American Interregnum

What trends do you see emerging from the social, health and economic crises produced by Covid-19? What do the post-pandemic reconstructions tell us about the ‘crisis of care’?

Both the pandemic and the response to it represent the irrationality and destructiveness of capitalism. The crisis of care was already evident before the outbreak of Covid, but was greatly exacerbated by it. The pre-existing condition, so to speak, was financialized capitalism – the especially predatory form that has held sway for the last forty years, progressively eroding our public-care infrastructure by disinvestment in the name of ‘austerity’. But in fact, every form of capitalist society works by allowing business to free-ride on unpaid carework. By subordinating people-making to profit-making, it harbours a built-in tendency to social-reproductive crisis.

But the same holds for the current ecological crisis, which reflects a deep-structural dynamic that primes capital to free-ride on nature, without thought for repair or replenishment, periodically destabilizing ecosystems and the communities they sustain. The same holds for our current political crisis, which reflects the severe weakening of public powers by mega corporations, financial institutions, tax revolts on the part of the rich, resulting in gridlock and under-investment in crucial infrastructure. Although this has been made especially acute by neoliberalization, it expresses a tendency to political crisis that is hard-wired into every form of capitalist society. The crisis of care is inextricably intertwined with other dysfunctions – ecological, political, racial-ethnic – which add up to a general crisis of the social order.

Covid’s effects on humans would be horrific under any conditions. But they have been worsened by the fact capital in this period has cannibalized public power – the collective capacities that could otherwise have been used to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. As a result, the response has been hampered in many countries, including the US, by decades of disinvestment from crucial public-health infrastructure. There is a tendency in the US to blame Trump. But that’s a mistake. The disinvestment has been going on for decades.

The Clinton administration in the nineties took the first steps toward this.

Yes, a whole series of US administrations, Democratic as well as Republican, disinvested from essential public-health infrastructure. They drew down stockpiles of essential equipment like PPE, ventilators, masks, depleted vitally important capacities – contract tracing, vaccine storage and distribution – and underfunded critical institutions like research centers, public hospitals, ICU units, government health agencies. Scientists were warning that another viral epidemic was likely, but no one listened. So, when Covid arrived, the US was utterly unprepared. We had virtually no contact tracing – and we still don’t, after more than a year. The public-health authorities simply lacked the ability to organize it and have still not managed to build that capacity up.

The collapse of already weak systems of public care threw all the burdens back onto families and communities – and especially onto women, who still do the lion’s share of unpaid carework. Under lockdown, child care and schooling were suddenly shifted into people’s homes, leaving women to take on that burden on top of other responsibilities – and to do so in small domestic spaces, not able to bear the load. Many employed women ended up quitting their jobs to care for kids and other relatives; many others were laid off. A third group, lucky enough to keep their jobs and work remotely from home, while also performing carework, including for housebound kids, have had to take multi-tasking to new heights of craziness. A fourth group, ‘essential workers’, face the threat of infection daily on the frontlines, fearful of bringing the virus home to their families, while doing what needs to be done, often for very low pay, so that others, more privileged, can access the goods and services they need in order to isolate at home. Which women find themselves in which group has everything to do with class and color. It is as if someone had injected a dye into capitalism’s circulatory system, lighting up all its constitutive fault lines.

In the United States, the outbreak of Covid was followed by an impressive wave of protests, mostly led by young black people, against racist police violence. Did the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’ take on a different meaning during the pandemic?

It’s an important question. Why did the resurgence of militant anti-racist activity in the US coincide with the Covid pandemic? Police murders of people of color have been going on for a very long time, as have struggles against them. So why did the protests become so large and sustained at just that moment, in the midst of a horrific health crisis? Some have suggested that the months of lockdown created intense psychological pressure, which found a much-needed outlet on the streets. But I think there are deeper reasons, forged in the crisis, which provoked some major flashes of political insight. The realization that these two apparently distinct expressions of structural racism – disparate vulnerability to death from the virus, and disparate vulnerability to death from police violence – were actually linked, that both were rooted in the same social system.

