Organizing beyond the state in a state of sickness

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Drummers at a Black Lives Matter sit-in in Toronto, June 2020. Image: Jason Hargrove/Flickr

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown our societies into sharp relief. It has heightened the contradictions of capitalism, and many people are seeing those contradictions for the first time. If free markets are so efficient, why are we experiencing such shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand sanitizer? In the United States, where I live, how are people to get access to health care if they lose their insurance when they lose their job? Maybe organizing society and the economy around profits instead of people is cruel and inhumane? The story is similar everywhere -- though, as ever, often not so extreme as in the U.S.

In a new collection of wide-ranging essays, Between the Lines offers a timely portrait of the world COVID-19 is still in the process of revealing and, perhaps, unmaking. Sick of the System: Why the COVID-19 recovery must be revolutionary examines the populations bearing the brunt of the shortcomings of Canada's response to the pandemic, policy solutions that might shape a just recovery, and values and visions to reform society afterward. For all the pain and grief it has wrought, the pandemic offers an opportunity to assess what is most wrong in Canadian society and how to address those issues.

The first essays highlight how people are not experiencing the pandemic equally, despite the public discourse that "we are all in this together." The "front-line workers" include not only hospital staff but also cleaners, grocery store cashiers, school teachers, women's shelter workers, and workers in long-term care homes.

The pandemic has inverted the usual ideas about what types of labour are most valuable. Care work -- the poorly compensated labour of social reproduction, often gendered as "women's work" -- is suddenly being recognized as essential. Indeed, "private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries... lobbyists, celebrities, [and] sports icons" do not make media and politicians' new lists of heroes. The contributors go on to emphasize the ways in which government policies have made health-care workers, Indigenous peoples, women, the incarcerated, and the poor particularly vulnerable to the spread of epidemic disease.

The book then begins to turn toward policy solutions and strategies for attaining them. Jamie Swift and Elaine Power argue that a basic income for all Canadians would be a means of alleviating the mass anxiety wrought by COVID's "democratization of insecurity." Rather than standing alone, such a program would need to be coupled with a revived social safety net and "thoroughgoing tax reform."

Other long-term solutions attacking austerity include a post-pandemic restructuring of the economy and society. If governments and the public are going to bail out businesses (again), Andrew Jackson and Emma Jackson argue, they had best attach conditions, such as limits on dividend payouts and executive pay, long-term equity positions for government, cooperation in transitioning to a carbon-free economy, and an expansion of employee ownership.

Most of the contributors seek to balance this longer-term expansion of state capacity with coordinated local organizing and mutual aid. After all, it was the neoliberal state that exacerbated the current crisis and left us all underprepared, and the state tends to accumulate greater powers in such times of crisis. Several of the contributors note the prevalence of the rhetoric of "waging war on coronavirus." The repeated war metaphor limits our collective response to the virus, sometimes severely, because the language of war demands unthinking -- and too often uncompensated -- sacrifice for the greater good.

It also serves to tamp down on criticism of government policy, as times of war tend to empower central states. Indeed, as the final chapter notes, the famous image from the frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan points to the role of both war and disease in alienating popular power to the sovereign. If we are to resist the call to surrender more of our autonomy to the state in exchange for keeping us safe, we will need to organize for our own collective wellbeing outside of the state's purview. The mutual aid efforts that began at the height of lockdown and have accelerated amidst protests against police brutality in the United States and elsewhere suggest a promising place to start.

This collection draws together a diverse range of voices on the pandemic. We hear from academics, activists, organizers, policy analysts, the incarcerated, comic artists and poets. Black, Indigenous and LGBTQ writers each voice how the pandemic is affecting their communities. In a way similar to the pandemic, Sick of the System offers a snapshot of the state of Canadian society -- though the broad contours of its analysis extend to most of the Global North. The book both documents this historical moment and urges us to seize its possibilities.

Graeme Pente was born in Ontario. He recently completed a PhD in history at the University of Colorado Boulder. He now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is a contributing editor at Erstwhile: A History Blog.

Image: Jason Hargrove/Flickr

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