Archive | March 20th, 2020

Corona Chronicles: Telegrams from Gotham


Photograph Source: Richard Eriksson – CC BY 2.0

Sitting in the East Village, drinking a coffee and trying to read a book, it was hard to ignore the rollicking conversation of liberal Boomers sitting an empty table or two behind me. What surprised me, but shouldn’t have, was the pedestrian character of the conversation. You might have scripted it for a Broadway show, had not the theater district been shuttered out of “an overabundance of caution.” We may soon find abundance wanting. Still the unceasing conversation roars ahead, unstoppable even as a malign pathogen thunders its way across the heartland.

First, there is the usual disdain for Trump. The standard detestations enunciated and agreed to by all and sundry. The ego! The self-interest! The unpreparedness! And, last but never least, the vulgarity! Then, of course, one of their number decides to speak up enthusiastically, even urgently, for Bernie. Why can’t he win? she asks plaintively. The others shift uneasily in their chairs. One of them, evidently the political savant, seems to speak for the rest with his reaction: a sad sigh, a cheeky grimace and a perfunctory raising of the eyebrows. Then he imparts the dark truth: America just isn’t ready yet for socialism. Others concur. The Sanders enthusiast tries a few more pointed remarks, with which everyone naturally agrees. Oh, yes, no doubt. System is corrupt. Democrats leave a lot to be desired. The corporate capture of Congress is criminal. But none of this penetrates the singular judgement of the bunch: we just aren’t there yet. Inevitably, one of the group declares that his real fear is that Trump will use the pandemic as an excuse to call off the election, provoking a fearful rumble at the table. One of the women hastily caveats this by noting that there are quite a lot of conspiracies floating around these days. Alarmed by the vision of Trumpian tyranny, they rapidly turn to reasons why Biden is a pragmatic and sensible choice, among them the lurid surmise that they’ll surround him with smart people, and so on. Mercifully, the conversation at last turns to the shocking spectacle of Italy…

Clash of the Cohorts

To be sure, Boomers have turned out en masse for Joe Biden during the primaries, crushing Bernie Sanders among older cohorts. They even outweigh, by virtue of their civic mindedness in showing up at the polling stations, the huge percentages by which Sanders wins younger voters, who flee from Biden as from a political pestilence.

Much contradictory and confusing data has emerged from the primaries. Like Boomers, a superabundance of African-Americans, from South Carolina to Detroit, voted for Biden, the author of the Clinton crime bill. According to some black commentators, this is because they have decided once again to vote Democrat regardless of the candidate, simply to stave off another four years of leaving the “White Man’s Party” in charge. This is their quadrennial calculus. At the same time, exit polls in twenty states showed, by huge margins, that voters support Medicare for All. Weigh this in the balance against exit polls that show discrepancies with the final tally that consistently negatively impact Sanders and positively impact Biden. Then add to that exit-polled voters in Michigan, Missouri, and Washington state who said they trusted Biden to handle a major crisis better than Sanders.

When it comes to the Biden-Sanders split in psychographic support, it would likely be impossible to separate this age-related disparity from the economic status of the voters. Boomers have the most wealth of any age bracket, Millennials the least. And what these well-intentioned but blase liberals appear to miss is what one CounterPuncher M.G. Piety nicely noted, namely, “…just how mad, in the sense of angry, the average American voter is. Epstiein writes that, ‘if you include those who have left the workforce altogether, the U.S. employment rate is almost as high as it was in 1931.’”

Piety goes on to quote Anne Case and Angus Deaton from Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, that “‘the amount Americans spend unnecessarily on health care weighs more heavily on our economy..than the Versailles Treaty reparations did on Germans in the 1920s.’”

Yet when the young express their anger and rage, they are chided as Bernie Bros who must learn to practice a more civil discourse with their wealthier, more comfortable elders. This feels more like the height of condescension than some principled appeal to decorum. In this milieu of rage and complacency jousting for supremacy, we are struck by the breathtakingly fast invasion of the coronavirus, or COVID19, whose epicenter is Washington state, but which crossed to clobber New York with forbidding speed.

Taking Advantage

As if this wasn’t unsettling enough, the news media seems to be launching one bizarre salvo after another over the fence into the public consciousness, raising the already surreal character of the last month. A few of these tales, set side by side, begin to baffle the clarifying capacities of the mind:

* Rather than attempt to settle fears, the American Hospital Association decides to issue a “Best Guess” that 480,000 Americans would or could die from COVID19. How many read ‘million’ into that guestimate before having to recalculate? Now that estimate has reached a million, 1.7M according to the CDC’s latest worst case scenario. For a society that receives daily infusions of sunny consumerism, such revelations are particularly disquieting.

* On the heels of this announcement, the Federal Reserve announces it plans to inject $1.5 trillion into the market to ameliorate investor fears. This eventually balloons to more than four trillion. Leftists instantly take to social media to remind us that homelessness could be eradicated with a tenth of that money. Scurrilous and defamatory exchanges immediately ensue.

* Trump declares a national emergency, opening up some $50 billion to leverage against the virus. After making the announcement, the press conference rather speedily devolves into a celebration of the president’s swift action in resolving another emergency, that of the American oil industry. Having instructed the government to buy oil from American energy companies, Trump hopes to stabilize the industry after Russia cut its legs out from beneath it by refusing to slash production as supply surges. Trump’s priorities–pleasing fellow billionaires over caring for the rabble–is visceral. Behind him a snow-haired, stone-faced Mike Pence nods assuringly. Climate action groups go ballistic.

* Democrat John Delaney tweets that now is not the time to argue about Medicare for All, but rather to focus on free universal testing and treatment for the virus. (Delaney fails to note that such extraordinary measures would be standard operating procedure under M4A.) He is immediately savaged by the twitterati, leaving the skeletal remains of his credibility to be picked over by vultures on the grassy plain of the web.

* In a show of magnanimous ignorance, John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, owned by the world’s richest man in Jeff Bezos, writes a tone-deaf letter to employees cheerfully announcing they can donate their unused sick days to virus-struck colleagues. Although he didn’t say it, he might have just added, “This ingenious little plan of mine will keep the company from shedding profits as your sacrifice will ensure all our wealthy shareholders are kept happily frozen in their cryogenic tanks.” Bezos, perhaps cognizant of Mackey’s folly, stays silent.

* With a voice vote, the House passes a new resolution demanding new sanctions and punitive measures against the “Ortega regime” of Nicaragua (which handily won certified elections). No Democrat even lifts a hand in protest, such is the bipartisan accord on American imperialism. This is rank and file groupthink.

* Later, the House refuses to pass a comprehensive sick pay bill, since rabidly laissez-faire Republicans don’t want it to apply to large companies, meaning only about 20 percent of workers will likely be covered by the legislation. Rather than passing the comprehensive bill and shaming the Republicans in the public eye, Democrats complacently revise it to meet Republican demands and vote it through. Pelosi celebrates, then later assures the country that should a theoretical vaccine be produced, it should, theoretically, be “affordable” for stricken citizens.

* The spinelessness of House Democrats reflects the economic status of their patrons and their professional-class supporters. These are not the ones who must use credit cards to meet their deductibles when they attempt to actually use their healthcare–if they are fortunate enough to have it. There is little concern among them that a Biden presidency would fail to even consider pressing for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, tuition-free college, debt forgiveness, a wealth tax, drug legalization, or any sensible pullback on foreign wars. Likely that last would be ramped up significantly under Biden, whose interventionist instincts are nearly the opposite of Trump’s hesitancy to engage in foreign wars unless pressured by the military and intelligence community. One gets the feeling that crisis management will be a large portfolio in a Biden administration.

* Word spreads that Trump was asked to step up preparations and testing for COVID19 in January but declined because it might harm his reelection chances. This rings true. He has also been in close contact with Brazilians who have tested positive for the virus, but declined to agree to get tested himself when asked by a brave reporter, soon to be banished from the White House press corps. Referring to himself in the third person, perhaps as a trinity, he says, “We are showing no symptoms, no symptoms at all.”

