How the Poor Continue to Die, by Kevin Van Meter

Humanity has entered a period “where every day people are dying among strangers.”[1]  

Daily life itself has become “strange” and isolating as social distancing and quarantine measures are being lifted, then reenacted.  Federal troops operating as secret police in an attempt to occupy American cities, are repelled by protestors and the populace.  News cycles shriek and squall with nearly every pontification from the political class as they continue to carry out their “sacred mission,” which in recent memory is accompanied by squealing ineptitude in regard to improving the actual conditions of life.  Or, maybe they are not inept.  Months ago, at the onset of the pandemic, pundits and politicians had already declared that testing, treatments, and vaccines would not be offered to everyone.    

A pervasive level of violence, of frivolous intrusions into the routine behaviors of people of color, of a cruel disgust directed toward unhoused and poor peoples, of an impulsive need to regulate the expressions of those outside the gender binary, of a paranoid animosity toward immigrants and “antifa” and the “other” is being expressed by a particular sector of the population.  This sector – overwhelmingly good Christians, white, and middle-class – have been expressing this violence to such an extent that everyday life has been saturated by it.  For us “others” it is omnipresent, for many “others” it has been this way for five hundred years.  Yet, the poor continue to die, often “among strangers.”                      

In 1929 George Orwell was down and out in Paris and witness to the goings-on at a hospital that served the poor.  Seventeen years later he drew on his initial observations along with scribbled notes to complete the article “How the Poor Die.”  These words, published during the aftermath of the second World War, deserve our full attention in this moment: “However great the kindness and the efficiency, in every hospital death there will be some cruel, squalid detail, something perhaps too small to be told but leaving terribly painful memories behind, arising out of the haste, the crowding, the impersonality of a place where every day people are dying among strangers.”[2]  Then, as now, the gallant efforts of medical personnel, front-line and essential workers are often performed with kindness and efficiency, and with haste.  Nonetheless, the poor died in 1929 and 1946 in the ways they have continued to die, have always died.  In hospitals amongst strangers and in the streets, shanty towns and derelict apartments, in asylums and prisons, reservations and Bantustans. And if at all possible, in these same places, amongst relations, chosen as well as blood.    

Currently the cruelty of COVID-19 is compounded not just by social isolation but the realization that those who will die from this disease will do so among strangers.  On ventilators, in isolation units, in nursing homes, without the comfort of loved ones or human touch.  If the projections are correct, even with the recommended medical and social interventions, the dead will overwhelm the living.  It is likely that you, the humble reader, will be called upon to bury the departed, deceased, dead.        

As the dead overwhelm the living, dead labor will attempt to overcome living labor. “Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour,” Karl Marx notoriously quipped, “and lives the more, and more labour it sucks.”[3]  What has become clear to large swaths of the populace, not just devotees to hundred and fifty year old texts, is that value and wealth in a capitalist society (the portion consumed in production and reproduction is dead labor) are produced only through the efforts and expended capacities of the working-class (which is living labor).  As Marx offered, “We mean by labour-power, or labour-capacity, the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in the physical form, the living personality, of a human being, capabilities which [they] set in motion whenever [they produce] a use-value of any kind.”[4]  And the great promise of Marx, of all revolutionaries, is that we will produce ‘goods and services’ useful to human beings in accordance with their needs and all of our abilities collectively.   

An economic system hell bent on endless growth has seemingly been replaced, possibly only temporarily, by shortsighted kleptocracy.  Extending well beyond the current administration, bourgeois society has embraced law breaking for themselves and harsh, hard-hearted punishment of the poor for minor property and drug “crimes.”  While this has always been, the contemporary American political class now flaunts its wrongdoings in full view.  With the endless accumulation of capital cast aside for the immediate acquisition of wealth, the imposition of work has become more malicious.  Front-line and essential workers and those in the service industry are being forced back to work at the threat of being destitute, with mass evictions looming.  The tiny deaths of exhaustion and daily injury have been replaced by the alternating certainty of death by starvation or death by pandemic.  Major retailers call them “heroes” as they take away their hazard pay.  And even school children, the sacrificial but essential workers of the future, are being sent back to their desks as home instruction and homework has not been sufficiently disciplinary.  All of this is evident with the return of a slogan, a capitalist maxim: Arbeit macht frei, or work will set you free. 

