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COVID-19 poses a great challenge to the dominant American narrative. You could be prime minister of the United Kingdom, a member of a royal family, a country music star, a CNN newscaster, a worker, or a college student and come down with this most democratic of diseases. Or someone long-forgotten in a nursing home, suddenly relevant because you show up in the death count. It doesn’t matter what country, state, or county you live in.

Did they make some bad choices? Our dominant narrative is one of meritocratic individualism. That translates into you get what you deserve and you deserve what you get. If you are poor, it’s because you made bad choices. If you’re wealthy, it’s because you worked hard.

COVID-19 paints this stark picture for us. Our land has been here before.

Hard work and talent lead to success. Bad choices lead to failure. It’s drilled into us from the time we first go to school. Do the work, get the grade. It follows us through university and graduate school and on into professorial positions where our hard work gets us merit raises. We in the academy soon learn that our merit disappears when the state legislature decides that tax breaks are better, no matter how hard we work.

Meritocratic individualism is part and parcel of our American religion of economics. Andrew Carnegie himself, obviously a hard working person since he was so successful, proclaimed his Gospel of Wealth to explain how wealth produces wealth according to the inexorable evolutionary law of competition. Rich people deserve to be rich; their wealth produces prosperity for all. This ideology began to gain traction with the rise of corporations at the turn of the twentieth century as Carnegie and his ilk promulgated a great cultural revolution to replace the gospel of work, the idea that labor creates all value with the gospel of wealth and economics. Economics assumes that institutions emerge from the combined results of all individual decisions, all striving competitively to do the best for themselves. So, as a British prime minister famously said, there is no society, only individuals.

So we’re challenged to understand exactly how those who contract COVID-19 made bad decisions. And that collective puzzlement puts our entire ideological system under stress. The unemployment rate had been low as people took the low paying bullshit service jobs that were available. No health insurance. No sick leave. No union. Just each individual facing the economy single-handed relying on merit or talent and hard work. Now they’re all out of work. It must be their fault. They chose to work at the wrong fast food joint. But in this mess, the stock market also has crashed leaving stranded the privileged ones who could afford to choose Wall Street over a union’s defined pension plan or social security. More bad choices.

The last time the stock market crashed like this was 1929 when there were no jobs to be had. That champion of individualism, Iowa’s own Herbert Hoover (R) who was president at the time counseled the unemployed to buck up and show some moral fortitude. He lost the next election. F. D. Roosevelt (D) won. He initiated reforms known as the New Deal, which saved American capitalism from itself.

Immediately, the Du Pont family, one of our great ruling class dynasties, founded the American Liberty League. Its task was to develop massive propaganda programs using the newly emerging mass media. It pioneered many of the techniques imported to the Germany of that time and in use in our country, Russia, and others today.

Meritocratic individualism is part and parcel of our American religion of economics.

Roosevelt provided a stop-gap so the wealthy could catch their breaths and reorganize for the long haul ahead. It was a time when people could openly talk about being Communists, where Fascists could organize local militias, where American people were not just hungry but starving, where writers would stay up late at night after a hard day’s work and write novels about their struggles in the streets and on the farms of America, and even hope they’d be published.

Today, even before the crash, wealth and income differentials are greater than they were in 1929. Wages are lower and the wealthy are wealthier. That’s not because their wealth naturally produced more wealth—except what their intrinsic merit allowed them to inherit. It’s because of half a century of concerted policies to reward them including giving them the levers of government to destroy the labor movement and enrich themselves. The result is that Americans enjoy no safety net such as protects the citizens of other industrialized countries. Each of us must face cancer, car accidents, and old age ourselves, which means those with the wealth win, or at least go out comfortably. Not forgotten in some urine-stinking “home.” To that extent, COVID-19 has become the great equalizer (but, as always, some are more equal than others).

COVID-19 paints this stark picture for us. Our land has been here before. How we respond this time will be the test of our nation, our people, and our culture as it was last time. Maybe this time we can follow the examples of those countries that have made their systems work for their people. We can choose. Democracies make their own karma at the ballot boxes. We still have a presidential primary in process and after that, one way or another, an election.

Paul Durrenberger, emeritus professor of anthropology at Penn State and the University of Iowa, is a co-founder and board member of the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust. In 2014 he received the Society for Applied Anthropology’s Malinowski Award, a career achievement distinction presented each year to an outstanding social scientist.

Cite as: Durrenberger, Paul. 2020. “Decisions and the Dominant Narrative.” Anthropology News website, April 24, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1393