In graduate school, a few colleagues of mine told me about their ties to radical activist groups in Boyle Heights, a predominantly Latino enclave on the east side of Los Angeles. They were always careful to add a disclaimer to their stories, however. Though these colleagues also came from working-class immigrant households and held similarly radical values and beliefs, they were still outsiders in these activists’ eyes, and their educational privilege—which endowed them with both acceptability in general society and earning potential to insert themselves into the company of the bourgeoisie—made them objects of suspicion. Armed with academic theory and data-driven knowledge, they were potential allies as much as they were possible enemies, interlopers reproducing, intentionally or otherwise, the same sins committed by the moneyed, gentrifying, and often white elite.
Believe me, I’m no stranger to this game of rationalization when it comes to matters of social class.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though I share in the outrage of witnessing our consumerist, capitalist society demand the lives of service and healthcare workers as sacrifices to keep the economy going, I myself will likely come out on the other side unscathed. My office job allows me to work from home, which means a steady paycheck and continued health insurance. And though my household has experienced significant losses in retirement investments and reduced work hours, I know we’ll still have enough to ride out this crisis for a few months on our own, and a familial safety net even if things take a turn for the absolute worst. In fact, we’ve discussed the matter of filing for unemployment due to reduced hours as a question of ethics—should you add to an already strained system when you can afford not to?—rather than one of necessity. As Joe Pinsker writes in an article for The Atlantic, “Some will emerge from this crisis disrupted and shaken, but ultimately stable. Others will come out of it with much more lasting scars.”
It’s easier to convince yourself that you’re doing enough by reposting socialist articles that espouse to “eat the rich” and buying four-course takeout meals to support your neighborhood farm-to-table restaurant than to admit to being a “champagne socialist,” an upper middle-class professional who has and will continue to benefit from the status quo. It’s likewise less complicated to only see yourself as part of the problem, relegating your own role in this fight to friendly ally rather than active participant, the fear of overstepping and the guilt over your own privilege rendering you inactive beyond heady discussions with other college-educated Marxists.
Believe me, I’m no stranger to this game of rationalization when it comes to matters of social class. I am a child of immigrants, raised in a modest household that relied heavily on items from thrift stores and clearance aisles. I am also a beneficiary of intergenerational class mobility and academic capital—my parents scrimping and saving throughout my childhood to send me to a private liberal arts college, which allowed me to make enough money to send myself to graduate school and secure a desk job that pays a living wage. I like to tell myself that though I understand the struggle, my place is now on the bench, cheering from the sidelines rather than playing on the court.
Our society is built upon centuries of patriarchal white supremacy, and those of us who were not born white, male, and wealthy will always suffer at the hands of the hegemony in place.
I know these sentiments can be twisted to sound like I’m placing the blame entirely on the individual, or that I’ve forgotten the fact that a mere 0.8 percent of the world’s population have net worths in excess of $1 million and control nearly half of the world’s wealth. Don’t get me wrong: Our society is built upon centuries of patriarchal white supremacy, and those of us who were not born white, male, and wealthy will always suffer at the hands of the hegemony in place. That said, I think we also need to acknowledge that a lot of us, myself included, have learned ways to conform to the tenets of this capitalist framework and have contented ourselves with the benefits we’ve reaped, no matter how meager or inconsistent.
“Our rebellions are so trivial and small,” says Jia Tolentino in an essay examining the tyranny of the ideal woman. “It’s so much easier, when we gain agency, to use it to adapt rather than to oppose.” I think the same can be said of how many of us regard the political and economic policies that govern our everyday lives. We hesitate to do anything that would truly upend the status quo, settling for “activism” that still allows us to keep our creature comforts because we don’t want to risk losing any benefits we’ve already gained.
It’s horrifying to think that it took a deadly global pandemic for many to see the policies we have in place for what they truly are—mechanisms designed to help those in power stay in power at the expense of society’s most marginalized and vulnerable groups. Mind you, I don’t really blame most folks for failing to recognize these structural oppressions. For generations, we’ve been convinced that profit maximization and rugged individualism are “virtues” central to American culture and identity. As Tolentino observes about capitalism and patriarchy:
[T]wo systems that, at their extremes, ensure that individual success comes at the expense of collective morality. And yet there is enormous pleasure in individual success….There are rewards for succeeding under capitalism and patriarchy; there are rewards even for being willing to work on its terms. There are nothing but rewards, at the surface level. The trap looks beautiful. It’s well-lit. It welcomes you in.