Pandemic and poverty is becoming plague and privation; those who are penniless will soon face famine. Without work there are no wages, without wages there are few ways to obtain the means of survival, the means of reproducing life itself.  Nevertheless, social reproduction is essential, and the work required – often unwaged, racialized, and gendered – is indispensable.  Since workers expending labor-power in the production process is how capitalism produces value, social reproduction is central to the capitalist mode of production.  As a result, the worksite where this is produced has become of key interest to the bourgeoisie.  Feminist scholar Silvia Federici noted this in the historical record: “The body, then, came to the foreground of social policies because it appeared not only as a beast inert to the stimuli of work, but also as the container of labor-power, a means of production, the primary work-machine.”[5]  The body as machine has been a central metaphor of our capitalist society, now the cogs are being discarded willy-nilly with automation and information computational processes that require fewer and fewer workers.  

Of the numerous realities the pandemic has uncovered, few are as stark as how front-line, essential, service industry workers are not just seen as replaceable but as expendable.  And many are out of work.  When a member of the working-class is without wages and the paltry handouts from the government vanish, reproduction of one’s biological functions and faculties are still required.  Working in front-line, essential, service industries is work as is seeking to obtain work in such sectors.  Working to reproduce one’s own capacities is work as is working without a wage to reproduce waged workers along with the “nonwaged, underwaged, not-yet waged, and no-longer waged,” to quote a contemporary feminist scholar.[6]  Hence, all of life has become work, with its simultaneous, and seemingly contradictory absence and total permeation.  Returning to Marx again:      

“the working day contains the full 24 hours, with the deduction of the few hours of rest without which labour-power is absolutely incapable of renewing it services.  Hence it is self-evident that the worker is nothing other than labour-power for the duration of [their] whole life, and that therefore all [their] disposable time is by nature and by right labour-time, to be devoted to the self-valorization of capital.”[7]  

Our whole lives have been subsumed by capitalism, and now, for far too many of our fellow human beings, death has become just as alienating.  

* * *

In collective, common, liberatory moments of ‘great kindness and efficiency,’ ‘amongst relations, chosen as well as blood,’ we are given a glimpse of “a paradise of unbroken solidarities.”[8]  However, the means of communication, mutual aid, and social relations required to build such a paradise are often destabilize by the very forces that should be constructing them.  

(art by N.o. Bonzo)

Another underling reality exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic is final confirmation that the Left in the United States has been historically defeated, the working-class decomposed.  Although generalized austerity, violent repression, mass incarceration, direct attacks on unions and community-based organizations, restructuring of everyday life toward neoliberal and individualistic ends, culture wars, drug wars, endless wars against the populace are partially to blame.  But the Left must take responsibility for its internal operational failures, nonsensical squabbles, unprincipled and self-servingly middle-class politics.  This has left working-class and poor people to their own defenses, with limited material resources, against the pandemic and unfolding crises.  In effect, the poor continue to die in part due to this ineptitude, purity politics, and too often defenses of middle-class ideals and irrelevant academic ideas.  

To define such a sector of the body politic would take many more words than can be allotted here.  Simply put, this includes those who are “practically minded” members of the Democratic Party establishment all the way leftward to include some of the newly articulated Democratic Socialist alternatives, along with much of organized labor, the non-profit sector, as well as do-gooders and providers of social services.  Where the formal Left begins and the bureaucrats, bourgeoisie, social workers, and middle managers of our misery end is unclear, as they are often indistinguishable and hence what that follows is imprecise.  Beyond the established Left there are ongoing mutual aid efforts, wildcat and rent strikes, and uprisings amongst everyday people, often led by young Black insurgents.  These radical, revolutionary, and daring, spontaneous but still organized, abolitionists, anti-capitalists, and commoners are outside of the formal body politic.

Defensive and self-serving reactions in the guise of “What about small landlords?” and “What about family owned businesses?” have erupted on the Left in response to calls for rent strikes, paid sick leave, hazard differentials, and a little workplace democracy with the same veracity as “What about good cops?” and “Don’t all lives matter?” on the right.  Universal demands for income, healthcare, and housing seemingly require an addendum that first we must distinguish between who are the deserving and who are the undeserving poor.  Then, typed into the social media fields of too many who know better: “I support unions but just not at my business or workplace,” “I support tenants’ rights but just not my tenants,” “I support Bernie but what about these horrible ‘__________.’”  While I am paraphrasing, we will get to those who fill these blanks shortly.  Since we have addressed how the middle-class Left and the bourgeoisie defends itself against the rabble informally, we must look at their formal practices.                 

