Illustration: David Hollenbach.
Life in the Balance
The human body has become the battleground of political meaning, again
Issue #
223

I left the hospital,” she said in jagged breaths. An hour earlier, my girlfriend texted me that she slipped and cut her hand. Friends rushed her to an emergency room but she left before treatment. I was confused and angry. “Why are you walking home in pain,” I asked her.  

“I. Can’t. Afford. Another. Bill,” she snapped each word so for me to hear, whether I liked it or not. We met at her apartment and I hugged her as if my body, could bandage her body. It did not stop the hurt. But we tried.   

 Months later, she got on Obamacare and we almost felt safe. But President Trump tried to take away even that last hope. On the news, we saw him hunched over the Oval Office, pouting as he lost votes. And then he failed. We breathed relief but every time, I see Trump, I think this is the man who put her life at risk.  

Trump is the face of a conservative movement that cuts services for people. They failed with Obamacare. They will try again. They will try to cut housing, arts, education, legal services and even food for the elderly. They have a capitalist driven, conservative ideology that values the body to the degree it produces profit. Theirs is in an endless struggle with the people’s ideology, a street-level humanism, where we assume our bodies have value, simply because they are the source of our everyday lives.  

The human body is the battleground of political meaning. Is it a natural resource for capitalism? Is it valuable for being a vessel of life? When I got my girlfriend aspirin to numb the pain of her throbbing hand, we were living the answer. Our truest work in life is to care for each other. Not to be a matrix of money. I asked if she needed anything else. Leaning over, she kissed my forehead and said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”  

Health Scare 

“We are going to be submitting a plan,” Trump said at his January press conference, “to repeal and replace.”  He was talking about Obamacare and glowering at reporters. Watching him on my laptop, I felt a chill like in a movie, when a maniac stares through a window before the horror begins.  

Many of us live in a state of fear. One bad fall. One hard illness and we could be rolled on a gurney to a hospital, we’ll be saved but at a cost we can’t pay. Obamacare only protects some of us. If we don’t have it then after treatment, bill after bill comes like weights that pull us into poverty. Out of 325 million citizens, 28.5 million don’t have health insurance. Before Obama’s 2010, Affordable Care Act it was 41 million. And Trump wanted to repeal that. He did not care or believe that 24 more million people would lose health care over the next decade and be one sickness or one injury away from having their lives destroyed.  

Even I didn’t know who was vulnerable, until my best friend got sick and his breathing sounded like a swamp. He couldn’t go to a doctor. Or an artist I admired was injured and unable to dance. She couldn’t go to a hospital. The pain and anxiety they live with are invisible to the Republican narrative of governance which says let the free market distribute health. Or the states. Or any form of universal coverage will add to the nation’s debt. In none of these frames is the focus the care of the body.   

The fears of conservatives render our bodily needs invisible. They are afraid of “big government” in the hands of the people, who will use it to redirect the flow of power to the lower classes in the name of citizenship rights. It is why Republicans want to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And why they hate Obamacare and tried to repeal it. They believe entitlements create a dependent citizenry whose parasitic bodies feed off the wealthy. In 2012, presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in a meeting with donors, “There are 47 percent of the people … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”  

So even though Trump campaigned as a populist, it was inevitable that as president lacking coherent ideology he would borrow ideas from conservatives. The Heritage Foundation’s Blueprint for Balance became his America First budget. He planned savage cuts. No more Obamacare. No more PBS. No more Environmental Protection Agency. Our water and air could become undrinkable, unbreathable. Our free public schools would be chopped up into for-profit private ones. Every day his administration would take something. It was a horror movie made real. We had a slasher in the White House. Obamacare was first and his voters erupted. They filled Republican town halls, holding signs saying not to repeal the Affordable Care Act, telling stories of cancer and accidents and being whisked from the edge of death by a doctor they could not have paid for before.  

At the height of the backlash to Trumpcare, he tried to sell it on Fox News. During the interview Tucker Carlson said to president Trump, “Counties that voted for you, middle class and working class counties, would do far less well under this bill than the counties that voted for Hillary, the more affluent counties.” Trump nodded and looked at him blankly, not really seeing the people Carlson was talking about. It was if they were invisible. “I know,” Trump muttered, “I know.” 

The Body in Capitalism 

Illustration: Gabriella Szpunt.

“We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into complacency and dependence,” said Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House in his response to Obama’s 2011 State of the Union. The hammock image is a staple of Ryan’s as is the core idea it represents, bodies are lazy if they are not pushed to work. 

In 2017, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said on CNN about Trump’s dismantling of Obamacare, “Americans have choices. Maybe rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love … maybe they should invest it in their own health care.” The image of the dumb working class person who thinks with their body and must learn from their own bad decisions, even if it means their health is another trope.  

