Covid-19: Practicing Anarchy While the State Fiddles

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I was there . . .

by Chris Carlsson, April 12, 2020, originally published at The Nowtopian blog

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From Hong Kong

It’s April 12 and we’re still under shelter-in-place orders which were extended to May 3. They may likely be extended to June, who knows? We don’t really get a chance to participate in these decisions, they just mysteriously come from “the authorities.” Do we trust them? Who are they exactly? How would we have a more democratic process in this situation? With so much apparently falling apart, where is our agency in this moment? Old habits of passivity, trust in authority, and our general isolation from any kind of engagement in the larger dynamics that shape our lives tend to dominate our experience. We really need to find another way.

I’m out every day, bicycling or walking through the streets, climbing Bernal Heights, enjoying the serendipitous social encounters with old friends here and there. I’m also in a few email conversations that have lengthened to dozens of missives, with a variety of links to smart analyses appearing all over.

In San Francisco, as of today, we still have less than 1,000 cases and just a dozen or so deaths, out of a population of about 800,000. San Franciscans have been very cooperative and adaptable, and have largely engaged in a self-managed process of physical distancing and reorganizing everyday life. It’s downright anarchic! Yes, the government called for shelter-in-place in mid-March. But lots of people were already doing that before then, and as soon as the call went out, it seems that a huge majority of the city readily complied. It’s part of why I like living here. I think we can do this. We can take common sense actions together, without coercion or heavy-handed enforcement. I’ve shared so many moments already of people cooperating, thanking each other, standing aside on a path, making way in an almost crowded grocery aisle, waiting a few feet behind at a corner so as not crowd each other. It’s remarkable! It’s anarchy for real, albeit on a very small scale.

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We’ve also had the opportunity to reassess our “needs:” Groceries, toiletries, transport, communications, housing, family/loved ones. Some of us add a few things like books, magazines, bicycles, fresh air and long walks, music, neighbors we can trust and rely on. Of course there’s important infrastructure we all continue to rely on, and too often take for granted, fresh water and sewage at the top of that list. And for sure, we all depend on medical care when we need it, but in this fucked up U.S. system, it’s really about whether or not you pay in advance for insurance and/or can pay for it when you need it. Medical care is in no way a right or a certainty. But the frenzied rush for fashion, for the latest, to see a show, a band, a game, has all withered away. Sure, we’ll probably get in to enjoying it all again in the future, but it’s interesting how the absence of such amenities and entertainments has left us… maybe not richer, but certainly not poorer.

During this shelter-in-place period, so many people have rediscovered

• the pleasure of home cooking (and rediscovered the time it takes to do it well!);
• the pleasure of a leisurely walk around the neighborhood and conversations with friends and acquaintances “over the fence”;
• the joy of reading a good book or magazine;
• old creative urges to paint, play an instrument, or write, that finally get a chance again;
• the time to be with one’s own thoughts.

And so many other aspects of a life well-lived…

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Stencil by Fernando Marti

Photo: Chris Carlsson

While some are looking at the longer term consequences of this unprecedented global economic shutdown, it seems that a lot of people just assume everything will snap back to “normal” in the not-distant future. I’m not in that camp. I think we are already in new territory and that life as we knew it is over. Plenty of details from that life will carry on into the future, but the deep structure of our lives is going to be redesigned. The big question, that goes back more than a century, is which way will we go, towards some kind of socialism (preferably and necessarily a climate-informed green version) or barbarism? The cruel and capricious fiddling by Trump while the country has been burning highlights our current predicament at the edge of the abyss, and the urgency for a radical change in direction.

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This was actually a delivery for a neighborhood market, but when I saw it go by, I thought it was a hoarder…

Photo: Chris Carlsson

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Posted to a bulletin board in Noe Valley.

Whatever joy some of us have been able to find in the economic shutdown and attendant weird slowness imposed on our lives, countless millions have been plunged into fear; lacking savings or safety nets, they are now running out of money, rent unpaid, hunger knocking at the door. The harsh class inequalities that have always been here, are now more stark than ever. How many people have had the ability to stay home and ride out this time with the comfort that they can handle a month or two like this, and enjoy this unexpected vacation from the daily frenzy? Compared to the millions who are forced to work for Instacart or Amazon or Walmart on behalf of those same folks staying home and ordering everything to arrive at their door thanks to the labor of those without choices? What about all the grocery store workers, or employees in other essential, non-medical businesses, who have to show up every day and hope they don’t get sick? What about the soaring rates of sickness among front-line medical workers who are working 7 days a week with inadequate protection, broken just-in-time supply chains, etc.? What about the hiring boom by Amazon, Wal-mart, and other online giants whose profits are soaring while their workers are sent home with a measly two weeks of sick pay if they fall to the spreading virus in the overworked warehouses?

