As the coronavirus continues to change our understanding of normality and exposes how our government has failed to safeguard the most vulnerable members of our society, how can we come together to use this pandemic to campaign for change? Max Haiven discusses this, and what it means for the future, exclusively with Tara Pilkington.
Tara: As the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the failings of the government, both in America and in the UK, to safeguard societies most vulnerable, how do you think this can be used to mobilise the public to campaign for change?
Max: I think what has been made clear is that we have a very poor public understanding and language for how government policies and the capitalist economy at large makes some people vulnerable. If people are made vulnerable, when disaster hits, or when austerity is enacted, certain people are much more likely to suffer. We want to imagine racism is simply a matter of an individual’s hateful feelings, but that fixation erases the systemic and structural ways that non-white people are oppressed, exploited and excluded. In this pandemic, we’re seeing that generations of racist policy has created a situation where many people of colour are on the front lines, working disproportionately in (usually poorly paid) jobs that put them at higher risk. When combined with overall poorer health indicators, again due to racism in the economy at large, this is lethal. We’ve also seen this around the world in the way people suffer in the face of natural disasters: the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed always pay a higher price, and frequently the rich take the opportunity to compound their power and wealth. So in the aftermath, I hope we can develop a much more suitable way of talking about racism, about class and about how they’re entangled. Then, I think, we can better identify what needs to change.
In general, however, I think that in the aftermath we need to explicitly name the problem: we have a capitalist economic system (and a political class) that is absolutely willing to sacrifice innumerable lives to preserve the profit of a tiny few. At the outset of the pandemic the UK and US governments seemed more than willing to carry on business-as-usual, no matter the human cost. One story of this pandemic is a victory for a popular demand that people be put ahead of profit, though of course what materialized was far from ideal. We know that the first priority of those at the commanding heights of the economy are keen to reestablish a system of racial and class inequality that got us into this mess in the first place. It is very likely that we will emerge from this pandemic in a severe depression, which will show the naked brutality of capitalism for all to see as, once again, lives are sacrificed for profit. As ever, it’s class war, and the sooner we remember it, the better.
Tara: The coronavirus has revealed how many jobs, which had previously been considered “low skilled” (such as supermarket workers and delivery drivers), are actually vital to our society and should be considered truly valuable. Do you think this will influence a shift in public opinion about how these jobs are valued and regarded?
Max: I think we’re already seeing a kind of cognitive dissonance around this: in the moment of the pandemic, many people want to applaud health-care workers and we have come to realize that it is front-line, disproportionately racialized retail and transportation staff that really make “the economy” function. Yet at the same time, how a job is valued is ultimately a matter of capitalist economics, which means that these workers will continue to be paid as little as possible so their bosses can reap the rewards. In the case of public-sector workers, it’s only slightly more complicated: they’ll be paid as little as possible so that the state need not raise taxes on the wealthy to cover the cost. All our nice feelings really don’t count for much, I’m afraid, unless we are willing to organize and stand in solidarity with these workers when, for instance, they go on strike for higher wages or better working conditions, or unless we fight for a different political and economic system that puts human needs first.
Tara: The modern landscape post-coronavirus is likely to look vastly different to the one we left behind before lockdown. How do think those that have been exploited and alienated by governments will adapt to a world that is rushing to get back to ‘normal’? Especially when ‘normal’ is what led to many being disenfranchised and disillusioned by governments who were meant to protect them?
Max: I agree that people are alienated from governments, but I think again we need to point the finger at the economic system: capitalism, where everything in society, including governments, are made to serve the generation of profit. It is to that “normal” we are being asked to return. I think that, very often, the feelings of disillusionment and disenchantment we feel towards “politics” and government stems from the sense that, no matter who gets elected, nothing actually changes. For the vast majority of people, things just seem to get worse and worse. Unfortunately, people increasingly see governments as monoliths and as the source of the problem, when in fact they are more complex than that. On the one hand, the government has become the weapon of class war in its implementation of austerity and neoliberalism, or in the repressive ways, it uses policing or border enforcement. The use of government as a vehicle for graft and the enrichment of the ruling party’s friends is sadly not exceptional: it’s the history of the British Empire, for one.
On the other hand, there are aspects of the government that are the residue of class struggle: things like health care, old age security, employment insurance and public education. Though today these services are often characterized by punitive bureaucracies, they were originally working-class demands only grudgingly given up by the powers-that-be. As such, they are under constant attack. The months and years to come will be a very difficult struggle to defend and expand these life-giving and egalitarian institutions while, at the same time, demanding a much broader transformation of society based on the values of equality, care, autonomy and empowerment.
Tara: Digital tools have become vital for keeping communications active during lockdown. How do you think these tools can be used to mobilise communities to push for real change as we look forward to a life after coronavirus while maintaining the sense of unity that has been created during these times?
Max: We are now digital animals, and there’s no going back. But that means that, by and large, we’re stuck using technologies and platforms that are deeply problematic and a huge threat to our freedoms. The power of the major tech giants like Google and Facebook, and their willingness to work with the more repressive arms of the state, is extremely worrying. Civil society groups had made some strides in the last decade to tame the power of the tech giants and the invasive power of the state, but I am very worried that the pandemic will be used as a pretext to turn back the clock on these meagre gains, in the name of public health and public safety.
We also need to recognize that, beyond the dire risks of surveillance, all these technologies were designed from the start to get us hooked and to generate profit, and so we need to be attentive to how the very from of communication they provide is already ideological in a sense. They are not built for community empowerment but to reproduce the consumer. We should also remember the human and ecological costs of producing our disposable technology, a cost mostly paid by people in the Global South where the materials are mined, where the machines are manufactured and where the e-waste is sent.
We have already begun to see community organizers use these technologies in unintended ways to mobilize protest and action. Many people are working on an alternative, non-corporate platforms. My worry is that these technologies often give us only a very shallow feeling of community, debate and connection. A revolution, and I think we urgently need one, require much more profound methods of building person-to-person solidarity and resilient organization.