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Rearranging Desires Amidst Climate Catastrophe, COVID Chaos, and Capitalist Calamity

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak states that her political goal is to rearrange desires. No goal is more pertinent to our present trying time. As Chuck Mertz refrains “the future ain’t what it used to be.” The coronavirus has exposed much of what we knew to be true, but counted on avoiding. What has become plain as day to even the most privileged is that the private market simply doesn’t provide for its workers, I mean people.

This piece will deal especially with the psychology of the United States but may indeed have applications elsewhere. Even the political left calls the people it represents “the working class”. I don’t think this is just semantics either. Brawn has always trumped brains in this bloody Empire. A particular vitriol against intelligence has been unleashed during the coronavirus. Yet who could deny that it would have been intelligence that could have saved thousands of lives.

Education has been decimated in a number of ways, tailored to race and class. Childcare workers are severely underpaid and rights for working parents are severely hampered. As a result children spend their most formative years with the least investment into their growth as human beings. Ralph Nader’s recent radio guest Naila Bolus says that each of the dollars spent on this stage have a 13 dollar return investment.

Higher education has become a way to put the middle class in debt with debts they seemingly can pay off, after a lifetime of stress and obedience to capital. The aesthetic careerism postmodern propaganda taught in these institutions is wasted on the minds of debtors but the debt itself works far better at neutralizing this potentially adept portion of the citizenry. Elite schools still work alarmingly well at churning out future apologists for the ruling class.

Jobs outside of higher education are being lost to automation and cheaper labor often akin to slavery outside our borders and inside our prisons. Public schools face austerity measures when they cannot pass mundane and tedious standardized tests therefore driving incentives away from dynamic and relevant learning and punishing the schools with the least resources. As a replacement for a constructive government we see racist and unaccountable police shuttle children into prisons that reenact the violence, lawlessness and hate they experience at the hands of police officers trained to kill rather than nurture.

Americans in both worlds are over-educated and under-taught for their roles to come in society. The main point here is that education in the way Spivak and so many other essential workers practice it is abandoned in favor of vocational training that is increasingly likely to not only fail the citizen spiritually but fail her financially. Yet the insight by John Steppling on the coronavirus subject is discerning. Even with the current crisis in capitalism, climate and COVID, we still are lost without work itself.

We live in a society who is taught that having work is what makes you worthy to live. The decline of holistic education is part of our problem here. It goes deeper. Tying health care to employment and gutting welfare paved the way for our current mentality of work or die. Republican protesters who recklessly protested for their right to work seemed to understand that their party would kill them if they didn’t. The Democratic base was the one under illusions as champions of private health insurance companies and tax cuts for billionaires now claimed concern for those who can’t work.

The system of ruthless capitalism has normalized the mentality held nearly universally that you have to work to have human rights in our society. The number of wars launched in the name of human rights forget that the only reason the United States can claim it doesn’t have human rights violations is because of who it classifies as human. Keep in mind that many of the countries guilty of human rights violations are simply dealing with unemployment rates and resource shortages that result from our own Pentagon who pollutes the world more than any other organization and robs countries of resources by force thereby creating the material condition for endless lack and therefore endless war.

Coronavirus is skyrocketing the unemployment rate. No matter how you cut it there are consequences. A lack of workers and consumers means less profit for big corporations who own both corporate parties which means bailouts for said companies who, like our bankrupt President have mismanaged themselves into the ground because they know they are too big to fail. A lack of workers means unemployment benefits at best which will only chip into the real wages of workers and further divide the electorate as long as the rich stay unaccountable. At worst those out of work will be left for dead. Bernie Sanders fought for some extensions for unemployment but will this be able to last for the potentially multiyear pandemic?

We see some problems arising when all human rights are tied to work. The best try to borrow at tremendous cost to put a band-aid on things but the future is chaotic and uncertain. The economy is collapsing and the one to one relationship of work to life is being put into question. For the moment we have a chance to rearrange our desires.

Why does America have such an allegiance to work? All kinds of sick reasons. Puritan guilt may be at the top of the list. Knowing deep down that all of our destructive glory has been stolen we seek to punish ourselves through work to prove how worthy we are and call everyone who isn’t American lazy. The origin of this country was violent theft, not an honest day of work.

Slaughtering Native Americans simply wasn’t enough. Why couldn’t we just shut up and enjoy what we had stolen? Instead, we had to constantly prove ourselves as harder workers. The phrase ‘work smarter not harder’ is clearly a new age globalist one. We decided to abuse the beautiful land we had stolen rather than care for it. We needed to be bigger and better. We needed to capture and own as much land as we could and bleed it to death rather than develop sustainable practices.

The development of agriculture and private property cannot be underestimated as a general trend. Agriculture asserted that more is better and that any long term plan to sustain life human or otherwise took a back seat to production itself. Private property helped to create this necessary separation between human and earth, between past and future, between living and working. Once you own something the mutual dependence vanishes and one party is used and abused until it is no longer useful to the other.