* The U.S. drops bombs on Iraq after holding Iranians responsible for attacking one of our occupation outposts north of Baghdad, which killed two Americans and a British soldier. This after the U.S. refused the Iraqi government’s demand that it quit the country, not unlike demands by Havana that the U.S. exit Guantanamo, also duly ignored. Meanwhile, Cubans send doctors to China and Chinese send health experts to Iraq to assist with virus prevention and treatment. No distinctions are drawn.

* During a pause in the action, several East Village bars appear to be full of rollicking revelers despite the city’s state of emergency. Like witless Romans frolicking just before the sacking. One might laud their joie de vivre in the face of the pandemic, were it not equally witless.

* In Tompkins Square Park a quartet plays John Coltraine while a medley of Boomers and Xers and Millennials sit on the benches, lazing and gazing at the pigeons and the crisp teal skies, soothed by the saxophone melodies. It feels like any other day in the park. Life, one hopes, rolls on.

* This stands in contrast to the ransacked shelves in Trader Joes and D’Agostino’s and CVS and Duane Reade, which look as if a human hurricane had swept through the aisles, as perhaps it had. A stray box of tissues lays on its side on an empty shelf, an aftermath still life. Dazed consumers, late to the party, stare at the emptied shelves, reading scotch-taped notices that begin, “Due to unprecedented demand…”

* The New York Times, the bible of the bourgeoisie, publishes a story about a super-hoarder. The man is shown standing in his garage: middle aged, gaunt, a day’s growth on his wan cheeks, a glum expression on his face, clad in baggy workout clothes, the standard-issue attire of men who have given up on their public appearance. His garage has been cleared of vehicles and crammed with storage shelves on which he has piled some 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. His gloomy demeanor is evidently owing to Amazon’s having banned him for price gouging. Now what would he do, now that his ingenious plan to get over on panicking Americans had been stopped in its tracks? (There was something wry in the fact that Amazon, the death-knell for a generation of neighborhood bookstores, was now taking punitive measures against a profiteering entrepreneur for having ruthlessly undercut the competition.)

* Meanwhile, six Democrats oppose a war powers resolution that the House passed and sent to the president’s desk, where he will obviously veto it. The party’s alliance with the intelligence community and ‘reformed’ neocons only betokens more of this kind of behavior from its ‘liberal’ members.

* Low-income minorities with little or no college education tend to stay away from the polls, undeceived by the tsunami of propaganda that slides over them weekly. It is the degreed professional class that are most vulnerable to the nattily attired arguments of the Paul Krugmans and David Brooks’ of the world. This gives the lie to the ceaseless vote shaming by livid liberals who smear #NeverBiden supporters as merely delusional bourgeoisie expressing their white privilege.

* To that end, a video of a once-candid Lawrence O’Donnell has been making the circuit of social media. The former Democratic consultant and current host of MSNBC’s ‘The Last Word’ is captured in a documentary declaring, quite vociferously, that the only way to force a party to move to the left is by denying them your vote, or at least making it clear you can and will deny them your vote. This elementary strategy is dismissed out of hand by Biden liberals, for whom O’Donnell is now a foot servant.

* Tulsi Gabbard, owner of a single delegate but banned from debates, continues to level clear-eyed critiques at the establishment, which it dutifully ignores. Gabbard is left like a woman on the Titanic shouting something about icebergs but drowned out by the tinkling piano and the high spirits of the drunken bacchanalia before her. She bravely accuses the intelligence community of interfering in elections when it claims Russian interference sans evidence, another elementary truth apparently unnoticed by tens of millions. She also calls for UBI to combat the economic effects of the coronavirus, a sad coda to Andrew Yang’s once-inspired campaign that has finally petered out on the front steps of Biden Mansion.

* Bernie Sanders, once again moving into movement-crushing mode, declares that he believes Joe Biden–”a friend of mine”–could defeat Donald Trump in the general. He likewise refuses to discuss the former VP’s evident cognitive decline in a weak pantomime of ‘taking the high road.’ This fealty to a party of which he is not a member will likely derail his momentum, as supporters see the outlines of another bitter fall materializing in their minds. For the Democratic establishment, Sanders must seem like a petulant child who acts out for months on end, only to hastily rehabilitate his behavior just as Christmas season arrives.

The Last Irony

Too many paradoxes to reckon with. And yet one more occurs. The nation is struck by a pandemic just as one of its presidential candidates is barnstorming around the country gathering steam for his universal healthcare proposal. And doubly so that as that same candidate fulminates about billionaires, reaching a bellowing crescendo, those selfsame elites blithely leverage the crisis to their advantage, occasionally even appealing to the destitute to become the mini-philanthropists of their own recovery. One could say it is ironic but, as a Julian Barnes character muses in one of his novels about such things, “as for coincidences in books–there’s something cheap and sentimental about the device; it can’t help always seeming aesthetically gimcrack.” Which is the problem here. All one can do in nonfiction is identify coincidences; in fiction one can create them. The ones above seem especially unsatisfying, always arrived at to the detriment of some voiceless majority. There is no justice in them, just a miscellany of abuse. I have heard whispers of how delicious an irony it would be for our blunderer-in-chief to be done in by his own incompetence, evicted from office by the electorate’s roaring disapproval of his handling of the pandemic. For some, that would apply a moral fix to the runaway injustice of his presidency. But this can only be hoped for, not invented.

Should we then leave irony to the Biden liberals? They certainly have the right mise en scene for it: tablesful of emptying wine bottles, glimmering cutlery forking singed scallops and bruised tenderloins between their polished ivories. Irony is, in some ways, a witty way to tie a bow on a conundrum, declare a riddle unsolvable, as it were, and forge ahead, conscience neatly salved with a political sanitizer that eliminates 99 percent of cognitive dissonance. And why not? Is not “CD”–as a frustrated friend finally labeled it in order to quit having to rewrite it every three sentences in his monograph on liberal failures–is not CD the real virus in this country, one we’ve long overlooked but that is, coincidentally, becoming painfully more obvious thanks to the advent of another nasty and menacing infection? Well, we’ll leave that to the wine cave enthusiasts. Time to sanitize the keyboard.

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Civilization Ruffled by Another Perfect Epidemiological Storm


Plague is defeated, detail of the “Column of the Plague” (Pestsäule), Graben, Vienna, Austria. Photograph Source: Jebulon – CC0

It is the beginning of the twenty-first century and most humans remain inhabitants of what James C. Scott calls the ‘Multispecies Resettlement Camp’ – the aggregation of men, women, children and their domesticated  plants and animals that was made possible by the development of agriculture. His book, Against the Grain – A Deep History of the Earliest States, 2017, takes a jaundiced look at sedentism – the staying put that initially gave rise to urban culture and that would, some millennia later, come to define modernity. This progression represents our understanding of the development of Western Civilization which we are accustomed to celebrate – or did, until a couple of months ago when we reaped its corollary of epidemiological terrorism. As city dwellers, and more broadly, as subjects of highly interdependent, globally connected states, we remain prey to the “chronic and acute infectious diseases that devastate the population again and again,” which Scott identifies as a primary characteristic of the very earliest states.

Scott’s ambit spans across the early states that emerged in Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and Egypt in around 2500 BCE, and a little later in the drainage basins of the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers in China.  But he extends his review of ‘civilized’ humanity to the moment, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, when urbanity at last predominated over its antithesis, the world of non-state peoples. For these barbarians, from the very beginnings of emergent states, and entirely beforehand, had always been vastly more populous.

