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Coronavirus and the 'Shock Doctrine'

Powerful interests used the Great Recession to hardwire more inequality into our system. This time, let’s do the opposite.

In deeply unequal societies like our own, a wealthy few can exploit such catastrophes to make themselves even wealthier. (Photo: Shutterstock)

In deeply unequal societies like our own, a wealthy few can exploit such catastrophes to make themselves even wealthier. (Photo: Shutterstock)

We all have to come together. We need to help each other. We don’t have time for politics as usual.

In times of crisis like the current coronavirus pandemic, these sorts of calls for cooperation become the drumbeat of our daily lives.

Unfortunately, no drumbeat ever gets everybody marching in sync. In deeply unequal societies like our own, a wealthy few can exploit such catastrophes to make themselves even wealthier.

Back in 2007, Naomi Klein explored this phenomenon brilliantly in her landmark book The Shock Doctrine. Klein showed how corporate elites worldwide have repeatedly and brutally used “the public’s disorientation following a collective shock — wars, coups, terrorist attacks, market crashes, or natural disasters — to push through radical pro-corporate measures.”

The 2008 financial collapse would vividly illustrate the dynamics Klein described. The Wall Street giants whose reckless and criminal behavior ushered in that crisis ended up even bigger and more powerful than before the crisis began.

Klein sees those same dynamics now resurfacing in the coronavirus crisis. “We are seeing,” she told Democracy Now recently, “this very predictable process that we see in the midst of every economic crisis, which is extreme corporate opportunism.”

In response to the pandemic, she said, Trump is “dusting off” the Wall Street wishlist on everything from cutting and privatizing Social Security — by undermining its payroll tax revenue stream — to enriching the fossil fuel industry with huge bailouts.

So how can we prevent a “shock doctrine” repeat?

For starters, we need to provide immediate support for those the coronavirus is hitting the hardest: the sick and those who care for them, as well as the workers who lose jobs and income.

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But we can’t afford to stop there. We need, in effect, a “shock doctrine” in reverse. We need to seize the openings for change the coronavirus presents — and challenge the capacity of our rich and powerful to become ever richer and more powerful at the expense of everyone else.

One example: Within our increasingly coronavirus-ravaged economy, more and more families will be facing evictions. Progressive activists and officials are now quite rightfully calling for a coronavirus moratorium on evictions.

But we have a chance to go much further. Why not use this crisis to rewrite the eviction-enabling statutes that let corporate landlords enrich themselves at the expense of vulnerable families in the first place?

The coronavirus crisis also gives us an opportunity to use the public purse to shift our economy towards greater equity and sustainability. The core of a reverse shock doctrine ought to be a massive public investment program designed to create good jobs, with a premium on projects that better position our economy to address climate change.

But we could also use these funds to reverse some of the inequality that makes economic crises so dangerous to begin with.

Various industries are already clamoring for federal loan guarantees and other bailouts to get them past the coronavirus crisis. For immediate bailout funds, policymakers should consider attaching pro-worker strings.

We could deny, for instance, tax-dollar support to private companies that pay their CEOs over 50 or 100 times what they pay their most typical workers. Moves in that direction would give top execs an incentive to pay workers more — and exploit them less.

Back in mid-20th century America, a time of much greater equality than we have now, corporate top execs only averaged 30 times more pay than their workers. That more equal America proved resilient enough to overcome a fearsome polio epidemic and prosper.

That more equal America, let’s remember, also emerged out of the back-to-back crises of the Great Depression and world war against fascism. Progressives seized the opportunity those crises created and changed the face of American society. Why can’t we?

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