The best definition of the word “politics” that I have ever heard is that it is the struggle within a society over the distribution of resources. Certainly that definition holds if you look at recent fights over pandemic-related relief and economic stimulus packages: the super-wealthy and the big corporations used their political pull with their bought-and-sold politicians to siphon billions of taxpayer dollars into their bank accounts, while those same politicians debated whether working families would get crumbs.
Political organizations, including organizations on the Left, played a role in that debate, even if it was a small one. Agitating for weekly relief instead of measly one-time payments, for extending unemployment benefits, for canceling the rent debt to prevent evictions, for greater protections for essential workers, we injected our political perspective into the public discussion, even when we did not achieve our goals.
But the pandemic itself is also a political event. Whether or what public health measures would be taken to address the pandemic determined the amount of social resources to be allocated to different populations. From this juncture in the pandemic — as vaccines are slowly rolled out, the debate over reopening schools continues, essential workers continue to pay a high price in infections and lives lost, and the death toll creeps relentlessly higher — we need to consider the Left’s role in addressing public health issues.
When it comes to agitation for economic rights during the pandemic, the Left was active but not successful. When it comes to agitation for the protection of the public health, we were mostly absent from the field.
By which I mean simply this: at a time when the ruling class has itself been sharply divided over what, if any, public health measures are necessary to address the pandemic, we should have stepped boldly into that gap and did not. I attribute our failure to two interrelated factors. First, too many of us were timid about appearing to support measures that appeared to limit personal “freedom,” even when it was the socially responsible thing to do. Second, we did not treat the crisis caused by the pandemic as an opportunity to grow and deepen political power.
I say that these two factors are interrelated because it appears to me that we are so accustomed to the role of “protesters” that we forget that the whole point of political work is not to protest, but to exercise leadership and win political power. Which is to say, win the power to determine how resources in this society are distributed.
What should we have done and why didn’t we do it?
Through much of this year there have been explosions of protest against police violence against Brown and Black people. In most instances the organizers of these protests asked participants to wear masks and practice social distancing. We know that organizers were effective in this regard because there is little if any evidence that these protests significantly increased the rate of infection in any community.
Yet over the approximately ten months of the pandemic in the US, I don’t recall having seen any Left organization put out a flyer or a front page article in a newspaper or an original social media meme promoting wearing masks and engaging in social distancing, or urging people to stay at home if they think they may have been exposed to the virus, or providing scientific information about the virus, or disproving the various Covid-19 conspiracy theories.
Even when the Left criticized the right-wing forces that mobilized to oppose pandemic-related restrictions, it was largely silent on these measures. About the only exception was that many of us did argue for a complete shutdown of the economy with real economic supports provided to workers and families. But our agitation on this issue was mostly of the “this is what the government would do if it cared about us” variety. In the vein of endless protests where people chant “Money for jobs, not for war,” these were not effective demands, they were no more than a statement of what we would like to have happen if we had the power to make it happen.
And right now, while the great majority of activists that I know are pro-vaccine, I don’t see any organization on the Left urging people to get the vaccine, or demanding the government roll out the vaccine more quickly, or pushing for employers to ensure that essential workers (those not working in healthcare) get the vaccine sooner than politicians and their families.
As I stated above, I think our failure to play a leadership role on these important public health issues is plain and simple timidity at a time when working people desperately needed to hear from people who were not afraid to take a stand. When it came to emergency measures to shut down and stop the spread of the virus, we shied away from appearing to support restrictions on public gatherings, scared off by the specter of real disappearing civil liberties since 9/11/2001. Instead, we left the field to state governments, many of which supported restrictions, and various right wing elements that opposed them. As a result we had very little credibility when, for instance, during shut downs state governments included in their lists of “essential workers” the hundreds of thousands of people working for military contractors who should have been sent home.
Presently, we are seeing the slow and halting roll out of vaccines and we are learning that it may be many months before most working people are eligible to receive it. Yet we hesitate to urge people to get the vaccines, to demand that the government take steps to dramatically increase production of the vaccines, and to push for manufacturers to more quickly make it available to millions of people in the US who are at risk without it. Moreover, we know that there are poor countries in Latin America and Africa where researchers recruited vaccine study subjects but where the average person will not be able to afford the vaccines. Yet we fail to demand that emergency measures be taken so that otherwise patent-protected vaccine formulas may be made available to these countries. We hesitate, at least in part, because we know that in our own ranks there are adherents to pseudo-science who will scold us for being subservient to “Big Pharma.” We want to play it safe, just in case something goes wrong.
Which brings us to the second, deeper factor that inhibits the Left from leading on these critical questions of public health. Protest may be healthy for the spirit, and it may make us feel morally upright but it permanently consigns the Left to the sidelines. A common practice in the social movements of “witnessing” social evils starts from the premises that we have no power and that those who do have power also have a conscience, though experience should tell us that neither of these premises is correct.
Even when protest opens the door for limited reforms, because it does not involve acquiring political power it allows those who have power to close those doors when the protesters go home. We have already seen that a national uprising following the police murder of George Floyd was not, by itself, a road to more than cosmetic changes. Only where people have organized to actively disrupt the status quo, to make it impossible for business as usual to continue, and to win themselves a seat at the table, have movements changed the power dynamic. 2020 should have demonstrated both the potential of protest and its limitations.
Effective measures to end the pandemic, including but certainly not limited to ongoing social distancing and access to vaccines, remain a matter of life and death for hundreds of thousands of Americans. A politically honest and potentially effective Left will unashamedly promote measures that protect the public health. In doing so, we announce that our goal is not only to convince people that another world is possible, but to fight for the power that will make that world real.