Co-written with Jade Saab.
The global pandemic that we are living through, in its origins and defining features, is very much a product of the capitalist system. Moreover, it has developed along lines that corresponded to the particular stage of capitalist development that we can refer to as the neoliberal period. There are several key elements to be considered in this regard.
Firstly, attempts to present the pandemic as an unanticipated ‘black swan event’ don’t stand up to any serious examination. The conditions that generated this pandemic were understood and the risk of one breaking out was fully appreciated. As Rob Wallace has explained,
“Capital is spearheading land grabs into the last of primary forest and smallholder-held farmland worldwide. These investments drive the deforestation and development leading to disease emergence. The functional diversity and complexity these huge tracts of land represent are being streamlined in such a way that previously boxed-in pathogens are spilling over into local livestock and human communities.”
The warnings were not only coming from left wing commentators like Wallace. From the ‘UN News’, we learn that “There is no great mystery about the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic — or of any modern pandemic.” We are told that
“The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment. Changes in the way we use land; the expansion and intensification of agriculture; and unsustainable trade, production and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife.”
Secondly, once unleashed, the pandemic has spread across the planet along routes laid down for it by imperialism and neoliberal restructuring. Massive global inequalities have left poor countries without the public healthcare systems and broader infrastructure that would be needed to deal with massive levels of infection. The economic impacts of the health crisis have been severe even in wealthy countries but the ‘Global South’ has been affected to a much greater degree. The ‘economic scarring’ left by this dislocation will mean a debt crisis and horrendous increases in poverty and hunger. The UN has warned of ‘global famines of biblical proportions.’ Even the effort to vaccinate populations against the threat of the virus has reflected these inequalities on the world stage. As rich countries ensure very high levels of immunisation, ‘vaccine imperialism’ has led to the lethal abandonment of poor countries.
The neoliberal decades have created considerable opportunities for the pandemic, along lines set by class based and racial inequalities, even in the richest countries. Public healthcare systems have been degraded and faced huge challenges even before COVID-19 threw them into crisis. The reordered neoliberal workforce, low paid, precarious and with greatly reduced rights in dealings with employers, has been left to the mercy of the virus on a huge scale. Poor and racialised communities have been in the line of fire. A Financial Times study of the impact of the pandemic on the three poor London boroughs that make up the ‘COVID Triangle’ brings this out starkly.
Thirdly, the spread of this pandemic has sharply brought out a contradiction in the capitalist state. With its legal authority, repressive power and ability to allocate resources, it serves the needs of capital and ensures that an exploitative power is preserved. However, in order to do this, it must also maintain certain levels of public health and social stability. The onset of COVID-19, therefore, made it necessary to introduce measures of economic shutdown and to ensure some level of social protection was in place.
Such initiatives, however, had adverse implications for short term profit making. This tension has played out across the world and has generated a debate within political establishments between advocates of an ‘open for business’ approach and those who see that long term economic health requires effective measures of containment. ‘The Lancet’ has explored international responses to the virus, looking at countries that were more serious about preventing its spread and those that focused on keeping the flow of profits going at the expense of public health. It concludes that
‘Countries that consistently aim for elimination — ie, maximum action to control SARS-CoV-2 and stop community transmission as quickly as possible — have generally fared better than countries that opt for mitigation.’
Yet, vigorous efforts aimed at elimination have been the exception and reluctant mitigation has been the norm. Belated and partial lockdown measures, lifted far too soon, have marked the normal approach. Governments have frequently acted recklessly in the interests of short term profits and very often they have done so in the face of clear scientific and medical advice to the contrary.
The economic impact of the pandemic, globally and within individual countries, has been utterly disproportionate. ‘The world’s 2,365 billionaires enjoyed a $4 trillion boost to their wealth during the first year of the pandemic, increasing their fortunes by 54%..’ even as a hunger crisis unfolded in the US. In that country, too, it has been calculated that between 30 and 40 million people may face the threat of eviction from their housing. Measures of post pandemic economic stimulation will fall far short of the desperate need that has been created by the crisis.
This article seeks to help make sense of these contradictions and put them in perspective, even in those countries who have been praised for their responses; imagine what an alternative, more rational and scientific response would look like, and what we need to do to create that system, or at a minimum, build the infrastructure needed to fight against these problems that will not be going away unless we do something about it.
