COVID-19 points to a future gone entirely wrong

I can only hope the link works for you, now and in the future, but you should go look at this Washington Post newsletter if you can. Because Ishaan Tharoor has really pulled together a lot of stuff[1] in a way that is truly interesting in its own right. In fact, he addresses a topic I meant to address with a blog post that wound up taking off in a different direction—and I didn’t even realize.

Where I would have talked just about Pittsburgh and San Francisco as examples that one might begin to generalize from, Tharoor approaches the topic from the opposite direction, talking generally about cities in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic:

“Until now, cities have always bounced back,” Camilla Cavendish, an adviser to the British government, wrote in the Financial Times. “The need to strike deals, ship goods and exchange ideas has inexorably drawn talent and cash. Jobs have migrated to cities, and people with them.”

But that may be less the case now. The imperatives of social distancing have plunged the world into a giant experiment in remote work, and some office workers may never want to return to the stresses, steep housing costs and public health risks associated with life in a dense, big city. As Cavendish noted, trends already underway may accelerate: The populations of global cities like New York, Paris and even Shanghai were declining before the pandemic struck, largely as a result of soaring rent prices.

The pandemic’s impact on urban life will be vast and far-reaching. UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, warned Tuesday that the pandemic may kill 1 in 8 of the world’s museums. Myriad local retailers and businesses that in part help cities distinguish themselves from suburban areas more beholden to corporate chains face extinction. A recent survey in the United States found that 70 percent of smaller restaurants don’t expect to reopen should the coronavirus crisis last more than four months. Hundreds of American towns and cities plan on cutting public services in the coming year as tax revenue plummets.

With many companies probably downsizing their physical footprints and demand for commercial real estate slowing, the skyscrapers that shape skylines from Manhattan to Mumbai may start to look more like white elephants than symbols of financial might. And life may be all the more bleak for those working in their shadow, as hundreds of millions of people in the informal economy cope with the precariousness of their livelihoods.

“If pandemics become the new normal, then tens of millions of urban service jobs will disappear,” wrote Edward Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard University. “The only chance to prevent this labor market Armageddon is to invest billions of dollars intelligently in anti-pandemic health care infrastructure so that this terrible outbreak can remain a one-time aberration.”[2]

Or, responding to the final paragraph in that excerpt, we can just do what we seem to be doing this time:[3] Let the old and the weak die, economically as with the poor, the working class, and small businesses;[4] and biologically as with especially vulnerable populations.[5]

Whatever happens with medical infrastructure, Pittsburgh is an example of the wreckage that can follow economic change. What will happen to the people left behind if indeed skyscrapers look enough like white elephants that they are abandoned? As my last blog post would suggest,[6] an already ugly picture[7] can only get uglier, reinforcing anti-intellectualism,[8] reinforcing authoritarian populism, reinforcing paleoconservatism,[9] reinforcing Black nationalism.

Social scientists don’t think much of “Social Darwinism,” the idea that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution applies within social systems. It’s a misapplication of a theory developed for ecosystems to socially-constructed systems, we say—or, perhaps, hope, wistfully. And yet, really, this is what capitalism is about as it inherently widens social inequality[10] and as that ever widening inequality impacts access to health care. This is not evolution based on biological fitness or even on psychological values we claim to value, but rather evolution favoring successful sociopaths, the folks our present social system puts in charge.[11]

That is, at least until it proves impossible to isolate such sociopaths from pandemics, as seems to be happening in the White House.[12] We might even suggest that letting the old and the weak die only works until the sociopaths in turn deprive themselves of the underclass they depend upon for their own survival, except that so many who contract COVID-19 and any potential future viruses of the sort, whether powerful or not, remain asymptomatic or suffer only mild symptoms and can transmit the virus to others, including the vulnerable among that same sociopathic class of the rich and powerful. Meaning ultimately that our population maybe only grows at a slower rate. Maybe.

This is a future gone entirely wrong and that I don’t see even the beginning of an answer for in our present system of social organization. It is a future, inevitably, of ever violent polarization as portended by armed white supremacist protesters against the lockdowns[13] and of the rich isolating themselves in bunkers, hoarding even the supplies needed for the fundamentals of life, calling the shots by remote control,[14] even as those essentials become harder to produce.[15]

And if anyone thinks that either Donald Trump or the presumptive Democratic nomineee, Joe Biden, can avert this outcome, they’d better explain how.