How does this strange allegiance to work relate to America’s second child: slavery of African people? Couldn’t we assert that AmeriKKKa is above all a lazy lot? Yes the characterization of the white working man might not be that different from the puzzling 15 Grammys awarded to the deranged Incel Eminem, merely a trait not recognized until the master race does a half-ass job at it. Although there is also the possibility that slavery was a lesson for America’s ruling class. Labor makes profit and that’s the bottom line.

Although the current nostalgia going on across America seems for some time later. Americans, despite what they say, aren’t too much interested in their own revolution. If we were why would we be so insistent on keeping a revolutionary document exactly the same for 250 years? The paradox of conservative liberty in a nutshell.

Americans across the board are aiming for nostalgia. Conservatives aim for pre-civil rights. Liberals long to condescend to and with Obama. But above all Americans want to return to the days when the relationship of work and the good life were one to one. You work, you live good, and you deserve it. Thankfully, it’s not that simple.

The magic of capitalism, in theory, is that if you work hard you can have anything. This is true for the lectures of loathsome trust fund billionaires but it is also a middle-class dream, within reason. Rather than plant or hunt or gather or build or trade for all you have we have this magical thing called money. It can, as long as you do something, get you anything.

This is a long-held illusion but it dies hardest for some. What say women to such an idea, when their labor within the home is unpaid and most times their worth is not determined by their value to the market as a worker but their value to a sexual and financial partner and owner, creating all kinds of trauma and confusion. What say the slaves or the indigenous, robbed of their work by violence and told even in ages of supposed civilization that they will always be as many feet behind as they always been, but this time it isn’t because of their race, but because of their merit, which just happens to correlate with their supposedly inferior race? What to make of the countries ravaged by the American Empire, sacrificing their one to one relationships with work to an invader who does not call himself their colonizer but their liberator? America’s poor escapes none of these evils, and never has.

The point here is that this idea that a hard day’s work means anything is absurd. Those who work don’t get much, if anything, in return. Those who kill, steal and enslave find that this is the work that pays. Society has only come close to justice when it organizes itself in a way that doesn’t link work with human rights, because it is not work that creates profit. Work creates goods and services, which is fine, but that doesn’t make a big company, just a useful one.

It is here where we must begin to question even this limited utility of work. Most serious advances in society haven’t been because of work but because of intellectual discovery, mostly scientific, which is why we have to link this current backlash against science to a rebellion to liberal modernity and equality in general. What has actual work been good for? Enslaving people, wasting their lives, and above all wrecking the environment. It doesn’t take a scientist to see how cutting back work in this pandemic, work that isn’t even essential is the key to saving the planet. Our materialist society is collapsing on itself because we refuse to see this and continue to organize our society around shipping resources around the globe, buying them uselessly, making them uselessly and wasting our life handing them back and forth only to die alone and empty inside.

The world now has so many people and international trade is so omnipresent that work really isn’t necessary for a single person. Someone could just stop working and spend minimally and they’d do a whole lot more for the planet and the common good than someone who insisted on being useful in carrying out some goal of success that involved exploiting and destroying something for someone else.

Like it or not this sort of aimless usefulness is what many of us will be facing. Capitalism simply doesn’t care who you are. It doesn’t care. If there is not enough work, you’re screwed. And the wages aren’t going up. If you can work, you’ll work for less. If you have a job, a machine can do it on the cheap. Or the booming prison population or desperate refugee, held in a concentration camp, can do it too.

And yet this is the encouraging thing about this stage of history too. Capital has effectively decimated past divisions. The Church, the Man and the State have all proved to be weak leaders in comparison to the Dollar. If you can make a profit for someone, your religion, gender and nationality are used as leverage against you but not on their merits alone, simply for the grander narrative of capitalism, which is itself collapsing. This is nothing on its own but potentially extremely exciting for our collective future.

Imagine the radical possibilities of a society that has a universal lack. Imagine the radial possibility of a United States who for the first time in a long time doesn’t have what Noam Chomsky calls the 20%? This 20% would normally be so rewarded by the ecocide, slavery and imperialism of the ruling class that they would start to believe the propaganda against the poor. For the first time in a long time the United States can no longer fool itself that its Empire is earned, that its people are divine or that its markets are just.

Embracing a new order of society involves getting past the desire to punish and the resentment of those with free souls but chained hands. We must stop taking life so seriously. Capitalism promises nothing except profit. As climate catastrophe closes down upon us, who can say they will be saved? Who in their right mind can say they will be saved from the coronavirus in its pure form let alone its economic consequences? No one can claim a guarantee. At the very least we all face a huge cost as the world burns.

If the ruling class cannot change it will be the middle class who picks up the check for the cost of containing and punishing the poor. It will be a social cost that few with a conscious could bear, to be thriving in a dying world. At the very least we will all reach that old age that makes one no longer useful to capital, that age that makes us within that 3% worth sacrificing for the GDP.

Every relationship we have now is becoming alienated through capital. This is the remedy and poison, to paraphrase Spivak. What could be a trade between human partners is instead facilitated by a mega-company that always results in a profit. In a just economy, less production really wouldn’t be a problem besides the ability to consume. We must create local networks that organize both politically and economically.

