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Reforming Revolution - mistral - Tue, 19 May 2020 12:46:17 +0000

hi everyone, new to the forum.  figure my politics align pretty well with what's on here so i thought i would post a piece i just finished about the corona epidemic.  i'm a small farmer in northern michigan.  

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Reforming Revolution
 
“I wasn’t much of a petty thief.  I wanted the whole world or nothing.”
 Charles Bukowski, Post Office
 
“I will not die for the economy” has been the refrain of the American Left since the novel coronavirus came to the United States, doubtless a powerful response to conservative backlash against epidemiologists’ recommendations that spurred the closure of “non-essential” work sectors beginning in March of this year.  #Notdying4wallstreet went viral in late March; the theme was picked up by the organized radical Left, from the old guard Marxists to the more youthful Democratic Socialists of America. “People Over Profit” has been resurrected from the late 1990s, when popular resentment bubbled over the fire of neoliberal austerity measures at home and abroad.  These are revolutionary slogans, defying fundamental operating principles of the economy, whether or not those wielding them would self-identify as revolutionaries.

The usual suspects have come to save the day from the anarchic impulses of the population, ready to funnel widespread disgust into a pre-packaged, plausibly winnable political platform.  Leftist politicos, parties, organizations and media chomp at the bit for such inflammatory times: Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All and Andrew Yang’s Freedom Dividend have been revitalized.  The socialist parties have drummed up “Cancel the Rent.”  Other leftist promotionals include “Not going back to work until it is safe”; “bailouts for the people, not corporations”; debt forgiveness, free tuition, appropriate hospital funding, mortgage moratoriums.  It is important not to overstate, or be too optimistic about, the revolutionary instincts of the public-at-large, who is largely preoccupied with Tiger King and single-serve snacks, but whatever impulses they do have to say, “To hell with it all!” are fed only as a fishing lure by their Leftist betters.

Despite the nominally anti-capitalist claims of some of the leadership putting forth these proposals, these are demands to be ruled with a kinder, gentler machine-gun hand; they are designed to soften American capitalism’s harshest effects on the bulk of the population, not to undermine capitalism.  They recuperate this order by suggesting that the economy may be something other than what we die for—that it may or may not kill us, depending on the circumstance or its inclination; that the economy is a neutral entity we must wrest from, say, corporate control.  But the economy is not something we should aim to erect a fence around or circumscribe with inviolable boundaries, for that would be like demanding your rapist wear a condom.  Undeniably better, but can our imaginations not conjure a scenario where we are not raped?  (Or, God forbid, where we kill our would-be rapist to prevent future victims?) 

To its core, the economy deals death.  There is no work-around. We should not treat the economy as if it is anything other than a crisis-indifferent reaper of all souls, human and non-human, no matter the socio-political moment.  In the best of times, under the best imaginable administration, this is the normal functioning of the economy: forests razed into deserts for planks, pasture and paper; oceans emptied for cans of fish and sushi; species run down then snuffed out, habitat annihilated then either sanitized or dissolved; plains converted into monoculture crop ghettos or concrete subdivisions to house the living dead—us, the supposed beneficiaries of this wanton destruction. 

Even a booming economy destroys us as we live, when we are not actually killed before our time by preventable ills.  We are murdered on our feet by our stolen time and ill-spent energy, our waking hours wasted grinding away at a multiplicity of pointless tasks like writing important emails or software that designs other software, finishing dry wall or twelve hundred lattes with delicious foam clovers on top.  Or for the unemployed, in the fruitless search for such sought-after tasks we require to sustain ourselves and pay for our addictions.

What is so angering to us about the right-wing “Liberate” protests, those who want society to “return to normal” or who flout social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines?  Is it that experts advise that it is too early to go back to normal because more people would die due to COVID-19 than would otherwise?

That is indeed infuriating, but of the myriad ways the economy grinds us into dust, of all the normalized sacrifices we accept as necessary (if regrettable) rites for the continuation of industrial civilization, why are these deaths suddenly the ones to which we respond, “No further!” These deaths are what cause us as a nation to broadly agree that many of the sectors of the economy need to be shut down? 

