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Rogue reviewer: radical or recuperation? System Assessments

Liberal Feminism, and the Spectacle of Progress

Pop feminism in the United States.

Taking a look at the US, there is an undeniable link between gender and class, with women throughout the US not getting the right to vote until 1920. While women can now participate in electoral politics, their economic position has hardly budged since the suffrage movement. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, wealth inequality in the US was as bad as it was in the roaring 20s, and it’s only worsened since the outbreak; further, women are still far more likely to live in poverty than men. The gendered nature of poverty can largely be attributed to what labor capitalism deems valuable: “Women do at least twice as much unpaid care work, such as childcare and housework, as men – sometimes 10 times as much, often on top of their paid work.” As a result, feminine persons often work more and get paid less than their masculine counterparts. Women’s rights are largely workers rights, meaning feminism cannot really be divorced from class in a coherent way.

Hilary Clinton, girl boss.

These are all genuine problems…so how did feminism seriously become Hilary Clinton’s brand? This person is wealthier and more powerful than anyone I’ve ever met in real life. The Clintons are currently multi-millionaires, with Bill and Hilary both attending Yale Law School. While it’s often stated she came from modest means, her father was a college-educated businessman who owned his own textile company. Which maybe isn’t as relatable as political pundits think it is.

Not Muslim women though, lol.

Beyond this, Hilary grew up in a different economic time:

Like all women of her generation, Hillary faced formidable sexism, fighting for rights women now take for granted. But like many women of her generation, she also benefited from being born in an era when upward mobility was arguably more feasible, at least economically. […]

The Clintons rise to power was not buoyed by inherited wealth, but by a system that allowed lower and middle-class baby boomers increasing access to higher education and prestigious jobs. But the contemporary versions of Bill and Hillary Clinton—talented middle-class or lower-class students from the Midwest or South—may find that achieving the same success will be stymied by their family’s class status or their geographical distance from centers of power. The prototype for a future Hillary is someone who grew up more like Chelsea Clinton—wealthy, connected, and able to pursue multiple advanced degrees.

Most women won’t be able to follow in Hillary Clinton’s footsteps—unless they’re already rich, Sarah Kendzior, Quartz

Now I’d forgive a naive, well-meaning baby boomer for being unaware of this economic shift, but Hilary Clinton literally played a role in this push towards a neoliberalized economy. She made life materially worse for many women in America, all while putting her girl boss power into absolutely ruining the lives of many women abroad: “As Secretary of State Clinton was a forceful advocate for escalating US military operations in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. She also presided over the expansion of drone attacks that have killed hundreds, if not thousands of civilians (up to 90% not being the intended targets).”

So how the hell did someone like this become some sort of icon of feminism?

Press play to die instantly.

Sometimes movements just need a little rebranding before they’re profitable.

While identity politics and social movements are all susceptible to recuperation, we’re going to focus on the feminist movement in the US.

What’s recuperation?

This is when more radical ideas become sanitized so as to eliminate their more threatening aspects. That is, anything that threatens the powerful must be sanded away. Done well, once radical concepts can become tools for maintaining the current structure of power. It may even become laughable that these ideas ever posed a genuine threat to the ruling class.

From The Eric Andre Show.

We’ll refer to this degenerated form of feminism as liberal feminism;  The book Feminism for the 99 Percent explains that the aim of liberal feminism is, 

“…not equality, but meritocracy. Rather than seeking to abolish social hierarchy, it aims to ‘diversify’ it, ‘empowering’ ‘talented’ women to rise to the top. […] 

“In general, then, liberal feminism supplies the perfect alibi for neoliberalism. Cloaking regressive policies in an aura of emancipation, it enables the forces supporting global capital to portray themselves as ‘progressive.’” 


Liberal feminism is one example of how social movements are essentially de-fanged under capitalism, re-configured to be a tool that sustains oppression, often under the guise of being “progressive.” Capitalism is a system that requires homelessness, prison labor, and colonialist resource extraction (such as oil extraction aided by the threat of military force). To justify these extreme inequalities, proponents of the system (1) must maintain that no real alternative exists, and (2) absorb any movements that assert otherwise (e.g. recuperation), giving themselves the aesthetic of social progress (e.g. “good” capitalists), all while maintaining the status quo.

Nancy Pelosi, quintessential girl boss for knowing the WMDs story fueling war with Iraq was a lie, but not deeming it an impeachable offense.

How was feminism ever a threat to the powerful?

Child labor laws? That’s communism!

