US Capitalism Is In Total Meltdown

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Above photo: A plea for help appears on the roof of a home flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana, Sept. 4, 2005. Getty Images/ Robert Galbraith.

The COVID-19 pandemic is like Hurricane Katrina, but for the entire country.

And things are only going to get worse.

In 2005, when the federal, state, and local governments spectacularly failed the residents of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, there was a sense of shock from both inside and outside of the country. The triumphalist narrative that “There Is No Alternative”—that neoliberal capitalism was the best and indeed the only way to do things—got its first cracks there, when we saw people stuck on rooftops and others sheltering without food and water in the convention center and Superdome. 

Somehow reporters could get in, and private security firms like Blackwater patrolled the streets, but the government could not or would not deliver relief to the mostly Black and poor residents who had been unable to evacuate before the storm.

Many more cracks in capitalist realism—the name cultural theorist Mark Fisher memorably gave to the experience of living when it was easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism—sprouted during the 2008 financial crisis, when it could not be denied that capitalism itself was the problem, when even The Economist ran the headline “Capitalism at Bay.”

Much of the decade after the crash was made up of less telegenic personal tragedies, rather than the spectacular collapse that Katrina had been. In that decade, ten million or so—no, we don’t have exact numbers—lost their homes to foreclosure. But for too many of those people, eviction was a private shame. And the movement that sprang up to fight them saved too few, even when it did manage to make one family’s loss into the community’s struggle.

Nevertheless, capitalist realism held fast at the top layers of the ruling parties—yes, both of them—and still does, even as the meltdown proceeds apace. The COVID-19 pandemic is Katrina, but for the entire country, and its victims are also disproportionately Black and poor.

The catastrophic unemployment numbers were bad enough, but with the end of the $600-a-week expanded pandemic unemployment insurance looming at the end of this week, things are most certainly going to get worse. The eviction crisis, where as many as twenty-three million renters may soon lose their homes, could make the previous ten years look quiet by comparison.

It is no wonder that uprisings sprang up in this moment, and that they were led by Black youth, who have been America’s “canaries in the coal mine” for every crisis for more than a hundred years. And it is no surprise that our puffed-up President took the protests as a personal affront, and that he, as his compatriot Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton called for in an editorial in The New York Times, has sent in the troops.

The fact that snatch and grabs are no longer only happening to immigrants, that police beatings are not just in the Black neighborhoods but are happening in the middle of downtown (very white) Portland, Oregon, to a self-proclaimed Moms Bloc, among others, is shocking but also predictable—especially for those of us who have followed the increasing militarization of policing.

Fifty years ago, the Black Panthers were the target of the first big SWAT raid, and since then SWAT teams have spread into the suburbs. Time and again, state violence is first tested on troublemakers and in racialized communities, and then used on the rest of us.

Neither Trump nor the protesters intend to go down easily. But the organizations that blossomed from the last round of uprisings, from Ferguson to Baton Rouge, kept learning and building in the quieter times. And the mutual aid networks that have sprung up in the recent months threaded through the rebellions, providing care to the abandoned people in abandoned places.

As the crisis continues to get worse, the rebellions will grow. What other choice do people have? The burning of a police headquarters in Minneapolis might only be the beginning. Trump is threatening to send more federal troops into Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia—cities bigger than Portland, with much larger Black populations, cities that Trump has used as a metonym for the disorder he claims to oppose.

The eyes of the world, however, are now open to the degree of instability in the heart of what was once a global superpower. American troops have failed to quell insurgencies in their most recent external adventures and, if Portland is anything to go by, they are unlikely to succeed at home. Chicago, in particular, is the city that turned away a Trump rally and, even though its protesters are already being brutalized by their homegrown cops, they remain in the streets.

This week’s Strike for Black Lives, a massive walk-out action spanning 160 cities and many thousands of workers, according to its organizers, was a shot across the bow. While many of the participants were not actually on strike, we should see it as what union organizer Jane McAlevey calls a structure test—a demonstration of the potential chaos to be caused if this many workers did, in fact, go out on strike.

Unemployment has undoubtedly been one of the factors making this a season of unrest, and those supposedly in charge simply have no plan to do anything about it. The situation is more complicated than the last crisis, the Great Recession, for which the U.S. government had no plan—simply putting people back to work, when the pandemic is still rampant, is a recipe for mass death, and the protesters have already given their answer to that: hell no.

Capitalist realism may, in the coming months, finally get the stake in its heart it so richly deserves. But we should be clear-eyed about the size of the crisis that is roaring toward us, and what we will need to build to weather the worst of it. We have lived through nearly fifty years of the stripping away of what little security the American working class ever had, in a system that was never built for us to thrive.

We need to begin to construct what will replace it.

Sarah Jaffe is a regular contributor to The Progressive and a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, covering labor, economic justice, social movements, politics, gender, and pop culture. Find her on Twitter at @sarahljaffe.