Disaster Capitalism Is All Millennials Have Ever Known — But Shopping Won’t Save Us Now

Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images.
The oldest millennials were just entering adulthood — finishing high school, starting college, leaving home for the first time — on September 11, 2001, when terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., precipitated 18 years (and counting) of unconscionable war, and a horrific new reality suffused with persistent, ambient catastrophe. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, one message — whether delivered by President George W. Bush or New York City’s then-new mayor, Michael Bloomberg, or Vogue editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour (no, really) — persisted: The best way to help out yourself, your community, and your country, is to buy stuff. 
In the intervening years, as more millennials have entered adulthood, they’ve heard this mandate come down again and again. It was invoked after natural disasters, like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and during man-made disasters like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the recession that started in December 2007. Again and again, we’ve been told that the way we can save ourselves — and save the world — is by shopping. Millennials, specifically, have also been told to be grateful for how little is being asked of us; we’re reminded that, in prior years, Americans were asked to give their lives for some notion of the greater good. Now we’re just asked to give our money.
The idea that money and life — or at least the American way of living it — exist in some deranged 21st-century binary is, of course, ridiculous. There’s no way to separate them, no way anymore to even conceptualize a choice like “your money or your life.” As anyone who’s been asked to contribute to a GoFundMe for someone who can’t afford basic medical care knows, money is life, and, all too often, a lack of it means death.
But while money has always represented more than just someone’s livelihood, what has become crystal clear in recent years is the way in which we’ve become inured to the idea that it is our personal duty to support an all-too precarious system, rather than have any expectations of a social safety net. It’s not just that we are on our own, it’s that we’re supposed to feel pride in being on our own — as if, even if the government offered to help, we should want to reject it.
This way of thinking is a part of disaster capitalism, a concept outlined by Naomi Klein in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Disasters, Klein explains, are a regular enough occurrence that the American government and business elites realized that they needed to find a way to exploit them in order to maintain the status quo, and their own lofty positions of privilege. This is because, Klein says, during times of extreme economic distress, when it becomes clear that our institutions are failing us, people naturally look for more progressive solutions, a way to ensure a common good; this is what happened following the 1929 stock market crash, which led to the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the advent of the New Deal.
Disasters are a fact of life, though, and rather than risk a more progressive future, the American government — conservative and liberal, alike — has deployed what Klein calls the “shock doctrine,” and used disasters for political gain, by exploiting instability, asking financially precarious people to contribute all they have, and ensuring the wealthy elite will be the only ones who benefit. It’s the continued prioritization of the private interest over the public good, and it’s been an ascendent philosophy for every millennials’ adulthood. We’ve been told over and over that the only way out of trauma is by burning through our dwindling checking accounts. (Savings, what are those?) However, with the coronavirus pandemic, the American brand of disaster capitalism might have met its match. 
One of the tenets of disaster capitalism is that it is necessary for most people to continue to act normally — keep patronizing businesses both local and online, frequent restaurants and coffee shops, and, you know, take that vacation anyway! Hop on that cruise ship! You, like, deserve it. Advising people to do this works in two ways: They spend money, and have the illusion of control over an uncontrollable situation. And there’s no doubt that it does actually help small and local businesses when they have dedicated patrons. But what the coronavirus pandemic is proving once and for all, is that this help not only isn’t going to be enough, but that it should never be the responsibility of individual consumers to keep the economy afloat — especially when so many of them suddenly find themselves un- or under-employed, and financially unstable.
That is exactly where we find ourselves now, and it’s a place none of us — but particularly not millennials — have ever experienced. So, perhaps it makes sense that many of us, particularly those young enough not to feel like like we are in immediate danger from COVID-19, first responded to the threat of a pandemic by going out, frequenting bars, shopping as normal — this is what we knew to do in prior times of panic. But the unique circumstances of this virus have put a stop to that kind of behavior. 
Still, though, our impulse to shop our way out of this disaster remains strong. As it’s become undeniable that entire industries — from restaurants and bars to independent bookstores to indie fashion brands to beauty salons — are threatened with decimation, it’s become similarly undeniable that orders of curbside margaritas and gift cards are not the cure. Yes, we should still shop local and support small businesses, but that is not nearly enough — especially when some of those small businesses might manage to stay afloat, but will also do so by laying off workers who will not get to see any of the money that comes from those gift cards we buy, and will lose health insurance in the process.
So what can we do to feel like we have some sort of power at a time where we also feel wholly restrained? As Klein recently told Vice, “instead of hoarding and thinking about how you can take care of yourself and your family, you can pivot to sharing with your neighbors and checking in on the people who are most vulnerable.” You can also demand more from a government that is, as we speak, figuring out how they want to profit from this disaster, and determining from which aspect of the shock doctrine do they stand to benefit the most. 
The last time we faced something similarly catastrophic was in 2008, when the economy went into free-fall, tens of thousands of Americans lost their homes, and even more lost their jobs. Although that period led to an increase in political organizing (as seen with Occupy Wall Street), which did prove beneficial (the Occupy movement was instrumental in helping people in New York City affected by Hurricane Sandy), it was also treated as another opportunity to cut social services and support big business — like all those banks that were deemed “too big to fail.”
Now, things are different. Yes, there are still billionaire hedge funders like Bill Ackman excoriating Americans to ride out this pandemic by ordering as much Chipotle as possible. (Ackman's hedge fund holds a 5 percent ownership in Chipotle.) But, there are signs that even the usual suspects are willing to try unorthodox methods when dealing with this crisis, by doing things like proposing huge stimulus bills and flirting with the idea of a Universal Basic Income. They have no choice, these are extraordinary times, and the ramifications of this pandemic remain incomprehensible, although one thing seems clear: People without health insurance will die. 
So, it is not going to be enough to get a couple thousand dollars offered as a balm for a month of staying indoors. We must demand that healthcare not be tied to employment or relationship status. We must demand protection for the most vulnerable among us. We must demand accountability from those who would materially profit from the deaths of others. We must resist the impulse to hoard our personal resources — whether they be rolls of toilet paper or the energy and ability to protest — and act according to a desire to benefit the most people as possible. We must understand that our inclination to shop is not a personal flaw, but a small business and its employees should be protected — through a time like this, yes, but also just in general — by a safety net stronger than its customers’ disposable income.
Because unless you’re Jeff Bezos or Michael Bloomberg, you probably don’t have the personal wealth to keep an industry afloat on your own. And that’s okay. Millennials have answered our government’s call to go shopping for long enough. Now it’s time for the government to answer ours, and provide us with the future we want, and need.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the NHS website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.
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