Right to work, but for toddlers.

The suffrage movement drastically altered the US political system. Keep in mind this doubled the number of eligible voters, and this meant a sudden, significant shift in voting demographics. While this was more piecemeal due to some states altering voter eligibility before others, this was nonetheless a rapid shift in voter concerns. This altered the scope of electoral political issues permanently. The Fair Labor Standards Act prohibited the employment of minors, e.g. this was the main law that outlawed the use of exploitative child labor in the US. This law passed in 1938…just 18 years after women won the right to vote. The movement against child labor was actually originally sparked by census results:

“The 1900 census revealed that approximately 2 million children were working in mills, mines, fields, factories, stores, and on city streets across the United States. The census report helped spark a national movement to end child labor in the United States. […] Social reformers began to condemn child labor because of its detrimental effect on the health and welfare of children. Among those helping to incite public opinion against it were Karl Marx and Charles Dickens, who had worked at a factory himself at age 12.”


Child worker in a glass factory. Children worked for “reduced wages but equally abusive work environments,” so I mean, I for one am just relieved to hear this toddler (with no advanced education) wasn’t getting paid more than he deserves. And he was an immigrant, so like, lucky we even let him in, amirite?
Childhood? Sounds like you just want free stuff. Nice try, sweaty.

While generally people in the US oppose the use of child labor today, it’s important to understand that this was a massive change in US economics, one fueled by the political shift following the suffrage movement. Nowadays, many view child labor restrictions as “common sense,” but this was far from the case. Capitalists were harshly opposed to the movement, with many claiming this was a “communist-inspired plot to subvert the Constitution.” I think the why here should be obvious: without child labor, capitalists would stand to make money at a reduced rate (they still fucking made money off other people’s labor, of course).

Tonight while we sleep, several thousand little girls will be working in textile mills, all the night through, in the deafening noise of the spindles and the looms spinning and weaving cotton and wool, silks and ribbons for us to buy.

Child Labor & Women’s Suffrage – July 22, 1905, Florence Kelley, women’s suffrage advocate and Marxist feminist

There was a great deal of overlap between women’s suffrage and the movement against child labor. Without the feminist movement, it’s difficult to imagine how the Fair Labor Standards Act would have ever passed. This was truly deemed an “extreme” position. So yes, the feminist movement posed a massive economic threat to those in power…and they won. Because organizing does work, and maybe the reason you think it doesn’t is because it threatens someone’s profit margins.


The Russian Revolution began with women protesting on International Women’s Day.

The Russian Revolution was a mass uprising of workers that ultimately overthrew the Russian monarchy. It’s typically cited as happening in 1917, but this was really a culmination of labor organizing and political action. On January 22, 1905, workers led by priest Georgy Apollonovich Gaponmarched marched to the Czar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg with a petition of demands, including fair wages and the gradual transfer of land to the people. A year earlier, similar demands for reform were made at a conference of regional governments (an assembly originally held to drum up support for an incredibly unpopular campaign for war with Japan), but these demands had continued to go unmet. Thus, workers took to marching their petition to the palace doors. There, imperial forces open fired on the unarmed workers, killing over a thousand people according to police records, in a massacre that would later be referred to as Bloody Sunday.

Strikes and massive protests followed the massacre, eventually forcing the Czar to form a series of representative assemblies (e.g. the king gave concession of representative democracy). This, uh, didn’t work out. I know, shocking, seeing how effective our representative democracy has been so far. Turns out all the parties were loyal to the ruling class and not the workers. So, like, totally unlike the Democrats and Republicans in the US…nothing to see here, guys.

Working conditions worsened, and overlord Czar was pushing for a war no one wanted. Tensions finally broke on International Women’s Day in 1917:

“Historians generally agree that the February Revolution began in Petrograd on International Women’s Day, 23 February (Old Style: 8 March) 1917, when thousands of women from different backgrounds took to the streets demanding bread and increased rations for soldiers’ families.”

Women and the Russian Revolution, Katie McElvanney, British Library
Women’s day protesters demanding increased rations.

Pamphlets were handed out, and it’s likely this literature ignited the ensuing 1917 revolutions that would eventually end the rule by the Russian monarchy. A translation from one such pamphlet reads:

Proletarians of all countries, unite! […]

Factory owners work both male and female comrades to exhaustion. Both men and women are thrown in jail for going on strike. Both men and women need to struggle against the owners. But women entered the family of workers later than men. Often, they still are afraid and do not know what they should demand and how to demand it. The owners have always used their ignorance and timidity against them and still do.

