By Ray Acheson
As COVID-19 spreads around the world, a familiar and insidious neoliberal-shaped pattern spreads along with it. While people are distracted and disoriented by what it will take to survive this virus—not just physically, but also economically, socially, and psychologically—the capitalist class is seeking to implement political and economic agendas that ensure its own survival after the crisis. It is also pushing beyond the boundaries of what is accepted in “normal” times, working relentlessly to impose ever more vicious policies to squeeze whatever it can out of the rest of the world for its own profit and power.
These efforts are not unique to our current situation. More than a decade ago, Canadian author Naomi Klein described this as “disaster capitalism” in her book The Shock Doctrine. She exposed how neoliberal ideologues work with big corporations and other segments of the capitalist elite to use moments of crisis to ram through political and economic changes that benefit their accumulation of capital. In today’s version of coronavirus capitalism, these efforts are well underway.
There are many ways in which disaster capitalists are currently working to profit from this crisis and ensure their continued dominance once it’s over. Bailouts of corporations to protect their profit margins, rather than workers’ jobs, are underway. Airlines are making employees take unpaid leave while receiving billions in bailout cash. Social security mechanisms are being dismantled. Big pharma and speculators are raking in profits. And all indications suggest more is to come. Never mind that it is neoliberal economic policies that have decimated the public health sector in most countries, leaving them scrambling to contend with the overwhelming needs of this current crisis. The answer for those that have built this system is more of the same, but worse.
The assault against environmental protection policies in the time of COVID-19 is a key aspect of the neoliberal agenda now that we are living in the age of climate change. Rising global concerns about the environment and the need to act urgently to have any hope of mitigating at least some of the impending climate disaster have started to impinge somewhat upon the profits of the oil, gas, and coal companies, and have begun to force all industries to consider their carbon emissions and other environmental impacts.
It is no wonder, then, that those who profit the most from these industries would seek to use this moment of crisis to roll back environmental protections and to proceed with projects that would otherwise be facing public scrutiny and opposition.
A month ago, Canada was in a different kind of lockdown. Shut Down Canada had taken off across the country, sparked by the latest stand-off between the Canadian government and several First Nations over the construction of a gas pipeline on unceded Wet’suwet’en land in British Columbia. The Wet’suwet’en had been blockading the Coastal GasLink project for months, building on their earlier blockades against oil and gas companies. After the Trudeau administration sent in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Shut Down Canada actions sprang up across the country. An arrangement was finally made between federal and provincial ministers for Indigenous affairs and representatives of the Wet’suwet’en, which is currently being considered by the hereditary chiefs. Then the coronavirus arrived in North America.
Under cover of the measures to flatten the COVID-19 infection curve, TC Energy, the company responsible for the pipeline, is moving ahead with the protection from the RCMP. This puts workers, who live and work in close quarters, at risk of contracting the coronavirus. It puts Indigenous communities at risk of infection. It will result in the environmental destruction that First Nations have been fighting to prevent. And, as if one pipeline project isn’t enough, TC Energy then also announced that it would proceed with construction of the long-delayed and very controversial Keystone XL pipeline—with the help of 1.1 billion USD “strategic investment” by the Alberta provincial government.
It’s not just oil and gas industries trying to take advantage of the situation. The nuclear industry is all about seizing this moment, too. In Croatia, the government is trying to move ahead with constructing a long-disputed radioactive waste dump near the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina. After years of protest by both Croatian and Bosnian activists, the Croatian government is using the shadow of both the coronavirus and an earthquake that recently hit Zagreb to move the project along. In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has unleashed a proposal to dump radioactive waste in municipal landfills instead of a licenced facility. And the Department of Energy is seeking a 49 percent increase in nuclear weapon activities at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, as well as increases and spending at other nuclear weapon labs around the country.
Overturning protections for people and the environment
The Trump administration has also ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to suspend its enforcement of environmental laws during the coronavirus crisis and has lowered fuel emission standards for vehicles sold in the US. The state-level governments of Kentucky, South Dakota, and West Virginia used the cover of COVID-19 to adopt laws imposing new criminal penalties on protests against fossil fuel infrastructure.