600,000 Americans will die of cancer this year, nearly 700,000 of heart disease.  And next year, and the year after that.  40,000 dead each year from automobile accidents, another 36,000 from gun violence.  The natural world fares far worse.  Humans have wiped out 60% of Earth’s animal populations since 1970, and species go extinct at 1,000 times the natural rate.  These deaths and so many others are just a part of how we do business, in good times and bad, ticking with metronomic regularity.  There is no popular revolt or backlash, just business as usual.   Maybe a 5K in October to raise money because what a shame it is.

If zero reactive social measures had been put in place, experts predict that the American death count from COVID-19 would have been two million total, not each year.  Make no mistake, that is a horrific, stunning number, but it frankly pales in comparison to the others that are just considered background noise.  The only conceivable explanation for this disparate reaction is that we have made a quiet bargain with the gods of this culture: in exchange for the many comforts of the system most in the first world enjoy, these gods may empty the oceans and forests, they may level the mountains, they may pollute our aquifers and sky, they may kill us this way and that; they may ruin even the healthiest of us with their numbing and needless daily tasks, so long as these sacrifices do not interfere with our productivity and leisure on a long-term basis.  Because even the worst outcomes of this pandemic are relatively mild and short-lived, this is an opportunity for good citizens to show their gumption for a time, to make an additional, honorary sacrifice to the gods, before returning to the life they know and love so well.  The smug virtue signaling almost makes one want to join the “Liberate” protests in the hope the economy will soon go back full force to grinding us into dust—anything to put an end to all the self-righteousness.    

For example, in a New York Times article, dated April 29, “Powerful Meat Industry Holds More Sway After Trump’s Order,” the coverage is typical, focusing on management’s reckless disregard for their workers’ health as the virus ravages plant floors.  There is mention of the largely immigrant workforce being poorly paid and overworked in general, as there is in other news sources like The Guardian, but the upshot is that these companies are not putting in place proper sanitary measures to prevent the continued spread of COVID-19.  Their avaricious focus, with the president’s help, is on ensuring that production—and therefore the company’s profits—is steady. 

In other words, if the appropriate measures had been put in place, work would have soon continued as normal with scant news coverage, with people like Elose Willis, recent coronavirus fatality, working 5 days a week, ten hours per day, de-boning 100,000 chickens per shift.  Move along, nothing to see here.

Perhaps the organized Left will, if their wildest aspirations come to fruition, improbably leverage this COVID-19 news coverage into better pay, fewer hours and improved conditions for one of America’s most vulnerable classes of workers.  In 25 years a statue of the movement leader who sparked the change would be a pigeon outhouse in a local park, for then, people like Elose would only have to work 4.5 days per week, de-boning only 85,000 chickens per shift.  Or, even wilder, because there would be Universal Basic Income, benighted people like Elose would continue to consume as rapaciously as before but without working because now AIs perform her old job.

A perennial stumbling block is the notion that reformism, gradualism, is somehow related to revolution, that improved conditions somehow put us further along the path to a rupture with capitalism. This is a lie.  Hopping from one topical social ill to another will at best only solve that social ill and its connected symptoms.  Poor health outcomes?  Universal health care!  Crushing student debt?  Free tuition!  Too many carbon dioxide emissions?  Wind and solar!  Surely capitalism can absorb these popular renovations, skimming a little surplus value off the top to accommodate them.   

Leaping on a platform and decrying some indignity or another by this or that actor, cabal, party or institution implies that there is a moral core to our society to which we must adhere or return, or towards which we must strive.  Why the chasm between reformism and revolution will never be bridged is because the problem with our way of life is not corruption or nepotism or mistreatment of the poor or systemic racism or sexism or over-exploitation.  It is not that the wrong people are in power or that popular interests are not prioritized.  The problem is not the treatment of this minority group or that one, this crisis or that one.  The problem is our way of life: our culture, capitalism, industrial civilization, is crisis! 

