Coronavirus Creates an Opening for Progressivism — Also Barbarism

A family of undocumented Bostonians. Both parents lost their jobs in recent weeks. Neither will receive any aid from the bill Congress just passed. Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/Boston Globe via Getty Images

We were in crisis before this crisis. When a novel strain of coronavirus made its presence felt in Wuhan in December, global carbon emissions were hitting record highs. The world’s largest democracy was descending into a kind of fascism, as the world’s most populous nation condemned its Muslim minority to internment camps. A quarter of humanity faced looming water shortages, while hedge funds sought to corner the market on “the oil of the 21st century.” Throughout the West, the labor movements that had once cultivated egalitarian alternatives to ethno-nationalism were declining, while gross wealth inequalities were annually compounding the capacity of billionaires to dominate putatively democratic societies and governments. Progressives are ostensibly defined by their faith in the possibility of social progress. But as of late last year, it was hard for many on the left to look into the future and see a world that wasn’t nasty, brutish, and hot.

And then, the “good times” ended. Now, the world is besieged by a pandemic that threatens to kill 100,000 Americans if we’re lucky before triggering a global economic depression.

This tragedy has (justifiably) deepened many a progressive’s pessimism. And yet, as an extraordinary, exogenous shock to a badly broken status quo order, the COVID-19 pandemic has also expanded the spectrum of imaginable futures and political possibilities. And some of those possibilities have been a sight for sore socialists’ eyes.

There’s good news for progressives who like politically affirming bad news.

As the UC Irvine legal scholar Mehrsa Baradaran writes for The American Prospect, the coronavirus has conspicuously affirmed some of the progressive movement’s core premises: among them that “our actions affect other people even when we aren’t aware,” that the imperatives of economic growth can conflict with the general welfare, and that we are perfectly capable of rapidly reordering society to subordinate GDP growth to human needs.

Baradaran’s litany is worthy of expansion and elaboration. Coronavirus has provided an object lesson in humanity’s interdependence, which is to say, in the ways that the deprivation of some threatens the well-being of all. When one nation lacks the public-health infrastructure necessary to contain an infectious disease, the public health of all nations are undermined. If millions of Americans cannot afford to stay home from work or access medical care when they are ill, the well-being of all Americans is jeopardized. COVID-19 has rendered these realities sufficiently undeniable for conservative Republican congressmen to endorse socializing the costs of coronavirus testing and treatment and for the president to sign his name to (grossly inadequate) paid-leave legislation. 

Meanwhile, as a historic recession threatens to throw nearly 50 million Americans out of work, the prospect of mass un-insurance in the middle of a pandemic has thrown a spotlight onto the perversity of our nation’s employer-based health-care system. The deepening economic crisis has also exposed the inescapably political foundations of the market economy. For decades, the right has reconciled the public to gross inequality and wrenching economic dislocation by framing impartial market forces for the crimes of reactionary policy-makers. But it is hard to maintain the fiction of an apolitical economic sphere when the “invisible hand” is so clearly attached to Jerome Powell’s forearm. It is rare for an improbable misfortune to propel an entire economy to the verge of financial ruin. But it is quite common for such tribulations to ruin individual workers and business owners. The coronavirus crisis provides a vivid reminder that the state is perfectly capable of sheltering its constituents from the market’s mercilessness; the question has only ever been whose risks it wishes to socialize.

Finally, the pandemic has raised awareness of the profound social value that grocery-store clerks, warehouse workers, and deliver drivers create — and the failure of markets, as currently structured, to adequately compensate such labor. This development has not merely earned service-sector workers a former president’s public tribute but also facilitated their efforts to organize and assert power over their employers.

Take all of this — and combine it with the pandemic’s demonstration of the extraordinary economic and human costs of remaining complacent when scientists demand preparation for an impending calamity — and you can see how a progressive movement defined by the twin goals of Medicare for All and Green New Deal might thrive in COVID-19’s wake.

And yet, not all of this pandemic’s lessons are auspicious for the left. If the coronavirus has provided cause for bullishness on democratic socialism, it’s offered at least as much reason to believe the future belongs to tribalistic barbarism.

The pandemic is hardening the borders it crosses.

COVID-19 may spotlight our species’ interdependence on a crowded, interconnected, increasingly inhospitable planet. But it has also illustrated humanity’s strong tendency to circumscribe our spheres of social concern in the face of scarcity and acute threat. Mounting a robust, progressive response to climate crisis will require building and maintaining bonds of solidarity that transcend the nation-state — in a global context characterized by inequality, ecological disruption, and acute shortages of potable water and arable land. The present pandemic has some inauspicious implications for that project.