Umair Haque: When societies go through shocks which are allowed, through negligence and folly and failure, to leave entire classes of people suddenly, permanently poorer — then democracy tends to die, too. Think of the Weimar Republic. Think of Soviet Russia becoming Putinist Russia. Think of…modern day America. Trumpism was a direct, predictable consequence of the implosion of the American middle class. Coronavirus is likely to accelerate America’s implosion into autocracy.

Will we even have elections in November? Will there be 50 Wisconsins, with aggressive voter purges, shutting down of polling places, and wholesale disenfranchisement of non-Republican populations and areas? Even Trump acknowledges that if you allow everyone to vote by mail, very few Republicans would ever win again. So we know that the democratic system is broken, now more than ever.

We know that the healthcare system is not only not #1, it’s simply failing across the board during this pandemic (despite the heroic and inspiring efforts by nurses, doctors, and all healthcare workers to do everything they can to meet the crisis). But it’s a system designed to produce profits, not health, and it’s dependent on sickness not wellness. Researchers were on the cusp of a virus vaccination over a decade ago during the SARS crisis, but when the disease subsided, so did the interest, and the project was shelved: Not profitable for pharmaceutical companies, and not politically palatable for government officials who are ideologically opposed to the idea of a capable government that provides universal goods to its population. And with a reigning government of buffoons and sycophants, led by a hyper-narcissistic anti-intellectual, who thinks he can treat everything like a TV show, capable analysts, researchers, and policy wonks have fled, leaving a gutted bureaucracy incapable of planning ahead or reacting nimbly to unfolding crises. At least it’s now glaringly obvious to most people that universal health care is a basic necessity for everyone, because you cannot treat a pandemic person by person based on their ability to pay.

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Cable cars shut down along with most of MUNI. Stores boarded up all over town.

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Photos: Chris Carlsson

The housing market, too, is about to see an epic collapse, something a lot of us have been expecting for years. During the 21st century, capitalism has restructured how it moves money from the poorest to the richest. Whereas for decades it happened through the mechanism of wage-labor, wherein you would work and produce more wealth than your wages, in recent decades an important vector of wealth transfer has become housing. To be sure, across the planet, wage-labor is still a vital cog in the machine of capitalist profitability and without it the system will grind to a halt. But as deindustrialization raced across the U.S., and millions of people found themselves employed precariously in gig jobs, part-time and temporary work, self-employed small businesses, drug and sex trade, etc., the financial health of the banking sector was increasingly predicated on pulling vast sums through rent and mortgages into their coffers. The incessant and remarkable rise in the cost of housing, far outstripping any increase in wages or salaries, has been used to both concentrate wealth and to discipline the working classes. From the ruling class point of view, these decades of frenzied growth and profitability have been made possible by the incredible increase in inequality. The harder and longer people have been made to work, the richer the owners have become. If you need to work two or three jobs, who cares? They only care that you keep paying: for housing and to service ever-expanding debts. You want access to an apartment or a house, or to be able to go to college, or to buy things without cash in hand? Don’t let your credit rating fall too far! Keep up your payments at all costs!

Even our ever-abundant food supplies seem to be at risk. The April 11 New York Times detailed an incredible amount of food being destroyed in the fields or dumped into the ground.

In Wisconsin and Ohio, farmers are dumping thousands of gallons of fresh milk into lagoons and manure pits. An Idaho farmer has dug huge ditches to bury 1 million pounds of onions. And in South Florida, a region that supplies much of the Eastern half of the United States with produce, tractors are crisscrossing bean and cabbage fields, plowing perfectly ripe vegetables back into the soil.

The widespread poverty and homelessness that has been ignored and brushed aside so callously by so many for so long is now a freight train barreling straight at the middle class American. The apparent prosperity we assumed was on solid ground may well melt away in the coming months.

