By Dr. Joseph Chuman
There is no good purpose in minimizing the condition we are our in. Humanity is experiencing a disaster of literally global proportions with very few precedents. Close to a quarter of million have died worldwide and almost three and half million have contracted the virus. Those are the confirmed cases, signifying that the real numbers are much higher. And many more will continue to die.
But as long as we are pushed forward by the imperatives of biology, we have no choice but to look to the future and work to ensure that things get better. In other words, as long as there is life and a will to live, there is hope.
It is my presumption that it is a principle of a humanist outlook that the future is an open future, and if not totally, than in great measure, it is up to us human beings to create that future.
Some believe in a closed future
Not all people believe in an open future. Christian conservatives, for example, believe in a closed future. They believe that the ultimate fate of human beings is preordained, and at some point the world and human civilization as we know it will endure an apocalyptic war between the legions of Christ and the anti-Christ. True believers will enjoy eternal life and sinners will be damned to hell without end, and that’s it ,folks. Story over.
In a parallel vein, ultra-orthodox Jews believe in a closed future. They believe in the ultimate coming of the Messiah, at which point the righteous will be resurrected, and in one interpretation (there are several, none of them dogmatic) Jews will return to their ancestral holy land and find the freedom to spend all eternity studying Torah unmolested by their gentile persecutors. It always seemed to me a relatively modest ending to human history, but it endures as a mainstay of traditional belief. It was Maimonides, the greatest Jewish theologian, in the 12th century who laid down the 13 central principles of Jewish faith, the 12th being “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and though he may tarry, yet still I will believe in him.” And though he continues to tarry for a very long time, Messianic belief is a central devotion of Hasidic belief especially, and it is experiencing something of a resurgence in our current day.
But not all closed-future advocates are religious. Some have been fervently secular. Among believers in a closed future are orthodox Marxists, of which, I construe, there are very few these days, although for quite a while there were many. By the lights of orthodox Marxism, history progresses by inexorable laws under the rubric of what Karl Marx coined as “historical materialism.” The engine that pushes history ahead is the class struggle, rooted in the fact that there is a ruling class that owns the means of production and an oppressed class, which does not. Because of the dynamics of oppression, history is characterized by a perpetual class struggle of the oppressed against the oppressors.
In the ancient world, the oppressed class was the slave class and the ruling class were the Roman aristocrats. In the modern world, the ruling class in the capitalist class and the oppressed are the proletariat, the working class. History, again, is moved ahead by this conflictual dynamic, and it was Marx’s interpretation that the struggle between the proletariat and the capitalists was history’s final struggle.
In Marx’s view, conflict led to new form of society
In other terms, Marx’s view of history was dialectical, something he appropriated from George Friedrich Hegel. The ruling class represented the thesis, the oppressed class, the antithesis, and their conflict with one another resulted in the synthesis, or a new form of society.
History’s last struggle would result in the proletariat vanquishing the oppressors and instituting a communist society in which the means of production would be owned by the producers themselves, human alienation and the oppression marked by different classes would be resolved, and history would come to an end. Some interpreters of Marx see vestiges of his Jewish background and its messianism animating Marx’s thought. But Marx claimed that his interpretation of history and its deterministic laws were scientific, while it seemed to most others that he had imposed his philosophical notions onto history rather than deriving laws from history.
Marx, as a rabid atheist, did not believe in a divine hand guiding history, but rather the allegedly inexorable and deterministic laws of history that made sure that history would end in a kind of communist utopia, which he prophesied but never really described. He did, however, once say that under communism matters of politics would become matters merely of administration. In other words, conflict among human beings would cease.
A major problem with Marx’s historical materialism is that the proletariat never really got with its historically assigned role and didn’t behave as it was supposed to, thus undercutting the notion that history is governed by deterministic laws, at least as Marx envisioned them.
Again, as a humanist, I personally don’t believe that there are any forces outside of the human condition, or within it, that require that the future will work itself out in some necessary or certain way that we can have much confidence in predicting. Though, on the other hand, I do think that there are human propensities that speak to the notion that human society is fluid and as such suggest that there are certain broad patterns in the way in which societies change and evolve. In short, what we know about human beings and how they respond to the conditions they face can give rise to a sense of hope with regard to the human future.
