Tell Me How This Ends
South of Najaf, Iraq in 2003, General David Petraeus asked the question which would serve as an early epitaph for the entire American misadventure in Iraq: “Tell me how this ends.” Today, Americans are asking the same question about a very different enemy.
Every so often, an event occurs which, like the receding of the tide, exposes the detritus left behind. As we watch the world pass by, day by day through the windows of our homes, Americans are being forced to confront the cracks increasingly present in the national façade. Even as our ship of state has taken on water, the lives of ordinary Americans receding further from the sunny shores, we have clung to narratives of exceptionalism, of a higher reality that existed over the horizon. As COVID reshapes our world and challenges our future, reality has taken the brunt of a bracing confrontation with myth. For if anything has been proven by the extraordinary events of the past two months, it is that the America we half-thought and half-hoped existed was a fading mirage. The COVID crisis has dissolved our recent perceptions in an acid bath and instead, America the fragile has stepped out the shower without a towel in sight. We can no longer pretend not to see the skeletal bones pushing through the national fabric.
Let’s start with the first myth that has died a brutal death: the myth of the industrial muscle of America, dormant, perhaps, but ready to be activated as it was in earlier days of war to flood the nation, and the world if need be, with goods. Sure, we exported the lower-end manufacturing, but ventilators? Medical tests? Medicine? High-caliber masks? Once we set our nation to production, we can solve any issue.
As it turns out, we can’t. The shareholder value revolution which swamped modern American industry congealed industries into ponderous goliaths, unable to supply the surge capacity to produce what the nation needs. Where we used to see in monopoly a dangerous concentration of production, we increasingly saw untrammeled efficiency instead. Yet efficiency has a strange way of looking like scarcity when need surges. Invoking Korean War-era statutes cannot reconstitute Korean War level industrial capacity any more than Canute could command the tides. Writing in 2007, journalist Barry Lynn observed:
Our brand-new global factory does look awfully efficient. But it is an efficiency purchased through the destruction of all flexibility, and hence sustainability. What we should be fretting about now is what happens when, one day soon, we awake to find that war, revolution, disease, or natural disaster has cut us off from some one of the increasingly scattered pockets of workers we rely on to produce keystone industrial components or to process vital back-office information; what happens when, for want of access to one or a few of the links that make up the global assembly line as a whole, our entire industrial system breaks — pins, electronics, pharmaceuticals, food, and all.
Thirteen years later, that day is here. Reliance on China as the workshop of the world is not a new reality, but Americans ignored just how vulnerable we’d become. Pharmaceuticals, upon which so much now depends, tell the story in exacting detail. In 2007, Pfizer announced that it would outsource 30% of its manufacturing to Asia, lay off 10,000 employees, and deliver $2 billion in savings to its shareholders. It’s worked: Pfizer earned net income of $16.3 billion last year. Yet US industry has lost a staggering $66 billion in domestic pharmaceutical production since 2010, and now operates at a $74 billion annual deficit. The vast majority of what we require, from aspirin to masks, must be imported.
The “why?” is easier than the solution. Pharmaceuticals, like most large industries, follow the dictates of the all-consuming market. Wall street asset managers own upwards of 70% of most publicly traded US pharmaceutical companies, thus enforcing, by threat of downward pressure on stock price and hence shareholder return, a brutal demand for efficiency. That efficiency is impossible absent conditions impermissible in an advanced Western economy. That’s not to say, however, that production could not be sustained in the United States had policy been different: the Swiss, notes a report for the Coalition for a Prosperous America, had a positive $51B trade balance in net pharmaceutical sales last year. But Swiss pharmaceutical companies aren’t mostly owned by investment managers simply chasing the highest premium return on capital. Our particular brand of capitalism and not the unconquerable flow of historical determinism has pushed our industrial muscle, so needed now, to distant shores.
