Drove into Oakland today, my first venture out of my bubble since March 9, so that’s 3 months. A friend who came over a few nights ago said that since the protests, “Oakland is just one great art gallery.” Downtown Oakland businesses have boarded themselves up, and now the muralists are out painting on the boards. If it was just one or two, that would be interesting, but it’s hundreds. I could not begin to take enough pictures. And this is just along Broadway and Telegraph as you go from about 35th street in towards 12th, and then beyond.
In the meantime, the level of conflict is rising quite fast. There are signature-gathering campaigns in 9 states to recall Democratic governors; Trump appears to have backed off sending in federal troops but there was that amazing thing about his photo-op at St. John’s (the tear gas and flashbangs to wipe away protesters, the army guy who by mistake wore his uniform and apologized, the Bible); but there’s also the continuing spread of peaceful but fierce demonstrations throughout the country with Trump literally hiding in his bunker in the White House.
Talk of police reform is everywhere; Minneapolis is “dismantling” their police. Not sure what that means yet. There are demonstrations to get cops out of schools, demonstrations to “de-fund” police, and it looks as if things like this are actually happening. The movement is ahead of the leaders here, if you can figure out who the leaders are anyway.
The virus continues to spread, both from the lifting of shelter-in-place order in states where they existed to begin with and from states where there are none, and from the demonstrations. Kids are graduating from high school and celebrating with car caravans and fireworks, which puts people who are huddled in their homes on edge.
On the other hand
Spike Lee’s new movie, Da 5 Bloods, was premiered on Netflix last night. It is set in Vietnam. Watching how Vietnam and the Vietnam/American war is depicted was painful and embarrassing. I can’t decide which is worse: the roles played by Asian actors portraying Vietnamese people or the distortions of the landmine (unexploded ordinance) removal effort grabbed to serve as a plot twist. Other important details are also bad. Spike Lee throws in everything from Agent Orange to Crispus Atticus, including some brutal footage that may or may not be genuine but certainly creates a “wow” factor — “How did he get that?” The movie starts out as if it’s a goofy comedy about a bunch of guys on a memory trip together, but then aspires to be a complete “high points of Black experience in the US” laid on top of a set piece Vietnam war movie, only with Black actors. I’ll be curious to see the reviews. Delroy Lindo has a monologue near the end that might win him an Oscar. Watch it, skip the movie.
When this was just a medical crisis, sheltering-in-place was the fix, because it would protect our healthcare system from being overwhelmed. Then we realized that just having enough ventilators wouldn’t keep us from getting sick, so we acknowledged that, great, the healthcare system is OK now, how about us? We’d probably be wearing masks until a vaccine was discovered and distributed to everyone — in the world? Hmmm. (Ebola is still moving in the Congo.) Then there was a lot of talk about how going back to traffic, pollution, gasoline engines, air travel was something normal that we didn’t want to go back to — we’d want a “new normal” that allowed people to work from home, and that might include really getting a Green New Deal. So with masks, vaccines and a Green New Deal we could get a “normal” that would let us get back to business.
Then George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis by a police officer and all hell broke loose. I truly hope that these protests will continue. This may be the day when we do not go back to normal.
The American Conflict
The book that has shaped my view of America the most this year (and that’s saying a lot) was published in 1864. It’s The American Conflict: A History of the Great Rebellion in the United States of American, 1860-1864, by Horace Greeley. Greeley was editor of the New York Tribune; the book is written as if it was a collection of feature articles, starting with the first sentence:
The United States of America, whose independence, won on the battle-fields of the Revolution, was tardily and reluctantly conceded by Great Britain on the 30th of November, 1782, contained at that time a populations of a little less than Three Millions, of whom half a million were slaves.
In the second chapter Greeley tells how, at the Ninth Continental Congress ins 1783, the states of Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware and South Carolina, which did not have charters granting them as yet unsettled lands extending westward, engaged in negotiations with the states that did, such as Connecticut, Massachusetts and Virginia, to get those individual states to cede their claims to unsettled land (or most of it) to the United States itself.
The expectation was that ultimately this land would be formed into new states. Land that was affected by this had become, by the time that Greeley was writing, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. One of the terms of the agreement (the “Ordinance”) was that, as of 1800, “there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said states, otherwise than in punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted to have been personally guilty.”
The idea was that this Ordinance would be form part of the “fundamental conditions between the thirteen original States and those newly described.”
When, on the 19th of April, 1783, Congress took up this plan for consideration, a Mr. Spaight of North Carolina proposed that the article prohibiting slavery be stricken out.
Greeley, as he does throughout this book, reports the vote. Each state, with two representatives, had two votes. Those in favor of keeping the prohibition were from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania. Those in favor of striking it out were the delegations from Maryland, Virginia (including Thomas Jefferson), and South Carolina. North Carolina’s vote was divided. The member from New Jersey was not in attendance.
Thus individual votes were 16 in favor of the interdiction against slavery and 7 against it (in favor of striking the interdiction out). The states stood 6 for it and 3 against it. But the Articles of Confederation (which is what bound the States together at that point) required “an affirmative vote of the majority of all the states to sustain a proposition and thus the restriction failed, through the absence of a member from New Jersey, rendering that vote of that state null” (page 39). One vote.
From that point forward, both in history and in chapter after chapter of this enormous but readable book, we see arguments, proposals, laws, votes, elections etc in rising intensity as we draw closer and closer to the Civil War. What was in 1783 a matter of someone showing up at a meeting and casting one vote became, 80 years later, thousands dead on the battlefield.
I have heard of a play or something called “The Gentleman from New Jersey,” referring to this guy who failed to show up. I googled it and found nothing.
So, same story, 160 years later
And today, it’s George Floyd and mass protests all across the country. The protests are almost all peaceful, with people kneeling (Colin Kaepernick’s gesture) en mass in public squares. The protests continue day after day. The sick, insane guy in the White House used “smoke bombs” (tear gas) to clear a path to St. John’s, the church across the street, to pose with a Bible, then hurried back to his bunker to tweet things like “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” and calling for the National Guard to step in. There is now an 8 pm-5 am curfew in the East Bay; the same places that were just starting to open for business (pizza places like Zachary’s) are closing at 6 so that workers can get home before the curfew. The people in the photos of the demonstrations are very mixed — white, black — lots of white people, young people, and they’re wearing masks. They look very disciplined and very serious.
Eight states hold primaries
Nonetheless, eight states and Washington DC held elections yesterday, 153 days before the national election. People are still voting for Bernie — in Pennsylvania he got 19.1 per cent of the votes and in South Dakota he got 23.6. Although for some reason quite a few delegates to the convention are yet to be allocated, right now it’s Biden 1922 to Bernie 1013, with 1991 necessary to claim the candidacy. Biden has made some public (media) appearances recently, which is…. well, about time.