What I mean simply is that the human being is a problem-solving creature, and that there is a natural propensity among human beings to use their intelligence in order to get beyond their problems in the service of making their lives less oppressive and more pain-free. There is something in people that propels them overall to want to get beyond the forces of oppression and achieve greater freedom in the service of enhancing human flourishing and well-being.
In this sense, Marx, in seeing human history as moving ahead not in linear fashion, but in broadly dialectical patterns, wherein oppressive and dark times are followed by times of brighter times of progress, may be correct, without reducing that dynamic to ironclad laws and ascribing specific roles to specific economic classes. Said most succinctly, bad times are often followed by better ones.
Virus has imposed untold anxiety and misery
Clearly, the horror of the plague that has been brought upon us in the form of the Coronavirus, which seemed to come from nowhere, is in and of itself a catastrophe of frightening and very destructive proportions. As we know, it has virtually brought the global economy to a standstill, and as such has imposed untold anxiety and misery, beyond illness and death, to uncountable millions.
While we are understandably focused on the medical and economic crises in the United States, what is almost totally overlooked is the effect of the pandemic on the world’s poorest countries.
Humanity has made extraordinary strides in the past three decades in reducing global poverty and world hunger. While we are often focused on what’s wrong with the human condition, one of humanity’s greatest success stories has been the reduction of world poverty in the last three decades, mostly in China, but also in India and even in such extraordinarily poor countries as Nepal and Bangladesh. The number of people earning less than $2 a day has been greatly diminished. Despite the fact that Jesus said, “The poor will always be with us,” modern successes in fighting poverty may prove Jesus to have been wrong. There had been serious discussion of essentially eliminating world poverty altogether by 2030.
Yet, an under-reported tragedy of the pandemic is that these illustrious goals now look as if they have been significantly set back and the Coronavirus may well push over half a billion souls once again into extreme poverty, frustrating one of humanity’s greatest triumphs.
But what the pandemic has done, beyond the manifest health crisis it has wrought, is that it has unmasked chronic problems of social and economic deterioration that we have been suffering for the last 40 years. And here I want to turn the discussion back to the United States.
George Packer, who writes for “The Atlantic” magazine, has just come out with a very powerful piece for its online version, which will be published in its June paper edition, making the contention that America is, in effect, a failed state. It’s a dystopian vision, but the author’s purpose is not to instill us with despair or hopelessness. It is to clarify what we are up against and he asserts that we have a choice: We can stay hunkered down in the status quo, or we can learn from the best of us who have come forward in this crisis, those who are putting themselves on the line for the sake of others, and use it as an inspiration to rebuild our democracy. I want to read at length from Packer’s article, which I feel is eloquent and powerful in its description of what we are up against.
“When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills—a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public—had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms. It took the scale and intimacy of a pandemic to expose their severity—to shock Americans with the recognition that we are in the high-risk category.
The crisis demanded a response that was swift, rational, and collective. The United States reacted instead like Pakistan or Belarus—like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering. The administration squandered two irretrievable months to prepare. From the president came willful blindness, scapegoating, boasts, and lies. From his mouthpieces, conspiracy theories and miracle cures. A few senators and corporate executives acted quickly—not to prevent the coming disaster, but to profit from it. When a government doctor tried to warn the public of the danger, the White House took the mic and politicized the message.
Every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state. With no national plan—no coherent instructions at all—families, schools, and offices were left to decide on their own whether to shut down and take shelter. When test kits, masks, gowns, and ventilators were found to be in desperately short supply, governors pleaded for them from the White House, which stalled, then called on private enterprise, which couldn’t deliver. States and cities were forced into bidding wars that left them prey to price-gouging and corporate profiteering. Civilians took out their sewing machines to try to keep ill-equipped hospital workers healthy and their patients alive. Russia, Taiwan, and the United Nations sent humanitarian aid to the world’s richest power—a beggar nation in utter chaos.
