Last week, the Republican Party here in the U.S. failed in its last attempt to repeal Obamacare—though that isn’t stopping the Trump administration from trying to systematically undo ACA’s provisions. Meanwhile, last month Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a bill for universal, single-payer health insurance that has drawn unprecedented levels of support from a broad coalition of democrats.
There are those enduring acute crises—citizens of Puerto Rico facing an immediate future without electricity and clean water, those suddenly robbed of a loved one in Las Vegas—but for many, life toggles between the perpetual reminders of how bad things are on the news and some more mundane reality. Even for those for whom the everyday is an enduring state of crisis—the undocumented mother, the uninsured person with a grave illness, the opioid addict, the trans person living in the wrong city—life takes on its daily, unspectacular rhythms, settles into its stabilities.
There is a lot of doomsday sentiment floating around these days that transcends class and political affiliation. A devout state policeman who engaged us in conversation when our car ran out of gas on a Virginia freeway said standing by as white nationalists clashed with Antifa in Charlottesville bolstered his belief that the prophecies of Revelations were underway. Silicon Valley billionaires are designing their post-apocalyptic contingency plans. The “prepper” industry is thriving. But, while some live in immediate anticipation of societal collapse, Sanders’ bill reminds us that there is also the capacity for major reform. The barrage of monster storms and renewed nuclear brinksmanship under the reign of a “sentient bathroom swastika with the personality of a yeast infection” has snapped even the complacent into some new level of alertness, yet for many, fear and discontent organizes itself around to the liberal horizon of the 2020 presidential elections.
Like others on the radical left, we at Woodbine probably fall closer to the doomsday camp. Yet, as we take pains to build and broaden our vision, we should imagine not only some Murphy’s Law future of hegemonic fascism or imminent disintegration, but also what the best-case scenarios might be within the present system. Doing so will help us better delineate the strategic nature of our struggle, and to better articulate the imperative for a truly alternative future. We should ask ourselves the question: is there a difference between futures that some of us could live with and a universally livable future?
Armchair radicals are quick to distance themselves from anything that smells of the dreaded reform, rather than revolution. Yet, that these radicals tend to be single, white men with limited care duties should make us skeptical of snide, wholesale dismissals. Expanded state welfare is a good thing. Yet it is also far from the be all end all of our struggle. In order to understand why, it helps to turn to the devastating critiques leveled by those who have always been systematically abjected from capitalist society in all its iterations, such as Afropessimists who know that Blackness is what is structurally negated, or Marxist feminists who understand that capitalism will always relegate aspects of care or social reproduction to the realm of the unwaged or onto the shoulders of the most marginalized. Likewise, health is not simply denied by any one lobby or administration; it is what is negated by capitalist society. This negation may not be a structural condition in the same way as the extermination of blackness and the subordination of women; in industrial society, capitalism had to take ensure the body of the worker had enough of what it needed to keep returning daily to work. Within late capitalism, it is the body of the consumer that must be maintained (or the body of the potential angry horde that must be assuaged). Yet the negation of health has always been one of capitalism’s de facto effects. The body it preserves is one robbed from us and remade in all its parts according to the profit motive, one pumped full of industrial poisons, one fashioned according to a productive, compliant, white heterocissexist ideal.
We can’t let the embattling of our rights defensively delimit our terms. Take, for instance, the relentless attack on reproductive rights currently underway in this country. This week, the Trump administration put forth rules that would expand the rights of employers to deny women coverage for birth control. But should we simply fight to restore the universal coverage mandate for contraceptives under Obama? If we want women to truly have control over their bodies, we must acknowledge that hormonal birth control—designed to suppress naturally-occurring androgens and so to reduce body hair and acne, often given to teenagers without their full understanding of its effects—is part of a regime that regulates gender and functions within a provider-consumer model of care that robs people of agency over their bodies (as Luiza Prado de O. Martins explains, these “sexopolitical” medications can also be “(mis)used to articulate new ways of doing gender,” but these ways deviate from the medicalized norm). We need to do more than argue for the restoration or the expansion of a system that has enabled liberation for some (with liberation being the freedom to join the workforce), while cruelly oppressing others—think of the eugenicist policies U.S. institutions have carried out against Native, Latin, and Black Americans.
In August, my gig as a graduate student will be up and I will lose my health insurance. So I do in all earnestness think it would be cool if this country instituted universal Medicare. But I’m also wary of doing what Alyssa Battistoni describes in her article cautioning against an unqualified acceptance of the idea of a Universal basic Income, or UBI: not “fighting off the dystopian future,” but “settl[ing] into the interregnum of the present, with all its morbid symptoms.” I’m wary of the grip of what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism”: attachment to ways of being that enable us to tread water from day to day and thus temper the acuteness of crisis—yet ways of being that actively inhibit our individual and collective flourishing.