Covid-19 would be deadly and disruptive no matter what political systems or leaders were in place. Yet the scale of death and destruction is undoubtedly influenced by the actions of both common people and the people in power. Although thousands of state workers are doing heroic work, and some politicians are showing themselves to be capable organizers of emergency response, the state itself has not proven to be the form of social organization best suited to defend human life.
It is not enough to praise and promote the positive effects of statehood while writing off the negative ones. It is necessary to evaluate the state as a whole.
An effective social response to disaster is based not on authority, but on the solidarity of diverse people recognizing a common interest. When government workers and directives are actively saving lives, a basic sense of responsibility says to not obstruct them. But when people recognize that the state and the rich are not going to solve everything, and act in solidarity, they build mutual aid networks that operate independently of the state. Autonomous networks can better secure the liberty and welfare of the individual than the state, in everyday life and in times of emergency.
The state is an institution of control, and in emergencies it defaults to seizing greater control, even where that might be counterproductive in slowing the spread of disease.
A state relies on its enforcers. Giving more power to police means giving them new means to harm the public. Police crackdowns on people existing in public spaces will disproportionately impact marginalized people, and sometimes even send people to jails where they are more likely to become ill. In crowded jails effective social distancing is impossible and guards restrict access to soap and hygiene items. In many cities, arrests for petty offenses and victimless crimes continue while police gain emergency powers to force more people into jail. This unjustly harms people targeted by police and creates an unnecessary danger of police officers, prison workers, and incarcerated people spreading a deadly disease to communities where they work and communities where they live.
The state enforces inequality that makes it harder for people to be safe. At a time when people are told to stay home, heavily armed agents of the state prevent vulnerable and unhoused people from taking over homes held vacant by state decree or by investors waiting for a more lucrative time to sell.
Border closings and severe travel restrictions are tools of state enforcement that often create additional dangers to the public. By the time the threat of a pandemic was understood, the virus had already been infecting numerous communities whether detected or not.
Hastily closing borders and restricting travel on a whim has resulted in a number of dangerous situations where people are crammed into tightly packed crowds waiting to be let in before it is too late. Undoubtedly people have been infected in these scenarios and many unwittingly spread disease to others. But tightly controlling borders at all times is deadly to the poor and oppressed people who are prevented from crossing them, and also creates a more dangerous world where nationalist violence grows and beneficial scientific and economic exchanges are limited.
The existence of borders implies policing who can cross them. At a time when people are fleeing disasters and state violence on a massive scale, states are putting refugees in camps that are often crowded and unsanitary, instead of letting them go on their way to build healthy communities.
In contrast to authority and repression, social solidarity and a sense of shared responsibility are healthy responses to disaster. A free society animated with the spirit of solidarity and conscious of environmental justice can mitigate and respond to disaster better than the state.
Communities in which people feel a mutually beneficial connection can nurture a greater sense of social solidarity, and equitable societies enable more people to access resources they need to choose safety. Free societies are created as people grow autonomous bodies such as local councils and regional assemblies that meet the basic needs of individuals without depriving them of liberty, and global networks that ensure connections between people of similar interests and promote just exchanges.
Free societies promote the free flow of information and decentralized research, production, and testing. When workers have more power over production, they are more likely to prioritize community needs and not the wealth of investors waiting out the disaster in isolated mansions and luxury bunkers. If the lives of workers were centered in everyday life, those who continue working in a pandemic will have more protection available and those who wish to stay home will have the resources to do so. Creating healthy environments for all to live in will reduce the chronic health issues that make disease deadlier.
The United States government commands enough resources to project its power around the world and respond to challenges within its borders, but it has been terrible at preparing for and responding to the pandemic. This is largely because it is run by a gang of fascists headed by a racist fraudster who once said climate change was a Chinese hoax. This situation did not come out of nowhere, and it is time to rethink the system and society that put them in power.
Trump’s rise to power originated in American capitalism and racism and was aided by international authoritarians. His political career began while he was a network television star, a job he got after years of shady real estate business and self-promotion. He used the platform that wealth got him to build a movement around the story that the first black president of the United States was a foreign imposter who did not belong.
Trump’s racist conspiratorial politics grew as he began his presidential campaign. He used phrases like “they aren’t sending their best” while saying that criminals and rapists made up the bulk of migrants from Mexico and Central America. His authoritarian tendencies were boosted as he learned to work angry crowds, declared his support for violating human rights in the fight against terrorism, and picked up support from law enforcement. Authoritarians around the world saw the authoritarian Trump as an ally, and FBI agents as well as Russian intelligence agents pushed him to victory. Corporate media largely treated Trump’s rise to power and embrace of fascism as a profitable story, from the airtime he got as a candidate polling in the single digits to the reporting on his abuses of power. The state structures that were made to hold the executive accountable have failed, partly because the structures that were made to limit democracy succeeded.
Trump was promoted by corporate media, given advantages by state actors, and supported by people who view him as defending their social status or stock portfolios. If the word “establishment” cannot include these people then it has no valuable meaning. The existence of the state has led America to the disaster of Trump.
With all of the things the Trump regime has said and done, it cannot be ruled out that there are people in his administration who see this plague as an opportunity. Every person could be at risk from Covid-19. However, when considering demographic groups, some of those who are most at risk of getting the disease and dying from it are working class people who live in urban areas or work in crowded conditions, often people of color with higher rates of existing health issues due to environmental racism. These people are unlikely to support Trump or his party. When considering an administration that enacted a policy of ripping children from their parents and disappearing them into abusive camps as a means of deterring demographic change, it cannot be ruled out that there are regime advisors analyzing how mass death and propaganda can help them stay in power. If thousands of people die in the cities of the swing states, and Trump propaganda convinces enough people to ignore the scale of the calamity while blaming people cast as foreigners, then the authoritarians who follow him may see this disaster as a well-used opportunity or even a gift from God.
The authoritarianism and gangster capitalism of Trump is the most immediate threat to readers in the United States, but there are other states to consider. The state capitalist regime in China detained and intimidated doctors while restricting crucial information about the virus outbreak. The authoritarian nationalist government of Viktor Orbán in Hungary took the emergency as an opportunity to establish rule by executive decree and soon launched new attacks on the rights of transgender people. The welfare states of Europe enforce a border regime that puts refugees in unsanitary camps, support Erdoğan’s government in Turkey as his forces destroy critical infrastructure and support terror in northern Syria, and generally stand by as the Assad regime massacres people in areas under rebel control.
It is within living memory that much of Europe was ruled by mass murderers. No state is immune to having its centralized power used by authoritarians.
The state has not shown itself to be the best safeguard of life and liberty, and expanding the power of the state will increase the harm that it does. Fortunately, even at a time when bad news hangs over life like a dark cloud, people are acting in solidarity and mutual aid. A better future will not be found by following authoritarians. A better future can be created by people building autonomous networks to support each other outside of state power.