The protests have even reached up into our very white, very quiet neighborhood.
Our grocery store has never been cleaner, though, and the shoppers more disciplined:
A final thought before the next onslaught of news lands: today, the people who are wrapping the situation up into a narrative that is recognizable, credible and — ok –inspiring, are comedians. Comedians?
For the first 20 minutes or more, Biden seems to be still on the debate stage, running against Trump, not leading the opposition. He begins to gather himself after that. But then Colbert asks him one question after another about what his plan is — for infrastructure, for jobs, even for how to distribute any vaccine that may be available in 2021 — very concrete questions that he ought to have concrete answers for, and he doesn’t. He seems to be saying that he will win because people understand how bad Trump is.
He and Colbert both eat some ice cream; it almost looks as if he needs a little sugar to get himself back on track. He picks up a pack of paper towards the end of the interview, as if he was reading from notes.
Colbert’s last question is about his son Bo and how the leaders of the country should respond to the grief people are feeling. He gives this his longest coherent answer. This is his strength, obviously: empathy.
But that was a week ago. Now with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, here is a different response to grief:
And this from my friend Karen Ford in Mississippi (who is Black); she got it from a friend who is white:
This is so true and so WRONG:
I have privilege as a White person because I can do all of these things without thinking twice about it…
The paper that reported this didn’t bother to mention how many delegates Bernie has: it’s 1007 as of today. There are about 150 delegates committed to other candidates, mostly Elizabeth Warren and Mike Bloomberg.
Nineteen more states still have to hold their Democratic primaries. This includes big states like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Indiana, all with a lot of delegates. Not that Bernie is likely to pick up the high percent of votes necessary to make him the candidate. He’s not campaigning and not running. But he’s going to continue to gather delegates and will come to the convention with between a third and 40% of the delegates. One of the concessions he wrung out of the Democratic Party early in his campaign was that he would be able to seat his delegates, that and that “superdelegates,” the party hacks, would not get to vote in the first round of balloting. See previous post about his joint task forces with Biden.
Seven states have called off their Republican primaries entirely, which is being challenged by Trump Republican opponents as un-democratic.
Trump has urged states to re-open, but Rev.Barber of The Poor People’s Campaign is urging people to stay home, don’t believe the lies — workers who are being called back to work are being sent to their deaths. Rates of COVID-19 deaths among Black people are three times as high as among whites.
As of today, the death toll in the US is 96,000, the most of any country in the world, with the UK coming in second at 36,000. Our death rate is relatively low, however — one third of Spain’s. The NYTime figured that we lost about 36,000 dead due to the late start of the shutdown.
Cook County (that is, Chicago) with 69000 confirmed cases has more than any other county in the country. However, New York City is made up of more than one county, so New York is still ahead.
The figures from Vietnam are credible; they’ve been subjected to a lot of international scrutiny and people agree that they’re good.
Moving right along: All of America on one stage, celebrating, circa 1943
This is from a book by Robert McCloskey. You may recognize the hand of the artist. He wrote and illustrated the famous book about the ducklings who stopped traffic in Boston, Make Way for the Ducklings. There are bronze statues of the ducklings on the Boston Common right now; their heads are shiny bright from being patted by kids.
This double page spread of a pageant on a platform at a county fair is what “America” was supposed to look like in 1943. 1943 was in the period of the Popular Front effort by the left, a shift that took place all over Europe and in the US. It meant, let’s all get together and beat fascism. In the name of unity, conflicts about socialism and Communism and capitalism were set aside and members of the organized left joined with mainstream political organizations, including the Democratic Party.
There is nothing a quick internet search says about whether McCloskey was intentionally, consciously, part of that shift in any way, but this drawing, from Homer Price,is a fully worked out dissertation on how America could come together. McCloskey was in the Army at the time he wrote Homer Price; when he got out, he and his family moved to an island in Maine where he lived for the rest of his life.
This picture is an example of Utopian thinking — in this case, Utopian art. Every group is represented: Native Americans (played by skinny boys in costume); African Americans (singing gospel music, not exactly on the stage but at least present); women (mom, daughter, part of a family); pioneers (men with guns), and it’s all led by a tubby preacher explaining Manifest Destiny to the county fair crowd, possibly out of a Bible. It’s very hierarchical; nothing about equality going on here, but everyone is at least there, making up a celebration of America, like family gathering when nobody fights. Everyone is on the same platform (more or less). Not like today, right?
Everyone on the same platform and Utopia
Which leads me to the broader idea of Utopia. The first syllable of “u-topia” could be mean “u’” or “eu” in Greek, so the word could mean either no-place (a place that doesn’t exist or couldn’t exist) or a good place, with “eu” meaning “good”, as in “euphemism” – meaning a polite way to say something that isn’t polite. So utopian thinking – or utopian method, as some of my CHAT discussion groups are framing it – can mean either thinking about good or bad alternatives to something, not just things that can’t or won’t happen. Thus the Utopian method would be trying out something to see if it worked – a curriculum, a school setting, a housing experiment – and then studying it (that’s the method part) to see what makes it work and what ultimately weakens, fragments, or destroys it.
This kind of thinking is especially important for social movements because we have to be constantly thinking ahead, trying to figure out what forces are going to be in play tomorrow, next week, next year, and how we can pull out of this moment (whether it’s the pandemic or not) a possible future that will come closest over time to what we think a decent world looks like.
The presence of Utopian thinking activities right in our neighborhood
Right now on the ap NextDoor there is a lively conversation going on about closing or not closing the broad shopping street in our Berkeley, California, neighborhood. It has many restaurants on it and a good number of small shops. With everything except take-out shut down since March, those shops are going broke. Someone put up the idea of closing the street to traffic and letting the shops do sidewalk vending, including putting tables out so that people could sit social-distanced in the street and eat. The hailstorm of pros and cons that ensued on the list is amazing. People are really interested in either doing it or not doing it, and have a whole chaos of ideas pro and con. It’s a brainstorm, but no one is taking it the next step (yet) into a strategic planning design. In order to do that, you’d need to do some utopian thinking – what if we did this? What would happen? Another word for this is “thought experiment.” Of course, in the real world (in a city planning department, for example) you’d quickly get computer models for traffic flow, shadow patterns, drainage, time tables for refuse pick up, etc. What does refuse pickup have to do with utopian thinking?