The repression of environmental and other activists has also ramped up in other locations around the world. In Burkina Faso, for example, those sounding the alarm over the government’s embezzlement of minerals in collusion with foreign mining companies have reportedly been met with systematic bans on demonstrations and other more violent silencing of activists. “Covid-19 has contributed an ‘additional’ virus to a country already on its knees,” writes Didier Kiendrebeogo of Organisation Démocratique de la Jeunesse (ODJ).
These are just a few examples from around the world. There are many, many more, and every day seems to bring new assaults against not just the environment but also human rights, democracy, and the ability of the majority of people in the world to survive this crisis and whatever comes next. We are witnessing what former Australian Green Party senator Scott Ludlam describes as an excellent opportunity for the “predatory rush to consolidate power in the midst of massive trauma.”
The distraction of the public’s eye during this crisis is exactly why companies are trying to advance anti-environmental, climate-change-facilitating projects with renewed vigour right now. And this is exactly why we can’t avert our eyes from their actions even as we contend with the growing crises caused by the coronavirus.
The crises are closely related. “Both have their roots in the world’s current economic model—that of the pursuit of infinite growth at the expense of the environment on which our survival depends—and both are deadly and disruptive,” writes Vijay Kolinjivadi in the article The coronavirus outbreak is part of the climate change crisis published in Aljazeera. The failure to contain either coronavirus or climate change also lies with the capitalist economy, while the emergence of COVID-19 does, too. Understanding this is necessary to building alternatives for both our economy and our environment.
It is imperative to understand the convergence and relationships of the crises we are facing in order to adequately address them. But we also need feminist curiosity and feminist imagination to forge a new path forward.
As Lola Olufemi writes, “Feminism is a political project about what could be. It’s always looking forward, invested in futures we can’t quite grasp yet. It’s a way of wishing, hoping, aiming at everything that has been deemed impossible. It’s a task that has to be approached seriously—we must think about the limits of this world and the possibilities contained in the ones we could craft together.”
This is part of the activism we need to be engaged in now during this moment of crises. While we support the worker strikes from Amazon and Instacart and Whole Foods, while we work for wage guarantees, while we demand protective equipment for doctors and nurses around the world, while we fight for the release of people from prisons, jails, and immigration detention centres, while we demand a suspension of rent and student loans, while we condemn and resist the construction of and investments in pipelines, and while we engage in acts of solidarity to make sure our neighbours have access to food and our elderly will not be sacrificed to the economy, we also need to be imagining a world where we would not need to be undertaking these actions.
And then we need to build it.
We know that activism works to create change. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. We know that organising for social justice throughout history is what has brought us any of the rights and freedoms we have today.
Identifying capitalism as a root cause of our continued oppression now is a starting point to building something new. But we also need commitment to change.
This requires reconciliation with the science of climate change, which make it clear that “business as usual” in terms of fossil fuel extraction and use is no longer possible. It means not bailing out oil and gas industries, but to help workers survive the current crisis and transition to green industries. It means investing in renewable energy development instead of the tar sands and pipeline projects. It means considering how we all live on this planet, and what aspects of that are harmful and which are helpful.
If we can make adjustments to our lives now for the coronavirus, we can make them to prevent or mitigate the worst of the predicted effects of climate change. This will mean embracing a lower-carbon, less industrial economy. It will mean shifting towards more resilient local economies and ending factory farming.
These changes will also mean moving away from militarism, in our minds and in our investments. It means laying down weapons in a global ceasefire, shutting down arms manufacturing, stopping nuclear weapon modernisation and production, and redirecting public resources from weapons and war towards social and environmental wellbeing. It will mean learning to settle our differences differently, not through bloody conflict but through dialogue and reconciliation.
We have the opportunity to begin this work now. This crisis can bring us together in solidarity: not just to flatten the curve against the coronavirus but also to protect our shared environment, and to strengthen and sustain the well-being of all. We need to make sure it does.