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The New Normal: Cascading and Multilayered Crises

Photograph Source: Daniel Lobo – CC BY 2.0

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

– Antonio Gramsci

The Pandemic & Public Health Crisis

On January 20th, 2020, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 infection took place in the United States. Since then, over 240,000 Americans have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, with over 6,000 dying as a result of the pandemic. The New York Times suggests that the actual numbers are likely 6-10 times higher than is being currently reported.

According to studies from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, and those who smoke, are at high-risk of severe illness or death if they contract the virus. Unfortunately, that’s a lot of Americans.

Several days ago, Dr. Anthony Fauci estimated that anywhere between 100,000-240,000 Americans will die from COVID-19 by the end of August, and that’s if “we do everything perfectly,” as the good doctor put it. Since no one actually believes that the United States will conduct the response in a “perfect” manner, we can assume those numbers are low.

For the sake of discussion, let’s assume they’re correct. For some perspective, 116,708 Americans died in World War I (1914-1918). Roughly 416,800 Americans died in World War II (1941-1945). Over 40,000 Americans died in the Korean War (1950-1953). And 70,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War (1965-1975).

Perhaps we throw around large numbers too often, or maybe there’s simply no way to humanize 240,000 lives — regardless, we cannot allow the U.S. government to normalize gross numbers of fatalities, especially as a result of a completely preventable pandemic. Remember, this isn’t a ‘Natural Disaster’ — this is a ‘Man Made Disaster,’ and it should be treated as such. Yes, Trump is responsible, but he’s not the only one. In fact, individuals aren’t the problem. The entire Neoliberal Capitalist project is to blame.

Americans aren’t unhealthy because they’ve made bad choices as individuals. Americans are disproportionately unhealthy (when compared to both industrialized and industrializing nations) and susceptible to the worst effects of COVID-19 because Neoliberal Capitalist policies have created a social, political, economic, and ecological context in which this pandemic can thrive and impose maximum destruction.

Deindustrialization, privatization, and deregulation, has driven down the cost of labor, creating millions of working-poor Americans who live on credit and swim in mounds of debt, while attempting to navigate a social landscape of food deserts, fast food chains, sugar-rich foods, and low-wage service sector work. This context creates a population of addicted, depressed, and desperate workers whose sole pleasure at the end of a long shift is a can of Coke and bag of potato chips.

People don’t purposely make themselves obese and unhealthy. When people are put in desperate situations, they make impulsive decisions. That’s how people behave in a context of scarcity and oppression. Unfortunately, this is exactly the social context in which COVID-19 could cause extreme and permanent damage.

The Political Crisis

The political context in the U.S. is equally disturbing. Since the 1970s, politicians have drifted further and further into the realm of absurdity and utter corruption. Gone are the days of enlightened debates. Enter the age of Trump, Tweets, and trolling.

As empires decline, so does the quality of their leaders. The U.S. might wish to run away from reality, but Uncle Sam can’t run away from history. History has finally caught up with the U.S. Indeed, Donald Trump is the result of forty-plus years of hyper-individuality, ‘greed is good’ culture, superficial materialism, and a politics based not on substance or principles, but looks, marketability, and adherence to Neoliberal fundamentalist ideologies.

One of the few principled politicians in Washington D.C., Bernie Sanders, was raked over the coals by the corporate press for simply attempting to give Americans a basic social safety-net. That, for the Neoliberals, was too much. CNN and MSNBC unleashed the pundit hounds. The New York Times and Washington Post ran round-the-clock editorials about the “dangers” of Sanders’ policies, his supposed “unelectability,” and “radical” following, degrading the tens of millions of poor and working class people who largely see Bernie’s campaign as their last electoral hope.

Now, Joe Biden is the frontrunner. As a result, virtually everyone I know and work with has checked out of the electoral scene. Most of my friends have already come to the conclusion that Trump will win again in 2020. Hell, his numbers continue to rise even in the midst of the deadliest pandemic in over a 100 years, a pandemic he could’ve prevented. Frustrating, but not surprising.

Most Americans have checked out of politics. It’s not that they don’t care. They just don’t believe that participating will make a difference. Who could blame them, really? I’m 35 years old. The U.S. government hasn’t implemented one major program that’s benefitted me since the day I was born. Obamacare? Get real. Every major political institution in this country has rapidly deteriorated over the course of my life.