We Americans are heirs to one of the last great ‘victories’ of the civilized world over the barbarian. That victory was won, initially, by our introduction of the myriad zoonoses – those diseases we share with our domestic animals – to which our habitual sedentism in the ‘Multi-Species Resettlement Camp’ have made us hosts. Scott writes, “Once a disease becomes endemic in a sedentary population, it is far less lethal, often circulating largely in a subclinical form for most carriers. At this point, unexposed populations having little or no immunity against this pathogen are likely to be uniquely vulnerable when they come into contact with a population in which it is endemic.” He notes that Native Americans had been “isolated for more than ten millennia from Old World pathogens” and succumbed in horrifying numbers to the diseases that the earliest colonists brought with them. It should be remembered, however, that Europeans were not themselves immune to novel infectious disease, having lost perhaps one-third to one-half of their population during medieval pandemics. Despite their partial epidemiological eradication, the more complete destruction of Native Americans populations required, as  Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz notes in, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States,  2014, “three hundred years of colonial warfare, followed by continued wars waged by the independent republics of the hemisphere.”

So, just as early states were reborn after repeated pandemics, medieval Europe survived debilitating plagues and Native Americans survived a concerted pathogenic assault beginning in the sixteenth century, the world will survive COVID-19. But in every case, the argument can be made that survival required a fundamental reevaluation of accustomed ways of life. Early states collapsed under the pressure of disease, but their surviving populations melted back into the world of un-taxed, non-state peoples whose support strategies included slash and burn cultivation, small scale horticulture, maritime foraging and hunting and gathering. After devastating early losses, Native Americans adopted both the firearms and the domestic animals of their oppressors. Now, after a limited die-off of vulnerable populations, survivors of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely fundamentally challenge the political calculus of the modern state.

But what is certain is that, for the foreseeable future, the preponderance of the global population will remain tax-paying creatures indebted to their particular continental state, entirely trapped for their livelihood within a global web of capitalist trade. We, as a species, have been domesticated as surely as we have functioned as the agents of plant and animal domestication. As Michael Pollan and others have remarked, we have become slaves to landscapes designed to provide us with a consistently abundant food supply. That dependence has been extended, at least since the mid-nineteenth century, to include a reliance on the state together with the corporations it embraces for our travel, entertainment, news and personal communication. We are faced, in the longue durée, not only with the collapse of states, or of empires, but with potential global, systemic disintegration. Perhaps it is unlikely that the-little-virus-that-could, COVID-19, will be the agent of that cataclysm, but it certainly constitutes one element in the decay of urban centers that Scott establishes as a characteristic of the ancient world.

Scott argues that the repeated collapse of early states was due to the rise of infectious diseases caused by crowding and the domestication of animals, to the ecological disaster caused by deforestation and the salinization of over-irrigated croplands, and to the practice of total war in which the population of the losing state was entirely captured as slaves and their urban infrastructure razed. It does not require a great deal of imagination to understand that the fragility of our current global civilization – a manifestation of hyper-sedentism, only compounded in its pathologies by the hyper-mobility of our work, trade and leisure – is similarly threatened, and that these threats are inextricably braided in a world of metastasizing diseases, climate catastrophe and habitat destruction together with extinction-grade military lethality.

In 1918-1920, the Spanish ‘flu impacted 25% of the global population of 1.8 billion and killed between 17 and 50 million people in three distinct waves of infection. Less than half a century later, in 1957-1958, Asian ‘flu killed a million people world-wide, including 116,000 Americans. In 1968, the Hong Kong Flu again killed over a million victims. HIV/AIDS was first identified in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1981 and has since killed 36 million people. It remains a virulent threat in sub-Saharan Africa where over 5% of the population is infected.

In a highly urbanized world, chronic and acute infectious diseases strike crowded populations again and again. Little has changed since humans elected to forgo survival strategies that ranged over a variety of ecological habitats for the concentrated production of grain and livestock in early states. Now we rely on agribusiness and factory farms to funnel food to endlessly conjoined urban, suburban and exurban developments. We wait helplessly for the latest vaccine while new strains of disease quietly gestate in fetid congeries of human habitation.

For Americans, a secondary impact of this latest epidemiological threat is the backgrounding of our concerns for global warming, for the apparent selection of a deeply flawed Democratic candidate for the Presidency in 2020, for the endless wars in support of Empire, and for all those other pressing issues that evaporate in the presence of impending death. The unfolding threat has already caused the cancellation of the American people’s other opiate of choice, national sporting events, disrupted travel, and will likely result in a broad economic recession. As we contemplate these trivial impacts, truly existential terror awaits.

We live in a world that is characterized by its epidemiological, ecological and political fragility. Its continued existence, our continued existence, is constantly at threat. Crises such as 9/11, Katrina, continent-spanning wildfires, and now COVID-19, that have so recently piled up across the globe, are not black swan events, appearing out of nowhere: they are manifestations of this inherent fragility.

While statism and its symptomatic urbanity have spread across the planet, barbarians are in full retreat, marginalized in the least propitious areas of the world. Their shrinking territorial base no longer represents a safe haven for those fleeing a failing civilization. Change must come from within, and it will be forced upon us through crisis. We are left to question, ‘Can COVID-19 be the one that, like Shiva, is the destroyer who ends this cycle of time and begins a new Creation?’

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Biden’s Health Care Plan Abandons Older Americans


Joe Biden has surged since the South Carolina primary, and the received wisdom is that this was mainly because of the perception by his voters that he was the most electable candidate against President Donald Trump. But there are some potential pitfalls that have not yet surfaced, and some of them concern voters who are currently among Biden’s strongest base of support: Americans over 65 years old.

Biden has proposed a plan for health care reform that has quite literally left senior citizens out in the cold.

This could become increasingly, and vitally, important as the threat of coronavirus increases exponentially. Older Americans are at a vastly higher risk than the general population; people over 65 have accounted for the vast majority of deaths in other countries.

His plan is basically an expansion of the ACA, or Obamacare. It proposes, for example, to increase the subsidies that the government will provide for people who buy private insurance under the program. It has also proposed a public option, run by the federal government, that people could buy into.When an American reaches the age of 65, he or she becomes eligible for Medicare. However, there are sizable gaps in the Medicare system that lower living standards for many senior citizens, and can even push them below the poverty line.

For example, Medicare does not pay for eyeglasses or hearing aids. It does not cover dental care. And it does not pay for long-term care. Although Medicaid, our federal and state public health insurance program for low-income Americans, does pay for long-term care, it only does so after someone has depleted their life savings, and is poor enough to qualify for Medicaid in the state in which they live.

Amazingly, the Biden plan doesn’t do anything to help seniors with any of these gaps in coverage under the current system. The only exception in Biden’s plan is his proposal for a non-refundable tax credit of $5,000 to pay for long-term care. But this tax credit won’t be available for the majority of the people on Medicare who would need it.

The gaps in Medicare are costly for senior citizens, most of whom have limited income. The median income for people on Medicare is about $26,000. On average, their out-of-pocket costs for spending on Medicare are more than $5400 per year; and there is no limit on out-of-pocket costs.These costs to people on Medicare would almost all be eliminated by Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All plan. It would cover eyeglasses and vision exams, dental care, hearing aids and other important medical needs now excluded by traditional Medicare.

Biden’s health care is deficient in other important ways for much of the rest of the population. Unlike, for example, Sanders’ proposal for Medicare for All, the Biden plan does not establish health care as a right for all Americans. Instead, it proposes to increase subsidies so that the maximum percentage of their income that people will pay for insurance on the individual marketplace will be lowered from 9.86 to 8.5 percent. But millions of Americans would still fall through the cracks.

As a political matter, Americans over 65 have some electoral clout because their participation in elections is much higher than that of other demographic groups. Biden has supported serious cuts to Social Security benefits for decades, as recently as 2013; Sanders, by contrast, has opposed such cuts and fought for increased Social Security benefits since he entered Congress nearly 20 years ago, and even before that. Biden now supports increasing Social Security benefits, although not nearly as much as Sanders.

