Books for changing the world

Danny Katch: Their Money or Your Life

Danny Katch is an activist and humorist often accused of not knowing the difference. He is the author of Socialism...Seriously and Why Bad Governments Happen to Good People.

Imagine pitching this thriller to studio executives in December: 

It’s 2020, and the world is being rampaged by an unknown deadly virus that has brought public life to an eerie halt. We open with desolate daytime scenes of the depopulated streets of midtown Manhattan and Tokyo, empty plazas in Trafalgar Square and the Zócalo. The normal sounds of the world have been replaced by silence and sirens.

Yet in the emptiness there is also hope. Never before has all of humanity been so united in a common project like this to stop the spread of a disease. Most of the world’s people are staying inside and not seeing friends and family—not to save themselves, but the elderly and vulnerable. We see shots of people leaning out of their windows every night in a multitude of cities to cheer for health care workers and for one another.

But then we cut to calls between the President of the United States and the unseen voices of CEOs calling from the palatial beach homes and mountain mansions where they have bunkered down. So many people staying safe at home means people not buying and making things, and the superrich are losing money. The CEOs tell the White House that the people need to get back to work, no matter how many will die from the deadly new virus. Cue the theme music and cut to the show title...wait for it... “Their Money or Your Life.”

The meeting would probably have been brief, unless the studio execs took pity on you and bothered to explain that there’s a difference between clever dystopian world-building and blatantly over-simplified socialist propaganda. And really, who could have blamed them? Some of the dialogue coming from your capitalist villains is so cartoonishly evil. I’m thinking here about the Texas politician saying it’s the patriotic duty of the elderly to die for the sake of the economy, the celebrity doctor (what could go wrong?) pushing schools to reopen because it “may only cost us 2 to 3 percent in terms of total mortality.” It would have shamed a Stalinist agitprop writer at the height of the Great Terror.

It’s okay, though, because in the nonfiction world, subtlety has been out of style for years. Ocean levels have been rising in a seemingly Biblical response to industrial hubris. The President of the United States is the court jester of capitalism. And now, just in case you still haven’t caught on, we face a pandemic that has public figures openly calculating how many human lives to trade for each percentage point of the Gross Domestic Product. The universe in its infinite wisdom appears to have lost patience and resorted to shaking us by the shoulders and screaming, “What are you waiting for? A cataclysm of devastating earthquakes whose fault lines spell out the words SOCIALISM NOW?”

Hundreds of clowns march shoulder to shoulder on state capitols in response to calls from organizations and figures backed by the billionaire Koch and DeVos families to violate public health rules and “liberate” (in the words of the president) their states from social-distancing measures that in fact they know to be nefarious plots hatched by China and/or the Gates Foundation and/or George Soros and/or Nancy Pelosi.

It’s hard to consider these people as anything other than fools, but even the most one-dimensional bad guys have motivations, and Naomi Klein’s brilliant explanation for climate change denial is instructive. Klein argues that the refusal to acknowledge the most pressing issue of our time is driven not by the ignorance of the masses but from the knowledge of some super wealthy people that rising temperatures can only be halted by radical changes that would gravely threaten their powers and privilege, to say nothing of their investment portfolios. And so they refuse to accept—some of them openly with their words, far more of them implicitly through their actions—the empirical proof of rising temperatures and sea levels.

The consequences of this historic choice of moral cowardice has not just been the loss of precious time in reducing carbon emissions. It has also legitimized the practice of believing whatever you want in the face of a whole range of inconvenient truths, and turned over one of US capitalism’s two political parties to a collection of crackpots, con artists, and cable news conspiracists whose primary mission isn’t government but mis-infotainment.

When it comes to coronavirus, it’s already obvious the most immediate public health measures of lockdown and social distancing are a disaster for corporate profits, oil sales, and balanced government budgets. But what’s maybe even more threatening in the long term for the billionaire class is the way that the pandemic can push most people’s perceived self-interest away from hyper-individualized competition and toward community and solidarity.

Regardless of your formal political beliefs, if you don’t own a private island or secluded mansion, your personal wellbeing depends on everyone having access to health care, regardless of their immigration status or ability to pay, or being in prison or out. If you can see past the prevailing ideology of dehumanization, you will also recognize that you need jails, immigrant detention centers, and other warehouses of the oppressed, all of which are vectors of infection, to be as empty as possible.

In other words, to take coronavirus seriously is to treat what is normally a perhaps abstract socialist ideal, that a society is only as strong as its most vulnerable members, as a matter of immediate epidemiological fact. I can hardly blame right wingers for wondering if this isn’t all a sinister false flag operation from the omnipresent forces of Cultural Marxism, given that I began this piece by suggesting the same thing.

