It’s difficult to grasp the amount of collective suffering, anxiety, and fear experienced by Americans in the past few months as the coronavirus made its deadly way through cities like New York. States shuttered schools and announced that families had to isolate indefinitely at home. Forty million filed for unemployment. The news media were filled with mixed messages from public-health professionals and politicians—you don’t need to wear a mask, you must wear a mask—sowing confusion among Americans who were desperate for guidance and leadership. By the end of May, more than 100,000 people had died.
As people did their best to adjust to a new world of empty streets, strict lockdown orders, and, for many people, the loss of jobs and loved ones, a strange reaction arose in certain quarters. Where some saw an unrelenting crisis, others saw opportunity. This crisis wasn’t merely something to survive; it was fertile ground where an ideology could thrive.
In a November 2008 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Rahm Emanuel, soon to be Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff, said, “You never want to let a serious crisis go to waste. . . . It’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” Writing in the Washington Post in March, just as the pandemic was gathering steam, Emanuel repeated the advice: “Never allow a crisis to go to waste. Start planning for the future. This has to be the last pandemic that creates an economic depression.”
Emanuel’s advice to Democrats in Congress, then drafting a stimulus package to relieve the immediate economic suffering, was to use the opportunity to increase the power of unions, demand stricter fuel- emissions standards, and allocate money for “green” industries such as wind and solar power—in other words, to make sure they took advantage of this crisis to push unrelated issues that are part of their larger political agenda. The message resonated. As the Hill reported, House Majority Whip James Clyburn, a Democrat of South Carolina, stated, “This is a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.”
That vision includes pursuing progressive goals and legislation that are too unpopular to pass muster in normal times but that might, under cover of a global pandemic, be made to seem crucial for the country’s survival. These included, but were not limited to:
• arguments that the temporary economic-relief measures passed by Congress proved the need for a permanent Universal Basic Income and greater state control of the economy;
• shortages of personal protective equipment and ventilators for health-care workers should be a predicate to the nationalization of the health-care system;
• short-term improvements in air quality in some locales due to the paucity of auto-mobiles on the road during lockdown demonstrated the need to enact environmental laws that would make personal ownership of motor vehicles more oner-ous and the redesign of cities to make driving in them more difficult.
The progressive writer Ryan Bellinson was typical of the trend; in his summary of such hopes on the website Common Dreams he wrote, “This crisis could be used to create a different kind of society. We can choose to ensure every person has access to a good-paying job. We can respond to the disaster by guaranteeing everyone access to high quality affordable housing. This crisis can be a catalyst for securing access to clean air and water for every person. We must not waste this crisis. Many workers and activists see the potential for these objectives to be delivered through a Green New Deal modeled after FDR’s transformative program.”
This kind of thinking shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who has been watching the evolution of the progressive left in recent years; the utopian style in American politics has been growing steadily. As Akash Kapur observed in the New Yorker in 2016: “Not long ago, utopianism was a mark of naïveté or fanaticism, or even of solidarity with political coercion. Today, anti-utopianism is denigrated as a form of political cynicism and complicity with the global forces of oppression.”
Utopianism as a cover for political opportunism, however, clearly has a growing constituency.
A large part of that opportunism takes the form of efforts to reimagine the economy and the structure of work. As the Democratic Socialist publication Jacobin noted in an introduction to a recent interview with Philip Mirowski (author of a book called Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste): “Today, faced with the coronavirus pandemic, many observers have again pointed to an opportunity for the left to change the economic agenda. Such claims may seem to be bolstered by the massive state intervention as well as a widespread political emphasis on the importance of public services.”
Jacobin contributor Ben Burgis was more blunt: “Yes, Socialism Would Handle the Coronavirus Pandemic Better Than Capitalism” was the title of a May 24th piece. Why socialism? Because, Burgis argues, people would have so much more free time to craft creative solutions to the macroeconomic problems created by the pandemic. “Part of the advantage of expropriating the capitalist class, and thus eliminating the constant pressure from that class to extend markets to all spheres of life,” he wrote, “is that it would free up the citizens of socialist societies to make collective decisions about where they’re willing to put up with a little market chaos for the sake of efficiently coordinating production with consumer needs and what sectors need to be taken out of the market entirely.” His suggestion? “It would be surprising if any such process didn’t lead to the nationalization of the pharmaceutical industry.”
