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“True words are not pleasant; pleasant words are not true.”
– Tao Teh Ching
1. If it isn’t disposable, it isn’t safe. So, for the supposed safety of a single generation of humans – us – we are poisoning the next thousand generations of our descendants and those of every other species. For our safety, soils and rivers and oceans are flooded more than ever before with plastic. To add infection to injury, the future is also being prime-pumped with antibiotic-resistant superbugs, which predictably spawn in the seas of sanitizers, seeping into watersheds all over the world. Our sanitized hands have blood on them.
2. Crimes against humanity are being committed for humanitarian motives. Thousands of elders are dying alone. Thousands of small children are being traumatized for life. Families are sacrificed on the altar of national security; individuals impaled on the caduceus of medical protocol. Thousands are stranded for the sake of safety – in boats or in basements, behind borders or between them. Solitary confinement has been rebranded as the new social ethic. Never before has the contradiction between life and survival been so acute. Suddenly the meaning of life is a practical everyday question.
3. The economy is a bloodthirsty god which demands human sacrifice. The “Americans” are the most shameless about this. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick: “as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren? …if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.” Fox’s Brit Hume agreed that this was an “entirely reasonable viewpoint” and he too thought we should all be “willing to take a risk of getting the disease if that’s what it took to allow the economy to move forward.” Moreover, he reminded his audience that this is “something that’s not terribly different from what the president and Governor Cuomo have been saying.” On this last point, he’s right. Of course the amerikkkans are more shameless but they speak for the governments of every nation-state in the world-system. Human sacrifices are being prepared, whether in the triple or the quintuple digits, for the greedy god of money, which demands through the mouths of the possessed: “open back up!” Proof: as all the human development indicators go down, as human rights plummet and apartheid sinks in, as GDP falls and fascism rises – the stock market is loving it.
4. Fixing one thing without fixing everything will tend to make things worse. Examples: Contact tracing without dismantling the surveillance state gives an already very Big Brother new superpowers. A public health lockdown without free door-to-door service delivery is a declaration of war on the poor. Basic income grants without anti-trust legislation, nationalization or expropriation will consolidate and entrench corporate monopolies. A vaccine without universal healthcare will benefit billionaires most and help the most vulnerable the least. Universal health care without a radical transformation of the medical industrial complex will enrich pharmaceutical companies at the expense of medical science, and empower higher ranking doctors at the expense of both patients and lower ranking healthcare workers. International emergency loans without jubilee will set up new dimensions of debt peonage on a world scale.
5. The allopathic system of medicine which the whole world without exception looks to for salvation is the one with the shortest track record. All traditional forms of medicine, with their thousands of years of experience and wisdom – Asian, African and American – are roundly ignored. At best they are tolerated as subordinate complements to the allopathic paradigm.
This paradigm has many sharp contradictions. It is distinguished by its ability to prolong survival, but has no theory or practice of improving life. It is highly efficient at treating disease but knows little about its prevention. It trains specialists to intervene; never to integrate. It treats the parts and never the whole. (Older systems developed to nurture the whole it rejects as superstitious, or lacking in sufficient peer review.) It is high tech and low heart. It treats individuals and not societies. It is well trained in triage but powerless against the troubles which necessitate such training. It trusts machines and pills more than people and their feelings. It has no room for intuition. It is as rigidly hierarchical as the military, and treats disease like an enemy at war on the battlefield of the body. It will save your life and send you back out into the same conditions that nearly killed you. It is callous to the joy of birth and the grief of death. Many of its treatments cause harm – which it calls “side effects” – and most malpractice cannot be seen through the deep tunnel vision of specialization. Its leaders are selected not by their love and compassion for life but by their ability to pass examinations. Its heroes are surgeons who cut flesh, not nurses who soothe it. It sows drugs and reaps organs. It prevents pain but is deaf to suffering. We are all its hostages.
6. A contraction of the world economy and a corresponding reduction of carbon emissions previously considered impossible – (drum roll) – is not nearly enough to mitigate castastrophic climate change. 2020 is the hottest year on record; wildfires rage out of control; ice and permafrost melt as never before. So we have all learned two things of incalculable gravity: that quick and drastic changes are possible in the global political economy – and that demands must leap orders of magnitude in speed and scale to contain catastrophic climate change.
Yet governments all over the world, with their new executive powers, are united: They are designating resource extraction as an essential service; deregulating polluting industries; opening national parks up for logging and drilling and mining; giving land and tax concessions to transnational corporations and foreign governments – all this while they hurry to “open back up”!
The lessons are twofold – unstoppable force and immovable object: (A) Catastrophic climate change cannot be prevented without a much more drastic contraction of the global economy, and this shutdown must remain permanent until economic growth is delinked from fossil fuels. B) We can expect nation-states to accelerate the destruction of nature at all costs no matter the consequences. Climate justice activism based on demanding reforms from governments has not quite fathomed this. We have to forget the Paris Agreement and remember the Cochabamba Conference… but from there we must leap together into the unknown. More than any other, the curve we need to flatten is the carbon emissions curve, or we will confront not mere death, but extinction.
