PATRICK LAWRENCE: The US National Emergency
COVID-19 calls on us to consider our plundered commons and unite around four truths made conspicuous by the pandemic.
Now that the Trump administration has declared the COVID–19 virus a national emergency, it is plain that this once-a-century catastrophe has some things to tell us about ourselves. A thousand New Age apostles call for unity in 1960s “get together” style. In the Hallmark card category, Marianne Williamson advised us on Twitter Saturday, “We can grow from this.”
We may or may not grow from this. This will depend on whether we identify the lessons the COVID–19 pandemic has for humanity — and then go on to learn from them such that we can effect change in the way we live and organize ourselves. Certain nations — agile, imaginative, confident — prove capable of change in the face of new circumstances. The U.S. is not one of these, to put the point politely.
The numerous urgings to unite ourselves reek of what the French call angélisme —hopeless, impotent idealism. These expressions reflect back on us like mirrors, and what they show us is bitter: We preach unity because we have little of it to work with as a nation. Our communities are in one degree or another shredded. The invocation of “we,” indeed, is highly questionable.
Three factors leave us in this fragile, more or less helpless state. There is the radical individualism arising from the Anglo–American philosophic tradition. This causes us to neglect and abuse public space with perfect indifference. We are left, in turn, at the mercy of market fundamentalism. “Savage capitalism,” as this is known in Latin America, is diabolically merciless, as too many of us know firsthand.
President Donald Trump’s press conference Friday, when he announced the state of emergency, was a remarkable occasion — another mirror bearing another lesson. Trump stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a flock of CEOs the White House recruited to counter the spread of COVID–19. WalMart will get this done. Google will get this done. Roche, the drug maker, stood in for Big Pharma: They will all help, too. It is a spectacle to watch the powerful speak thus above our heads. Is this what community in America comes to now? Are we to accept that community has been effectively corporatized along with everything else in American life that isn’t nailed down (and many things that are)?
Put Trump’s appearance Friday next to simultaneous press reports describing the alarming decrepitude of local and state health departments, and the lesson is complete. “Many health departments are suffering from budget and staffing cuts that date to the Great Recession and have never been fully restored,” The New York Times observes.
Actually, the story of our starved-out health departments begins in the Reagan era, when the federal government got smaller by shoving various responsibilities onto states and localities without funding these transferred responsibilities. In the face of crisis, we are caught by our own carelessness — decades of it — as safety nets were ripped up and the commons robbed before our eyes.
It is no better in Britain. On Saturday, Health Minister Matt Hancock disclosed a government plan to force every Briton over 70 years of age into isolation “for a very long time.” The figure I read is four months. John Pilger, who released his documentary “The Dirty War on the NHS”a few months ago, asserted on social media over the weekend that this unconscionable proposition is a direct consequence of official neglect of the National Health Service since the Thatcher years (which coincided with the Reagan years, of course).
If there were no chance of growing ourselves out of these dire circumstances, one would not produce documentaries, write columns, or get out of bed in the morning. But we must grasp and address four essential truths if we are to do any of this growing. Syrupy thoughts with no substance behind them are nothing more than distracting salves that effectively disarm us because they invite us to flinch from our actually existing (as the Marxists used to say) conditions.
Role of State
The first of these truths concerns the role of the state. The place of the state in a nation’s political economy may well have been the premier question of the 20thcentury. Vladimir Lenin had an answer in 1917. John Maynard Keynes had another, more palatable in the Western democracies, a short while later. Jawaharlal Nehru and the Fabians had another, and President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher another after that. The Clinton and Obama administrations wasted between them 16 years gutlessly playing footsie with the Great Communicator’s radical laissez-faire chicanery. It is now chiseled in granite that all must be left to the market. Private sí, public no! To argue otherwise is to belch in chapel.
The West has had the wrong end of the stick on this question since the Reagan–Thatcher somersault. And here come the ironies. Leaders in the Western capitals scramble as we speak to enact Kenysian stimulus programs and launch state-directed social and economic responses to COVID–19, Trump’s “public-private partnerships,” the good old “PPPs,” notwithstanding. Let us hope this marks a very sharp turning point. Let us make it mark one.
In truth, the non–West has it all over the old democracies as to the role of the state. This reflects a much stronger idea of community and a properly balanced notion of the individual’s place in it. Non–Western nations are unburdened by the Anglo–American tradition and have cultures and political histories of their own, even if our Western-centric perspectives leave us ignorant of these. The take-home here: COVID–19 puts the West on notice that it needs to reverse course on the place and role of the state and consign the Reaganesque, Thatcherite minimalism to oblivion. Memo to Bill Clinton: You’ll never spin “The era of big government is over,” your weaselly 1996 utterance, to advantage.
Neoliberalism in the extreme version we live with — another Reagan-era legacy — is the wrong technology for moments such as this one. It cannot respond to 21stcentury exigencies such as COVID–19. We know this now. It is prominent among the culprits behind this crisis. It has devastated our public space, not least our public health institutions.
Big Pharma, reflecting the awful logic of markets über alles, is now poised to profit maximally from the desperation of virus victims. The circumstance is unclear, but there is reason to assume the U.S. declined to accept testing kits approved by the World Health Organization — this in January —because it wanted American companies to profit from making their own.
Drop Destructive Ideology
Truth No. 2: Neoliberalism will be with us a good long while, let us not indulge in illusions. But those who did more than anyone else to bring us to this crisis cannot be looked to for solutions to it. If we are to grow, it must be beyond this destructive ideology.
The only way to get this done is to re-establish (or establish, as the case may be) democratic processes capable of containing corporations and getting them decisively out of government. This means getting those standing as our political leaders out of corporate pockets, one must add.
This century demands sturdy supra-national institutions—truth No. 3. But they are nowhere in evidence now because we have so far failed to build them effectively. These, too, have to be properly democratized if they are to work as conduits for ground-up solutions to on-the-ground problems. The UN so often fails because so much of it is manipulated by the U.S. and its Atlantic allies. The European Union is a fine idea — but not so long as it is controlled by technocratic ideologues who render Strasbourg, seat of the European Parliament, little more than a playpen for political has-beens or never-weres.
Unqualified to Lead
Fourth and final point: It is now plain that the U.S. simply is not qualified to lead in the way our elites insist it must. Who, in the COVID–19 case, is looking to the travesty of our healthcare system for guidance, as any kind of model? What kind of nation keeps devastating sanctions in place despite the COVID–19 crisis, as in the case of Iran? Or the debilitating tariffs the U.S. imposes on China? More broadly, in its late-imperial phase this nation is bereft of vision, imagination, or any similarly creative attribute. This is truth No. 4 to arrive via COVID–19. It was evident long before Trump moved into the White House, although Trump has taken us down many rungs on the ladder of decline.
A West Coast source wrote after I solicited her thoughts on COVID–19:
COVID–19 is an opportunity like none we’ve ever been handed. It can take down empire, it can jump-start meaningful community-oriented innovation, it can fundamentally change the way we do things. This is a potent moment — a creative moment. It’s a great chance we have right now. We can individually and collectively find our hearts again.
I count four “can’s” in this note. It is an excellent verb. It is on us now to begin the long work turning our “can’s” into “will’s.”