So what do we do, you ask? The first step might just be avoiding the descent into nihilism. You may laugh, but I think there’s a real tendency to look at these issues and give up, to see it as a “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” type of situation. Sure, we’ve landed ourselves in, quite frankly, a huge fucking mess, but the desire to give up might be your individualism talking—not to mention the immense privilege of opting to descend into nihilism in the first place.
Given that the “virtues” we’ve been fed are actually some of capitalism’s greatest vices, movement towards a truly equitable society—one that won’t repeat the horrific injustices of the current COVID-19 pandemic—will require us to take a brutally honest look at our own value systems, goals, and dreams. This includes recognizing the serious problems created by our voracious appetite for single-family homes, and rethinking how we regard property ownership in the U.S. altogether. Why you ask? Simply put, the foundations of property ownership in America were built on inherently discriminatory principles, and property ownership has become the driver of economic inequality in this country. Further, as Robbie Nelson points out in a piece for Jacobin, “Our society has the resources to produce stable, secure, and free or nearly free shelter for all. Capitalists refuse to meet this human need because it will never make them the profits they require to stay in business.”
As the present crisis has demonstrated, financial stability for many is a precariously balanced house of cards. Because housing is typically the single largest expense for a household, it can quickly fall into jeopardy when income becomes destabilized. Across the country, many are calling for a moratorium on evictions and organizing rent strikes, and this has created tension between thousands of renters and their landlords. I’ve noticed a tendency to try and argue for both sides, as seen in the comments section of this popular Instagram post. But as Pearson King, a nonprofit professional who works with hundreds of social service agencies in California, points out:
I think the fundamental disconnect here is that people like to view property ownership both as an investment and a service, and they pivot to just one of those depending on what is the most convenient perspective for their own goals. The main issue here is that rents are not intrinsically tied to the services offered by the landlord. Rent prices are dictated by a property’s value, immediately invalidating the idea that a landlord is providing a service at all.
If landlords actually provided a service, then a better, more responsive landlord of a lower-value property should be able to charge a higher rent than a worse landlord of a higher-value property. That doesn’t happen though because we all inherently understand that the only service that a landlord offers is “allowing” renters access to the basic need of shelter. Withholding fundamental human needs unless you are able to turn a profit is neither investment nor service—this is a hostage situation.
Boston-based activist Willow Reader adds:
Many landlords see themselves as good guys who have bills to pay too. But they have more power to make demands. In fact, their demands are already being met. Many places have deferred mortgage payments already, and where this is the case, landlords are profiting off this crisis at the expense of their tenants. If we don’t push back against that, we’re going to come out of this crisis with even bigger wealth disparities….If wealth becomes further concentrated, that is going to have rippling effects for decades. This wouldn’t be hitting as hard as it is without the recession of 2008, and while people can say that we “recovered,” only Wall Street really recovered from that.
Nearly a third of renters in the U.S. did not make their payments this past April, and as unemployment continues to rise, this percentage is expected to grow as well. These folks don’t have the luxury to decide whether or not to strike, so the best way to protect them from eviction is to get involved. Rent Strike 2020 and The New Inquiry both offer resources in support of strikes nationwide. However, housing issues tend to be hyperlocal in nature, with regulations that vary widely across jurisdictions. Moreover, there has been a surge in organizing activity on the local level, and I urge you to do your own research regarding how to participate in these movements in your area.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also wrought havoc on many households through the failures of the heavily privatized, patchwork American health care system, with its high out-of-pocket costs and low medical capacity compared to other countries with universal health systems. At this point, arguing for more centrist, fiscally conservative health care laws would be cruel and inhumane in light of the sheer number of hospitalizations and deaths caused by the pandemic, not to mention the astronomical hospital bills that thousands will have to deal with in its aftermath.
In a Twitter post, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez points out the inequitable distribution of suffering among Americans due to COVID-19:
COVID deaths are disproportionately spiking in Black + Brown communities. Why? Because the chronic toll of redlining, environmental racism, wealth gap, etc. ARE underlying health conditions. Inequality is a comorbidity. COVID relief should be drafted with a lens of reparations.