7. War gets closer every day. Historically speaking, when industrialized nation-states, dominated internally by private monopolies, experience protracted economic stagnation followed by sudden negative growth rates, the result, however irrational, is war. Recall the early 1910s or the early 1930s. But war is also already here. If you’re Syrian the third world war started a decade ago. It’s also in Yemen and the Congo and Libya and it’s simmering on the China/India border. And war gets weirder: “In the 21st century we have seen a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace. Wars are no longer declared, and having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template. The differences between strategic, operational and tactical levels, as well as between offensive and defensive operations, are being erased…. Tomorrow’s battlefields will be filled with walking, crawling, jumping and flying robots.” (General Valery Gerasimov)
8. Paradoxically, the real ruling class doesn’t want state power. Who wants to be responsible for mass death and depression? So the savvy financiers pull back to the commanding heights of the economy and leave political power to the charlatans crazy enough to think they can save their countries with charisma. Representative bourgeois democracy was already at a record low, having elected aspiring fascists on all the continents. But now there is yet another qualitative transfer of power; from a Big Brother to a spectral Big Uncle, who is not even symbolically accountable to anyone. Jair Bolsonaro’s demotion from a real to a fake president, and the frictionless vacuum at the heart of the Brazilian government, prefigures one future: the state powerless at the height of its power.
9. The first real purpose of modern schooling is revealed: it’s a child-care program which allows parents to continue producing surplus value on the labor market. And the second real purpose of modern school – to condition children to accept society and submit to its rules – is on hold. Over a billion children are not going to school right now – and are not being conditioned to reproduce the world as we know it. We may mourn this, and fight to save our schools, or we may celebrate this, and fight to save our children.
10. Celebrities are useless. Their irrelevance in this moment of reckoning reveals how much time and attention we have wasted on them all along.
11. The US empire is going down. Suddenly everyone is forced to see the emperor naked. We may have known it all along but mostly we pretended we didn’t. The technology and medicine and economy and government of the global superpower are all failing pathetically on the world stage. Nobody wants tourists from the USA. In fact, the only “Americans” that the rest of the world has much sympathy for right now are African Americans. This global cultural revolution against the USA will percolate into politics and economics. What’s next? Perhaps world leaders may consider investing in something other than US Treasury bonds – quit paying for imperialism’s free lunch, and stop funding their own military encirclement!
12. And for the first time, I am proud to an “American.” The insurrections which blossomed across every major US city in the past several months changed the world. From February to early May, in the grip of the pandemic, the global ethos was fear, the conversation was about sickness, and the sentiment was Long Live Big Brother! But the largest protest movement in US history turned all that upside-down. The powerful culture industry which keeps nearly eight billion people focused on the USA backfired, and started exporting revolt. The global ethos is now indignation, the conversation is about state violence, and the sentiment is Fuck the Police!
13. The real axis of evil – the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization – is running scared. Today these honchos and their hitmen are advising governments to engage in public spending – precisely what their structural adjustment policies and loan conditionalities have forbidden for over 50 years. We should linger and ruminate on this grotesque fact. For the glorious causes of privatization and deregulation, over the course of half a century these instiutions have accepted, in aggregate, millions of deaths. They have overseen and administered the gutting of health and education and food systems on every continent. Government spending – let alone the specter of debt forgiveness – was their sworn enemy. And now they are promoting both. Why? Because they are running on ideological empty. Because they are afraid, and sweating cash, desperate to keep everyone on their monetary plantation. For soon even compradors with advanced business degrees from Wharton will start to read the real balance sheet: feudal debt slavery, or default? Credit rating, or starvation rate? Junk bonds, or junk sovereignty? Let’s keep them running. “The rich are only defeated when running for their lives,” reminds CLR James.
14. Islamophobia is the new secular religion. It seems like everyone is a true believer – 17 out of the G20 at least. Extremist Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and even Buddhist fundamentalists are all on the rise. But nobody notices, nobody seems to care; so dark and deep is the shadow cast by the fear of Islam – the spiritual tradition that preserved history, philosophy, literature, theatre, medicine and science through the dark ages of Western civilization.
15. The whole human condition is up for review – government, economics, education, art, the family, organized religion, transportation, the meaning of life. But rather than leap through the portal, the majority of human effort currently goes into putting the genie back in the bottle: Save our schools, our jobs, our farms, our places of worship, our states, our nuclear families… and the beat goes on. So the greatest opportunity in history for transformation could imaginably be squandered: not just by counter-revolution, but by pragmatic inertia. Beware the big-hearted and short-sighted reformers, who for humanitarian reasons are prepared to sell future generations short, in order to stave off the collapse we needed all along. We all run this risk, so we need to ask ourselves hard questions: To bail out the present, are we signing the foreclosure of the future? To prevent the collapse of a civilization that deserves to die, are we narrowing the chances of survival for the civilization that deserves to be born? Can we have our cake and eat it too? Many seem to be trying. We are living through a bizarre dialectical moment in history where opposites interpenetrate left and right: Left-wing economists try to shore up neoliberalism with more loans, and right-wing politicians outflank the left with public spending. But don’t believe the hype on either side – the real struggle is the same as before; “now hidden, now open” – between “a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or… the common ruin of the contending classes.” (Marx and Engels)
A) Cut out the jargon, and you don’t need any kind of diploma to understand this stuff. (In fact, those with degrees seem to have the biggest blinders.) It’s easy to have a conversation about these issues with anyone on the city street or the country road. Everyone is talking about radical planetary politics these days. As a result, there is a global constituency for world revolution like nothing we have ever dreamed or imagined.
B) All over the world, medical professionals at every level but particularly the lower levels, are being hardened into an implacable army. They have seen for themselves – and will never forget – the heartlessness and dysfunction of the whole social system at every level. Any party which can unite them will be nearly invincible. As long as this pandemic lasts, and likely for a lot longer, the paramedics and nurses are the new revolutionary subjects and the clinic and hospital are the new commanding heights.
“For a very long time, the intellectual consensus has been that we can no longer ask Great Questions. Increasingly, it’s looking like we have no other choice.”
– David Graeber (Rest in Jubilee)