In April, as the Donald Trump administration brushed off responsibility for federal regulatory oversight and on-the-ground protections of public health, Johnson & Johnson joined the onslaught of eager multinationals claiming to be on the same team as horrified screen-bound America watching coronavirus spread throughout the country. “If nothing else,” they wrote, “Covid-19 has taught us that we are all in this together.” Two months later, following appeal of lower court rulings, a federal court ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $2 billion to women who developed ovarian cancer after using their asbestos-laced talcum “baby powder.” APA reports St. Louis Circuit Judge Rex Burlison ruled Johnson & Johnson guilty in 2018 as well, writing then that the company “knew of the presence of asbestos in products that they knowingly targeted for sale to mothers and babies, knew of the damage their products caused, and misrepresented the safety of these products for decades.” For fifty years, Johnson & Johnson denied responsibility in causing carcinoma and death to trusting women, keeping their talc on shelves and specifically marketing it to African-American, Latina, teen, and overweight women while using profits from consumers to pay lobbyists to counter the wealth of evidence against them. They continue to sell their baby powder overseas.
In some ways, it is true that we are in this together. We are all facing a global pandemic. We are keeping the most vulnerable among us safe by trying to follow the advice of public health experts. We impact one another with our actions, and we exist as part of communities and societies and a nation that promises life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all. We share a planet and the environment that do not care about artificial borders.
But, when it comes to looking out for one another’s best interests, we are not in this together, and this, at core, is the problem. A few powerful people in this country do not want workers’ conditions to improve because they would rather pocket this money, and they know they are allowed to do so. Knowing that desperate people tend to be more compliant and accepting of abuse, they do not want to provide greater stability to those they oversee. They have the means but not the motive to pay a living wage and advocate for health care, affordable and fully funded public schooling, quality jobs, family leave, ecological protections, human rights policies, and other public goods. To strengthen their hand, however, they want others not to have these things. In fact, some with extreme power have overtly stated that they very specifically do not want youth and others in this country who lack independent wealth, protections, and opportunities to have these things. These groups have explicitly stated that their main goals lie in dismantling elements of society that contribute to public welfare and collective good. We are not in this together.
Forty years ago, the Koch family provided more than $2 million to back the nine-year-old Libertarian Party’s 1980 presidential campaign. This was an immense amount of money for the time. (For comparison, in 1980, there were 500,000 millionaires in the United States. In 2019, there were 18.6 million). The Koch’s donation made up over half of the campaign’s total funds. David, the younger of the two brothers leading Koch Industries, ran on the ticket as the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential nominee under Ed Clark. The New Republic writes:
Even by contemporary standards, the 1980 Libertarian Party platform was extreme. It called for the abolition of a wide swath of federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Bureau of Land Management, the Federal Election Commission, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the Federal Trade Commission, and “all government agencies concerned with transportation.” It railed against campaign finance and consumer protection laws, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, any regulations of the firearm industry (including tear gas), and government intervention in labor negotiations.…
Koch and his libertarian allies moreover advocated for the repeal of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other social programs. They wanted to abolish federally mandated speed limits. They opposed occupational licensure, antitrust laws, labor laws protecting women and children, and “all controls on wages, prices, rents, profits, production, and interest rates.” And in true libertarian fashion, the platform urged the privatization of all schools (with an end to compulsory education laws), the railroad system, public roads and the national highway system, inland waterways, water distribution systems, public lands, and dam sites.
Of course, Koch’s Libertarian Party lost the election to Republican Ronald Reagan and George H. Bush, but winning was never the point. The party and its funders succeeded in what they set out to do by pulling public discourse and, with it, public opinion further to the right, inspiring the work of Reagan and the Tea Party, and sowing the seeds that have been carefully tended and allowed to blossom into a widespread cultural normalization of what we now accept in today’s United States.
