Think. Certain patterns emerge. Here and there can always be linked. Clues will be withheld, so guess again. Timing is everything. When comes next to how and where is very helpful. Isn’t there complicity in proximity? The sharp edges of vision get us to the grocery store, but are of no help in looking behind, below where reasons live crowded in a dark hold. What is intended? There are so many starting points. Why don’t we know? The world works without us and could fail us without further notice. Who rolls the dice? (Somebody knows something!) Close your eyes, what starts as a whisper can become a sing-along and the pattern of the certain can feel divined.
If you grew up thinking you are “white”, the New York Times “1619 Project” is a must read.
Slavery was undeniably a font of phenomenal wealth. By the eve of the Civil War, the Mississippi Valley was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Cotton grown and picked by enslaved workers was the nation’s most valuable export. The combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation. New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City. What made the cotton economy boom in the United States, and not in all the other far-flung parts of the world with climates and soil suitable to the crop, was our nation’s unflinching willingness to use violence on nonwhite people and to exert its will on seemingly endless supplies of land and labor. Given the choice between modernity and barbarism, prosperity and poverty, lawfulness and cruelty, democracy and totalitarianism, America chose all of the above.
“Anglo-America’s dingy realities – deindustrialisation, low-wage work, underemployment, hyper-incarceration and enfeebled or exclusionary health systems – have long been evident. Nevertheless, the moral, political and material squalor of two of the wealthiest and most powerful societies in history still comes as a shock to some… every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state. In fact, the state has been AWOL for decades, and the market has been entrusted with the tasks most societies reserve almost exclusively for government: healthcare, pensions, low-income housing, education, social services and incarceration.
The other dingy reality is that we use the police as a cordon sanitaire between us and the consequences of all of our social and political failures; the police keep the homeless out our minds; the mentally ill away from our door steps, the darker skin tones in their allotted neighborhoods and the desperately poor from stealing from a “middle class” teetering with economic precarity. While we have come to live without a general sense of prosperity, we cannot seem to relinquish our attachment to “order”.
Of course we can’t. We can sense that we are, collectively, a ticking time bomb. Today, American exceptionalism means extreme inequality of wealth, more guns than sense, abiding racism and a pathological distrust of collective problem solving. The way we police in the U.S. is inextricably bound up in the exploitative capitalism to which we as citizens have become resigned.
The police are to capitalism what neurotic or compulsive behaviors are to the psychoanalyst; symptoms of a (death) drive. In Freud’s words, (the drive)… is “like the grain of sand around which an oyster forms its pearl”.
The capitalist death drive is to accumulate, to acquire and to constantly rediscover that that no acquistion really satisifies, no level of profit is sufficient. Impelled by a dread of scarcity and the impoverished view that the only real “wealth” is private, Americans are frantic earners in a bleak zero sum landscape. If I don’t get it, someone else will. We accept that there are “winners and losers”. We accept that folks for whom cost-benefit analyses are difficult, impossible or irrelevant tend to get pissed off when they perceive themselves to be left behind. They are wont to behave in ways that disrupt the “order” that dispossesses them.
The state proscribes violence to its citizens. Not as Freud pointed out, because it disapproves of violence, but because it wants the monopoly on violence. The majority Black population of Minneapolis distrust their police greatly but cannot imagine their absence. In the USA, we have created our own monsters; we are the jailers and the jailed.
As with the neurotic, dysfunction continues until the drive is recognized (and re-addressed). Until we contend with ravening capitalism, our policing will remain unchanged.
Acting together we flattened the curve of the pandemic. Not the government. We did. We the people.
Remember that phrase?
Now …we the people are no longer acting together. On July 1,we hit 50,000 new cases of coronavirus. Our personal best.
Are we so weary of inconvenience and uncertainty, that we are willing to abandon parts of our society? Have we already forgotten that this virus will disproportionately kill our parents? our grandparents? those with underlying health problems at any age? the poorest among us?
Americans have neither the stoicism to actually bear the risk of dying from covid-19 nor the fortitude to embark on an indefinite period of rigorous self-isolation. Nor, even if we could muster those qualities, could we get a majority of our fellow countrymen to go along. And so, instead of deciding upon some basically rational course of action, we have collectively agreed to forget the things we could no longer bear to know.
We have come to see that the gaudy marketplace and our comfortable way of life is built upon the backs of the “essential” and the perennially poor. (Hedge fund managers are not “essential” workers.) It has also dawned upon us that the “world’s greatest economy” is a house of cards. “Supply chains” get sick. The human links in these chains lose their jobs and the flywheel of consumer spending slows down.
Another revelation for the middle class: the “social safety net” does not really exist! This uncomfortable truth has has long been a knee on the neck of the 20% of the American public that has no household net worth. For this economic demographic, the quaint notion that the government “has your back” actually went out the door forty years ago along with Ronald Reagan’s wits.
However, we have seen what a uniformed representative of government can do; casually kill George Floyd with one hand in his pocket.
The “commodity fetish” in capitalism is the tendency to see the value of a commodity as an inherent property. The value of a widget is related only to the value of other kinds of widgets in the marketplace. We are blinded by the panoply of glittering widgets. The complex of interpersonal relations that go into producing widgets is ignored.
The pandemic has lifted the curtain and exposed (in Marx’s terms) the “relations of production” usually masked by “market” metaphors. “Supply chains”, it turns out, are people. “Supply chains” get sick.
Workers we took for granted and did not notice are now “essential” to our way of life. Why are these workers “essential” today? Why weren’t they “essential” on January 15? They are “essential” today because what they do is suddenly visible and cannot be taken for granted. “Supply chains” are working people whose labor keeps the groceries stores stocked so Americans never have to be without retail choice.
