Deep Problems

Deep Problems

The center may lack imagination and moral vision, but it has one weighty advantage: we all live in the world it built.

Riding the subway in New York City (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

This essay is part of a special section on the pandemic in the Summer 2020 issue.


The COVID-19 crisis, like other recent and ongoing crises, makes visible what had tended to be invisible, or at least easily ignored. Like many crises, it accelerates structural trends that were already in place, particularly in economic and technological organization. It also highlights some hopeful qualities in people. Life under distancing shows how quickly our social world can change in the face of felt need. We see everywhere that solidarity is real and people are hungry to help and support one another. Although these are rudiments of left politics, the crisis has caught the left at a moment of weakness, despite remarkable national campaigns and local victories. Meanwhile the right has the political initiative, and the center retains a hegemony that belies recent perceptions of its downfall.

First, what the crisis has disclosed:

1. The American working class now substantially populates the provisioning economy. This includes the logistics workers who sustain Amazon’s invisible supply lines. The middle-class isolate who imagines being autonomous in a detached home depends on this sorting, carting, and toting labor. The new provisioning economy has swung into high gear and gathered market power through the crisis—for the owners, but not for the workers.

2. American labor is also the labor of caregiving, from hospitals to nursing homes and beyond. Caregiving and provisioning are the bloodstream of the economy and, more broadly, the society. Essential as they are, these workers remain, individually and collectively, relatively powerless. Sporadic labor actions among logistics workers for basic safety, and similar demands from healthcare workers facing overwork and shortages of protective equipment, have been at best fugitive examples of what systemic worker power would look like in this crisis.

3. The U.S. strategy for the crisis has been to draft the working classes to the epidemiological front lines, producing high levels of exposure, illness, and death for people who take the subway or bus to work, interact with lots of customers, or provide basic healthcare. This has bent the proverbial curve, on the backs of those who cannot afford to bend.

4. Economic power means, among other things, the power to withdraw and stay inside, or to get to the country or the shore. The billionaire prepper who buys land in New Zealand now seems only the emblematic extreme of a much broader pattern of stratified survival strategies.

5. The U.S. government is committed to doing whatever it can to support the wealth of the investing classes, who range from hedge-funders and investment bankers to tens of millions of workers with retirement funds, but does not include the majority of the country with substantially no investments (or none besides their own house). This role is global. The Federal Reserve’s control of the dollar, which remains the world’s reserve currency, gives it effectively limitless power to issue new funds or authorize private banks to do so at zero interest. If it is possible to prevent an economic slowdown from causing a retrenchment in speculative profits, the U.S. government will find a way. In some respects, this is a rational and humanitarian stance: deeper economic crisis would make everything worse, especially for the already vulnerable. In other ways, this posture highlights the U.S. state’s priority—investor wealth above all—and its worrisome policy of stabilizing the economy by propping up what traditional metrics would portray as asset bubbles. It is a form of downward class warfare for a decadent age.

Second, trends:

1. The likely result of the crisis is to speed up the economy’s consolidation into mega-companies, signally the big retailers. There’s a tremendous amount of cash splashing around now, but not for everyone. Those who have it will buy up or supplant those who don’t. This has been the trend for decades, and a few months with little conventional economic activity will ruin many smaller enterprises.

2. Surveillance will almost certainly increase and deepen. If COVID-19 isn’t medically mastered soon, renewing economic, social, and institutional life will likely involve comprehensive biomonitoring and the use of cell data for contact tracing. Following the lead of South Korea, U.S. institutions such as colleges and workplaces, if not governments, will make joining in these systems the threshold condition for participating in common life. In some ways this simply speeds up what the Chinese government was already doing. These techniques offer a solution to what Thomas Hobbes identified as the fundamental problem of sovereignty: how to enable people to know that they are safe in interaction, so that cooperation can replace a life that is nasty, contagious, and uncertain.

3. Technocracy gains over democracy whenever a crisis of complex systems throws effective power into the hands of experts and their institutions. Again, this is in many ways a rational and humane imperative: the collapse of systems of economic governance, let alone public health, would be disastrous. But there is still a deep problem when democratic politics becomes mostly performance, while the key decisions are technical and hardly subject to public discussion, or even comprehension. That has been the nature of the economic response to COVID-19, in which the Federal Reserve has been in the saddle, while even Congress’s ability to pass huge relief bills has resulted in depressingly familiar administrative snares—as well as a lack of meaningful or engaged debate. We are unlikely to see nightly celebrations of frontline workers turn into a federal push for an economy that cares for those who do the caring rather than profiting those who were already rich.

Third, prospects:

The crisis has highlighted limits in the new right’s scope of political action, at least in the United States. Donald Trump’s nationalism runs up against a Republican Party still mainly favored by business and capital in a world that is not much less economically integrated than when he took office. He and his constituencies need China’s economy, much as they want to do rhetorical battle with its government. They need migrant agricultural laborers from Latin America, much as they profit from vilifying them. They need, and Trump makes a fetish of, Wall Street, the City of London, and other centers of the dematerializing capitalism that has dissolved borders everywhere—at least for capital. The nihilistic political solution is to treat campaigns and government as entertainment, while one’s friends get rich in the background in the same old ways, plus extra graft. The various tensions that COVID-19 has highlighted in the world economy, which caused a flurry of excited “end of globalization” commentary a few weeks into the crisis, do not point to any way out of this dilemma.

This doesn’t mean the left will have its chance. From Bernie Sanders’s abrupt and decisive defeat in the Democratic primaries to the lack of robust social provision in the federal coronavirus bailouts so far—let alone the Green New Deal and public-health mobilization that we need—2020 has demonstrated the left’s powerlessness. There is a tremendous gap between our capacity to articulate a case for a different world and the ability to make it matter to the unpersuaded. The center may lack imagination and moral vision, but it has one weighty advantage: we all live in the world it built. A feeling that power and responsibility belong inherently to the centrist institutionalists and technocrats helped drive primary voters to Joe Biden just before the world fell apart. The democratic left is stuck as long as there remains a lack of popular faith that it can rule effectively. Nothing in our deepening troubles has so far changed that.

Jedediah Britton-Purdy teaches at Columbia Law School and is the author, most recently, of This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth. He is a member of the editorial board of Dissent.