On this day, especially, comrades, let’s think about how we can conquer our enemy, the capitalist, as quickly as possible. […]

This terrible slaughter [e.g. WWI] has now gone into its third year. Our fathers, husbands, and brothers are perishing. Our dear ones arrive home as unfortunate wretches and cripples. The tsarist government sent them to the front. It maimed and killed them, but it does not care about their sustenance [hence the call for increased rations]. […]

There is no end in sight to the shedding of worker blood. Workers were shot down on Bloody Sunday, January 9, 1905, and massacred during the Lena Goldfields strike in April 1912. More recently, workers were shot in Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Shuia, Gorlovka, and Kostroma. Worker blood is shed on all fronts. The empress trades in the peoples’ blood and sells off Russia piece by piece. They send nearly unarmed soldiers to certain death by shooting. They kill hundreds of thousands of people on the front and they profit financially from this. […]

It is hard for working people not only in Russia, but in all countries. Not long ago the German government cruelly suppressed an uprising of the hungry in Berlin. In France, the police are in a fury. They send people to the front for going on strike. Everywhere the war brings disaster, a high cost of living, and oppression of the working class.

Comrades, working women, for whose sake is war waged? Do we need to kill millions of Austrian and German workers and peasants? […] War is waged for the sake of gold, which glitters in the eyes of capitalists, who profit from it. […] Workers and peasants will bear all the sacrifices and pay all the costs. […]

They are ruined themselves. The government is guilty. It began this war and cannot end it. […] The capitalists are guilty. It is waged for their profit. It’s well-nigh time to shout to them: Enough! Down with the criminal government and its entire gang of thieves and murderers. Long live peace! […]

Down with the autocracy!

Long live the Revolution!


NOTE: Check out the following related article for one awesome example of revolutionary, anti-colonialist feminism in Africa during this same time period:

The Igbo women’s revolution of 1929.

Comrades, let us be clear: there is no true social revolution without the liberation of women. In Africa, the contribution of women in the fight against imperialism must be acknowledged for its crucial role in our revolutionary journey. In this article, we tell the story of the 1929 women’s revolution in Southeastern Nigeria.  What were […]


The feminist movement played a key role in overthrowing a massive empire. The Romanov family ruled over Russia for over 300 years, and this abusive, tyrannical regime finally began to collapse thanks to the organizing of some revolutionary women, saying no, you’re not sending our men off to certain death in a rich man’s war just to let them starve if they make it back home. Enough is enough.

Contrast this to Hilary Clinton: “Women have always been the primary victims of war. Women lose their husbands, their fathers, their sons in combat,” and it becomes clear why so many hold a negative view of feminism. Liberal feminism co-opts a radical movement based on working class solidarity, and morphs it into something petty and isolating. This isn’t some blunder, this is the strategic recuperation of a movement that has proven to be dangerous to the ruling class elite.


Reproductive rights, or the lack thereof.

What does liberal feminism have to do with immigration policy?

In Angela Nagle’s piece on the liberal dystopia that is Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, she points out the material affect this labor distribution has on a population where neoliberal policies prevail:

“US fertility rates are the lowest since records began in 1909 at about 1.85 births per woman. The US population, in other words, is no longer “naturally replacing” itself. Unlike the tale however, this is not due to ecological disaster. Today women’s long work hours combined with the continued burden of domestic work are causing increased levels of stress and ill health, with short maternity leave, expensive child care, and a low level of social prestige to the unpaid work of motherhood and domestic labor. Despite all of this Pew research shows that while birth rates may have collapsed the desire to have children has not, with the ideal in polls still remaining “two or more,” and 40 percent of American women nearing the end of their childbearing years having fewer children than they would like.”

The Market Theocracy, Jacobin 
Fair enough if you like this show, but I think it’s spectacular trash.

While the leftwing capitalist party in the US (the Democrats) oppose criminalizing abortion and tout the importance of (liberal) feminism, they seem uninterested in addressing certain forms of gendered violence. In fact, the “progressive” issues they often focus on tend to obscure their own support of continued systems of oppression. Lean in feminism, and “girl boss” aspirations insist that women ought to find fulfillment in the workplace, framing all criticism of this liberal brand of feminism as backwards women belong in the kitchen sentimentality. Keep in mind, a declining population means capitalists would eventually face a labor shortage. Thus, when liberals say, “immigration fuels the economy,” take them at their word. This is the motivation for their pro-immigration stance, not concern for the lives of actual immigrants.

