So I’ve been hearing a lot of very enlightened and progressive proposed responses to COVID-19 lately – universal paid sick-leave so people don’t have to go to work sick, expanded social safety nets for people whose livelihoods have been crashed by the pandemic, moratoria on evictions and foreclosures, moratoria on utility shut-offs, making testing and (when it comes) treatment universally accessible, etc. Hell, renowned economist Joseph Stiglitz was on Democracy Now this morning recommending measures such as these, and in doing so sounding suspiciously like a democratic socialist! Although, that observation might well make him queasy. And all these proposals are excellent! Hell, they should be no-brainers that should be implemented immediately and without fuss!
But there’s a red flag, though, and that’s the constant invocation of the emergency – the constant invocation of these measures as special responses to coronavirus . But what happens when the emergency passes? What happens when the crisis is over? Because, the constant invocation of special circumstances implies that such measures of collective support are not needed in “normal” times. It also, therefore, implies that those needs (for health-care, housing, economic assistance, etc,) not directly related to the crisis are not included in these “emergency” measures.
And that, in a nutshell, is one of the key differences between charity and solidarity. Charity, at its best, seeks to provide immediate relief to people in emergency situations. And that is important to be sure! But it is short-term. Indeed, it is deliberately short-term, simply hoping to get people through the immediate crisis and “back on their feet” – back to “normal”. Solidarity, however, looks not only at the immediate emergency, but the underlying structural causes. And it seeks to implement long-term, system-level solutions so that people not only get out of the immediate crisis, but are defended to the greatest extent possible against future crises. It seeks not only to deal with the immediate emergency, but build in resilience to future shocks by making sure that those most vulnerable are as well supported and cared for as possible. Thus, as part of that building of resilience, solidarity seeks to implement measures like those alluded to above on a permanent bases so that they are always in place, rather than their having to be invoked on a crisis by crisis basis and tied to specific emergencies. It seeks to make sure they are truly universally available, both to all people and at all times.
It is incredibly important that this aspect of long-term planning not get lost in the rush for immediate relief. Because, as Naomi Klein points out in her brilliant 2014 book This Changes Everything, good long-term planning is how societies can become resilient and better able to weather not only this crisis but the next one, whether it be another pandemic or a natural disaster, rather than simply reeling from one emergency to another.
At the same time, however, it is crucial to make sure that immediate relief isn’t lost or, worse, subordinated to long-term planning and struggle. And I think, perhaps, this is where Bernie Sanders missed the mark in his most recent debate with Joe Biden. Biden gave listeners a reassuring sense that there would be immediate relief for those affected by the coronavirus pandemic. And that resonated powerfully with freaked out voters, even though he left the questions of the long-term and needs unrelated to the pandemic unaddressed. Whereas, Bernie emphasized long-term plans to address the root causes of vulnerability to the current crisis, but failed to reassure listeners that their immediate emergency needs would be met. Now, I fully believe he intends to attend to those immediate needs! But he did not succeed in conveying that to listeners/voters, giving the (I believe inaccurate) impression that immediate relief was being neglected or, worse, sacrificed to long-term plans for structural change. He did not succeed in conveying how he would address, as the Black Panthers put it, “survival pending revolution”.
I think there’s an important lesson for Progressives to take from this. And that is that a key part of solidarity means addressing “survival pending revolution” – addressing how people’s immediate, urgent, often crisis needs (even without a natural disaster or pandemic) are going to be attended to while we fight for long-term transformation. And it’s not a matter of being able to meet people’s needs perfectly! Because thats’ going to be impossible during struggle and it would be a lie to say otherwise. The important thing, though, is to make sure we convey that those needs are not forgotten amidst our grand ideals and long-term plans. And I do think a lot of it is a matter of communication. Because, Progressives often have thought about those immediate concerns and how to address them! Though, true, not always. But we need to get really good at communicating effectively that we have accounted for those immediate needs. Otherwise, short-term fears for survival are going to continue to trump (pun not intended) long-term desires for change. This is why things like unions, worker cooperatives and mutual aid networks are often such important and powerful organizing vehicles. Because, if we’re going to ask people to let go of those fears and trust their futures to our visions of transformation, they need – and have the right to demand – a safety net! People find courage to fight when they know they’re not alone – when they know that those struggling with them will have their back when the shit hits the fan. And that’s critically important for Progressives to take to heart. Because, unless and until we get the kind of transformation we envision, a lot of shit is going to be hitting a lot of fans for a lot of people!