Libertarian beliefs are appealing in a capitalist country that conflates rights and success with unfettered, entitled independence, where we prize cowboys, celebrities, SUVs, Big Gulps, guns. It is easy to deny the existence of structural social hierarchies and to claim that our fates are based solely on individual actions when you also deny privilege, when family or friends quietly make sure you have all you need and more, when thriving inequity makes even the very wealthy feel aggrieved, when widening poverty is allowed to be explained with terms like work ethic and character rather than money, income, and power.
But not everyone is lucky enough to be able to claim this type of logic. In fact, the vast majority in this country is not. They see their communities’ vulnerabilities too closely. They also realize that deregulated laissez-faire capitalism advocated by libertarians represents an elimination of supports for the masses, but not for the privileged. Though all struggle to integrate what they know from experience into wider and more dominant libertarian cultural discourses that encourage us to blame one another for our failings, most acutely understand that laziness is not the reason their parents have less than Jeff Bezos.
As coronavirus again forces us to see, while we may wish to absolve ourselves of the burden of others, we are connected. Our successes come as a result of support we have received from one another: education, affirmation, job and promotion availability, roads, guidance, medical systems, food, so much more. And, unless we can amass millions to wall ourselves off literally and metaphorically from the world, we are vulnerable to those who wish to deny us basic rights—the mass shooter in the school, those that seek to protect their profits by forcing us to into a plague—and to the weakest among us, including the carrier of a virus who lacks health care, sick leave, high-quality education, and labor-free wealth.
In this country, we pay our hard-earned funds to some who use them to pay others to enact policies and practices that increase their power and wealth by eroding our rights and safety, to others who fire employees seeking the public pressure needed to gain basic protections for their coworkers as they dystopically excuse these dismissals as occurring due to “violating internal policies,” “violating guidelines,” and “putting the safety of others at risk,” as Amazon did last spring in firing two Black warehouse workers who organized against unsafe conditions and the two women engineers who stood up for them.
The U.S. people and the systems that are meant to serve us have been bled by austerity. We suffer from a crisis of care. We are undersupported and forced by inaction to accept abuse. Despite our will, our needs are being forced to compete against the profit interests of the world’s most powerful people who use our support to further isolate and impoverish us. We will never win this fight socially distanced. And our fear, isolation, and frustration are being weaponized in social media as part of coordinated political and economic efforts to actively enlist us in disseminating doubt and diversionary blame among each other, needed for the rich to continue deepening federal public disinvestment while lining their pockets.
Our beliefs fund our willingness to see one another as deserving of support. They also inform who we see as entitled, hostile, and unworthy.
On May 15, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, a second coronavirus relief bill, wended its way out of the House. Multinational corporations took massive handouts in the form of grants, forgivable loans, and tax cuts earlier this year as they called on the federal government to protect them within a natural disaster. The airline industry, cargo industry, and oil industry were among major beneficiaries of the March $2 trillion bailout. Rather than helping people keep jobs at the small local businesses it was designed to help with the $349 million allocated to the federal Payroll Protection Program (PPP), the U.S. Small Business Administration issued this to banks, which gave $243.4 million of it—a full 70 percent—to publicly traded companies, including some worth more than $100 million.
Due in part to provisions to support workers, families, and poor people, Republicans are opposing the allocation of these next $3 trillion. In May, our nation’s leader called the relief package “dead on arrival.” It has stalled for more than six weeks in the Senate.
HEROES contains massive bailouts for the health insurance industry, which is experiencing unprecedented profits, and to many within this industry who have stated they do not expect to suffer during the pandemic. It also includes provisions to allow lobbyists and groups like the National Rifle Association to access PPP funds. Citing “frivolous lawsuits,” Reutersreports that Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California are demanding that the HEROES Act and future U.S. bailout packages provide regulations promising insurance liability protection absolving responsibility from businesses that choose to ignore public health experts to reopen operations during the spread of COVID-19, once again placing care of wealthy corporations that fund and control certain politicians over care for the people in the United States on whose backs profits are made.
