Part of the Series
Despair and Disparity: The Uneven Burdens of COVID-19
How can we fight fascism as public health restrictions tighten? Kelly talks with Shane Burley about organizing for survival and the analysis of state power we need right now.
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity.
Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to Movement Memos, a Truthout podcast about things you should know, if you want to change the world. I’m your host, Kelly Hayes. Last week we talked a bit about organizing during a pandemic and what we ought to be doing with ourselves. Even for people who have been doing the work of activism and organizing for quite a while, this is a moment of uncertainty and reinvention. It’s also a moment of great anxiety and grief, as we mourn the losses we’re experiencing and contemplate the losses to come. At the state level, our situations vary pretty wildly. My state is under a shelter-in-place order, but most states are not, despite warnings from experts that the whole country should be locked down.
Meanwhile, on a national stage, we’ve seen the Trump administration’s ongoing contempt for facts on display at briefings, where he exudes dishonesty, racism and xenophobia in a manner we’ve become all too accustomed to. We have also seen disturbing power grabs on the administration’s part, such as the DOJ’s effort to suspend due process for people detained by the federal government. For those of us doing the work of politics, there is no pre-existing rule book for this moment. We all have skills that can be applied in some way, but none of us have a blueprint or a roadmap.
As we return to last week’s question of how to organize during a pandemic, we’re about to go down a rabbit hole, and joining us in that plunge is my friend Shane Burley, who is a Truthout contributor and author of the book Fascism Today: What it is and How to End It. Shane, welcome back to the show.
Shane Burley: Thanks for having me back.
KH: How the hell are you doing, friend?
SB: I’m ok. I am hanging inside the whole time. So I’m getting used to doing everything I need to do within the walls of my small apartment. But I’m doing okay. I think I’m doing — I think I’m pretty fortunate that I can work from home and stay here and have most of what I need.
KH: Are you under a shelter-in-place order as well?
SB: Yes, we [have a] shelter-in-place [order]. In fact, I was just going over what the rules of it really are. I mean, I think we can, we can technically go outside for some activity, if we can reliably not intersect with other people, but since I live in an urban area, that’s not really possible. So it’s basically, effectively stay inside. We’ve only left the house once in the last four days.
KH: We’re being hit with a lot of mixed messages right now about how we should handle ourselves, not only from politicians, but on a personal level as well. Obnoxiously upbeat people are telling us to learn new hobbies and pursue our passions. The general expectation seems to be that we create some new version of our normal, productive lives, while living under quarantine. Personally, I think all of that advice is downright comedic, and that it’s completely ok to be a mess right now. Nothing is normal. I can barely write, I can barely think, and I’m struggling to keep up with the projects I’m working on. And realistically, I think that’s most of us right now, aside from the people who are in denial, who are still roaming the streets spreading this virus by socializing and refusing to give up their routines.
SB: I think people, in a lot of ways, are responding to the fact that they have never dealt with something so, kind of, disruptive in their daily lives. They don’t even have a framework for it.
KH: Popular media narratives have also been unhelpful, to say the least. With the exception of being told that we can help flatten the curve by washing our hands and staying at home, this crisis is largely being framed as something that is simply happening to us. While mitigation policies are being decided, while senators argue over how tiny our crumbs from the table should be, there is a sense that we are completely at the mercy of those who govern us. With a fascist in the White House, we clearly cannot surrender to the whims of our government, so how would you push back on the idea that we are helpless right now?
SB: One of the first things is that we do have a lot of history, people who are organizers, of responding to crisis in really effective ways. You know, we have the term for this: mutual aid. It’s how we develop mechanisms outside of capitalism and the state, where we can support each other to do a lot of things. And there’s lots of examples of this. So you know, ACT UP in the 1980s, creating mutual aid, [and] medical support for people who were really dying of HIV in a mass pandemic. And so there was community groups formed. They were doing research, they were getting support drugs, they were getting medical support, they were doing all kinds of things as a mutual aid project. Black Panthers had survival pending revolution programs. You know, we’re talking about education, food distributions, medical clinics.
KH: And as someone who covers movement work in the present day, are you seeing that kind of action around COVID-19?