By the time the protests erupted in May 2020, it was already clear that Americans of color, and Blacks in particular, were disproportionately contracting and dying from Covid. They got worse health care and had a higher rate of underlying conditions, linked to poverty and discrimination, and associated with bad Covid outcomes – asthma, obesity, stress, high blood pressure. They faced greater risks of exposure, thanks to frontline jobs that could not be performed remotely, and to crowded housing conditions. All of this had been widely reported in the media. And it resonated, lending new meaning to ‘Black Lives Matter’.

The slogan had been circulating since 2014, when Michael Brown’s murder by police in Ferguson MO sparked the Movement for Black Lives. Since then there’s been a great deal of organizing, including consciousness-raising and reading groups, forming a new generation of militant anti-racist activists, especially young activists of color. That was the context, the atmosphere, in which reports of the racialized impact of Covid were received and processed. On top of that came George Floyd’s murder by the Minneapolis police, captured for all the world to see in that enraging and heartbreaking video. And so the fuse was lit. In other words, the timing was not coincidental.

The convergence of pandemic and anti-police violence protest expressed the expansion, the deepening, of ‘Black Lives Matter’. A first level of meaning was that, if Black lives really mattered to the US criminal ‘justice’ system, then the multiple forms of racialized violence within it would not exist. When the pandemic hit, it also came to mean: Black lives should not be disproportionately lost and shortened by this lethal mix of exposure to infection and pre-existing health problems – pointing to underlying structural conditions as well.

The electoral impact of BLM was hugely positive, most obviously in the state of Georgia, which turned from deep red to blue, giving its electoral votes to Biden and flipping two Senate seats, giving one to an African-American and the other to a Jew (which is big news in the Deep South) and thereby handing the Dems control of the Senate. The dynamics at work here included white suburban revulsion against Trump as well as massive Black turnout, the latter no doubt galvanized by Black Lives Matter but also prepared by years of ‘get out to vote’ organizing in that state – the sustained hard work of activists on the ground, like Stacey Abrams.

Trump’s defeat in the election was hailed as a victory, but it does not seem that the same enthusiasm was aroused by Biden’s win. How do you read the result of the American elections? Has a ‘progressive neoliberalism’ decisively won out against the reactionary populism of the Trump bloc and the progressive populism of Sanders?

We remain, to use Gramsci’s terms, in an interregnum, where the old is dying but the new cannot be born. In that situation, you tend to get a series of political oscillations, back-and-forth swings between alternatives that are exhausted and cannot succeed. At present, however, we haven’t yet swung back from Trumpism to the full-scale ‘progressive neoliberalism’ embodied by the Clinton and Obama administrations. That could still happen, of course, but as of now the pendulum motion is being checked by the emboldened left wing of the Democratic Party. Trump’s defeat was secured by an alliance between the Party’s establishment neoliberal center, the Clinton-Obama wing, and its left-populist opposition – the Sanders-Warren-AOC wing. Granted, the centrists had engineered Sanders’s brutal ejection from the primary process, despite – or because of – his strong showing, in order to clear the way for the then-stumbling Biden to become the Party’s nominee. But unlike in 2016, the two wings coalesced for the general election. The Sanders faction gave fairly full-throated support for Biden against Trump and in return gained increased voice in policy.

The upshot is that progressive populists and progressive neoliberals are now in a coalition. The populists are the weaker party in this alliance and are not represented in Biden’s cabinet. But their influence has nonetheless grown. Sanders now heads the powerful Senate Budget Committee and is frequently interviewed on national TV, which is new – he was never previously treated as a key spokesperson or commentator. Then, too ‘The Squad’, AOC’s caucus in Congress, has doubled its numbers, winning some important House races in the 2020 election.

And on domestic policy, the centrists have moved to the left. The Dems in both Houses voted unanimously for Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill, which contains several items on the progressive-populist wish-list. That package clearly reflects the strength and influence of the Sanders wing. Yet it had the support of Biden’s economic advisers who, while certainly not ‘on the left,’ represent at least a partial break from the Goldman-Sachs alums who ran the Treasury Dept for decades and brought us financialization. Led by Janet Yellen, the new team’s orientation is neo- or quasi-Keynesian; although still committed to ‘free trade,’ they have at least temporarily renounced austerity logic and prioritized full employment over low inflation.