“U.S. immigration law and its enforcement have never eliminated Mexicans from the workforce, but indirectly control the conditions under which they live and work. Mexican academic Jorge Bustamante argues that a primary purpose of U.S. immigration law historically has been—and still is—to regulate the price of Mexican labor in the United States.”

‘Close to Slavery’ or Legalization? The Farmworkers’ Hard Choice, The American Prospect (2019)

From their perspective, it’s cheaper to push American women into the workforce and instead rely on importing a new generation of workers (or exporting the work itself)…viewing this as some sort of generosity requires a complete misunderstanding of the global economy. Undeveloped countries aren’t merely lagging behind, they’re intentionally kept in a state of underdevelopment, as this is optimal for western exploitation. For a specific example of this, check out our article Capitalism in Nigeria, and a call for unity of the proletariat!


NOTE: Further, see The Guardian’s piece on how poor countries develop rich countries, not the other way around, economist William Easterly’s book The Tyranny of Experts, and anthropologist David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5,000 Years.


“But Democrats are the lesser evil of the two parties.”

This pro-immigration stance coupled with “girl boss” feminism is the platform of their “progressiveness.” This isn’t accidental. There will always be a moral argument for why some current mode of oppression is liberating, and this will always be contrasted with some previous mode of oppression…that is the “progress” of liberalism. How exploitation is carried out never really changes beyond an aesthetic shift, and very often the backwardsness of rightwing political figures is in their inability to let go of the old aesthetics. Once this becomes clear, the “lesser evil” of either capitalist political party becomes nothing more than personal preference. Politics collapses into the spectacle of a “culture war.”


NOTE: There is a racist, antisemitic, and misogynistic conspiracy theory, referred to as the Great Replacement that’s motivated mass shooters, including the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand, and the El Paso shooting (with the gunman stating, “this attack is in response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas”). The bit is that “the Jews” are encouraging immigration and interracial marriage as a way to “genocide” the so-called white race. Oh, and women “fall for it” because they’re dumb whores with no loyalty, or something. If you think anything I’ve just said here about abortion and immigration “proves” this bullshit, seriously fuck off.

For more on this rise in violence fueled by white supremacist ideology, read Kathleen Belew’s book Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. So many of these far-right terror attacks originate in white supremacy and misogyny, many of them not involving guns at all (such as the Toronto van attack, or the fatal car attack in Charlottesville), which is why I genuinely don’t think guns are the problem, and yeah, I think the focus on gun reform has more to do with disarming the working class (especially the black working class) than a genuine concern for safety. If you think leftists are anti-gun, check out the Socialist Rifle Association (SRA), and consider the words of Marx and Engels: “under no pretext should arms and ammunition be surrendered; any attempt to disarm the workers must be frustrated, by force if necessary.”


Considering the previous considerations for why capitalists may promote liberal feminism, it becomes clear that the Democratic stance in favor of reproductive healthcare (such as access to contraceptives and abortions) likely has less to do with an individual woman’s right to her own body, and has more to do with the push towards women entering the workforce. If the next generation of labor can be outsourced to other countries, then they eliminate the cost of care labor (for themselves). Further, the gendered wage gap likely means women entering the workforce translates into increased profits. The increase in job-seekers overall allows for a “job market” where companies hold all the power over people desperate to find work. This pushes us further towards gig economy work (Uber, DoorDash, OnlyFans), a shift that undermines a century of workers protections


NOTE: It’s also worth mentioning that the “right” to an abortion is often not blocked by the legality of the procdure, but is rather blocked by a lack of healthcare funding or accessible facilities. And by “accessible,” I mean that in the concrete-sense. Democrats often discuss access to healthcare, not in the way that obtaining coverage is easy and affordable, but instead that coverage technically exists, provided you’re willing to put a lien on your house, sell your first-born, and never retire. This is not real access.


Reproductive rights that don’t extend past the pregnancy itself are not really reproductive rights at all. Rather, they constitute a reshuffling of capitalist labor extraction. A reshuffling that would never be considered if it didn’t maintain or increase profits. Keep this in mind next time a liberal attempts to use “feminism” as a bludgeon against the working class. This deceptive notion that feminism means “more female CEOs” is recuperation at its worst. Beyond a mere perversion of revolutionary ideas, this liberal conception of feminism as equal opportunity plutocracy is damaging to the vast majority of working class women. Pretending it is harmless is ignoring the cynical way in which it is employed to shield powerful politicians from criticism.