Only now have Americans awoken to a virtual hostage situation when actual production is needed. Any attempted action to reshore and improve domestic capacity will result in the execution of the hostage by shareholders, reducing market cap and destroying the very capital necessary to rebuild domestic infrastructure. In our hour of need, tests, masks, even the very food we eat, are increasingly subject to the limits of the monopoly, and hence fragility demanded by modern capitalism. Limiting of global supply to only that which is absolutely necessary, the inability to surge production, is not an error — it is a feature sold to shareholders as efficiency. Efficiency in the light, perhaps, but scarcity in the shadows. If there’s any hope, it’s that addressing the final failure of this national myth may well have bipartisan support.
Not so our next failed myth. Rising inequality has been a generational story for Americans, but it has become the white noise of political discourse, always in the background in malign repose, but never addressed. The effect of COVID may well slam the accelerator pedal on its destructive effects and eviscerate once and for all the cherished myth of intraclass mobility. A recent chamber of commerce report stated that more than 40% of the country’s 30 million small businesses may close permanently over next six months; half of all Americans now say they or someone in their household has already lost a job, and unemployment is headed to Depression level percentages. The pain, however, is mostly one-sided, perfectly encapsulated by a CNN headline last week: “Dow climbs after worst jobs market report ever.” Americans knew that capital had decoupled from labor, but told themselves that capital still needed the almighty American market, and hence American consumers flush with dollars from jobs provided by capital, to survive. The early days of COVID suggest that capital has decoupled from consumption as well, in that its status no longer depends entirely, or even largely, on American consumers to purchase its products. Jeff Bezos’s net worth has gained $24 billion while Americans have been devastated by COVID, and lest anyone think that it’s just Amazon, the stock market’s April growth was the best month for investors in 33 years. Right-wing economists have for decades steadfastly donned the shredded garment of capital’s trickle down effects No longer is such an argument viable.
It’s not just economics. We have been forced to abandon our more esoteric beliefs in our national fabric, and ourselves as well. In the test of COVID, the consciously democratic virtues of self-effacement, modesty, and mental fortitude has suffered a mortal blow with each news report of Americans simply rebelling, without plan or patience, against medical necessity. It is no coincidence that disaffected white males, perhaps our most inexhaustible resource of which we are all exhausted, are leading the charge against stay at home orders. Carl Jung once wrote that “He is no hero who never met the dragon,” and in the red faced howls of defiance, we see the living embodiment of the emasculating effects of economic reality juxtaposed with a societal narrative that reinforces the self-importance of those ground up and cast aside by mechanization and outsourcing. Men were told after 9/11 that their patriotic duty was to shop, and now, a generation later, they are told that staying at home in compliant repose is the dragon we collectively must slay. But there is no cowboy, no individual hero, in the collective, and no masculine dominance in the classically feminine; from the President on down, face coverings are for pussies, sitting on the couch for cowards, and shopping is for ladies. Men show up to protests against an invisible virus with the cosplay of advanced weaponry, as if AR-15s, so lethal against kindergarteners, could subdue the ethereal. Jung also wrote that only he — always he- who fought the dragon “alone has a genuine claim to self-confidence, for he has faced the dark ground of his self and thereby has gained himself.” On the dark grounds of state capitols, white men clinging to the last refuge of masculinity act out the vain attempts to gain themselves against an enemy that cares nothing for their psychological torments. They see themselves as patriots preparing for war, but tantrum as protest, particularly in a manner so cavalier and so self-evidently counterproductive, reveals only the tangled roots of mental distress all too common in our fragile society.