When I was 16, Bush II, with the help of his brother, stole the White House from Al Gore. No one really did anything about it, even Al Gore. That was 20 years ago. Since then, we’ve experienced 9/11, the Afghanistan War, the Iraq War, two terms of GWB, the 2008 Recession, Obama’s bullshit ‘Hope & Change,’ which really meant ‘More Of The Same,’ the Tea Party, nationwide union busting efforts, the explosion of charter schools, Citizens United, corporate consolidation, financial deregulation, increasingly militarized policing, exploding prison populations, privatization of public goods and services, and elections that no one trusts because paper ballots are gone and billionaires own the electoral process. And yes, in 2016, the election of Donald Trump, the perfect ending to a 40 year nightmare.

Let’s remember why Trump won in the first place. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton because Democrats stayed home. Bottom line. Democrats stayed home because they were betrayed by Obama, disgusted by Clinton, and upset about the entire 2016 primary process. As many others have pointed out, Trump is a symptom, not the disease. Here, we should be very clear: yes, Trump poses unique challenges and threats, but he is not the primary source of our collective problems. Our collective problems are structural, not individual, in nature.

Right now, the entire electoral-parliamentary process of representative democracy should be in question. Quite obviously, this particular mode of democratic participation has reached its limits. People are flat-out sick and tired of voting for politicians who answer to corporations. People are tired of the Democrat vs. Republican electoral carnival. Who could blame them? I’m tired of it. You’re tired of it. We’re all tired of it.

This is the toxic legacy of Reaganism, a bankrupt ideology that has destroyed the American political system, civic society, and popular culture. As a result, both major political parties have drifted so far to the right that people can barely tell the difference between the two. The Democratic Party is a walking corpse. And the Republican Party is full-blown batshit crazy. The Green Party doesn’t really stand a chance, but I give them credit for trying to develop an alternative, however flawed it may be. After all, the Greens, not the Dems, came up with the ‘Green New Deal.’

Large NGOs are moribund and, in many ways, counterproductive, even on their best days. Right now, the left contains no structural articulation of its politics beyond various regional organizations and radical local unions. In reality, most of ‘the left’ as we know it primarily exists in online forums and alternative media projects. The political situation is dire, no doubt.

The only way out of this mess is through deep organizing at the workplace and within communities. Tactically, this will take the form of massive strikes, street protests, targeted direct actions, and militant non-violent resistance. But people also need a vision and a strategy, and structures and institutions to carry out that vision and strategy. Right now, both are in short order. However, like all moments of immense historical crises, this context provides an opportunity to introduce radical alternatives, and hopefully, change course. If leftwing groups can’t use this moment to radicalize and politicize people, shame on us.

The Crisis of Capitalism

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, despite what you might’ve heard on corporate news outlets, Global Capitalism was on the ropes. Liberal economists such as Paul Krugman and Dean Baker, but also leftwing economists such as Jack Rasmus, Doug Henwood, and Richard Wolff, among others, have been sounding the alarm bells for some time now. The pandemic ended up being the match that lit a combustible array of socio-economic ingredients, including wide-spread underemployment, entire legions of workers who’ve dropped out of the labor pool, millions living in poverty, millions more on the verge of poverty, stagnating wages, hundreds of thousands of Americans sleeping on the streets, tens of millions lacking health coverage, and the majority of Americans drowning in ever-growing debt.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the hollowness and brutality of Global Capitalism. The most vulnerable will endure the brunt of this pandemic. They already have. Those who were barely surviving before this crisis will be lucky to survive the crisis. And so it goes.

The multitude of injustices and structural inequalities that existed before the pandemic will be exacerbated during a global health crisis and economic depression. The brutal legacies of colonization, imperialism, and neo-imperialism put the most vulnerable at risk and expose a system that’s incapable of providing even the most basic necessities to those most in need. In fact, quite the opposite, as Wall Street receives trillions of dollars for wrecking the global economy, ordinary Americans will have to wait weeks for their measly $1,200 stimulus checks.

