Look on our works, ye mighty, and despair!
There is a saying that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.
Entrenched systems of power have established bulwarks against the kind of institutional reform that younger Americans have recently been pushing for. By controlling the political conversation through lobbying, control of mass media, regulatory capture, and authoring of legislation, the ultra-wealthy maintain the status quo in a way that makes changing it seem impossible. The problem is that change is desperately needed if we are going to maintain any semblance of civilization.
While political dynamics have become so rigid that the boundaries of what we can achieve begin to feel impenetrable, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that the vital structures of our society—a society that is superficially so robust—have been so weakened that a collapse in one form or another is inevitable. We are the world's superpower, yet faced with a slightly more contagious, slightly more lethal virus than the flu, we are powerless. How did it get to be this bad? How were we so blind to it?
To clarify, depending on the part of the country you live in, it could seem like I'm exaggerating. It may not seem "so bad," or like we're on the verge of collapse. Not long ago the president and many of his loyalists on Fox News and AM radio were still calling dire forecasts around the coronavirus a hoax. At the time it seemed reckless but not unhinged from current events—which were still largely unaffected. In much of the country there is little cause for alarm, so few people are doing much to change their behavior. That's about to change, and the areas hit worst will soon be making the dire choices that Italian hospitals were recently faced with—which patients are we going to hook up to ventilators, and which are we going to allow to die. We are already started on a path that leads to overflowing hospitals in every major city.
A makeshift testing facility in Seattle, Washington Getty Images
The problem is that our entire economy is set up around the same kind of short-term thinking that drive publicly traded corporations. The mentality that "government should be run like a business," leads to cost-cutting measures that only look to the current budget, with minimal consideration given to the kind of intermittent crises that we are bound to face—like a viral pandemic. If it's not particularly likely to happen before the next election cycle, it's better not to even worry about it. This is the kind of thinking that led Donald Trump's administration to push for cuts to the CDC and to disband their global health security team in 2018.
But the systemic issues go much deeper than that and started long before Trump took office. Trump and his ilk can't be blamed for the fact that the US has two hospital beds for every 1,000 citizens. Nor are they responsible for the fact that almost every aspect of America's critical infrastructure receives a near-failing grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers. This includes airport congestion—which has already become an issue with the current pandemic—and important shipping routes that we will rely on to maintain the movement of necessary goods as conditions around the country worsen.
Add to those issues the fact that we have a massive population of prisoners sharing tight quarters with poor sanitation, a substantial homeless population with no way to quarantine, a dearth of worker protections like paid sick leave, and it becomes hard to imagine how we'll get through this unscathed. And, of course, this is still ignoring the elephant in the room—a for-profit healthcare system that discourages millions of uninsured and underinsured Americans from seeking medical advice or treatment until it's too late.
Meanwhile, the economic hardships imposed by the necessity of social distancing are being exacerbated by an economy that is heavily reliant on the whims of financial speculators who create an echo chamber of divestment that heightens every crisis. The stock market, in other words, is going crazy in the worst possible way. It's too soon to say how thoroughly the weaknesses in our system will be tested by the developing pandemic, but even in the best case scenario they are going to be strained to a terrifying extent.
Fortunately, there are efforts underway to shore up some of the most obvious breaking points so we can avoid complete societal collapse. They may turn out to be too little too late, but even if they get us through this current disaster, how long will it be before the next one hits? The best models of climate change predict that we are nearing an era that will be ruled by powerful natural disasters and refugee crises that will threaten economic stability and critical infrastructure and may heighten the threat of infectious diseases. Temporary, reactive measures cannot save us if the next crisis hits a little harder or when multiple crises overlap.
A strong social safety net like the one the US tried to develop under FDR would serve to mitigate the damage from this kind of crisis. But modern American politics has worked for decades—in an effort that became an object of worship under Ronald Reagan—to whittle the welfare state of the New Deal and the Great Society down to a fragile bare minimum.
We need to take seriously the voices of politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who have called for the kind of broad, sweeping legislation that stands a chance of upending the rigid political dynamics that maintain the status quo. The Green New Deal would be a good start. The alternative, one way or another, is the end of our civilization and the world as we know it.
With all the global significance connected to the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, many people don't realize that September 11th has a very different set of meanings in Chile.
A memorial depicting Allende's broken glasses in the aftermath of the coup
On that day in 1973, the United States backed a coup that killed Chile's democratic socialist president, Salvador Allende, ushering in the brutal era of Pinochet. Chile has never fully recovered from the violence of that period, nor the sudden shift in economic policy that followed. For many Chileans, it has been hard to imagine a world in which the leadership could work for them, rather than the global elite. But now the streets of Santiago and Valparaiso are being taken over by thousands of protesters who've been unwilling to accept piecemeal concessions from President Sebastian Pinera.
In Chile, a billionaire president pushes austerity while the military represses protesters. Thousands have been arrested. Knowing Chile's history, this is very dangerous.
The solution here and across the world is obvious. Put power where it belongs: with working people. https://t.co/s6J7kOtDXs
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) October 30, 2019
So far many of these protests have been peaceful, but there have been instances of arson and of violent clashes between protesters and security forces. At least 20 have already died, but the activists there are not giving up. They are relentless, and they are only interested in substantive change—a fundamental restructuring of the Chilean Government to serve the working people. They want Pinera to resign, and they are calling for changes to the Chilean constitution.
For Americans, this kind of protest remains out of the question. Protest in America does not exist to be disruptive or to force action. It only serves as a salve for our powerlessness.
American protest is sanctioned by the system and restricted to its proper time and place. It makes the protesters feel better for a time—makes them feel seen, like they're a part of something—and maybe it raises some awareness for a cause or inspires some phone calls to congress. And if it attempts to do more, it is met with swift and violent crackdowns. It does not—cannot—break down the country's normal functions.
But what if the normal functions no longer work for the people? What if the interests that led the United States to back coups against Socialist leaders are also fueling mass propaganda campaigns against grass roots movements at home? What if they're defending those in power from the normal avenues of accountability?
The American media has a tight focus right now on the rapidly developing impeachment proceedings, and that makes sense. There is new information coming out of those efforts on a near daily basis, and there is a significant precedent for this kind of procedure to effect change. But it remains to be seen whether all this new evidence will survive the spin and propaganda from the likes of Fox News and One America News. We should not place our faith purely in the institutions of power to regulate power. To achieve anything for the people, the institutions of power must be afraid of the alternative.
We must look at the mass actions that are making life difficult for the powerful in Chile and Lebanon and Hong Kong, and prepare ourselves to make the same kind of trouble at home. Even if Trump is forced out of office and the Democrats choose a progressive nominee and the 2020 election fully flips control to the Democrats, the fight will only be getting started. The interests and forces that killed Salvador Allende in Chile will still be doing everything in their power to protect the status quo. We must be willing to upend the normal order if we want to produce real change.