Earlier this spring, twenty conservative groups, including Charles Koch’s Americans for Prosperity, issued a letter to Senate leaders echoing the demand for regulations ensuring corporations will not face legal risk for opening during a pandemic. Separately, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) has been calling on lawmakers to limit lawsuits. NAM’s vice president sits on the board of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the powerful Koch-funded body of legislators and corporate leaders writing and lobbying for federal legislation to enable businesses to reopen and sacrifice workers to the pandemic. This extends years of intense “regulatory capture” as corporations commandeer regulatory offices designed to make them protect common people, not just shareholders. As further evidence of the incestuous nature of these networks, Koch Companies’ Phillip Ellender sits on NAM’s board.
Roll Call reports that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a memo this spring lobbying legislators to reopen businesses and provide legal immunity to companies “if front-line workers believe they got sick on the job, or if families say their loved one died after catching COVID-19 at work.” The message was clear: businesses need U.S. regulatory protections because opening businesses during a pandemic will kill workers and customers. Businesses say they keep their workplaces safe, but the memo indicates that major corporations privately acknowledge that many so-called essential employees will get sick or die.
In yet another example of how ambiguity in rules benefit the powerful, the Chamber of Commerce has argued that businesses should be relieved of responsibility if they follow CDC guidelines, even if these guidelines are not precise or effective enough to ensure safety.
The Republican National Committee’s former chief of staff Sarah Armstrong is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s vice president. Armstrong also sits on the board of ALEC. Through the Chamber of Commerce, Armstrong worked directlywith the White House to craft national policy loosening restrictions and protecting businesses in recent coronavirus bailouts. Families are frequently mentioned in these policies, but, with efforts actively fighting wages, parental leave, union representation, consistent scheduling, and paid sick leave, legislation advanced by the chamber commonly come at the expense of workers and of Main Street, while benefiting Wall Street. Conveniently, Charles Koch and others who support stripping U.S. workers of protections help fund the Chamber of Commerce as their separate involvements augment their efforts. Roll Call interviewed Terri Gerstein of Harvard Law’s School Labor and Worklife program, who summarized the Chamber of Commerce’s memo: “The chamber’s proposals are all about shielding companies from liability, which is a particularly dangerous thing to do during the pandemic. Our laws should incentivize protecting workers and consumers, and the fact that companies could be held accountable for negligence is absolutely crucial to protecting people and public health.”
Public Citizen agrees with this assessment. In a May 6 letter to Senate leaders, they challenge the call for corporate immunity and situate it within a long history of deregulation that brings wealth and privilege to the powerful while stripping others of essential protections. They write:
Businesses’ calls for immunity are premised on a false choice between the return to a healthy economy and allowing businesses to be held accountable if their carelessness causes people to get sick. Companies’ purported concern about lawsuits leading to catastrophic bankruptcies is a smokescreen for an opportunistic attempt to use the anxiety that we all share today to push through a groundbreaking weakening of the law. Indeed, many of the companies seeking immunity now have long been doing so, invoking the bugaboo of tort liability as the cause of their claimed struggles (often even as company profits have in fact thrived).
Because state law—not federal law—provides the mechanism by which injured individuals sue for harm caused by a company or store, these proposals are asking the Congress to override the laws of every state. Such state laws, however, are a crucial means of encouraging businesses to take reasonable steps to protect workers and consumers. They establish the duties of care by which we assess the reasonableness of conduct, and those duties are enforceable through state-law remedies. The duties and the remedies go hand in hand: Overriding the remedies both cuts off individuals’ only avenue of seeking compensation for harm and neuters the duty (and a key incentive) for businesses to take reasonable steps to ensure that no harm occurs in the first place.
The Intercept situates this most recent bid for corporate immunity within more than a decade of ALEC-driven efforts absolving businesses of responsibilities and allowing them to force risk on others. These efforts benefit even corporations outside of ALEC, such as Johnson & Johnson, Google, and Amazon, which all left ALEC to protect their reputation but now directly write bills enabling facial recognition and other pet interests.