Manufactured Misogyny: The DNC doesn’t give a shit about women.

Skepticism of a standing US Senator’s political honesty is sexist since feminism = “girl boss” idol-worship, apparently.

During the 2020 Democratic primary in the US, we witnessed the media pushing a narrative that Bernie is a sexist. This really kicked off after the other so-called progressive candidate Elizabeth Warren claimed Bernie made sexist remarks in a private meeting they had, supposedly stating that he did not believe a woman could win. Despite this being a one-on-one meeting and Bernie denying the comments were made at all, CNN published an article as if this were a confirmed event, backed up by (multiple) sources. Keep in mind, if Bernie really did claim a woman couldn’t win, that doesn’t mean he believed a woman shouldn’t win. Rather, such a statement (at least to me) comes off as genuine concern that sexism could play a significant role in the 2020 election. I mean, is electability not one of the primary things mainstream media focused on in this primary election?

Despite this likely interpretation of a conversation that can’t even be confirmed as happening, Bernie Sanders and his “Bernie Bros” were deemed sexists. Actually, anyone expressing skepticism that Warren was being truthful was deemed sexist, with hit pieces flooding in that America has a problem with “believing women,”  (which…if that’s the case, then wouldn’t the conclusion be that a woman is not likely to win in 2020, just like Bernie supposedly said?). With influential liberals like Neera Tanden and Julia Loffe describing this event with “believe women” rhetoric, there is a very intentional link being made between skepticism of a major political figure’s statements and literal sexual assault survivors in the #MeToo movement.

Visual reconstruction of the liberal feminist’s interpretation of Bernie offering Warren a handshake post-debate.

NOTE: Warren walked back her support on Medicare for All…this is what led many of her progressive supporters to second-guess her political honesty. That, and her weird PR stunt “proving” her Native American heritage.


Biden can have a little rape.

Naively, I would have thought drawing a parallel between sexual assault victims, and a US Senator facing criticism online, would be highly offensive within the realm of liberal feminism. But it’s not! Because the rules aren’t logical, the rules are meant to serve the ruling class by shutting down genuine criticisms under the guise of morality. Which is why credible sexual assault allegations launched at Joe Biden don’t matter. Instead, there is rampant shaming directed at those genuinely upset over this, with liberals claiming any and all criticism of Joe Biden is “helping” Donald Trump. The DNC did not have to make a rapist their nominee.


We’re seeing that for many liberal feminists, maintaining the legitimacy of the Democratic party as a “progressive” party is the goal…the #MeToo movement was merely a tool for achieving that goal. One that could be dropped and replaced with the bludgeon of capitalist realism in the form of enforcing the two-party political system as the absolute extent of US politics: vote blue no matter who, not voting Biden is a vote for Trump, and voting third party is ‘throwing away’ your vote.

Two parties, one goal.

Vote for the good alien overlord, guys.

I’m going to propose something that may seem a little crazy…the leftwing of the ruling class doesn’t really care if Trump wins. Their real enemy was you. This is a class war.

The fact that Bernie’s campaign and many of his followers insist that a third party isn’t viable, the fact that Bernie’s endorsement of Biden has made many “lose hope in the revolution,” the fact that this whole campaign has genuinely convinced a lot of younger leftists that change only happens through the ballot box…the ruling class won. And they didn’t even need to give you a participation trophy because you never actually threatened their position of power. You have zero fucking leverage.

You fell for one of the classic blunders.

If you’re a Bernie supporter who’s interested in being bullied by my hot takes, check out my follow-up article The Democrats don’t care about democracy. (it’s shorter than this article), where I go into a bit more detail of why I think running Bernie in the DNC was a failed battle from the start.


NOTE: I thought it was a solid idea to “take over” the Democratic party by the way. It’s only in the last few months that I’ve really started to investigate strategy enough to conclude this was sort of a doomed mission. It’s ok to be wrong because you didn’t have all the information. We need to stop letting ego dictate the conversation, and we need to start genuinely collaborating.


The follow-up Bernie autopsy people are literally screaming at me to not give.

The Democrats don’t care about democracy.

The DNC does not have to hold fair elections. “Neoliberal theorists are, however, profoundly suspicious of democracy. Governance by majority rule is seen as a potential threat to individual rights and constitutional liberties. Democracy is viewed as a luxury, only possible under conditions of relative affluence coupled with a strong middle-class presence to guarantee political […]


Further, I propose an approach to revolutionary politics that I think is more sustainable. One that appears to work historically…I relate this back to the push to abolish child labor in the US. I plan on eventually publishing another article that goes into more detail about how these approaches can be adapted to the present.


