Blamed for Dystopia: The Servant Economy and Its Plague Rats

Affluent people with disposable income jet-setting around the globe turned COVID-19 into a global pandemic.

6 months ago

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If I can presume to speak for the overwhelming majority of people alive today, let me just say: 2020 has really not been our year. And this is doubly true for Asian people living in the United States. With the spread of COVID-19, the model minority myth collapsed under its own weight even faster than Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign.

We’re no longer in the land of slurs and lunch-related microaggressions. We’re talking about one website cataloguing 100 anti-Asian hate incidents a day, and those are just the ones that get reported. We’re talking about a Burmese dad and his two kids getting stabbed in public because the assailant thought they were Chinese. The idea of the model minority papered over the fact that there were always classes and nationalities of Asian Americans whose salaries, health outcomes, and rates of exposure to brutal state violence weren’t exactly aspirational models for anyone, but right now it feels like we’re all at risk.

This feels even more enraging because Asian people are being blamed for a pandemic, which by definition means a disease that could be spreading anywhere from anyone. Sure, the very first US cases were connected to people traveling from Wuhan, but it’s not even clear how many of those people were even Chinese since only three out of the first fourteen American cases were publicly identified as having relatives there.

The thought that all Chinese people have the same disease, that all Asian people are Chinese, and that beating any of us down in the street counts as some sort of grassroots public health intervention wasn’t exactly spectacular to begin with. The fact that this is escalating just at the moment that you could potentially contract the disease from literally anyone is just insulting.

This brings us to an easy answer, which is that a whole bunch of folks spread coronavirus and that no one group of people are to blame. We need to stop pointing fingers and help each other. We need to come together. This is the kind of message we need in such divisive times. It is a beautiful, unifying message. It would be the right one to bring us together when so many people are suffering.

The only problem is that this message would be wrong.

Because when we look at the history of how the disease spread so far, we can see a pretty clear pattern. There were initial cases based around people coming from Hubei province, some of whom had been visiting family. But after that, it wasn’t Chinese family members who brought this into countries around the world.

The California epicenter of the disease is Silicon Valley, a 30-mile region with the GDP of Finland or Qatar. The National Guard’s first coronavirus deployment was in New Rochelle, a New York suburb with some of the highest property values in the entire nation. COVID hit Melbourne, Australia after twenty vacationers returned with it from an Aspen, CO ski resort. Twenty-eight UT Austin students tested positive after partying in Cabo San Lucas, likely living out the words of Miami spring breaker Brady Sluder: “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.”

New Orleans became another hotspot after an influx of tourists for Carnival. The second case in the Spanish region of Catalunya was a social media influencer named Nil Monró who contracted the virus at Milan Fashion Week. And five of the first eight cases in Britain were from a British businessman who got coronavirus in Singapore, then flew to a French chalet (where he infected five different people) before returning home.

Asian Americans aren’t responsible for the crisis. But that doesn’t mean no one is. The people who turned COVID-19 from a pretty bad epidemic into a life-halting global public health fiasco that’s filling morgues around the planet were affluent people with disposable income jet-setting around the globe.

This all ties into the Sinophobic and generally anti-Asian reactions we see around the United States. Because in American racism, Asian people fill the unique role of representing abject poverty as well as unearned wealth. We are the doctors and techies who make sure our kids steal your spot at Harvard. We are also, simultaneously, the numberless foreign sweatshop workers who debase ourselves to work for so little that we can steal your job, not because of exploitation but because of a lack of self-dignity and humanity itself. You can see these two sides in the words of a man who recently attacked a Thai woman on the train: “Every disease ever has come from China, homie… They can be so smart and be like, ‘Oh yeah, I developed this, I developed that.’ But like, yeah, you can’t even wipe your ass.”

General bigotry can’t explain these attacks, because they are deeply irrational even by the unreasonable standards of racial hatred. If it’s true that all Asian people are secret carriers of coronavirus, why in the world would you get close enough to physically assault them? In the fantasy world where all Asians were covertly and maliciously spreading a deadly disease, hatred would perhaps be natural. But getting within yelling, or striking, or stabbing distance would be the last thing anybody would want to do. The hatred of Asian people we see today has to be more than a fear of the sick.

In “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism,” Moishe Postone tried to answer a similar question. He calls modern anti-Semitism the idea that Jewish people are not just powerful and evil (as in all forms of anti-Semitism) but additionally an international, “rootless,” mysterious conspiracy whose plotting explains all of the workings of the world. This modern form of anti-Jewish hatred appeared just at the moment that modern industrial capitalism was forcing profound, traumatic changes in Western European societies like Germany.