The capitalist cycle
The tension between short term profit making, captured in the “open for business” or the “save the economy” slogans, and the need to ensure a certain level of social protection can only be understood alongside the drive for capital accumulation, aka the drive to ensure that profits continue to be made. This tension has resulted, in the great majority of countries, in cycles of partial lockdown measures taken too late followed by an early lifting in restrictions resulting in “waves” and spikes of high infection rates. Many have seen this pattern as a necessary compromise between the two sides, a view that rests on a dichotomy between the economy and health.
Closer inspection reveals that governments have no such dichotomy in mind, the response of those few exceptional countries who aimed for elimination was not due to a humanitarian inclination, but also due to economic concerns. These differences in response need to be seen as division and confusion in the ruling classes of the world on the question of how best to save the economy, not as a choice between the economy and the general health of the population. Some examples make it easier to see this as a continuum as opposed to a dichotomy.
The advocates for an “open economy” have a clear and simple case. In the US, then President Donald Trump tweeted that “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself” and the Lt. Governor of Texas suggested that he and other grandparents should be willing to die to save the american economy. In the UK, a journalist found a silver lining in the deaths caused by the pandemic as it might “prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents” thus leaving the state with better finances. When confronted for his statement, he refused to recant, doubling down and saying that “Any thinning out of those of prime working age is a much bigger supply shock than the same thing among elderly retirees”. The common thread between all of these arguments is the assertion that a closed economy also leads to unnecessary suffering and death. This concern manifested itself as protests against the perceived “tyranny” of lockdowns straddling all shades of covid denial, to expressions of humanitarian concern including warnings of a global famine if supply chains are not kept open.
It’s easy to dismiss the logic found in the “open the economy” camp and its proponents as being immoral or belonging to a death cult. Although both those descriptions would be accurate, there is truth to their argument. Under capitalism, our only means of survival (at least for the vast mass called the working class) is through selling our labour power, absent that possibility (or opportunity as many like to insist), and absent a solid and secure social welfare program, we are bound to starve. This fact was used by the “open the economy” camp not to create a critique of the conditions under which the majority labour to survive, but on the meager public health measures that were being proposed. This trick, combined with economic fear mongering about the cost of propping up welfare systems worked, and resulted in anti-lockdown mobilisations, many funded and organised by an array of conservative forces.
Of course, the hypocrisy within the “open the economy” camp is not found in their truthful presentation of wage slavery, but in the fact that they have been the main engineers of neoliberalism placing workers in precarious positions, risking their livelihood, health, and safety, and ensuring that social programs are diluted or removed well before the arrival of the pandemic. Their talking points on government spending also falls apart when we realise that it is corporations that benefited the most from monetary intervention and wage subsidy measures. It is clear that their interest lies not in the general welfare of workers but in ensuring that the circulation of goods and people continues uninterrupted allowing for the extraction of profits.
On the other hand, the few countries that aimed for elimination and those who aimed for mitigation were still doing so with economic purposes in mind. Those who opted for a mitigation strategy had to balance between profit losses due to lockdowns and the deficit incurred to insure that the circulation of goods and people could continue with as minimum interruption as possible. They did this by paying unemployment benefits or subsidising salaries, or taking what are usually seen as left wing decisions such as nationalising railways and hospitals, as was done in the UK and Spain respectively.
Although these steps can be seen as more humanitarian, they predominantly benefited businesses and not workers who were valorised as essential and indispensable but continued to face work intensification and forced to work in unsafe conditions. The Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) is a case in point. Its purported aim of keeping jobs alive has been called into question, with major companies that would have had no difficulty paying their wage bill lining up for the supply of public money. Provision for working class people, suddenly left without wages, has been far less adequate. Workers who might be sick with COVID have had to continue working, putting themselves and others at risk, for lack of paid sick days.
It was businesses and property owners who received breaks on mortgages and business support. Workers were still expected to use any government pay out to cover their rent. Industries that would have crashed were saved by being bought out. Furlough schemes, such as the one rolled out in the UK, meant to protect employees, unevenly benefited employers who abused the system. All of these steps were presented as necessary to future economic recovery and growth in the face of an inescapable public health crisis, not as “the right thing to do” for the public at large. As things begin to improve in countries with vaccine rollout, employers are moving to attack any safety nets put in place for the pandemic to resume their exploitative practices.