If you’re interested in feminism beyond this cynical “girl boss” outlook, check out the book Feminism for the 99%, and consider attending the upcoming webinar discussion with one of the authors Tithi Bhattacharya; event hosted by International Women Strike (IWS) CT and Central CT DSA on May 27th at 7:00 PM EST. Further, consider checking out the article Feminism for the 99%: A Debate about Strategy by Andrea D’Atri on Left Voice.

Graphic by Juan Atacho, from Left Voice article mentioned above.

NOTE: This piece reflects my own political views, and not that of IWS CT or Central CT DSA.

Categories
System Assessments

Isolating COVID-19: alienated crises, and the crisis of alienation

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

― Helen Keller

Neoliberalism largely functions via alienation, and crisis is not excluded from this. The inherent instability of capitalism inevitably leads to crisis; however, the experience of crisis is very often isolatedㅡby geographical region, time, or type. For example, economic expansion requires environmental exploitation, but for many, this exploitation is happening over there. They don’t see it and they don’t experience the direct negative consequences of it, so even if they’re aware it’s happening, it feels distant. They are physically isolated from the crisis of an oil spill. We can also feel temporal isolation from a shared crisis. The majority of people will feel the crisis of being unable to find work at some point in their life. Yet, the unemployment crisis often feels like a personal crisis because we are the only one feeling the crisis in the moment. Time separates our experience of the crisis. Then there is the most complex way crises are alienatedㅡthat is, by type. Homelessness, incarceration, routine hunger, being without care during a medical illness, drug addiction…while these are all crises, they’re very often viewed as completely independent and unrelated experiences. In reality, these crises are not unrelated, and for the Left, the relationship is obvious. A capitalist economic system directly causes (or severely exacerbates) all of these crises (see footnote [1], as well as Capital by Karl Marx, or for a soft-intro on the concepts of capitalism and alienation, check out Pod Damn America’s podcast episode Matt Christman’s Softcore History).

The Spectacle of Crisis

“By alienation is meant a mode of experience in which the person experiences himself as an alien. […] The alienated person is out of touch with himself as he is out of touch with any other person. He, like the others, are experienced as things are experienced; with the senses and with common sense, but at the same time without being related to oneself and to the world outside positively.”

― Erich Fromm, The Sane Society 

The segregation of crisis experience keeps people alienated from one another, and from a shared reality. The individual in crisis can’t help but feel alone, unable to relate to the experiences conveyed by others. Beyond loneliness, this can further lend to feelings of rejection, shame, or resentment. Feeling emotionally defensive, the individual will now be even more likely to dismiss or minimize the emotions of others in crisisㅡthe alienation from crisis recognition. Alternatively, they may feel unable to convey solidarity with wordsㅡthe alienation from language[2]. Capitalism alienates us from ourselves, from each other, from our labor…but it also isolates us from collective reality, leaving us with the spectacle in the absence of shared experience. The spectacle is “separation perfected,” or,

“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. […]

The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification. As a part of society it is specifically the sector which concentrates all gazing and all consciousness. Due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is the common ground of the deceived gaze and of false consciousness, and the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of generalized separation.”

― Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle


Note: Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle can be a difficult text to comprehend…for a very approachable and entertaining intro to the ideas it covers, check out Peter Coffin’s youtube channelㅡspecifically his video Cultural Appropriation and The Spectacle


In the midst of social distancing recommendations, COVID-19 is actually connecting crises that we generally experience as segmented, unrelated personal crises. Unemployment, food shortages, inability to access adequate treatment/care, loneliness, boredom…instead of experiencing these crises as a series of personal experiences, we are made all too aware of their connection to the pandemic. Connect this pandemic to our economic system of production, and class consciousness becomes increasingly likely. Why are authority figures acting like “business as usual”, when we all know someone who’s been laid off? Why is there relief going towards stabilizing the stock market, but the elderly are still being forced to go into public spaces to buy groceries? How can we shift to online schooling when there’s families without the computers/technology necessary for this to be a viable option? What good is good healthcare when so many people can’t afford to see a doctor, or to even self-quarantine? ICE agents continue to make arrestsㅡwon’t this type of policing prevent many from seeking testing when they show symptoms? What are containment measures for the incarcerated? Where do I get tested? How am I supposed to pay for an ambulance ride when I have to make rent and my hours have been cut down? I might be sick, but how am I going to pay for groceries if I miss my shift and pay a babysitter now that my kid’s out of school? 