…Despite countless examples around the U.S. of individual courage and sacrifice, the failure is national. And it should force a question that most Americans have never had to ask: Do we trust our leaders and one another enough to summon a collective response to a mortal threat? Are we still capable of self-government?
…Trump acquired a federal government crippled by years of right-wing ideological assault, politicization by both parties, and steady defunding. He set about finishing off the job and destroying the professional civil service. He drove out some of the most talented and experienced career officials, left essential positions unfilled, and installed loyalists as commissars over the cowed survivors, with one purpose: to serve his own interests. His major legislative accomplishment, one of the largest tax cuts in history, sent hundreds of billions of dollars to corporations and the rich. The beneficiaries flocked to patronize his resorts and line his reelection pockets. If lying was his means for using power, corruption was his end.
This was the American landscape that lay open to the virus: in prosperous cities, a class of globally connected desk workers dependent on a class of precarious and invisible service workers; in the countryside, decaying communities in revolt against the modern world; on social media, mutual hatred and endless vituperation among different camps; in the economy, even with full employment, a large and growing gap between triumphant capital and beleaguered labor; in Washington, an empty government led by a con man and his intellectually bankrupt party; around the country, a mood of cynical exhaustion, with no vision of a shared identity or future.”
So much for George Packer’s description. In my own abbreviated historical analysis I see the road to this dysfunction starting with the vision and the success of Ronald Reagan. Reagan was the most successful president of the 20th century, with the possible exception of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, if we measure success by the extent to which a leader has been able to apply his vision to the concrete transformation of society.
Reagan destroyed unions in America
The exact date, as I see it, was Aug. 5, 1981, when, rather than meet their demands, Reagan summarily fired over 11,000 striking air-traffic controllers. It was the beginning of an assault on organized labor, which virtually destroyed the Union Movement in this country, so that today only about 7 percent of workers are unionized, which means that those who work for a living are bereft of bargaining power.
Despite its corruption, the union movement, which people fought and died for in this country, became the foundation that built the most vibrant middle-class the world had ever seen, a middle-class that is badly eroding as wages stagnate, fixed expenses rise, and 40 percent of Americans have trouble meeting their monthly bills.
But Reagan accomplished a second victory: he taught Americans that government is their enemy. In doing so, he valorized the wealthy and the corporate class, so that CEOs and corporate leaders became America’s icons and culture heroes. The war on government meant a continuous fraying of the safety net, it empowered the super-wealthy, and created this extraordinary and immoral wealth gap, which has allowed the top10 percent to own 70 percent of American wealth and the political power that wealth can buy. Such an economic reality closes the doors of opportunity, destroys upward mobility, and generates hopelessness among those who work for a living, which, in turn, causes people to turn inward to generate resentment, tribalism, and the social divisions that have turned America against itself. It has successfully transformed America into a plutocracy, ruled by those with extraordinary wealth at the top, while the rest of society below essentially is rotted out. It also makes large swaths of the American public vulnerable to the hate-mongering and scapegoating of a demagogue. In my analysis, the emergence of Donald Trump is the end point, the transmogrification of American society, its economy, and politics that began with the right-wing ideology laid down 40 years ago. Excuse the cliché, after 40 years the chickens have come home to roost.
Despite the difficult realities that the pandemic directly foists upon us, and despite the grim economic realities it has unmasked, I refuse to lose hope. Inspired by the broad dialectic that emerges from the propensities of human beings to fight against unjust conditions, we can rebuild the society that we deserve; indeed, we must. History shows that it has been done before, and we can do it again.
The bubonic plague that killed up to 60 percent of Europe’s population in the 14th century and maybe as many as 200 million people was followed by the flowering of civilization known as the Renaissance.
The Civil War was followed by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments that ended slavery, created birthright citizenship, and extended, in principle, the right to vote.
Progressive Era followed Industrial Revolution
In more recent times, the Gilded Age of the 19th century, the age of the Industrial Revolution and the robber barons who grew phenomenally wealthy on the exploitation and impoverishment of the immigrant laboring classes that occupied teeming slums and were crammed into substandard tenements, was followed by the Progressive Era that brought about reforms at all levels of society and paved the way for the coming of the New Deal.