But hardly anyone has heard of the vast difference between the two candidates on the health care, income and poverty of Americans over 65. These voters would understandably take much more interest in these differences, if they were aware of them. They are much more at risk in the coming months, as compared to previously, of needing urgent medical care — as the coronavirus spreads.

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The Socialist Specter in Present-Day US Politics


Photograph Source: Poster Boy – CC BY 2.0

The US political scene is haunted by talk of socialism. The basis for this has been developing now for some years, especially since the financial meltdown of 2008, which many came to see as decisive proof that a capitalist economy does not serve the majority.

But how does this new mass perception express itself? On the one hand, there is wide recognition of the grotesque level of inequality, as expressed in the slogan – made popular by the 2011 Occupy movement – of “the 1% vs. the 99%.” But on the other hand, people are bombarded with conflicting definitions of socialism, and uncertainty is rife.

The dominant tendency in US political rhetoric is to view socialism not as the dissolution of capitalist class-relations, but rather as an expansion of the scope of government. A favorite strategy of those – like Bernie Sanders – whose proposals are attacked as being socialist is to respond by denouncing billionaires as benefiting, via government subsidies, from so-called “corporate socialism” or “socialism for the rich.”

Socialism is thus equated with government subsidies rather than with an alternative vision of society. While the privately owned banks and corporations are attacked for their hypocrisy and their special advantages, there is no assertion that such icons of capitalist power should cease to exist.

Similarly, the target of attack, in Sanders’ rhetoric, is not the capitalist class but rather the “billionaire class.” Capitalism as such escapes the blame.

At the same time, full socialism (i.e., dissolution of the capitalist class and socialization of its holdings) is attacked as being inherently undemocratic. In this sense, when Sanders calls his socialism “democratic,” what he’s telling us is that it remains embedded within basic capitalist institutions. Regimes of full public ownership are presumed to be inherently authoritarian.

Sanders thus treads a fine line between advocating and denouncing the fundamental change that a fully socialist program would entail. On the one hand, he tells us that there should be no billionaires, but on the other, he implies that a system that would preclude those billionaires would be undemocratic and therefore unacceptable.

But the problem with a system that generates billionaires is not only that it entails vast inequality and poverty. This system – the rule of private and corporate capital – also fosters the permanent economic expansion that is driving the planet to environmental breakdown.

What saving the planet requires, and what full public ownership makes possible, is a deepening of democracy: its extension into spheres of activity – notably production decisions at every level – from which capital excludes it.

It is precisely such deepening of democracy that capital most fears. Hence the panic of the US political Establishment at any hint of a move in that direction. Because its own powers are threatened, the capitalist class wants us to think that all freedoms are endangered.

We have to note that in the actual history of socialism, repressive practices have at times extended beyond just targeting capitalist resistance, to quashing dissent more broadly. But while acknowledging this, we must analyze the reasons for it. We should not be surprised to find in such conduct the persistence of past social habit – both capitalist and pre-capitalist – in which hierarchy and repression are built in.

In current US debate, however, corporate politicians and media are so rabid in their opposition to socialism that they try to prevent us from knowing any positive achievements of socialist regimes. Thus, merely to recognize Cuba’s successes in public health and education elicits accusations of being hostile to democratic principles. Such charges betray a fear of facts that, if they became known, could alert people to the real possibility of a better world.

The corporate media play a huge role in keeping such an alternative beyond public purview. They thereby skew political debate, giving unfair advantage to politicians who seek to tap popular discontent by uttering platitudes rather than facing the enormity of what needs to be undertaken for the sake of our common survival.

Long-held assumptions about public priorities must be overturned. Moves in this direction have already occurred, as shown in a new openness on the part of young people toward socialist ideas. But the process must extend itself far and wide and deep. An electoral campaign can be part of it. But whatever the outcome of any particular campaign, the old habits and assumptions – backed by state and vigilante violence – will remain a permanent threat.

In response, we will need to draw on all the cultural resources bequeathed to us by generations of human creativity, reflection, struggle, and community.

Just as the mega-expansion of capitalist operations has brought on epochal disruption of the world’s eco-system, so a previously unimaginable deepening of human cooperation – dissolving class antagonism and crossing all other social boundaries – will have to be brought forth in response.

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Under Capitalism, Every Plague Has a Silver Lining


Photograph Source: Dan Zen – CC BY 2.0

However grave the calamity, someone will see it as a way to make a buck. COVID-19, which the World Health Organization declared as a global pandemic on March 11, is no exception. Forget about human misery. The private sector and the Trump Administration see the coronavirus as an opportunity. Because under capitalism, every plague has a silver lining.

Have We Got a Cure for You!

Sometimes, the lining is literal silver. The televangelist James Bakker has been hawking a quack nostrum called Optivida Silver Solution containing tiny particles of the precious metal as a cure for the coronavirus. Bakker will sell you a 16 ounce bottle of the stuff for the low, low price of $24.95.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control, however, stress that the coronavirus has no cure at this time. When a cure is found, you can bet silver won’t be it. The National Institutes of Health warn that colloidal silver “can cause serious side effects.” These include (I kid you not) turning a long-term user’s skin blue.

Missouri has already brought a lawsuit against Bakker for fraud. The New York State Attorney General, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Food and Drug Administration also have told Bakker to stop selling Silver Solution. Bakker spent five years in prison for fraud from 1989-1994. Doubtless, Bakker does not want to repeat the experience, because when I checked his website I couldn’t find Silver Solution for sale.

Alex Jones, gravel-voiced whackmobile of the far right is also under fire. Jones is perhaps worst known for claiming that the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School which left 26 students and staff dead was a “hoax.” Jones has long peddled nutritional supplements of questionable health value. On March 13, under the headline “Alex Jones Is Told to Stop Selling Sham Anti-Coronavirus Toothpaste,” the New York Times reported that the New York State Attorney General has ordered that Jones stop promoting products which Jones claims “kill,” “prevent,” or “cure” COVID-19. The products include DNA Force Plus supplements, Silversol products (another purveyor of colloidal silver), and Superblue toothpaste.

Jones endorses a fringe claim that the coronavirus is “man-made” and was “developed in a laboratory setting,” possibly as a bioweapon. Jones has even speculated that President Donald Trump may have created the virus. To which I say: don’t try to make friends with me, Alex.

In addition to Bakker and Jones’ wares, there are teas, essential oils, herbal products, and tinctures claimed to cure or prevent infection with COVID-19. The New York Times‘ March 13 story on Alex Jones said that “So far, a federal task force has helped remove more than three dozen listings of at least 19 products [from the Internet].” In Russia, Israel, and Iran, authorities have gone after vendors of magic amulets claimed to ward off the virus.

“Modern Malthuses”

Just like James Baker and Alex Jones, the eyes of the ruling class look at the coronavirus pandemic and see opportunity. Trump Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, a Goldman Sachs alum, heralds the coronavirus as “a great investment opportunity.” Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross told the Fox Business Network that the outbreak of COVID-19 in China would “help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America.” (It is more likely that manufacturing that leaves China will head to other countries in Asia.)

The two men’s chipper remarks come not just during a pandemic, but as the stock market is tanking. As of March 16, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has plunged 30% from its February 12 high, entering bear market territory, and no one thinks that the worst—either in the economy or hospital beds—is over. Working from four different scenarios, the Centers for Disease Control project that anywhere from 160 to 214 people in the US could become infected with the coronavirus. As many as 21 million people in the US may require hospitalization, whereas the New York Times cites data from the American Hospital Association that the US “has only about 925,000 staffed hospital beds.”

Public health authorities are telling people to stay home and avoid work and public places. For millions of Americans who cannot afford to lose a paycheck this is impossible. Unlike other developed nations, the US does not guarantee a right to paid sick leave. Mnuchin and Ross, however, don’t have to worry. According to Forbes magazine, Mnuchin and Ross have a net worth of $400 million and $600 million dollars respectively.

