The trouble with living through history is that it all happens at once. Only in retrospect do the events piling up, one on top of another, seem to follow a pattern and gain a cohesive narrative; if you’re seeing while it plays out, it can seem like too much to even process, and it is part of our job as socialists to make sense of it, and communicate how it interconnects, so that we can better understand what’s coming next and what to do about it.
The last few days have given us plentiful examples of how the unbearable weight of capitalism’s eternally recurring cycles of boom and bust, heightened by the contradictions of resource depletion and the inability of mass markets to repair the destruction they’ve caused, edge us ever closer to fascism as the neoliberal ruling class inevitably opts for austerity as an answer to every crisis.
In Texas, years of climate denial and deregulation resulted in widespread blackouts, leaving millions without heat or electricity during one of the worst winter storms in history; the former governor of the state absurdly claimed Texans would rather cope with such deprivation than allow federal oversight of the power grid. While small-town mayors scoffed that the government owes the people nothing and hotels immediately started price-gouging. The poor and unhoused faced misery and death while lights stayed on in the glittering downtown office towers.
In Portland, under similar blizzard conditions, police were summoned to ‘protect’ groceries thrown into the trash after they could no longer be refrigerated. In a perfect real-world example of Marx’s theory of the crisis of overproduction, the enforcers of capital decided to let food rot in a dumpster rather than be distributed to the needy during a catastrophe.
And here in Chicago, a review of federal funds made available under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to the city government of Chicago revealed that Lori Lightfoot’s administration chose to spend a staggering $281 million of the $403 million total—a not-so-nice 69%–on the notoriously corrupt, brutal, and inept Chicago Police Department while other departments, desperate for funds to help the citizens cope with massive unemployment and COVID-19, were left with scraps.
Lightfoot, who ran as a progressive reformer, has been one of the weakest mayors in the city’s history, and has botched nearly every one of the city’s COVID-19 responses, from forcing teachers back into schools despite a raging pandemic and insufficient vaccination roll-outs to making sure her own street was repeatedly cleared of snow while others remained impassable. But the revelation of just how badly the CARES Act funds were mismanaged adds insult to injury, as the lion’s share went to the already-bloated $1.86 billion police budget.
The sheer contempt shown by the Lightfoot administration for the people it was elected to govern is stunning. Instead of working with her constituents, she has hardened her position against them, releasing cops like attack dogs and mouthing platitudes about public safety to scold neighborhood kids while ensuring the COVID-19 pandemic will worsen by ordering schools, stores, and restaurants to re-open. $281 million could mean direct aid payments of almost $600 to every person in Chicago living in poverty; instead, it goes to a police department famous for torture, murder, and racism. The mayor has decided this is an institution worth further enriching with the equivalent of Taylor Swift’s entire net worth, while the Office of People with Disabilities, representing the people hardest hit by the pandemic, got the equivalent of working a month’s worth of shifts at McDonald’s.
Lightfoot can’t even hide behind ignorance of what the citizens of her city want. A survey commissioned by the Lightfoot administration showed that a whopping 87% of Chicagoans want money to come out of the police budget to fund other programs, such as public health, homelessness support, and city infrastructure; respondents placed policing as dead last on their list of priorities. But just as she has done with other issues, the mayor asks you to believe her and not your lying eyes as she breaks promise after promise. The neoliberal response to every crisis will be to cut funding for aid to the poorest and most vulnerable among us, and to increase policing to protect capitalist elites from the justifiable anger this generates.
As with almost everything Mayor Lightfoot does, we should be disappointed at this revelation, but not surprised. We shouldn’t expect the Democratic Party to correct her wrongs, either; it’s following the same playbook of imposing austerity and defending it with the security state, breaking its promises around student debt forgiveness and COVID-19 relief while expanding funds for police agencies. Lightfoot will follow the example set at the very top of the Democratic establishment, choosing the path of Rahm Emanuel instead of that of Harold Washington.
This is only the latest in a series of combative gestures from the Lightfoot administration. Her first act upon taking office was to approve the controversial Lincoln Yards development over the objection of progressives and displaced residents. Her attitude towards her constituents has been a combative one; from sitting on the TIF funds she promised to release to public service projects to pushing through a tax hike on homeowners (even, as we now know, she sat on CARES Act funds that could have provided them with much-needed assistance), she seems to regard the people she represents as her enemies.
We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that Lightfoot will pull out of her heel turn anytime soon, or that whoever replaces her will be much of an improvement. We are fortunate enough to have a growing number of socialist alderpeople in Chicago (all of whom opposed her CARES Act fund allocation at the time, including Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, who has been a fearless backer of the Treatment Not Trauma plan to shift mental health crisis response away from the police). But they alone can’t break the cycle of deprivation and oppression that marks the latter days of capitalism. For that, we’ll need not only our elected officials, but also direct action, coordinated labor organization, and a mass movement of the multiracial working class that Lightfoot so hates and fears.