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Life and Death in the Epicenter

Photograph Source: Angel Talansky – CC BY 2.0

When it comes to warding off COVID-19, I’ve been ahead of the curve. Last October, after a bout with acute bronchitis that lasted most of the month, I resolved never to go through such an ordeal again. I started using hand sanitizer and avoided touching my face. Like my glaucoma, it is a geriatric illness. When I checked the New York Times archives for tips on dealing with bronchitis, I was shocked to discover how many well-known and powerful geezers came down with it: Konrad Adenauer, Boris Yeltsin, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Paul Robeson. None died from bronchitis, but around half were hospitalized, a routine treatment for powerful heads of state (except for Robeson.)

While bronchitis is not life-threatening, COVID-19 certainly is. As a septuagenarian, I am vulnerable. On top of that, the illness indicated that my immune system was compromised, just as you’d expect. Getting through this pandemic is a matter of life and death for me, especially since I live in New York City, the epicenter.

Once a week, I go shopping with my wife and can’t help feeling queasy as I pick up an avocado to see if it is ripe enough. In my memory banks, this summons up scenes from a George Romero zombie flick or “The Walking Dead.” From their well-guarded base, the living make periodic forays into various towns looking for food, medicine, or other essential goods. This is the equivalent of us going to a grocery store or a pharmacy. In “The Walking Dead” (I bailed on the show after Rick died), one of his crew might open a door looking for canned goods only to discover that zombies lurked behind it. Death could come in the form of a zombie assault or an accidental exposure to a coronavirus-laded avocado. The logic of zombies and coronavirus is deadly. They both exist to replicate themselves, just as does the capitalist class.

In 2004, Luis P. Villarreal, Professor Emeritus, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at UC Irvine, posed the question in Scientific American “Are Viruses Alive?”:

Viruses, however, parasitize essentially all biomolecular aspects of life. That is, they depend on the host cell for the raw materials and energy necessary for nucleic acid synthesis, protein synthesis, processing and transport, and all other biochemical activities that allow the virus to multiply and spread. One might then conclude that even though these processes come under viral direction, viruses are simply nonliving parasites of living metabolic systems. But a spectrum may exist between what is certainly alive and what is not.

Parasites in between life and death? That certainly describes the zombies and the bourgeoisie as well. I didn’t care much for Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” but he was certainly onto something with this metaphor.

New York City was susceptible to becoming an epicenter since it was much too close for comfort. What endeared it to people like me in the sixties was the street life that brought rich and poor together. When I lived in Houston in the mid-70s, I could never get used to the idea that I had to get into my car to find a bookstore or a restaurant. Or that when I took a walk in my neighborhood that nobody was on the sidewalk beside me. I was homesick for New York, where you’d mingle with the masses and find everything you needed within a few minute walk. Fortunate enough to live on the upper east side, there are museums and parks within walking distance.

Slowly but surely, everything that endeared New York to me has died largely because of the predatory nature of real estate development as symbolized by the evil presence in the White House.

Jeremiah Moss, who blogs at Vanishing New York, just posted about the photographer Robert Herman, who jumped to his death from the 16th floor of his Tribeca apartment building last Friday night. Herman’s suicide note read, “How do you enjoy life?”

As it happens, Moss interviewed Herman a while back. Like Moss and like me, Herman loved the New York that is vanishing. Moss posed the question about the differences between small, home-grown shops and the corporate mega-stores that symbolize the survival of the fittest but least desirable. Herman replied:

The difference between the corporate stores and the independents is that the look of the signage and displays are determined at a corporate level and done for multiple stores at the same time. The local store owner is creating the look for their storefront locally, and in reaction to the environment and neighborhood. All of this is obvious, but it is the independents that create the feeling of specificity of place: “only in New York.”

With rents soaring in every borough due to gentrification, the class differences soar as well. Just a couple of days ago, the Times reported on the death of thirteen people from COVID-19 at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens. This is a public hospital with 545 beds and a shortage of ventilators. To cope with the corpses piling up, the hospital now has a makeshift morgue on the street below—a refrigerated truck. Opened to the public in 1832, it is one of the oldest hospitals in the city. Two-thirds of Elmhurst’s residents were born outside the United States, the highest such rate in the city. The Times referred to it as a safety-net hospital, serving mainly low-income patients, including many who lack primary care doctors. You get an idea of the kind of people who flock to the hospital from the article:

Julio Jimenez, 35, spent six hours in the emergency room on Sunday night after running a fever while at work in a New Jersey warehouse. He returned on Monday morning to stand in the testing line in the pouring rain. On Tuesday, still coughing, eyes puffy, he stood in line for nearly seven hours and again went home untested.

“I don’t know if I have the virus,” Mr. Jimenez said. “It’s so hard. It’s not just me. It’s for many people. It’s crazy.”