The elderly are the most likely to die from COVID-19. Even this has an upside. In his March 13 “Roaming Charges” column, Jeffrey St. Clair, co-editor of CounterPunch, quotes Jeremy Warner, “business” writer for the UK Telegraph: “From an entirely disinterested economic perspective, COVID-19 might even prove mildly BENEFICIAL in the long term by disproportionately CULLING elderly dependents.” This is heartless, but under capitalism, absolutely true. The Marxist economist Michael Roberts calls Warner a “Modern Malthus.” The Reverend Thomas Malthus, author of An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), “argued that there were too many ‘unproductive’ poor people in the world and regular plagues and disease were necessary and inevitable to make economies more productive.” That was capitalism then, and it’s capitalism now. Capitalism believes the used-up, “unproductive” elderly should drop dead. Thanks to COVID-19, they are.

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‘Zionist’ Biden in His Own Words: ‘My Name is Joe Biden, and Everybody Knows I Love Israel’


Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

“I am a Zionist. You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist,” current Democratic Presidential candidate, Joe Biden, said in April 2007, soon before he was chosen to be Barack Obama’s running mate in the 2008 elections.

Biden is, of course, correct, because Zionism is a political movement that is rooted in 20th-century nationalism and fascism. Its use of religious dogmas is prompted by political expediency, not spirituality or faith.

Unlike US President, Donald Trump, or Bernie Sanders, Biden’s only serious opponent in the Democratic primaries, Biden’s stand on Israel is rarely examined.

Trump has made his support for Israel the cornerstone of his foreign policy agenda since his inauguration into the White House in January 2017. The American President has basically transformed into Israel’s political genie, granting Tel Aviv all of its wishes in complete defiance of international law.

Sanders, on the other hand, came to represent the antithesis of Trump’s blind and reckless support for Israel. Himself Jewish, Sanders has promised to restore to the Palestinian people their rights and dignity, and to play a more even-handed role, thus ending decades of US unconditional support and bias in favor of Israel.

But where does Biden factor into all of this?

Below is a brief examination of Biden’s record on Palestine and Israel in recent years, with the hope that it gives the reader a glimpse of a man that many Democrats feel is the rational alternative to the political imbalances and extremism of the Trump administration.

August 1984: Palestinians and Arabs are to Blame

Biden’s pro-Israel legacy began much earlier than his stint as a vice-President or presidential candidate.

When Biden was only a Senator from Delaware, he spoke at the 1984 annual conference of ‘Herut Zionists of America’. Herut is the forerunner of Israel’s right-wing Likud party.

In his speech before the jubilant right-wing pro-Israel Zionist crowd, Biden derided the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Arab governments, for supposedly derailing peace in the Middle East.

Biden spoke of “three myths (that) propel U.S. policy in the Middle East” which, according to the American Senator, are, “the belief that Saudi Arabia can be a broker for peace, the belief that King Hussein (of Jordan) is ready to negotiate peace, and the belief that the Palestine Liberation Organization can deliver a consensus for peace.”

April 2007: ‘I am a Zionist’

Time only cemented Biden’s pro-Israel’s convictions, leading to his declaration in April 2007 that he is not a mere supporter of Israel – as has become the standard among US politicians – but is a Zionist himself.

In an interview with Shalom TV, and despite his insistence that he does not need to be Jewish to be a Zionist, Biden labored to make connections with the ‘Jewish State’, revealing that his son is married to a Jewish woman and that “he had participated in a Passover Seder at their house,” according to the Israeli Ynet News.

March 2013: ‘Qualitative Edge’

This commitment to Israel became better articulated when Biden took on greater political responsibilities as the US vice-president under Obama’s administration.

At a packed AIPAC conference in March 2013, Biden elaborated on his ideological Zionist beliefs and his president’s commitment to ‘the Jewish state of Israel’. He said:

“It was at that table that I learned that the only way to ensure that it could never happen again was the establishment and the existence of a secure, Jewish state of Israel. I remember my father, a Christian, being baffled at the debate taking place at the end of World War II ..” that any country could object to the founding of Israel on the ruins of the Palestinian homeland.

“That’s why we’ve worked so hard to make sure Israel keeps its qualitative edge in the midst of the Great Recession. I’ve served with eight Presidents of the United States of America, and I can assure you, unequivocally, no President has done as much to physically secure the State of Israel as President Barack Obama.”

December 2014: ‘Moral Obligation’

In one of the most fiercely pro-Israel speeches ever given by a top US official, Biden told the annual Saban Forum at the Brookings Institution in Washington on December 6, 2014, that, “If there weren’t an Israel, we would have to invent one”.

In his speech, Biden added a new component to the American understanding of its relationship with Israel, one that goes beyond political expediency or ideological connections; a commitment that is founded on “moral obligation”.

Biden said, “We always talk about Israel from this perspective, as if we’re doing (them) some favor. We are meeting a moral obligation. But it is so much more than a moral obligation. It is overwhelmingly in the self-interest of the United States of America to have a secure and democratic friend, a strategic partner like Israel. It is no favor. It is an obligation, but also a strategic necessity.”

April 2015: ‘I Love Israel’

“My name is Joe Biden, and everybody knows I love Israel,” Biden began his speech at the 67th Annual Israeli Independence Day Celebration held in Jerusalem in April 2015.

“Sometimes we drive each other crazy,” the US vice-president said in reference to disagreements between Israel and the US over Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to halt construction of illegal Jewish settlements.

“But we love each other,” he added. “And we protect each other. As many of you heard me say before, were there no Israel, America would have to invent one. We’d have to invent one because … you protect our interests like we protect yours.”

July 2019: US Embassy Stays in Jerusalem

In response to a question by the news website, AXIOS, which was presented to the various Democratic party candidates, on whether a Democratic President would relocate the American embassy back to Tel Aviv, the Biden campaign answered:

“Vice President Biden would not move the American embassy back to Tel Aviv. But he would re-open our consulate in East Jerusalem to engage the Palestinians.”

October 2019: Support for Israel Unconditional

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on October 31, 2019, Biden was asked whether he agrees with the position taken by his more progressive opponent, Bernie Sanders, regarding US financial support to Israel and Jewish settlement.

Sanders had said that, “if elected president he would leverage billions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Israel to push Jerusalem to change its policies toward the Palestinians,” The Hill news website reported.

Biden’s response was that, “ .. the idea that we would draw military assistance from Israel, on the condition that they change a specific policy, I find to be absolutely outrageous. No, I would not condition it, and I think it’s a gigantic mistake. And I hope some of my candidates who are running with me for the nomination — I hope they misspoke or they were taken out of context.”

March 2020: ‘Above Politics, Beyond Politics’

Biden’s fiery speech before the pro-Israel lobby group, AIPAC, at their annual conference in March 2020, was a mere continuation of a long legacy that is predicated on his country’s blind support for Israel.

Biden’s discourse on Israel – a mixture of confused ideological notions, religious ideas and political interests – culminated in a call for American support for Israel that is “above politics and beyond politics”.

“Israelis wake up every morning facing an existential threat from their neighbors’ rockets from Gaza, just like this past week .. That’s why I’ve always been adamant that Israel must be able to defend itself. It’s not just critical for Israeli security. I believe it’s critical for America’s security.”

Palestinians “need to end the rocket attacks from Gaza,” Biden also said. “They need to accept once and for all the reality and the right of a secure democratic and Jewish state of Israel in the Middle East.”

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Stop Tightening the Screws: a Humanitarian Message on Sanctions


Photo: Campaign for Peace and Democracy, 2013.

U.S. sanctions against Iran, cruelly strengthened in March of 2018, continue a collective punishment of extremely vulnerable people. Presently, the U.S. “maximum pressure” policy severely undermines Iranian efforts to cope with the ravages of COVID-19, causing hardship and tragedy while contributing to the global spread of the pandemic. On March 12, 2020, Iran’s Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif urged member states of the UN to end the United States’ unconscionable and lethal economic warfare.