Burgis didn’t stop there; he also advocated nationalized health care. Indeed, the thought of government taking over large sectors of the economy prompted him to indulge in several flights of statist fancy: “Similarly, the scaling up itself would be far easier in a country where the commanding heights of the economy were already in public hands—where, for example, General Motors really was ‘Government Motors.’ Nor would any unsolved problems about the logistics of planning be a problem here. Even the far from nimble Soviet system was very good at mass producing tanks and guns, and there’s no reason to think planned sectors would be any worse at mass-producing ventilators.”
Burgis also expressed his support for private businesses adopting socialist co-op models that would implement “the traditional socialist policy, going back to the Paris Commune, that any official could be recalled by her constituents at any time.” In this case, one assumes “recalled” means “fired by employees” as opposed to the model offered by the Paris Commune of 1870, which was characterized by infighting and instability, and whose brief experiment in governance ended with the Communards setting fire to half of Paris as they fled the collapse of their utopian experiment. And even Burgis conceded that worker control might not be enough: “We’d still need a strong regulatory state to oversee even a worker-controlled private sector.”
Lest one think these ideas are the province solely of leftist theorists, plenty of legislators also expressed an eagerness to try to implement more progressive policies under cover of aiding American workers during a crisis. Democratic Representative Ro Khanna and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts proposed an “Essential Workers Bill of Rights” that would guarantee universal paid sick and family leave, child care, more collective bargaining power, and the deliberately vague admonishment to “hold corporations accountable for meeting their responsibilities.”
Similarly, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez urged Americans to view the economy not as an engine of prosperity and stability but through the prism of their own feelings. If those feelings are less than enthusiastic about working for a living, they should be heeded: “Only in America, does the president, when the president tweets about liberation, does he mean ‘Go back to work,’” she complained to Anand Giridharadas on Vice TV. “We have this discussion about ‘going back’ or ‘reopening’—I think a lot of people should just say, ‘No, we’re not going back to that. We’re not going back to working 70-hour weeks just so that we can put food on the table and not feel any sort of semblance of security in our lives.”
Her recommendation? In mid-April, as oil prices plunged, she tweeted, “You absolutely love to see it. This along with record low interest rates means it’s the right time for a worker-led, mass investment in green infrastructure to save our planet.”
But for those as yet unready to give up on a life that features a job, Rahm Emanuel came to the rescue in the pages of the Washington Post in May. He proposed that the government pay unemployed Americans to learn to code (among other things) so that their energies could be redirected to a new public good: “As their hunt for work continues, Washington will give them another bonus if they pursue an online degree in coding, advanced manufacturing or nursing assistance, among other areas. We can turn crisis into opportunity, transforming our workforce into an army of American rebirth.”
Wish lists for workers were all the rage. The state of Hawaii’s Commission on the Status of Women proposed a “feminist economic recovery plan” titled “Building Bridges, Not Walking on Backs” to combat the COVID crisis. It included demands for a Universal Basic Income, funds for “marginalized groups” including “indigenous and immigrant women, caregivers, elderly women, femme-identifying and non-binary people, incarcerated women, unsheltered women, domestic-abuse and sex-trafficking survivors, and women with disabilities,” as the Washington Post’s women-focused website the Lily enthusiastically summarized. The proposals also included a $24.80 minimum wage “for single mothers” as well as free child care.
The report couldn’t contain its excitement. “The COVID-19 response and recovery plan sets the stage for a series of what could be some of the most important and transformative policy decisions that Hawaii and the world have the opportunity to enact,” it noted. “This is our moment to build a system that is capable of delivering gender equality.” As for our current free market system? “It is clearer than ever that capitalism could not care for us during COVID-19,” which is why the report told the state’s policymakers that “a successful recovery plan will go beyond policy, and aim policy at deep cultural change.”
