Essay: A Time for Fire and Guillotines

A painted anarchy symbol adorns a door of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Guatemala City, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

Ask for work. If they don't give you work, ask for bread. If they do not give you work or bread, then take bread.

                                              --Emma Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays

Americans are taking bread. And pasta and baby formula. 

Since the pandemic began, shoplifting of staples has noticeably increased in the United States, where an estimated 54 million Americans will struggle with hunger this year, a 45 percent increase from 2019. In the wealthiest country in the world, Americans are stealing food to survive.

At the end of this month, millions of Americans could lose their homes when a moratorium on evictions expires. Twelve million long-term jobless and gig workers will lose supplemental federal unemployment benefits which will be cut at the end of this month.

Meanwhile, Congress continues to tell Americans to go fuck themselves. You wouldn’t know from the way their partisan bickering has held hostage a desperately-needed Covid relief package, that a calamity of monumental proportions was hammering millions of Americans. . . 

That’s what happens when the majority of lawmakers are too rich to understand hunger or poverty, and are too comfortable to even imagine either.

The majority of the legislators tasked with determining just how sharp the hunger and how deep the bite of poverty that millions of Americans must endure this winter are too insulated by their wealth to feel that urgency in their heart, let alone their gut.

Most members of Congress earn $174,000 a year, which is more than triple the average wage across all American workers of $51,960 and higher than the median earnings of even the highest paying jobs in America. The typical congressional representative – including both senators and House members – has “an estimated net worth of over $500,000, or roughly five times the median U.S. household net worth.” 

The coronavirus emergency relief legislation agreed to by Congress in March amounted to one fucking measly check of $1200 per adult and $500 for each child under 16. 

To become incandescent with rage that anyone in the wealthiest country in the history of humanity can go hungry--at any time, let alone during a pandemic--must hunger have cut its sharpness into your gut? Must poverty have sunk its teeth so deeply into your pride that its marks take on the permanency of tattoos so that you vow to burn this unjust fuckery into the ground?

The majority of the legislators tasked with determining just how sharp the hunger and how deep the bite of poverty that millions of Americans must endure this winter are too insulated by their wealth to feel that urgency in their heart, let alone their gut. Only a few viscerally understand.

Rep. Cori Bush, the first Black woman elected to represent Missouri, knows the sharpness of hunger. 

Photo by Chris Kohley via St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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“It’s one thing to know that I can’t eat today, but I’m making sure my children eat. It’s another thing — it does something to your mind — when you know not only am I not eating today, I don’t know how I’m going to eat next week,” she told Ali Velshi on MSNBC.

“I’m trying to pay my bills. You’re reaching out to family and friends to try to help you, but your family and friends, that network, is in the same boat as you. So you can’t pull from other people. Being poor is so expensive.”

Bush tweeted about shopping at thrift shops in order to afford business attire for Capitol Hill, as she awaits her first paycheck which will come in January. She is a single mother of two children who gave up her health insurance to run for office and left full-time work as an ordained pastor and nurse.

Another single mother and lawmaker --Rep. Katie Porter--knows that there is a calamity within the calamity and that, like most things in the U.S., it is racialized and gendered. And, as usual, she has the numbers.

Photo by House of Representatives photographer via wikimedia commons

More women than men were pushed out of the workforce during the pandemic. And job losses due to the pandemic hit Black and women of colour especially hard because they are disproportionately employed by many of the businesses most affected by the pandemic, such as hotels, restaurants, retail and other jobs in the service industry. Porter’s office issued a report on the urgency of relief to offset the Covid crisis that backed that up with Labor Department statistics.

“Without action, the pandemic will likely erase decades of progress for working women, who are now being forced to shoulder the burden of childcare and remote learning. As a single mom of three young children, I know these challenges all too well,” she says in the forward to the report. 

It is no exaggeration to say that the pandemic and the economic crisis it has triggered are a fucking disaster for women. About 22% — over 1 in 5 — women in the U.S. have been pushed out of the labour force since the start of the pandemic and, even more shocking, 42% of women with children under 2 years old reported leaving the workforce during the pandemic. Mothers of children ages 6 to 17 saw employment fall by about a third more than fathers of children the same age, and mothers are returning to work at a much slower rate.

Labor Department figures on job recovery since August echo the all-too familiar fuckery of white supremacist patriarchy, or as The Washington Post puts it, “the pain is not spread evenly.” White women have recovered 61% of the jobs they lost during the pandemic by September - the most of any demographic group - while Black women have recovered only 34% of their lost jobs by then.

If I had children I would not just steal to feed them, I would set the world on fire for them. 

There is a panic that clings to every waking moment when you have no money. It is exhausting and humiliating. I have known the painful demolition to self worth of being unemployed and having no money. And that was in a year that was not ravaged by a fucking pandemic.

I know what it’s like to lose weight from going hungry because you’re too poor to buy food and what it’s like to swallow your pride to ask for money. But at least I had someone to ask for money when I could not pay rent and when I had no more coins left for $1 meals at McDonalds. I am childfree by choice so the hunger and the inability to afford rent and health insurance was a panic that burdened only me. It should burden no one. 

If I had children I would not just steal to feed them, I would set the world on fire for them. 

We should all set fire to this fucking world that allows anyone’s children to go hungry. There is enough food in this wealthiest country in the history of humanity, no one should be hungry. There are enough houses and apartments and empty hotel rooms, no one should be unhoused. There is enough money, no one should be poor. And no one should be without healthcare. 

It is not enough to hand out one check here or another there. Cancel rent. Freeze mortgages. Give everyone Universal Basic Income.

And set injustice on fire. Fuck the “normal” that benefited only wealthy, white, cisgendered, able-bodied men, and that continues to enrich America’s 614 billionaires who since the start of the pandemic grew their net worth by a collective $931 billion.

In November, protesters in Guatemala angry at a proposed 2021 budget that would have cut spending on health and education while increasing lawmakers’ own stipends, set part of the Congress building on fire and set up a guillotine outside. The bill was “shelved.”

A protester outside Congress in Guatemala via The Guardian

We must all set this fucking world on fire. As the Ni Una Menos feminist collective says, “We will not let ourselves be burned because this time the fire is ours.”

We all should set fire to the criminal complacency of elected representatives and to the capitalist patriarchy they help to uphold. To riff off  Zoe Leonard’s 1992 poem I want a president, I want lawmakers who have “stood on the welfare//office and (have) been unemployed and layed off.” 

I want lawmakers who want to set the fucking world on fire.


Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author, commentator and disruptor of patriarchy. Her first book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (2015) targeted patriarchy in the Middle East and North Africa and her second The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls (2019) took her disruption worldwide. Her commentary has appeared in media around the world and she makes video essays and writes a newsletter as FEMINIST GIANT.  

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