Right now, the depressed person that feels socially alone, the sick person made to keep going to work, the hungry person worried about how she’ll feed her kids without school lunch…these crises are always happening under capitalism. Yet they normally appear segmented, and therefore seem unrelated and uncommon. But now the obvious relation these crises have to the COVID-19 pandemic links them all. Crisis alienation is worn down by a crisis we know is happening everywhereㅡthe illusion that these are personal crises cannot be maintained in the way it normally is.

One may argue that there are frequent shared crises to look back onㅡthe collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11 may come to mind if you’re American. Putting aside the fact that this being an American crisis means it was a physically isolated crisis, let’s consider that manyㅡperhaps mostㅡAmericans felt alienated from this event. The spectacle of crisis always has this way of feeling performative, even optional. We can choose to partake in this communal crisis (and we’ll often want to because we’re isolated and therefore seek out social connection); however, the knowledge that you can “opt out” is always there. Even if opting out isn’t an option for you, the knowledge that it is for other people gives the crisis this sense of artificiality. This has nothing to do with whether or not one should partake, rather the material and mental option to “opt out” and resume “business as usual” is concretely there, whether or not you think that option is a moral one. For the vast majority of Americans, the option to “opt out” of the crisis of 9/11 existed. While far less spectacular, COVID-19 isn’t a crisis most people can ignore. They can’t ignore that their spouse or roommate lost their job. They can’t ignore that their parent or college professor is in a high-risk pool of individuals. They can’t ignore their children being out of school. These aren’t choices, they’re crises acting upon them, whether they like it or not. This isn’t just spectacle, and for many well-off people in the US, this may be the first “national crisis” they genuinely can’t choose to “opt out” ofㅡhopefully this clarifies the distinction here between shared crises and the spectacle of shared crisis (which can still very much be real crises for a great many people).

Cultural Myths and Independence

For many, the COVID-19 crisis is being experienced in physical quarantine, yet this crisis may push many towards a more social, less individualistic understanding of human connection. That is, one where human relation goes beyond the exchange of goods and services. The pandemic makes it clear just how reliant we are on one another. Not only is the lone wolf a myth, it’s a dangerous one. Human love is central to everything we do on this earth…you can only “opt out” by living your life in delusion. The compulsion to control all the wealth on earth for one’s own consumption is just that, a compulsion. The nationalist fixation on “securing the border,” the stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction, and, perhaps most peculiar, the wealthy scrambling to purchase fallout bunkers and helicopter escape pads…this is the neurotic behavior of an obsessive-compulsive. It is the physical manifestation of a debilitating mental obsession that one is entirely self-reliant in the face of the obvious lived reality that one is simply not. Not only will these material pursuits not lead to salvation, there is also the obvious reality that other people produced these things. No one person can build a luxury fallout shelter on his own (you couldn’t even extract the natural resources needed on your own!), and this unavoidable reality leads one to the schizophrenic fascination with commodity ownershipㅡhoarding. We need a global reconciliation of our relationships with our fellow men, and this is going to require a conscious reduction of materialism, e.g. the endless pursuit of possessions, not that we ought to abandon material analysis in favor of philosophical idealism.


Note: It is interesting how modern capitalism has muddied the meaning of the terms idealism and materialism, such that colloquial usage is almost directly opposed to the original philosophical meaningㅡsee the article Why was Marx a materialist?. This is arguably, on the societal-scale, an indication of how neoliberalism has alienated us from language[1], as it has alienated us from the material world (reality) on the whole. 


“The need for speed and newness, which can only be satisfied by consumerism, reflects restlessness, the inner flight from oneself.”

― Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be? The Nature of the Psyche 

Perhaps COVID-19 will make clear to more people that capitalism is not a rational system, so much as it is a rationalizing system, and, in the words of Erich Fromm, “rationalizing is not a tool for penetration of reality but a post-factum attempt to harmonize one’s own wishes with existing reality.” Previously it was unimaginable that labor pause for even a moment, lest we risk our supposedly-fragile social ties to one another and inevitably devolve into violent chaos. Yet, with the closing of factories, schools, churches/Mosques, football stadiums, amusement parks, and resorts, this century-long assumption is dissolving. And in fact, it’s becoming more clear that we don’t need police, lawyers, and military to “maintain order”…we don’t need professionals to negotiate the distance between us, as it’s this thinking that’s caused that social alienation to begin with. We don’t need the authority of capitalism to enforce labor because production in pursuit of obscene wealth doesn’t actually create systems that care for people.