Unlike 2008, the free marketeers are nowhere to be found. During the Great Financial Recession, the market fundamentalists wanted the whole system to collapse. The financial press blamed the recession on overpaid auto workers and poor families, especially poor black families, who the corporate pundits insisted “bought homes they couldn’t afford.” That was the dominant narrative in 2008. The calls for austerity were swift and loud. This time around, not so much.

Today, millions of Americans identify as socialists, and Bernie Sanders’ policies, flawed and inadequate as they may be, are supported by the majority of Democrats, many Independents, and even some Republicans. It’s true that Bernie’s policies aren’t ‘socialist’ in the traditional sense, but they’re socialistic in nature, and provide a welcome alternative to Neoliberal barbarism. Thanks to Occupy Wall Street and radical unions, today’s context is much different. Americans are much further to the left than they were twelve years ago.

Ralph Nader has long described the U.S. economic system as “socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the rest of us.” This is true. As Christian Parenti points out in a recent article in Jacobin, the financialization of the U.S. economy is already largely socialized, using public funds to prop-up private institutions, but with little to no social benefit for poor and working class people. Today, the COVID-19 pandemic shows us that the state is more important than ever before. Indeed, the Federal Government is the only entity powerful enough to reign-in capital. Ironically, as Parenti notes, only socialist policies can revive 21st Century Capitalism.

The state is also the only entity capable of dealing with a pandemic: providing healthcare supplies, financial resources, dealing with supply chain and logistical challenges, directing private sector production, etc. Here, we are witnessing in real-time the fundamental limits of private power and market fundamentalism within the context of a global healthcare crisis. Now is not the time to coddle capitalism — now is the time to castrate capitalism. Unless the left has a strategy to bypass the state and provide the many services the state provides by alternative means, our approach to the ensuing economic depression must include an analysis of state power, how it relates to capital, and how leftwing organizations and movements relate to both.

Historian Alfred McCoy, in his recent book, In the Shadows of the American Century, notes that China will overtake the U.S. as the largest economy in the world by 2030, perhaps sooner (Trump & COVID-19 have helped). Then again, China faces its own internal dilemmas, including an increasingly affluent workforce that’s very much interested in liberal democratic norms, and a growing number of repressed workers who are fighting back against China’s unique brand of ‘Authoritarian Capitalism.’ Some of the same contradictions and questions can be applied to India, the world’s 5th largest economy, authoritarian-religious nationalism, and hundreds of millions of precarious workers provide a potentially explosive political context.

Without question, capitalism will survive COVID-19. The unfolding COVID-19 pandemic and economic crises will alter the future of capitalism. The real question is: how can workers and ordinary people nudge things in a preferred direction, a path that leads to more collectivism and cooperation? How can we exploit the contradictions within the system? How can we ruthlessly expose the inherent limitations and internal contradictions of capital accumulation?

Most importantly, we must not exit this crisis with a more authoritarian version of capitalism. Giving the banks and multinational corporations more power is a death knell for the human species and much of the planet. Time is running out. The economic shocks will continue in frequency and severity. Now is the time for alternatives.

The Crisis of Militarism & Empire

Since 9/11, the U.S. has bombed seven nations: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen. U.S. troops remain in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya, with special forces operations taking place in Pakistan and Somalia. The ongoing war in Afghanistan is the longest war in U.S. history. And the U.S. continues to economically, logistically, politically, and militarily support the systematic repression and genocide of the Palestinian people vis a vi the brutal Israeli regime.

According to military historian, Nick Turse, U.S. forces conduct, on average, three combat or intelligence missions per day on the continent of Africa. Of course, Uncle Sam’s growing footprint in Africa has gone virtually unreported in the corporate press. In October, 2017, when 9 U.S. troops were killed in the ‘Tongo Tongo Ambush’ in Niger, most Americans had no idea that U.S. troops were even stationed in Niger, let alone conducting combat missions. While it’s true that U.S. Empire is in decline, it’s also true that empires throughout history lash out during their final days, leaving a path of destruction in their wake.

As a result, the human cost of the post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’ has been immense. Iraq: 300,000-1,000,000 dead. Syria: 400,000-600,000 dead. Afghanistan: 120,000 dead. Libya: 30,000 dead. Pakistan: 50,000 dead. Somalia: (unknown). Yemen: 100,000 dead. On the U.S. side, over 7,000 troops have lost their lives in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Pakistan, with more than double that number of private contractors dying in U.S.-led conflicts.

