In the pull between democracy and capitalism, which we discussed at the Graduate Center in Spring 2015, tensions are rising and two camps are forming. Laid bare is the tension between the democratic drive towards inclusion and the capitalist tendency towards class stratification and hierarchy. There are different ways this tension is showing. The poor cannot afford access to crucial health care in the midst of an unfolding health care crisis, or adequate crisis preparation. Large groups became unemployed overnight. Women continue to assume the large share of the burden of care, now more than ever. The well-to-do to leave New York City for calmer pastures, potentially taking the virus with them.
The current crisis has also revealed another potential vector of exclusion fueled by a dangerous ageism, a term that describes social discrimination based on age. Ashton Applewhite, an anti-ageism activist, pointed out early in March how ageism has driven reporting and perception of the effects of the virus since it first received international attention, as well as to poor social behavior of some of the younger. Louise Aronson, writing in The Atlantic and the New York Times, in an article aptly titled “Covid-19 kills only old people. Only?“, has driven home the point that ageism is making the pandemic worse. Another broadly contextualizing blog post has portrayed how we as a society deal poorly with losing elders in normal times, a trait that has worsened in the current crisis. Ageism reached a sad zenith when earlier this week Texas Lieutenant Governor assured the nation that grandparents would be willing to die for the economy.
The democratic struggle has always striven towards inclusion of larger groups into civil and human rights and electoral enfranchisement. The current crisis has exposed and deepened rifts along age (in addition to racial, gender and class) lines. Ageist responses to the crisis attempt to render older people expendable and portray their disappearance as crucial to rescuing capitalism. The call for older people to sacrifice themselves (voluntarily) to save the economy brings capitalism’s clash with democracy into stark relief.