18 March 2020

“Unskilled labor does not exist,” observes Lizzie O’Shea: “[RAFFWU’s Josh] Cullinan points out that the modern fast food worker uses skills that are foreign to most workers from generations past. A fast food worker in the average drive-through window will be doing multiple tasks simultaneously. She will take orders from customers via an earpiece, enter them into a program that conveys the orders to the kitchen, collect and hand bags of food to customers, and take payment on electronic systems, all within strict deadlines. On top of this, she is expected to be polite, despite working long shifts that can be physically and emotionally exhausting. … In the same way that care workers are underpaid because they draw on skills that the market has not traditionally valued, the skills required of workers to cope in unskilled jobs are considered unimportant. This framing allows employers to monopolize the gains of intense exploitation and defray the emotional, physical, and spiritual costs of it back onto the workers. … One fact remains undeniable but bears repeating: without the work done by people in unskilled jobs, society would cease to function. … People who stock our supermarket shelves, who help us to access food and clothing, are essential to our survival. … Workers at unskilled jobs deserve solidarity and dignity, and we should support them however we can as they organize to fight for recognition and respect.”

Jeff Sparrow: “Capitalism must expand or lapse into crisis. But an economy dependent on perpetual growth must, at some stage, come into conflict with the limits of the natural world. The characteristic ineptitude of today’s politicians — the deep rottenness pervading our societies — reflects, in part, the impossibility of squaring that circle. In developing nations, for instance, the relentless expansion of capital means that cities now encroach more and more on wilderness and peasant holdings. With factory farming replacing traditional agriculture, viral outbreaks become more likely. … The emissions pumped into the atmosphere represent another facet of the same problem: an increasingly obvious incompatibility between economic and natural cycles. Scientists tell us that, if we continue on this path, extreme weather events and other disasters will become more and more common. The experience of the past weeks shows precisely what that means. Capitalism pits humanity against nature. It will destroy both, if we let it.”

16 March 2020

Judith Butler, in her new book The Force of Nonviolence (excerpted here): “To link a practice of nonviolence with a force or strength that is distinguished from destructive violence, one that is manifest in solidarity alliances of resistance and persistence, is to refute the characterization of nonviolence as a weak and useless passivity. Refusal is not the same as doing nothing. The hunger striker refuses to reproduce the prisoner’s body, indicting the carceral powers that are already attacking the existence of the incarcerated. The strike may not seem like an ‘action,’ but it asserts its power by withdrawing labor that is essential to the continuation of a capitalist form of exploitation. Civil disobedience may seem like a simple ‘opting out,’ but it makes public a judgment that a legal system is not just. It requires the exercise of an extra-legal judgment. To breach the fence or the wall that is designed to keep people out is precisely to exercise an extra-legal claim to freedom, one that the existing legal regime is failing to provide for within its own terms. To boycott a regime that continues colonial rule, intensifying dispossession, displacement, and disenfranchisement for an entire population, is to assert the injustice of the regime, to refuse to reproduce its criminality as normal.”

(I came to this after hearing an excellent interview with Butler on Politics Theory Other.)

14 March 2020

Jedediah Britton-Purdy: “‘Wash your hands’ is good advice but also a poignant reminder that this is not the sort of problem that personal responsibility can solve. Epidemiology is a political problem. It’s not hard to sketch the steps that would ease our cruel situation: a work stoppage, massive income support (unemployment payments with some universal basic income in the mix), a moratorium on mortgage foreclosures and evictions. Treatment for coronavirus and potentially related symptoms should be free and comprehensive, no questions asked (about immigration status, for instance), so that no one goes untreated because of fear or poverty. This is all, in the most straightforward sense, good for everyone. It is also how people look out for one another’s vulnerability and need when they see one another’s problems as their own. … An injury to one actually is an injury to all; it doesn’t just sound good to say so. … It’s worth remembering that our alone-together world of individualist ethics and material interdependence didn’t just happen. … The hands and minds that built up this order are not powerless to make one that puts health first, at every level: of individuals, communities, the land, and the globe. That is a different, deeper resilience, though to get there requires a political fight over the value of life itself, whether we are here to make profits or to help one another live.”

Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos: “[A]t this stage, CoViD-19 is mostly a developed-world disease that threatens the elderly and the vulnerable in terms of either underlying health issues or repeated exposure to the virus. This means that the majority of the population… can afford to ignore it. … So we are mostly ok. Right? No. Because if we think like that, we have failed. We have already succumbed to the disease. The challenge of Covid is monumentally ethical. … Covid demands an ethics of self-positioning (physically and at the same time ethically) in relation to other bodies, of removing ourselves from the collectivity that we might harm despite our best intentions, of thinking beyond the edge of our skin. Covid must be stopped from reaching the vast refugee camps across the world. Covid must remain a developed country disease where national health systems are generally better equipped to deal with the crisis. … The ethics of withdrawal before Covid is a show of a planetary collectivity, where we finally understand that our bodies are all connected, and that taking precautions in London will mean that more people will survive in the refugee camps or in the less developed world with more fragile health systems. It is ultimately a show of removing oneself from the mania of ‘progress’, with its global pollution, climate change and anthropocenic irreversibility, and allowing the planet to take a breath.

