Sharryn Kasmir, Hofstra University & University of Bergen
Several weeks into the global pandemic, the gravity of the COVID-19-triggered economic crisis in the United States is coming into focus. As of this writing, some22 million people were put out of work, one in four small businesses face permanent closure, and a third of renters were unable to pay rent in the month of April.
The threat of disaster capitalism looms. We learned this lesson(and not for the first time)during the 2007-8 financial crisis, when the auto-industry bailout squeezed union concessions that further eroded the power of organized labor(Kasmir2020.)Private equity swooped in to purchase foreclosed single-family homes and then rent them out at inflated prices.Like that recent crisis, this current one lays bare the underbelly of capitalism.African Americans suffer disparate corona infection rates and deaths, the result of decades of disinvestment in marginalized communities and cuts to public hospitals and health departments.Low–wage workers on farms, supermarkets, health care and warehouses are disproportionately people of color, women, and immigrants(both documented and not)and they lack basic labor protections.
This current crisis strikes at a distinct historical conjuncture and political moment. And politics matter.Cracks in neoliberal capitalism have been exposed since 2008. Andrea Tollardo makes the point vividly for northern Italy, where the public health system was near collapse before the pandemic, and hyper-exploited immigrant workers faced injury and death on the job before the novel coronavirus threatened their lives.Similar charges are leveled against China’s privatized health care and unprotected migrant workers.Arguably, neoliberalism was already in its twilight the world over before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.From this perspective, the current wave of right-wing, racist, anti-immigrant authoritarianism is an attempt to shore up an ailing world system, and it points up the failures of the left to capture the populist energies generated by theGreatRecession(Kalb and Molona 2019, Maskovsky and Sophie Bjork-James, 2020).David Harvey there forewarns that large-scale government intervention in the form of multi-trillion-dollar stimulus packages might, at this time of crisis, steer toward national socialism rather than ‘people’ socialism.
What can anthropology contribute to an understanding of this political crucible? In what follows, I assess prospects for progressive politics in the U.S. amid coronavirus and capitalist crisis. I sketch the emergence of a radical reformist position in the last years, drawing on my field work in a Pennsylvania rust belt city, and I consider how that political ground work might now prove a foundation for a more radical turn.
2016 Inflection Point
TheU.S. left is stronger than it was a decade ago, when the response to the2007-8 financial collapse was ineffectual. If Occupy, and its anarchist-horizontalist inspiration, was the signal reaction to that crisis, sectors of theU.S.left have since bent toward political power. Importantly, however, not by mounting a labor or socialist party challenge to the two-party system.
The2016candidacy of Bernie Sanders became a channel for a more transformational social vision, at the same time as it convinced progressives that actively contesting power in the electoral two-party arena was both necessary and possible. With the election of Donald Trump, those who were shocked by events and out of power in WashingtonD.C.set about the task of strengthening and rebuilding the infrastructure of the progressive movement with renewed fervor. Polls show that ‘socialism’ (at least in a social democratic form articulated by Sanders) is as popular as is capitalism among young adults. Despite an ultimately unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders’ campaign pushed the party left. And new and more aggressive and tactically-effective local and national groups called for change propelled from the ‘outside,’as politicians like the newly-elected Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez led the charge from ‘inside.’
More, since 2016, the progressive movement promoted an intellectual and policy framework that focused on making the federal government a more active agent of equity and redistribution. Progressives gained a clear sense that deficit spending and fiscal stimulus were good and necessary.The Green New Deal is an example of that intellectual shift. This makes 2020 different from 2008 in the left’s ability to respond to capitalist crisis.How does this articulate in political responses to the COVID-19 pandemic?
In control of the WhiteHouse andSenate, the Republican reflex was for corporate tax breaks and little else.The fact that more was wrested for working people in the two-trillion-dollar Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act represents a gain, however limited, in the U.S. context, where the left is comprised in the main of non-profits, advocacy groups, community-based organizations, and unions. Two days after plans for a stimulus were announced, national federations like the Center for Popular Democracy leveraged the power of member groups, who had grown bases in their respective locales and had proven their voter turn out. National organizations converted these local accomplishments into pressure on key congressional Democrats, and they fashioned modest progress that improved on a very bad starting point for stimulus discussions(personal communication, Center for Popular Democracy campaign director).
