic shutdowns have caused excessive hardship for countless households already living paycheck-to-paycheck.
While the destruction of unions helped usher many families to edge of a financial cliff, the “threat of the deficit” ensured there would be little social safety net to catch them if they fell. History shows that both political parties have engaged in an elegant deficit dance where they repeatedly call government deficits a plague on future generations but Republicans reliably increase them and Democrats reliably cut them. This matters for everyday people because the supposed importance of the deficits themselves and the actions taken to “deal with them” helped create an extremely precarious economy for workers.
The deficits were largely generated by repeated tax cuts for the wealthy, which have helped the 400 richest Americans triple their wealth since the early 1980s, and by eye-popping spending on foreign invasions with no end in sight. The debt produced by these lost tax revenues and wars then gave politicians an excuse to not invest in vital government programs or to cut them outright, warning the public as Bill Clinton did that “Unless we have the courage to start building our future and stop borrowing from it . . . we will be condemning our children and our children’s children to a lesser life than we enjoy.” These cuts, at least for Republicans, may have been the primary goal of the deficit dance. Our social safety net, now so desperately needed, is deeply inadequate due to the actions of both parties. The public’s vulnerability was a bipartisan achievement—a natural result of plutocratic governance.
It was against this backdrop that coronavirus hit. Would the pattern of public deprivation continue in the face of a growing plague? Consider things from an elite perspective. A deadly virus seemed to be spreading out of control. A study by Imperial College London found that over two million people in the US would die if no action was taken, forcing the government to consider drastic measures. The economy needed to be shut down to have any chance of containing the outbreak, and clearly working people required some level of relief. Many were going to lose their jobs, but unemployment insurance typically replaces only 40% of a worker’s paycheck. Some senators opposed expanded unemployment relief, but letting incomes fall so dramatically in an economy reliant on consumer spending would be guaranteed to worsen the coming recession and damage profitability long into the future. Current and former Federal Reserve officials and research by JPMorgan Chase would later support this perspective.
The passage of the major coronavirus relief bill in March 2020 provided a crucial upgrade to our social safety net but was palatable to those running the economy. First, it authorized trillions in bailout funds for major industries. Second, the safety net expansion was temporary. The $1,200 payment to individuals was a one-time benefit, and the $600 weekly supplement to unemployment insurance (aiming to cover 100% of most workers’ lost paychecks) would only be available as long as the shutdown continued. Even then, the expanded relief for the unemployed came with an expiration date in late July, requiring congressional renewal. Elites needed to walk a fine line in responding to the pandemic, because their interests depend on a “Goldilocks” bailout for the public: neither too low nor too high. The main risks that this crisis presents to average citizens are the disease itself and its impact on livelihoods. But the primary threats for elites are shrinking profits and the public realizing that the government could actually afford to guarantee its well-being. With the economy brought to a standstill, elite priorities—not public interests—would of course determine the next steps.
A forced march into a plague that should not have surprised us
As the virus spread and deaths mounted, it must be emphasized how straightforward the federal government’s responsibilities were. The fundamental issue to address was the pandemic itself. The second issue was to manage the consequences of the economic shutdown to ensure it didn’t destroy the lives of working people. To reasonable observers, there seemed to be two tasks: first, set up nationwide testing, contact tracing, and targeted isolation of those affected so that the virus could eventually be contained. Second, extend the shutdown long enough to do so, providing essential workers with the personal protective equipment needed to keep them safe and all non-essential workers with the continued funding they need to stay home and survive.
As we now know, elites saw another option. It soon became clear that the Trump administration would offer no serious support for setting up the targeted testing and tracing measures needed to allow for a somewhat safe reopening of the economy. It would fall to individual states to establish them, but would those in power agree to keep businesses closed and the public well-provisioned at home until they were? Observers may have thought that a crisis of this magnitude would force elites to suspend their aversion to a strong social safety net. However, all businesses shared an interest in being able to quickly and easily call workers back to their jobs to attempt to get profits rolling again. Beyond that, from a class perspective, providing too much support for households could threaten the stability of elite rule.
The millions of people struggling with poverty, homelessness, and hunger before this crisis, now seeing that the government could always have helped them to fully meet their needs, might get dangerous ideas. The more clearly it is demonstrated to the people their deprivation is not inevitable—that it is a political choice—the greater the risk to our incredibly unequal social order. It could provoke popular demands to maintain this support. And when people have their basic needs met they have time to become informed about the causes of social ills and organize themselves politically. The preservation of plutocracy seemed to rely on an inadequate and very short-term public bailout. In the absence of a powerful social movement that could win greater relief, elites saw only one option: cut off government funds and force everyone back to work.
Those in power chose sickness and death for the population. There was never any prospect for an ongoing basic income to keep non-essential workers at home, and the $600 unemployment insurance supplement was reduced to $300 so that the threat of homelessness and food insecurity would compel the millions of unemployed to scramble for a job. All those who thought that decision-makers couldn’t possibly continue a commitment to narrow self-interest and hostility to significant government intervention in the face of a mortal crisis simply ignore a well-established pattern. Unnecessary suffering of the past gives way to unnecessary suffering now. The people must recognize that they were forced to march into a plague and it didn’t have to be this way.
Too many people think that the background conditions in society are not political. They take these conditions as a given and may view their own unmet needs as a purely personal failure. In reality everything is political, and we are seeing a visceral illustration that politics does matter. The intense hardship resulting from plutocracy often arises indirectly, as decision-makers cut social spending or refuse to allow sufficient spending in the first place. This indirectness obscures cause and effect for many people, and the misery and death attributable to austerity has never been broadcast on a constant feed by mainstream media. This crisis, however, is somewhat different. We are all simultaneously experiencing it. Persistent media coverage is generating widespread attention, with outcomes more clearly linked to the decisions of those in power.
Initially, the federal government’s poor response to the pandemic had set a floor of 100,000 virus deaths. With masses of people forced back to work after no serious containment effort, the death toll in January 2021 surpassed 400,000. Anti-science and anti-mask views surely contributed as well, factors that can also be traced back to elites’ longstanding campaigns to shape politics and culture in their preferred image. However, it remains clear that government inaction has directly translated into the avoidable loss of thousands upon thousands of our loved ones. A vaccine developed at a historically unprecedented pace is the only reason that the death toll may not stretch into the millions.
Some may trace the social disasters we face back to Trump, but that will not liberate us. While it’s indisputable that he made this crisis much worse than it could have been, a broader view reminds us that these deadly outcomes are ultimately the result of economic and political systems that prioritize corporate profits and concentrate power. These systems made the population vulnerable long before Trump. Before it fueled the pandemic, this vulnerability fueled his rise. He may be the cause of many avoidable deaths, but the institutions that produce a wealthy ruling class are the reason he gained power in the first place. The current order is built to cause preventable misery and respond inadequately to major crises; a serious government response to the issues we face depends on fundamental system change. That would be a crucial lesson to learn for dealing with the ongoing threats to our species’ survival.
Teaser photo credit: Teaser photo credit: Contemporary nineteenth century depiction of an acquistive and manipulative business enterprise as an all-powerful octopus. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=530376