  1. [1]Ishaan Tharoor with Ruby Mellen, “The pandemic may forever change the world’s cities,” Washington Post, May 20, 2020, https://s2.washingtonpost.com/camp-rw/?trackId=5a39652eae7e8a58807f9446&s=5ec4aa54fe1ff654c2e1eea0&linknum=4&linktot=72
  2. [2]Ishaan Tharoor with Ruby Mellen, “The pandemic may forever change the world’s cities,” Washington Post, May 20, 2020, https://s2.washingtonpost.com/camp-rw/?trackId=5a39652eae7e8a58807f9446&s=5ec4aa54fe1ff654c2e1eea0&linknum=4&linktot=72
  3. [3]David Benfell, “We are not going to be alright,” Not Housebroken, March 21, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/03/21/we-are-not-going-to-be-alright/; David Benfell, “The capitalist death cult,” Not Housebroken, March 27, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/03/27/the-capitalist-death-cult/; David Benfell, “When nothing happened next,” Not Housebroken, March 29, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/03/29/when-nothing-happened-next/; David Benfell, “The worst of times and the worst of humanity,” Not Housebroken, April 2, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/04/02/the-worst-of-times-and-the-worst-of-humanity/; David Benfell, “As we cower in our apartments,” Not Housebroken, April 6, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/04/06/as-we-cower-in-our-apartments/; David Benfell, “I fear for our world,” Not Housebroken, April 9, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/04/09/i-fear-for-our-world/; David Benfell, “An impatient capitalist god demands human sacrifice. Now,” Not Housebroken, April 17, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/04/15/an-impatient-capitalist-god-demands-human-sacrifice-now/; David Benfell, “Don’t just say #COVIDIOTS,” Not Housebroken, April 19, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/04/19/dont-just-say-covidiots/; David Benfell, “When confusion starts killing people, it is long past time to recognize it for what it is,” Not Housebroken, April 21, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/04/21/when-confusion-starts-killing-people-it-is-long-past-time-to-recognize-it-for-what-it-is/; David Benfell, “Elite priorities: Why social, animal, and environmental justice remains essential with COVID-19,” Not Housebroken, April 26, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/04/26/elite-priorities-why-social-animal-and-environmental-justice-remains-essential-with-covid-19/; David Benfell, “We may die at home or we may die alone but we are surely dying,” Not Housebroken, April 28, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/04/28/we-may-die-at-home-or-we-may-die-alone-but-we-are-surely-dying/; David Benfell, “Yet again, a season for cynicism,” Not Housebroken, May 10, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/05/10/yet-again-a-season-for-cynicism/
  4. [4]Anne Applebaum, “The Coronavirus Called America’s Bluff,” Atlantic, March 15, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/coronavirus-showed-america-wasnt-task/608023/; David Benfell, “Don’t just say #COVIDIOTS,” Not Housebroken, April 19, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/04/19/dont-just-say-covidiots/; David Blanchflower, “Pandemic Economics: ‘Much Worse, Very Quickly,” New York Review of Books, March 26, 2020, https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/03/26/pandemic-economics-much-worse-very-quickly/; Kim Hart, “The coronavirus economy will devastate those who can least afford it,” Axios, March 23, 2020, https://www.axios.com/coronavirus-economy-layoffs-children-families-bad-d588cc93-ff26-4031-8be8-5654cce05a15.html; Zoë Hu, “A New Age of Destructive Austerity After the Coronavirus,” New Republic, April 23, 2020, https://newrepublic.com/article/157417/new-age-destructive-austerity-coronavirus; Sarah Jones, “Dear Rich People: Please Stop Hoarding Things,” New York, March 30, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/things-are-bad-and-rich-people-arent-helping.html; Hanna Kozlowska, “Coronavirus is revealing ugly truths about social structure in the US,” Quartz, March 14, 2020, https://qz.com/1818548/coronavirus-is-revealing-ugly-truths-about-social-structure-in-the-us/; Eric Levitz, “In the Age of the Coronavirus, Biden’s ‘Results’ Require Bernie’s ‘Revolution,’” New York, March 16, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/who-won-the-democratic-debate-between-biden-and-bernie-coronavirus.html; Joe Lowndes, “The Morbid Ideology Behind the Drive to Reopen America,” New Republic, April 30, 2020, https://newrepublic.com/article/157505/morbid-ideology-behind-drive-reopen-america; Tony Romm, “Uber drivers and other gig economy workers were promised unemployment benefits. It may be a long wait,” Washington Post, April 2, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/04/02/uber-airbnb-lyft-unemployment-coronavirus/; Jenny Schuetz, “America’s inequitable housing system is completely unprepared for coronavirus,” Brookings, March 12, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2020/03/12/americas-inequitable-housing-system-is-completely-unprepared-for-coronavirus/; Luke Taylor, “When coronavirus is behind us, will you still think of restaurant and bar workers?” Vox, March 21, 2020, https://www.vox.com/2020/3/21/21188210/coronavirus-restaurant-bar-workers-economy-service-industry; Reis Thebault, Andrew Ba Tran, and Vanessa Williams, “The coronavirus is infecting and killing black Americans at an alarmingly high rate,” Washington Post, April 7, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/04/07/coronavirus-is-infecting-killing-black-americans-an-alarmingly-high-rate-post-analysis-shows/; Funda Ustek-Spilda et al., “The untenable luxury of self-isolation,” New Internationalist, March 18, 2020, https://newint.org/features/2020/03/18/untenable-luxury-self-isolation; Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Denise Lu, and Gabriel J.X. Dance, “Location Data Says It All: Staying at Home During Coronavirus Is a Luxury,” New York Times, April 3, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/04/03/us/coronavirus-stay-home-rich-poor.html
  5. [5]Gloria Jackson, as told to Eli Saslow, “‘I apologize to God for feeling this way,’” Washington Post, May 2, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/05/02/elderly-woman-coronavirus-lonely-expendable/; Laura Newberry, “The pandemic has amplified ageism. ‘It’s open season for discrimination’ against older adults,” Los Angeles Times, May 1, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-05-01/coronavirus-pandemic-has-amplified-ageism
  6. [6]David Benfell, “Pittsburgh, race, and a threat to appropriated identity,” Not Housebroken, May 17, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/05/17/pittsburgh-race-and-a-threat-to-appropriated-identity/
  7. [7]David Benfell, “Pittsburgh is repeating San Francisco’s mistake,” Not Housebroken, May 13, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/05/13/pittsburgh-is-repeating-san-franciscos-mistake/
  8. [8]David Benfell, “The pandemic and a crisis of illegitimate authority,” Not Housebroken, May 14, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/05/12/the-pandemic-and-a-crisis-of-illegitimate-authority/
  9. [9]David Benfell, “Pittsburgh, race, and a threat to appropriated identity,” Not Housebroken, May 17, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/05/17/pittsburgh-race-and-a-threat-to-appropriated-identity/
  10. [10]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 6th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 94-101.
  11. [11]George Monbiot, “The Roots of Fascism,” February 11, 2020, https://www.monbiot.com/2020/02/11/the-roots-of-fascism/
  12. [12]Ben Mathis-Lilley, “Multiple White House Staffers Diagnosed With COVID-19 as Trump, Pence Hold Photo-Ops With the Elderly,” Slate, May 8, 2020, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/05/multiple-white-house-staffers-covid-19-trump-pence-meet-elderly.html
  13. [13]Moriah Balingit, “Armed militia helped a Michigan barbershop open, a coronavirus defiance that puts Republican lawmakers in a bind,” Washington Post, May 12, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/coronavirus-michigan-republicans-whitmer/2020/05/12/54975e1a-9466-11ea-82b4-c8db161ff6e5_story.html; Ryan Deto, “Photos: About 120 protest in Downtown Pittsburgh, calling for Pennsylvania to reopen during coronavirus pandemic,” Pittsburgh City Paper, April 20, 2020, https://www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/photos-about-120-protest-in-downtown-pittsburgh-calling-for-pennsylvania-to-reopen-during-coronavirus-pandemic/Content?oid=17167012; Bryan Armen Graham, “‘Swastikas and nooses’: governor slams ‘racism’ of Michigan lockdown protest,” Guardian, May 3, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/03/michigan-gretchen-whitmer-lockdown-protest-racism; Jamie Martines And Tom Davidson, “Protesters in Pittsburgh demand Gov. Wolf to reopen businesses amid coronavirus pandemic,” TribLive, April 20, 2020, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-allegheny/protesters-gather-in-pittsburgh-demanding-gov-wolf-reopen-businesses-amid-coronavirus-pandemic/
  14. [14]Sarah Jones, “Dear Rich People: Please Stop Hoarding Things,” New York, March 30, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/things-are-bad-and-rich-people-arent-helping.html
  15. [15]As a vegan, I do not consider the non-human animal butchery and flesh distribution business essential. But the example illustrates how even non-essential production fails: Ann Colwell and Rob McLean, “Meat plant workers to Trump: Employees aren’t going to show up,” CNN, April 29, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/29/business/meat-processing-plant-workers-reaction-executive-order/index.html; Taylor Telford and Kimberly Kindy, “Trump to order meat plants to stay open in pandemic, person familiar with action says,” Washington Post, April 28, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/04/28/trump-meat-plants-dpa/

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