Those who wag moral fingers at people picking up food-bank packages in $30k machines must be dismissed at once.
Those who wag moral fingers at people picking up food-bank packages in $30k machines must be dismissed at once. Mario Tama / GETTY IMAGES

It is not enough to say the conservatives are opposed to the lockdowns and to social distancing because such restrictions kill more businesses than they saves lives. The necroeconomics critique that's supposed to explode their position can only be flawed because it fails to switch or relocate the terrain of the confrontation with its object, an orthodox or conventional understanding of the economy. Those who defend the economy still get to say what it is: jobs for hardworking people, growth for prosperity, endless opportunities for those who have a "can do" attitude.

The leftist (center and radical) critique never departs from this orthodox conception of the economy. As a consequence, leftists are always stuck concocting solutions that, true, do help reduce suffering (e.g. raising the minimum wage and so on) but only at the price of validating (rather than discrediting) a system that has in essence (or upon rigorous examination) no real justification for the way it defines and distributes wealth.

Those who want to, say, strengthen the rights of workers do accept that the economy we are in has some direct connection with reality. The activities of men and women serving food or building homes or chauffeuring people with the assistance of an app are a part of the real economy. It is only bankers who are wicked—a reading of capitalism that's not without its great dangers (check out the rise of Nazi Germany). Those bankers, they say, extract wealth from the economy by fictitious means: asset inflation, state-authorized stock price manipulations such as quantitative easing, and so on. But this kind of thinking is wrong from top to bottom.

The real economy is not that real in itself, a fact that has been recently made evident by the long lines of cars at food banks. You can own a car in the US, but you may not have enough food to eat (the really real economy). This situation has nothing to do with bad consumer choices—eat first, car later. Nothing of the kind. Those who wag moral fingers at people picking up food-bank packages in $30K machines must be dismissed at once. Our society is built in this way. For many, a car is needed to get to work and to maintain some form of cultural normalcy.

If we remove the economy as it is conventionally understood, then we can finally come to understand the meaning of the meltdown that happened on CNBC this morning.

I'm surprised that oldish man did not have a life-finishing seizure on live TV. But what got him into such a state? What is wrong with wearing masks? What's the big deal about being careful and imposing temporary social rules that save lives? The answer is found in J.G. Ballard's 2000 novel, Super-Cannes.

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Now I'm going to do the work's plot an injustice by describing it as about a group of elite professionals who find relief from beating up homeless people and deviants in the area of their gated community. But this description, I think, gets to its dark core, which is also the core of the society we live in.

The fact of the matter is if you reduce what is often considered the real economy to a fiction, then you can see that those who are about to be evicted—or who are living on the street, or in RVs, or begging for change—are not really experiencing poverty in any sense that nature can confirm. They are simply getting their lives smashed and crushed by those who, by the authority of their culture (capitalism), have the power to do so. This is the violence that our economy obviously thrives on. It really needs and feeds on these scenes of misery: the suffering in Pioneer Square, the people freezing in tents, the hunger, the humiliation, the smells, the mental destruction. But the pandemic threatens to normalize a social form that in fact reduces the daily violence imposed on the needy.

A public health policy that hopes to have lasting results in the fight against a pandemic must remove the fiction of poverty and expose the poor as really social and biological beings. It is this exposure that is resisted by almost all on the right. It is this exposure that sent the development of a vaccine into warp speed. For many (too many) in our society, the idea of an economy without poverty is like the end of the world.