Nature’s General Strike

We are all flooded with countless articles and essays to read these days about the Covid-19. I start to write this somewhat reluctantly, because what really can I say that is so different than the millions of words already coursing through the internet? But I’m a blogger, albeit a pretty infrequent one, and I do have an unorthodox way of seeing the world around me. So here I am.

The view from Bernal Heights on one of the many incredibly clear sunsets we’ve had lately.

I’m also grieving the devastation that is underway. Much as I’ve hoped for the end of the world as we know it, mass sickness and death is horrifying. My mother died five months ago, too, so this brings those feelings to the surface every day as well. And then I have the odd experience of being a person who has repeatedly publicly said we should all just stop! Stop doing all this stupid work, most of which is destroying the planet and making us miserable. Once we stop, I proposed, we should figure out what work IS worth doing, and then get on with it… like reorganizing our plumbing systems so we stop using fresh drinking water for waste removal. Like deconstructing buildings in known flood zones and managing our retreat from the shorelines where the ocean and bay will soon rise to unknown levels. Like depaving huge swaths of the urban environment in favor of radical expansion of local food production… Like returning 50% of the lands of the earth to nature’s control, giving other species a chance to rejuvenate and reestablish themselves as part of the web of life, etc. etc.

Soon after my March 11 birthday (and the release of my new book Hidden San Francisco) passed, the severity of the pandemic started to become clearer to me. I admit I was a bit frustrated before then, thinking it puzzling that so many people were getting so freaked out by what was still a fairly low number (then) of infections and deaths. After all, we treat as normal the slaughter of nearly 40,000 people annually on the roads of the U.S. by car collisions, a toll that I have been describing forever as a bizarre social decision to trade “convenience” for mass murder. We’re also living through a decades-long rising crescendo of cancer deaths that we largely attribute to individual bad luck and/or lifestyle choices, rather than the systematic poisoning of our environment by identifiable corporate and individual criminals. And the United States is the largest purveyor of arms and militarized terror the world over, killing directly or indirectly tens of thousands every year in the name of (our) peace and prosperity. The list goes on from there… But as I said, just a few weeks back the numbers on the virus were uncertain, and I was carrying on a usual.

Our last daily newspaper, March 17, 2020.

As San Francisco declared a shelter-in-place order, and businesses shut down all around us (though grocery stores have remained open and well stocked after the first frenzy of panic shopping), and the scope of the global shutdown started to become clear, I suddenly realized that this is it! I’d been expecting and anticipating that our fragile daily lives would suddenly break and collapse eventually. What would cause it? A financial collapse like 2008? An earthquake? A Chernobyl-style nuclear accident? No, it is the pandemic. When in modern times have we seen the entire planet shut itself down over a period of a few weeks? Everyone who thinks we are going back to normal after a month or two hasn’t thought it through.

How many people were already at the edge before this started? Something like 40-50% of U.S. households reported that they couldn’t sustain an unexpected $500 medical or other expense. How many people were already working in precarious, part-time and low-paid jobs, mostly in the much-vaunted service sector? The March 28 SF Chronicle reports that somewhere around 30,000 restaurants have closed in California, a large percentage of which will never reopen. That must be at least 100,000 people who are now permanently unemployed. And that’s just one sector. All convention businesses are closed down. Tourism is shut down. Hotels are empty. Entertainment is closed down, no sports, no concerts, no museums. A happy side effect of all this is that AirBnB is collapsing, but all the people that have built their precarious financial lives on the steady income they could get by renting rooms to tourists are shit out of luck. And this is all just in San Francisco. Extrapolated across the country and all the world, and what we are living through is truly unprecedented.

Waiting in line in six-foot increments, outside Rainbow Grocery.
The line wrapped all the way around to 14th Street at one point.
This is the Trader Joe’s line in Castro Valley on March 27… they’ve adopted the same system.
Lots of boarded up places in the neighborhood.
West of Pecos and Puerto Alegre both boarded up quickly.