SB: I have been interviewing mutual aid networks all across the country, and dozens of them popped up within days. I mean, just days, and almost every major city has more than one. Small towns [have them]. Some of these groups have existed for a long time. You know, they come out of larger support centers, community centers, other people that are doing kind of mutual aid work, or people doing things like needle exchange or sex worker solidarity work, or some of them just popped up out of nowhere as some of them are from folks that never done anything and just decided to get chat threads together to check in with all their neighbors and compile resources and started doing runs to help each other.
Out here, where I’m at in Portland, Oregon, Symbiosis and the DSA and a number of groups worked together on this project where people can kind of sign up for shifts. I’m signed up for shifts to go do runs and people need the — if they can’t leave the house because they’re immune compromised or have kids or something, then maybe I can run and get their prescriptions for them. And people are doing that kind of work. It’s really, I guess, unsure as it becomes more serious, that we may not be able to even do that in a reliable way or shelter orders might interfere with that. It’s going to become even more complicated, but I think there is a certain amount of drive to keep that going, even if it ends up being a purely remote function.
KH: On the subject of what shelter and quarantine orders might look like, I definitely want to talk about the potential impacts of those decisions being made at the federal level. Because we are talking about a situation that could facilitate a number of fascist objectives, either through actions Trump can rationalize to the public, or through inaction. Prisons and detention centers are being transformed into death chambers. U.S. sanctions will become deadlier. Militarization, state control of people’s movements and activities, heightened mass surveillance — it’s all on the table, and most people are so focused on the virus and how they’re going to survive, that they can’t even process these threats.
But before we dig deep into all that, I do want to talk a little more about the economic crisis we’re faced with, because that is a huge part of this, and it’s absolutely devastating. With a shredded social safety net and so many people living paycheck to paycheck, the closure of restaurants and bars in Chicago immediately created a massive financial crisis. The closure of non-essential businesses has only escalated that crisis. I think the closures were necessary and should have happened sooner, but regardless of necessity, we are now faced with a level of human need that no government agency is prepared to reckon with. And as beautiful and important as mutual aid efforts are, we can’t possibly scale up the work that’s happening to meet the needs of everyone in a major city during this crisis.
The Hardship and Help Page that my friend Delia Galindo and I started when the closures began in Chicago has raised over $50,000, but there are over 3,000 requests for help on that page, so $50,000 is really just a drop in the bucket. People talk about this situation revealing the cracks in our system, but there’s really no reveal here. In the same way that our medical system wasn’t ready for this crisis because it had been gutted by austerity, our communities weren’t prepared for this crisis because we have no safety net.
SB: Yeah, I think it speaks to the necessary nature of ongoing organizations that do work. Because there is a crisis that’s happening all the time. There’s a crisis of capitalism, of absolute deprivation all across the country. It’s a universal –well, not universal experience — but it’s a consistent experience, I should say. So, like, I was talking with the mutual aid network of Ypsilanti, which is in Ypsilanti, Michigan, which, right now, has a massive unemployment rate. It’s like a 30 percent poverty rate right now. And so they’ve been doing support work, you know, to make sure that, like, food pantries are available to people, things like that. And they’d be doing for a couple of years. So when this happened, they had a mechanism to pump people into, to get resources funneled through to, and also, kind of a distribution network. So they had something they could depend on, and they weren’t just starting from scratch.
There’s a lot of groups, Anarchist Black Cross organizations, sometimes Redneck Revolt and things like that that were doing things like needle exchange or food drop-offs in rural areas. I mean, those things are incredibly — they kind of fit with the stream, right now. They existed before, and they can really be activated now. And so I think it’s really a lesson to what it means to constantly be doing base building work.
KH: Couldn’t agree more. And to circle back to how most everyday people are seeing and experiencing this. The corporate media has, for the most part, continued to air Trump’s daily briefings live. So with the most powerful media platforms in the country playing host to Trump’s unadulterated lies and racism, it seems like Trump’s critics are mostly just enumerating his lies and venting their outrage as though that’s useful analysis. I think it’s important to keep track of his lies, but it worries me that this is the tactical approach people are taking, because people have been tracking his lies throughout his presidency, and it has almost never had the impact his critics are hoping for, to simply name these things. And yet the approach doesn’t change. Now, I’m not as well versed in history as you are, but I can’t remember an instance where fascism or authoritarianism were defeated with the power of fact-checking.
