Grocery worker sees fascist thinking at root of anti-mask campaign
Amid social distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak, a cashier wears a mask while working behind a clear barrier between her and a customer who doesn't wear a mask at El Rancho grocery store in Dallas. | LM Otero / AP

SAN FERNANDO, Calif.—I trundle back inside the store, soaked in sweat and struggling to breathe against a thick cloth mask. I could already see the rest of the day ahead of me: I’d spend the next ten minutes cooling off in our dairy box, chugging down some ice-cold water, then it’s back to work with the public. No doubt we’d get another person protesting our mask policy; they make a scene at least every other day.

It’s a bizarre and uncomfortable feeling to hear someone complain about wearing a mask for the 15 minutes or so it takes them to shop; your commitment to customer service prevents you from mentioning that you wear your mask at least eight hours a day, five days a week, and that, as cumbersome as it is, it keeps you and them safe.

The nationwide protests against wearing masks stand out, if only because of the contrast between something so unobtrusive and the wild reactions people have to it.

The virus of the cult of the individual

Really the underlying logic behind protesting the masks goes back further than even the coronavirus pandemic—it’s the cult of the individual, which has saturated every aspect of our society since the dawn of capitalism.

A virus is the closest thing we have, rather than the slow chug of climate change, to a universal crisis. It treads over borders and chokes the lungs of the men and women, Black and white. Contained within this crisis are the embers of collective responsibility, and there are two paths we can take: We can choose to recognize our shared humanity as a species and our responsibility to each other, or we can fall into the darkest kind of barbarism.

Capitalism has been making us crueler. The logic it uses to buffer its rule is found in the phrase “not my problem.” It has been preached by wretched “thinkers” such as Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard. In Rand’s case, she insisted the genocide of American Natives was justified as they didn’t develop modern property rights. Rothbard floated the idea of sending out the police to beat the homeless and other “unproductive” members of society off the streets.

Since the start of the pandemic, colleagues and friends of mine have chafed under the stay-at-home orders. They’ve preached “solutions” straight from the cult of the individual itself: “Why not just stay home if you’re worried about being sick, and let the rest of us go about our day?” and “How about we have a separate shopping time for people who don’t want to wear masks?”

They never elaborate how someone is supposed to support themselves if staying home is voluntary, and I worry they don’t really care.

Society needs collectivity to fight the virus

COVID-19 can’t be stopped through “the voluntary association of individuals,” but only by us acting collectively, as a society. We’re called on to see ourselves not as atomized individuals but as members of a great collective. Our flawed liberal institutions which implicitly buy into faith in the market must be forced to act directly and collectively.

Take our healthcare system for example. Even if a vaccine is available, how much will it cost? How are people supposed to afford it if they’re out of work? If we can subsidize a COVID vaccine so it can be distributed to everyone, why can’t we subsidize all medicine? Once we start to see our health as a collective issue, why not housing? Why not employment?

In this profound moment of crisis, what solution do individualist capitalists offer? Tax rebates for companies producing COVID vaccines? Fines if someone is unvaccinated? People don’t want tax write-offs, they want medicine!

Fascism makes it ‘us versus them’ rather than ‘us versus extinction’

It’s been said before that fascism is capitalism in crisis or decay; while the statement itself is true, I’d like to add my own take. Fascism is the state’s attempt to mediate contradictions in the capitalist system, to make a little room for “the collective,” while still retaining the fundamental logic of capitalism. Rather than recognize the collective humanity of the whole, the fascists lionize “the nation” or “the faith” or whatever their particular context uses to atomize our shared struggles; it’s “us versus them” rather than “us versus extinction.”

While socialists see the human species as a whole, as one great tribe, the fascist sees nations as “bodies” and the people inhabiting them as mere cells of a body, a collectivized individualism of sorts. In a socialist worldview, there’s empathy towards all as there’s only all; in the fascist view, the nation is a carnivore in a savage jungle, and it must be just as savage to survive.

The fascists will promise a great deal, perhaps even policies that seem progressive on the surface—maybe even healthcare and housing for all citizens—but they’ll be promises for the few, built off the backs of slaves.

The worst horrors of the Nazi Reich were the end result of fascist logic: a genocidal empire, its labor fueled by the toiling of slaves, existing for no reason except to attack more peoples, to gather more slaves, and to produce more weapons of war until they could stand atop a pile of skulls and stupidly proclaim they “won.”

A tale of two customers

A woman comes through my line in the middle of the day. She huffs that “it’s an evil thing, what the Chinese did, sending their travelers out to spread this disease all over.” She leaves after it’s clear my co-worker and I aren’t agreeing with her. My next customer is an Asian woman who thanks us profusely for working during the pandemic. These women are the two paths we can take, tribalism or empathy.

As the crisis continues, we will be faced with two options: socialism or barbarism. Trump is the primordial sludge that the next fascist reaction will bubble out of.

The world doesn’t have to descend into dystopia. With unflinching solidarity among the working class, it won’t. We can and must claim a world for ourselves, a world worth living in, one in which every human being is entitled to dignity, liberty, and the fruits of their labors. As the old union song goes: Which side are you on?


Thomas Hart
Thomas Hart

Thomas Hart was born and raised in Southern California. A grocery store clerk and amateur writer, he’s interested in the topic of community in the “canceled future” of Late-Stage Capitalism. His two biggest inspirations as a writer are H.P. Lovecraft and Hunter S. Thompson. A videogame, anime, and horror geek, he can usually be found nose deep in a book in his local coffee shop.