One afternoon this summer, after hiking through Acadia National Park, my girlfriend and I stopped into an old brewery on Mount Desert Island. The state of Maine had managed to keep coronavirus infections down, and the outdoor garden was mostly full with late season tourists. At a nearby table, a man caught my eye. Or more accurately, his gray t-shirt caught it. I took it as a sign that I was onto something. A vague notion that had been rattling around my mind at least since our March lockdown, but at some level for much longer. Across his chest in a white sans serif font the t-shirt read “2020.” Below it, five stars like you would see on almost any online rating site. Only one of the stars was filled in yellow. Below that in smaller text was a two-sentence review: “Very hard. Would not recommend.”
If you’ve been anywhere near social media, probably even if you haven’t, you’ve seen or heard someone echo a sentiment like the one on the man’s shirt: 2020 has been the worst. There are endless variations, silly, plaintive, nostalgic. Some recall the simplicity of 2019. Others proffer hope for how much better 2021 will be. It used to be so great! How could it get worse? While many of these expressions are tongue-in-cheek, they betray a set of assumptions that Americans of a certain class position have about how the world is supposed to be, and offer an unsettling vision of how unprepared we are for what lies ahead.
The first assumption, subliminal in the text on the man’s t-shirt, is a persistent belief in the inherent progressivity of our economic system. In the present case, the belief goes, without COVID-19, America would truly be great, and getting greater, regardless of your voting preferences. And our nonstop progress is moral as well as economic: for the professional classes, the arc of the moral universe really does bend toward justice (at least for them). As I sat there, looking at the t-shirt I kept thinking of an anecdote from Alexis de Tocqueville’s travels in the US. On the Fourth of July, Tocqueville plied the Ohio River. The boat, shoddily made, ran aground and Tocqueville nearly drowned along with his fellow passengers. When Tocqueville asked why the steamboat builders constructed such dangerous vessels, he was told, “As it was, the boats would perhaps last too long because the art of steam navigation was making daily progress. As a matter of fact, the vessels, which steamed at 8 or 9 miles an hour, could no longer a short time afterwards sustain competition with others whose construction allowed them to make 12 to 15.”
This unerring faith in the myth of progress has been re-contextualized throughout US history, but the basic belief in it has never disappeared. We’ve traveled very little from the 1830s to now. Today’s adherents of the country’s foundational myth about progress cannot brook that anything other than external forces (Russia, pandemics, “a few bad apples”) could possibly deter our endless improvement, let alone entertain the possibility that there is something structurally unsound about our institutions, civil, economic, or political. In Tocqueville’s day, a boat might sink, but the belief was, we’ll simply make better steamboats, and if a few people have to drown as a cost-saving measure, so be it. And when people make light of 2020, often they are doing so with the implicit assumption that things will continue to get better. That the ship will be righted. But this myth, what Mike Davis once called “the smug liberal teleology of US history,” ignores a lot of actual history and the current trajectory of a global economic system that continues to rely on exploitation and environmental degradation.
Most immediately, such hope papers over the underlying instability of the country’s decade-long employment boom; one in which more workers have been pushed into the precarity of the service sector, particularly in hospitality, healthcare, and social assistance, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.1 This move into “services” is the resolution of a key contradiction Guy Debord identified in 1967 as automation began picking up pace. In Society of the Spectacle, he posited that “technological developments that objectively tend to eliminate work must at the same time preserve labor as a commodity, because labor is the only creator of commodities.”2 The solution was the creation of new forms of work, which he identified specifically as those in the “tertiary or ‘service’ sector.” The disappearance of manufacturing jobs from the employment landscape resulted in what Marx more than a century before Debord termed a “reserve army of labor.” Debord presaged that this surplus labor would be deployed to “reinforc[e] the troops responsible for distributing and glorifying the latest commodities.”3 At the dawn of 2020, many of those commodities, which in Debord’s day were still at least actual objects, had become pure experience realized by workers in tourism, hospitality, and media production.
And these were the lucky ones. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore has demonstrated, Black laborers especially, who had been deemed surplus early in the deindustrialization of the ’70s and ’80s, came under increased surveillance and violent management by the State while living with much higher levels of unemployment.4 Even work in the spectacle economy was largely denied to them.