SB: No, because facts don’t matter. They don’t move anybody. There’s really competent research out there about what actually moves people’s opinions, and it’s very rarely a well argued, statistically accurate argument. Instead people play on emotions and fears really heavily. And what’s really important is actually a narrative. You know, when someone’s doing organizing work, what’s really effective when building a campaign is having strong narratives. You have characters, you have taglines, you have a story that explains the issue. If you just throw a number of like percentage points at people, that tends to lose them pretty quickly. So what we’re seeing right now is a reframing of something that would have been ideological common sense. We should protect people who would die from an illness — who would’ve argued with such a thing?
But now what’s happening is we’re actually calling this into question, and building an entire ideological and, kind of intellectual basis for, basically, culling a portion of the population in an attempt to save Wall Street, which it won’t do, obviously. And so, I think this is a process by which you condition people to, kind of their own inhumanity, where people get very, very used to the notion that you have to crack some eggs, and that there are some people that are gonna end up being expendable — not just really because you want to, but because it must be. The situation just calls for it. And that kind of inauthentic, anti-humanism is what’s at process when you’re moving people along towards complicity in atrocities.
KH: I’m always telling people that everything’s a story. People understand the world in narratives, as you were just saying. Somehow, the Democrats with the most power and the most resources don’t understand that.
SB: Yeah, I think that, like, there is a culture of kind of affluent liberalism, you know, raised in the academy and built on a particular type of intellectual tradition that actually loses the ability to communicate in the folk language of people, in the storytelling. I mean this is, I think, seen really clearly in the ways that a lot of grad school, liberal people, or people with an intellectual background sometimes will denigrate people of religious traditions, and not understand the power that religious narratives and mythologies have with people to really explain things, and to have a real emotional truth to them and to transcend just facts and figures.
KH: And on the subject of what people can and cannot process, we are in a moment now where people in the U.S. who are concerned about COVID-19 can think of little else. It’s understandable. It’s an existential threat. But the idea that nothing else matters until we make it through the pandemic is incredibly dangerous. Because, for one thing, a lot of potential “solutions” to this crisis are weapons in the hands of the state, and we can’t just unthinkingly and unstrategically throw power into the hands of the state right now because we’re afraid. Because there will come a time, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, where public gatherings are no longer a public health threat, and we are not going to want to have carelessly surrendered our right to assemble at that time.
We simply cannot allow the politics of fear and panic to govern what the world looks like on the other side of this. If we become docile, and accept power to grab after power grab in the name of safety, the freedoms we have enjoyed and the rights we were willing to fight for will disintegrate while we hide under our beds. Escalations of mass surveillance and social control that are initiated during a quarantine could easily become permanent. But at the same time, if we’re too cavalier about our safety, and practice the same tactics we’ve employed up to now, we will lose to the virus before we even have time to lose to the fascists.
SB: I think, like, when it comes to this crisis, we get in our heads about these specific things that we should be working on. There’s a lot of very practical kind of mechanisms, and those are all important. But I think it’s really important to hear where people are at, right now. To talk to people, to ask them what they need, to see what commonalities we have. And that, in a lot of ways, from like large left organizations or liberal institutions, the Democratic Party, things like that, that’s not really happening. It’s kind of being done for them, or in their name. And that’s, again, actually why, kind of, directly democratic mutual aid organizations that are made up of people have the ability to do something that those institutions never will be able to do. It’s because they’re actually made up of people’s lived desires. And it’s coming from people that are looking at folks like them, like their neighbors or their community members or family members and saying, what do you need? I think I need the same thing. If we’re going to survive a large crisis like this, we are only going to be able to do it together. We can’t be doing it, even by pushing kind of liberal or even, like, social democratic measures that are helpful, that is not going to get us through a fundamental paradigm shift. What gets us through that is by rejecting the institutions that have gotten us here in the first place, and building some of our own in our own image.
