Disaster Progressivism: Having the Guts to Imagine More

by Sarah Stuteville 

I’ve only ever taken one economics course, back in undergrad. I got a D. After 15 years, I found myself ruminating on that class, and an argument I had with the economics professor who taught it, while distress-drinking on a recent Friday.

As has become usual in the past few months, I had spent the day navigating angsty children, overdue assignments and, of course, deeply disturbing news of the world. As I poured my first glass of wine (pink and over ice) at 9 p.m. on Friday, almost 90,000 people in this country were dead from COVID-19. Unemployment was near 25 percent and economic apocalypse rode on every horizon. As usual, the people hurting most were the poor, brown and Black communities and blue-collar workers — the canaries in the coal mine of every American disaster.

But there were, as the news clichés like to put it, “glimmers of hope.” Curves were flattening, Wall Street was buoying. States were reopening. So why did I feel worse than I have since this crisis began?

This is where my D in Economics comes into play. That professor was an old school neo-liberal who believed in free trade, rising tides and inevitable — but productive — inequality in global markets. I was a smart-ass who had rioted against globalization in downtown Seattle and liked to argue with teachers. In one class, where he was explaining the benefits of moving U.S. factories to northern Mexico, I asked him how companies chasing the lowest wages would ultimately benefit poor people if the system always required someone to have the lowest wages.

His response, if I remember correctly, boiled down to it being too complicated to explain in such a simple narrative. 

A year after that tiff, Naomi Klein did a much better job in her book “Shock Doctrine” and introduced the term disaster capitalism. In short, Klein argued that capitalism uses disasters and upheavals to root exploitative policies and practices when citizens are too emotionally and physically distressed to fight back.  

That’s why I find these “glimmers of hope” so depressing. The “hope” is that states will reopen, everyone who is going to die of COVID-19 (and you know who they mean by “everyone”) will die, and we’ll be able to get back to the business of business. That’s why Wall Street is doing alright. American capitalism is betting on us swallowing all this death, all this incompetence, all this cruelty, so the bottom line of billionaires can be restored (or in the case of someone like Jeff Bezos, inflated).

They will try to convince us it is more complicated than that. That we are oversimplifying things we cannot possibly understand.

But remember, our nation’s leader suggested we inject bleach into our bodies. Our hospitals were woefully unprepared for this pandemic. Our unemployment systems are being hacked. Government pandemic relief is being diverted to big corporations and private religious schools.

No one is in charge. No system or leader will usher us to safety, or even firmer ground. It is just us, eyes wide, hands upturned, looking at each other in fear and wonder. This is a kind of anti-capitalism boot camp, especially for those of us with enough privilege to have lived our lives thinking we might just thread the needle of this disintegrating system and do okay for ourselves.

So let’s get down to the business of disaster progressivism.

Lots of people are engaging in mutual aid and other forms of creative response all around us. There are funds set up by individuals providing small grants to people most in need. Refugee women employing refugee women to make masks. One of my favorite non-profits, Y-WE (Young Women Empowered), is providing food and information to the community. Local mental health professionals are offering free telehealth services. The amazing writer, Jia Tolentino, does an incredible job of showcasing some of this work across the nation, including a particularly robust mutual aid Facebook site here in Seattle. And chefs all over the city are feeding people wherever and however they can.

But as usual, the people doing the most radical and direct work are poor communities and communities of color. They are innovative individuals and groups with few resources and lots of need. And they already know how to provide disaster relief and mutual aid because they have had to do it for generations, long before COVID-19. And that is the very reason we need to think bigger.

Let’s give that economics professor of mine conniptions with all of our disaster progressivism. Let’s talk about Universal Basic Incomes, reparations, creating free food distribution systems in every neighborhood, ending prisons, abolishing the police, dismantling immigration detention, ending deportations, banning single-use plastics, taxing Amazon, free college education, legalizing sex work, universal healthcare, and ensuring housing for every single person in this city, state and country. And there is a lot more room here on this list.

Do I know how to do any of this? No. But if this pandemic has proven anything, it’s that the powers that be don’t have a clue either. Their competence only extends to enriching themselves at our expense. Their key expertise is in talking us out of helping each other.

This is the time to have these conversations — when the status quo is collapsing around us. It’s time to consider anything and everything that might deliver us from ever having to be faced again with the choice between saving the economy and saving people’s lives. 

So wear those D’s in economics proudly. I can’t wait until we can drink iced pink wine together again. And until that time, let’s build systems that don’t require our despair to function. Because the only “glimmers of hope” I’m interested in are the ones we’re making for each other.

Sarah Stuteville is a writer, memoirist, educator, and non-profit media consultant currently pursuing a Masters in Mental Health Counseling at Seattle University. She taught journalism and media production at the University of Washington. Feminism, journalism, motherhood, relationships, and mental health are subjects of Sarah’s writings. Sarah has reported from over a dozen countries in the Middle East, East Africa, South Asia, and the former Soviet Union. She wrote a social justice issue column for the Seattle Times. Her memoir writing has been published in Mutha where her piece “No One Is Watching” was one of the most read on the site all year.  Her piece “Windstorm” won “Honorable Mention” in the Hunger Mountain Nonfiction Writing Contest; “A Girl’s History of Consent” was a finalist in the New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Awards. She also helped to co-found The Seattle Globalist, a non-profit journalism organization that trains diverse media makers.

Featured image: Aleppo – The Forgotten City, by Daniel Arrhakis.