13 March 2020

While the AFR is advising its parasitic readership on how to profit from the coronavirus crisis, John Quiggin hopes the broader public will rethink some of the conventional so-called wisdom of recent decades: “Looking ahead, the crisis response should kill off not only the idea that a surplus is the hallmark of responsible economic management, but also the absurdity of extending the standard four-year forward estimates period to ten-year projections, which formed the basis of tax cuts legislated years ahead of time. As the current crisis and the global financial crisis have shown, even an annual budget can be derailed by an unforeseen shock. Attempting to fix policies ten years in advance is a fools’ errand. More broadly, this is yet another instance in which policies influenced by the market ideology that took hold in the 1970s has damaged us. The economic impacts of coronavirus will be made worse by the casualisation of the workforce and the decades-long freeze on Newstart and other welfare payments. A modern society can only function properly with a strong government and a commitment to looking after everybody. Perhaps the enforced isolation we are likely to face in the coming months will give us time to rethink.”

12 March 2020

Douglas Macdonald (writing about Canada, but with equal applicability in Australia): “To achieve any goal, we set targets and then measure our progress in achieving them. Simply saying, ‘I want to lose some weight’ is much less useful than adopting a specific goal, such as losing four pounds a month for six months. If at the end of the first month I have only lost two pounds, I can make further changes to our diet and so keep on track. … Surely, [governments] can do the same thing. We can set targets, such as those for 2030 and 2050, monitor emissions and then, as necessary, change our reduction programs to be sure the targets are met. … While successive governments may have thought they were using targets as part of a rational planning process, in fact the targets were distracting attention from our failure to make any progress at all in reducing emissions. When governments monitored progress towards emissions targets and found they were going to miss a target, they did not introduce additional reduction programs (change their diet). Instead, they set another target! Should I have this extra piece of chocolate cake? Yes, of course, but first I have to change my target. Next month, I will lose five pounds instead of just four pounds — which means I can have this delicious piece of cake today. … Instead of gazing off to the distant future, [government] needs to look hard at what can be done today.”

11 March 2020

Thomas Piketty endorses Bernie Sanders, not only for his policies, but also because his nomination would represent a necessary realignment of the Democratic Party: “Generally speaking, voter turnout has always been relatively low in the United States: just barely above 50%, whereas it has long been between 70%-80% in France and in the United Kingdom, before falling recently. If we examine things in greater detail, we also find that on the other side of the Atlantic, there is a structurally lower participation amongst the poorest half of the voters… To put it clearly: this electoral alienation of the American working classes is so long-standing that it will certainly not be reversed in one day. But what else can we do to deal with it than to undertake a far-reaching re-orientation of the election programme of the Democratic Party and to discuss these ideas openly in national campaigns?  The cynical, and unfortunately very commonplace vision amongst the Democratic elites, that nothing can be done to mobilise further the working-class vote, is extremely dangerous. In the last resort, this cynicism weakens the legitimacy of the democratic electoral system itself.”

Damian Carrington: “You may have read that there are just eight, or 10, or 12 years to save the world from the climate crisis. There are not. It is already here, gaining strength every day as carbon emissions pour into the atmosphere. It is a slow-motion disaster. Action to avert the worst should have started last week, last year, last decade. This is not a message of despair, though, but one of measured hope. The gap between the action we could take to reduce global heating and the action we are actually taking can be measured by a brutally simple metric: human suffering. That means every action that closes that gap, however small, is meaningful. … With a problem to solve, setting a timeline feels necessary. But Greta Thunberg, with characteristic clarity, recently spelled out the mistake: ‘It’s never too late to do as much as we can, every fraction of a degree matters,’ she says. ‘There are of course no magical dates for saving the world.’ … [It is] imperative that every decision taken every day by governments, businesses and communities must pass the climate test: will it cut emissions?”

10 March 2020

The Australia Institute’s Ebony Bennett: “The surplus the Coalition boasted about delivering looks to be cactus, but that’s good, delivering a surplus amid an economic downturn is about as useful as having 1000 toilet paper rolls in a flu pandemic. Now, the risk is that the Coalition will listen to its own rhetoric instead of expert advice, undercook its stimulus package, and potentially send Australia into recession. … The Coalition is quite capable of targeting its spending, judging by the precision used to target marginal seats for a $100 million cash splash in recent the sports rorts scandal. It has however, shown less aptitude for targeting money where it’s needed (as opposed to where it’s electorally advantageous). … [T]here’s no point giving business money if people won’t buy anything. That’s why targeting the majority of stimulus at business is risky; business won’t invest if there’s no demand. … That’s why a stimulus package that supports households, such as by increasing Newstart, has a double benefit.” I’m now expecting to see permanent benefits for business, and one-off payments to needy people.