In a global context characterized by inequality, epidemiological disruption, and acute shortages of life-saving medical equipment, humanity is not transcending national solidarities so much as we are reasserting their supremacy. As COVID-19 concentrated its fury on the people of Italy, no wave of Pan-European fellow-feeling brought other E.U. nations to Rome’s aid; rather, Italy’s requests for personal protective equipment fell on deaf ears, as E.U. member states hoarded those life-saving materials, prioritizing their own nations’ potential, future vulnerability over Italy’s actual, present torment. Calls for prosperous, relatively unafflicted Northern European countries to provide economic relief to their poorer, pandemic-riven neighbors to the south have proved similarly fruitless.

This phenomenon is not peculiar to Europe. America and Canada have a centuries-long bond. But when a coronavirus-sickened cruise ship approached the Florida coast last week, the Sunshine State did not welcome the vessel’s Canadian passengers into its care; rather, Governor Ron DeSantis declared, “We cannot afford to have people who are not even Floridians dumped into South Florida using up those valuable resources.”

One nation far from God, thoroughly divisible.

Even if the left is content to build progressivism in one nation, realizing the egalitarian ambitions of the Green New Deal will require fostering cross-class and inter-ethnic solidarities amid vast inequality and widespread insecurity. And our society’s response to the pandemic isn’t terribly heartening on that front either. The $2 trillion relief package that Congress passed last week (before skipping town for a month-long vacation) provided roughly $0 in aid to the 5 percent of U.S. workers who are undocumented.

Even if one ignores that (1) the American economy has relied for centuries on migrant laborers from parts south, that (2) we built our agricultural sector around the tacit presumption of this labor force’s existence, and that (3) the 7.6 million undocumented people who work in the U.S. pay into federal social programs that they do not benefit from and abide by our laws more consistently than do the native-born — which is to say, even if we pretend that the undocumented live parasitically off real Americans rather than vice versa — denying them access to health care and unemployment relief in the midst of a pandemic and recession would still be mindless. If such immigrants can’t securely access treatment for the coronavirus, the health of the native-born is impaired; if the millions of undocumented service workers displaced by the shuttering of restaurants and hotels have no means to support themselves or their families, their consumer spending will fall and the recession will be exacerbated.

But we, as a society, currently value the exclusion of the undocumented over our own collective well-being. Thus, the concept of providing cash assistance to all U.S. workers is so verboten it went nearly unmentioned in last week’s congressional debate.

Other powerless, stigmatized constituencies have suffered similar fates. For weeks, it has been clear that the people in America’s jails — three-quarters of whom have been convicted of no crime and are incarcerated because they are not wealthy enough to make bail — are at grave risk of infection. And yet efforts to alleviate overcrowding in plague-stricken facilities have been grossly belated where they haven’t been nonexistent; even in progressive New York City, Mayor de Blasio’s half-hearted attempts to mitigate the plight of Rikers inmates have inspired fierce resistance among district attorneys. 

If all this constitutes a preview of how the world will respond to the challenges wrought by two- (or three-, or four-) degree warming, it is a harrowing one. Should ecological crisis lead governments to jealously guard the prerogatives of their core constituents, no matter how myopic or self-defeating, then the burgeoning ranks of the stateless are going to suffer and die at a potentially genocidal scale. If the experience of threat and insecurity leads dominant nations, classes, and castes to tighten the borders around their in-groups, then the transnational cooperation necessary to realize a global energy transition will remain a pipe dream.

A better world is possible. Humanity may have a good number of maladaptive tendencies. But we are nothing if not socially and culturally malleable creatures. It is not some in-built, inescapable atavism that’s dictating the E.U.’s callousness toward Italy, or America’s toward its undocumented. Governments respond to those who have the power to hold them to account (and social acceptance often lies downstream of political power). The reason individual U.S. states are getting into bidding wars over scarce medical equipment is not because the irreconcilable cultural differences between the peoples of Connecticut and Massachusetts constrain their capacity to act in common cause. Rather, it is because arbitrary state lines make Charlie Baker accountable to voters in Chicopee, Massachusetts, but not to those in Enfield Connecticut, and Ned Lamont accountable to the latter but not the former. Similarly, the reason Congress felt little need to consider the plight of the undocumented last week was that the undocumented cannot vote.

Therefore, to fortify the progressive project against reaction in the crisis-laden decades to come, the left will need to both cultivate border-collapsing modes of social identity and secure a modicum of political power for the world’s disenfranchised and dispossessed. This was true before COVID-19’s emergence. But the present crisis underscores the urgency of these objectives and opens some opportunities for advancing them.

Covid-19 Creates an Opening for Socialism (Also Barbarism)