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Might a Pandemic Pause Help Us Rethink COVID-19 Capitalism?

April 2020

On April 7, 2020 at a small business relief update meeting, Trump touted that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the US economy was “the greatest economy that anybody has ever had.” Despite his hyperbolic characterization, the pandemic jeopardized the economic system within just a few months. To protect the economy, Trump adopted militant rhetoric and proclaimed himself a “wartime president” “fighting an invisible enemy.” Trump even boasted the enemy would “soon be in full retreat” and claimed “we must sacrifice together.” Despite his failure to implement the National Security Council’s pandemic playbook combined with his continual misrepresentations about the pandemic, Trump commands our sacrifice.

What kind of economic system would subordinate the social and require “sacrifice” of its own citizens? The pandemic has directed large-scale attention to COVID-19 capitalism — that at its core is so vacant that its (il)logic pits economics against social survival. Just as Trump has recognized “the horror of the Invisible Enemy,” the pandemic has likewise made it impossible to ignore the horror of our economic system. As US deaths surge, our economy of COVID-19 capitalism requires terror of the same for its survival — keep consuming and keep working.

Were it not for the terror of lived experience, the email I receive from some online marketers would suggest a pandemic doesn’t exist. It is business as usual for some online marketers. With advertisements boasting “new arrivals,” “must have products,” and even limited time “O% interest financing for qualified customers,” many marketers appear divorced of reality. Some businesses, however, have addressed our collective fear and hopelessness, by prescribing “retail therapy… plus 25% off everything.” Perhaps retail therapy can prevent us from feeling our collective grief — a particularly grim remedy when many Americans have no paychecks.

Even as every US state has issued a disaster declaration, our COVID-19 economy commands patriotic sacrifice — namely in terms of consumption. Scott Galloway, author of The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Facebook, and Google, explains “consumption has taken the place of shared sacrifice during times of war and economic malaise. The nation needs you to keep buying more stuff” (16). Indeed, stop paying attention to the terror of everyday life and buy more stuff.

Keep repeating the same.

Sacrifice is not limited to consumption — it also requires bodies in the workplace. Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, for example, callously exclaimed on Fox News, “let’s get back to work. Let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are seventy plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.” When considering that older adults are at a “higher risk for developing more serious complications from COVID-19 illness,” only a violent system would pit economic over social costs and command more of the same. Unsurprisingly, Trump has repeatedly called for re-opening the economy. On April 8, 2020, for instance, he tweeted, “once we OPEN UP OUR GREAT COUNTRY, and it will be sooner rather than later, the horror of the Invisible Enemy, except for those that sadly lost a family member or friend, must be quickly forgotten. Our Economy will BOOM, perhaps like never before!!!” .

Rather than occupy ourselves with consumption, a rush to re-open the market, and embrace Trump’s dangerous notion of forgetting and carrying on, perhaps we can take a moment to pause and reconceptualize COVID-19 capitalism. Rather than occupy ourselves with the nightmarish spaces of social media and online shopping, we need a moment to slow down. Slow movement English scholars Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber point out “slowing down is a matter of ethical import” (58). They explain,

“the culture of speed (and its associated values of efficiency, productivity, applicability, transferability) is at odds with an understanding of the ethical dimension of time because it forecloses potential ways of being and knowing” (Berg and Seeber 58).

As an ethical and critical matter, we need time to pause, remember, ask questions, imagine new possibilities, and create something new from the ruins of coronavirus capitalism. There little wonder why Trump disdains questions, cuts funding for arts, and prefers social media’s hyper-communication over deliberate communication. Inquiry, creativity, and critique collectively are the enemy of authoritarians who protect COVID-19 capitalism. As Henry Giroux explains, “independent thinking, imagination, and memory always pose threats to authoritarian control, but in the United States these are not simply dangerous, but also in short supply” (82).

Is it possible to freeze the economy and maintain public salaries? Is it possible to protect the vulnerable? Is it possible for us to avoid turning to an economic system that has created our inequities in the first place? When a dying COVID-19 patient’s last words are “who’s going to pay for it?” how unimaginable would it be to provide paychecks to those vulnerable? Perhaps these are naïve economic questions; nonetheless, Trump has certainly demonstrated how the unimaginable is possible — from pathological lying, separating children from their parents, eliminating public and sacred land in America, signing an executive order to mine the moon and destroy the notion of a global commons, to much more, Trump has reshaped our expectations of the presidency. Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton explains Trump has imposed a “malignant normality” upon the country. Why couldn’t we imagine and enact an alternative to his “malignant normality”? Enough is enough.

In his book The Upward Spiral, neuroscientist Alex Korb argues the first step toward optimism is simply imagining “the possibility of positive future events” (61). The everyday is bursting with such examples of collective kindness. A seven-year-old boy from North Carolina named Steven Burgess took pause to imagine a mini-marathon to raise money for his local hospitals and foodbanks. Although quarantined, Steven said, “I just wanted to raise money for the hospitals and give them help.”