For example,Democrat pressure in the House of Representatives expanded CARES to include unemployment benefits.First, by coming closer to replacing lost income rather than enacting a punishing maintenance mechanism. Second, by covering freelancers, platform-capitalist workers, and the self–employed, there in naming those who until now had not been recognized by the state as ‘workers.’ This impacts a longer struggle to remake the U.S.working class, consisting of heterogenous laborers who are waged and unwaged, formal and informal(see Carbon ella and Kasmir2014.)And the U.S. will deliver direct stimulus payments to residents with a social security number.The formula cuts out many immigrants and deepens existing inequalities along the lines of immigration status and citizenship. Stimulus provisions are feeble compared to some European models that socialize payrolls or (as in Spain) are poised to introduce a version of universal basic income.Yet they are modest wins in the U.S., and they are the result of building power on the ground since 2016. Any future movement to demand a‘people’s bailout’ will build upon that foundation.
Looking at this from a historical angle,Mike Davis distinguishes the radical reformist impulses of the Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Debs’Socialist tradition that challenged private property. Davis notes that in the last years, the U.S. left has advanced the former in the guise of a newNewDeal.Whether or not we wage a more radical struggle, engage in mass non–cooperation via widespread labor, debt, and rent strikes, and cultivate internationalism depends upon political capacity—in the form of concrete organizations, coalitions, and programs.Thus, it is important to consider the articulations of that capacity in particular locations.
Left Politics On-the-Ground in a Rust Belt City
For the past two years, I have been conducting field work in the rust belt city of Reading, Pennsylvania, and in the surrounding suburbs in Berks County.After decades of the decline of labor union power, local organizing has created new political and social movement groups. New alliances undergird a budding, heterogenous progressive bloc.
Reading is a deindustrialized, financially distressed city of 88,000, who are majority Latinx (officially 65% but likely upwards of 70%.)It is a solidly Democratic municipality in a wealthier, whiter, and more suburban and rural county that helped send Donald Trump to the White House. Pennsylvania leaned Republican in 2016, and it is a key battleground state for the 2020 national elections. Trump’s right-wing populism, racist tweets, and anti-immigrant crusade animated historical divisions inBerks.But his presidency also fostered new alliances, across ethnic and racial divides; immigration status; city and suburb. I am doing ethnographic research with three organizations at the heart of a fledgling left alignment.
Make the Road Reading organizes Latinx poor and working people of mixed immigration status.Make the Road’s parent organization(founded in 1996in New York)has branches in five states that advocate for immigrant rights, raising the minimum wage, and Latinx electoral power.Indivisible Berks/Berks Stands Up mobilizes mostly(but not exclusively)white, suburban working- and middle-class around issues of health care for all, affordable prescription drugs, and county and state policy. Members ofSunrise Movement Berks are multi-racial, gender-non-binary, young climate activists who forward the Green New Deal.
Image 1: Make the Road protesters and allies preparing for a legislative visit to demand an increase to Pennsylvania’s state minimum wage (Sharryn Kasmir, June 17, 2019)
Each is a branch of a national organization and is involved in wider coalitions that address different constituencies, who are themselves diverse.The three come together for protests, cooperate on issue driven campaigns, and collaborate during elections. Make the Road opened its Reading office five years ago, while the others launched after 2016.
Similar developments can be seen in cities across the U.S., each with their own histories, populations, and path dependencies. Philadelphia, New York, and Oakland, for example, have significant African American populations ,more continuous recent activist traditions ,and stronger labor movements. There, left alignments involve organizations such as Black Lives Matter, reconfigured ACORN affiliates, Working Families Party, and unions. The sum total of this work seeds the ground in which the present crisis unfolds and future initiatives will take shape.
Reading’s groups stayed the course of their alliance, even in the face of tactical or ideological disagreements that strain personal and political relationships.And they innovated new organizational forms. Just weeks after Pennsylvania’s first confirmed case of COVID, the three launched Berks Mutual Aid to serve needy community members, and each quickly brought their organizing on line.
