Guest author Dr Christian Chun, University of Massachusetts, Boston
In the past 30 years or so, our lives have become more endangered by the rapid and dire changes to our environment, dramatically evidenced in the recent wildfires around the world due to increasing global warming and ensuing droughts. It had been estimated by scientists that we have less than 12 years to limit catastrophic climate change that will imperil many species including our own (Watts, 2018) with our extinction as a possible or even probable outcome. However, this estimation has now been recently revised by some to a mere 18 months as of last year (McGrath, 2019). Who is to blame for this? Is it fair to pin the blame on the system known as capitalism, as embodied in the global Fortune 500 corporations for destroying the environmental ecosystem of our planet? Should we not as individuals assume more personal responsibility in doing our part to save the Earth by not only recycling more, but also bringing our ceramic mugs to coffee or tea shops instead of using their plastic or Styrofoam disposable cups every day? This discourse of the sole responsibility of the individual in saving the planet is of course drawn from the now forty year-old neoliberal framing of society’s ills attributed to the fault and lack of doing on an individual person’s part. In fact, it has been reported that just one hundred corporations including BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell are responsible for 71% of global emissions (Riley, 2017). While we as consumers have played a role in this; for example, buying and driving fossil fuel-burning automobiles instead of supporting public tax-funded mass transportation (a common problem in the US context), or riding the now fashionable and ‘hip’ electric-powered scooters thinking we are saving the planet by not using gasoline (while forgetting that its energy source is from coal), it begs the following questions: Is it in capitalists’ interests to support the government in stopping pollution or even attempting to limit climate change? For those using the adjective “healthy” to describe the economy in ‘good times’, who is it healthy for? Those ‘fortunate’ to have a job while getting paid minimum wages? And in the economic discourses in social circulation, whose health takes precedence – the economy’s or the planet’s and our own health?
However, discussions (if any) of imminent climate change disaster in the mainstream media has now been shunted aside by the recent pandemic of the COVID-19 virus. As scientists have rushed to find a suitable vaccine for this disease, it has been reported the drug industry in the US known as ‘Big Pharma’ will stand to gain immense profits from this viral spread. Gerald Posner, the author of Pharma: Greed, lies, and the poisoning of America, notes that “pharmaceutical companies view COVID-19 as a once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity” (Lerner, 2020). This haste of who will be the first to develop and sell the vaccine to combat the virus as it rapidly spreads can be viewed in a frame other than the dominant discourse of corporate goodwill in saving humanity. Posner argues instead that this worldwide emergency “will potentially be a blockbuster for the (pharmaceutical) industry in terms of sales and profits…the worse the pandemic gets, the higher their eventual profit” (Lerner, 2020). Here, the convenience afforded by the long-standing discourse of the ‘free market’ of capitalism has enabled these private drug companies to sell their products including lifesaving coronavirus treatments once they are developed and tested at prices they can alone determine, at often exorbitant rates for the people who have enough money to pay for them in desperation. All this while their research to produce vaccines and treatments is being taxpayer-funded by the US government, as well as other governments around the world.
In his 1981 US Presidential inaugural speech, Ronald Reagan famously proclaimed that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” He drew upon the economic theory and discourse of ‘the free market’ and government non-interference in the economy, popularized by Milton Friedman. This was in reaction to the social-welfare state that had been in place in the US since the New Deal of the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s and 40s. In the ensuing decades since Reagan helped perpetuate the discourse of an economy is only healthy when it is free from government interference, this has been taken up by the general public in various contexts. One recent example is that the people who have begun to publicly protest the shelter-in-place orders in several regions of the US have enacted this political-economic discourse mediating the pandemic. In doing so, they have aligned themselves with numerous right-wing politicians and their enabling corporate financial backers to “reopen the country!” to stop the economic downfall. As The Washington Post reported, these protestors “argue that the nation has sacrificed the economy, with unemployment at record levels, and people have upended their lives for something many do not see as an existential threat to society” (Olorunnipa, Boburg, & Hernández, 2020). Given that over 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment since March, with many now unable to pay their rent, mortgage, and other bills as a result, and the US government stimulus check amounting to a measly one-time payment of $1200 USD, the protestors’ desperation to have the economy restarted is understandable viewed from this frame.
Yet, the notion that the government has somehow “sacrificed” the economy purportedly to save lives (since the virus is not seen as a dire threat by these people), raises the questions, do our lives matter more than the economy, and if not, whose lives don’t? As long as they – the protestors – have jobs and can their pay their bills and put food on the table, who cares about other people? And which people who are mainly dying from the pandemic are we talking about? Since the evidence increasingly shows that the virus has taken a huge disproportionate toll on the poor Black, Latino, and immigrant communities in the US (Scott, 2020), the answer would seem clear. Far from being an ‘equalizer’, the virus is dramatically and tragically illustrating once again the racial and class inequalities of these communities’ overcrowded living conditions, lack of healthcare, and the need to use crowded public transportation to show up for their mandated physical appearances at their workplaces (as opposed to being able to work virtually from home). In this context, the racist counter-response of “All Lives Matter” to the Black Lives Matter movement is exposed for what it is: clearly, all lives do not matter when it comes to reopening the economy.