The final set of cases are those countries that enacted severe forms of lockdown in an attempt to eliminate the virus. Of these cases, China can be seen as the most extreme. The payback for these “public health measures” is that China was the only G20 country able to maintain positive GDP growth during the pandemic. Again, China did not do this because of its benevolent attitude towards its own people, but because of an understanding that the circulation of goods and services take place in a global competitive context. China, and other countries, were able to benefit from the internal political to-and-froing in other countries to further their economic interests in the same way that those who argue for “opening the economy” sought to protect theirs. China was not the only body to try and cash in on the pandemic and was not the only actor taking global competition into account. The EU actively opposed lifting vaccine patents as it would have the undesirable outcome of benefiting their geopolitical rivals China or Russia, who have the capacity to produce vaccines for other conditions using new mRNA technology.
There is no doubt that, from the perspective of the preservation of life, some of the above options are better than the others. This makes the difference between government responses an enticing one to fixate on, but there are several issues with fixating on government responses alone. First, all these responses are driven by the logic of capitalism and meant to either ensure the uninterrupted circulation of goods and people or the ability to resume this circulation in the shortest amount of time possible. By limiting our critique of government responses to this continuum, we lose the opportunity to present alternative responses that go beyond the logic of capitalism.
Second, none of these government responses actually tackle the root causes of the pandemic and its rapid transmission across boundaries. The encroachment on nature, deforestation, and the resultant increased contact between humans and wildlife pathogens has been virtually absent from the conversation outside of racist dog whistles around the dangers of Chinese “wet markets”. The need for a concerted global response to the pandemic is also absent. This even as the virus continues to mutate potentially undermining the vaccine efforts in imperialist countries.
Finally, by fetishizing state actions, even apparently positive ones such as the nationalisation of key public sectors, we ignore the dangers of state involvement coming out of the crisis. Many of these steps have been presented as a return to Keynesianism where increased government spending is used to stimulate the economy thus allowing governments to recoup losses experienced during the pandemic. However, the global post-war context which allowed for the successful implementation of Keynesian economic policy is no longer there. What current economic interventionist policies suggest then is not a return to Keynesianism, but rather an acknowledgment that the neoliberal order that sustained the global capitalist system pre-pandemic will not be enough to recover economic losses. Something else, something more extreme, needs to be implemented.
Observers are correct in their identification of a dichotomy between “the economy” and general human welfare, but this dichotomy is not one the ruling classes are concerned with. For them, the question is and always will be how can we best ensure the continuous circulation and growth of goods and labour? To visualise an alternative response to the pandemic we need to reach beyond the logic of capitalism.
Beyond dichotomy, beyond capitalism
Going beyond capitalism means building a system of production and distribution that is rational and democratic. Throughout the pandemic, the concept of essential workers and essential work gained extreme prominence, and although it provides a good premise from which to launch a discussion on what a post-capitalist society would look like, or how it would deal with a pandemic, it deserves some criticism.
Under current conditions, the concept lacked a concrete definition. Government used this malleability to their advantage either to force certain workers back to work, even in unsafe conditions, or to empower employers to decide what is or isn’t essential. Meat processing and packing plants provide the perfect example of this. Owners of meat plants refused to reduce output or adjust the speed of production lines to reduce the risk of virus spread. This is an industry that is already noted for over production and its negative impact on the environment. Fulfilment and distribution centers also suffered similar outbreaks with output expectations for employees remaining unchanged. Companies such as Amazon have gone so far as to ensure that they do not pay for time taken by workers to undergo mandatory Covid screening, even though this is for the benefit of the public at large and arguably for the company itself.
The term “essential worker” was quickly valorised by governments and companies around the world. Essential workers were provided with titles such as hero’s, in the UK a tradition of “clap for carers” was established to show appreciation for medical staff. The Prime Minister used the opportunity as a photo op, this even though his government has been responsible for underfunding the UKs public health system leaving it woefully unprepared for the pandemic with shortages of things as simple as PPE. The large correlation between essential workers and low-paid workers, combined with the lack of safety measures taken by companies, has meant that many workers feel that they would be more accurately classified as expendable instead of essential.