Like much of the current rhetoric on the progressive left, “cultural change” encompasses a wide range of policy recommendations beyond the destruction of capitalism. This is how the Hawaii report put it: “Reversing climate change, repairing historical violence and inequality within and between countries, addressing inequalities within households, eliminating gender-based and sexual violence, and ending mass incarceration will require us to recognize and value all members of our communities beyond their value to economic production in capitalism.”
To avoid the charge that they are exploiting a tragedy for political gain, opportunists will argue, as Hawaii’s commission did, that “this is essential to our survival.” And yet, some observers on the left can’t entirely mask their glee about the second-order effects of the pandemic and the opportunities for radical action they present. Writing on the website LitHub, Ben Ehrenreich notes approvingly, “Since mid-March, the U.S. has seen strikes and walkouts by American bus drivers, nurses, trash collectors, delivery drivers and workers in grocery stores, Amazon ‘fulfillment centers,’ auto and poultry plants, shipyards, and fast-food restaurants. Tenants around the country, and the world, are organizing rent strikes. If we didn’t before, we know now that everything can change, radically, almost overnight.”
Embedded in much of this line of reasoning is the belief that the pandemic revealed problems for which only radically progressive solutions are the appropriate response—particularly in areas where progressives have previously been stymied by either a lack of public support or an inability to enact meaningful legislation. Consider climate change, which activists believe should be battled with the same rigor and resources devoted to the pandemic. Writing in the Guardian, Peter C. Baker argued that responses to both the pandemic and climate change “will require governments to take drastic action and banish the logic of the marketplace from certain realms of human activity, while simultaneously embracing public investment.” But such measures can’t be temporary: “To think of this new level of state intervention as a temporary requirement is to ensure that we continue barreling down the path to climate disaster.”
As Margaret Klein Salamon, who heads an advocacy group called The Climate Mobilization (and whose expertise is in psychology, not climate science) told Baker, that’s always been the plan: “We’ve been trying for years to get people out of normal mode and into emergency mode. What is possible politically is fundamentally different when lots of people get into emergency mode—when they fundamentally accept that there’s danger, and that if we want to be safe we need to do everything we can. And it’s been interesting to see that theory validated by the response to the coronavirus. Now the challenge is to keep emergency mode activated about climate, where the dangers are orders of magnitude greater.”
Like other activists eager to capitalize on a crisis, Salamon identified the great motivator that can be exploited to further that cause: fear. “That’s what we want for climate, too,” she said. “We need to learn to be scared together, to agree on what we’re terrified about.” Only then can governments, pressed by the fears of their citizens, be forced to act.
Rhiana Gunn-Wright, who helped craft the so-called Green New Deal, would likely agree. She was incensed that virus-relief packages debated in Congress didn’t include money allocated to her pet environmental projects. “Refusing to include measures related to climate and environmental justice in economic stimulus packages related to the coronavirus is not neutral when there is no guarantee of other opportunities to do so later,” she wrote in the New York Times. “We need to design the stimulus not only to help the U.S. economy recover but to also become more resilient to the climate crisis, the next multitrillion-dollar crisis headed our way.”
So eager are climate-change activists for immediate transformation that they are willing to argue that although scores of thousands of people were dying, there was a silver lining: COVID-19 was saving lives by decreasing pollution due to the cessation of economic activity. As Ben Ehrenreich claimed, “by one estimate, the reduction in air pollution that accompanied the virus-induced shutdown of industry in China may have prevented as many as 77,000 premature deaths, more than can be credited to Covid-19.” This prompted Ehrenreich to ask some existential questions: “When a deadly pandemic saves more lives than it steals by forcing a pause in a still-more deadly system, what sense does it mean to talk about benefit and loss? What is now collapsing, and for whom? I want my kid and every kid to breathe clean air every day of their lives. I want them to know what birds sound like. What does it mean that these modest wishes are in direct and obvious conflict with the economic system that has dominated for more than a century?”