The government, after pretending there was nothing to worry about until stock markets began to tank, set in motion something like $2.5 trillion of zero interest money into the banking and corporate sectors. When that had little effect, Congress passed an additional $2.2 trillion relief bill (that according to Matt Stoller on Democracy Now on Friday is actually $6 trillion, with a huge amount of public wealth being surreptitiously handed over to corporations and the ultra-rich), which by most accounts is just not enough to help much. Average workers are promised $1,200 checks, and increased unemployment benefits if they can get through the clogged bureaucracies, whose phone lines and websites are wheezing under the strain. California Governor Newsom (former wine merchant and San Francisco mayor) announced a three-month grace period has been agreed to by all major banks for mortgage payments. But no corresponding suspension or cancellation of rents has been decreed to match this. So apparently the state’s plan so far is to lavish wealth and flexibility on those that already sat further up the economic pyramid, while throwing crumbs with one hand to the vast majority of the population, while leaving the coercive power of debt and rent untouched. All renters are apparently expected to continue paying rent even while their incomes have disappeared. Most people are already in serious debt and have no savings to weather this crisis. We know there is going to be incredible hardship and a frightening rise in poverty and hunger in the next months. But this will be an outcome of this type of social set-up, not simply the result of a virus. Still, the virus is a catalyst and this quote underscores its role in giving us this unexpected break in everyday life.

What the Virus Said: “So stop blaming me, accusing me, stalking me. Working yourselves into an anti-viral paralysis. All of that is childish. Let me propose a different perspective: there is an intelligence that is immanent to life. One doesn’t need to be a subject to make use of a memory and a strategy. One doesn’t have to be a sovereign to decide. Bacteria and viruses can also call the shots. See me, therefore, as your savior instead of your gravedigger. You’re free not to believe me, but I have come to shut down the machine whose emergency brake you couldn’t find. I have come in order to suspend the operation that held you hostage. I have come in order to demonstrate the aberration that “normality” constitutes.”

A deserted Interstate-280 at 6:45 pm on a Thursday!
And the iconic Highway 101 entry to downtown pretty empty too!

As my title has it, this is Nature’s General Strike. Humans did not decide to break with this brutally exploitative and coercive system by halting the world through a mass strike. We might say Nature has imposed the general strike on the planet, precisely at the moment that CO2 levels were skyrocketing, that social misery was out of control (as evidenced by mass drug abuse, loneliness, endless wars, and frenzied consumerism), and the urgency of radically changing course was becoming unavoidable. But humans have lost the ability to take action collectively during the long nightmare of exploitative capitalism and its most recent manifestation in neoliberalism, a system that has colonized imaginations as much as it has destroyed the public sphere and institutions of shared self-governance (however flawed).

Neoliberalism insists that individually we are responsible for our “unfitness” to survive scarcity. Wendy Brown, who has written several books taking on neoliberal illogic, helpfully frames it in her In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West:

In short, the neoliberal critique of society and social justice in the name of freedom and traditional moral norms has become the common sense of a robust neoliberal culture today. At its extreme, it is the Alt-Right “red pill” ideology; in its more moderate form, it is the conviction that life is determined by genetics, personal responsibility, and market competition. Within this common sense, the social is the enemy of freedom, while “social justice warriors” are the enemies of a free people. (p. 44)

Since the 1970s, the turn toward privatization and unleashing the “magic of the market” as a solution to all problems has largely destroyed the social safety net. Neoliberal politicians universally embraced the notion that individuals had to be responsible for themselves, and that state support only inculcated a culture of dependency. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor put it in her excellent book Race for Profit:

… above all, neoliberalism is a political, social, and economic rejection of the social welfare state and the social contract more generally. It is a strategic effort aimed at restoring the profitability of business and capital by undermining the social obstacles that had destabilized its primacy.

