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Mutual aid as radical hope

COVID-19, Dystopia and a Critique of the Capitalist Present

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The past few weeks have felt dystopian. Stanford has been essentially shuttered, with fewer than a thousand undergraduates remaining on campus; cases of COVID-19 continuing to increase both in Santa Clara County and across the world; and nation-states responding dramatically to the threat of the pandemic, with measures ranging from mandatory social distancing to the rollout of police and military forces and city-wide curfews (as in my hometown, Metro Manila). What’s particularly unique and cruel about this dystopia, however, is how much of it has emerged from the very conditions that allow many of us in the Global North to live comfortable, modern lives — the conditions of global capitalism. 

Its disastrous consequences are not solely due to the deadliness of the virus, but rather its capacity to overwhelm healthcare systems where it spreads. It’s a disease made for the neoliberal, post-welfare state, one which wreaks havoc in the United States because of how much of its national spending has gone into military development and imperial warmongering as opposed to public health; one which sends unemployment claims skyrocketing and leaves millions with uncertain futures due to a dearth of paid sick leave and a nearly nonexistent social safety net. And, as Saskia Sassen so well outlines in her collection of essays “Globalization and its Discontents,” globalization is a system where the movement of people is differentially restricted (think diplomats vs. asylum seekers) while the movement of capital is increasingly liberalized. During the outbreak, closing borders and ICE raids have been coupled with massive bailouts planned for the giants of finance capital. The dystopia we’re living in, just like the dystopias of much speculative fiction, lies at the conjunction of natural disaster and human injustice.

This brings me to Stanford, a dystopia in its own right, complete with dizzying contradictions and barely hidden inequalities. It’s a university with a $26.4 billion endowment that, only last year, gutted its own development plan instead of building affordable housing for service workers; a university that likely pays its president a seven-figure salary (former President John Hennessy earned $1.2 million a year before stepping down) while its contracted UG2 custodians go on $18 an hour with only 20 cents of extra pay for working graveyard hours. With the COVID-19 outbreak and the subsequent closure of the majority of campus, Stanford has also acted in ways consonant with the dictates of late capitalism, which prioritizes the continued circulation of money over the health and well-being of people. While the University has committed to providing pay continuation for its “regular employees,” its several hundred contracted workers are not being guaranteed the same, with most being let go. For example, nearly 60 chefs on the Row employed through Student Organized Services (SOS) have been laid off – translating into hundreds of thousands of lost wages for regular chefs paid $49.20 an hour and assistant chefs paid $26.10 an hour. Folks ranging from part-time workers who staff Stanford Recreation and Wellness to the food service workers and custodians of the Stanford in Washington house have seen their jobs suddenly disappear, without any assurances of continued pay.

It’s now, as we see the faultlines in our inhumane system — one that prioritizes the steady growth of university endowments over the health and safety of marginalized communities — that we are also seeing glimmers of hope. Over just a few weeks, a mutual aid fund organized by Stanford students for other students struggling with sudden eviction from campus raised more than $100,000. A fundraiser for Bytes and Coupa workers raised more than $40,000. And Students for Workers’ Rights’ own fundraiser for laid-off SOS staff has garnered more than $15,000 so far over both GoFundMe and Venmo.

I’m writing this article to make the politics of Students for Workers’ Rights clear. Mutual aid is not charity. The fundraisers that students and community members are hosting right now are not just spontaneous outbursts of compassion, but committed responses to the failures of capitalism to take care of our communities and admonitions against a University which prioritizes its own nest egg over the food service workers and custodians that make its existence possible. These fundraisers, while powerful, also shed light on the sheer inequality that’s currently in place: The total money raised by the three fundraisers I’ve mentioned is around the same amount as Stanford would get from full tuition paid by four students in a year. 

Then what is mutual aid, if it isn’t charity? For Students for Workers’ Rights, mutual aid is a critique of the present. If we’re living in a dystopia generated by late capitalism, mutual aid is an enactment of an alternative way of life, one where interdependence and collective care are valued over accumulation and commodification. Mutual aid is us pushing light through the cracks in the edifice of capitalism; it’s us saying that another world is possible. Mutual aid is not going to stop with the fundraisers that we run for first-gen and/or low-income (FLI) students and service workers. Mutual aid is going to go on with a relentless imagining of the future that is possible now, the future that our communities not only desperately need but deserve.

Queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz writes that “the here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalising rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.” 

Our present — our here and now — is unmistakably a prison house. It’s a prison house for the detained migrants who have to go on hunger strike for soap because of their heightened risk to COVID-19; it’s a prison house for the black and brown folks who are disproportionately brutalized and incarcerated; it’s a prison house for the Asian and Asian American communities worldwide who are suffering hate crimes due to their racialization as carriers of otherness and disease; it’s a prison house for every single worker Stanford leaves without a paycheck come next month. But when we come together to fight for one another; when we organize, when we fundraise, when we hunger strike, when we petition, when we rally, when we rest and heal and love one another, we think and feel our then and there. 

Over the next few months, as a part of Students for Workers’ Rights, I’m going to be writing about hope. I’m going to be writing about the place Stanford could be for its workers, instead of the place it is. This hope of utopia is not a naive gaze towards an ever receding future. It’s a demand that the present be better than it is. And it’s an invitation, too, to all of you reading this, to hope with us.

— Ethan Chua ’21, Students for Workers’ Rights

Contact Ethan Chua at ezlc327 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

Contribute to the Students for Workers’ Rights fundraiser here. Sign on to our petition demanding Stanford extend pay continuation to its contracted workers here.

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