This isn’t a rational economic arrangement, rather it’s the rationalization of the addict, the obsessive-compulsive…it’s no surprise that late-stage capitalism is marked by an exponential rise in mental health crises. Further, it’s no surprise that reduced isolation (such as in the form of a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous) is more often than not the remedy to a “personal” mental crisis. Neoliberalism and its fixation on hyper-individualism is the delusion and the crisisㅡthe lone wolf, the entrepreneur, the self-made man, the girl boss…these are selfish aspirations. This isn’t a moral judgement, it’s an acknowledgment that excessive self-interest, as well as excessive self-evaluation, are both compulsive responses to severe alienationㅡfrom oneself, other beings, and reality:

“The failure of modern culture lies not in its principle of individualism, not in the idea that moral virtue is the same as the pursuit of self-interest, but in the deterioration of the meaning of self-interest; not in the fact that people are too much concerned with their self-interest, but that they are not concerned enough with the interest of their real self; not in the fact that they are too selfish, but that they do not love themselves. […] Selfish persons are incapable of loving others, but they are not capable of loving themselves either”

― Erich Fromm, Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics

“Selfishness is not identical with self-love but with its very opposite. Selfishness is one kind of greediness. Like all greediness, it contains an insatiability, as a consequence of which there is never any real satisfaction. Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.”

― Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom 

People often repeat the phrase “ignorance is bliss,” but ignorance of neoliberalism’s far-reaching influence on all aspects of life will not end in a personal feeling of well-being. Pursuit of personal happiness exclusively will not lead to happiness. The fact that anyone thinks otherwise is a testament to just how alienated we are from ourselves. The classification of narcissism and greed as morally wrong, but still personally beneficial, is a collective delusion. One that signals the complete infiltration of capitalist dogma into every last aspect of life. You’re not apolitical, you’re not moderate or practical, and you’re not uninterested…you very likely don’t know enough to even make such a claim. You’re distracting yourself because the only thing you fear more than non-existence is existence. The only thing scarier than death is life.

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

― Helen Keller

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[1] “Once the primary bonds which gave security to the individual are severed, once the individual faces the world outside of himself as a completely separate entity, two courses re-open to him since he has to overcome the unbearable state of powerlessness and aloneness. By one course he can progress to “positive freedom”; he can relate himself spontaneously to the world in love and work, in the genuine expression of his emotional, sensuous and intellectual capacities; he can thus become one again with man, nature, and himself, without giving up the independence and integrity of his individual self. The other course open to him is to fall back, to give up his freedom, and to try to overcome his aloneness by eliminating the gap that has arisen between his individual self and the world. This second course never reunites him with the world in the way he was related to it before he merged as an “individual,” for the fact of his separateness cannot be reversed; it is an escape from an unbearable situation which would make life impossible if it were prolonged. This course of escape, therefore, is characterized by its compulsive character, like every escape from threatening panic; it is also characterized by the more or less complete surrender of individuality and the integrity of the self. Thus it is not a solution which leads to happiness and positive freedom; it is, in principle, a solution which is to be found in all neurotic phenomena. It assuages an unbearable anxiety and makes life possible by avoiding panic; yet it does not solve the underlying problem and is paid for by a kind of life that often consists only of automatic or compulsive activities.”

― Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom 


[2] “Among the many forms of alienation, the most frequent one is alienation in language. If I express a feeling with a word, let us say, if I say “I love you,” the word is meant to be an indication of the reality which exists within myself, the power of my loving. The word “love” is meant to be a symbol of the fact love, but as soon as it is spoken it tends to assume a life of its own, it becomes a reality. I am under the illusion that the saying of the word is the equivalent of the experience, and soon I say the word and feel nothing, except the thought of love which the word expresses. The alienation of language shows the whole complexity of alienation. Language is one of the most precious human achievements; to avoid alienation by not speaking would be foolish — yet one must be always aware of the danger of the spoken word, that it threatens to substitute itself for the living experience. The same holds true for all other achievements of man; ideas, art, any kind of man-made objects. They are man’s creations; they are valuable aids for life, yet each one of them is also a trap, a temptation to confuse life with things, experience with artifacts, feeling with surrender and submission.” ― Erich Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man 

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