For practically forever, people have hired other people to make things and then sold said things for profit. What was new with the emergence of capitalism was that these profits are used purely to make more investments, and that these additional investments then produce profits that fund even newer investments whose profits are subsequently themselves invested in an never-ending cycle.

Nazis didn’t hate capitalism as long as it meant factories or industry or technology. But in the midst of societal upheaval and economic crisis, they identified the abstract part of capitalism—that mysterious process of creating and reinvesting profit over and over again, eventually across the globe—with Jewish people. In Postone’s words, the “essential moment” of Nazi ideology was that it was a “foreshortened anticapitalist movement, one characterized by hatred of the abstract.”

Just like thinking Asian people have a disease can’t actually explain punching them on a sidewalk, merely thinking Jewish people are repugnant and evil can’t explain why Nazi Germany poured military resources into concentration camps even as they lost the war. It only makes sense, Postone says, if the Nazis thought the Holocaust was actually the most important thing they could be doing. And this is because Auschwitz was the ideal Nazi factory, a factory in which people are stripped of their “abstract” personhood and deconstructed into their concrete, useful components: their clothing, their tooth fillings, soap made of human flesh.

My point here is not that America is on the road to gas chambers or that, if it is, that  Asian Americans will be the ones inside them. My point is not that anti-Asian racism is the new anti-Semitism. For one thing, there are still literal Nazis and the chief object of their hatred remains actual Jewish people. The takeaway here is that when racism causes people to act in ways that are wildly counterproductive even on their own racist terms, we should check to see if there are deeper bigoted ideologies playing on other anxieties, as well.

We’re in the midst of an economic transformation perhaps as profound as the transition to industrial capitalism a century ago. The globetrotting businessmen, influencers, and tourists who spread this virus are its winners. Much of the rest of us are its losers. We’ve seen stable jobs decimated, and in its place a third of Americans are doing at least some piecework or gig economy jobs in the new “servant economy.” Our every move is tracked by the richest companies in the world to sell ads. We’re ranked and sorted and denied entry into colleges and jobs and housing based on shadowy clouds of data by metrics we never get to understand. Debt has turned from a temporary obligation to a permanent state of being. Everywhere we turn, the deck is stacked against us as we fight for a shrinking slice of the pie.

Nobody really knows how the algorithm decides which resume gets to the HR desk. Or which of your social media posts cost you the job. Or how you’re supposed to answer the psychological test that now gets appended to two-thirds of job applications. 97% of good jobs created since the Great Recession have gone to applicants with college degrees, and college spots are legally exchanged for financial donations from rich parents.

Everywhere you look in a globalized and gig-ified labor market, there are a million other suckers willing to do the same job for less. And while you’re losing the race to the bottom, you’re bombarded with images of the tech CEOs and Instagram celebrities who actually made it, if only after getting a boost from their smarts or looks or familial wealth. On one hand, constant competition from those willing to work for even less than you are; on the other, constantly getting beaten by those with unearned security and wealth.

It’s the spitting image of the Asian as sweatshop worker or privileged nerd. They don’t hate us because they think we’re sick. They hate us because their racist caricatures of us line up with everything wrong with the neoliberal dystopia we live in. The same neoliberal dystopia that created a class rich enough to spread coronavirus from fashion show catwalks to ski lodges to upscale suburbs until the entire world was at risk. The apparatus that funds and celebrates the international adventures of the wealthy while working class migrants die in cages. The system that incentives hospital budget cuts and ensures almost 200,000 people can’t socially isolate at home because they’re already sleeping on the streets of the richest country in the world. The same system that preys on and discards working-class communities, especially communities of color, Asian American ones included.

We’re in a moment of huge danger and but also tremendous opportunity. People are organizing a national rent strike and unhoused folks are seizing vacant homes. There’s talk of taking huge segments of the medical system out of the hands of CEOs and investors so we can all have adequate medical care. Gig workers are going on wildcat strike and getting real wins. It is a moment for solidarity and a moment for struggle.

We don’t need progressive movements that ignore our communities’ struggles because they think of Asian America as a monolithic bloc of privileges. And we certainly don’t need more model minority advocates telling us to appease white supremacist capitalism by selling out our neighbors, families, and friends. There are progressive Asian American organizations in many communities doing work on the front lines for workers’ rights, for international solidarity, for jobs and housing and justice. Now is the time to make our connections deeper and stronger. Within our communities, between our communities, between each other. Because at the end of the day, it’s we who keep us safe.


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Andrew Lee

Published 6 months ago