The COVID-19 crisis is the most calamitous global event any living person can recall. Millions of cases worldwide have claimed over 150,000 lives as epidemiologists predict far more mayhem before the virus is under control. The drastic precautionary measures necessary to stem COVID’s spread, like “social distancing” and the closure of many businesses, are perfectly logical from the perspective of saving the lives of our fellow human beings. These measures have however been disastrous for a world market which must constantly churn out profit regardless of the social utility, or social harm, its products generate. Deprived of work by no fault of their own, millions of wage laborers will soon be unable to pay their rents and otherwise care for themselves and their loved ones in economies which place a monetary value on health, housing, and nourishment. More ghoulish still is the predicament of workers who should be home, but are forced by their employers to brave a potentially fatal illness to keep the profits coming in.
In short, the contradictions of capitalist society – in which objects are treated with the esteem of humans, and humans with the indifference of things – are today laid bare, along with concrete possibilities for a working-class offensive. It is a moment of great transition, a once-in-a-generation watershed, which will neatly bifurcate history into before and after. Around the world, young people who will inherit the outcome of this historical conjuncture are putting their heads together, experimenting with new forms of solidarity, pushing back against rent and other forms of exploitation, organizing strikes, and preparing the stage for a confrontation with the economic order that has made so many lives expendable. In this and all moments of great decision, we must look to the past for the inspiration, lessons, and the guidance it may provide our uncertain steps through uncharted lands.
Thankfully, our elders have spoken!
Earlier this week, sixty-six self-proclaimed “former leaders of Students for a Democratic Society” joined in one voice to address the exigencies of this decisive hour. With clear eyes they cut through the dizzying array of political possibilities we face, to shine a great beacon on the urgent task of our moment: in 201 days, we must steel our resolve, quiet our doubts, steady our quivering hands, and strike out with a decisive vote for Joe Biden.
This letter has left many perplexed, least of all over how an organization can have sixty-six leaders. More to the point, it is astonishing that such an effort to draw upon so many veteran activists into one urgent message to the next generation could be made to say… so little. In all honesty, it makes one wonder if many of them had anything to say in the first place. But enough! The younger generation is not blameless either. Since the withdrawal of Bernie Sanders from the Democratic race and his predictable endorsement of Joe Biden, social media pundits across the political spectrum have expended seemingly boundless energy debating whether individual people can or should check a box in an elementary school basement seven months from now.
The sad fact is it doesn’t matter how individual people vote. In most states it doesn’t matter how gigantic masses of people vote. And everywhere, voting ranks among the most superficial and hollow forms of political participation, if we could even call it that. In ordinary times, the reality TV culture that goes by the name of “politics” is a harmless enough distraction from real life. In the COVID moment, with so much work to be done, it is downright offensive.
Does this mean one shouldn’t vote at all? I don’t know – should individual people recycle, get legally married, remove the tags from their mattresses, or say their prayers at night? The question isn’t whether or not one should engage in these activities, but how much time one should spend discussing and debating their merits. The answer is: very little, to none. Do it, don’t do it, just shut up about it, and the third part is the most important. Or, as another New Left leader, Noel Ignatiev, once put it: “Since I believe that for most people whether or how they vote is probably the least important decision they make every few years, and that most of them know it and will recover their sense of reality as soon as the ‘silly season’ is over, and that they will do what they want regardless of anything I say, I also pledge not to argue with anyone about voting.”
But back to our friends in the Old New Left. “The tradition of all dead generations,” writes Marx, “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Alternatively, Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks famously sang: “How can I miss you when you won’t go away?”