Denial takes many forms. If Donald Trump is a caricature of the stupidity and self-interest of our ruling class, then Joe Biden is a caricature of its mediocrity, lack of imagination, and, yes, decline. Biden’s sudden and crushing victory over Bernie Sanders in the presidential primaries has put the Democratic Party fully back in charge of its voters. Now party leaders are free to do what they do best, which is proposing impotent half-measures whose impacts might only be half as awful as Republican plans, but whose politics are twice as inept.

Keep businesses closed to contain the virus, but don’t pay workers enough to stay home, Free virus testing and treatment but no other health care for the tens of millions who have just lost their coverage along with their jobs. Say no to Trump’s dangerous anti-China rhetoric—also Trump screwed this up by being too soft on “The Chinese.”

Reality may have endorsed Bernie Sanders over Biden, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor memorably wrote as the scale of the pandemic was becoming clear, but the endorsement of reality, like that of newspaper editorial boards, is probably overrated. The grim realities of this country made Sanders’ policies like Medicare for All and free college wildly popular among Democratic voters long before coronavirus, but those same realities are also why so many were able to be bullied into thinking we were foolish to think we could demand so much.

Our ideas are profoundly shaped by what we see around us every day, no matter much we pride ourselves on being independent thinkers, because those ideas exist not as tiny Ayn Randian supermen but in community with other ideas and the experiences that shape them. (As Marx put it, “being determines consciousness.”)

Bernie Sanders put tens of millions of people in a better position to understand the coronavirus calamity in terms of solidarity rather than scapegoating. But most of us have not experienced “Not Me, Us” as a tangible tool for winning a raise, stopping a deportation, or challenging sexual harassment. Few of us belong to unions, tenant organizations, or community groups. Fewer still belong to such groups that function democratically and have not been ground down by decades of losing battles.

So while Bernie admirably repeated in his speeches that his program was going to require a fight, many of his active and potential supporters aren’t sure deep down that we have the ability to come together and win that fight. And that was back when we did things like leave our homes and change out of our pajamas.

But that’s where we come back to this wild world we find ourselves in. Because coronavirus—and the even more threatening disease of capitalist greed—isn’t allowing us to meekly follow orders. The greed and short-sightedness of employers isn’t letting people rest. Instead it’s putting the classic socialist question of who controls the workplace—something that is rarely taken up by even the most radical electoral campaigns—into an immediate matter of life and death.

“How many more have to fight for their life, how many more families got to suffer before they realize we are more important than their production?” The quote isn’t from Norma Rae or some other fictional radical speechmaker but the concrete question of a Tyson Foods chicken deboner who is being forced to work in a viral hotspot even after three of her co-workers have died. Meatpacking workers have had sickouts and walkouts to win personal protective equipment, as have workers at anti-union behemoths Amazon (where Jeff Bezos is now worth another $25 billion since the start of the pandemic thanks to Amazon’s rising stock price) and Instacart, while New York City teachers organized a sickout to force the closing of the country’s largest school system, an act that undoubtedly saved countless lives.

Then there are the thousands of smaller job confrontations that aren’t reaching the point of a large action but have permanently marked those involved, from the confrontations with supervisors who insist that vulnerable employees continue to work in dangerous conditions to the self-organizing among co-workers who have realized that nothing will get done if they leave their health and safety up to managers whose primary concern during this crisis is to reassert their pathetic authority.

Being determines consciousness. These workplace conflicts and protests have the potential to imprint a critical aspect of socialism in our national culture that has been missing for many generations, the understanding that economic systems are about more than tax rates and the distribution of wealth. They are about bodily autonomy and the production of wealth. Workers who have long accepted the conservative complaint that “socialism is about spending other people’s money” are now seeing that capitalism is about other people expending our lives.

As the tension mounts, it’s tempting to believe that we’re at the beginning of the third act, with both sides beginning to prepare for decisive conflict ahead. It’s a scary prospect given how massively outgunned we have been in terms of ideas and organization until quite recently, which is why it’s so much easier to conceive of this moment in terms of apocalypse than revolution.

But what’s perhaps even more frightening is the idea that there’s nothing decisive about this moment, that we’ll “get through” this crisis by getting used to it. Every time we express shock at medical workers wearing garbage bags to prevent contamination or the numbers of dead in prisons and nursing homes, we are in fact a little less shocked. That’s just how our brains work. And so the danger is that the bar will be lowered once more for exactly how much horror and degradation we can weather in the next disaster—our resiliency turned against us.

As everyone in Hollywood understands, sequels always have a higher body count.

If we’re not able to start changing these inhuman conditions, more of us can start to assimilate the anti-human ideas that justify them coming from the death cult marchers and their secretive billionaire backers.

But we’re not there yet. This is still the moment of widespread shock that many who run our world would gladly trade our lives so that they can keep their yachts and their fifth homes.

Whatever happens next, this is the part of the story where we commit ourselves to a revolution.

Danny Katch is an activist and humorist often accused of not knowing the difference. He is the author of Socialism...Seriously and Why Bad Governments Happen to Good People.

  • Socialism . . . Seriously

  • Why Bad Governments Happen to Good People

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