Utopian Sci Fi
In utopian literature, things like refuse pickup, traffic flow and disability access are the very things that form the bulk of the paragraphs. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2140, where Manhattan is flooded to the second floor by the rising Atlantic Ocean, he talks about parking, growing food, the role of banking and real estate. In Ursula LeGuin’s Birthday of the World, she talks about what early sex education is like if you have a floating gender situation like some amphibians. In Liu Cixin’s Supernova Era,he talks about how you train the next generation to run the world if you have only a few months to do it because by then, everyone over age 13 will be dead (due to an interstellar event worth reading about for its own sake). The role in this played by American kids makes this book something I’d assign as required reading.
My point here is that people, these “utopian writers” are not just fluff. They have thought this stuff through, worked out the relationships. Like Robert McCloskey who decided to draw a picture that showed how America could get everyone on stage at the same time, and made some choices that hurt the heart today, there will be places in the utopian story or the picture where, by trying to work with the hard rules of reality, you negotiate some compromises. But that’s part of the utopian method: you see not just how far into the future you can take the characters in the story, you also watch to see where you have to start chopping off their limbs to fit the vision onto the bed of Procrustes. That’s hard work, hard thinking. Better to practice doing it mentally before trying it in real life.
An argument for having people who are studying labor issues read science fiction during the pandemic is to encourage us to think not just in terms of how this pandemic has increased the use of Zoom and given us quiet streets, low air pollution, really good take-out, but also how it has changed employment relationships. I’m not just talking about the lucky few who can work from home. I mean, for example, the garbage workers in New Orleans who have been on strike for 4 days now. According to an article posted on Portside, they’re striking to get better PPE (everything they handle is infected, they say). They make $10.25 per hour. They have now been replaced by prisoners who make 13% of that. That’s an employment relationship — under coolie conditions – coerced labor! It’s not one we want, but it’s a different one. There is no end of creativity going on these days in the world of employment relations! Plenty of people are dreaming up ways to extract more value from the labor of other people. We need to be thinking about what alternative employment relations (conditions of work) look like that are good. That’s utopian thinking.
Maybe someone is thinking ahead. Wouldn’t that be great?
Apparently Bernie and Biden have agreed on a joint task force. This is good news. Most of the people I talk with just sigh when they think about Biden’s chances of winning in November: he’ll lose, period, no matter how bad Trump is, because Biden just isn’t ….well, someone you’d want to put much effort into. He’s described as “hiding in his basement.” I’m sure he has a regular house to live in; so why do people talk about him hiding in the basement? That’s become a cliche, but it expresses a feeling.
But this task force makes it look as if the Democratic Party is realizing that they can’t win without Bernie’s campaign.
Here’s who is on this task force, according to Elly Nilsen who writes for Vox:
Former Secretary of State John Kerry, task force co-chair
Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis
Kerry Duggan, former deputy director for policy to Vice President Biden
Former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy
Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA), member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and co-founder of the United for Climate and Environmental Justice Congressional Task Force
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), task force co-chair and co-author of the Green New Deal resolution
Varshini Prakash, co-founder of youth activist group Sunrise Movement
Catherine Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice
Criminal Justice Reform
Chiraag Bains, task force co-chair and director of legal strategies at progressive think tank Demos
Stacey Walker, supervisor in Linn County, Iowa, and Iowa co-chair of Sanders’s campaign
Civil rights attorney and South Carolina state Rep. Justin Bamberg
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), task force co-chair and chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor
Tennessee state Sen. Raumesh Akbari, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus in Tennessee
Vanita Gupta, former acting assistant attorney general
Former Attorney General Eric Holder
Biden campaign adviser Symone Sanders
Sara Nelson, task force co-chair and president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA
Stephanie Kelton, professor of economics and public policy at Stony Brook University and an expert on modern monetary theory
Darrick Hamilton, economic professor at Ohio State University whose work focuses on income inequality and socioeconomic stratification
Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), task force co-chair and current chair of the Congressional Black Caucus
Jared Bernstein, former chief economist and economic adviser to Vice President Biden
Ben Harris, former chief economist and chief economic adviser to Vice President Biden
Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees
Sonal Shah, policy director for Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign
Heather Gautney, task force co-chair and Sanders policy adviser
Alejandro Adler, Center for Sustainable Development, Columbia University
Hirokazu Yoshikawa, New York University professor
Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), task force co-chair and former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus
Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers
Maggie Thompson, former executive director of Generation Progress
Christie Vilsack, literacy advocate
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), task force co-chair, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and author of the House’s Medicare-for-All bill
Dr. Donald Berwick, former director of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, former Michigan gubernatorial candidate in 2018 and single-payer advocate
Former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, task force co-chair
Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union
New York University professor Sherry Glied, who served in the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration
Chris Jennings, former health care policy adviser during the Obama administration
Rep. Robin Kelly (D-IL), who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee
Marielena Hincapié, task force co-chair and executive director of the National Immigration Law Center
Marisa Franco, director of progressive Latinx group Mijente
Javier Valdés, co-executive director of progressive immigration group Make the Road
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), task force co-chair and an original co-author of the Dream Act
Cristóbal Alex, Biden campaign adviser
Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-TX)
Juan Gonzalez, adviser to Vice President Biden
Nevada Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall
This came via Portside from Ella Nilson on Vox: Ella Nilsen covers Congress and the Democrats for Vox. Before coming to Vox, she worked at the Concord Monitor newspaper in New Hampshire, where she covered Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the 2016 primary.
An article in the New Yorker describes the fractured supply chain for medical supplies and the obstacles to getting approval for tests, apparently because if you test, you find out how many people have got it. If what you find out is that a lot of people have it, then you have to make a choice between stopping the contagion (shutting down gatherings, including workplaces and markets; ie, the economy) and just letting people die. So it’s better that the information about how many people test positive doesn’t exist in the first place.
Speaking of staying home, I am learning the meaning of “practice.” I am finding that if I play something over and over and over again, trying each time to do something better, it gets better. At the beginning, I was learning this one note at a time:
So now, on to something a little more famliar.
Theorizing learning for DSA reading groups: learning and a mass strike
Speaking of learning: learning can be theorized as discontinuous change ((Bateson), punctuated equilibrium (Gould), quantities of small steps suddenly synchronizing into a single wave that exhibits completely new qualities (Newton?), unexpected leaps in the capacity of an individual or a group to understand and accomplish something – these last two in particular traceable back through Marx to Hegel and the idea that contradictions are what produce social change. The lineage of the theoretical tradition that I’ve been educated in goes from Marx to Vygotsky in the early days of the Soviet Union, Leonti’ev in the mid-twentieth century there, then Engestrom in Finland until the early 2000s. Vygotsky was a psychologist tasked with creating a Marxist psychology; Leonti’ev called it Activity Theory, as did Engestrom, who built a whole research unit around it, and today it can be found in Critical Historical Activity Theory, or CHAT (recently changed from cultural historical activity theory, also CHAT). Details upon request – I just want to demonstrate that I’m not pulling this out of my hip pocket.
