by Tom Cordaro
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
(NOTE: This is the second of a three-part series on what the coronavirus pandemic is revealing to us about our nation’s interlocking social, cultural and economic systems. Part III will be posted on Thursday of this week. You can read Part I, “Pulling back the curtain,” by clicking here. The entire series can be downloaded and read as a PDF here. )
Extreme Individualism: “You are on your own.”
Hand-in-hand with this system of predatory capitalism is a culture of extreme individualism. In his writing on capitalism, Adam Smith noted that in capitalism every individual labors to earn as much money as he/she can: “He [sic] generally neither intends to promote the public interest nor knows how much he promotes it. …. He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”
At the heart of this economic system is the belief that when individuals pursue their own self-interest in the marketplace, everyone benefits. Underpinning the entire system is the primacy of the individual and the choices he/she makes. Over time, the interlocking institutions that shape, define, promote and sustain our free market consumer system have generated a common culture that serves to legitimize the values, beliefs, practices and outcomes of the system.
Autonomy and self-reliance are prized in this culture and they are seen as virtuous and exemplary. But for most of human history and for many non-western indigenous cultures, the autonomous individual would be viewed as an object of pity. For most of recorded history, personal identity was created within the context of communal or tribal identity. This was not the superficial communal identity associated with sports teams or the polarizing tribalism associated with politics. It was the firm conviction that healthy human development and resiliency was the product of social commitments that bound people to each other in mutual support and protection. Outside of these nurturing webs of relationships, human being wither and die. This is what the Church means when it insists that humans are social beings.
Because free market capitalism is purely transactional (quid pro quo), it is only natural that our politics would become the same. And if virtue is defined in terms of the individual’s pursuit of their own interests, then the politics of self-interest becomes normative and notions of the common good become meaningless slogans.
But this crisis has revealed the lethal shortcomings of this culture of individualism. One of the painful lessons this pandemic is teaching us is that, like it or not, we are bound together in a common destiny. Every decision we make has the potential to impact the entire community. The question forced upon us by this crisis is this: Are we the United States of America or are we the Autonomous States of America?
The reason other nations have been able to bend the curve of infections and bring down the number of deaths while we have not, is because enforcement of physical distancing, ramped up testing and contact tracing have been uneven and inconsistent across our nation. When states like Georgia or Florida recklessly decide to “open” their states, it endangers everyone in our nation. When the federal government insists that states are on their own to combat this pandemic, it means that continued outbreaks are inevitable. Within the cultural construct of free market absolutism, not only is every state on its own, but every city and town is on its own — every family is on its own.
Profit over People
For more than 125 years the Church has consistently taught that the economy is meant to serve the people and not that people serve the economy. And for as many years, champions of free market capitalism, like Cardinal Dolan of New York, have sought to finesse this teaching with misdirection and sleights-of-hand arguments like the notion of “virtuous capitalism.” But this coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the ugly truth about so called virtuous capitalism.
Even as our heroic first responders and health care workers were finally able to take a deep breath as spikes in new cases were beginning to plateau, there were calls to re-open the economy and get people back to work. Certainly small businesses and workers need financial protection in this crisis and it is the role of government to do so. (Canada is providing $2,000 a month for up to 4 months for individuals who lose income due to the virus. The U.S. is providing a one-time payment of $1,200 to some — but not all — workers who have lost their jobs.)
No one should have to choose between financial solvency and preserving human life, but that is exactly what predatory capitalism requires. As Dan Patrick, Texas’s 70-year-old lieutenant governor, said, “There are more important things than living, and that’s saving this country for my children and my grandchildren and saving this country for all of us.” And, of course, what Lieutenant Governor Patrick means by “saving this country for my children and grandchildren” is saving the current economic system of predatory capitalism. During the next pandemic other politicians may make the same argument as Mr. Patrick — only the next time his children and grandchildren may need to sacrifice their lives.
The stark calculus of predatory capitalism in the time of pandemic is illustrated by the story of our nation’s meat and poultry processing plants. Meat packing plants are dangerous, exploitative workplaces that often prey on vulnerable populations like immigrants and people of color. They are also hot spots for spikes in coronavirus outbreaks and deaths. As of early May more than 11,000 workers have tested positive and 48 have died. Yet Donald Trump has ordered meat packing plants to stay open, and together with Republicans in Congress, is working to shield the owners from liability if workers become infected with COVID-19 on the job. As a conservative chief justice of Wisconsin’s state Supreme Court recently said, meat-packers in Wisconsin who have contracted the coronavirus aren’t “regular folks” like other residents of the state.
Putting aside the fact that Americans eat far too much meat and that reducing our consumption of meat would result in positive benefits to our nation’s health, the Trump Administration’s willingness to sacrifice the lives and well-being of workers in order to insure that our supply of meat not be interrupted shows the true face of predatory capitalism. While insisting that workers put their lives in danger to provide us meat, the administration has only provided voluntary guidelines and suggestions to the owners about keeping these workers safe (the same type of voluntary guidelines that were in place when so many workers were infected and died.)
You can read the third part of this three-part series at this link: “The Great Reveal (Part 3): Necropolitics and the racial construct”.
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.