No doubt the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer was informed by similarly lofty concerns when he declared in the New York Times in May that, thanks to the pandemic, “the end of meat is here.” Unfortunately, Foer’s veggie tale, like AOC’s approach to economics, proved to be a mishmash of abstract certainty and wide-eyed naiveté aimed at a liberal audience long familiar with lectures about the environmental impact of their consumption choices. “An increasing number of people sense the inevitability of impending change,” Foer wrote, pointing to the fact that workers at some meat-processing plants had fallen ill with the virus. “Our hand has been reaching for the doorknob for the last few years. Covid-19 has kicked open the door. As in a dream where our homes have rooms unknown to our waking selves, we can sense there is a better way of eating, a life closer to our values. On the other side is not something new, but something that calls from the past—a world in which farmers were not myths, tortured bodies were not food and the planet was not the bill at the end of the meal.” Foer’s fantasy brings to mind George Orwell’s scabrous portrait of a type he called the food crank, whom he defined as “a person willing to cut himself off from human society in hopes of adding five years on to the life of his carcass; that is, a person out of touch with common humanity.”
The effort to spin progressive gold from pandemic dross reached its apogee in a series from the New York Times’ editorial board called “The America We Need,” which promised to explore “basic questions about what the government owes its citizens, what corporations owe their employees and what we all owe each other.”
The language of debt is worth noting, especially since many of the wide-ranging policies imagined by the contributors would cost an extraordinary amount of money to implement. The Times opinion writers dismiss such concerns at the outset. Citing Progressive-era reforms, the New Deal, and the Great Society, they wrote that, like those large-scale government efforts, the policies they were promoting embody a “broad and muscular conception of liberty: that government should provide all Americans with the freedom that comes from a stable and prosperous life.”
Current temporary efforts to alleviate suffering should be made permanent, they declared. “Some politicians are asserting that the extraordinary nature of the crisis does not warrant permanent changes in the social contract. This misapprehends both the nature of crises in general and the particulars of the present emergency.”
They crafted a conservative straw man to drive the point home: “Advocates of a minimalist conception of government claim they too are defenders of liberty,” the editors wrote. “But theirs is a narrow and negative definition of freedom: the freedom from civic duty, from mutual obligation, from taxation. This impoverished view of freedom has in practice protected wealth and privilege.” Instead, “what America needs is a just and activist government.”
The philosopher Michael Sandel agreed, and his contribution pondered the usefulness of wage-setting by the federal government to help essential workers. “Beyond thanking them for their service, we should reconfigure our economy and society to accord such workers the compensation and recognition that reflects the true value of their contributions,” he argued. And we should do so “without assuming that markets can decide these questions on their own.” He pondered a number of progressive options: “Should we bolster the dignity of work by shifting the burden of taxation from payroll taxes to taxes on financial transactions, wealth and carbon? Should we reconsider our current policy of taxing income from labor at a higher rate than capital gains?” Perhaps “we” could ask Sandel, a tenured professor at Harvard, if “we” could fund some of these expensive projects out of Harvard’s $40 billion endowment?
An essay by the novelist and professor Viet Thanh Nguyen expressed the hope that the experience of lockdown during the pandemic would make us more sympathetic to the imprisoned, for, in Nguyen’s telling, everyone is a prisoner of something. “Perhaps the sensation of imprisonment during quarantine might make us imagine what real imprisonment feels like,” he wrote. “There are, of course, actual prisons where we have warehoused human beings who have no relief from the threat of the coronavirus. There are refugee camps and detention centers that are de facto prisons. There is the economic imprisonment of poverty and precariousness, where a missing paycheck can mean homelessness, where illness without health insurance can mean death.” He hoped that the pandemic experience would “compel radical acts of self-reflection, self-assessment, and, eventually, solidarity.” And if you are wavering about whether or not now is the time to embrace progressive social policies, the two-time Pulitzer winner Nicholas Kristof asked us to consider this shocking fact: Our lack of such policies means that McDonald’s employees in Denmark pity us.