Today, many of these service industries, particularly the ones hardest hit by pandemic-related layoffs, aren’t even moderately unionized. And in the public sector where there remains heavy unionization, the Senate’s refusal to provide assistance to state and municipal governments is a continuation of the right-wing attack on public sector unions and their pension funds. Many of these are also industries in which women and the undocumented are overrepresented. Keeping in mind that there is virtually nothing we could call a federal social safety net, which would include universal healthcare and childcare for starters, what COVID demonstrated, yet again, was that any significant shock to this system, financial or otherwise, is catastrophic to workers, who continue to be herded into the spectacle economy. At a stroke MGM Resorts can shed 18,000 workers or Disney can lay off 28,000 people, or airlines can hoover up federal loans and then furlough workers as soon as it’s convenient. Meanwhile gig workers such as Uber and Lyft drivers have been subjected to an Orwellian definition as “independent contractors” as their employers avoid paying into state unemployment schemes or providing healthcare.5
This state of affairs for “gig” workers has now been codified as the NAACP and other “progressive” organizations burnished Silicon Valley’s brazen $200 million propaganda campaign to pass California’s Proposition 22, reversing protections mandated by the judiciary and legislature. Already, “sharing” economy giants are eyeing other states and possibly even a federal law defining gig work as a “third way” of employment. No surprise then that the Biden-Harris transition team is packed with envoys of Silicon Valley rentier capital.
Long before anyone had heard of COVID-19, millions of Americans had been $400 away from ruin, and now the New York Times is reporting that more and more workers are in danger of losing their workplace-based health insurance. 6 This is a further affront by elites who, as Robert Brenner pointed out recently in New Left Review, were happy to backstop the bond markets while suggesting that workers utilize COBRA plans, which stick them with hundreds of dollars in monthly premiums, as more and more allegedly temporary job losses become permanent.7
However, the so-called unprecedented growth in employment of the last ten years was tailor-made to service the well-off temporarily stymied by the Great Recession. As their investments rebounded, thanks in no small part to the bottoming out of the housing market, they required a panoply of services. More and more space in big cities was taken up with the accoutrements of itinerant wealth—short-term rentals, chic cafes, and Instagram-worthy experiences. Quite literally, as Debord presaged, “the real consumer has become a consumer of illusions. The commodity is this materialized illusion and the spectacle is its general expression.”8
The last six months of America’s political economy, then, were an inevitability born out of the raft of austerity measures implemented during the last crisis to preserve neoliberalism at any cost. And, when the ship was righted, huge increases in consumer spending kept the economy afloat. According to research by David Kotz, from 2014 to 2017, consumer expenditure, at 81.3 percent, was the single largest contributor to the US’s GDP growth.9 Little surprise then that one $1,200 check and a few months of enhanced unemployment have failed to restart the real economy, though the whole situation, much like every crisis, has been a godsend for those with the capital to weather the storm.
As the business press has reported since the summer, there has been a K-shaped skew in employment. After a plummet among all income levels, job recovery is almost complete for those earning at least $60,000, while those earning less than $27,000, are staring down 18 percent job losses since January.10 Since the Carter administration, the federal government has favored wealth transfers to the middle strata and the wealthy, while gutting or radically altering state welfare provision. And this current K-shaped recovery is only the latest example of the widening wealth disparity in the US that began as the federal government abandoned its commitments to provide funding and services to rural areas, inner cities, and the rustbelt.
The now-recovered were the same people who have been placated by Democrats on the seemingly endless campaign trail touting ethereal plans for a new green economy, for reskilling coal miners, for teaching Black girls to code. The Democrats now speak entirely to the professional elite and their employers in Silicon Valley and Wall Street, while assuming that the working classes will come along for the ride. As initial data from the most recent elections indicate, where there were putatively liberal victories, they were tied to local, movement-oriented mobilizations outside the party apparatus, such as the Black voters who delivered Georgia who were already mobilized against voter suppression and Latinx voters in Maricopa County, Arizona, outraged by Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s anti-immigrant regime. Conversely in places abandoned completely by the Democrats and lacking pre-existing non-electoral militancy, the situation was grim, exemplified by the large-scale defections among Mexican Americans in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
The myth of American progress structures our responses to virtually all catastrophes of our making. The one that has been rattling around, indeed the one that first got me thinking about those silly tweets about 2020, was the one that no one seems to want to face head on: global warming. Not only does it get short shrift in corporate news and presidential debates, but it lives in a sort of nether realm, filling with CO2 and other earth-warming gases, but not yet burst. If American progress is fast and violent—think the steamboat—global warming has been slow moving. But watch a chunk of a glacier fall off the West Antarctic ice sheet and you know how fast things can go, once they go.