Nor can we avert our eyes from the decline of our most cherished Enlightenment virtues. The paranoid style in American politics is a long-known blot on the face of democratic rationalism, but our age of know-nothing populism is ever-more fertile soil for planting and nurturing conspiracies. Tens of millions have viewed Plandemic and related conspiracy theories, making them perhaps the only element in American life more contagious than the virus itself. Plandemic posits a Mad Libs level of pan-national intrigue, linking Dr. Anthony Fauci, Bill Gates, and pharmaceutical companies in grand montage of premeditated intent. The population, hammered with right-wing noise about “elites” and shadowy “one world government” crushing their lives underfoot, have been far more prepared to absorb a worldwide conspiracy theory than actual facts. A generation ago, the 9/11 truthers occupied a similar place within American dissonance, and again, as Americans have been left exposed and defenseless to a faceless evil, their response has been to find the false comfort of conspiracy rather than the hard work of evidence-based critical thinking. In many ways, the decline of evidence to formulate belief rather than its converse should be unsurprising: as long ago as 2004, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa studied thousands of undergraduates and concluded in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, that student performance in many areas, especially critical thinking, was lagging.
But academia alone can’t bear the blame. Americans have been told for generations that our unique brand of capitalism will improve their own lives. They’ve been told to believe, against all evidence, that their vote made a difference, that settled science was open to interpretation, that they could rise by dint of their own hard work, that their failures to avoid the bankruptcy of unexpected medical bills or macroeconomic disasters were due to their own vices, and that, perhaps worst of all, that their children would live better lives than they would. Americans stopped believing in the stories they were told because adults don’t believe in fairy tales, and American life for the middle class on down became one big fairy tale — except in this ending, the princess doesn’t wake up from her slumber, because she can’t afford health insurance. Is it any wonder that, poorly educated and slammed by the continuous dissonance between what they’ve been told and what day to day life actually looked and felt, Americans wrapped themselves in the blanket of an all-encompassing conspiracy against their interests? Is it any wonder that at a time when evidence matters most, we’re living a different fairy tale — the boy who cried wolf- in which the townspeople simply don’t believe when an actual wolf is at their door because the lies that workers needed to swallow to prop up modern capitalism have rendered them incapable of separating the seeds of reality from the bucket of bullshit in which it has long been caged? Whatever the falsities in conspiracy, angry Americans intrinsically sense that a nurse will wear a recycled mask for longer than a global conglomerate will go without dirt cheap government funding, and in righteous rage seek a reason, any reason, to comprehend the incomprehensible; perhaps, the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.
As democracy requires critical thinking, our fragile republic may be the next domino to fall. Democracy relies upon the everyday bravery of its citizens — the bravery to stand in the streets, together, and shout truth to power; the bravery to wait in long lines, if necessary, to vote out failing leaders, and the bravery to create groups of likeminded citizens and pressure leaders to advance positive policy. All of these steps require togetherness, a unity harder to achieve via the ubiquitous zoom meeting or online hub- e pluribis unum never contemplated the internet as a substitute for the town hall. Events which force citizens to remain disparate entities, separate from each other and cowed in their homes dissipate democratic values: it is no coincidence that universities and labor unions have historically been at the heart of opposition to state authoritarianism. No fools in crisis, authoritarians have often used disasters, whether manmade or otherwise, to pluck leaves from the tree of liberty. Now, as ever, emergency is the handmaiden of fascism and opportunistically, a real emergency exists- we need no Reichstag Fire if we have the Wuhan Virus. Hungary, now fallen to dictatorship, is proof positive. The ubiquitous virus was pressed into service as justification for Fidesz’s enabling act, with the diabolical effect of banning groupings of citizens as a health requirement while simultaneously using the suspension of Parliament to pass laws that serve right wing interests unconnected to the virus: the first bill passed forces trans people to use the gender they were assigned at birth. Social Darwinism, the theory that the strong survive and rule by nature of such power, is endemic to classical and modern fascism. In the calls for the American worker to be brave, even if elderly or immunosuppressed citizens are cast into the abyss, we hear the distant echoes of early fascist thought that life is for the strong, not the weak: not for nothing were the disabled the first Nazi victims of organized mass murder. Lest they feel superior, Americans should be familiar with this argument — it is an ethical cousin of right-wing opposition to government supplied health care, voiced in the capitalist vernacular as opposition to higher taxes to fund government-run health care for the poor and disabled. Trump’s ban on immigration during the current crisis, much like Fidesz’s assault on sexual freedom, is simply further evidence of the determination of leadership to utilize real crisis to advance policies reflecting unrelated values that cannot pass during non-crisis times.