The core idea at the heart of all these approaches to learning is that change, whether it is individual, collective or world-wide, happens through the resolutions of contradictions. That’s where the power comes from. Sort of like splitting the atom, except that things snap together. What makes it radical is the focus on contradictions. An unequal world abounds in contradictions. Learning therefore requires exposing contradictions and often pressing them, using the tools of social relationships like speech, art, culture, organizing, democracy, law, and so on, to move them upward into the change we want to see.
Learning and the mass strike
Learning relates to the mass strike in that like a mass strike, learning itself emerges from the sometimes invisible small accreted resolutions to lesser contradictions (quantitative change) that suddenly burst into some new character that was potential to them all (qualitative change). You try and try and try, and suddenly you can do something like play a Bach prelude easily; a school class resists and objects and complains, and then suddenly the light goes on and the kids get it; a social class struggles and suffers and then suddenly they look at each other and say, “Wow, there’s a lot of us, isn’t there?” and they figure out what to do next.
We change, the world changes, and our place in the world has changed.
The DSA Red States Revolt (Eric Blank, Jacobin) Reading Groups
When the DSA reading groups launched on March 9, 2020, we met in person. Within a few days, California was in lockdown, people had lost their jobs, roommates went home to other cities, bills started coming due that couldn’t be paid, climate change was no longer “theoretical” and happening elsewhere, the death count was climbing towards 75,000 (that’s what it is as of this writing), and Trump was mouthing dangerous nonsense on TV. The reading groups moved to Zoom.
Two months later we’ve conducted three groups, meeting every two weeks via Zoom. We’ve involved about 25 participants, many of them DSA members. Only 6 of the original 31 seem to have dropped out. Some of these have definitely disappeared due to having to find a new way or place to live. We’ve read and discussed Heath Madom’s description of the OAE 2019 strike and Eric Blanc’s analysis of the three red state mass teacher strikes. The group leaders have also met between groups and discussed what goes on in each group.
And on the outside, while some countries have managed to block off or manage the virus (New Zealand, Vietnam, South Korea), and others have done a pretty good job (Europe generally), others are stewing with it, including India, the UK and us. The wealth of our country is built upon a shaky stacked tower of people working for less money than they need to live on, which means that even before the virus their labor was already churning out value that was being captured somewhere up the chain of exchange, but now the people at the bottom of the tower can’t go to work. They are at home (or on the street), churning out nothing, and the tower is wobbling. Therefore the people at the top are saying, “Open the economy! Get people back to work! Help help!”
Health crisis, economic crisis, social crisis
Healthcare workers, seeing this as a health crisis – which it is – go to work with insufficient PPE and risk their lives and the lives of their families. They get saluted as heroes for doing so, paid for their dangerous work with what amount to emotional frequent flyer points. But a pandemic, or plague or contagion is not just a health crisis; that’s just the first hit of impact.
The second hit, following immediately on the first, is the economic crisis, namely that the economic system is crashing, the World Trade Center in slow motion. Warehouse workers, grocery store workers, transit workers, postal workers, packinghouse workers, farmers, travel and hospitality workers, school employees (including teachers, of course)—bit by bit as each of these hits the point at which they have to choose — or their state or local government chooses for them by shutting things down – between doing a job and getting paid, or risk catching the virus, a little chip of the economy breaks off. It happens at the point at which one human being would normally would be within arm’s reach of another, or part of a group or crowd of people. You can take a picture of that actual place — bodies moving away from each other. Then the people who count or bundle or sell those chips get chipped away themselves. And so on.
Then the economic crisis becomes a social and political crisis. The description above suggests that it’s all passive: this is just happening to us. That’s not the case. As the virus spreads and the economic tide goes out (revealing, as Warren Buffet says, who is swimming naked), people are doing a lot. The ferocity of the commands from the upper levels of the tower (get back to work! If you don’t come back to work you’ll get fired! You’ll be denied unemployment! You’ll lose your health insurance!) is an indication that they appreciate how much leverage workers actually have right now. All over the country, workers are taking advantage of this leverage, going on strike, demanding adequate protections, filing grievances.
But things are still in the early days. Even a few hundred individual strikes is not a mass strike. Neither is a 30% unemployment rate, which is what I read this morning.
A challenge for the reading groups
Since March 9 we in the reading group project have come to know each other, both the leaders and the participants, and engaged with participants outside the groups. This means that we share a common knowledge base: of the readings, the discussions, how we interact in a group setting, and to a limited extent, of each other’s lives and thoughts. We seem to all agree that this has been a good learning experience. So what do we do with this? This is the kind of slowly-accumulating store of social capital that can be used to go on to the next step, whether the purpose of continuing to build is to repeat something that has worked well, to expand it by adding more groups, to change it by choosing a different kind of shared experience (like each group reading a different book), or whether the purpose is to put what we have built to a different use. What’s next?
Labor education is education for action. Unlike school learning, it is not capped off by a test given at the end of class. Also, its goal is not individual. Although individuals do learn in labor ed programs, the value of the program is in what happens with or to the group and the people outside the group.
The role of teachers is to challenge the individuals and the group, separately or together, to move on to the next step. Vygotsky would call this creating a “zone of proximal development,” the thing that you can do with a more advanced partner that you can’t do by yourself. Engestrom calls this “learning by expanding” – expanding the horizon of potential action. In a labor ed class, learning by expanding would mean thinking about strategy.
On one side, the US is at a pivot point in the pandemic where the contradiction between what the working class needs and what the ruling class wants is galloping toward the maximum conflict. The speed with which this is taking place almost boggles the imagination. I don’t need to summon up examples. It’s probably happening elsewhere, too – but it’s clearly happening here.
So I propose that when the three DSA Zoom groups come back together on May 18 we ask the united group to propose some challenge that ties to what has changed since March 9. Create a zone of proximal development for ourselves (don’t call it that). Identify something we can do that draws on what we have built so far and takes it to the next level. Maybe several different levels.
I think this is actually not very different from what we would have done anyway. Maybe what I have added to the discussion is an explanation of why it will work.
This is our friend Beverly Stewart, at the time President of the Roosevelt Adjunct Faculty Organization (RAFO), an NEA local, telling the story of Haymarket at the statue on the site of the massacre. This is Chicago, about 2008. She is addressing the women at a Polk Conference. You can see that the statue, which is supposed to not only commemorate the massacre but represent an argument for free speech (it is a haywagon that is also speaker’s platform) has people climbing on it. See the story below for why this matters.