These protestors’ focus on who to blame for “sacrificing” the economy is not directed at Fortune 500 corporations who have been responsible for previous economic recessions and depressions in the absence of viral pandemics, such as the financial disaster of 2007-2008 due to the sub-prime mortgage market crash in the US, which led to the worldwide banking crisis and ensuing mass unemployment. Rather, this discursive frame of insisting that the lifting of the shelter-in-place order is needed not only to reopen the economy but also because it is an infringement on our individual rights dialogically echoes Reagan’s (and his compatriots like Thatcher) warning us that ‘big government’ interferes with our lives in telling us what we can and cannot do:
“I think there’s a boiling point that has been reached and exceeded,” said Stephen Moore, a conservative economist. Moore is a member of both the White House council to reopen the country and a coalition of conservative leaders and activists seeking to push government officials to relax stay-at-home orders. “I call these people the modern-day Rosa Parks – they are protesting against injustice and a loss of liberties,” Moore said of the protesters” (Olorunnipa, Boburg, & Hernández, 2020).
Here, Moore equates these protestors with Rosa Parks, an African American activist who was instrumental in the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott that called the nation’s attention to the segregation of African Americans that was still in place nearly 100 years after the end of the Civil War in the US. By discursively framing the protestors as being “against injustice and a loss of liberties” and thus putting them on par with the Civil Rights activists battling racial injustice, Moore attempts to resemiotize the discourse of injustice and lack of liberty by displacing the racist government policies of racial segregation with that of the neoliberal belief that the government has no right in ruling over our lives. This discourse of non-interference by the government held and disseminated by right-wing politicians and their followers apparently though does not apply to women having a say over their own bodies; e.g., being pro-choice. For these protesters, ‘pro choice’ means not having to wear a mask.
In a more open acknowledgment that a healthy economy takes precedence over the public health, a Congressional representative from the state of Indiana, Republican Trey Hollingsworth said that “it is always the American government’s position to say, in the choice between the loss of our way of life as Americans and the loss of life of American lives, we have to always choose the latter” (Lillis, 2020). When an elected politician publicly proclaims that the government’s best interest should not be in favor of saving people’s lives but rather in saving the life of the economy, they are simply echoing the sentiments of capitalism which has always put profit over people in good times and bad. Predictably, this politician, who is a wealthy former businessperson, faced a backlash for his comment, but did not back away from his stance: “I stood up and said on a radio show, [that] we are going to have to make tough decisions going forward. And we owe a plan that acknowledges the reality that the risk of coronavirus will never be equal to zero and there are costs associated with this shutdown of our economy – real costs that…Americans are bearing” (Lillis, 2020).
The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted once again that a capitalist economy is a capitalist society that is indeed opposed to the interest of workers in which profit will always take precedence over people in good times and bad. The notion that the government should not intervene or interfere with the economy because it works best only when left alone is exposed for what it is: government assistance to the working and unemployed poor are ‘handouts’ to ‘spongers’ and ‘welfare queens’ but when it comes to the government bailing out corporations during economic downturns, it is a much-needed ‘stimulus’ for the economy to get healthy again.
And what about people – how can we get healthy again? In the US, COVID-19 testing has only severely restricted, unless of course you happen to work at the White House. People who live in crowded conditions and/or have to work onsite with others without PPE — that is, the people who most need to be tested, — are less likely to be. All this and more should expose the dangers of the capitalism and how they manifest in our economic social relations and non-economic social relations. The ‘good’ news is that the current crisis of the COVID-19 virus will eventually abate with the development and implementation of a vaccine to prevent future outbreaks, or of medicines to effectively treat the disease, at least for those of us who can afford them. The bad news? The pandemic of capitalism will however continue until enough of us decide to kill this disease before it kills the planet and eventually, all of us.
Lillis, M. (16 April, 2020). Reopening economy emerges as new political battleground. The Hill. Retrieved from https://thehill.com/homenews/house/493048-reopening-economy-emerges-as-new-political-battleground
McGrath, M. (2019, July 24). Climate change: 12 years to save the planet? Make that 18 months. BBC News. Accessed: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-48964736
Olorunnipa, T., Boburg, S., & Hernández, A. R. (18 April, 2020). Rallies against stay-at-home orders grow as Trump sides with protesters. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/rallies-against-stay-at-home-orders-grow-as-trump-sides-with-protesters/2020/04/17/1405ba54-7f4e-11ea-8013-1b6da0e4a2b7_story.html
Riley, T. (10 July, 2017). Just 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions, study says. The Guardian. Accessed: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/10/100-fossil-fuel-companies-investors-responsible-71-global-emissions-cdp-study-climate-change
Scott, D. (17 April, 2020). Covid-19’s devastating toll on black and Latino Americans, in one chart. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2020/4/17/21225610/us-coronavirus-death-rates-blacks-latinos-whites
Watts, J. (2018, October 8). We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN. The Guardian. Accessed: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/global-warming-must-not-exceed-15c-warns-landmark-un-report