As COVID accelerates trends of democratic backsliding, the great incipient threat to democracy will be felt in the 2020 elections, which has already seen a dress rehearsal in the Wisconsin chaos that found the Supreme Court requiring Wisconsin to hold an in-person primary election in the guts of the pandemic. It may be that our final myth to die will be that of free and fair elections. With a President who claimed without a shred of evidence to be the victim of voting-day illegalities in an election he won, the combination of narcissism and unprecedented hurdles for voting is a toxic witches’ brew for delegitimization of voting results in a close election. Expansion of mail-in voting would seem to be a logical response, but in his inimical style, the President once again said the quiet part loud when he stated that mail-in voting “doesn’t work out well for Republicans,” a partisanship uber alles response that also explains his disinclination to fund the post office. Once a democracy reaches the stage where the President can state that he favors voters risking death to lessen his chance of defeat, and doesn’t suffer for it politically, we’ve reached a stage of fragility in the tensile strength of the people’s commitment to democracy that may well be irrevocable. Trump famously observed he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose any voters. Given his support among the elderly, a population uniquely susceptible to COVID, we now may test the proposition that he could shoot his own voters on 5th Avenue and not lose their support. That response may be unsurprising in a “he died loving Big Brother” dystopian state, but unimageable in America. Yet COVID requires us to imagine the unimaginable.
So, how does this end? We will emerge from our homes into a different world, but what will we demand as we survey the landscape? What will we cease to fight for, and what will we prize instead? A poorly understood external disintegrating solvent applied to a seemingly successful society is not an unprecedented event. The Great Depression forced Americans and Europeans alike to confront the limits of contemporary knowledge to alleviate mass suffering. COVID has been compared to the 1918 flu pandemic, but its societal effects more closely mimic the Depression’s roiling fury among the laboring classes and desperate cries for succor from a government unwilling or unable to meet the challenge. Then, Americans faced a choice, no less stark than those faced by their German counterparts, and rendered a very different verdict.
Whether we emerge from COVID with a new birth of freedom or a final nail in the coffin on the American century will not, bloviating press conferences be damned, be determined by the decisions of politicians. Whether the explosion of our cherished myths, the stark truth of our fragility will lead to a universalizing spirit of communalism or a retreat into authoritarianism and the false comfort of tribal solidarity can only be determined by we the people. We face the real life equivalent of the decision posed in the apocryphal tale of the two wolves: In the battle inside, between the wolf representing anger, envy, sorrow, greed, arrogance, and false pride on one hand, and the one representing courage, serenity, humility, empathy, generosity and truth on the other, it will be the wolf we feed that wins. After signing the Declaration, Benjamin Franklin remarked that “We must all hang together now, or most assuredly, we will all hang separately.” Almost two hundred and fifty years later, the same spirit exists. We can avert our eyes and pretend that COVID hasn’t exposed just how badly we have fractured, just how much remains unacceptable and unimaginable in American life. Or, instead, we can accept the reality, adjust our eyes to the fading light, and choose to work together. That means protecting our elections, however we must. It means finding bipartisan ground on reshoring production, and it means pushing back against the fringe elements of the nation which prefer the nihilism of tribal rage to the sobriety of science. The only way out that arrests the descent into darkness is to feed the aspects of our nature and our history that find strength in unity and reason, with egalitarian concern and support for those who have fallen and those who remain in danger, and with a righteous might that opposes those so-called leaders who view the public as a trough on which to feed rather than a constituency to serve. That choice is ours, collectively, and how we make it will determine how this ends.