by Tom Cordaro
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
(NOTE: In this last of the three-part series on what the coronavirus pandemic is revealing to us about our nation’s interlocking social, cultural and economic systems, the author explores how our racial construct determines who is worthy of saving and who is not. This series ends with hopeful examples of how Americans are overcoming the culture of predatory capitalism and extreme individualism. You can read Part I, “Pulling back the curtain,” by clicking here. Part II, “You are on your own,” can be read by clicking here. The entire series can be downloaded and read as a PDF here.)
Necropolitics and the Racial Construct
Necropolitics is the use of social and political power to place value on some lives while devaluing others. It dictates how some people may live and how some must die. It was first coined by Joseph-Achille Mbembe, a Cameroonian philosopher, political theorist, and public intellectual in describing colonial and post-colonial Africa. Necropolitics is more than a right to kill; it is also the right to expose other people (including a country’s own citizens) to death.
Necropolitics is the inevitable outcome of predatory capitalism. And when it comes to decisions about which lives are worthy to be protected and saved and which are not, our legacy of white supremacy and white entitlement comes to the forefront. Isn’t it interesting that so many jobs we now consider as essential to our survival do not pay a living wage? Workers who just a few months ago could not find support to raise the minimum wage are now being called heroes. By some estimates, 75% of front line workers in New York are people of color; nationwide the number is 41%.
For many of these workers, being hailed as “heroes” is synonymous with being held as “hostages”; being declared “essential” is synonymous with being treated as “expendable.” While many of us complain about having to stay at home during this crisis there are many others who have no choice but to go to work. Every day they make the calculation that predatory capitalism demands: “Do I go to work in order to pay my bills or do I stay at home to protect the lives of myself and my family?”
As President Trump said in Arizona on May 5th when asked about the dangers of ending physical distancing too soon: “Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.” And, of course, he was not talking about his friends at his Mar-a-lago Country Club; he was talking about poor people who work jobs that expose them to the virus for low pay with few benefits and no paid sick leave.
A different world is possible
It is important to note that not only has this pandemic revealed the true nature of predatory capitalism; it has also revealed the capacity of the American people to respond to each other with compassion and solidarity. While the federal government has largely washed its hands of leadership and responsibility during this crisis and states are overwhelmed by its magnitude, every day Americans across this country have found creative ways to come together and help each other.
In truth, our people are ready and willing to be called to a higher purpose if only given the encouragement to do so. My brother Frank is the co-founder of the Des Moines Catholic Worker Community that has been serving the poor in his neighborhood for over 40 years. He recently told me that he has been astounded by the amount of hospitality and service to those in need he has seen since the outbreak of this pandemic. It appears that the Catholic Worker ethos of radical personalism has gone viral.
I work in an upper middle-class parish in Naperville, Illinois where most parishioners identify themselves as politically conservative. In the midst of this pandemic our parishioners have found creative ways to take care of vulnerable parishioners and people in need in the wider community. We have reached out to every elderly parishioner to make sure they are well and to offer volunteer grocery shoppers. (We have over 40 volunteer shoppers ready to serve!) Our parish children are writing letters, creating artwork for parish shut-ins. We have volunteers ready to deliver prepared meals to any front-line worker or elderly person who needs them. Our St. Vincent de Paul group is providing financial assistance to anyone living within our parish boundaries. We are providing a rent subsidy to a refugee family during this pandemic and have raised money to provide food for other refugee families in the area. As a popular social media posting noted, “With church doors shutting across America, it is time for us to show that Church has never been about the building.”
In spite of the powerful culture of predatory capitalism and extreme individualism, many Americans have rekindled the same flame of solidarity and compassion that helped us survive catastrophes like the Great Depression. We are learning again that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. At the ground level most Americans understand that we are all in this together and only together can we get through it.
The question that remains is what kind of nation we will become once this pandemic has passed. Will the powerful cultural forces that serve to legitimize the values, beliefs, practices and outcomes of extreme individualism and predatory capitalism continue to mesmerize us with sleights-of-hand and misdirection or will we develop the communal antibodies to make us immune to the clever magicians of predatory capitalism?
As Indian prize-winning author and political activist Arundhati Roy reminds us, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
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.