The full fruit of this capture of politics by private interests is on display in the pandemic. Hospitals and medical facilities are short of basic equipment and supplies (that are no longer stockpiled but acquired by a Toyota-like “just in time” system that is now broken), there is a lack of testing and basic preparedness for the inevitability of a globe-spanning infection (see Bill Gates’s 2015 TED Talk—anyone who wanted to, knew this was coming), and we suffer insufficient capacity at hospitals and no obvious plan for this sudden increase in need, etc. etc. The paralysis of the federal government over weeks when it should have been in overdrive is partly due to the sheer incompetence of an idiot like Trump running the show, but it really goes a lot deeper than that. After nearly a half century of framing government as the problem, few trust it and few believe it can do what it needs to do in this moment. And I don’t say that because I think it makes sense to flip that on its head and suddenly claim that the state is great, and more government activity is an obvious solution here, because none of that is true either, although we’ll probably get a lot more of it than we want in the form of military and police mobilization to maintain social control while everything else is breaking down.

Bernal Heights more busy than usual in these days.

We lack structures for self-governance. In the face of disasters like earthquakes or floods or hurricanes, people often behave with great grace and kindness, rushing to help strangers, and taking responsibility for basic norms of cooperation and mutual aid. A pandemic is different for lots of reasons, not least is the fear of touching that comes with it. So much of what comforts us and gives us a real capacity to take care of ourselves is our ability to connect with each other face to face, in public.

In San Francisco, people have mostly gone all-in on both the physical distancing and cooperation needed to keep us from inadvertently spreading the virus around among ourselves. Early indications are that we’ve had some modest success in “flattening the curve” of contagion. Rainbow Grocery Cooperative has been magnificent in organizing lines outside the store with 6-foot separators, regulating how many people get in at any given time, in order to keep a vital outlet for food supplies going strong during this difficult time. The leadership came from the workers. I was just in the Castro Valley Trader Joe’s yesterday to buy supplies for my 88-year-old father in Hayward, and was happy to see that they’ve adopted the same system, which can’t be said of the Whole Foods I visited earlier in March where there were no efforts to regulate the number of people in the store nor how people moved around inside. My friend Angie was sent home from work at Whole Foods in Oakland when she refused to work without being given medical masks and gloves faced by the hordes of people roaming unorganized in the store.

Strolling through the streets has been a daily pleasure during this jarring time. Up on Bernal Heights there are more people than usual walking around alone and in twos and threes, walking dogs and children, and enjoying the stunningly clear air and amazing views. My friend Katie Renz captured the feeling that a lot of us have here:

Amid all this uncertainty and insecurity, I do know this: These past ten days I’ve been flooded with a sense of hope and potential that has been the sacrificial lamb during my past five years scrambling to survive with a scrap of integrity in the technopolis of San Francisco. … This graciousness, these smiles, this camaraderie, this attentiveness to our use of resources and inability to buy a bunch of silly products, this time with our loved ones slowed way down and in the fresh air—these are a sampling of the benefits of these weirdo weeks. Will we have the courage to maintain them in a post-Covid world? Can we try?

Bleaker news arrived this morning from my old friend Giovanni, who finds himself at the epicenter in Italy in the city of Bergamo:

Here, as was extremely easy to forecast, hunger is beginning… They put armed guards all around supermarkets, many people have no money and nothing to eat… All people in informal economy, with non guaranteed jobs, and no money in banks (eg, many millions) are now under water. Some of those (proletarian and underproletarian) the petty bourgeois between 20 and 50 year olds, that were doing “symbolic” or “status” jobs (jobs that makes almost no money, but gives you social status and “self – realization”) that were ALL living by renting houses in AirBNB, university/union/state research/cultural contracts and getting money from parents’ and grandparents’ retirement pensions… BTW, a lot of pensions are going to go, probably lot of people is looking at the big freezer in the basement to check if granma can fit in…

From the Public Health Department, suddenly on everyone’s door a few days ago…

I shudder at how harsh it’s going to get in the U.S. as millions are without the money to cover their basic needs, let alone rent. There is going to be a catastrophic wave of bankruptcies in the next months as the whole system that teeters in extreme fragility atop the pyramid of people paying rent comes crashing down. Because whether or not there is an organized rent strike, or an authorized rent cancellation for a few months, millions of people are going to stop paying rent in the next 2-3 months at the latest. When and how they’ll resume paying depends on the creativity of government officials who will be frantically trying to figure out how to restart the stalled economy. This presumes that we can begin to move around more freely again, still on guard against the virus, but without the extreme measures we’re living through now still in place.

