On Fridays, we are posing questions to Dr. Bruce Rogers-Vaughn (right), an ordained Baptist minister, pastoral psychotherapist and Associate Professor of the Practice of Pastoral Theology and Counseling at Vanderbilt Divinity School, and the author of Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age (Palgrave, 2019).
Tommy Airey: How, specifically, is neoliberalism implicated in the COVID-19 crisis in the U.S.?
Dr. Bruce Rogers-Vaughn: If we have eyes to see, this global plague is stripping away the façade, so that we can see more clearly the wizardry previously hidden behind the curtain. Most US residents are experiencing levels of unemployment and economic hardship not known since the Great Depression, while simultaneously watching as Wall Street makes a dramatic recovery. How is this possible? Because neoliberal interests use their economic and political power to take advantage of chaos to increase their profits and power. This is what Naomi Klein famously referred to as “disaster capitalism.” As the Great Recession hit in 2008, Rahm Emanuel, then President Obama’s chief of staff, flatly declared: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. I mean, it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” It was a moment of unusual transparency, as is the crisis created by this pandemic. Monopoly corporations and wealthy elites use their power to stealthily attach riders to hastily-written emergency bills passed by Congress, increasing their already-immense wealth and power. Meanwhile, economic devastation wipes out many of the small businesses that still manage to exist, as larger corporations quickly descend to scoop up their assets and customers. The corner grocery closes, never to return, while Amazon (and Whole Foods, its subsidiary) becomes more profitable and stronger than before. This sort of thing is occurring in many sectors of the economy. No wonder stock values are increasing.
Meanwhile, the additional $600 per week in unemployment benefits expired the end of July, along with the moratorium on housing evictions. Banks and investors are now waiting in the wings, ready to snap up quick and easy profits from foreclosures. Unless Congress manages to pass another relief bill, which at the moment isn’t looking good, many more people will become homeless, as the rich get richer. It’s about to get worse. Much worse.
Even the new coronavirus itself is a moneymaking opportunity. Just this week I was reading an article reporting on the immense revenue growth now occurring in the healthcare industry. It noted that chief executives in health-related companies, mindful of the hardship, suffering, and death blanketing the populace, are expressing embarrassment about releasing their quarterly profit statements. Perhaps all this is what Trump means when he insists the economy will come back strong. He’s thinking about his wealthy friends and investors.
All the while, this rampant inequality—fueled by neoliberalism— is showing up directly in COVID-19 statistics. Most of those fortunate enough to retain their jobs, those now known as “essential workers,” do not have the luxury to work from home. They are out on what is now the front lines, being exposed to the virus on a daily basis. These workers, not to mention the unemployed and the poor, tend to live in densely-packed neighborhoods and extended families, where they have little ability to “social distance.” Few, if any, have the means to stockpile foods, disinfectants, masks, or other necessary safety supplies. Compared to those in wealthier classes, they are far more likely to be obese, or suffer from a host of other “underlying conditions,” making them more susceptible to the virus. If they do get sick, they are more likely to not seek medical attention, as they fear incurring expenses they cannot repay. Moreover, as many researchers have shown, the new working class is disproportionally women and people of color. As I noted, this shows up in the statistics. One example: In my original home state, Alabama, according to a report released by The Guardian on August 5, African-Americans make up 26% of the population, yet represent 41% of the COVID-19 deaths in that state. We are all suffering from this pandemic, but we are suffering unequally—along lines of gender, race, and class.
There are some signs the pandemic could create an opportunity for much-needed change. Who could have imagined, just a few months ago, that a US Senate committed to neoliberal “austerity measures” would sign onto a relief package that sent “free money” to every US citizen? It was a frank admission, if only briefly, that the government must expend resources to support social well-being, even when those funds are not “earned.” The needed changes, however, are far from inevitable. Already, neoliberal forces are pushing back. And let’s not think for a moment that everything will be okay if Trump loses the election and things can “go back to normal.” There is no “back” to go to, at least not one that leads us out of this mess. Remember, Rahm Emanuel was a member of the Obama administration. What Nancy Fraser called “progressive neoliberalism” was in its heyday. It is what has brought us to where we now stand.
So now, on the Democratic Party ticket, we have Biden-Harris. If this ticket wins—and I genuinely hope they do, considering the mind-bending reactionary hellscape the Trump administration has produced—it will simply be a return to the progressive neoliberalism that came before it, a regime that, according to Fraser, set the reactionary phase into motion in the first place. My white liberal friends, I fear, will rejoice that reason has ultimately prevailed and things are “back to normal.” But we must remember that the “liar-in-chief” currently in office has no monopoly on “alternative facts.” Liberal elites will take pride in having elected the first woman of color as Vice President, and this veneer of progress will provide cover for the fact that the neoliberal system remains firmly in power, and therefore that money continues to roll uphill, making inequality worse with every passing day.
Ironically, this means that a political party that preaches racial and gender equality will, because the working class and the poor are disproportionally women and people of color, continue to prop up a system that is intrinsically patriarchal and white supremacist. This sort of progress is actually just a re-entrenchment of systemic injustice. We have to tell the truth. And we have to do better. Any way forward will require broad-based economic, political, and cultural transformation. Those who think of themselves as “radical disciples” of Jesus must be a part of such an effort. We have to recommit ourselves to spreading the Gospel, which is “good news” to those who are oppressed and exploited, even when their masters are ostensibly progressives.