life in the time of virus (and disaster) capitalism

March 16, 2020
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In her excellent 2007 book-length provocation, The Shock Doctrine, author and social activist Naomi Klein outlined how big companies and the billionaire class use times of crisis to change the rules for their own financial gain, under the guise of extreme (often cost-saving) short-term measures. It is so unfortunate that even in the first days of the Coronavirus pandemic influencing people’s (and companies’) decision-making in the United States, we are already seeing the shock doctrine in action. At times, it’s even being implemented because of  general desires of people wanting to help their own communities.

For instance: On Friday, professional basketball rookie Zion Williamson, lauded by many as the most impactful NBA newcomer since LeBron James, announced an incredibly selfless act. With the NBA season postponed indefinitely, and the financial impact on the concessions workers at New Orleans Smoothie King Center, where Williamson’s team the Pelicans play, incalculable, the 19 year-old athlete said that he would pay those employees salaries for a month.

Williamson’s actions garnered applause from various corners of the social media sphere, including a Twitter bap from former president Barack Obama. Sadly, what the former president didn’t ask was, Why is a 19-year-old worker (albeit, an extravagantly paid one) taking responsibility in a way that his employer, a longtime member of the local community, isn’t? Especially as that employer, Gayle Benson, the principal owner of the New Orleans Pelicans (and the NFL’s New Orleans Saints) is worth, by some estimates, $3.1 billion. Instead, like many owners of professional sports franchises, she is hiding behind the compassionate and charitable actions of her teenage employees, letting them accrue for her brand, the community’s goodwill. And the additional profits — or potential civic rewards, such as tax breaks — that will go along with that.

But even worse are coronavirus-related policies that push already beyond-wealthy companies to undertake practices more concerned with their own bottom lines than the welfare of its employees. Such as the official line being taken by the wellness supermarket chain Whole Foods, owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who at last count was the second richest man in the world. 

Last Wednesday, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey sent out an email about sick time and paid leave plans to all store employees, in which he wrote that, “Team Members who have a medical emergency or death in their immediate family can receive donated PTO (paid time off) hours.” The policy email, which was reviewed by Motherboard, also stated that workers who tested positive for Covid-19 were eligible for two paid weeks off (which mirrors Amazon policy), and offered unlimited, unpaid time off to those who chose to take it. Disregard that the “donated” PTO policy harkens back to WF’s birth as an independent health food store in Austin, Texas, policy that was created as a community-building exercise between employees, long before WF was owned by one of the richest companies on Earth (Amazon), and used to save payroll $$$.

Even in these early days, the unprecedented crisis of the coronavirus pandemic is clearly exposing the cracks in America’s society — in the many parts of the country’s unprepared (or non-existent) safety net, and in its class-conscious responses. We all know who this cataclysmic event will affect the most, and who disaster capitalism will benefit. Please remember to fight its effects. The future of our society depends on it.