Addressing UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Zarif detailed how U.S. economic sanctions prevent Iranians from importing necessary medicine and medical equipment.

For over two years, while the U.S. bullied other countries to refrain from purchasing Iranian oil, Iranians have coped with crippling economic decline.

The devastated economy and worsening coronavirus outbreak now drive migrants and refugees, who number in the millions, back to Afghanistan at dramatically increased rates.

In the past two weeks alone, more than 50,000 Afghans returned from Iran, increasing the likelihood that cases of coronavirus will surge in Afghanistan. Decades of war, including U.S. invasion and occupation, have decimated Afghanistan’s health care and food distribution systems.

Jawad Zarif asks the UN to prevent the use of hunger and disease as a weapon of war. His letter demonstrates the  wreckage caused by many decades of United States imperialism and suggests revolutionary steps toward dismantling the United States war machine.

During the United States’ 1991 “Desert Storm” war against Iraq, I was part of the Gulf Peace Team, – at first, living at in a “peace camp” set up near the Iraq-Saudi border and later, following our removal by Iraqi troops, in a Baghdad hotel which formerly housed many journalists. Finding an abandoned typewriter, we melted a candle onto its rim, (the U.S. had destroyed Iraq’s electrical stations, and most of the hotel rooms were pitch black). We compensated for an absent typewriter ribbon by placing a sheet of red carbon paper over our stationery. When Iraqi authorities realized we managed to type our document, they asked if we would type their letter to the Secretary General of the UN. (Iraq was so beleaguered even cabinet level officials lacked typewriter ribbons.) The letter to Javier Perez de Cuellar implored the UN to prevent the U.S. from bombing a road between Iraq and Jordan, the only way out for refugees and the only way in for humanitarian relief. Devastated by bombing and already bereft of supplies, Iraq was, in 1991, only one year into a deadly sanctions regime that lasted for thirteen years before the U.S. began its full-scale invasion and occupation in 2003. Now, in 2020, Iraqis still suffering from impoverishment, displacement and war earnestly want the U.S. to practice self-distancing and leave their country.

Are we now living in a watershed time? An unstoppable, deadly virus ignores any borders the U.S. tries to reinforce or redraw. The United States military-industrial complex, with its massive arsenals and cruel capacity for siege, isn’t relevant to “security” needs. Why should the U.S., at this crucial juncture, approach other countries with threat and force and presume a right to preserve global inequities? Such arrogance doesn’t even ensure security for the United States military. If the U.S. further isolates and batters Iran, conditions will worsen in Afghanistan and United States troops stationed there will ultimately be at risk. The simple observation, “We are all part of one another,” becomes acutely evident.

It’s helpful to think of guidance from past leaders who faced wars and pandemics. The Spanish flu pandemic in 1918-19, coupled with the atrocities of World War I,  killed 50 million worldwide, 675,000 in the U.S. Thousands of female nurses were on the “front lines,” delivering health care. Among them were black nurses who not only risked their lives to practice the works of mercy but also fought discrimination and racism in their determination to serve. These brave women arduously paved a way for the first 18 black nurses to serve in the Army Nurse Corps and they provided “a small turning point in the continuing movement for health equity.”

In the spring of 1919, Jane Addams and Alice Hamilton witnessed the effects of sanctions against Germany imposed by Allied forces after World War I. They observed “critical shortages of food, soap and medical supplies” and wrote indignantly about how children were being punished with starvation for “the sins of statesmen.”

Starvation continued even after the blockade was finally lifted, that summer, with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Hamilton and Addams reported how the flu epidemic, exacerbated in its spread by starvation and post-war devastation, in turn disrupted the food supply. The two women argued a policy of sensible food distribution was necessary for both  humanitarian and strategic reasons. “What was to be gained by starving more children?” bewildered German parents asked them.

Jonathan Whitall directs Humanitarian Analysis for Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors without Borders. His most recent analysis poses agonizing questions:

How are you supposed to wash your hands regularly if you have no running water or soap? How are you supposed to implement ‘social distancing’ if you live in a slum or a refugee or containment camp? How are you supposed to stay at home if your work pays by the hour and requires you to show up? How are you supposed to stop crossing borders if you are fleeing from war? How are you supposed to get tested for #COVID19 if the health system is privatized and you can’t afford it? How are those with pre-existing health conditions supposed to take extra precautions when they already can’t even access the treatment they need?

I expect many people worldwide, during the spread of COVID – 19,  are thinking hard about the glaring, deadly inequalities in our societies, wonder how best to extend proverbial hands of friendship to people in need while urged to accept isolation and social distancing. One way to help others survive is to insist the United States lift sanctions against Iran and instead support acts of practical care. Jointly confront the coronavirus while constructing a humane future for the world without wasting time or resources on the continuation of brutal wars.

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On the Front Lines of the Coronavirus Pandemic: A Doctor’s View


Coronavirus has officially hit the United States. Throughout the country, there have been anywhere between 1600 and 3600 confirmed cases and 41 deaths. This number is likely a gross underestimate of the actual number of cases, as the U.S. has only tested a small proportion of the population. Meanwhile, top health officials in Ohio estimate 100,000 people could have potentially already been infected with the virus. Researchers at Johns Hopkins estimate there could be between 50,000 and half a million cases in the U.S. at this time, and that number only looks like it will grow. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and top member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, recently stated it’s possible millions could die in the United States. I hope that we do not see things get worse in the U.S., but based on what I personally have seen and what my colleagues report, I cannot help but believe things will get worse than they are now.

Take it from a U.S. physician working on the ground in communities hit by COVID-19: the U.S. is woefully unprepared for this pandemic. During a recent press conference, after being pressed around the limited availability of coronavirus test kits, Dr. Fauci said, “The system does not — is not really geared to what we need right now, what you are asking for. That is a failure.” The U.S. has only been able to test five individuals per million, while South Korea has tested more than 3,500 per million people. This is largely due to the fact that the U.S. declined to use WHO tests used around the rest of the world.

Testing is not the only place where the U.S. is lacking. It has been reported in multiple outlets that there are critical shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) for health providers, ventilators, and ICU beds. These shortages are especially concerning, as they risk overwhelming critical care sectors of the healthcare system. Nurses, physicians, and other healthcare workers on the front lines are speaking out about what they need to provide adequate care, but the system is unable to respond. It appears these cries are falling on deaf ears. The U.S. healthcare system has always been horrid, but this pandemic is serving as a magnifying glass to expose its multiple failures.

Corona Overwhelming Other Countries

While COVID-19 has hit over 140 countries, we can see the extent to which it can overwhelm a healthcare system by looking at a country like Italy. The Italian healthcare system, which ranks second in quality in the entire world, has been completely overburdened by the virus. It was recently reported that the virus claimed 368 new deaths on Sunday, which was the largest 24 hour increase in the country to date. The country has over 21,000 cases as of today, and physicians on the ground are reporting there are simply too many patients for each of them to receive adequate care. Recently, the Italian College of Anesthesia, Analgesia, Resuscitation and Intensive Care (SIAARTI) even published guidelines likening decisions physicians may face to “wartime triage” deciding who lives and who dies. Physicians in Italy are reporting that up to 80 percent of hospital beds in some provinces are occupied by coronavirus patients, and intensive care units are completely overloaded and short of supplies.

The strain the coronavirus causes on health systems also leads to increased deaths from other illnesses not related to coronavirus. There are stories around the world of patients with various illnesses such as cancer that are turned away from care. Other acute and chronic illnesses do not take a break during viral pandemics such as this. In other parts of the world such as China, the strain is not just leading to deaths of patients, but also medical workers dying from a combination of infection and fatigue.