And the Second World War, in which more than 60 million human beings were killed, which arguably was the nadir of the 10,000-year career of humankind—with Auschwitz and the extensive network of Nazi killing factories, with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—out of the ashes of those unprecedented horrors was born the unification and pacification of Europe, which had been at war with itself for millennia, the decolonization of the peoples of Africa and Asia, the creation of post-war prosperity and the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which laid the groundwork for the enfranchisement of widening circles of minorities and oppressed peoples who had been marginalized from time immemorial.
The times we are in should not lead us to despair, but rather chart the agenda for what we must do.
Echoing this sentiment, Susan Rice, the former national security advisor, had, I thought, an inspiring piece in “The New York Times” last Wednesday, which answers George Packer’s vision with a hopeful voice.
She wrote, in her article entitled “Let’s Emerge Stronger:”
A hallmark of America’s strength and resilience has been our ability to seize opportunity amid our greatest crises.
After the Civil War, we adopted constitutional amendments to end slavery and enshrine the concept of equal protection under the law. In the Great Depression, we established the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps. After World War II, we had the G.I. Bill and founded NATO and the United Nations. During the Vietnam War and civil rights era, Congress abolished segregation, secured the right to vote for all Americans, and reinforced our social safety net through the Great Society.
As we struggle through the Covid-19 crisis — the greatest challenge to global health, national security, and our economy since World War II — we must ask again how we can emerge a more just, equitable and cohesive nation.
Unfortunately, we are today condemned to be led by a president who has no conception of the national interest apart from his personal interest. Donald Trump is obsessed with his image and poll numbers and the Dow Jones average, but sadly none of the ambitious questions that inspired his predecessors — chiefly, how can we exit this crucible of death and hardship as a more decent America?
Yet, as destructive and lethal as Mr. Trump’s failings are, we cannot afford to miss this moment of reckoning. The coronavirus has laid bare our domestic divisions, unequal economy, and glaring racial and socio-economic disparities as well as the fragility of our democracy. To recover from this crisis, it will not suffice to contain the carnage, reopen our economy and “get back to normal.” “Normal” is too costly and deadly for all Americans.
I agree. We cannot return to the past, but America needs to remake itself with a courageously progressive agenda that will repair the devastation and rot that we have become. I don’t think that Joe Biden has that vision. But at least what can happen is that he can bring around him better people. But most importantly, we need inspired mobilization coming from the grassroots, which will force that change and alter American institutions at the highest levels of governance.
Among the components of that agenda are the following:
The economic crisis has laid bare in the most dramatic terms the dysfunctionality of the American healthcare system. We’re back to a point wherein 44 million Americans do not have health insurance, which includes more than 13 million who instantaneously lost their coverage when their jobs were shuttered by the pandemic. Tagging your insurance to your employment doesn’t work when you don’t have a job, or your job doesn’t provide that benefit, which is increasingly the case. It doesn’t work as more people work for contractors as independent, and therefore, vulnerable agents. In addition, 38 million have inadequate insurance, with the ghastly rising expense of premiums, huge deductibles and co-pays, and other contrivances that enrich the insurance companies on the misery of tens of millions of Americans.
Our healthcare system is a global outlier
The consequences of the pandemic have dramatically laid bare the unsustainability of the American healthcare system, which we all know is a global outlier, and is the world’s most expensive while producing about the worst outcomes among the rich countries.
I fervently favor a single-payer system. But I predict that anyone running for public office who does not compellingly advocate for universal healthcare as a major component of his or her platform will not get elected. History and reality are on our side on this one. But we must make sure it happens.
Second, we need to secure solid work and family programs. America must build into its federal laws paid family leave, universal sick leave, and subsidized day care, the costs of which bleed the contemporary working family dry. And we need not a guaranteed minimum wage but a guaranteed livable wage, so that each and every American can live a life of dignity. The heroes in this pandemic are the health workers, the orderlies, the janitors who clean the hospital rooms, the sanitation people, the grocery clerks, the nurses, and others in our society who are among the least well paid. When this plague is over, we need to remember that life-saving reality and respond to it not with sentimentality, or with our thoughts and prayers, but in concrete ways that enable the least among us, who ethically are among the greatest among us, with a standard of living worthy of their dignity and their value to a decent and humane society.
