LOSING OUR WAY: President Franklin D. Roosevelt led us out of the Great Depression by creating a fairer society that among other gains provided greater worker protections. We have wound up in a different type of crisis, the author writes, because unions and citizens alike have failed to extend his legacy.

I am well, as are my wife and two adult sons. To say I am fortunate would be a stupendous understatement.

But still, I am afraid. I do not have any underlying health issues, but I am in the high-risk age category. I am claustrophobic and have severe restraint issues. So to possibly be isolated, ventilated and restrained is my worst nightmare. These are my personal anxieties with which I may have to deal.

But I am also afraid for us. I am afraid of what may come of our precious society. I am afraid that this plague is the long-overdue wage of 40 years of the worship of unregulated wealth and its associated power. But I am also hopeful. I am hopeful that if we can survive intact enough, we may come to see the change that is needed. That we will stop being afraid of change, and instead embrace it and participate in its actualization to make it beneficial to all our fellow citizens and those of free countries everywhere. Because we should not be afraid of change. It is this current event of which we should be afraid; very afraid.

Unprepared for Crisis

How did we not see this coming? I don't mean the specific event. We knew this virus was coming for months. I mean how could we not realize that our economic and political structures were corroded? And that corrosion has severely weakened our ability to deal with such a crisis, because our fears have distorted our ability to discern fact from fiction, hyperbole from reality, and strength of character from narcissistic weakness.

In my very first essay three years ago, I wrote: "Let me begin by stating the obvious: we are in trouble. Our nation, our world, indeed our planet are all in big trouble. It will be my contention in these essays that the root cause of all these problems is the accelerating, unregulated accumulation and imposition of wealth and power by the few over the many." "Wealth is being concentrated in fewer hands. Money, and the access it buys, is affecting our political systems. The working class is being devastated by job losses, pay stagnation, and the accelerating automation of work. One can disagree with the conclusions I will present, but the facts are undeniable. And they are not 'alternative facts.' They are real." "I intend to show why, without amelioration, these issues will almost assuredly lead to an existential crisis for our country's precious and venerable democracy from which no one, regardless of wealth or position, emerges unscathed."

And so it seems to be. We are definitely in trouble. And we will be in even bigger trouble if we just think of this as a health crisis. Yes, it is a terrible health crisis. But its causes, and the approaches we will take to get through it are rooted in everything I said in the prior paragraph. Globalization and the decades-long and ongoing decimation of our manufacturing sector. The corporatization of health care and the concomitant destruction of its affordability to the working class. Rewarding countries that degrade their environment and oppress their citizens with unrestricted trade and travel between our country and theirs. The unrestrained accumulation of wealth. The purposeful weakening of worker organizations and worker protections. The progressing surrender of human work to artificial intelligence. The utter and complete capitulation of societal control over so-called "social media". All of this and more have contributed to the degradation of the social dialogue necessary for our precious democratic institutions to function, with the result that an event of the magnitude of this physical pandemic puts our social existence in danger.

Let Us Count the Lessons

So we must not overlook that perspective as we crawl our way out of this. And the lessons are legion.

  • The decades-long destruction of our manufacturing sector is painfully apparent in our inability to produce sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) for our courageous front-line health-care workers, let alone our general citizenry.
  • Then there is the more-recent "market" scam, dubbed the "Gig" economy, which the pandemic is exposing for what it is—a way for owners to avoid paying into unemployment and disability protections, and prevent workers from organizing.
  • And, of course, there is the ever-present issue of health-insurance coverage. Gig workers don't have it. Real workers who get it through their employer have lost it as they are being laid off. Medicare for all looks pretty good under these circumstances, and recent polls show some of that fear is being shed.

These are just a few of the issues and anxieties connected to the pandemic that have fundamental, institutional roots in the recent history of our social/economic systems.

But this pandemic is also occurring on the watch of the most inane, disconnected and socially venal administration in our country's history. And there is ample evidence of this:

  • Trump's belittling of the seriousness of the pandemic for weeks after it struck on U.S. soil
  • His "Thunderdome"-like challenge to individual states to enter into a bidding competition for what remains of the national PPE stockpile, and whatever the so-called "free" market profiteers can manage to squeeze from these public-service bidders
  • Trump's refusal to fully invoke the Korean War era Defense Production Act. Enacted during a time also known for anti-communist hysteria, this law allows the President to order production of materials for national security purposes—like the PPE we so desperately need now. Even the Commie-hunters of that era understood that a democratic government might occasionally have a need to exercise control over the "market". But not Donald Trump. He knows a Commie plot when he sees it. If some folk have to suffer and die, so be it.

So what should we learn from these lessons? Listen to Roosevelt. FDR advised us to fear nothing but "fear itself". Yet we have all ignored his stellar advice. The party of Roosevelt has ignored his advice. The unions that blossomed from his policies have ignored his advice. The current populace, still composed to a great extent from ancestors who did not ignore his advice and who then gave their progeny the greatest upward economic mobility in the history of the world--we, this current populace, are ignoring his advice. How?

  • We are afraid to complete his legacy of Social Security for all by establishing health security for all.
  • We are afraid to complete his legacy of regulating the economy by allowing the corporate components thereof to profit beyond any reasonable measure and without any regard for the society within which they make their money.
  • We are afraid to complete his legacy of worker protection by not legislating the complete freedom of workers to organize unimpeded.

These are the fears that we have allowed to bring us to the brink of utter catastrophe. We can argue that this pandemic is a "natural" disaster that we did not expect. We cannot argue that we could have much better mitigated it if we had even just the three policies/processes I outlined above.

So that is our choice going forward, if we are given that chance: Continue to listen to the naysayers who profit from our fear. Or listen to FDR and fear nothing. There may not be that many chances left. There are certainly no other choices.

Editor’s note: Mr. Montalbano is a retired labor lobbyist and former political action director for District Council 37.

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