Kovac: The costs of functioning government

Matthew Kovac, Guest Columnist

It should go without saying that the government “shutdown” of the past two weeks is not a shutdown in any real sense. Aside from inconvenient furloughs at organizations like the CIA and Department of Defense, the military, police and spy agencies — all the essential organs of government — continue their repressive work largely unimpeded. But even this pseudo-shutdown provides an opportunity to think seriously about the daily operations of government, and what a real government shutdown would entail. What are the costs of each? And by whom are they borne?

Polite society has reacted in horror to the so-called shutdown, pointing out – not incorrectly – the suffering that may result among those who rely most heavily on government services, especially the working class and people of color. But few have bothered to consider the greater suffering that is caused by the government, and which an actual shutdown would swiftly bring to an end.

If a real government shutdown were to occur, the four-decade-long War on Drugs would come to a close. The prison-industrial complex would collapse, ending the confinement and torture of more than 1.5 million people, disproportionately black and Latino men. Undocumented immigrants would not have to brave drones and border patrol agents as they seek better lives, and those already in the United States would not have to live in fear of deportation. Without a government to break strikes, crush unions and generally enforce the dictates of Wall Street, working people would be empowered to reshape the economy along more just lines.

Beyond U.S. borders, the government’s wars in the Middle East and central Asia would grind to a halt, saving thousands of lives. Repressive regimes buoyed by U.S. military and economic aid would find themselves weakened. U.S.-dominated economic institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, notorious for their pillaging of the Third World, would be thrown into disarray as other industrialized powers scrambled to fill the vacuum left by the United States. For however brief a moment before the inevitable geopolitical realignment, millions of people around the world would finally enjoy a measure of true self-determination.

This is not to prioritize the suffering of some over others. It is simply to observe that one cannot have the seemingly decent things provided by government — food stamps, healthcare, and so on — without accepting the violence and exploitation upon which state power undeniably rests. And once one comes to this realization, one must question whether those things are really decent at all, or whether they are simply concessions intended to legitimize and uphold a fundamentally indecent system. If the price of helping some is harming others, then Americans must make clear that it is a price they are unwilling to pay. An injury to one, as the old labor slogan goes, is an injury to all.

Americans should not so recklessly condemn the illusory shutdown of the past two weeks. For many people both at home and abroad, a real shutdown of the U.S. government presents their best, and perhaps only, hope of survival.

Matthew Kovac is a Medill senior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].