Our fragile house of cards is about to fall. Since 2008, when mortgage-backed securities were identified as the culprit in the unraveling of the global economy, the system was only reinforced and radically expanded. Now student loans, credit card debt, and all manner of leveraged wealth are being treated as “assets” and traded at high speed and high volume on global markets. Corporations have radically expanded their own debt as they engaged in repeated rounds of stock buy-backs to boost share prices on behalf of executives and their largest shareholders. So as the wave of bankruptcies washes over the corporate sector, it will be overshadowed by the millions of people being evicted from their homes for nonpayment of rent, or foreclosures on unpaid mortgages.

But that assumes that everyone just resigns to their fate, and allows this absurd course of events to play itself out under the rules and logic of the world as we’ve known it. Those rules, based in a quasi-religious adherence to “market fundamentalism,” enshrine private property and private ownership as sacrosanct principles that cannot be questioned. Clearly, it’s time to redefine which principles are fundamental to our lives.

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Adjusting face masks while in line at Safeway in Hayward, CA

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The roads are wide open these days… for oldtimers it’s like going back to the 1970s!

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San Jose Ave,, aka the Bernal Cut, remarkably deserted.

Photos: Chris Carlsson

If ever we had a moment when the old assumptions were collapsing and we have a real chance to embark on a new path, this is it. As Umair Haque ably says in his article (linked above), the economy is not about stocks, bonds, and corporate profits, but [should be] about human potential. We have allowed our current and future creativity to be hijacked by the coercion of debt, by the ransoming of our life activities well into the future. Our activities, our work, our ability to make a world worth living in, is dominated by the need to get money to pay for everything. But our ability to make life grand, beautiful, stimulating, surprising, inspiring, exciting, and so much more, is our birthright. It has been stolen by the assholes who claim we owe them. That is over now. They owe us.

It’s long past time that we recognize the enormous possibilities of our lives—together—to reinvent how we live and how we create the conditions of our shared prosperity and well-being. I propose we think of the next (coming) economy as the R Economy:

Rediscover, Refuse, Rebel, Revolt, Reorganize, Restart, Reinvent, Reimagine, Re-create, Reinhabit, Renovate, Recycle, Redistribute, Repair, Re-plumb, Reparations, Restore, Relate, Resilient… (add your own here)

We have a lot to gain by learning from a traditional Indigenous political approach to “return, restoration, and reclamation of belonging and place,” as Nick Estes puts it in his excellent recent book Our History is the Future—returning lands to the first peoples from whom they were stolen would be a good start. But we have so much more to do too… from replumbing every dwelling to use gray water instead of fresh drinking water for waste removal, to arguing the politics of carbon capture and sequestration while we wind down our hyper-consumptive relationship to fossil fuels and ramp up alternatives (recognizing that alternatives are no panacea, and bring their own panoply of toxic waste, water mis-use, wildlife disruption, and other environmental problems). Reorganizing urban space so we can grow 40% of our fresh vegetables and fruit as we did by the end of WWII. Reclaiming empty malls, offices, and homes to convert them into self-managed resident co-ops based on land trusts. Rebuilding our infrastructure to emphasize low-energy, high-density public transportation, bicycling, and walking. Reintegrating the millions of people who have been forced to exist at the margins in crappy low-paid jobs by inviting them to work together to redesign our cities and suburbs to harmonize with natural systems, such as underground creeks, wetlands, and rising seas. Restoring communities through reparations and justice councils to facilitate the radical decarceration of our culture. Returning 50% of all lands to natural processes to allow our neighboring species a chance to regenerate the web of life on which we all depend. And on and on.

We need a public process—a genuine and as yet undiscovered democratic process—that invites everyone into thinking about all the ways we can do EVERYTHING differently and better! Recharge our batteries, Replenish our creative juices, Repeal and Remove the power of the venal, and Renovate our world… and then… Rinse and Repeat!

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Empty Market Street

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Chalked greeting from one kid to another in front of their house in Noe Valley.

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More chalk on Bernal Heights.

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Lupine in bloom on Twin Peaks

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View from top of Goettingen Stairs and Garden… typical clear skies and amazing colors of late.

Photos: Chris Carlsson, April 2020

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Carlsson on Twin Peaks.

Photo: Adriana Camarena