#flowertourpdx

Rather than let flowers lie waste on the docks, Portland florists have co-created large-scale floral installations around Portland. Conceived as Flower Tour PDX, these florists have draped their creations over dumpsters, fences, bridge rails, and around light poles. Their floral creations have prompted us to slow down and cultivate attentive encounters. The installations eerily evoke funeral flowers — they prompt us to pause and grieve.

Knowing that we can co-create new possibilities of living, these creatives and countless others have taken on Foucault’s inquiry, “couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art?” (236). This is a moment for us to pause and question if we should resuscitate coronavirus capitalism — it is a moment to imagine something different.

As our COVID-19 economic system calls for a dangerous re-opening, and repetition of the same, something new is emerging from the ruins. As the world takes pause, satellite data and photographs have exposed worldwide significant decreases of pollution. Skies are turning blue and animals wander gingerly in paved habitats. NASA points out “these recent improvements in air quality have come at a high cost, as communities grapple with widespread lockdowns and shelter-in-place as a result of the spread of COVID-19.” Despite NASA’s implicit economic critique, high costs are associated with poor air quality as well.

Nonetheless, as we take pause and witness positive environmental changes, these changes provide a hopeful glimpse of what could happen if we transform our capitalist economic mindset into a more sustainable, humane, and ethical economic system.

COVID-19 is not the last of our disasters. As Trump weakens Obama-era, environmentally conscious, fuel efficiency regulations, global climate change carries a larger sickle than COVID-19. Is this a moment for us to collectively pause and refigure COVID-19 capitalism.

@realDonaldTrump. “The Invisible Enemy will soon be in full retreat!” Twitter, 10 April 2020, 8:15 a.m., https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1248630671754563585.

@realDonaldTrump. “Once we OPEN UP OUR GREAT COUNTRY, and it will be sooner rather than later, the horror of the Invisible Enemy, except for those that sadly lost a family member or friend, must be quickly forgotten. Our Economy will BOOM, perhaps like never before!!!” Twitter, 8 April 2020, 7:52 a.m., https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/1247900240155295745.

ABC 7 News. “7-Year old NC Boy Runs Backyard ‘Marathon’ to Raise Money for Hospitals, Nonprofits During COVID-19 Pandemic.” https://abc7news.com/coronavirus-nc-covid-19-case-coroanvirus-update-thank-you-helpers/6099533/. April, 13, 2020.

Berg, Maggie and Barbara K. Seeber. The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. University of Toronto Press, 2016.

CDC. “People Who Need to Take Extra Precautions.” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/index.html. March 20, 2020.

Elassar, Alaa. “A Nurse Revealed the Tragic Last Words of His Coronavirus Patient” ‘Who’s going to Pay For It?” https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/11/health/nurse-last-words-coronavirus-patient-trnd/index.html. March 11, 2020.

Foucault, Michel. Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Second Edition. Translated by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, The U of Chicago P, 1982.

Galloway, Scott. The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Portfolio, 2018.

Giroux, Henry A. America at War with Itself. Open Media Series, City Lights Books, 2017.

Korb, Alex. The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a a Time, New Harbinger Pub., 2015.

Danpatrick.org. “Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Tucker Carlson Tonight | March 23, 2020.” 24 Mar. 2020, https://www.danpatrick.org/tucker-carlson-tonight-march-23-2020/.

Mason, Jeff and Steve Holland. “Trump Says He Will Invoke Wartime Act to Fight ‘Enemy’ Coronavirus.” Reuters, 18 Mar 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-usa-trump-act/trump-says-he-will-invoke-wartime-act-to-fight-enemy-coronavirus-idUSKBN2152XL.

Moyers, Bill. “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: Robert Jay Lifton and Bill Moyers on ‘A Duty to Warn.’” 14 Sept. 2017, https://billmoyers.com/story/dangerous-case-donald-trump-robert-jay-lifton-bill-moyers-duty-warn/.

NASA. “NASA Satellite Data Show 30 Percent Drop in Air Pollution.” 9 Apr. 2020, https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2020/drop-in-air-pollution-over-northeast.

The White House. “Remarks By President Trump At America Cares: Small Business Relief Update Meeting.” 7 Apr. 2020, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-america-cares-small-business-relief-update-meeting/.

Tonthat, Steven and Claudia Meza. “Florists Rescue Their Spring Blooms for Public Installations During Pandemic.” 30 Mar. 2020, https://www.opb.org/news/article/potland-flower-installations-sping-pandemic/.

Trump Donald. “Trump: It’s Our Time, We Must Sacrifice Together.” YouTube, uploaded by Associated Press, March 18, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I15-p-XfJiM.

a creative who writes about wicked problems, philosophy, rhetoric, and…

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