KH: Well, we have some pretty immediate momentum, in terms of people uniting out of necessity. People are reaching out to each other en masse because the system is failing them. If those people become intentional about their connectivity and intentionally political in their actions, the Earth could shift. Once people become more committed to each other than they are to this system, we will be in a position to set terms. There comes a point where authority must justify itself. Our government is terrified of that moment, because if we all stopped cooperating with the system, things would fall apart and the center wouldn’t hold.
SB: I have a good friend named Kevin Van Meter. He wrote a great book called The Gorillas of Desire, and I used to organize with him in the Portland Solidarity Network. And he would [say], let’s stop for a second thinking about what the left does, and what all these organizations are. What is the [working] class doing? What does the working class say that they want right now, and how are they getting it? Because people survive all the time. There are communities that have no influence of the left. They have no left organizations in there, doing anything for them, but yet they are surviving. They are building mutual aid networks themselves. They’re taking care of each others’ kids. They’re sharing dinner. Sometimes, they’re even sharing their medicine. People survive all the time.
And I think what we need to look at, and this is not just true right now, this is true all the time, but if people are going to be organizers and with organizations, they need to look to what people do to survive, what they need, and how that can be mobilized in a really big force. Because you’re right, there is way more of us than there are of them. There’s way more of just average folks than there is of the rich, or people in the halls of power. And because of that, we have something they never can have, which is a large mass of people. And that can shift the dynamic entirely. And so, what we’re gonna need to look at is how people are surviving, are remaining alive in this crisis, how we can be a part of that, and how we can help build structures with like, skills of organizing and things like that? But how can we build structures to take what people do to survive, and take what people do to build power, and help just kind of bring that into the stratosphere.
KH: I also really believe that mutual aid efforts keep us grounded in our values and in who we are during terrible times. Fear has the potential to bring out the worst in all of us. Individualism has been ground into our heads. We have been conditioned to hoard at the first sign of scarcity, and to be afraid of each other. When we’re just looking out for ourselves, our worldview can get warped pretty quickly. We need anchors, in general, but even more so during turbulent times, and we need to be anchored to each other.
But circling back to the fascism stuff, because that is a thing that we are up against, in addition to being physically compartmentalized, I want to talk about the problem of retreat. In moments that feel insurmountable, and particularly when dissent has been struck down, people will often give themselves moral permission to depoliticize themselves. They retreat into their private lives. It happened in Spain under [Francisco] Franco. And to a lesser extent, under the Reagan administration in the U.S. in the 1980s. Between the threat of nuclear annihilation and the backlash against liberation movements, there were a lot of people who just checked out of politics. With COVID-19 ripping its way across the country, many of us are now physically and socially positioned to retreat into our private lives. Some people were already hiding, as best they could, from the realities of Trumpism and climate catastrophe. So how do we overcome this?
SB: I think the next two or three weeks are going to determine exactly what the stakes are we’re playing with here. And if we feel like we are up to the task of doing it together. So there’s a lot of uncertainty, but it’s, it’s not one that I think we are poised to lose. I think that, in a lot of ways, the future that we have is going to depend on whether or not we have the ability to intervene on the processes around us. The ones that are increasingly ineffectual and unstable. You know, this is an era of collapse, in a lot of ways. We’re talking about financial, social, health care collapse, international monetary collapse, the collapse of state authority in some ways. And so this is the point at which we have the ability to build something, not just in structures, but in terms of ideas and narratives and the connections between people, that can supersede that and can chart a new course.
I think that one of the things that I think is really important to impart about fascism is that it’s not something that is done to people, but it’s something that people largely participate in. We do have the image of authoritarian, fascist governments, and I think that through a lot of narrative representation, that’s been depicted as totalitarian regimes that exist on top of you. So people only look to the state. And I think — and then also with the image of the state as this unaccountable institution that enacts things for its own purposes — but the reality is that one, we give the state legitimacy, so there’s a great deal of participation there.