History and Memory
In honor of May Day 2020, while Joe is in San Francisco joining a pandemic car caravan demonstration (6 foot social distance provided by a 2-ton metal cage) in support of the Green New Deal, a general rent strike and two other demands, I am going to post an article I wrote about the Haymarket Martyrs Commemoration following the giant May Day 2006 Immigration march in Chicago. It was published in the Champaign Illinois Indymedia paper.
If you have forgotten, or were too young to pay attention, the immigration rights marches that year were enormous and thrilling, joyful, ferocious:
The Platform and the Street: History and Memory face each other at the May Day Haymarket Square Rally
May 1, 2006, Chicago
I left the immigrants rights rally in Grant Park at about 4:00 while the speakers were still holding forth on the platform. People would later say that there were a quarter or half a million people there, all together, including those who walked east from Union Park along Randolph or Jackson all the way to the lake and then instead of going to the rally just turned back and walked west to their cars and buses or a train station. Leaving Grant Park, I walked north and then west, heading to Haymarket Square to get there by 4:30 when the celebration of Mayday at the Haymarket Monument was scheduled to begin. It was drizzling slightly.
When I got to Haymarket Square, I noticed that the statue was surrounded by barriers, the low metal portable kind that look rather like bike racks. Normally, there are no barriers around the statue. It stands on the sidewalk on the spot where, 120 years ago, the wagon stood from which the speakers at the Haymarket mass meeting addressed the crowd. That 1886 crowd was a protest crowd, protesting the shooting and killing of two strikers at the McCormick Works a few days before. The statue depicts a wagon with several figures climbing on it, speaking from and either building or dismantling the wagon. To emphasize the free speech purpose of the statue, several soapboxes (made of bronzed material) are set about the sidewalk beside the wagon. It is common for people to climb up on the statue and join the sculpted figures. I have photographs of visitors from out of town up on the statue and have a picture of myself and my husband up on it. But today barriers enclosed both the statue and the soapboxes.
At that point, only a handful of celebrants were in the square. It looked as if no one from the immigrants’ rights march was going to show up. There were a few police. I asked one of the bystanders what the barriers were for. Had the Labor History Society, which had organized the rally, asked that they be put up? He had no idea. There was a much bigger speaker’s platform set up transversing the street – Des Plaines – about forty feet north of the statue, and a smaller platform on the west side of Des Plaines on which I saw Larry Duncan from Labor Beat with a video camera.
Bit by bit more people showed up. I knew most of them. They were staff or elected leaders of the big Chicago labor unions and a few freelance labor movement people. On the speakers platform, Bucky Halter and someone else I didn’t know were setting up to play music.
The sky was still gray but the drizzle had stopped.
Anarchist kids, labor leaders, and police
At this point, a group of anarchist kids came into the square, dancing and jumping and beating paint can drums. They wore the usual green hair, black jeans, some masks, some theatrically ripped and debrided shirts and skirts. They made a circle below the speakers platform and danced and beat their drums. They looked like the cast from Les Miz.
More police appeared. Some were on bicycles and wore yellow bike jackets and bike helmets.
Suddenly the anarchist kids had jumped over the barriers and climbed up on the statue and had placed their black flag on the top of it. In their gray and black clothes, they looked like part of the statue, or part of a painting of the statue.
The police rushed them. I was standing about twenty feet away. The speed and ferocity with which the police threw themselves towards the kids on the statue, and with which they tore them down, and tore their flag down, was breathtaking. It was as if a year’s worth of testosterone had been pumped into their blood and had intoxicated them. Their faces were blank and enraged. It looked as if they had entered a zone in which it was permitted for them to act out something that was normally forbidden or at least secret. They pulled the kids to the ground and knocked them down. Some kids got up again and struggled, but they were overpowered.
My first thought was that this was theater, some kind of historical re-enactment of the police riot that had ensued after the bomb was thrown in Haymarket Square a hundred and twenty years ago. One person was killed by the bomb, but eight were killed by gunfire from the police, who went crazy and started shooting into the crowd.
The tussling continued with the kids getting up off the ground and pushing back at the police, and the police pushing against them and grabbing them and knocking them down. There were a lot of photographers who were dipping and snapping all around. The kids scrambled, the police kept rushing. I backed off, but not all the way. I couldn’t believe my eyes – I was still half-thinking that this was a piece of theater. I have seen drawings of a policeman in uniform struggling with a ragged kid so many times.
I was standing near a lamp post about thirty feet from the statue when the police rushed some kids who were coming in my direction, trying to get away. I was not right in their path, but I was close enough, and one policeman – a middle-aged black man in a helmet and a bike jacket – shoved me with his bicycle. It was not an accident. They were using their bicycles as prods and shields, and he lifted his bike up and aimed it so that the front wheel struck me in the chest and knocked me down. People on both sides of me held my hands and pulled me back up. Another cop was in front of me by now and was leaning over me. I pushed him off me. He said, “You punched me in the chest!” I said, ‘I what? Your friend knocked me down!” The tussle dissipated. Several people asked me if I was all right.
The anarchists went back to standing in the middle of the street and facing the cops. I looked around to see what else was going on. I was a bit shaken. I saw various labor leaders and staffers, standing around. They were another thirty feet from where the tussle had been going on. Tom Balanoff from SEIU Local 1 (note added 16 years later: he was not just “from” SEIU Local 1, he was the President; this is an enormous local stretching from Chicago to Houston that represents custodial workers among others) was there and there was a cluster of people around him. He seemed to be laughing. Soon he and a few others went over and stood among the police. More police had come by now. Many were still wearing their bike jackets, but some were taking them off. The musicians on the platform started playing, loudly. It was by now about quarter to five. Balanoff walked toward the anarchists and said something.
By the time the speakers started to give their speeches about the reason we had come to this place on this day, there were at least four dozen cops standing in almost military formation beside the statue. They filled at least half the square. They had taken their bike jackets off and were standing in their blue uniforms. There were more cops than there were people in the audience. More came, in police wagons with sirens blaring. The anarchists went and sat at the base of the statue, on the curb, and banged their drums lightly.
The four people who were tried and hung after the Haymarket massacre were not the police, but some anarchist immigrants, most of whom had not even been at the demonstration. The trial consumed the public press and received international attention. The story of the trial and conviction of the people who came to be known as the Haymarket martyrs is told in Jim Green’s just-published book, “Death at the Haymarket.” It is a tale of a judicial process distorted by ideology, money and fear.