Many people have been living with global warming and its attendant degradations for years, and they have been on stark display during the pandemic. In the US, the poor have long been ghettoized by freeways and interstates which coat their lungs with particulate matter and made breathing a task even before COVID. Their homes often share zip codes with superfund sites, power plants, and other sources of mega-pollution. Many of the most recent migrants from Central America to the US have been fleeing the devastation resulting from capitalism’s addiction to petroleum. Perpetual drought has destroyed farming in countries from Angola to Syria, leading the latter to a devastating civil war that displaced millions, many of whom are washing ashore on littoral Europe.
Perhaps the wall-to-wall coverage of the burning West will change a few hearts and minds, but it won’t stop the atmosphere from warming. In two of the last three years I’ve spent some time in lockdown. In the summer of 2018, my girlfriend and I lugged some boxes up to Davis, California. Our apartment wouldn’t be available for another month, but I’d never stepped foot in the Central Valley and it was important to see what we were getting ourselves into. The heat was dry and oppressive. Out in the distance where there should have been nothing but clear blue sky hung a foreshadowing brown smear.
On the morning of November 8, 2018, I was shaken from bed by a violent wind. It shuddered against the building and bent the giant elms in the backyard. Pacific Gas and Electric Company had been shutting the power off in the Central Valley and Northern California and people were waiting for the other shoe to drop. Minutes later it did, as a fire sparked under transmission lines in Butte County.
The Camp Fire was the deadliest wildfire in terms of loss of human life in the state’s history. For weeks the skies were a sickening color. We wore N95 masks everywhere, which was really just going to the grocery store and walking the dog. There was no other reason to be outside. I remember one afternoon, undergrads at UC Davis organized an event where they threw rocks at the direction of the fire. It seemed a fitting metaphor for both the immediate predicament and the conditions under which the fire occurred. Classes were canceled. For several days, the Sacramento area had the worst air quality in the world.
As several social scientists have argued in recent years, there is no such thing as a “natural disaster”; rather, events like the Camp Fire or the biblical flooding of Houston and Karachi are largely the consequences of human activity. Writing for ProPublica, Elizabeth Weil and Mollie Simon note that, while wildfires are an integral part of the Western ecosystem, our land-use policies are not.11 They highlight that wealthy urban dwellers wield considerable influence over housing policies and continue to stymie low- and middle-income housing in desirable areas. A major consequence of this is what is known as the wildland urban interface (WUI) in which poorer and older people are pushed further to the periphery, often to places that abut obviously fire-prone areas. Not only does this increase emissions through longer commutes for workers, but leads to catastrophes like the Camp Fire.
Little has changed in state policy since the Camp Fire. California governor Gavin Newsom has continued to sign off on fracking contracts even as he makes pronouncements about the existential risk climate change poses, and at the end of September he vetoed a bill addressing WUI issues. That a Getty-backed millionaire turned politician like Newsom would do this illustrates how the operating features of institutional white supremacy and fealty to capital collude to perpetuate the global warming crisis. Newsom is not draped in the stars and bars calling for a repeal of the 13th amendment. He’s just confident he can offload risk onto the most vulnerable without too much outcry while reassuring capital that there will be no serious threat to its expansion.
2020 has underscored the contradiction at the heart of our current stage of petro-capitalism, the Capitalocene, as some call it. Capital requires endless, compounding expansion, and it is fast running up against a severe limitation. Specifically, capitalists have treated the atmosphere as a carbon sink, which is now overflowing. But endless expansion predicated on cheap, dirty energy now threatens the stability of capitalist order itself.
Those who believe in the American myth, Tocqueville’s steamboat builders, if you will, believe this contradiction can be overcome through technological solutions, but they ignore the damage already wrought. Global warming is no longer a thing to be averted but a thing to which we must adapt. Even if the world became carbon neutral today, temperatures would continue to rise, increasing the intensity of climactic events. For example, warming has led to increased aridity in the western US and Australia, which provides significantly more dry plant matter to fuel wildfires.12 Similar connections have been identified between temperature increases and hurricane intensity, and as I finish this, the Atlantic hurricane season is now the most active on record.