And then I think the second part of that is that fascism is a mass movement of people. And so what we’re seeing right now is a lot of uncertainty. So we have the cruelty at the heart of the Trump administration, which is working very hard to frame this as a foreign illness or an illness that’s born of immigration in some rhetoric. We’re seeing [that] prisons are about to be overrun with COVID-19, [and] basically concentration camps on the border. We were both just talking about how people survive day-in and day-out. They survive by using mutual aid. And people also survive with anti-fascism all the time. People defend their neighbors when they’re under a racist attack. And that [racist violence] could ramp up. Times of crisis lead to victimization of people, they lead the scapegoating, they lead to these narratives. We, then, have to have counter-narratives, but also be willing to do something about that, and it’s a little uncertain what that’s going to look like, but I think people need to understand. And we can look at other crises and see that things like white militias, vigilante militias, do actually form in crisis like that, particularly if things get worse.
And so we will need to be prepared to kind of intervene on that. And what does that take? And what we’re lucky about is that right now, there’s lots of mutual aid groups that are really existing to do positive support work. How can those then be mobilized to take the next step if that means protecting a mosque that’s under threat because some group of folks have decided that they’re responsible for a pandemic? What does that mean three months from now, when people who have been let out of work are now being evicted from their homes? Mutual aid then has to be eviction defense work. It then has to be supporting people in the long-term, finding jobs, organizing their workplaces to get their jobs back, things like that. So I think we need to think about, when we’re talking about fascism, we can’t just talk about what happens in the state away from us. We have to talk about the circles around us all the time. And what tools do we have now just start intervening to defend people when they’re under attack and support people in the long term?
KH: So every time I tell people they have to be willing to fight alongside people they would never otherwise associate with, I get a speech about how a particular group or demographic sucks and seriously, I don’t always disagree with those assessments. But as we are seeing with the contrast between our lackluster reactions to the climate crisis and entire states shutting down over COVID-19, we are capable of taking extreme collective action in the name of our collective survival. And I think for some people, this is kind of their first experience of seeing something as an existential threat. But there’s a huge danger in that too, and it really reminds me of September 11th when a collective fear gripped our society. People who had previously been quite liberal were suddenly rationalizing things that they never would have accepted before.
If we think about moments when our government has rolled back civil liberties and ramped up militarization with the implicit or explicit consent of the public, fear has always been at the heart of that cooperation. And after September 11th, most people in the U.S. accepted expanded security measures, heightened surveillance and war crimes. I feel like we have the potential to tip either way in this moment. We could really fight for what would get us through this and for a more just society, or we could continue a tragic cycle of ceding power that we’ll never get back and creating more dystopian scenarios for more and more people. Do you see the scale tipping one way or another?
SB: I think it’s hard to say right now. In a lot of ways, at least in my, for my life experiences, I’m sort of off the map at this point. And so I think it can go a number of directions. I try and default on the positive here and say that people can be pushed into a really positive direction. I think when people experience this, when it’s not abstract politics to any degree, when that’s something that’s very lived and with them, there tends to be a process of empathy and building projects based on that need. But that can go a lot of ways. I mean, you know, when we’re talking about a fascist politic, in a lot of ways, that’s also a politic of survival, and of trying to create some kind of, like an inverse of mutual aid, you know, supporting some people in the community at the cost of other people. This is a crisis that motivates emotion and drive and need, but where does that go? And right now the crisis is just accumulating. In a lot of ways, it’s just ramping up inertia, and we don’t know yet how it’s going to, kind of, fire out like a gun. So I think it remains to be seen, but we are not helpless in this. We can direct it somewhere, and we have to because if we don’t, it will go where we don’t want it to go.
KH: I want to be clear to our rattled listeners that people have gotten out from under worse situations than this pandemic. That may be hard for people to imagine right now because they feel like this is just the worst. But we have power, and we have hope and where hope is lost, we have what we need to make more. And throughout history, people who had nothing left, whose lives and bodies were controlled by their oppressors at all times, have found the will to fight, to flee, to withhold their labor, to strike down entire systems. People facing what we would think of as insurmountable odds have told inevitability to fuck off and spun political will into possibility.
We are creative and there are more of us. We can fight our way out from under anything, but that means we have to be willing to process what’s happening and we need to be willing to innovate. And we need to be willing to push past despair and remember that we don’t have the right to give up on each other. Right now, this administration is positioned to carry out its genocidal fantasies without any official action, because prisons and detention centers are going to become death chambers. It’s already happening. The spread of COVID-19 on Rikers Island is horrifying. Between that and the decimation of our health care system by way of this virus, we are talking about the normalization of mass die-offs, and that’s a threshold we simply cannot cross.
