How Neoliberalism is Crippling Our Pandemic Response

In her December 6th press conference, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki sarcastically mocked a reporter’s suggestion to make Covid tests free of charge to whoever needs them. Instead, she described a convoluted scheme in which qualifying individuals would be able to seek reimbursement from their insurance companies after being tested, and implied it would be too expensive to simply provide them outright (watch the exchange below):

This is the latest in a continuing series of examples which demonstrate the failure of neoliberalism to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

The implosion of the Build Back Better negotiations is another. At this writing, the second-most costly provision in this supposed “human infrastructure” bill is a $280 billion tax cut for the rich, courtesy of the same party that won’t fund tuition free community college.

Perhaps most egregiously, the Biden administration continues to drag its feet on waiving vaccine patent protections, an essential step in making the vaccine available to everyone in the world. Weeks ago, Biden announced his support for taking such action, but as of yet it hasn’t happened. Every day it doesn’t is more money for the Pharma giants who developed the formula.

The federal government isn’t the only perpetrator. As journalist Walker Bragman lays out in his recent article, New York governor Kathy Hochul is pushing for workers to return to the office as soon as possible, despite her administration’s growing concerns about the omicron variant.

Hochul recently took emergency action to better prepare hospitals for the arrival of omicron, as Covid cases are spiking throughout her state. Why, then, out of the other side of her mouth, is she stressing the importance of ending the era of working from home, a safe and efficient alternative to commuting?

Bragman suggests that the answer lies with her tight connections to New York commercial real estate interests, who have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the state Democratic Party in recent years, and supported Hochul herself when she was Andrew Cuomo’s lieutenant governor.

From real estate to Big Pharma to the various special interests who successfully gutted the Build Back Better plan, it’s clear that even in the most dire circumstances, our leadership is still committed to the neoliberal premise which works backwards from the premise that the solution to every problem is and must always be market-based.

Psaki’s knee-jerk dismissal of free Covid testing shows the lack of imagination and will power to provide a universal public service, no strings attached. Instead, we insist on devising overly complicated bureaucratic arrangements which attempt to reconcile the needs of the public with the profit motive of dominant market actors.

The result is a pandemic that’s poised to enter its third year on yet another upswing, with no real end in sight despite the development and distribution of the vaccine.

Walker Bragman joins us on our podcast to discuss his article and how neoliberalism is killing our pandemic response. Listen to our full conversation by clicking the player below, and subscribe to the Due Dissidence on Apple, StitcherSpotifyCastbox, Google Podcasts, or any major podcast player.

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Photo: White House (Public Domain)

Netflix’s ‘Maid’ is a Smart and Subtle Indictment of Neoliberalism

by Keaton Weiss

“We need somewhere to live,” says Alex to her social worker in episode 6 of Netflix’s Maid, “I’m on seven different types of government assistance right now, and I’m working the maximum amount of hours I can work without getting my benefits cut. But after food and gas and daycare co-pay, we have a total of nine dollars extra every week. . .How am I supposed to afford rent, even subsidized rent. . .How is this assistance assisting me?”

Based on a memoir by Stephanie Land, Maid is a drama series about a young housecleaner named Alex who escapes an abusive relationship with her alcoholic partner and struggles to create a better life for herself and her toddler daughter. Keeping afloat means carefully navigating an increasingly labyrinthine network of social and professional relationships while extracting as much assistance as she can from an impossibly complicated and bureaucratic “social safety net.”

Since the wait list for Section 8 is too long, Alex is offered TBRA vouchers, which are practically unusable as virtually no landlords are willing to accept them, given all of the red tape they would need to cut through in order to do so. Because of this, she’s forced to rent an apartment off the books and supplement her cheap rent by doing free yard work for the homeowner.

This scenario is one of many in the series that illustrates in precise detail the seemingly inescapable trap of poverty in America. A running tally of Alex’s bank balance appears on screen at various moments, including one when she goes into the red after being distracted for a brief moment at the gas station and unwittingly putting an extra gallon in the tank. She then has to ask another customer for the three dollars she over-pumped so she’s able to pay her bill and go home.

Throughout the show, people try and help her as best they can. Her friend Nate convinces an expensive daycare center to accept her daughter, and one of her wealthy clients hooks her up with a powerhouse family lawyer who tries to win her sole custody so she can move them both to Missoula, Montana, where she’s been accepted into a prestigious university’s writing program. But even these efforts are challenged in unpredictable ways. Residency requirements complicate her ability to receive tuition assistance at the daycare center. Washington State’s unfair laws regarding domestic abuse make Alex’s custody battle much more difficult than it ought to be. And because her college’s family housing program is only available under very specific and time-sensitive circumstances, Alex is under immense pressure to make the various moving parts of her life quickly come together, lest she forfeit her spot.

So despite the best intentions of many of Alex’s friends and acquaintances, their good will is hardly a match for the neoliberal system in which they live. Meager public assistance is doled out only to those who can prove their “eligibility” after completing mountains of paperwork and enduring demeaning scrutiny, and at the end of the day, everything is for sale. In perhaps the cringiest example, Alex is forced to pay six of her remaining nine dollars to the private daycare center to reimburse them for the pricey ice cream they bought her daughter earlier that day.

Towards the end of the series, when Alex is readmitted into her domestic violence shelter, she visits the facility’s “boutique,” a room full of donated clothes available free of charge. Alex, who has had to both toil at her low wage job and jump through endless hoops to receive welfare benefits in order to survive, is shocked by the existence of such a place where something is simply provided to those who need it, no strings attached.

It seems too good to be true, which is why, even in this space, blank price tags are placed on each article of clothing just for show, and the counter boasts a dummy cash register to make the space feel more “normal.” Nothing better illustrates the pervasiveness of capitalist hegemony and market-oriented “charity” than that the shelter feels a need to disguise this clothing bank as a commercial store in order to make its patrons feel comfortable. Because to be a recipient of such voluntary giving doesn’t seem “normal” to people in Alex’s shoes. Feeling “normal” means feeling like a consumer, a customer, a shopper.

Being that Maid is based on the autobiography of a now successful writer, it ought not be too much of a spoiler to say that things generally work out in the end for Alex. But instead of reveling in the peace of what is a relatively happy ending, the audience is baffled by just how incredibly and unnecessarily difficult her journey was. We also ponder how much harder it likely would have been were Alex not a white English-speaking woman; or were she not such a talented writer who got accepted to a Fine Arts school based on merit; or were she not mentally and physically capable of juggling her college applications, her work schedule, her government assistance paperwork, and her responsibilities as a parent.

Maid doesn’t wear its politics on its sleeve. In fact, on a textual level, it’s decidedly apolitical. But after a fruitless months-long struggle to pass a robust “human infrastructure” package through Congress, it’s impossible to watch the show and not view it as an indictment of our neoliberal order in which a person’s worth is defined by their running bank balance, and even the smallest crumbs of assistance are so begrudgingly spared that they’re barely worth the time and effort it takes to beg for them.

An increasingly rare example of a work of art that’s as subtle as it is incisive, Maid is well worth watching and discussing.

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Photo: Maid, Netflix