There is potential for this same tragic dynamic to play out in the U.S., but in an even worse fashion given our disjointed profit-centered model of care. As discussed in a recent analysis published on, the U.S. has about 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people — with a population of around 330 million, 1 million total hospital beds. While the number of patients needing hospitalization vary in reports depending on the country, anywhere from 50 percent (Italy) to 15 percent (China) of patients required hospitalization. Based on the rates of spread in the U.S., even if 10 percent of patients required hospitalization, hospital beds would be filled by May. This is not to mention the drastic drain on supplies that such a rate of infection would put on the U.S. healthcare system.

Healthcare Workers Already Noticing Shortages

The Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services has been extremely behind on ensuring healthcare workers have the necessary supplies to treat the large number of patients that will be coming to hospitals in the near future. For example, they only recently issued a request for contracts for 500 million face masks to help protect workers against the virus when seeing patients. The proposals for these contracts are not due back until March 18th. Requests for information around available medical gowns, masks, respirators, etc. from the Domestic Strategic National Stockpile’s Office of Resource Management are not even due back until March 24th. These clearly serve as delays in a time of crisis, when delays and shortages mean increased viral transmission, increased spread of illness, and increased death.

Short supplies of protective masks are hitting hospitals around the country. Staff must often obtain management approval before using N95 masks used to protect against airborne pathogens. In one New York hospital, management advised staff to “reuse” N95 masks with a distributed document saying “N95 masks will be reused by staff until they are soiled, moist, or compromised,” and to obtain a new mask an associate must “request a mask from their supervisor.” Policies such as this one pose great risk of infection for healthcare workers, who would then potentially spread the infection to patients. It doesn’t stop at the special N95 masks, nurses in Chicago are now even reporting they are even running out of regular surgical masks, which is unconscionable in a healthcare setting. I’m part of a discussion group of health care workers; a nurse in New York City recently contacted us, saying, “Ok, so now we get two masks each and that’s it!!! WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON????” That is a great question.

The U.S. has had months to prepare for this pandemic. From the outset, there should have been a mass mobilization of mask production, ventilation production, and PPE (protective personal equipment, e.g., masks, gowns, gloves, face shields, etc.) production. There should have also been a conversion of buildings or building of new sites for ICU beds, but capitalism is showing it is incapable of mobilizing adequately. Around the world, other countries are taking drastic measures to fight the virus. In Spain, they have even decided to even take over private industries that are putting profits over patient lives. In the U.S., we are seeing “requests” and “contracts” for money to be funneled into inefficient for-profit companies that cannot and will not respond fast enough, while the government leaders and media pundits continue to tout the brilliance of “public-private partnerships.”

Confusion from Management

Even the type of mask to be used for COVID-19 patients has been up for debate. Hospital administrations direct staff to use regular surgical masks, eyeshields, and PPE for suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases because according to CDC guidelines, N95 masks should only be worn for “aerosol generating procedures.” This concerns many healthcare workers because at least one study in conjunction with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but yet to be peer reviewed, suggests that the coronavirus can survive in the air, which would necessitate N95 masks. Healthcare workers speculate the laxity in recommendations results from hospital administrations attempting to save the already short supply of N95 masks.

These issues, along with poor lines of communication resulting from the highly bureaucratized and corporatized U.S. healthcare system, have led to confusion, delays in care, and even some healthcare workers being exposed. As one worker recently shared with me:

I’m an RN in a MICU in New York. We currently have 3 positives on unit. There has been a lot of fear regarding lack of equipment and PPE [protective personal equipment]. Throughout our facility we have found no plans in place for this. The union has been working on demands. One of the things that has been most difficult is the discussion… is it droplet or airborne. Our institution has gone back and forth, provided misinformation about masks and appropriate PPE. Over the last week we have been told re-use masks. Last night they said the rooms no longer need airborne precaution and only droplet/contact precautions needed. Now, at 11am they have placed the rooms back on airborne.

We are worried they have exposed a lot of us. They aren’t testing a handful of people who might be positive.

Masks (droplet/surgical vs. airborne/respirator) are not the only problem. ICU beds around the country are quickly filling. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently stated that 80 percent of ICU beds in the state are occupied. While hospitals rightfully attempt to make more space on units, administrations have been reported converting units to handle ICU level patients without first ensuring nurses are comfortable or trained to handle the care involved with such patients. As reported, nurses throughout the country are already chronically understaffed due to capitalists continually trying to cut staff as much as possible to lower costs and increase profits.

Hospital administrations have repeatedly ignored nurses’ calls for safe staffing ratios, which, if instituted, would have made handling a pandemic more tolerable. Now, around the country they are scrambling, putting out calls for retired nurses to return to work to help fill staffing gaps. Capitalists’ consistent push for profits is now coming home to roost, manifesting as staff shortages during this crisis.

All Staff at Risk

And it’s not only nurses being harmed under these poor working conditions. Resident physicians, supervising/attending physicians, medical assistants, technicians, and other front line healthcare staff are also at risk. Patient care associates — these are often the individuals who take vital signs and perform other crucial services — in hospitals in New York City have noted the absence of training in protecting against the virus. One recently stated, “We haven’t gotten any training. The N95 respirators are on lockdown. They can only be used for ‘more serious cases.’”

Resident physicians, who often work 80+ hours per week in the hospitals, are at particular risk. While many residency training programs across the country are now appropriately pulling residents off of “nonessential rotations,” so they can be prepared to respond to the crisis, many working on the front lines are put at risk. As per a resident who recently contacted me:

We have a patient that is being admitted for pneumonia but her story sounds really good for COVID-19. I called the infection control line and they were like “This line is only for attendings only. Call your attending if you want to challenge it.” They’re not doing shit to protect us if I can’t say “I think a patient should be reconsidered for a COVID rule out” and have them seriously discuss it as one.

Decisions such as these put staff on the front lines at risk of contracting and subsequently spreading COVID-19 to other patients and staff.

COVID-19 Magnifies Capitalism’s Rot in Healthcare System

What is currently unfolding in the U.S. is what happens when you develop a healthcare system predicated around extracting profit from sick bodies — one that continually attempts to drive down costs whenever possible. A system that only reacts to disease instead of preventing disease. Dr. Fauci stated that our “system is not built for this,” but healthcare workers dedicated to treating patients have been condemning this system for years. Our healthcare system has always been a complete disaster, but a pandemic like this just magnifies that fact. We not only need a new healthcare system, but a new economic system that values life over profit. Capitalism will never give us what we need. Hopefully, this wake-up call does not cost too many innocent lives.

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Exposing a Biden Staffer’s Connections to Troubled ‘Israeli’ Spyware Firm


After Sunday night’s Democratic presidential debate, Anita Dunn, senior adviser to Joe Biden’s campaign, defended the vice president’s performance in a briefing with reporters.

Last year, Dunn, who served as communications director in Barack Obama’s White House, did a similar duty for NSO, the spyware firm founded by former Israeli intelligence officers. The NSO Group created the infamous Pegasus intrusion tool, which has been used to harass and disrupt journalists from India to Mexico to Saudi Arabia—and also to pick Jeff Bezos’ pocket.

As Avi Asher-Schapiro of the Committee to Protect Journalists noted on Twitter, Dunn is “Managing Director at SKDKnickerbocker, a firm that managed the US public relations work for NSO Group.”

Dunn’s work for NSO indicates a willingness to defend private power against the public interest. Her condescending remarks about Bernie Sanders’ performance evoke the arrogance that pervades the intersection of big government and corporate power in Washington. She represents the reasons why some of Sanders’ supporters are reluctant to support the former vice president. She embodies the difficulty of unifying the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party going into the 2020 presidential election.

What Is NSO?

On the trail of NSO, Asher-Schapiro “has been tracking research by Citizen LabAmnesty International, and other local and international human rights groups involving journalists targeted by Pegasus, a spyware tool that the NSO Group markets and sells to governments.”

“Once covertly installed by means of spear-phishing attacks that trick the recipient into clicking on a malicious link, the technology passes control of a phone’s camera, microphone, and contents to the attacker,” Asher-Schapiro wrote last year.