What do these “essential” workers have in common? They are poorly paid and their employers consider employee safety an afterthought.
If you work in a meatpacking plant, by order of President Trump, you are officially considered less essential than the steak you’re cutting up.
Since February, we …comfortable white people…have come to see that even America … our insular City on the Hill …can be attacked by an invisible and inexorable enemy. We have been forced to look mortality in the face.
It became apparent that our government would not help us.
By the time of George Floyd’s murder, we had come to see that our only pandemic defense was our collective willingness to sacrifice the immediate gratifications of easy sociability and retail therapy. We came to see that our individual health depended upon community action. We sheltered in place and experienced oppressive uncertainty. Will we survive? Will our family members survive? Will our incomes survive? Will the “American way of life” survive?
Regardless of our ethnicity, we have all been imprisoned in a radically uncertain future.
In “The Jesting of Arlington Stringham,” a story by Saki (H.H. Munro), the eponymous politician in a debate on the Foreign Office in the House of Commons remarks that “the people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.” The United States is experiencing the same excess. More outrage is being perpetrated and felt than can be contained within the existing frame of institutions and discourses. The image of things bubbling over, of energies and emotions that can no longer be enclosed, is physically manifest on the streets, as those who have been privately confined for so many weeks spill out into the public realm. But what there is too much of is not just present injustice. There is a superabundance of the unresolved past.
I have started several posts since the dawn of COVID 19 and finished none. I was flooded. Even during the best of times, my vicious internal editor only allows me to measure out my thoughts in coffee spoons. I have to thank O’Toole for naming the flood as a shared condition and freeing me somewhat. I can offer up bits of the the flotsam and jetsam the flood has dislodged for me .
To start, I grew up during the worst of the Civil Rights protests. I would watch African American children being spit upon in Alabama and then attend a school where most of my friends were African American. It was this experience that drove the first wedge into the complacent Republican edifice of my upbringing. I have been in and around the labor movement and distrusted capitalism my whole adult life. But so what? Where the f**k have I really been for the last 50 years? I was living my daily life (being a good consumer) in the comfortable cocoon of white privilege; intellectually dozing.
“White silence has been violence”. Yes. That is a weight I will consciously bear in the hopes that discomfort will keep me more alert to present injustice.
I am still perseverating on the question… why toilet paper?
What came to my mind in thinking about the power of TP was Maslow’s hierarchy. This is a familiar (and very American) pedagogical tool. It is American in its blithe promotion of “self-actualization” as an ultimate goal. Nevertheless, it is a tool that can help privileged, self-actualizing American college students understand why so few very poor people are sitting next to them in class. Very poor people are too busy trying to feed, shelter and protect themselves. Such basic activities limit one’s ability and predilection to ruminate on Dostoevsky’s place in world literature.
In thinking about Mazlow’s hierarchy I realized that every level is linked by toilet paper. This is the power of TP; it is intimately rolled into our most basic physiological functions. Its very personal role is to keep us safe from the microbially dangerous waste we privately produce. In so doing, TP also sets the stage for us to experience the love and acceptance that accrues to those who do not waft of excrement. From social acceptance follows self-esteem and once we have reached the ledge of self-regard, it is but a small leap to the apex of “self-actualization”.
When something like the COVID pandemic strikes, Mazlow’s pyramid makes more sense upside down. Our lives are no longer safely arranged. Our “base” needs are no longer afterthoughts. They loom large. Will our “base” needs be met? If they are not met, who will we be? The weight of our biological vulnerability presses down. Can we bear it?
We are not masters of the universe, we are virus bait.
If you lack a Hobbesian view of human nature, you are going to be late to the pandemic hoarding party. You are going to be without toilet paper.
That’s what I told myself standing in Safeway staring at the empty shelves, feeling slightly embarrassed… as if I had missed some obvious social cue. Why toilet paper? The Google offered some insight:
Stocking up on toilet paper is … a relatively cheap action, and people like to think that they are ‘doing something’ when they feel at risk.” This is an example of “zero risk bias,” in which people prefer to try to eliminate one type of possibly superficial risk entirely rather than do something that would reduce their total risk by a greater amount.
These days the the greater risk is going to the grocery store in the first place.
Given the amount of uncertainty in which we were swimming…self quarantine? lock down? days or weeks?… adding a little buffer stock to one’s cache of TP was rational. The effects of mass buffering however were empty shelves. For Americans, empty shelves are eerie and portentous. OMG …my neighborhood cornucopia is empty of that which can clean me…toilet paper, disinfectants and hand sanitizers. What will I be deprived of next? This is how an end-times shopping spree gets its start.
Few people appreciate how much retail inventory is “just in time”. I did a stint with Kroger a few years back (All praise the UFCW!) The only real storage space in a grocery store is the shelves. The corporate computer knows how much of any product will be (normally) needed in each store each week. Toilet paper takes up a lot of shelf space and sales are normally not volatile. In a well run store, there is only a two day supply. It is only when people get irregular that the supply chain falters.
The moral third refers to those values, rules and principles of interaction that we rely upon in our efforts to create and restore the space for each partner in the dyad to engage in thinking, feeling, acting or responding rather than merely reacting. Jessica Benjamin
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a coliseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such humanity is surely brought into being.... In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.Is this the doom written within our nature? If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races and creeds can share this world…if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real . Tortuous advances worn over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.
From Brad deLong
I would conclude that managers with a bias toward freedom, choice, decentralization, and responsibility produce good results alongside a civilization of bewildered individuals lacking moral certainty. By contrast, prophets produce a civilization filled with confident fanatics who then commit gravely immoral actions--and who afterwards have nothing to say but: “Will you please send Lazarus down here with a damp cloth?"