As Karl Marx remarked in his classic account of the Revolution of 1848, in order to make sense of a present crisis, we often resort to the rhetoric and the imagery of the past. “Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95. In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.”
Here in a typical bedroom community of New York City, epicenter of the Coronavirus pandemic, one of my neighbors has put up a display invoking the only two times in the recent past the New Jersey bourgeoisie has faced a life-threatening crisis. The crudely handmade sign “Cranford Strong” invokes the good old days of Hurricane Sandy and the Chris Christie of “Jersey Strong.” The more professionally done sign thanking the “front line,” the troops that stock the shelves with toilet paper and canned tuna fish at the local ShopRite, reminds us all of 9/11, when in response to the way Islamic terrorists “hate our freedom,” which isn’t of course free, the American people rallied around George W. Bush and offered to give up our freedom, to sign the Patriot Act into law, to invade Iraq, and to get to work laying the foundations for the torture/surveillance state.
What I’ve noticed, however, is how muted my neighbor’s patriotic display is compared to what I saw in October of 2001. There are no flags, just an acronym, FLAG. There’s no call for war against China. I have yet to see any sign referring to the “Wuhan Virus.” No new bumper stickers have been mass produced. The overwhelming mood isn’t violent patriotism, but tired resignation. All anybody really wants to do is to be able to buy toilet paper again, to send their kids back to school, and to take their dogs back into the park. No coherent narrative has emerged. While Donald Trump and the far right have attempted to stir up hostility towards China, and while there have been hate crimes against Asian Americans, it pales in comparison to the drumbeat of Russopobia that liberal Democrats maintained for years after the election of 2016, let alone the overwhelming consensus that emerged after 9/11 that “we” had to “support the troops” and invade Iraq. The corporate media’s attempt to make Andrew Cuomo the 2020’s Rudy Giuliani — it’s a little hard to remember these days just how much of a hero that nasty little fascist troll was back in 2001 — seems to have petered out.
Back in March, the Democratic Party crushed a mild mannered insurgency from the very moderate left in Bernie Sanders, but in retrospect it’s a little difficult to figure out why they even bothered. Sanders, who fell in line and voted for the recent corporate bailout as obediently as Amy Klobuchar or Corey Booker, presents no threat to the American ruling class. Those “Bernie Bros,” so feared on social media, are no more likely to produce a Lenin or a Robespierre than I am to get a job doing shampoo commercials. While there may be something resembling a general election this November — a second wave of the pandemic may cancel it altogether — I can’t imagine that it will have much legitimacy. Both candidates will be old men in cognitive decline. Neither will be able to campaign in public. There won’t be much debate. Don’t look for Lincoln Douglass in 2020. I suspect that whichever elderly reactionary wins, the one with the R at the end of his name or the one with the D at the end of his name, the corporate elite will control the government from behind the scenes. Wall Street, the military industrial complex, the intelligence agencies, and the big tech companies in silicon valley are going to dangle the puppet in the White House on their knee, and drink a glass of water while they lecture us on how for our own good we need to give them anything they want. The democratic system was on its dying legs, a frail, elderly resident of the American nursing home. Coronavirus has killed it.
I don’t know what’s going to happen after the pandemic dissipates. I don’t know what our ruling class has planned. I don’t know how the rest of us will react. But I suspect that we’re going to see a heavy push by the media to increase surveillance and control — whether its by the government or the corporations makes no difference — for our own good. That’s the real tragedy. People in the Middle East don’t hate us for our freedoms. They hate us for our hypocrisy. Coronavirus, on the other hand, does. To be more accurate, Coronavirus loves our freedom because it hates us. Coronavirus thrives in a free society. It breeds in warm, sunny Mediterranean cultures like Italy. The coldblooded Germans, by contrast, seem to have defeated it. Coronavirus makes protest, political rallies, social gatherings, even Holy Communion, deadly. It requires us to shun one another, to fear each other’s presence. It puts all society online, on a corporate controlled Internet that the wealthy can shut down any time they want. It transforms any act of defiance — illegal fishing in the local pond, walking your dog in the park, conversing with strangers — a form of stupidity. Coronavirus, at long last, is the final stage of neoliberal capitalism.