The Haymarket Statues
The first statue that was erected in Haymarket was not a statue of the martyrs but of a policeman, shown standing in uniform with his hand raised to signify that he was ready to protect family, community and country. This statue was bombed several times and finally placed inside the police academy. Then for many years there was nothing to mark the site of Haymarket. Visitors from other countries would come, expecting to find a significant monument that would commemorate the day that is recognized all over the world as May Day, worker’s rights day, and find nothing. Eventually nothing was left of the original buildings except the cobblestone paving in Crane’s Alley that leads into Des Plaines. Then a metal plaque was installed in the pavement. It was vandalized, but it existed, and you could go there and read it and see if and look around and think, “This is the place.”
Erecting the monument that is presently standing in Haymarket was a long process. The city resisted. Finally, permission was given. The design of the wagon was intended to both suggest what the square was used for – meetings and demonstrations – and to hint that it could still be used that way. There was a lot of debate about what the statue should look like and when it was unveiled in place some people said that the figures looked like melted crayons – “It was pre-vandalized,” someone said – and that you couldn’t tell if the figures were building the wagon or taking it apart. At the unveiling, labor leaders spoke and the president of the police union also spoke. At that event, anarchists also protested. I am not entirely clear about what they were protesting. I’ve been told that the anarchist philosophy prohibits cooperation with the state, and that the existence of the statue had come about through cooperation with the state and was therefore unacceptable. This seems a bit oversimplified. I have seen Labor Beat’s video called “Trainwreck of Ideologies” that documents the protests that occurred at the dedication of the memorial to the Haymarket martyrs that is in Waldheim cemetery, where they are buried, but I am still not clear on exactly what the issues are. Either way, the kids who were dancing and climbing on the statue on May 1, 2006, were not the same people who had been at that event.
As the speakers got in gear it began to drizzle harder. I kept looking among the policemen for the man who had knocked me down, but I couldn’t find him. I wondered what it was like to be up on that speaker’s platform, on a day that had taken so much work to organize, and look down at the thin crowd of familiar labor movement faces – hardly anyone there who didn’t have to be there, hardly anyone who wasn’t on some union payroll – and see beyond them that phalanx of angry police, some still breathing hard in their tight uniforms, standing as if in formation. If anyone ever doubted that the original Haymarket massacre had been a police riot, I thought, the events of this afternoon should have settled that. If anyone doubted the atmosphere of fear that today’s labor movement functions in, a photo of this rally should eliminate that doubt. Would someone on the platform speak to that, mention that this afternoon’s events had clearly dramatized the fact that the issues were still in play, and hot?
I decided to leave and walk home. I was a bit sore where I’d been whammed, and still shaky. Also, I had to drive down to Champaign that night anyway, and it was just about time to hit the road and join the end of rush hour.
A Lowly Nobody
As I walked away I saw one cop standing alone, a young guy, near where half a dozen police vans were parked. I went up and asked him why the barriers had been placed there. He said he didn’t know – “I’m just a lowly nobody,” he said. I said that it was the intent of the design of the statue that people stand on it and speak and that I had never seen barriers there before, and that putting barriers there had just given the police an excuse to be belligerent. I asked, “Why are there so many police here?” He said that earlier, there had been reports of a fight going on. “Between whom?” I asked. He said they had been told it was between bikers and anarchists. “Bikers? You mean people on motorcycles?” Yes, he said. I said I hadn’t seen any motorcycles around – and did they need forty cops for that? “I’m just a nobody,” he said. He said that the anarchists were dangerous – they wore masks, they broke windows. I said I’d never seen them breaking windows but he said he recognized them from other demonstrations — even through their masks — and that yes, they broke windows. I said they were kids, more like cheerleaders.
Altogether, it was a bad ending to a good day. The immigrants rights march was huge and exciting and would have, along with the other marches in other cities, an impact on national politics. I had left the office at 2 pm, one hour after the march began, and it was still huge walking east from Union Square. The shouts of “Si, se puede!” moved up and down the march in waves. It was wonderful to be walking along in the middle of an enormous river of calm and purposeful people. There were lots of women pushing strollers. I saw a sign that I liked: “No somos uno, no somos cien, somos milliones, cuentas nos bien.” Along the march I saw small groups of men and women, mostly student age, with signs identifying themselves as muslims, and families with Polish flags. But the overwhelming mass was Latinos, including many young men. For a long time I walked behind a thin, dark-skinned man in his thirties who had his hair in a long pony tail bound with leather thongs.
That evening, on the way down to Champaign, I listened to WBEZ, the public radio station, as long as I could through the static that starts about thirty miles south and continues until you lose the signal altogether and can get nothing but Christian stations. I heard a woman who obviously represented some official agency saying, in an unaccented voice, that these people who are marching today want to be part of the American mainstream. It’s too bad the left wing groups, the labor unions, have tried to hitch a ride on this movement. This will make it harder for these people to become part of the mainstream. They don’t want to be associated with left wing groups. She also said that May Day is the socialist left-wing holiday in some other countries.
In the Tribune on May 2, the next day, there was a photograph on page 3 of the police pushing the barricades at the anarchists. In the picture you can see the guy who knocked me down – he’s in his yellow jacket, and he’s lifting his bike up over the top of a barricade and shoving it at a young man on the other side of the barricade, who appears to be fending it off with his left hand.
History and Memory: An explanation of what I saw
Two other things I want to mention. In Champaign the day after May Day, I attended a symposium of fellows of the Center for Democracy in a Multi-Racial Society. One of the fellows, Maurice Stevens, a graduate of the History of Consciousness program at Santa Cruz, compared the domains of history and memory. “History is the arena of data, of libraries and archives, of writing and paper,” he said, or something close to that. “Memory is the arena of the street, of talk and photo albums.” I thought: yesterday we saw these two domains face each other. History was on the platform, in the person of the Labor History Society. History had arranged this event and summoned dignitaries and supporters to come to mark the event. The dignitaries were substantial but the supporters were few. Memory was in the street, in the person of the cops. In their righteousness and bullying arrogance, they embodied the spirit of the times that had hung the Haymarket martyrs. In this face-off, memory proved that it was still alive, and it beat history.
“Even in the worst of times, we in India did not forget“
A week later I attended a presentation by Ashim Roy, the president of the newly convened trade union federation of India, the NTUI. After the presentation, during the question period, he was asked to tell us two of his impressions of the United States, the best and the worst. The best was, as might have been expected, his discovery of the multitudes of diverse social justice organizations alive in this country. The worst had to do with Haymarket. He said that he had heard of Haymarket, of course, in India, and knew the origins of May Day. Then upon coming to the United States he had asked to see the site of the Haymarket Massacre. He was taken to it, and of course, there was nothing there. (This was on a previous but recent trip, before the statue was erected.) Nothing there! He was amazed and angry. “Even in the worst of times,” he said, “we in India did not forget. We never lost the left, we never forgot, even in the worst of times.”