This spring, following a $1 million donation from the Greater New York Hospital Association, the Guardian reports that New York governor Andrew Cuomo passed a bill providing immunity from liability for COVID-related deaths and injuries to New York nursing home and hospital executives, many of whom cut corners during the pandemic. More than five thousand New Yorkers have died from COVID-19 in nursing homes as some failed to take precautions recommended by the state health department—for example in lacking basic protective equipment and testing capacity, and admittingnew residents who had tested positive for COVID-19—while entrusted with some our country’s most vulnerable people.
This occurred within a wider context of the governor’s comfortingly truthful public communication and suspension of other protections within emergency conditions (such as allowing those “facilitating contributions or donations to assist New York State in its response to the declared emergency” to avoid antibribery penalties) that built on previous austeritymeasures, including decades of health care cuts, as well as the series of federal decisions denying and downplaying the pandemic, stoking racism, severely delaying and withholding delivery of essential supplies, and politicizing basic protective measures.
Those who vocally oppose governmental “handouts” to people regularly grease the wheels for welfare to corporations in the form of tax breaks, liability immunity, and other benefits, and these corporations, in turn, often work to cut rights and protections for the majority of people. Take billionaires and former Google CEOs Eric Schmidt and Bill and Melinda Gates, who Cuomo has called to vision the city’s reopening. Naomi Klein discusses Gates’ school privatization efforts and Schmidt’s advocacy of facial recognition surveillance in system design as just two of many troubling challenges presented by these appointments. What gives them the authority to vision for the people? And at what cost? As Klein writes,
we face real and hard choices between investing in humans and investing in technology. Because the brutal truth is that, as it stands, we are very unlikely to do both. The refusal to transfer anything like the needed resources to states and cities in successive federal bailouts means that the coronavirus health crisis is now slamming headlong into a manufactured austerity crisis. Public schools, universities, hospitals, and transit are facing existential questions about their futures. If tech companies win their ferocious lobbying campaign for remote learning, telehealth, 5G, and driverless vehicles—their Screen New Deal—there simply won’t be any money left over for urgent public priorities, never mind the Green New Deal that our planet urgently needs.
On the contrary: The price tag for all the shiny gadgets will be mass teacher layoffs and hospital closures.
We are being denied guidance, stability, power, protection, and control, and we are led to direct the frustrations we feel from this into efforts undermining ourselves.
Minneapolis rose up against the murder of George Floyd, yet another Black man killed by police. In response, early on May 29, Trump, the president of the United States and a brazen embodiment of the systemic cruel and unusual punishment of capitalism he is part of, termed protestors “THUGS,” and tweeted that the military was being deployed to Minneapolis: “Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Media Mattersreports Fox News covered this declaration by placing a waving flag behind it and discussing only the Twitter warning accompanying it as “censorship,” omitting mention of the president’s authorized killing of U.S. citizens.
Trump has publicly identified people of color in the United States as criminals, and white supremacy hate-group involvement in the country has grown 55 percent since his election. The FBI has actively resisted grouping white supremacists with gangs, denying formal recognition of these groups’ efforts as organized operations and opting, instead, to register their acts as isolated incidents, absolving these groups of responsibility.
However, on May 31, the president charged “Antifa”—a made-up term encompassing all those who hold antifascist sentiments—as domestic terrorists. Similar to the way terrorist has been used in the United States, Antifa designates no specific group. It is a fabricated term placed on groups by nonmembers that allows for arbitrary assignment by those in power, casting the net of social doubt and troubled rights widely over all who justly oppose fascism, and mobilizing the militarized police and justice system to violently maintain hierarchies supportive of existing regimes.
Civic-minded common people are forced to carry the unfair burden of this country’s denied leadership and relentlessly cruel aggression toward the powerless.