When we finally emerge from the pandemic crisis, we will have accrued trillions of dollars in non-wartime debt and will be facing unprecedented levels of unemployment. When the Stanford historian Walter Scheidel was interviewed by Vox in April, he predicted a post-pandemic expansion of government—but was also one of the few people willing to reckon with what it would cost. “No matter how you look at it, if there’s a big shift after this, it’ll be in the direction of a more invasive and active role of the state, and a more progressive taxation scheme on private and corporate incomes is almost certain under these circumstances because you can’t just create this out of nothing,” he said. “There has to be some balancing of these growing deficits.”
That is unlikely to happen. In all of these efforts to imagine a better, more progressive American future, there is a stubborn refusal to confront the cost, complexity, and often negative side effects of some of these wildly ambitious projects. In praising Denmark’s extensive social safety net, for example, Kristof neglected to mention that it supports an ethnically homogeneous nation with fewer people than the state of Maryland. Nor did he note that the progressive sensibilities of the Danes don’t extend to immigrants; Denmark has some of the most restrictive immigration laws in Europe, and it requires the children of immigrants who do settle there to take compulsory “Danish values” classes 25 hours per week beginning at age one. Why would he bother? Mentioning such caveats would have undermined his purpose: frightening Americans into believing that the current crisis is acute enough to require large-scale, transformative measures.
There is an understandable and commendable impulse to believe that, no matter how destructive a disaster or crisis, the possibility for renewal exists, and that we will eventually emerge stronger and better as individuals and as a nation. The rhetoric of good leaders tends to reflect that impulse, as it did in the resolve expressed by Winston Churchill during the Blitz in World War II or by George W. Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
But there is also a particularly long-lived impulse among the ideologically minded to leverage horror into something useful for their own cause. “Out of this crisis there’s a chance to build a better nation,” the editors of the Times reassured us, as if surviving a global pandemic, regrouping, and getting back to some semblance of normality just wouldn’t be sufficient unto the day. Their conception of a better nation is one with no wealth disparities; where all the shibboleths of identity politics are honored by everyone everywhere; where jails are abolished; and where everyone’s work is self-fulfilling, not too onerous or time-consuming, and protected by powerful unions. In other words: a progressive utopia.
“Ideas that used to be seen as leftwing seem more reasonable to more people. There’s room for change that there wasn’t beforehand. It’s an opening,” writer Rebecca Solnit told the Guardian recently. “The task today is not to fight the virus in order to return to business as usual, because business as usual was already a disaster. The goal, instead, is to fight the virus—and in doing so transform business as usual into something more humane and secure.” Peter Baker said much the same thing: “Today’s leftists, for whom Obama mostly represents disappointment . . . feel that, in the wake of recent crises, they lost, and now is the time to make amends. If, facing a pandemic, we can change this much in a few weeks, then how much might we change in a year?”
The liberal fantasy represented by such remarks assumes that we can use the crisis as a jumping-off point for fixing everything that was broken before the pandemic. But these same ideas were not popular enough to enact before a global public-health crisis. So why should we embrace them now, especially when the only likely path out of our current predicament will be a halting one toward some form of economic growth and reemployment for millions of Americans?
Calls for temporary adaptations or innovations in a crisis can all too quickly morph into efforts to install policies in the long term whose purpose is to shore up one’s ideological vision, not alleviate temporary suffering. In a 2009 essay, “The Political Economy of Crisis Opportunism,” the economist Robert Higgs argued that a crisis “alters the fundamental conditions of political life. Like a river suddenly swollen by the collapse of an upstream dam, the ideological current becomes bloated by the public’s fear and apprehension of impending dangers and its heightened uncertainty about future developments. Bewildered people turn to the government to resolve the situation, demanding that government officials ‘do something’ to repair the damage already done and prevent further harm.”
At the end of May, Americans were just beginning to see some hopeful signs that the worst of the pandemic might be behind us. States began to ease some of the strictest requirements of lockdown, and businesses began the slow and difficult process of reopening. Then a white police officer killed an unarmed African-American man in Minneapolis. The aftermath of the killing of George Floyd has sparked global protests and mass demonstrations across the country against police brutality, as well as lawless mayhem, looting, and violence in many cities. It also spawned immediate demands by progressives for large-scale (and heretofore unpopular) social reforms such as decarceration, reparations for slavery, and even the elimination of the police.
Plus ça change.
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