He implied that in the United States, Haymarket had been forgotten. I disagree. Haymarket was never forgotten. Whoever sent those forty cops in blue uniforms to stand in a phalanx across Des Plaines Street, blocking the intersection with their paddy wagons as if they planned to arrest dozens of people, had not forgotten. The conflict was not commemorated, however. It was re-enacted, proving that it has not yet, and may never, not in this country, cool from memory into history. What looks like forgetfulness is more like a standoff.
Vietnam appears to have experienced no deaths from COVID-19. Zero. I first heard this from friends there, then it showed up on the Vietnam Studies Group list, and then reports started coming in from ex-pats who confirm the report and as of today, a Reuters report that says the same thing. No deaths.
Less air pollution, too — photos of HCMC with blue skies.
The details about no deaths, the low number of cases, the quarantines, the management of the crisis at the local level, are all reported consistently by various sources. Half the funding to manage the crisis comes from the national and half from provincial governments True, it’s very difficult to identify and track street vendors, other “independent workers,” and migrant workers who have returned to their hometowns. But it’s all consistent with the overall picture. They put all incoming visitors in quarantine camps, everybody’s wearing masks — of which there are plenty; garment factories are making them by the thousands. People are used to wearing masks because of the pollution, of course. Hugging and shaking hands are not typical Vietnamese gestures anyway. They also don’t put their aged in nursing homes, which is where so many deaths are happening here (and those numbers only started getting added today.) The grandmothers and grandfathers are at home with their families. They have a national healthcare system. And they are familiar with mounting vast national campaigns to overcome a threat.
Someone hung this over the tunnel entrance beneath the Arlington Circle. This is not a strike. It is something different. It’s as if the side of a mountain has fallen off and we can see for the first time all the geology — only what is revealed is the reality of work in the US: who is essential, who makes the wheels turn, who gets paid what, who can easily work from home, who has to risk their lives to make a paycheck — and who wants “the country re-opened” and who is going under permanently becuase they don’t have the cash to keep a business open with no customers (smallretail, for example,independent franchises).
This is an article titled Pandemic Job Actions May Push Renewed Labor Movement, from — can you guess? — an insurance journal:
People have been told that they have to apply for unemployment benefits and get denied before they can apply for COVID-19 UI benefits. The lines and websites are jammed.
But now some workplaces are re-opening and that means that even if you don’t want to (or your kids are at home from school because the schools are closed), you have to come back. If your workplace re-opens and you don’t come back to work your employer can fire you for cause and then you won’t get unemployment benefits. The Chronicle today reported a woman with two daughters who were at home and needed supervision to do their homeschooling; she tried to get off work to go pick up a computer for one of them, her employer told her no, told her to come back to work and fired her when she didn’t. Her final paycheck included pay for 22 days of vacation which she had been told she could not use.
Some meatpacking plants in the midwest have closed, leading to headlines about future meat shortages and pig kills, but not all. Packinghouse work is assembly line work, where workers pass a piece of meat from one set of hands to the next.
In California we’re in shutdown for at least another month, through the end of May. Some relaxations coming up. A new treatment, remdecivir, from the pharmaceutical company Gilead, appears to be able to speak to COVID-19 and hastens recovery by a third:
It was mainly a nature reserve and tourist destination and the reason people went to it was to see the koalas and kangaroos. My brother and his wife went there. When they arrived, they said, “Where are the kangaroos?” The guide said, “Wait until night. You’ll see so many kangaroos you’ll say take me back to the hotel, I can’t stand all these kangaroos.” And sure enough, as soon as it got dark there were kangaroos popping up all over the place like popcorn.
A third of the island burned, killing thousands of kangaroos and koalas and other animals with names I have never heard before, several of them listed as nearly extinct before this even happened. So that’s how bad it can get.
I get from here to there by thinking about Charles Darwin, who was reluctant (The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quammen, 2006, Norton) to come forward with his theory of natural selection. I like to think about the years he spent sitting at his desk in Downe House, studying barnacles, suffering from headaches and stomach aches, slowly working his way toward the inescapable conclusion that species came and went, some of the most beautiful were gone forever, and clearly, God did not prefer human beings to beetles. It would have been hard indeed to be the guy who proved this to be the case, especially if you had a wife, as he did, whom you loved and who trusted in God to bring the two of you together forever in Heaven after you died.
Kangaroo Island is how bad it gets. The kangaroos did not know how to get off the island. Do we? It turns out that the mayor of Kangaroo Island (probably someone who now wants people to get right back to work as fast as possible) is a climate change denier. He doesn’t think climate change had anything to do with the fires.
Which is related to Trump actually telling people “on TV,” which used to mean something, that they might try drinking clorox or disinfectant generally to clean out their systems.
In the meantime, Andy Blunden in Australia, whose book on Hegel for Social Movements I’ve got to finish and do a review of (the problem being that I really have to read Capital first) sent out to a discussion list that I belong to a 7-page rant (his term) called As of 2020, The American Century is Over. In response, I sent it around to a few close friends and people in my family, who represent a range of political opinions and perspectives, from managers to small business owners to healthcare professionals to teachers of all sorts. It’s a broad-brush arc of the rise and fall of capitalist America, its role in the world and how the bottom line looks from the middle of a global pandemic.
The responses I have gotten back tend toward the personal, which I find inspiring. They revolve around “When did you notice this was happening?” Our friend B. says for him it was the late 1960s, when he was in the National Guard and might have gone to Vietnam. Our son Jake remembers that when he went to Italy in 1997 to attend the University of Bologna, Americans ruled — they were cool and knew everything. he could tell by the way everyone smiled. When he went back the first time after 9/11, things had changed. American knew nothing. No one was smiling at him now. So for him the turning point was 9/11. Joe and I have noticed in trips to Mexico people will say “no me gusto” when I ask if they’d be interested in coming to the US. Mexicans don’t want to come here; they’ll skip the US and go to Canada. Canadians have no reason to come here. Joe and I would go to Colin Barker’s social movements conferences in Manchester, and we’d meet Brits who would say straight out that they didn’t want to visit the US, although they’d be happy to see the Grand Canyon at least once before they died.