Will they institute free Medicare for All? How do they handle the overwhelmed medical system and its chaotic mismanagement of resources without instituting a centralized, rationalized system of organized health care provision for all? How do you stop a pandemic without making sure that everyone gets tested and treated as soon as possible? And then, if the authorities really want to save and restart capitalism they will have to institute a system of Guaranteed Basic Income (and/or services). With the dramatic collapse of countless service sector businesses and jobs, and the precarity they all survived in prior to this crisis, the only way to get money into the hands of millions of people will be to give it to them, every month, forever.

It’s also a question of political legitimacy. Who would be willing to play by the rules that have destroyed the livelihood, shelter, and well-being of a substantial portion of the population? Who would pay for their shelter if they have no way to get money? How do you enforce a shelter-in-place order without guaranteeing shelter? What is to prevent mass violence and class war but a systematic buying off of the population that has been thrown into desperation? The rents that go unpaid in the next months will never be paid. If the private property owners want to retain their system, they will have to figure out how to accommodate a mass inability to maintain rents for months or longer.

These are pretty obvious problems and if the political elite in the U.S. has any hope of regaining their hegemony over society, they’ll have to go a lot further than they agreed to go during the 1930s New Deal. This New Deal will require free health care, basic minimum income, free public transportation, free broadband internet, access to dignified and stabilized housing through new forms of self-management such as co-ops block by block, and a rapid conversion to a fossil-fuel-free, low-energy society… that’s just for starters.

A lot of people are going to wish we could go back to life as it was before the virus hit. Just as many—or more—won’t look back on that prior life as worth fighting for, since it was already precarious, debt-ridden, stressful, and increasingly hopeless. In the recent primaries we already saw a majority of voters choose the moribund Joe Biden, either because he doesn’t scare Republicans and “centrists,” or because people want to restart the Obama years. Either way, the frightened embrace of a past that is definitively lost to us has to give way to a robust grasp of a much better future. The virus has given us an incredible opportunity to reorganize life, to really take on the challenge of Climate Chaos, to assault the gross inequalities that have been allowed to expand so cavernously, and to rediscover a pace of life that gives us time to sit in a plaza or a park and actually talk to each other!

As I’ve proposed over the years, let’s talk about the work we should be doing, now that Nature has brought us to a halt. Let’s get on the right side of this General Strike, and make sure we never go back to the frenzied stupidity of life as we knew it. Let’s work with nature, with natural systems, and figure out just how wonderful life can be for all of us working together, not just in the U.S. but everywhere. The old way has been suddenly and dramatically stopped. Resuming it is both impossible and impossibly stupid. We are a lot smarter than that. Can we prove it?!?

On Bernal’s southwest side: “Stay apart” “Stick together”
A folk quartet serenades a park full of physically distanced couples in the Panhandle…
Not so physically separated young’uns in Alta Plaza…

As an antidote to my earnestness, I conclude with a poem from my pal Philip:

This Is a Coronavirus Poem

This is a Coronavirus poem

Here are four ironic lines that play off of “Wash your hands”

Here I say heart a bunch

The word neighbor

Then I have some sharp words

for the US healthcare system

The government

Here things get kind of cosmic and incoherent

Maybe something like “mother earth is fighting back”

A vegan slogan or something

The something in ALL CAPS



It ends with the word together

And then I post it and I feel good

And then I feel bad

And then I feel nothing

2 comments to Nature’s General Strike

  • Thanks, Chris. More coherent and fluid than my long posts generally are, but then, you’re a real writer and editer. I don’t think the virus came with a purpose, but it is presenting us with an opportunity to step back from a societal cliff edge, its weight automatically applying the brake pedal we wouldn’t press. It is stunning to see some people depress the gas pedal in response, or others just wanting to ease off the gas a little.

  • Chris,
    Love your notion of “Nature’s General Strike”! It puts a positive spin on the present and, to me at least, also shows the limits of a general strike without insurrectionary assemblies.

    I’m afraid that the present crisis, like 911, will result in governments taking more powers–in this case the capacity to enact curfews and call out the military.
    George Kats

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