Four Questions About the Shock Doctrine and Coronavirus

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, not unlike many others I know. But I do not think that the majority of my anxiety is 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 fear I might not ever see again and since we are talking about great economic hardships and risks for the future.

Nevertheless I think the majority of my unease comes from knowing that challenges coming down the road in the future, related to climate change, will likely be worse than what we face this year, and from fearing that our government is revealing itself as a failed state in responding even to a 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 short weeks ago, I stopped being optimistic about seeing a fair national election or decent approximation of the rule of law ever 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”—presumably 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 can only see vague outlines of those outrages so far.

It is terrifying to live with the uncertainty from lacking democratic accountability, while having a shrinking sense of a legitimate and competent government, in the face of waves of coming crises.

In this context I want to pose four questions.

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, whether 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 such a 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 majority 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, enabled by the Supreme Court, 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 that could literally have world-historical importance.

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, still overall this seems an open question. Until proven otherwise I am sticking with my hypothesis that the cynicism of Republican elites is almost 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 such shock opportunism. Of course, for anyone who has been paying attention, 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 cutting such programs in light of deficits.  This goes far beyond Trump, and much of Biden’s liberalism consists in negotiating for fewer cuts than those proposed by Republicans who want push it as close to zero as they can.

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 continually 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: Hillary Clinton lost to Trump largely due to Obama’s decisions 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 this year, and why Biden was among the weakest 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. We should underline how the current moment dramatizes the 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.

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

How do we fight 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, a green new deal)?

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

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

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

So where do we go from here?

Sometimes I run a half-optimist train of thought: perhaps Trump will turn out less competently evil 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 “Four Questions About the Shock Doctrine and Coronavirus

  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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