All participate in theShut Down Berks Coalition that has waged a years-long campaign to close the family detention center that ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement) operates in the county. COVID-19 makes the release of immigrant detainees still more urgent, and the coalition demanded that Pennsylvania Governor Wolf immediately issue an executive order to close the facility. Protesters drove cars passed the Governor’s home, honking horns to disrupt the peace, while respecting social distancing guidelines.
Over the last two years, the groups pursued increasingly radical agendas in conjunction with a steadfast commitment to electoral work, including labor–intensive voter registration, canvassing, and get–out–the–vote.These actions deepened an ideological agenda for structural change while earning them power by influencing the results of local and state elections.To the point, in early 2020before the pandemic, IndivisibleBerks affiliated withPennsylvania Stands Up and became Berks Stands Up.In the process, the leadership cadre became more multi-racial and younger, and they urged an endorsement of Bernie Sanders. They did so even at the risk of alienating more moderate members who identified with the institutional Democratic Party. In fact, some departed the group.
Image 2: May Day 2019. Make the Road revived international workers’ day in Reading after it had not been celebrated in the city for decades. Sunrise and Indivisible members were in attendance (Sharryn Kasmir, May 1, 2019)
Shortly after Pennsylvania’s stay at home order, Sunrise put a weeks-long training program online, teaching history, political theory, and organizing techniques. One two-hour class was devoted to next steps after Sanders withdrew from the primary. In this session, political history did not begin with the New Deal, as it regularly did in Sunrise trainings, rather Reading’s twentieth century socialist legacy was the source of inspiration. The Reading Socialist Party won the mayoralty three times from 1927-44, and sent a representative to the state house in the 1930s. This class was one of very few times during my fieldwork that someone in activist circles evoked the city’s socialist tradition. This sort of ‘silence’ is something that anthropologists area devised to probe in our fieldwork, and it speaks to social forces that suppress popular memories of radicalism(Sider and Smith 1997).That connections between past and present socialism are being recollected at this time is, therefore, of consequence.
Prospects for a Radical Agenda
What will be the ability of the left to use this momentum to shape the government response to the COVID-19/capitalist crisis?How can activists continue to lay claim to the public sphere in order to push its agenda? How to organize mass non-cooperation?
It would be foolhardy to predict anti-capitalist politics from radical reformist developments, much less to foretell the victory of ‘people’ socialism over right-wing nationalism, or even to forecast to the electoral defeat of Donald Trump. In 2008, the left in the U.S.lacked energy and a clear, unifying project. In 2020, it has built new organizations and alliances. These modest but real gains provide more solid basis for a movement for radical structural change in the months and years to come.The current crisis amplifies capitalist contradictions already in evidence, and it opens new terrain of struggle in the U.S. and elsewhere. But any radical spark will need organization and institutions for fuel. The time is ripe to imagine the radical movements and programs we want.We do well to begin with a better understanding of the actors and organizations already on the ground.
Sharryn Kasmir(PhD CUNY) is Chair and Professor of Anthropology atHofstraUniversity. Her recent publications center on the anthropology of labor and on uneven and combined development as a theoretical framework for Marxist anthropology. She is co-editor ofBlood and Fire: Toward a Global Anthropology of Labor(Berghahn 2014).
Field work informing this publication was carried out in conjunction with “Frontlines: Class, Value, and Social Transformation in 21st Century Capitalism,” with funds fromThe Bergen Research Foundation, The Government of Norway, and the University of Bergen. Hofstra University also provided research support.
Carbonella, August and Sharryn Kasmir. 2014. Introduction: Toward a Global Anthropology of Labor. In: August Carbonella and Sharryn Kasmir, eds.In Blood and Fire: Toward a Global Anthropology of Labor, pp. 1-29, New York, Oxford: Berghahn Press.
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Maskovsky, Jeff and Sophie Bjork-James, eds. 2020.Beyond Populism: Angry Politics and the Twilight of Neoliberalism. West Virginia University Press.
Sider, Gerald and Gavin Smith, eds. 1997.Between History and Histories: The Making of Silences and Commemorations. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.