The current state of the Biden administration represents a compromise formation. Its politics of (re)distribution melds some reactivated elements of New Deal thinking with the free trade side of neoliberal political economy, while its politics of recognition includes both meritocratic and egalitarian elements. There are a lot of built-in tensions here, and these are bound to erupt sooner or later. It remains to be seen when and in what form – also, whether they can be resolved and on what terms. In general, the left/liberal alliance is shaky and won’t last forever. But what exactly will replace it remains unclear.

A key variable is the extent to which Biden’s policies will satisfy a population reeling not only from the pandemic’s health and economic fallout, but also from the ‘pre-existing conditions’. Forty years of deindustrialization and off-shoring, financialization, union-busting, McJobification, infrastructural decay – as well as police violence, environmental devastation, the shredding of the social safety net: everything that has worked to worsen the living conditions for the poor, the working class, the lower- and middle-middle-classes.

These are the process that sparked the mass defection from ‘progressive neoliberalism’, in the two-sided populist revolt of 2016 – Trump, on the one hand, Sanders on the other. And both of those movements will continue in one form or another, as long as those processes continue. So, the future of the Biden compromise depends on its ability to make sufficient pro-working-class concessions to keep the left populists on board and to blunt the force of the right populists. Plus, it must also keep the investor class happy. Not an easy job.

The election of Kamala Harris has provoked mixed reactions on the left, between those who emphasize having a black woman as Vice President and those who criticize her past positions on the death penalty and her cover up of abuses of authority as Attorney General of California. What is your analysis?

I’ve never been a big fan of what Anne Phillips once called the ‘politics of presence’, the idea that electing someone who looks like you – for example, a woman or a person of color – is in and of itself a great achievement. Nobody with a feminist bone in her body supported Thatcher. We in the US are clearer about this now, I think, after having elected an African American to the Presidency in 2008. Many people cast that vote with tremendous hopes for a major change, which the candidate deliberately cultivated through soaring campaign rhetoric. And the result was deep disappointment. Once in power, Obama quickly dropped the inspiring talk and governed as a progressive neoliberal. After that experience, no one who thinks at all deeply about politics will feel much excitement about Harris’s ascension to the Vice Presidency. We have an old saying: ‘fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me’.

In any case, Harris – unlike Obama – is neither a political unknown nor a soaring orator. She has a long political track record as a ‘tough on crime’ prosecutor and administrator – and as an ambitious political operator. You’d have to be willfully blind to think of her as a beacon of ‘hope and change’. On the other hand, she is very bright and flexible, good at reading the tea leaves and adjusting her course accordingly. She could conceivably move a little to the left if that course served her ambitions, which include the Presidency for which she is now being groomed as Biden’s number two and presumed successor. But insofar as she is someone who goes with the flow, it’s more important to analyze the flow.

When the Biden compromise collapses, as it must, the liberals will probably attack the left and try to resurrect progressive neoliberalism in some new guise, just as the MAGA forces will try to resurrect their reactionary-populist alternative. At that point, the left will face a crossroads. In one scenario, it would double-down on the forms of shallow identity politics that drive cancel culture and diversity fetishism. In another, it would make a serious effort to build a third alternative, by articulating an inclusive politics of recognition with an egalitarian politics of redistribution. The idea would be to split off the pro-working-class elements of each of the other two blocs and unite them in a new, anti-capitalist coalition, committed to fighting for the whole working class – not only the people of color, immigrants and women who supported Sanders, but also wooing – on the basis of their economic interests – those who defected to Trump. Such a coalition could be understood as a leftwing version of populism. But I see it less as an endpoint than as a transitional stage, en route to something more radical – a deep-structural transformation of our whole social system. That would require not just a politics of left populism, but something more like democratic eco-socialism.

Questions by Alessandra Spano.

Read on: Nancy Fraser, ‘Climates of Capital’, NLR 127.