Neither idea, whether that people are prone to be lazy or that they’re dumb and must pay for mistakes with their health are in the earliest theory of capitalism. It’s the exact opposite. In the first chapter of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, we see a very different role for the body, it is valued even if it does not labor. It is protected by abundance against want, sickness and age. Smith divides “savage” nations from the “civilized” based on how they treat the vulnerable. Using colonial imagery of Native Americans, he portrays them as, “so miserably poor that from mere want, they are … reduced to abandoning their infants, their old people, and those afflicted with lingering diseases to be devoured by wild beasts.”  

In contrast, Smith exalts “civilized’ nations that use the division of labor to increase wealth so that even though, he writes, “A great many do not labor at all … the produce of the society is so great…a workman of the lowest order … may enjoy a greater share of the conveniences of life than it is possible for any savage to acquire.”  

The body here is shielded by the society’s wealth from sickness, injury and old age. More importantly, the people have intrinsic value. The goal of a civilized nation is use its economic power to protect the bodies of its citizens, whether they are able to work or not. Wealth is in the service of health.  

Smith’s elegant paean to the economy was published in 1776 but even by then the hard material truth of the body in capitalism was sailing across the Atlantic Ocean on British slave ships. In cargo holds, bodies were chained and starved, bodies were split by the lash, bodies were raped and bodies were sold. In 1789, thirteen years after Smith published his treatise, one of the enslaved, Olaudah Equiano, wrote of the Middle Passage. “We were all put under deck … so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself,” he wrote, “The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror.”  

Capitalism was built on disposable bodies. The New World was built on disposable bodies. The United States was built on disposable bodies. Whole families, whole villages thrown into chains and sold, worked to death and thrown away.  

Rising from slavery was a toxic culture of racism that “blackened” African bodies with social death, painted them as talking monkeys. They lived at the low point where the disposable body became the black body, a thing of disgust and difference. The concentric rings of racism that crushed people of color became the major barrier to the advance of socialism in the United States. And it was the counter-force of black love for black bodies that is breaking that down and pushing our “savage” nation to become “civilized”.  

The Light at the Bottom 

Cornelius waves hi and drinks his beer. Face bright with an early morning buzz, he sits in his family’s front yard. They’re my neighbors. When he arrived, his Aunt Dolores said she and her husband took him in because he was sick. And he is. Cornelius has bloated cheeks and he floats in a daze from his medicine. Sometimes, I’ll wave but he won’t see me. 

His family cares for him without judgement. In Black America it is tradition to “take someone in” whether escaped slaves in the 19th Century or family coming home from jail today. It can be a sick loved one or a friend lost in life. It is part of Black healing. Alongside doula birth work. Herbs for illness. Touching scars. Touching silence. Releasing it all into song or tears, prophecy or dance. And revolution. At the center were Black women, their limbs, branches of the family tree, lifting as they climbed.  

Black people healing black people are a counter-current to capitalism’s ripping of labor from the body. It spins like a wheel, going in the opposite direction of a larger wheel. The friction makes a spark of illumination by which another value for the body can be seen, something beyond the economic, something sacred.  

It’s hard to see this light because of America’s blinding whiteness. In 1931, two years into the Great Depression, historian James Adams popularized The American Dream as a “land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each.” Like Adam Smith 155 years before, he exalted a dream of capitalism. Many immigrants bought it. Many profited from it. But the hard truth was the cyclical Wall Street crashes that caused slums to overflow and long soup lines of broken families. Migrants came to build a “civilized” nation but discovered a deeply “savage” one, where Big Government backed by and backing Big Business, made workers into disposable bodies.  

Some new Americans climbed up in class and whiteness. Many toiled at the bottom, thrown away. Socialists and labor groups tried to build a “civilized” nation in the rubble of capitalism. But even workers with disposable bodies, saw their interests converge with the elite on race and Cold War patriotism. Each push for social democracy and the redistribution of wealth that would make a generous welfare state possible hit the hard wall of two fears; one was communism the other racial mixing. Roosevelt’s New Deal had to be packaged as “pragmatism” not “socialism”. And to win over Southern Democrats, he excluded black people from some of his most important initiatives. When Truman tried to set up national healthcare, Senator Robert Taft, yelled at him, “I consider it socialism, the most socialistic measure this Congress has ever had before it.” 

But the Black counter-current pushed. A people stolen and sold, exploited and segregated, came with their own light, their own dream. When Lyndon Johnson’s Democratic Party reluctantly sided with the civil rights moment, it lost the South as he said, “For a generation” They were branded the party of minorities and social democracy was linked with Black equality. Conservative white, racial resentment over busing, affirmative action and welfare, spilled onto healthcare. Economist Paul Krugman, said in a lecture, “It actually comes down to race. In the advanced world, only the United States fails to guarantee health care … in 1947, Truman pushed for national healthcare, it was defeated because of a coalition between doctors and Southern white politicians who were afraid that it would force them to integrate their hospitals.”  

