by Tom Cordaro
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
(NOTE: This is the first of a three-part series on what the coronavirus pandemic is revealing to us about our nation’s interlocking social, cultural and economic systems. Parts II and III will be posted on Wednesday and Thursday of this week. The entire series can be downloaded and read as a PDF here.)
In literature, “the reveal” is a plot device that exposes the reader to a previously unseen or unacknowledged key character or vital piece of information that changes the course of the story. In the world of magic, “the reveal” refers to the culmination (often unexpected) of a trick or magic act. It “reveals” the illusions created by the magician’s sleight-of-hand and misdirection. (The person in the box was not sawed in half!)
The coronavirus pandemic continues to be a human catastrophe of untold magnitude and it may take years before we begin to understand the full impact of this crisis on the human community — medically, emotionally, socially, politically and economically. But even at this early stage of the crisis it is becoming clear that this pandemic and our nation’s response to it has laid bare the true nature of our interlocking social, cultural and economic systems. This is the time of “the great reveal.”
Pulling back the curtain on Free Market Capitalism
Starting in the 1980s a particular brand of political conservatism came to power that viewed government as the enemy of the people and championed unfettered free market capitalism as the antidote. The persistence of poverty was not due to systemic racism, sexism or grotesque income inequality. It was due to overly generous government programs and the moral failings of the poor. Our nation was encouraged to abandon President Johnson’s “war on poverty,” and replace it with a war on the poor (for their own good.)
Ronald Reagan was the champion of this movement and he rode this anti-government battle cry all the way to the White House. Reagan’s victory was not just political; it was cultural. His anti-government rhetoric transformed us from a nation of citizens into a nation of taxpayers. Our relationship with the government (and increasingly with each other) was becoming transactional: “What do I get in exchange for my tax dollars? What’s in it for me?” Reagan rode to victory on stories about welfare queens driving Cadillacs and promising a war on drugs aimed primarily at morally weak poor people of color. A new conventional wisdom was forming: poverty was the result of laziness and bad upbringing; greed was good and the rich were morally superior to the rest of us. Everyone could be a millionaire if they just rolled up their sleeves and put their mind to it.
Ironically the most successful practitioner of this new politics was Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council. Working with Republicans they succeeded in kicking millions of poor people off of welfare (but not moving them out of poverty) and putting into place key elements of the architecture of mass incarceration of people of color. They were able to convince the Democratic Party to abandon its New Deal conviction that government had a positive, irreplaceable role to play in the lives of the American people. These corporate Democrats continued to pay lip service to organized labor while catering to the wishes of Wall Street and the financial class. By the end of the Clinton presidency, it was hard to see any difference between the Republican establishment and the Democratic establishment.
The coronavirus pandemic has now exposed unfettered free market capitalism for what it truly is; predatory capitalism. The invisible hand described by Adam Smith has become a pick-pocket. It is clear that our reality TV star president’s entire response to the pandemic is grounded in the belief that the free market, not the government, is the best means to address this crisis.
In this predatory capitalist system, states must compete for essential goods and services with other states, with the highest bidder taking all. Even within states, cities and counties are in competition with each other for supplies needed to save lives.
In one very telling story from my home state of Illinois, a state official tells how she drove across the state line into Indiana with a check for $3.5 million dollars that she had to give to a middleman at the parking lot of a fast food restaurant in order to secure the purchase of medical supplies before being outbid by an even more desperate state government. If you think this sounds like a shady drug deal, you would be right.
Not only are states in competition with each other, they also have to outbid our own federal government for the same supplies. Governors tell stories of secret deals with foreign governments to purchase badly needed supplies with secret cargo flights to escape attention from our own federal government. The Republican governor of Maryland was so concerned that the federal government would seize the coronavirus testing kits he was forced to purchase from South Korea, that he had them protected by the National Guard at an undisclosed location. Apparently we have learned a lot from Colombian drug cartels about how capitalism really works.
The sheer brutality and ugliness of predatory capitalism is fully exposed by this human crisis. And here is the fundamental problem: this life and death crisis of untold human suffering does not compute in capitalism; humans are merely consumers and producers. The driving force of capitalism is supply and demand. Capitalism is not concerned with human health or wellness; it only chases dollars. In this system, money is power: the more dollars you have the more the system will cater to your needs. Capitalism really doesn’t care whether you are a billionaire who wants to be pampered or a single mother trying to pay the rent and feed her children. The only thing of value in this system is dollars; if you don’t have any, you don’t exist as anything other than surplus population.
Read the second part of this three-part series at this link: “The Great Reveal: You Are on Your Own”.
Tom Cordaro is a former Pax Christi USA national staff person, national council chairperson and Ambassador of Peace. He currently works as the Justice and Outreach Minister at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Naperville, Illinois.