Boggs Center – Thinking for Ourselves – April 13th, 2020

April 13th, 2020

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A pedestrian walks past a mural which reads “Stay at Home, Life is Beautiful” Thursday, April 2, 2020, in Los Angeles.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo)


Thinking for Ourselves

Choices Matter

Shea Howell

For more than 400 years, the decisions made by the powerful in this land have been to increase economic benefits over human life. From the onslaught of violence against indigenous peoples, to the human horrors of slavery, the economic well- being of some has been secured at the expense of the many. Over the centuries, this way of thinking has become commonplace. As James Boggs often said, “We are economically overdeveloped and politically underdeveloped” as a culture.

At moments, this direction has been challenged. Indigenous peoples resisted these choices, carrying on centuries of struggle against colonial expansion, cultural assault,  and the abuse of our earth. African people resisted, rebelled, and rebuilt in the face of enslavement. Immigrants brought ideas of collective and cooperative organizations. Abolitionists, past and present, the progressive era, the labor movement, African liberation, the Women’s movement, queer liberation, disability justice, and ecological protectors have brought out the best in us. Each, in its own way and time, forced us to confront the questions of what kind of people are we? What should be the basis or our relationships to each other? What are our responsibilities to one another and the earth on which we depend?

Once again, we are faced with stark choices, this time brought to us by a global pandemic. But in the response to it, we are seeing the strands of our humanity emerge, after being buried under decades of narrow self-interest and unbridled greed. Across the country people are emphasizing we are in this together. Mutual aid societies, free concerts, poetry, reading, love, and laughter are emerging in ways that are unexpected, bringing delight. Even in the darkest of moments, as people suffer death and pain, a nurse offers a song. We are catching sight of the values and practices that will enable all of us to have a future of joy, care, and compassion.

And we are also being hit full force with the destructive impulses of those who wish to protect economic growth. Some are making crude calculations, easily dismissed.  But the subtle arguments are emerging from our business leaders, now energetically lobbying to “open the economy.” The New York Times reported that corporate leaders “ have become more vocal about the need for the administration to create a plan for the reopening of the economy.”

The Times reports, “The bankers, corporate executives and industrialists plead”  with Trump, “ to reopen the country as soon as possible, while the medical experts beg for more time to curb the coronavirus.”

The President, of course, is not the one who shut down the country. For this we have Governors to thank. Acting often against the advice of business leaders, Governors have made decisions in the public interest.

In Michigan all of our Chambers of Commerce urged Governor Gretchen Whitmer to keep business open, even as the outlines of the pandemic were clear. The day before the initial stay at home order, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce orchestrated a letter from business leaders arguing against a widespread shut down.

Now, as there is a glimmer of hope that we are in fact flattening the curve, they are back at it.

As Stephanie Luce  wrote recently in Labor Notes, “The pandemic is exposing just how dysfunctional our economic system was to begin with. Capitalism is ideologically based on the principles of individualism and competition, but it becomes completely clear in a pandemic that what’s needed is solidarity: collective solutions that help everyone.”

The choices in front of us are as clear as they have ever been in our history.And the pull of destructive, individualistic, economic desires as powerful as ever. Each choice now matters in ways we can only begin to imagine.

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