Saving “establishments,” from restaurant chains to retail stores, “public infrastructure” from universities to the library and post office, “private associations” from business improvement districts and landlord lobbying groups to social service non-profits, as well as the facades of representative democracy and private property, are being managed by grinning neoliberal “little Eichmann’s.”  Or, possibly worse, those who wish they were.  Deep austerity measures have been instituted by and throughout these establishments, infrastructures, and associations while money flowing into them has been accumulated by bureaucracies impervious to worker or citizen demands.  

All of life has become work, and to manage this all of life has been infected by bureaucracy.  What is bureaucracy and why is it so pervasive?  Member of the French group Socialisme ou Barbarie, Claude Lefort, has an answer: “one overlooks the fact that in one and the same movement the bureaucracy establishes itself at the heart of social life and presents itself as an end, that it responds to a technical need and subordinates it to the imperative of power.”[9] Bureaucracies, even progressive and liberal ones, have sought to silence working-class voices: in social services they sought to silence those of unemployed people and welfare recipients, in trade unions expressions of working-class self-activity, political parties those of the masses, universities those of faculty and student shared governance, corporations those of workers initiatives and demands, healthcare those of the ill and infirm, landlords those of their tenants, the legal system and prisons those of prisoners, and then there are others.  At the moment you can hear bureaucrats mumbling out of the side of their mouths, a proverb: “we have effectively silenced them in life, how dare they not be silent in death.”              

Moreover, the desperate need to feel “right” and “moral” is cover for those who ignore structural inequalities and stark differentials of power that exist and are now amplified in our society.  Far worse, after five hundred years of struggle against capitalism and the state most of the Left is willfully ignorant how social change occurs.  Nearly immeasurable personal choices and consumerist acts – such as voting, buying local, eating vegan or organic, riding bikes, being sustainable or peaceful or mindful or, which is by far the worst, conscious – are held as the apex of political action.  Or, maybe by appealing to the “better natures” of bosses and landlords, billionaires and politicians or “speaking truth to power,” things will progress, improve, change.  Worst still, if our arguments are right and true, clear and concise, we will win in the free marketplace of ideas.  And finally, as a great comedic mind once offered, “rights are the last resort of a [person] with no argument” and the Left’s call for “rights” ignore how often they are suspended in times of crisis or have never existed for large swaths of the planet’s populace.  This should be absolutely apparent to anyone who has been on the streets of a supposedly liberal Pacific Northwest city over the past few weeks, or has simply been observing.  Now, that we have considered how the Left views how the actual lives and deaths of working-class and poor peoples as externalities in formal ways, the maliciousness of their informal practices should be noted too.  

A self-serving and moralistic politics has dominated the Left as of late, where faux outrage meant to condemn the personal lifestyles and decisions of the target while holding one’s own personal lifestyles and decisions as morally superior.  Meaning, the illusion of choice and free will results in a working-class bartender being scolded by their middle-class customer, who is in the midst of guzzling down another twenty-dollar cocktail, for taking a cheaper Uber / Lyft home after a twelve hour shift rather than the more expensive local cab company.  Notions of self-care, GoFundMe campaigns for medical bills, Buzzfeed articles and similar lists given as commandments – “20 Books You Must Read this Year,” “6 ways to be antiracist, because being ‘not racist’ isn’t enough” – are individual solutions, often impossible ones, to what are social problems.  These developments are often coupled with a crises of representation and measure along with the disappearance of class as an operating category.  ‘Interlocking oppressions’ and ‘identity’ were to augment and complement class as “new measures of oppression and inequality,” to use the apt words of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, rather than replace it.[10]  Or, in fact, it is the middle-class assumptions of the contemporary Left and radical forces that have placed various issues outside of, above, and primary to class because it allows the middle-class to claim legitimacy within a fundamentally unjust and undemocratic system at the expense of working-class and poor peoples.  It is as if the Left has forgotten that, “Immigrant issues, gender issues and antiracisms are working-class issues.”[11]  Nevertheless there are issues neighboring these too.              

Behind call outs, privilege politics, and reinvigorated essentialisms, one can hear the tired slogans: “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win!” and “Fight the People!”  According to various factions that splintered the Students for a Democratic Society in 1969, of which the Weather Underground is the most pernicious, the American war in Vietnam was bad, so the Vietcong was good; politically conscious radicals were good, white working-class people were bad.  Purges, purity tests, self-criticism, or better off self-flagellation, immediately followed such recitations.  