Reader observes that these realizations are indeed horrifying, but they also present us with an opportunity. They note:
We can be agitational and use the pandemic to push for demands that seemed impossible or unreasonable a few weeks ago. Medicare for all felt like a pipe dream; now it’s necessary. The tenant councils that are formed out of this will outlast this pandemic and allow for swift and unified action the next time a landlord tries to raise the rent and price people out of their homes. Workers have more power than ever during this crisis, if we’re able to wield it properly. There have been so many labor strikes already, and those have been treated much more sympathetically by the media and the average person than any in the past decade. That is a profound shift.
At this point, I think people have a pretty good idea of whether or not they will come out of this crisis intact. And for those of us in the privileged lot that will be absolutely fine, the responsibility of enacting change falls upon our shoulders. Because if we don’t do it, who will?
Author adrienne maree brown describes the concept of her latest book, Pleasure Activism, as “[m]aking justice and liberation the most pleasurable experiences we can have.” This concept, as applied to reexamining our value systems post-pandemic, can allow us to radically shift how we view and utilize both excess income and “free time.” Rather than centering wellness on the individual self, brown locates health and security within the lens of a community. Redistribution of resources thus becomes an imperative for the benefit of both individual and collective welfare. By asking that we all contribute attention, time, and financial resources commensurate to our current capacity, social justice thus becomes a value inherent to the fabric of our everyday lives, and our collective wellbeing becomes a source of pleasure that can be experienced equitably.
It should be noted that community in this context does not exclusively refer to one’s selective, chosen group of people. This view of community perpetuates the dangers of individualism and locates the value of human beings as a subjective concept—signifying that certain people matter only because you, an individual, have decided that they matter. brown points out in an interview:
I actually think you have to be a full-time human because you have to be paying attention to the fact that you’re already connected. You have to stop believing in the lie that if your family is okay then that’s enough. I recommend people read Octavia Butler’s works because this is something she shares really beautifully — that the level of interconnectedness matters. That when whatever apocalypse is coming comes, it doesn’t matter how well your individual family is taken care of.
A starting point to consider these matters lies in deciding how to spend your stimulus check. The intention behind them may be to “jumpstart the economy” by keeping funds circulating in a time of economic decline, but do we really want to keep bolstering a system that has failed so many in the first place? And even if you intend to spend your stimulus check on purchases at small local businesses, there’s a real danger in conflating the idea of “ethical consumerism” with activism and wealth redistribution. Sure, there are benefits to thinking critically about what we buy, as our lives cannot be completely divorced from the capitalist machine (yet), but issues of inequity will not be achieved through social enterprise.
Consider a few things when deciding what to do with your stimulus check: Are you still working or able to collect weekly unemployment that covers your expenses? Do you still have savings and/or disposable income? Do you have a support network that can provide financial assistance should you need it? If you can answer “yes” to any of these questions, you probably would have been fine without that extra $1,200 and should donate it instead.
Again, it’s easy to play the rationalization game and reason your way out of this responsibility (student debt! car loans! my retirement!) but if you consider how many Americans cannot pay all their bills after a $400 emergency expense—not to mention how this figure increases exponentially amongst non-college-educated Black and Latinx households—these concerns appear insignificant in comparison. There are literally thousands of organizations that need your donations during this crisis, but if you don’t know where to start, consider becoming involved with a mutual aid network in your area, a system where “communities take on the responsibility for caring for one another, rather than forcing individuals to fend for themselves.”
We have a responsibility to care for one another and act in ways that prioritize the liberation and pleasure of the community as a whole.
The other day, I was texting with a friend and former colleague in the nonprofit space who is currently enrolled in an MBA program. She mentioned that her entrepreneurship class recently hosted an expert in the field who talked about the types of situations that build new habits in people. This expert acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic is one such situation and is sure to change certain patterns and habits permanently. In the span of just a few weeks, we’ve reached a critical point in terms of class consciousness, and the future that lies ahead depends on how we react at this juncture.
This pandemic has made it very clear that we will always be part of a community. Our own wellbeing—not just physically, but in all areas—is contingent upon the wellbeing of others, and vice-versa. We have a responsibility to care for one another and act in ways that prioritize the liberation and pleasure of the community as a whole. In the face of uncertainty caused by this life-altering pandemic, we can either slide back into the status quo, hoarding resources exclusively for ourselves and those in our immediate circles, or, through advocating for redistributive principles both on the political level as well as in our own personal lives, we can begin to build a future that respects the value and dignity of all people as part of a communal whole.