The Great Oil Wars of the early 21st Century have also caused the greatest refugee crisis since World War II, with more than 100,000 Syrian refugees fleeing their war-torn country, and over 3 million Iraqis internally displaced. Tens of thousands have fled Libya. The same is true in Pakistan. Millions abroad live in abject poverty and suffer preventable diseases as a result of Uncle Sam’s military adventures.

Veterans of course, also suffer from Uncle Sam’s hubris, with over 10,000 having committed suicide since 9/11. On a personal note, I’ve lost more of the marines from my platoon than died during our unit’s three combat deployments to Iraq.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home — they destroy the dream and possibility for a decent America.” The same is true today, as the United States spends what the next 15 nations spend combined on its military empire ($750 billion a year), a monstrosity and sign of deep societal decay. According to Brown University, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost U.S. taxpayers $5.9 trillion. With that money, the U.S. government could’ve paid off every Americans’ credit card, student loan, and auto loan debt, and still had  money left over.

As the U.S. spends trillions of dollars on weapons of war, hospitals run out of surgical masks and ventilators. A ventilator costs anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 — a tomahawk missile costs $1.4 million.

Like every empire, the U.S. has drained its domestic resources to maintain its imperial hegemony, but that influence is waning with time. As the republic crumbles under the weight of its own internal contradictions, U.S. allies are distancing themselves, while Uncle Sam’s foes are becoming increasingly empowered with each blunder and catastrophe that’s unfolded since 9/11. As Chomsky points out, the U.S. has been in decline since World War II, the peak of Uncle Sam’s imperial prowess.

Already, Trump is using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to ramp-up tensions with both Venezuela and Iran, two countries the U.S. has been politically, militarily, and economically terrorizing for decades. During the pandemic, U.S.-imposed sanctions in Iran have caused a disproportionate number of deaths due to lack of proper health equipment and medicine.

Fortunately, several European countries have broken the sanctions and delivered medical goods to the Iranian government. Also, as we speak, Trump has directed the U.S. Navy to move several U.S. Navy ships in close proximity to Venezuelan waters under the pretext of “curbing drug smuggling” — no doubt a top priority during the worst pandemic since 1918.

History shows us that every empire eventually confronts the same choice: maintain military forces and watch the republic crumble from within, or de-escalate conflicts, demilitarize, and maintain some semblance of a functioning state. The Roman Empire chose the former. The British Empire chose the latter. The coming decade will determine which path Uncle Sam chooses. If the last 20 years are a window into the future, God help us all.

If we hope to survive the next pandemic, the U.S. government must redirect the resources it’s currently spending on weapons of war, and instead invest in public healthcare infrastructure (hospitals, equipment, resources, nurses, personnel, EMTs), public education (medical schools, tuition free), housing (free and available to all), and research and development.

If we hope to survive the coming decades, the U.S. government must redirect its vast resources to mitigating climate change and ecological devastation.

The Climate & Ecological Crisis

The world has ten years to make radical changes to the global economy and its relation to fossil fuel production and consumption or the planet will be uninhabitable by the end of the century. Climate Change isn’t the issue, it’s the overarching context in which we now exist. Everything we do or don’t do over the next ten years will determine whether or not future generations will inhabit a living planet, or a barren wasteland.

There is simply no way to downplay the urgency of our collective challenge. As author David Wallace-Wells’ notes in his latest book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, “we could potentially avoid 150 million excess premature deaths by the end of century from air pollution (the equivalent of 25 Holocausts or twice the number of deaths from World War II) if we could limit average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.” Right now, we’re on track to hit 1.5 degrees Celsius by as early as 2030.

In the future, numbers will matter. The 100,000-240,000 Americans projected to die from COVID-19 will soon turn into numbers like 1,000,000-5,000,000. What we accept today, we’ll be expected to accept tomorrow.

In some ways, we’ve already accepted mass death, but our relationship to the living world is so warped that these numbers don’t seem to shake us. Species extinction rates are 100-1,000 times faster than they were, on average, during the evolutionary time-scale of planet Earth. More than 100 go extinct every single day.