Is communism the solution? What about democratic socialism? The failures of both approaches mirror each other. Communism in the developing world fails because in order to counter imperialism it must create a nationalist identity and stand alone against the world. Despite the remarkable gains, the flame burns out when the country is liberated by capital, under the guise, often with some truth in it, that the isolationist authoritarian strategy could be helped by a little free trade, and the developing country now faces the same doom as the rest of us. Democratic socialism fails for a related reason as the bourgeoise values behind it result from imperialism that robs invisible subalterns and the universal call to socialism only extends to those within the Empire’s borders.

Thus the dollar fails because it succeeds. A market solution, Marxist or otherwise doesn’t address ballooning production and dwindling resources via climate change. It may provide the potential for mass funding of health care or research that could help in a pandemic but if such a system hasn’t worked yet, we have to say it is at the very least many steps down the line.

First, we must rearrange our desires away from the reliance on the market for survival. Now that capitalism has proven itself not only a disaster for the collective but a question mark for the individual, we must find a less alienated form of relations.

The idea that one could work for a living always relied upon an assumption of usefulness to a system without humanity. For those who were lucky but saw themselves as good, this worked. For most, it was a trying system without entitlement or security. For all, the worth of ones life expired as soon as usefulness was over. Some companies gave retirement, but that was always part of the work pay itself, and never on its own grounds. Human relationships, of course, are formed within the workplace and that is beautiful.

However as companies consolidate into monoliths, unions are busted and labor loses leverage, there simply is very little guarantee that a company will do anything for anyone. Why would they? How to survive then? Is it simply to double down on this approach? Work harder in worse conditions and survive simply by being better than our peers?

Or is there another form of value, one that isn’t linked to capital? Is there a more pure form of human relationship that we could trade in? Could we start to trade in love? Could a person guarantee their health care not by joining the army but by befriending a doctor or teaching a friend about medicine? Could a fair trade be done not through Amazon, but through neighbors who talked? Could food be made, not in a COVID meat plant, but in the community garden? We must begin to reimagine a currency of love.

We must begin to trade our goods and services independently, using the very technology used to survey us. We must begin to teach each other what we know to enrich our souls, not what will guarantee a job. All of this is easier said than done but it begins by changing what we trust.

Global capital and socially progressive politics have effectively obliterated any reason for non-material division. This opens the door for the most open-minded egalitarian society to ever walk the earth. We must stop wanting to please our bosses, our landlords and our corporate suppliers. They have no obligation to us. They have failed the tests of this pandemic.

The only people who have passed the test of this pandemic have been the grassroots communities who have given all they have, as little as they have of it, to fight for the common cause. What we cannot achieve in grassroots bartering and localism we can achieve in organizing concrete demands from those who hold more.

We are seeing that there is decency. There is humanity. We may lose track of it in our daily lives where we kiss the ring of a cause we don’t believe in. We struggle to relate on a personal level as social media and malls replace community gatherings and natural surroundings. In these times where all things that aren’t essential are pushed aside, people are stepping up. The mass mobilizations of people to a cause has proven that the bloodthirsty war isn’t the natural unifier, the universal threat to survival is. The bad news is this is only the beginning of such climate-induced disruptions to life. The good news is that when we are stripped of the junk that capitalism distracts us with we are capable of extraordinary things.

Our desires may wish to retreat to a normal, if not ominous, state of conformity after all of this. Let’s not forget this time of universal lack and the power of community to save us from it. Let us remember in this time of fear how fragile each of our existences are and how worthy each of us are of this humble attempt at living. Let us remember that when someone comes down with the virus we ask only one question: how can we help you? We don’t ask, as we so often do in capitalism, what do you deserve, what are you worth to me?

When we see the suffering person in capitalism we are not wrong to assume something, something about their triumphant rebellion, or too about their costly destruction. Still, we must also admit that Marxism does at least assert correctly a materialist history and that in every time there are people both good and bad. The question is why do some times have more good, and some times worse? The answer then must be related to creating the conditions that do not make poverty inevitable, and war inescapable. To row quickly in a sinking boat is only a race against time. The highly contagious coronavirus has taught us that if we cannot plug the boat then a strong oarsman will be only as proud as he is dead.

We must rearrange our desires from a world that wants to perform work to a world that wants itself to actually work. The double meaning of the word work presents itself as alienating, only a means to an end. Trapped next to NPR playing next to me I heard the commentator say that people had two concerns and that they were not necessarily the same: one was to get enough money and the other was to work. Such is the degree of even liberal propaganda that cannot imagine a new relationship to capital.

Imagine we must. Once we rearrange our society to have the desire to organize, to share, to think, to learn and above all to love. We will find that working for its own sake is at best a neutral activity and at worst the act of digging our own graves. Take this exact example of prison labor being used to dig graves for those dead from the coronavirus plague, all the while endangering their own health. Rearranging our desires is hard work, harder work than any billionaire has done in his life. It is work that is essential, not just for the survival of the planet and the species, but for discovering what it means to be alive for its own sake. Until that happens we are our own demise; the very plague we blame on the so-called illegal alien comes from the alienation we have from ourselves.

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Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com 

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