Asher-Schapiro reported on:

“an attempted Pegasus attack targeting Griselda Triana, the widow of Mexican journalist Javier Valdez. Valdez, the winner of CPJ’s 2011 International Press Freedom Award, was murdered in May 2017; the Mexican government has not charged anyone for ordering the killing, which CPJ believes was in reprisal for his coverage of narcopolitics.”

When Asher-Schapiro sought comment from NSO, he says, “I would email Dunn’s subordinates at SKDK asking them to kindly provide comments explaining why their client kept being accused of spying on journalists.” He wrote:

“‘We do not tolerate misuse of our products,’ an NSO Group spokesperson told CPJ by email. ‘We regularly vet and review our contracts to ensure they are not being used for anything other than the prevention or investigation of terrorism and crime.’ The spokesperson declined to be named because the comment was from the organization, not an individual.”

And so Dunn’s role in the defense of NSO was not publicly reported.

Whom Dunn Defends

The privatization of intrusive surveillance technology has enabled repression of independent journalists seeking to hold governments accountable. Saudi Arabian intelligence officials reportedly used Pegasus to track dissident Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi before his murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in October 2018.

It may have also been used against the world’s richest man.

A technical report on the hack of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ phone (now available on Motherboard) concluded that the exact type of software used to extract Bezos’ data could not be determined but that it had the same capabilities as Pegasus.

A backlash against NSO has been growing.

The messaging giant WhatsApp is suing NSOaccusing it of “‘unlawful access and use’ of WhatsApp computers. According to the lawsuit [filed in northern California federal court] NSO Group developed the malware in order to access messages and other communications after they were decrypted on targeted devices, allowing intruders to bypass WhatsApp’s encryption.”

A Washington Post columnist who served as an adviser to NSO recently quit the firm after criticism. Juliette Kayyem, a Harvard professor, resigned after controversy over her role at the spyware group prompted Harvard to cancel an online seminar she was due to host.

The U.S. government and other leading countries will soon require buyers and sellers of intrusion technologies such as Pegasus to obtain licenses and thus disclose their identities. Whether this voluntary measure will curb abuses is unknown.

Given Dunn’s role in the Biden campaign, it is fair to ask: Is Biden soft on the abuse of private intelligence? Is he a defender of journalism?

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Covid-19 and the Need, Right Now, For a Universal Basic Income


Photograph Source: Generation Grundeinkommen – CC BY 2.0

Apart from the medical threat revealing a brutal class divide in healthcare, the coronavirus pandemic is creating social and economic havoc among non-rich populations. If ever the need for a universal basic income was evident, it is now. But governments, trying to save the neoliberal system, and making the most of the disaster to lay the foundations for a new round of disaster capitalism, won’t see it. To give a couple of examples of this catastrophe profiteering, laissez-faire entrepreneur par excellence, Sir Richard Branson, wants a £7.5 billion government bailout for his airline, and Trump has proposed a $700 billion stimulus package in which industries will be “stimulated” at the expense of Social Security and, once again, the poor. So much for the free market.

Many countries, mostly in Europe, have taken extraordinary, unprecedented measures, including closed borders. Perhaps the closest case for comparison with the present situation would be the “Spanish” flu (which didn’t start in Spain but probably in Fort Riley, Arkansas, or a British army base in France or, as a third hypothesis ventures, northern China in late 1917). Wherever it started, it affected a third of the world’s population with death rates, depending on the zones, of between 10% and 20%. By the end of the pandemic in 1920, more than forty million people had died. It is thought that the coronavirus will be just as dangerously active till the beginning of summer, at the earliest. So, it still has at least three months to do its damage.

A drop of between 2-3% in the world GDP (which is the definition of a recession), is expected because of the economic situation prior to the onset of COVID-19 and the chaos it is presently causing. Most of the world’s non-rich population hasn’t recovered its living conditions from before the crisis of 2008, and now it is being battered by another kind of crisis. Naturally, the very rich will lose too. According to Fortune, March 10 was the worst day of decline in a decade for DOW, S&P 500, and NASDAQ. When the New York stock exchange opened on 16 March, Dow Jones dropped 9.7% (more than 2,250 points) and S&P dropped 8%. The plummeting of global stocks in the past few weeks has been as fast as any downhill run in history. And they’ll also lose when their airlines and factories close. But losing for the rich isn’t the same as losing for the poor. The rich aren’t losing the conditions of their social existence, they’ll have good medical care, can hide away in their bunkers and, around the world, they have the power to mitigate their losses, so they’re wasting no time in calling for tax breaks and looking for legal loopholes to make it easier to sack workers. The millions of people who can’t work because of the virus, provisionally or in the long term, won’t only suffer “losses” but the material conditions of their existence will be in jeopardy. This means extreme vulnerability that will make them more susceptible to the virus because, for example, they can’t even attain the basic conditions of hygiene prescribed by the WHO.

The EU’s response to the crisis of 2008 was to impose “austericidal” measures which afflicted whole states like Greece, and all vulnerable populations. Now, with the pandemic, it seems that these measures, whose dire effects have become so obvious and well-known, won’t be applied. There’s not much coordination on this side of the world. For example, the Spanish government has announced that it will take public control of Spain’s private health providers and their facilities to cope with the virus while the free-marketeering UK government is coughing up £2.4 million a day for private hospital beds. However, coherent, public, and universally applicable economic and social measures are being vigorously pushed, though not by governments. In particular, activists from social movements and left-wing media are calling for basic income, an unconditional monetary payment to the whole population.

In many states, people are strictly confined to their homes and can only go out in exceptional conditions, like food and pharmacy shopping. This means loss of jobs or freelance work and tremendous economic anxiety. If the US Constitution is any example, western liberal governments are supposed to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote general welfare, and guarantee the rights of freedom. They’re failing on all counts and, one might almost say, doing the opposite, as well as adding insult to injury by mass surveilling their populations and lying to them about public concerns. We, the people, can’t count on them but must insist on measures that will strengthen our rights and ability to prevent further abuse. A universal basic income would be a very good start because it would bolster social existence.

This isn’t charity, or aid, or a temporary second-best solution waiting for better days. It’s a human right, the one right on which all other rights depend: the right of material existence. People who don’t have this right can’t be free because they’re dependent on others for their social existence. It’s not a form of conditional benefits either, something to be pleaded for, or only obtained when you prove to some bureaucrat that you’re worthy, a handout with a special ex post logic of only helping “failures” after they’re on their knees. These people who are made to beg have “failed” because they are long-unemployed or are working in conditions that put them under the heading of the working poor, which is the case of 15% of Europe’s wage workers, and other reasons that are products of the system itself. Conditional benefits are better than nothing, but they’re offered as a slender lifeline to a very small fraction of the truly needy population because of insufficiency, inefficiency, and the downright poverty of the benefits that are allegedly combating poverty. People in desperate situations are humbled into being subservient supplicants, begging for “benefits”. COVID-19 has only made this situation crueler for growing numbers of people.

A basic income of an amount equal to or above the poverty line in every country would guarantee the material existence of the whole population, respecting the dignity of everyone because this isn’t “help” but a right guaranteeing social existence. The pandemic, literally a life-and-death matter, has made this measure even more urgent. Governments are seized by attacks of the vapors when contemplating the “cost” of such a measure but there are detailed studies showing how it can easily be financed, basically by a stronger taxation system in which the rich would pay more in taxes than they would receive as a basic income. And let nobody say this is unfair to the rich when one third of the world’s GDP is stashed away in tax havens. What matters is that paying this “cost” of the material and social existence of whole populations should be a top priority in the crisis we are all now facing. And if the social benefits of this were weighed against the so-called “cost” (to the rich who, scrambling for their bunkers, are showing just how antisocial they are), could we even talk about a cost?

By the way, what would be the social cost of not introducing an unconditional universal basic income now?

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