We need to ensure affordable housing. Homelessness in the world’s richest country is a disgrace. Except for the Depression, it didn’t exist before the Reagan years. But with cutbacks in federal subsidies, it is altogether common. We need to abolish homelessness by providing subsidized housing to those who need that support.
Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.”
A guaranteed vacation may seem trivial, but it is not. People struggled hard in the Labor Movement for time away from their machines. Americans work longer than any people on earth, and it is bad for families, bad for children, and bad for mental and physical health. Europeans take this right seriously and it is encoded into their federal laws. Americans, by contrast, are fortunate to get a measly two weeks off, if that, and such does not comport with human decency. One’s humanity extends more broadly than turning out profits for the boss man.
We need a Green New Deal
Since the national lockdown, the air we breathe is cleaner than it has been in a very long time. It is a harbinger of what we need and what is to be done if we are to save the environment that sustains us from the ravages of climate destruction. We need a Green New Deal that will focus our economy on jobs that eliminate fossil fuels and preserve our environment.
What this agenda entails is what Franklin Roosevelt envisioned when he gave his last state of the union address in 1944, sometimes referred to as the “Second Bill of Rights” speech. I have written about this before. In it ,he called for eight economic rights that would be guaranteed by federal law, and therefore not be doled out piecemeal and be subject to the vagaries of politics and the vicissitudes of capitalism. Again, despite strained economies, the Europeans, Canada, and other industrialized nations take this seriously. The United States, by contrast, does not even recognize economic rights as rights, that is, claims upon the government that the government is obligated to honor and fulfill at the cost of penalty.
In my view Roosevelt’s vision should be a rallying cry for the progressive restoration of an America that puts the flourishing and welfare of people, not profits, first.
What underlies this agenda and its most difficult element is re-envisioning economic power in this country, which means radically transforming who pays taxes and how much. Martin Luther King had said, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.” The same could be said of justice. Money is power and those who hold the strings of power will not yield it out of kindness or a newly found pang of conscience. It will only come out of persistent and militant grass-roots struggle.
The Progressive Movement of the late 19th and early decades of the 20th century was able to leverage greater economic egalitarianism, with activists applying their programs at all levels of society. What we did before, we can do again. But it must start with a powerful vision and be committed to inspiring values. The Civil Rights Movement did not begin with civil rights laws. But the laws were a product of changed values and movements that began at the grassroots and changed society from below.
New leadership would enable restorative agenda
We are having a major election in November. We must ensure that voting be fair and be readily accessible to all without partisan ruses. And we need to start by putting into office new leaders who articulate this vision of a progressive, decent, and more egalitarian America. And with such leadership in place it will open the ground for us at the grassroots to push forward a restorative agenda for this country.
Finally, as we know, we are a viciously divided and tribalized society. Xenophobia and racism run deep and are incited by demagoguery at the top. I do believe that much of this can be traced to the massive wealth disparities in America and the closing of the doors of opportunity that breeds hopelessness and resentment. It is interesting that immigrants we are supposed to despise and keep out of the country are now deemed “essential workers.”
Much of our problem can be traced to economics, but not all of it. Much of it is moral. Here, we need new, inspiring leadership, of which we have had depressingly little in recent decades. We need leadership at all levels that will inspire Americans with a message of inclusion and an enriching pluralism. We need to struggle harder to undo the ugly racism that is so persistent in our society. We need leadership to evoke from us what we have in common with all others rather than stoke the differences that divide us.
And I think we need to renew our faith in the perennial ideals on which this nation with founded, however we have failed to realize them—the ideals of justice and equality, liberty and opportunity. And I would add to them a profound appreciation of the ethical obligation that we have to one another, friend and stranger alike. And in the best traditions of our own Ethical Movement, and with benevolence in our hearts, we need to dedicate ourselves to others to help vouchsafe their flourishing, and ensure that all men, women, and children can live a life of security and dignity.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County. He delivered this platform address on May 3, 2020.