To riff on Minneapolis’ favorite son, Prince, within the loss, confusion, and pain we are forced to experience in today’s pandemic-spiked United States, we have, indeed, gathered together on social media to get through this thing called life. But we are gathered here for other reasons, as well. Motivated by neglect, injustice, loss, and trauma, we are being led into fighting for profit-driven profiteers rather than for actual people who have invested in the well-being and protection of our youth and communities. We are being led to channel our legitimate discontent over corrupt leaders and unjust treatment into normalizing our lack of structural support and harboring animosity against others historically disenfranchised by the same systems, continuing the racism this country was founded on.
We are being tricked into being henchmen for others who want to take away our rights. We are being used as puppets to augment stories incorrectly identifying the people as the source of the risk we face in today’s United States. We are being used to allow wealthy and connected leaders to maintain their astroturfed guise of beneficence as they continue to deny us the basic humanity needed to provide bailouts during a pandemic and other chances at life. We are being conned.
As the powerful strip themselves of regulations, responsibility, and accountability, they are using us to help them focus policing and suspicion on one another, validating stories with individualistic logics that ignore structure and affirm poor and working-class people as the problem. They are using us as mouthpieces to give voice to their longstanding demands that we have nothing—no protections, no stability, no opportunities outside of rare luck, no guidance, no trust, no bailouts, no belief in justice, no chances for growth, no power—and that they who game the systems for themselves and their loyal friends deserve it all.
And, despite all of their libertarian rhetoric and hoarding, these privileged few who deny others’ vulnerabilities, realities, and needs know they cannot succeed on their own. None of us can. They need us to keep sharing and bonding around the stories that give them cover.
In an essay first shared in 2009 at a reading of her book, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, poet Alice Walker writes:
In the film The Thin Red Line, the main character, a conscientious objector to the war in which he finds himself, asks, contemplating the slaughter on both sides: Who is Killing Us? That is the only question to ask, really. Who is killing us? Who is torturing us? Who is making us dance around the world going Yes, Yes, Yes, you are so right, when all the time we’re appalled to our very core.…
You have a right to live in joy on this planet. You cannot do that, we cannot do that, if we are harassed and tormented by those who do not care about us, or about law and justice; those who readily insult our integrity whenever we ask simply to be heard; those who trample our dreams of peace and would deny us tomorrow because we, having been made to feel guilty and intimidated by a history of which we have no part, have not found the courage to say No to them today.
Who is killing us? Who is torturing us? Who collectively has their boot on the neck of Black, Indigenous, transgender, poor, and other people in the United States, carrying out public executions even as capitalism justifies denial and normalization? Who permits the deregulatory violence that multinationals like Johnson & Johnson are allowed to cover up and continue in poisoning our democratic processes, our protections, our air, water, and land, fueling austerity, forcing oppressed people to suffer and die while lying aggressors write their own systemic protections? How do we correct our well-trained tendency to align with those who use wealth and power to weaken us and normalize inequity while telling us we are in this together? Those who are least supported have been forced to ignore the fumes of gaslighting to become invisible like its violence as part of survival rather than ignite together against it into flames. We must learn how to collectively say “no!” to those who want us to keep blaming each another for the suffering they are intentionally causing us, to those that invest their fortunes in ensuring that we continue to sacrifice ourselves for their insatiable hunger for profit.
Over the course of the past forty years, the United States has quietly extended the reach of its ancestral colonization, a term derived from the Latin word colonus, meaning farmer. After years of carefully coordinated cultivation of increasingly privatized systems built on white supremacist logics denying responsibility for collective care, we are again in harvest time. The fruits of these efforts are now resulting in a bumper crop, with a powerful few who know they are entitled to move fast and break things reaping the spoils while the majority are poised to be further depleted by producing unprecedented bounty and blaming each other for being starved.
It is past time to expose the roots of this unjust system and to return the power to the people.