The U.S. stands at a crossroads. In one direction lies more of what we’ve already known: repression, exploitation, and brutality. In the other, the promise of freedom, socialist equality, and racial justice.
Liberal economist Jeffrey Sachs recently wrote that as the U.S. approached 100,000 deaths from COVID-19, “six Asia-Pacific nations–Australia, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Vietnam–have just over 1,200 coronavirus deaths in a combined population almost the same as the U.S., 328 million.” Sachs might have also noted that China has four times as many people as the U.S. and has suffered 120 the number of deaths.
What accounts for the vast differences? Trump’s dismantling of public health resources, compounded by his early dismissal of the pandemic as a hoax followed by a disastrously incompetent response.
Trump has shown himself an inept leader, driven by pettiness, moral bankruptcy, and a fondness, like many of his right-wing predecessors, for eliminating public resources that could effectively address social need.
A study published this month by researchers at Columbia University found that Trump’s delay cost about 36,000 American lives.
Blaming Trump is necessary, but not enough to understand the anti-human culture of capitalism that he champions.
U.S. Cultural Exceptionalism
A recent article in Time Magazine seemed to excuse, even embraced that anti-human culture. “In a perfect infectious-disease-fighting model,” writes author Jamie Ducharme, “everybody would stay home and socialize only with their cohabitants. But the realities of human existence are messier.”
In other words, Americans know what to do; they just don’t.
Instead of sharply criticizing this self-evidently dangerous contradiction, the author added that it is “natural” to put yourself in danger even though you know what will protect you and the people you love.
Further, Ducharme seemed to be speaking for the U.S. context but projected that “natural” problem as universal: “Humans are social animals, hard-wired to crave touch and interaction.” As if living in the U.S. creates a specimen that exemplifies what it means to be human more than any of the world’s other peoples.
Many people in the U.S. struggle to imagine what it took for the people in the countries Sachs listed to prevent higher infection and mortality rates. Some believe that only repressive societies could enforce social distancing fully. Disease and death are signs of freedom in that logic.
These ideas reflect a culture of selfishness, not of democratic freedom or anything about Asian societies. That selfishness has led to otherwise inexplicable resistance to orders to “stay home” by armed white protestors, some carrying Confederate flags and Nazi imagery. Some people connected to white-dominated right-wing militias have hung in effigy governors who ordered lockdowns. People, almost always white, have demanded access to their barbers and salons, gyms, public swimming pools and beaches, and to their churches.
Dangerous COVID-19 parties and mass demonstrations without masks were led by individuals who insisted participants hold hands or hug one another as a protest against tyranny. Some of these people share Trump’s claim that the pandemic is a conspiracy to destroy the economy. Protestors in the state of Washington used language borrowed from the racist Tea Party and other right-wing militia movements such as, “Give me liberty or give me COVID-19.”
It’s our choice where to go, whom to meet, and how close to get to one another, protesters say. Being told to “stay home” is a form of oppression.
This perspective is fundamentally egotistical: I get to do what I want. I will worry about the dangers to me. Don’t ask me to worry about the threat my actions pose to others.
This egoism is rooted in specific social identities and systems of oppression and privilege: white supremacy and white people’s struggles to maintain whiteness as the prototype of American identity and citizenship. As Maia Niguel Hoskin for Vox.com recently writes,
Whiteness is our cultural tapestry. It’s America’s norm, against which all others are measured, and there is a special kind of security that comes along with being the norm. So when you suddenly do not have free rein to go about your business unchecked, it can feel like a massive threat. And in turn, protesters have taken to the streets to fight to keep that security.
Hoskin, along with many others, linked white hostility to “stay home” orders with overwhelmingly disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on Black lives. As sociologist Whitney N. Laster Pirtle has shown, “racial capitalism is the idea that racialized exploitation and capital accumulation are mutually constitutive.” Further, “Racially minoritized and economically deprived groups face capitalist and racist systems that continue to devalue and harm their lives, even within newer, supposedly deracialized neoliberal agendas.”
Pirtle uses this framework to understand why in the state of Michigan public health data “reveal[s] that out of the direct deaths related to COVID-19 [in the state], 40% of them are of Black residents in a state that has only 14% Black population.”
Compare Pirtle’s findings to a survey for the NAACP that found 8 in 10 African Americans want to follow public health experts’ advice before “re-opening” the economy. About 4 in 10 African American workers want to follow the “stay home” orders but haven’t because they are essential workers. This data shows that the Black community’s disproportionate mortality results from other structural features of U.S. society that dispute Time Magazine’s claim that humans “naturally” want to break the social distancing rules.
Lack of health-care resources, higher rates of poverty and joblessness, and racially discriminatory treatment in Black communities are fundamental causes of disparities in mortality.
This racist difference in conditions comes from racist organization of political power, wealth, and public resources. This mode reflects a historical commodification of racial identity, as scholar Nancy Leong argues in the Harvard Law Review. Racial capitalism degrades “that identity by reducing it to another thing to be bought and sold. Commodification can also foster racial resentment by causing nonwhite people to feel used or exploited by white people.”