And of course, the reason Joe and I were in Vietnam was because supposedly the US had something to teach other countries about how collective bargaining works. How’s that going for you, as they say? While the TPP (see early entries for the full story on this) was potentially coming to pass, there was a signed side agreement between the US and Vietnam that laid out a version of independent grassroots unions that looked a lot like unions in the US before 1948 (Taft Hartley). So people wanted to know how that worked, and we had something to teach. Then when Trump was first elected things got iffy — we had a good half-semester, but the reason for us being there was slipping and we were being asked to teach more and more cross cultural management, etc. The third time we went the Department of Labor Relations and Trade Unions was in deep transition; now it has merged with the Business Administration program. “This is how we do it in the US” is no longer a selling point.
Meanwhile, here in Berkeley, we are in a bubble. The recent rains make the front yard look great but they mean there will be lots of growth this spring, thus wildfires next fall. But the rains aren’t enough to really fill up the snowpack. We have had about 6 weeks of lockdown; I go to the grocery stores once a week and stand in the “senior” line to go in. No more than 20 people are allowed in the store where I get most everything, which used to be jammed.
Many days I don’t write. Partly because I feel confused. I know what’s happening in my little cohort, probably on my street and in my family; I watch a few minutes of CNN at night but can’t stand the sight or sound of Trump; I read the Chronicle in the morning, especially the national and international news; I read the London Review of Books and the NY Review of Books; I am in a couple of online discussion groups.
Around our neighborhood, people are decorating their front yards with “treasure hunts” so that homeschooled kids who get taken for a walk by their exhausted moms and dads can find things to distract them with.
But now 5 weeks have passed and I have become acclimated enough so that when I see a movie on TV in which people are walking down a sidewalk through crowds of people, or gathering together for dinner or on the beach, I feel puzzled: What do they think they’re doing? Oh– that’s from before.
Lifting up and looking a bit farther is hard. Hard to get the brain around. For me, it’s like doing math.
“Back to normal” won’t happen because the virus is among us. Now that Massachusetts is starting to test everyone, they’re finding that 60% of people test positive and — was it 40%? – of those are actually sick. The curve in Massachusetts is not flattening yet. California still can’t test everyone — not enough tests. No explanation of who gets it harder or weaker, except that obesity is a risk factor as is being African American. Children die, too. And there is no treatment and no vaccine.
The shutdown was intended to spare the healthcare system by slowing the spread of the virus. Sweden didn’t do a shutdown, possibly because they trusted the size and competence of their national healthcare system and were willing to risk individual deaths to spare the economy. I am now hearing that at Kaiser, there are extra beds and no crush in the ER. So that’s working. Elective surgeries are being scheduled. But protecting the healthcare system is not the same as protecting people. The shutdown protects people in the sense that if you stay away from someone who has it or is carrying it, you are less likely to get it. But it’s main purpose is to save the healthcare system. We will all get it, eventually, unless there is a vaccine. And about the same time there will be a vaccine, there will be a new virus. We had MERS, SARS, Zika, Ebola — Mother Earth loves life, just not ours all that much more than other kinds, and she’ll keep trying.
The Long Train with Empty Boxcars
The long train wreck goes like this: labor creates value. That’s where it all starts. Any kind of labor — that’s what digs the hole and plants the fruit trees, catches the fish, sews the clothes, raises the pigs, teaches the kids — on up. The difference between beans on a coffee tree and a latte is work. Value abstracted and made concrete becomes money; money gets exchanged for things people need and for more work. So before labor happens, no value happens; it’s just animal life and we’re just more animals.
So right now, some people are working and getting paid. Many, many others are not. They are not working and they’re not getting paid. Since they’re not getting paid, they’re not paying. They’re not paying rent, student loans, health insurance premiums, car payments, mortgages, etc etc. Those boxes have zeroes in them.
Shattuck Avenue in central downtown Berkeley. No traffic. I’ve never seen it this way. The cranes are not moving. Not a soul on the sidewalk. This was about 2 pm on a weekday.
The train travels slowly, pulling its increasingly empty boxcars, passing from the person who gets laid off from work to a bank that can’t collect on mortgages to empty container ships sitting motionless in San Francisco Bay, heading to a global financial crash.This is leaving aside things like the fact that people who have employer- based health insurance and lose their jobs and lose their insurance and can’t get healthcare so they’re sick in the midst of all this, sick with things other than COVID-19 — cancer, heart attacks, depression. You can see the economy moving slower and slower, with less and less money in circulation, as people eat up any savings they have and go broke, and the unemployment fund runs out, and the businesses that used to hire are wiped out and can’t start up again: the long-term effect of that — and there goes a choo choo train that pulling an increasing number of empty cars as it hurtles across the landscape.
If I make $15 an hour as a barista and bring home $300 -$600 per week and suddenly don’t have that, the whole chain that starts with my work serving coffee, for which I am paid, to me paying my student loans, credit cards, rent, car insurance, and taxes gets filled with zeroes. I just read that right now 90% of the world economy is under lockdown. There is so little oil being used that oil producing countries are actually paying to store it somewhere.
I put gas in Gabi’s car some time in early March — or maybe late February — and I’ve still got half a tank.
How does this compare with the 2008 financial crisis, that made such big news? The 2008 global financial crisis developed out of banks cynically pushing sub-prime loans to collect as many payments as they could before the borrowers hit the variable interest rate walls — 3 or 4 years out, when low interest rates suddenly skyrocketed up to 15 – 18%; then the banks smilingly went and captured whatever collateral there was to get, except that by then whole neighborhoods were one foreclosure after another and instead of having some virtually free real estate in their clutches the banks had a lot of worthless deteriorating junk. Then they were in trouble, and since they were all eating out of each other’s troughs, it became a global crash. At that point the fed rushed in and bailed out not the homeowners but the banks, only one of which – Lehman Brothers — was not “too big to fail.” That was under Obama.
Countrywide, wasn’t it, the original dreamer-upper of sub-prime loans? I actually sat on a plane next to a young girl who said her father had been the president of Countrywide. She told me this as part of me trying to make sense of why a pretty blond Los Angeles girl would get sent to a Catholic college in Texas — did she have to get out of town? She told me she was going there because her father wanted her to — and from that, she told me who he was. She was a bit embarrassed but also a bit proud that he was famous enough so that I probably knew who he was. I don’t think she made that up.
Anyway, what’s going on here makes that look like kid stuff. 2008 was about homeowners and banks. Although we had seen Katrina hit Louisiana, we did not directly connect the collapse of our major banks with global warming. This is about global warming, as COVID-19 is only the most recent in the “named” viruses (or other diseases), from SARS to MERS to West Nile to Zika, that scariest of all to me. So even if we survive this, we can be sure that another one will come along soon.