The pandemic lays bare the fundamental clash between the original and antagonistic souls of the nation, which was a political expression of the Enlightenment, but also a nation founded by immigrants devoted to religious fundamentalism, which gave rise to the pervasive biblical mythopoeia, supremacism and exceptionalism we see today.
The ecological history of this enforced pause has yet to be written – but it will make a fascinating read. An abrupt slowdown in human, commercial and industrial activity that will no doubt produce – is, in fact, already producing – effects that years of environmental action could not have achieved. The unthinkable collapse in hydrocarbon consumption, for example, is demonstrated by the oil tankers that cross the seas aimlessly, crammed full of the crude oil that overflows from every reserve, unused and unsalable; monuments to the machine’s inability to stop.
Forced frugality: a total ban with no real basis, but an experiment all the same – is it a glimpse, even, of a new, hypothetical model of development? For now, there are clear skies over cities turned pedestrian in the absence of cars. The silence is dreamlike, a vacuum left by the suspended bustle. The calm, perhaps, before the storm, because obviously, there will be trickle-down repercussions. And when the monolithic system of financial capitalism breaks down, it is inevitably the weak, defenseless and vulnerable who suffer. When large sectors of that system collapsed 12 years ago under the weight of the over speculation of junk mortgages, the crisis first became evident in the extreme suburbs of the Californian hinterlands and the exurbs of Nevada. Here, a discount version of the American Dream had been sold on credit to a subordinate class of working poor, producer-consumers euphemistically classified as middle class while only having the consumer directive of the middle class. They had been loaned unsustainable amounts to buy single-family homes, which had enriched Wall Street investors. These families were immediately overwhelmed by the crash, while investment funds stayed afloat.
We journalists visited rows of abandoned houses, foreclosed on by banks that could no longer squeeze money from the poor inhabitants on whom they had thrust impossible credit. We didn’t yet know that there would be 10 years of continual repercussions for distant economies, in particular Greece and Italy, the Mediterranean vassals of the banking order. And that crash was piece of cake compared to the current crisis.
Seeing thousands of ongoing construction sites in a city like Los Angeles today, you sense the river of credit that has financed tens of thousands of similar projects in booming American cities for the past 10 years. Loans predicated on sales and rentals destined never to happen. How many of the millions of closed restaurants, beyond being unable to reopen, will find themselves crushed by debt? And that’s just the corporate debt. Workers – salaried workers, freelance workers, casual workers, illegal workers and lumpen-digital ‘gig economy’ workers – are also at risk, forced into debt by a machine that pumps out credit in order to stimulate consumption and the myth of perpetual growth. The total credit card debt for Americans is $1 trillion, and student loan debt amounts to $1.6 trillion. Plus car loans, mortgages … A total of $13.86 trillion, impossible to repay in full. The image of Wile. E. Coyote comes to mind, pedaling furiously in the void beyond the cliff edge before the inevitable drop.
And once again, it will hardly be the bankster friends of the White House kleptocracy who pay. They continue to espouse the rhetoric of the right to borrow and consume as the maximum expression of “freedom,” of the “quality of life” as an indispensable cornerstone of the “American way of life.” The gospel according to liberalism and its dogma: private ownership, individualism and “welfare” (even though the aforementioned boom has produced boundless inequality). Now the people for “free consumption” protest outside government buildings, calling for an end to the lockdown in the name of God and the United States. They brandish their rifles threateningly, decrying the liberal conspiracy; it’s no surprise that they are financed by far-right sites run by oil companies such as Koch Industries. From a capitalist point of view, the suspension of business and consumption is a radical and intolerable act.
However, cries of “Chinese virus” or “communist virus” are not enough to reduce the pandemic to an artificial ideological conflict. The exploitation of resentment (for example, prejudice against science) to cloud systemic shortcomings pales against the harsh reality of the virus. On a daily basis, the fundamental individualism of personal freedoms and social Darwinism reveals itself to be incapable of coping with a crisis that requires collective action, solidarity and competence. The former scientific superpower has become the global epicenter and the laughingstock of the world thanks to Trump’s bleach injections. The pandemic lays bare the fundamental clash between the original and antagonistic souls of the nation, which was a political expression of the Enlightenment, but also a nation founded by immigrants devoted to religious fundamentalism, which gave rise to the pervasive biblical mythopoeia, supremacism and exceptionalism we see today.
Does this mean that, after 50 years of liberal drift, the contradictions of the virus will lead us automatically back to a Rooseveltian social approach? This, too, is yet to be written, but we can only hope that the enforced pause will be a chance to reflect on the exhausted model of perpetual growth, and will encourage the readjustment of rational thinking around the cult of ignorance fostered by the nation’s rapacious oligarchy. The concurrence of Trump, the virus, the election and economic depression promises an upheaval of historic proportions for America and the rest of the world.