It also fosters in white people, she adds, a sense of entitlement to superiority, one that is natural rather than historically made through the abuse of power.
White people invented the commodification of racialized human lives during the time of Euro-American slavery. They fabricated a racialized labor system that assigned different values to labor power based on the humans that expended that labor power. In the U.S., white people allowed the racialized labor system to survive the end of slavery to maintain white supremacy and control of capitalist development. Activists, scholars, and theorists, such as Claudia Jones, Angela Y. Davis, and W. E. B. Du Bois showed the needed relations between labor exploitation and white supremacy as fundamental pillars in the capitalist system and its historical development.
In other words, racial capitalism creates conditions and ideologies that devalue the lives of masses of people who are presumably recognizable by their skin color, hair texture, or facial shapes, to devalue their labor. This relation creates the conditions for super-exploitation by race, by gender, by citizenship status. It produces the systematic knee on George Floyd’s neck, the hunting down of Ahmaud Arbery, the slaying of Breonna Taylor. It produces systematic protection for their killers.
In addition, the capitalist system of racialized labor involves the transfer of hundreds of billions of dollars each year in value from the labor-power of Black and Brown people to white owners of capitalist enterprises, according to separate research by economists Victor Perlo and Michael Reich. (To my knowledge, the models used in these works have not been updated in a couple of decades.)
To be fair, some anger about the “stay home” comes from another source: the deepening economic crisis. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the U.S. GDP has collapsed by an estimated 40% annual rate in the second quarter. Economists predict that as many as one-fourth of jobs will be lost from the economy this year. Major companies have already begun mass layoffs. Meanwhile, Trump and his allies have vowed to block more economic relief.
Marxian economists have provided a detailed analysis of the instability of capitalism before, during, and after a crisis. Michael Roberts notes that the capitalist system was nearing a full-blown global collapse before the pandemic. Richard Wolff estimates that such crises recur every four to seven years in capitalist systems. Even the staunchly pro-capitalist Economist argues that recurring capitalist crises and inequality require “a strong welfare system” to survive. Of course, the Economist will not address the ethical or systemic elements of capitalism that require poverty (except perhaps to scream “Freedom!”).
To be clear, Trump and his allies in the capitalist class want workers to be frightened about the economy. (As has been argued elsewhere, workers are not the backbone of the protest movement.) Trump and his allies say that if we do not “re-open” the economy, people who live in the U.S. will be unable to buy the things they want. They are using this fear of lost consumption to promote resistance to “stay home” policies. They want to force workers back into making goods and services, regardless of the danger, to produce more corporate profits.
Conservatives celebrate the self-centered attitude as the basis for freedom. It is a cultural cornerstone of capitalism with its hedonistic consumerism, limitless exploitation, and value of greed over the common good, public health, and the satisfaction of human needs.
When Trump encouraged rallies that aligned the Republican Party mainstream with armed protestors, white supremacist militias, neo-Confederates, and an assortment of independent racists and extremists to storm legislatures and other violent protests against “stay home” orders, he exposed his well-known deep ideological affiliation with the fascist right. In addition, he exposed his party’s financial and organization links to those movements.
When Trump tweeted that he would put the Minneapolis rebellion down by military force, he wrote, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” With these words, he stuck his disgusting finger in the wounds caused by white systemic racism dating back to the 1960s and the painful memory of white vigilantes hunting down and killing and wounding Black people in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Trump expressed his ideological affiliation with white supremacists, the concrete links between the U.S. military and local police forces, and the ongoing role of the U.S. military in defending white supremacist imperialism and capitalist property.
Trump’s threat to label “antifa” a terrorist organization may lead to mass law enforcement repression of anyone who opposes his administration. He has made himself the symbolic and organizational leader of a fascist movement seeking to establish itself as a U.S. ruling bloc.
However, many other Americans believe in collective well-being as the best measure of a good society. They are the medical workers who care for the sick, the essential food and agricultural workers laboring under dangerous conditions to maintain a supply of food, and teachers struggling in poorly resourced conditions to educate youth. They are the social movements supporting their communities with mutual aid programs and the political leaders who resist pressure to end public health policies.
Many Americans boldly resist Trump’s fascist formation. They insist are Black lives matter, that essential workers should get more than our best wishes, that the racist police-military-prison tyranny must be dismantled. They demand that the commodification of human lives, the theft of value, and the suppression of working-class rights and power must end.
As Marxist theorists Cheng Enfu and Wang Zhongbao argue, the purpose of revolutionary development should be
to meet the material, spiritual, and ecological/environmental needs of all people to the maximum extent through material production, cultural production, service production, and ecological/environmental production, as well as to continuously improve the level human well-being and the degree of the full and free development of mankind.
Of course, Trump refuses all of that. Capitalism cannot do that. So which way will this country go: the tyranny of Trump and white supremacy, or toward a democratic future where social life is organized to serve the people?