The crisis has begun. The COVID-19 pandemic, to be followed closely by a deep global recession and permanent climate emergency, has opened the door to a new epoch. Not even a 1.5 trillion dollar bailout can slow the juggernaut. The stakes are being measured in thousands of human lives. The defining question of our times suddenly appears with unavoidable magnitude: will the road out of this disaster run through repression or solidarity?
One possible future is a violent intensification of the present and our recent past.
The social distancing of accumulated alienation and loneliness have already marred life under late capitalism. Decades of neoliberal reorientation and just-in-time production have not only left grocery store shelves empty and vaccines absent, but have reorganized social life itself. Ever longer working hours, increasing demands for flexibility, and disappearing social services have compelled working families to rely more and more on commercialized means of social reproduction.
The ways we meet our basic needs between shifts or gigs, the ways we care for relatives who are retired or unable to work, and the ways we raise our kids all rest on networks of paid goods and services that are abruptly shutting down. For most families, making do indefinitely without public playgrounds or paychecks presents nightmares, but the added strain will also act as a powder keg for gendered violence inside private homes. For corporations, the pandemic represents an opportunity to further commodify social life and reinforce the temporarily intensified social alienation and commercial mediation of social interactions.
If we let them, the rich and their governments will solve the crisis with military lockdowns and shock doctrinaire assaults on our long-term liberties and living standards. Media and politicians now sing the praises of the Chinese state’s decision to seal off Wuhan, where the infection rate has now dropped. After the outbreak, public health demands a policy of quarantine, but there is no such thing as progressive repression. These are the actions of an autocratic state that continues to fill concentration camps with Muslim Uyghur communities.
More disturbingly, the COVID-19 pandemic and its responses herald more waves of social collapse ahead, wrought by the horrors of climate disaster, epidemiological contagion, and economic crisis inherent in the capitalist system. In the popular imagination, apocalyptic events and social disasters are often thought of as chaos unleashed by the collapse of central authority, a dystopic landscape of roving anarchic bands competing for survival.
However, as climate activist Jonathan Neale points out: “Society will not disintegrate, it will not come apart. It will intensify. Power will concentrate. (. . .) It will come in the form of tanks in the streets and the military or the fascists taking power.” Borders will not crumble but will become more militarized and strictly enforced. The ruling class politics of racism and nativism will be blasted louder and louder to legitimize repressive measures, war, and cruelty on an unprecedented scale.
But this is not the only path, and the present is pregnant with other possibilities.
The sheer incompetence of the federal government, ongoing at the time of this writing, has drawn comparison to failed states. In the US, the response by wide, unorganized swathes of the population has been more swift and decisive than that of almost any level of government. Millions of people are collaborating in efforts to “flatten the curve” by limiting their potential participation in the spread of infections as a mass, albeit atomized, act of solidarity.
We are seeing mutual aid networks pop up similar to the efforts in the wake of the 2012 Hurricane Sandy, to provide care and services to those in need. Over and against profit-minded officials, it has been workers who have championed the health and livelihoods of the entire population. When Mayor Bill de Blasio refused to close public schools, New York teachers organized mass sickouts to force the issue and protect human life. In Chicago the same social justice–oriented teachers union that has long fought to keep schools open has most recently fought to close them.
Here lie the seeds of a wholly new future. It is ordinary people, organized through unions, neighborhood response networks, or spontaneously on their own, who have taken responsibility for the safety and health of their whole society into their own hands. Once one acquires the taste of running a workplace without superiors, even for a few days, it is hard not to notice how superfluous many of our bosses and political institutions really are. If school principals are considered inessential personnel, why not reopen the schools on the other side of the curve under teacher control? If dishwashers and cooks, not managers, are the real essential personnel in the restaurant, why don’t the dishwashers and the cooks have a vote in the existential priorities of the business?
What is happening in Italy is one of our possible futures, ten or eleven days ahead on the pandemic trajectory. But alongside the bleak tales we hear from that country, we can also see blazing embers of an alternate future. When the government’s state of emergency forced apartment dwellers off of the streets, they leaned out of their windows to fill the skies with song. In Sicily, working people already had the tambourines and accordions needed to confront COVID-19 at their fingertips. Strike waves now roil the country.
The present crisis comes in another context, too. As of Sunday, it has now been one year since the outbreak of the new wave of global revolt. We have seen rulers toppled and governments shaken by revolutionary movements around the world. The spark leapt from Hong Kong to Lebanon, Iraq, France, Chile, Colombia, and elsewhere. It is ordinary people, supporting one another with food, water, laughter, and solidarity, that has built the path out of even bleaker scenarios. Solidarity, too, is a global contagion.
Today, tomorrow, and for the days to come, each member of the global working class confronts common questions, common fears, and a potential for a common awakening. Such a shared, simultaneous global political experience is unprecedented in the history of modern capitalism. The seeds are being planted; their growth will depend upon the actions taken among the grassroots.
Practicing solidarity distancing means checking on neighbors, strengthening relationships, and deepening the bonds that are so indispensable to political organizing. When it is again safe to hold mass gatherings, millions more will emerge from mass quarantine with an urgent understanding of the need to fight for and win public goods such as Medicare for All, moratoria on evictions and foreclosures, and living wages sufficient for emergency savings.
After the pandemic, it can be a far easier slide from these immediate steps toward the large, tectonic shifts in how we organize social life. Truly socialized healthcare run collaboratively, not competitively for profit, could ensure that detection, prevention, and treatment for the next epidemic are made freely and quickly available. Homelessness can be ended swiftly by filling the far greater number of vacant homes with the currently unhoused. As epicenters of communities, schools can become sites of wraparound services in times of need.
The future can be built on solidarity. To seize this future and make it real, we must be able to think in decades and continents, even while the next steps can be measured in weeks and neighborhoods.
As righteous anger mounts at the callous government response, this solidarity need not stay within official channels. The task ahead is to stoke this mutual support, demand and take back a safe, healthy life for every single one of us. The scale of the crisis is immense, and the official infrastructure is not designed to surmount it. Our hope and our future depend upon rampant solidarity.