I was first exposed to Eugene Victor Debs through Kurt Vonnegut novels. That sci-fi social critic was a lifelong fan and referenced Debs in several of his books. Since then, mine has been a whirlwind historical love affair. The passion and eloquence of this former worker turned labor leader, and eventual five-time Socialist candidate for president is undeniable. His work and example have spoken to me in different ways at various points in my life—but never before has Debs seemed more relevant.
"While there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
His lifelong fight for social justice, and an end to war, did not come without costs. It rarely does. In 1918, Debs was arrested under the Sedition Act—a recent statute that criminalized constitutionally-protected speech—after he delivered peaceful oratory opposed to America’s entry into World War I. Later, just after he’d been sentenced to a decade in prison, Debs proclaimed before a Cleveland federal court that:
Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
Sounds a bit like something Christ might reputedly have said in the early Synoptic Gospels, no? Of course, Debs has always been a secular saint, of sorts, in progressive left and nascent antiwar circles. Still, my love for Debs—and personal penchant for plastering this particular quote on t-shirts and social media—has struck many critics as naive. That is, until now.
Corona’s empathy-gift amidst the mass of lonely death is that it demonstrates—in a rather concrete sense—that none are better than the “meanest” (or “sickest”) among us. Even the prosperous cannot forever hide, or wall themselves off, from the inequities of the global system. After all, it is often forgotten that Debs, and the socialists of his day, had a distinctly international vision that transcended the illusory boundaries, and “imagined communities,” crafted by the powerful.
In this pandemic-era, it has become increasingly clear, per another Debs-enthusiast, Bernie Sanders, that we are only as healthy as the least insured—hence the poorest—in our society. The same may be said of those recently released from behind (domestic) bars or the prison-like boundaries of America’s cruel worldwide sanctions-stranglehold regime. For ours is a technologically mobile world in which the virus respects no borders and “speaks” Mandarin just as well as Italian or English.
The COVID-19 outbreak has exposed the liability of carrying a permanent domestic underclass—particularly given the peculiar, ineffectiveness of America’s employer-based healthcare system. These under- or un-insured folks also tend to serve the food, pump the gas, and pack the boxes for online delivery that the more privileged in society have come to expect with immediacy. Workers are, so to speak, no longer invisible. The poor can infect and spread disease just as (perhaps more) rapidly as the rich.
What’s more, corona has laid bare the immense leverage of the working class—especially those in the service industry—over the bourgeois and wealthy stratums in society. Moving forward, the potential power of a general service strike could be profound. Sure, Jeff Bezos and his—or others’—bureaucratic “company men” can immediately fire Christian Smalls, a strike leader at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse, but his indecently superfluous billions can’t counter the moral and rational weight of the striker’s position. One wonders if that genie can ever be stuffed back into what was always a rather narrow nozzle of the proverbial bottle.
Can the U.S. afford to continually don the blindfold, bow to the Pentagon fiction that endless war has any other real enemy than the fear of falling military-industrial-complex profits, and ignore the human costs of unnecessary American conflicts of choice?
So too for the foreign indigent in countries and societies utterly unprepared for pandemic. In Africa, for example—where 85 percent of the population still survives on less than $5.50 a day—many national governments are turning to overt civil liberties squelching because, in addition to being power-opportunists, they know implicitly that they are unprepared for even a modest outbreak. Will the obscene global wealth distribution—whereby the richest 10 percent possess 85 percent of the total, and the bottom half claim barely one percent—seem sustainable if and when shattered societies produce refugees on a scale that puts those from the “Arab Winter” to shame?
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Furthermore, war, of course, has shown its true colors as history’s great epidemic exacerbation device. Can the U.S. afford to continually don the blindfold, bow to the Pentagon fiction that endless war has any other real enemy than the fear of falling military-industrial-complex profits, and ignore the human costs of unnecessary American conflicts of choice? After all, in this moment—though one must question the long-term sincerity—even the very “meanest” among the world’s states, the theocratic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, has called a corona-induced ceasefire to its American-complicit terror war on Yemen. There has never been a better—or more imperative—time for the U.S. to deescalate its own countless far-flung wars, scale-down its national security posture, and prioritize diplomacy and humanitarianism.
All too often America is—per its long-standing claims—exceptional, only in all the wrong ways. No other country wages as many aggressive overseas wars, or imprisons quite so much of its own population, as the USA. Seen in this decidedly inconvenient light, Uncle Sam is as criminal as any other nation. The COVID-moment, however, is a time for rare self-awareness, an historical knowledge of national self. As South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission illustrated, only an honest accounting of past crimes opens a clear path to future redemption.
Victim and victimizer become inextricably linked in the folly of foreign war and domestic repression. To channel that Nazarene stoic again, the U.S. must place its own past and present house in order before it “casts stones” of dispersion at even the most flawed “enemy” states. Allow the great corona-equalizer to establish and hold our government to account through a sort of humanitarian litmus test, and one finds the U.S. doesn’t stack up so well against Cuba, for example.
Nor, according to the United Nations, and just about every human rights or medical organization, does Washington’s “economic warfare” sanctions regime—which is quite literally killing innocents—live up to America’s promise. Finally, lest we forget that unnecessary, aggressive wars of choice—which no nation today wages with the alacrity and consistency of the United States—are, according to the postwar Nuremberg Principles (which Washington had a decisive hand in molding), the supreme “crime against peace.”
Eugene Debs lived out, quite literally, the second and third stanzas of his oft-quoted courtroom declaration. Official branded a “criminal element,” for a time he was “not free.” He’d ultimately serve three years of his ten year sentence in Illinois, West Virginia, and Atlanta’s Federal Penitentiary. Nevertheless, in 1920, with a certain ironic flair unique to the man, Debs ran, again—this time from the inside of a cell—on the Socialist ticket for president of the country that jailed him. His campaign buttons sported a photo of a weathered Debs clothed in prison garb in front of his ubiquitous cell bars. The caption read: “For President, Convict No. 9653.”
So beloved was this “caged bird’s” song, that he still received over 900,000 votes—during the height of the First Red Scare—when it was genuinely dangerous to support such “radical” figures. It was the highest vote tally in U.S. history for a Socialist Party presidential candidate.
Yet today, as a deadly pandemic—that respects neither class nor imaginary national boundaries—rages and exposes the systemic rot of America’s domestic structures, and puts the lie to the absurd fiction that far-flung forever war ensures homeland security, my guess is a new Eugene Debs would garner millions more votes. Bernie Sanders may have disappointed his movement—in the interest of not ending up like Ralph Nader—by endorsing the former “senator from MBNA,” Joe Biden, and left Americans with the paltry choice between a billionaire race-baiting demagogue and a corporate stooge.
Still, call me crazy, but precisely a century after he had the temerity to run from prison, this moment—and the future—may belong to Eugene Debs.