Coronavirus and Chronopolitics

tags: neoliberalism, public health, capitalism, labor, generational politics

Gabriel Winant is Assistant Professor of U.S. History at the University of Chicago.

THERE IS A GREAT CONTRADICTION embodied in the facts that the virus is fundamentally a threat to the old; that this threat has been magnified enormously by the incompetence and malice of the ruling regime; and that the old are the primary mass political constituency of that regime. The coincidence in time of the outbreak of coronavirus in the United States and the crushing of Bernie Sanders’s bid to democratize our health system and face the related crisis of climate change—a defeat inflicted through extreme generational polarization—intensifies this contradiction further. The young are trying to save the old, as well as themselves; the old are trying to kill the young, as well as themselves.

It is common to observe that we are now reaping the whirlwind of a broken health system and weakened social safety net. But let us be more precise: our health system’s cruelties are unevenly distributed by wealth and by its correlate, age. In its institutional structure, the hospital system was built up in the postwar decades through and around the institution of large-scale collective bargaining in industry. When they failed to win a national health plan in the 1940s, the great industrial unions, together with their employers and Blue Cross, invented the public-private hybrid we have now as an alternative, as Jennifer Klein’s history For All These Rights shows. The fundamental principle of this regime, from the standpoint of the individual worker, was seniority: it produced a new working-class life-course in which the end would be better than the beginning, culminating in secure retirement—a principle made concrete by Medicare after 1965. To supply this booming market, hospital capacity rapidly grew, financed through publicly subsidized municipal bonds. But as the generation who took lifetime jobs after World War II and the Korean War retired or were laid off (never to be replaced) in the 1970s and 1980s, the politics of health care underwent a profound shift. For younger generations, the growing difficulty of landing jobs with livable wages and high-quality benefits resulted in a rapid decay in health security, as the link between employment and health care, mediated by productivity, fell apart. Meanwhile elders became entrenched incumbents in a system that was only superficially being maintained and renewed for successors—although the poor among them still may fall through the cracks into the nursing home nightmare. If it is not really accurate to describe health insurance as something that only exists now for people born between 1920 and 1960, it is still close enough to be a useful exaggeration.

This generational entrenchment—manifest in patterns of wealth ownership, life expectancy, and much more—underlies the basic pattern of political polarization we have experienced over the past two decades. As the sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen observed in his 1999 book Social Foundations of Postindustrial Economies, “A new, asymmetric ‘chrono-politics’ appears to be displacing the old political frontlines when it comes to welfare state support. Not only is the median voter ageing, but as the necessity of financial cuts mounts, the need for trade-offs mounts.” Presciently, Esping-Andersen grasped that retirees would enter any such conflict over trade-offs doubly advantaged. First, the old are far more organized than any youthful challengers. Second, the young are not interested in reducing old-age benefits but rather increasing other ones. This is why the conflict is “asymmetric.”

One manifestation of this generational imbalance of power is the immense difficulty of health care reform, since major constituencies—not just profiteering corporations, but segments of the markets they’ve captured, and the people who compose those segments—are materially tied to the current system. This is the underlying social basis of the attempts to fend off Medicare for All through appeals to incumbent health insurance, in particular Medicare itself. “Keep your government hands off my Medicare” is not—contra liberal snobbery—simply ignorance and false consciousness. It is rather, as Esping-Andersen would put it, the slogan of asymmetric chronopolitics. It is important to understand that chronopolitics remains only the political and cultural modality in which class conflict in recent decades has appeared. But this does not make generational conflict superficial, any more than the mediation of class through race makes race superficial. There is a genuine divergence in life chances and social power along the lines of age.

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