Fast forward to 2009, conservatives panicked about The Affordable Care Act waved posters with President Obama as a Witch Doctor or Lenin, Stalin or with a Hitler mustache. The two old fears of socialism and racial mixing, fused into one. Against the backdrop of an increasingly diverse America, where minorities could direct big government; Obamacare was seen as a racial threat. It was a paranoid fear that conflated a health insurance reform, not much different than the 1993 Republican Bob Dole-led plan, into the morbid image of “death panels” as a symbol of white genocide. 

Here we are in the 21st Century, carrying the weight of the past. Capitalism from the Middle Passage to Middle America has created a mountain range of disposable bodies. It is now catching up to whiteness and throwing that away to. It was inevitable. Class was never separate from race but just a lesser degree of darkness.  

We’re stuck together. All of us. Millions of Americans who want a fairer more humane society cheek and jowl with millions of Americans, drunk on race, who clutch the Dream. They walk in a daze. Faces bloated from lack of a future. They are lost like Cornelius. They need a new family. And history may push the Black Freedom Movement beyond saying Black Lives Matter, to seeing all these abandoned souls; knowing, however reluctantly, it may have to take America back in, touch its scars; be its doula, do re-birth work and say, “This is how you heal.” 

The Great Die In 

“We should have a great die-in,” I told my friend, “Let’s bring our sick and injured to the White House gate. Maybe I’ll get dressed as a Statue of Liberty, limping on a crutch with a bandage around my eye.”  

We laughed as subway tunnel lights, flashed in the window. We made a bitter sound. The Republicans were gearing up to kill Obamacare. A fear was tightening in everyone’s chest. He was taking care of a sick father. I was worried about my girlfriend who had a chronic condition that caused hives to break out like itchy bites. Sometimes, she scratched herself bloody.  

“Yes, let’s have a die-in,” he stroked his chin, smiled, “Roll people in wheelchairs up. Get folks to waddle as they hold their IV drops. I have an uncle with Parkinson’s, I’ll get him there. Yes, man, I can see it, thousands of sick, laying in front of the White House, vomiting from their treatments, breathing from oxygen masks, actually dying so Trump can see what he’s doing to us, you know, make it real.”  

I nodded, feeling our faces lock on the imaginary scene. We wanted for the pain to be open and recognized. Teaching is not enough. Using facts is not enough. No one bothers seeing until they can’t look away.  

“How did all this pain become invisible,” I asked out loud to myself, to him, to people in power too far away to hear me, “I mean they’re trying to kill us.”  

He closed his eyes and sighed. We left the train and saw a man, no legs, in a wheelchair, holding a cup for spare change. We looked at him then each other but didn’t say a word. Everything was in the silence. Everything always is.  

The Body’s Manifesto 

When they failed, I cheered. They could not repeal Obamacare because too many moderates knew better and too many hard liners were unwilling to compromise. Not enough votes. I saw President Trump on the news. He was at the Oval Office, eyes snarled then looking down, then waving his hands as if tearing at spider webs. He was blaming everyone but himself for his failure. Typical.  

This is the struggle for the next four years. We will be marching, protesting, making noise all to protect our bodies from cuts. There will cuts to our health, our education, our culture, our future.  

Unlike conservatives, the left is trying to recreate from a “savage” nation, a “civilized” one. When we march with signs or rally or block traffic or organize, we are showing the millions of other Americans that our bodies are not disposable.  

It is catching on. Recently, Bernie Sanders held a nationally televised town hall in West Virginia where people told stories of addiction and loss, fear and sickness. He asked a coal miner who voted for Trump if he thought America should have national health care. The man, awkward in the sincere way of someone not used to cameras said, “I think every American citizen should have healthcare” and the crowd roared its approval. 

We can get there when he and everyone in that town hall thinks that citizen also means the Mexican and Muslim, the Black and the openly gay. When they think me and my family and my friends are also part of America. Then our movement will be strong enough to win. 

One night, I brought my girlfriend medicine for her hives. In her bedroom, I saw the heavy backpack with student papers from teaching, stacks of books from her graduate classes. Most days, she wakes before sunrise, to travel to New Jersey to teach. She sends me photos from the train. In the background, I see so many tired, beleaguered faces snoozing in the seats.  

Every day, she works. Most people, work. We make the world’s wealth but are cut off from it. The division of labor goes into the laborer, dividing us from our bodies, until we have to buy back our lives. It leaves us tired. Whatever this is, it is not the Dream.  

“What are you thinking,” she asked. I chewed my lip (before answering), “I want to burn the system down.” She took out her oils, smudged some on her forehead. She had a whole self-care regime. She was proud of her Black woman magic.  

She said, “We were never meant to survive here. They tried to kill us so many times. They never cared for our bodies. But we did. We know how to survive them. When you know that then you’re good. Nothing to fear.” 

In her beautiful face was the face of America, the African and Native and European, blended together. I massaged the scars from her surgery. I massaged the scars from our history. She looked at them and said, “Those are 400 years of stitching, holding it all together.” 

Nicholas Powers is a professor of African American literature at SUNY-Old Westbury and the author of The Ground Beneath Zero (Upset Press, 2013).