Oceans have been destroyed by toxic materials, dumping, shipping, and large-scale industrial fishing. Coral reefs are dying. Warming temperatures mean less phytoplankton, which means less oxygen, which means more carbon dioxide. Some studies suggest that most of the large fish in the world’s oceans will be gone by 2050. Deforestation continues at breakneck speeds, ravaging ecosystems and leaving nothing behind. Ice caps melt. Prairies destroyed for suburban developments. Mountains leveled for minerals. Lakes drained for bottled water. Rivers polluted for industry. Life murdered for profit.

The level of ecological disruption and destruction industrial society has unleashed on the living world is unparalleled. And time is running out.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report, Global Warming of 1.5 degree Celsius, outlines our reality: if we wish to hold the line to 1.5 degrees, we have to cut emissions by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030. Then, we have to reach net-zero around 2050. That’s to avoid the 250 million deaths Wallace-Wells mentioned. So far, none of that is happening. In fact, we’re moving in the opposite direction as global emissions rise each year.

If we continue at current rates of emission, global temperature could rise by 7 degrees Celsius, and the number of human deaths from pollution could rise to 1-3 billion by 2100. That’s not including deaths due to habitat loss, crop failure, lack of fresh water, lack of medical care, lack of housing, rising sea levels, lack of employment, addiction, suicide, unbearable temperatures, failing governments, collapsing economies, and everything that comes with those cascading crises: tribal war, banditry, barbarism, and eventually, genocide.

The Totality of Our Crisis 

Without question, the stakes couldn’t be higher. In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic depression is a dress rehearsal for the future. From here on out, each crisis will be more pronounced and severe than the last. The new normal is cascading and multilayered crises all playing out at the same time. How we collectively respond to this crisis will determine how we respond to the impending large-scale crises of the future, not the least of which being Climate Change. So far, we’re failing miserably.

If the United States can’t handle a small-scale pandemic and virus that’s moderately deadly, though admittedly quite disruptive, how can we expect the government to cope with tens of millions of climate refugees fleeing their homes in the coming decades, while seeking housing, employment, and safety in cities and counties already strapped for resources?

If capitalists already are taking advantage of this pandemic, netting trillions of dollars from the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury, while simultaneously jacking up the price of medical equipment and charging poor victims exorbitant amounts of money for health insurance, needed medicine, and hospital treatment, how can we expect them to behave in the context of rapid ecological collapse?

If the state is incapable of providing even menial assistance to poor and working class Americans during the worst pandemic in over 100 years, how can we expect the state to behave in the context of cascading and multilayered crises unfolding at a rapid pace over a short period of time, crises that will undoubtedly require massive state intervention in the economy?

Unfortunately, we know the answers to these questions, but only if most poor and working class people remain unorganized or unwilling to fight back.

Let’s remember, all of this takes place within a context of many unnamed crises, many of which weren’t mentioned in this essay. Some of those include gun culture/NRA (weapons sales are at all-time highs since the pandemic started), police militarism, the prison-industrial complex (already being used to manufacture surgical masks, while prisoners remain trapped in COVID-19 incubators), patriarchy (domestic violence calls have skyrocketed during the pandemic), homelessness (500,000 Americans can’t ‘stay at home’), systemic racism (already, statistics show that black people are disproportionately impacted by and suffering the worst effects of COVID-19), housing (Americans already spend a insane amounts of their income toward rent/mortgage payments — those problems have only accelerated during the pandemic), childcare (cash-strapped families and single parents choosing between safety and work), and the list goes on, and on.

Every single aspect of our society is under extreme stress. Even the most passive populations can only take so much. Human beings can only take so much. The living world can only take so much. Eventually, things will explode.

The question is: how? Will poor and working class Americans turn that despair and cynicism into a righteous anger and rage? And if so, who will that anger and rage be directed toward? Each other? Or the powerful elites?

The current social context in the U.S. and across the globe is ripe for radical political change, but that change doesn’t necessarily have to be progressive in nature. It could also be reactionary and fueled by religious extremism, xenophobia, racism, and tribalism. That’s up to us.

Vincent Emanuele writes for teleSUR English and lives in Michigan City, Indiana. He can be reached at vincent.emanuele333@gmail.com

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