Development under a Green New Deal would continue to erode the wild.  The tenets of capitalism under socialist leadership would not be altered, even if the whole cabinet were comprised of hip, queer women of color.  The incidences of cancer, strokes and heart disease would not abate if everyone had equal access to the same spectacular treatment. 
Palliating social ills is separate and apart from dismantling the current mode of operation.  One could even argue that demanding that our metaphorical rapist wears a condom permits, even encourages, the primary behavior. 

We need to ask ourselves truthfully, “What is it that we want?” and work to achieve that end.  If establishing norms and safety nets that protect the vast majority of our society from the most deleterious symptoms of contemporary capitalism is your priority, then by all means, join an established organization or start your own and fight for an agenda that promotes universal health care, anti-racism, UBI, green technology and free and excellent public schools. Or now, for adequate personal protective gear and tests, pandemic-preparedness financing and bonuses for frontline workers.  Undoubtedly, a society with those features would be immensely better than what we have at present.  But you cannot have your cake and eat it too: maintaining a stated goal of revolution while working for reform is either sanctimonious vanity or political manipulation, because these projects are at cross-purposes.  One aims to bolster the State, the other to dismantle it.     

At what point will we look to our comrades not to say, “Our response to this global pandemic is unacceptable,” or that, “We are overworked and underpaid!” but instead, “The whole fucking thing must go!” and fight for a life in which we treat each other and our landbase as indelibly precious—fierce enough to stand up to anyone who would violate that precept?      

To those who truly want a new way of living, a new way of being—to those who want total revolution: we need to start striving for it and look on these parliamentary parlor games with uninterested bemusement.  There will never be a good time to start: the outlook is always impossible and bleak, even in the ripest times.  This is not a call for more revolutionary media or national organizations, more outreach or convincing others.  This is a clarion call to those who already know that revolution is necessary, and that waiting for the general public to join the effort, or trying to galvanize them in this moment, is utterly pointless. They are mad about President Donald Trump or the Democratic Governor of Michigan, the lack of preparation and health resources or the continued shut-down of parts of the economy; they are annoyed by having to wear face masks, or at those who are not wearing them; they are upset at those who are hoarding toilet paper, or at how little room there is in their house to store all that toilet paper.  Despite whatever feelings they harbor about the inherent rottenness of the system or the immeasurable depths of their discontent, they are primed to be bought and sold by the Left or the Right.  They don’t have to care about revolution right now, so they won’t.  But we do, and must.

For those who are not drugged into political submission by one opiate or another, for those with open hearts capable of perceiving the ritualized horrors of our culture, we must understand that this historical moment is like any other in that now is the time to struggle for revolution.  It is just a matter of what will actually advance the effort. 

Despite the severity of the pandemic-obsessed news coverage, we are not in a situation of complete breakdown.  This is not Russia in 1917, Spain in 1936 or France in 1870 or 1968.  There are the usual terrors associated with our economy, plus a few more due to the novel coronavirus.  Until your average boob can no longer hide behind the myriad comforts afforded even to some of the most vulnerable classes here in the United States, which time may be a while yet, we need to expend our energy with those who are already with us in creating human-scaled autonomous communities that begin the long, arduous, likely multi-generational task of learning how to live sanely and sustainably without the State, without alien resources.
The question we must ask ourselves in our most honest moment: with our few precious hours to live until we die, what will we do?  How will we spend them? Can we dream bigger than a better prison cell for everyone?  Can we shatter the convenient delusion that somehow a nicer confinement is related to abolishing the prison itself? 

Can we instead dream—can we instead struggle for—that day when we (or those who follow us) will feel the warm sunlight on our skin, the wind in our hair, the soil underneath our nails, the minnows and smooth stones on our toes, the bird calls and wolf songs in our ears—the welcome-home tears streaming down our cheeks dried from the heat of the burning prison?  
 
***
if you thought this was interesting, these ideas and more i explore more deeply in my upcoming publication with Little Black Cart: “Iolaus’ Lament: Why You Should Move to the Country”.   

cheers,

mistral