Coronavirus and the Shock Doctrine

Without strong Democratic leadership, without mass protest, and with the economy so disrupted that I become confused as to how strikes could work, how do we fight for what we need?

I have been distracted lately, like many others I know. But my main anxiety is not about immediate effects of the coronavirus, in its health and economic ramifications—although these are very serious, since I have loved ones at high risk whom I may never see again. We are talking about great economic hardships and risks.

My main unease is from seeing that future challenges coming down the road, related to climate change, will likely be worse than what we face this year, and from fearing that our government is revealing itself in slow motion as a failed state as it responsed (or not) to this comparatively mild stress test—primarily because of the callousness and corruption of elite Republicans.

After the Senate effectively declared Mr. Trump above the law in the impeachment debacle, just a few weeks ago, I stopped being optimistic about ever seeing a fair national election or decent approximation of the rule of law again. Still, that was in the abstract. It remains hard to watch the process unfold concretely in the recent election in my beloved “Wisconsin: the State Where American Democracy Went to Die”—likely a practice run for Republicans in swing states this fall—as well as in what seems to be the looting of the stimulus package even if we only can see vague outlines of those outrages so far.

It is terrifying to think about waves of coming crises, while living with the uncertainty from lacking democratic accountability, while having a shrinking sense of a legitimate and competent government,.  In this context I want to pose four questions.

Are We Ready for a Constitutional Crisis?

First, let’s consider that, although this scenario is not a likely soon, we can plausibly imagine scenarios unfolding that would provoke a full-blown Constitutional crisis. For example, what if Trump and Pence were both incapacitated, related to the coronavirus or for some other unforeseen reason?  What would happen to the leadership chain in our country? We know Nancy Pelosi would be the legitimate constitutional successor. But, honestly, would anyone be surprised if Republicans sought to block it by devising a state of emergency that in practice was tantamount to a coup d’etat? Are we prepared for this scenario? How would it play out? Would Jared and Ivanka attempt to seize power? Would Stephen Miller? Would Mitch McConnell propose someone else? Would the Supreme Court have the smallest shred of integrity?

Obviously I worry that our democracy is fragile enough to worry about such scenarios. And I don’t think the disgraceful tactics we saw in the recent Wisconsin election are much better than these same scenarios unfolding in slow motion. Since Wisconsin is a key swing state in the upcoming election, I don’t think it is any exaggeration to say that  precedents being set there now are a major battle line in a fight against authoritarianism with world-historical importance.

Failing Stress Test?  Emerging Shock Doctrine?

Still, maybe for moment it is better to turn to my second question:  To what degree is our government (with whatever half-democratic institutions it still has) revealing itself as a gangster-led and everyone-for-themselves failing state?

Although I do see some encouraging responses to the current crisis, overall this seems an open question. Until proven otherwise I am sticking with my hypothesis that the cynicism of Republican elites is nearly boundless, and that they may be prepared to accept tens of thousands of additional deaths, plus great disruption in the economy (cushioned by bailouts for their donors paid by our grandchildren) for a chance to steal or suspend the election, pick up stock on the cheap during a downturn, and institute policy changes to entrench power along the lines of what Naomi Klein called the Shock Doctrine—either using or engineering crises to impose change that often involves austerity politics.

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The first proposed Republican response to the virus—slashing payroll taxes that fund Medicare and Social Security—was a textbook example of shock opportunism. The “borrowing” of resources designed to safeguard this funding stream has been part of the Republican playbook for years—generating claims about the “realistic necessity” of cuts to reduce deficits. This goes far beyond Trump.  Much of Biden’s liberalism merely consists in negotiating for fewer cuts than those proposed by Republicans who want push it as close to zero as they can.

We Found Money After All.  Why Not Spend It Well?

My third question may be too obvious to belabor but I don’t think it can be asked enough.

Suddenly we can afford trillions of dollars for emergency funds and corporate bailouts. Since we can afford trillions for good causes after all, just as progressives always point out, why not fund a guaranteed minimum income, a green new deal version of the stimulus, and a rapid expansion of Medicare to anyone who wants it?

(Note to Democrats: Hilary Clinton lost to Trump largely because Obama’s decided to bail out the banks but not the people in 2008. This is part and parcel of why Sanders and Warren were the strongest candidates to defeat Trump, and why Biden was among the weaker choices in the pack of moderates.)

Nor can we argue enough against people who claim to believe that Medicare For All would cost money instead of saving it. The current moment dramatizes weaknesses of our health system and the risks this poses to everyone. Now is a perfect time to address these weakness while at the same time lock in what, in reality, would be immense savings as proven over and over throughout the world.

What is the Way Forward In This Crisis?

My fourth and final question is the one that sparked me to begin this reflection:

How do we currently fight– both against what we don’t want (a final nudge over the edge to authoritarianism) and for what we do want (a living wage, decent health care, non-rigged elections, green new deal)?

This is a tough question.  I raise it not because I have answers, but because I do not.

A month ago I wondered if we could move toward a model of general strikes and mass protests, inspired by Puerto Ricans who forced out their governor Ricardo Rosselló.

But then we still had Bernie Sanders as a frontrunner and no public health obstacle to mass protests. Now we have Joe Biden and social distancing.

Where do we go from here?

Sometimes I run a half-optimist train of thought: perhaps Trump will not turn competent in his evils, like Benito Mussolini, as opposed to more buffoonish like the Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi. (Indeed, even after all Trump’s crimes, I still suspect that he is less dangerous than Dick Cheney was). Could it be a blessing in disguise to have such an undisciplined and flawed person leading a charge toward authoritarianism?

Perhaps, then, we can fight Trump (antibody style!) and in the process vaccinate ourselves against something worse later.

Likewise, perhaps in the long run this pandemic will seem to have been relatively mild (indeed I do believe it is mild, however grave) as compared to challenges coming down the road from antibiotic-resistant superbugs and various crises that global warming will engender.

Perhaps, then, this can be a halfway-controlled experiment in learning how to adapt and thrive.

But I come back to my fourth question: without strong Democratic leadership, without mass protest, and with the economy so disrupted that I become confused as to how strikes could work, how can we fight for all this?

MBE standard notice: The time I spend on this blog is not in addition to a Twitter and FaceBook presence, but an alternative to it.  If you think anything here merits wider circulation, this will probably only happen if you circulate it.

Thanks to miketually on creative commons for the picture!

One thought on “Coronavirus and the Shock Doctrine

  1. The Coronavirus has already upended the crazy health insurance system/scam in the US. It has become abundantly clear that without employment most people do not have health insurance and without health insurance they cannot get treatment and without treatment they spread the disease.

    I only hope that, instead of pumping money into the existing health insurance companies, the whole system will get dumped in favour of a national health care insurance program. For everyone.


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