Finding Hope in the Rubble of 2020

By Robbie Helgason

Well, it’s over. Having thrown a wrench in the spokes of every prediction from the Western world, 2020 really, uh, did it to ‘em, so to speak. In many ways, 2020 could be seen as a watershed year for the U.S.; the largest mass protest movement in the nation’s history, 1 in 1,000 dead from a pandemic, and tens of millions left in dire straits from the shoddy patchwork of mostly failed efforts to stop the spread of virus. Or, so you’d think. 

Really, it’s hard to see this dumpster fire of a year as anything but a continuation of the trends that brought us here in the first place. Everything from the very cause of the virus itself to its effects on the global economy are symptomatic of the larger necrosis of the American neoliberal project, having reached its high watermark years ago, now receding into the graveyard of global hegemons. 

The (presumptively) zoonotic origins of the virus immediately lead to an indictment of the practice of mass scale factory farming, popularized and accelerated in America throughout the last 50 years, hollowing out the rural landscapes in which these farms reside. Even though in this case, the origins point to China, the chickens always come home to roost, as it were. Here in the US, one must only look as far back as 2015, with chicken and turkey flocks being culled by the tens of millions of birds, to see the wanton waste and potentially catastrophic public health risks that this practice breeds. Other widespread problems of drug and alcohol addiction, suicide rate increases, polluted waterways, and a massive jump in the poverty rates of rural communities accompany this economic transition to bigger and bigger farms staffed by fewer and fewer people. We have been sacrificing the flesh and blood of the American farmer and the land that provides for us to an ever larger, more productive and more environmentally devastating form of agriculture.

Once the virus had made landfall in the US, there was an initial rush to batten down the hatches, visible in early efforts to stop flights and cruises. Consumer and financial panic ensued, bottoming out the market in mid-March and causing the largest wave of joblessness in this country’s history. Following this gaping wound was also the largest economic band-aid our legislators have ever provided in the shape of the CARES Act, which stopped the bleeding on a means-tested basis while also giving the people a taste of universal provision in the form of $1,200 stimulus checks. 

Throughout the course of this pandemic we’ve seen multiple regional waves of ICUs being flooded with the ill and dying, followed by shutdowns, bans, and restrictions at the state level. As the curve became flatter, restrictions eased, starting the whole process over again for what has now been about three waves, the country over. As two weeks turned to two months and now 10, the need for another major relief bill from Congress went unmet for far too long, leaving millions of Americans facing eviction, hunger, and debt. Caught in the miasma of electoral politics, the debate over the relief package resulted in a strange four-way fissure of the two parties, with populist wings of both parties (headed by Hawley in the GOP and Sanders on the left), combatting internally against the more economically austere wings. All the while, the virus continued to wreak havoc. Re-reading February headlines from Western media about China’s “authoritarian” initial response to Covid is especially depressing now, as we remain the world’s leader in virus cases, and will be for the foreseeable future. 

Fires in the Streets

Shattering the spring air, hot fire leapt out of the heart of Minnesota over the police killing of George Floyd, sparking the largest mass protest movement in the U.S., causing civil unrest in nearly every major city across the country. Calls for an end to qualified immunity, bloated police budgets and militarization were submerged beneath culture-war style media narratives that painted over modest policy reform efforts from organizers with coverage of the spectacle of shattered windows, broken statues, and fires in the streets. 

With such a calamity of a year, certainly such a dramatic change in material conditions for average Americans would have been reflected in our governance, right? Well, maybe in a functioning government. Liberal democracy has only continued to be dominated by the juggernaut of capital, with this year seeing a gain on the order of trillions for billionaires, and a bloodletting among the working class. Social reforms continue to be entertained malignantly by the Republicans, and opportunistically by the Democrats. While programs such as Medicare for All remain overwhelmingly popular among the public, a corresponding level of support is nowhere to be found in a polity whose very existence was born of serving the interests of the wealthy. Every now and then a candidate like Bernie Sanders slips through the cracks, but is kneecapped by the machinations of our two-party system. In an amazingly effective deployment of the Democratic party apparatus, party leaders united in opposition to Sanders, turning the tide in favor of a man who lost two previous runs for president and managed to lose three out of the first four primaries.

Now, I’ve never been one for pessimism. They say that hope dies last, the wellspring from which all strength and fortitude bubble up, in the darkest of times. To confront our reality for what it is at its core is not an exercise in hopelessness, but rather the opposite. Looking with an earnest gaze at the insidious ways in which modern capitalism permeates nearly every aspect of our lives is the only way that we will be able to fight back. In 2021, may we continue to strip away all of the pretense and gloss that lies over the dark center of the American empire, with the goal of finding true hope.

Email questions or story ideas to Top image credit: Protesters fill the blocks from Pier A Park to Hoboken City Hall on June 5, 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Featous/CC BY-SA 4.0

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