The recent US election has done nothing to convince me that we’re on the right path. Since the primaries, it was a madeleine-eating contest between dinosaurs, who remember the US as something that it never was, to see who could proclaim most loudly that they were for fossil fuels and against communism. All while more fossil fuel was burned and police continued executing people at their normal clip.13 And why wouldn’t they? This, too, is what progress entails: dirty fuel and the State-sanctioned killing of people deemed surplus by the architects of our modern carceral system. The US may return to the Paris Agreement under a Biden regime, but the stated timetable for decarbonizing (and I’m being generous with that term) remains risible. Meanwhile, on the economic front, the best on offer is pure abstraction and means-tested student debt relief. And with the GOP happy to rule in opposition as their state-level apparatchiks gerrymander the next decade of elections, the rest of us are left to stare down the barrels of another depression, public-health catastrophe, and a planet turning into a sauna.
This spring, Arundhati Roy reminded us that pandemics have a way of reshaping the world whether people want it or not.14 The Plague of Justinian permanently eroded the power of the Byzantine Empire; the Black Death, which coincided with the Little Ice Age, brought down the feudal order and gave rise to capitalism in Europe; the colonialist plagues (smallpox chief among them) brought to the Americas killed upwards of 90 percent of the indigenous population; and AIDS continues to affect the social and economic well-being of multiple countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. Roy described the current pandemic as a “portal.” She said we could walk through it burdened by the past or through it lightly.
If we take Roy seriously, we can start by considering that a portal isn’t simply something we walk through, but something through which we look. The pandemic provides an opening to look into our own history as well as a gateway into the future. For the man in the t-shirt, and all those who would write off 2020 as an aberration, there is a refusal to look through this portal, to reckon with a mechanistic telos based on a back-and-forth between nostalgia and progress. There’s a strong belief that by entering 2021 we will be able to bracket off this year and return to that arc of the moral universe bending toward justice, or—put another way—that we will build better steamboats. But what Roy is saying is that looking closely at this moment reveals to us that some effort needs to be made to bend that moral arc toward justice.
It’s helpful to remember that while Tocqueville’s steamboat builders were waiting for better boats, the Trail of Tears, which Tocqueville witnessed firsthand, was in full swing and slaves and cotton moved up and down the Ohio River he nearly drowned in. This was not history arcing towards justice any more than our own moment, when our comfort remains predicated on a perpetual boom mentality abetted by naked State violence. Raymond Williams once wrote that “the actual alternative to the received and produced fixed forms is not silence: not the absence, the unconscious, which bourgeois culture has mythicized. It is a kind of feeling and thinking which is indeed social and material.”15 That social feeling, which had been heating up since the beginning of the year and boiled over for several glorious weeks late this spring in the streets of the US, showed us a potential way forward as its inchoate demands for justice joined with similar struggles from Chile to Nigeria. It was an important first step toward Roy’s portal. If we have any hope of making it to the other side we must take heed of Marx’s exhortation that it is not enough to interpret the world, “the point is to change it.”
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment by major industry sector”, https://www.bls.gov/emp/tables/employment-by-major-industry-sector.htm, (accessed September 30,2020)
- Guy Debord, (1967) Society of the Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb, Rebel Press, London
- Debord, p. 22
- Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Globalisation and US prison Growth: from military Keynesianism to post-Keynesian militarism,” Race & Class, 40 2/3 1998/99
- Noam Scheiber, “Uber and Lyft Drivers Win Ruling on Unemployment Benefits,” New York Times, July 28, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/28/business/economy/lyft-uber-drivers-unemployment.html
- Reed Abelson, “Some Workers Face Looming Cutoffs in Health Insurance,” New York Times, September 28, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/28/health/covid-19-health-insurance.html
- Robert Brenner, “Escalating Plunder”, New Left Review 123, May-June 2020, https://newleftreview.org/issues/II123/articles/robert-brenner-escalating-plunder
- Debord, p. 23
- David Kotz, “End of the Neoliberal Era?”, New Left Review, 113 September-October 2018
- Track the Recovery, https://www.tracktherecovery.org/
- Elizabeth Weil and Mollie Simon, “California Will Keep Burning. But Housing Policy Is Making It Worse,” ProPublica, October 2, 2020, https://www.propublica.org/article/california-will-keep-burning-but-housing-policy-is-making-it-worse
- A. Park Williams et al. “Observed Impacts of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Wildfire in California,” Earth’s Future, 7(8), https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EF001210
- There have only been 14 days in 2020 when police did not kill at least one person, and we are on track to see roughly the same number of police murders this year as the last seven, https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/
- Arundhati Roy, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hgQFaeaeo0
- Raymond Williams (1978), Marxism and Literature, Oxford University Press, Oxford