Besides geezers being vulnerable, you can include such immigrants who must rely on inadequate health care. Ironically, the susceptibility of poor people to the disease through their largely service-oriented jobs working as doormen, janitors, maids, security guards, hospital orderlies, etc. threatens the rich as well. Viruses, like zombies, are equal opportunity killers. Walking past some hedge fund manager on the street, Julio Jiminez might sneeze, after all.

There’s always been a mystique about metropolitan centers like New York, Paris, London, Vienna, Tokyo, and Beijing. They represent “civilization” as opposed to the boring and soul-destroying suburbs and rural villages. In the political clash of the past four years in the United States, the red state supporters of Donald Trump see places like New York as enemy territory. In the sixties, yahoos used to refer to it as Jew York.

In addition to the museums and opera houses, the city has also been home to the plagues. If you were living in a nomadic tribe, you might have to deal with wolves or lions, but plagues were less of a problem. Sneezing and coughing are problems mostly associated with proximity to crowds and large populations. Deadly viruses like smallpox, the plague, measles, and influenza flourish in high population density with humans, herd animals, and their excretions interacting. When agriculture superseded hunting and gathering, civilization became possible since grains like wheat and rice allowed permanent settlement. But this benefit also allowed pathogens to jump from one person to another through airborne droplets just like the ones I fear in Whole Foods.

Anarchist scholar James C. Scott harped on these problems in his latest book, “Against the Grain.” Using the same methodology as earlier Marxist works like Friedrich Engels’s “Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State” or V. Gordon Childe’s “Man Makes Himself,” interrogates the whole notion of progress in “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.” This 2018 book anticipated the pandemic of today by referring to “the unforeseeable disease epidemics arising from crowding plants, animals, and grain,” as the Yale University website mentions.

In the penultimate paragraph of the concluding chapter, Scott refers to a “golden age for barbarians,” when there was an alternative to the hollow, if not lethal, pleasures of civilization:

The life of “late barbarians” would, on balance, have been rather good. Their subsistence was still spread across several food webs; being dispersed, they would have been less vulnerable to the failure of a single food source. They were more likely to be healthier and live longer—especially if they were female. More advantageous trade made for more leisure, thus further widening the leisure-drudgery ratio between foragers and farmers. Finally, and by no means trivial, barbarians were not subordinated or domesticated to the hierarchical social order of sedentary agriculture and the state. They were in almost every respect freer than the celebrated yeoman farmer. This is not a bad balance sheet for a class of barbarians over whom the waves of history were supposed to have rolled a long time ago.

The next and concluding paragraph is a eulogy to a type of life that succumbed to “civilization.” Even if they enjoyed a healthier and freer life, the mostly equestrian warriors ended up as vassals to state powers such as the Ottomans or the Chinese dynasties.

This, of course, begs the question of what alternative we have to the civilization that is killing us. As Samuel Moyn points out in a perceptive review of “Against the Grain” in The Nation titled “Barbarian Virtues”, the state is in and of itself not necessarily oppressive. He writes, “Yet Scott is so enamored with the versatility of our hunting-and-gathering ancestors—especially when compared with the monotonies of grain cultivation—that he never thinks to describe how they interpreted the freedom and equality he assigns to them. He never confronts the possibility that only a new kind of state could make new kinds of ideals possible, including his own.”

Despite Bernie Sanders’s dismissal of Cuba as a police state, there are what we might call socialist as opposed to barbarian virtues. Given its generous medical assistance to Italy and other states facing calamity, Cuba shows that another world is possible.

Fifty-three years ago, when I became a socialist, most people understood that we had an uphill battle to convince Americans that such a system could benefit them. All they knew about socialism was its chronic shortages and shoddy goods. When the Soviet Union collapsed, we were put on the defensive since there was no alternative, it seemed, to capitalism’s dynamic and innovative productive capabilities. How could socialism compete with Levi jeans, bananas and pornography, after all?

With the current pandemic and an economy that threatens to turn into a full-scale 1930s type Depression, the capitalist system has lost its invincibility. Entering one of the gravest crises of the twenty-first centuries, I am reminded of Rosa Luxemburg’s words in “The Junius Pamphlet” written after the outbreak of World War One:

This brutal victory parade of capital through the world, its way prepared by every means of violence, robbery, and infamy, has its light side. It creates the preconditions for its own final destruction. It put into place the capitalist system of world domination, the indispensable precondition for the socialist world revolution. This alone constitutes the cultural, progressive side of its reputed “great work of civilization” in the primitive lands. For bourgeois-liberal economists and politicians, railroads, Swedish matches, sewer systems, and department stores are “progress” and “civilization.” In themselves these works grafted onto primitive conditions are neither civilization nor progress, for they are bought with the rapid economic and cultural ruin of peoples who must experience simultaneously the full misery and horror of two eras: the traditional natural economic system and the most modern and rapacious capitalist system of exploitation. Thus, the capitalist victory parade and all its works bear the stamp of progress in the historical sense only because they create the material preconditions for the abolition of capitalist domination and class society in general. And in this sense imperialism ultimately works for us.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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