“We’re all in this together.” That’s the call echoing in the public square, spoken by activists, health care workers and politicians alike. But are we? While we’re certainly all in this, “together” might be a bit of an overstatement. Our lives are being impacted in ways as different as the chasms of race, class, gender, ability, colonial status and all the other disease vectors of injustice can make them. Crisis under capitalism is the great amplifier, not the great equalizer.
“Sheltering in place,” therefore, can have different meanings: quality time with parents; confinement with an abusive person; adapting to remote teaching; binge watching shows; fear of deportation; rest and creativity; separation from loved ones – or grieving loved ones from afar. Many thousands around the country also do not have functional wifi or cell phone access, increasing their isolation. And then there are those among us venturing out to work with inadequate protections, and with constant worries about what you might unintentionally bring home.
As we rise to this crisis – whether by sheltering and self care, mutual aid initiatives, wildcat strikes, information sharing or creative protest – the tectonic plates of our social world are shifting. The old “normal” is damaged beyond repair. Amid the chaos, truths long hidden are escaping into the open, like the magic genies of Arab folklore, trapped for centuries inside of oil lamps, yearning to be free.
First among these truths is the centrality of working people. Suddenly, packagers and cooks and drivers and nurses and childcare workers, personal care attendants fast food workers are being praised as “heroes.” The very people whose supposed insignificance has long been used to justify low wages and shoddy treatment. Their demands for safety protocols, paid sick leave, health coverage and corporate closings have resonated widely and have won significant concessions. CEOs and billionaires, on the other hand, could all disappear and no one would notice.
Well, that’s not quite true. They’ve been making such loud smacking noises as they gorge themselves from the public treasury. At the same time they cry out for the rolling back of pollution, labor and food safety protections and demand that their workers return immediately – no matter the cost – to the sacred task of producing profit.
Next comes the genie of collective effort. Millions of people are participating in a massive effort in which no one person’s actions will make the difference alone but our combined actions can change the course of events. This undermines the learned hopelessness that tells each of us my voice, my protests, my vote, my choices never matter.
The third genie proclaims that the resources we’ve needed were here all along. Trillions of dollars that were never offered to house, clothe, feed and heal us, appear out of thin air when the survival of the aristocracy is at stake. The third genie asks, why is access to all our basic needs in the hands of predators in the first place? Why not ours?
Last but not least comes the biggest and most frightening genie of them all: the clear evidence that generosity, sharing and solidarity are better organizing principles than greed. Even the mighty corporate elite, that worships greed and preys on the vulnerable, must resort to strategies of sharing resources just to save itself – its leaders terrified that the idea might catch on.
We will get through this. I mean the collective “we” because not all will make it (and our hearts go out to those already in mourning). There will be more losses. Still, our people will survive. But this time we will have four powerful genies to help us in our work. Four genies that must never be forced back into their lamps and hidden from public view. In fact our next activity, after helping each to other survive this moment, will be one huge lamp-smashing party.