Not then, and certainty not now, have such measures resulted in strong liberatory movements much less substantive, material or otherwise, gains for oppressed and working-class people.  Nor have movements themselves found transformative ways to address internalized oppression and behaviors, even with the gallant efforts led by women and trans people of color.  After fifty-years of such politics, one would think with the clearly observable historic defeat of Left and radical forces with the rise of incipient fascism other avenues would be explored, other ideas rediscovered and developed, other strategies and tactics deployed.  

In the streets many revolutionaries now call forth “fire from heaven,” not out of revenge or resentment but for our very survival.  Emile Zola was not so forgiving in Germinal: “There he stood with arms raised like an inspired prophet of old, calling down the wrath of God upon the murderers, foretelling the age of justice and the coming extermination of the bourgeoisie by fire from heaven, since it has committed the foulest crime of all and caused the workers and the penniless of the world to be slain.”[12]  Though, what is to be done when those who “caused the workers and the penniless of the world to be slain” are not just the political class, the bourgeoisie, Republican governors and liberal mayors but our fellow citizens?  Fellow citizens refusing to wear masks, coughing in the faces of essential workers and spitting on cashiers, setting up roadblocks to harass those fleeing wildfires, driving through crowds of protestors and arming themselves against their neighbors.  And, with particular vitriol, calling for and in some cases actively exterminating Black and Indigenous people of color, trans women of color, immigrant children, the elderly and infirm.  

As I have claimed herein, the Left not only lacks a concept of social change, it is entirely unprincipled.  But even without principles the Left is being educated nightly as it is struck over the head by police batons.  And the radical and revolutionary movements are discovering its principles and power in concert with thousands of others who have set the fires from heaven upon police stations. Banks, bosses, landlords will burn too.  

Where does one find prospects and possibilities within this plague?  Now, as always, in the new struggles that are emerging, and new social antagonisms being expressed.  As I sat down to write this it is the multitudinous mutual aid projects growing in barren landscapes, then those standing “with arms raised.”

For those of us who are radicals and revolutionaries, we will be called to do immoral things in this crisis. Immoral by the standards of the Left and progressive moralists and possibly immoral by our own standards.  It is clear that the Democratic Party establishment and Left which aligns itself with it, has made peaceful revolution impossible.  Whereas the Left is more interested in its own self-preservation and defense of its position in the capitalist, white supremacist, heteronormative, settler colonial, property owning systems then a substantive redistribution of wealth, land, power.  Whereas much of the radical Left would rather confront each other over perceived slights than directly confront power and construct counterpowers.  Currently the streets of Portland, Chicago, New York along with the streets of rural towns are all bursting with protestors. They are refusing to delegate responsibility for their futures to agencies outside of themselves, to representatives and non-profits, to the so-called official organizations of the working-class.  However, now, rather than dying amongst strangers, thousands of unhoused, poor, women, trans and gender non-conforming people, people of color, Indigenous, immigrant, imprisoned, “others,” and militant accomplices who accompany them have chosen the possibility of death rather than certain death so that they may live. So that we all may live.     


An organizer, autonomist, and author, Kevin Van Meter is the author of Guerrillas of Desire: Notes on Everyday Resistance and Organizing to Make a Revolution Possible (IAS/AK Press, 2017), co-editor of Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements, and Contemporary Radical Currents (AK Press, 2010), and is currently writing his next book Reading Struggles: Autonomist Marxism from Detroit to Turin and Back Again (Forthcoming, AK Press, 2021-2022).  Van Meter can be reached via his website: www.readingstruggles.info.   


Notes

[1] George Orwell, “How the Poor Die” in In Front of Your Nose, 1945-1950: The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, eds. (Boston: David R. Goodine, 2000), 232.

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, Ben Fowkes, trans. (London and New York: Pengiun Books, 1990), 342. 

[4] Marx, Capital, Volume 1, 270. 

[5] Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2004), 137-138. 

[6] Kathi Weeks, The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Durham and London” Duke University Press, 2011), 121.  

[7] Marx, Capital, Volume 1, 375. 

[8] Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Build in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 3. 

[9] Claude Lefort, “What is Bureaucracy?” in The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism, John B. Thompson, ed. (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986), 119-120.

[10] Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (ed.), How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), 4.

[11] Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), 216.

[12] Emile Zola, Germinal (London and New York: Penguin Books, 1988), 413.