SB: I mean, I think when people look at instances of mass genocide, and they look in the rear view mirror, and they think it’s so inconceivable that people would have accepted this. I mean, there is complex narratives about how people, for example, didn’t realize the Holocaust was happening or didn’t realize other forms of mass killing and executions were taking place. And the reality is that people are actually moved along a continuum to accept certain things. You know, it’s a slow process. So when someone comes out and says, “Ok, hey, you know, what we’re talking about here, we’re not talking about culling people. We’re just talking about getting people back to work, even though it’s a little bit risky.”
This is a step-by-step process to accepting the idea that some people are going to end up being expendable. And remember that in these step-by-step processes, there is logic behind them, and people are convinced of things, and people actually switch the way that they ascribe value to things. And so, by the time we get to a stage where more severe acts of violence are taking place, which is quite possible down the road, this would be a step along that way. I don’t want to be hyperbolic about what people are saying, but I do want to be real that, like, there has been a shift that’s happening. And when we understand where we’re going in geopolitics and next 20, 30, 40 years, when scarcity and, for example, border imperialism and climate collapse are very real things that people are kind of living through — it’s not just a political issue, but it’s very material, and people are getting hurt, people are dying — these are the sorts of steps along the way that end up justifying much more draconian policies and give people the impetus and, actually, the passive consent from the public to carry out and to recontextualize death and how it works.
So I think, right now, when we’re having this discussion, we can look back at other really large genocides and see that there was steps along the way, and there was concessions made by people, and people change their, not just their opinions about policies, but they changed their opinions about other people and about what it took to get things done. And so I think that’s one part of it. The other part is that this stuff doesn’t stop on its own. And it also doesn’t stop just by voting patterns. It doesn’t stop from polite protest. It doesn’t stop from strongly worded arguments, obviously. It stops from people stopping it. Actual interventions in these things is what stops it. And if we’re talking about mutual aid now, we’re talking about intervening on someone who doesn’t have food in the closet or they don’t have their medicine.
But what does it mean when that mutual aid means intervening on someone trying to attack a religious center? Or more than that, what does it mean when, for example, there are shelter orders in place that’s stopping you from actually helping somebody. Maybe it becomes even more draconian, and you actually aren’t allowed to help someone get their medicine. What does it mean to intervene on that, even when it takes risk? I think those are what people need to be thinking about, and thinking about what the acceptable moral framework is going to be when you know that the state is not going to do it for us. That’s going to require us going far outside our comfort zone. It has to all be on the table for rethinking and really committing to something that’s going to work.
KH: We are talking about heavy shit and some of you may be feeling overwhelmed. It’s ok to feel overwhelmed. Our reality is in flux and the future is unclear. But we should remember that many of our ancestors have been just as overwhelmed, just as horrified, just as fractured as we feel right now, and more. But they fought, and we’re here. We are proof of our own potential, and we will deliver ourselves and each other from these times. This has been a great conversation. Shane, thank you so much for making time to talk today.
SB: Absolutely. I’m really happy to come on anytime. I love talking with you.
KH: And to learn more from Shane Burley you can check out his book Fascism Today: What it is and How to End It, and his many articles, a number of which you can find in Truthout, and I will link a couple of those in transcript for you all as well. I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do we do matters. Be safe out there.
Not everyone can pay for the news. But if you can, we need your support.
Truthout is widely read among people with lower incomes and among young people who are mired in debt. Our site is read at public libraries, among people without internet access of their own. People print out our articles and send them to family members in prison — we receive letters from behind bars regularly thanking us for our coverage. Our stories are emailed and shared around communities, sparking grassroots mobilization.
We’re committed to keeping all Truthout articles free and available to the public. But in order to do that, we need those who can afford to contribute to our work to do so — especially now, because we only have the rest of today to raise $20,000 in critical funds.
We’ll never require you to give, but we can ask you from the bottom of our hearts: Will you donate what you can, so we can continue providing journalism in the service of justice and truth?