It’s also telling that governments chose to limit the use of the concept of essential-ity to labour and not extend it to other extractive fields of the economy such as rent. Although many governments placed a moratorium on evictions, the payment of rent was maintained as “essential” even with record unemployment rates. With covid restrictions now easing, fears of an “evictions wave” are spreading in many countries. This will no doubt contribute to greater levels of homelesness and suffering and a wave of new people joining the already skyrocketing dependence on foodbanks.
It’s clear that “essential-ity” provided nothing but a cover for governments to ensure the cycle of extraction continues in key industries while continuing to protect private property. A concept meant to safeguard the health of workers just provided excuses for exploitation for the lowest paid to be continued while those in office jobs were able to safely shelter. This is not to say that those who were able to shelter are free from being exploited and suffering. The closure of schools saw additional responsibilities thrown onto parents who also had to ensure their work went uninterrupted. Working from home came with the implicit assumption that everyone has the infrastructure necessary to do work from home such as a stable internet connection or an office from which to work uninterruptedly. The costs of making any arrangement to enable working from home fell to workers themselves.
To save the concept of essential-ity, what is considered essential work and who is considered an essential worker must have the direct input of workers. Absent any democratic decisions of what constitutes essential-ity, the concept cannot but remain hollow and subject to the pressures of capitalism even under such dire conditions such as a global pandemic. Only when workers are able to decide acceptable levels of risk and can determine how this work should be carried out in a way to limit risk can the term really mean anything. More than that, it is workers who should be able to determine how much work is essential as it relates to the needs of society.
Going back to the meat processing plant example, workers in a meat plant would be able to determine how many workers are actually required in the plant, what safety measures need to be taken, and what output is necessary i.e. essential for the continuous wellbeing of all. To be able to do the latter, however, requires a major break from the capitalist framework. Where a meat processing plant is currently run to maximise profit for the owners, establish economies of scale leading to the overproduction mentioned above, a plant run for the benefit of all will require a rational economy that starts from the needs of a population as opposed to the production goals needed to ensure that competitors are suppressed in a competitive capitalist system.
The only way such a rational, that is to say, planned, economy can be established is by destroying the base unit on which market competition is built, private property. It is the ownership of the means of production by private individuals and monopoly shareholders that is at the root of the wage system which makes the absurd and inhumane statements of the “open the economy” club, and indeed all other economy based responses to the pandemic, logical and coherent. Private ownership and the competition that stems from it is not only at the root of the exploitation we have witnessed during the pandemic, but all exploitation. Private competition leads to a scramble to reduce costs by eroding workers rights, finding cheap sources of raw material, or achieving economies of scale. This while also attempting to secure an ever expanding market for products. It reduces human interactions to that of interaction between commodities to a level where the rhetoric of the “open the economy” club can find resonance with many. The contradictions of this competition were heightened by the pandemic, but it also results in its own economic breakdowns and crises generating suffering even at the best of times. This private ownership extends to intangible things such as Intellectual Property and Patents which, during the pandemic, have led to the rise of vaccine apartheid, a term used by the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO).
Absent this competition, a rational economy built on the needs of individuals would be able to avoid or rectify many of the root causes of the pandemic which have been ignored in all responses. The deforestation which is leading to the increased contact between humans and wildlife pathogens is itself a result of this global competition which requires cheaper and greater production at the expense of the environment that is meant to sustain us.
Getting to a stage where workers can make meaningful and democratic decisions about their work and build a rational economy requires a relentless fight against the forces of entrenched capitalism. This fight cannot be waged within the confines of borders, as the response to the pandemic has been studied. It must be international, reflecting the mutual dependence of workers and their interconnectivity as shown so clearly by this pandemic. If we do not take this fight on, we risk leaving the door open for an intensification of this competition which is now seeing increased state intervention.
How to fight or (What comes next)
Sadly, the notion that the pandemic will soon be a thing of the past, may be premature. Even in those countries where the vaccination of the population is well advanced, the threat of variant strains make the situation uncertain. The failure to extend meaningful efforts to immunize populations to the poor countries of the earth, creates the possibility that new strains may emerge that, in addition to the horrors they will inflict in those countries, will spread to rich nations as well. In such a situation, it is quite possible that vaccines will not be effective against such variants.
Even if we take an optimistic view of the prospects of containing the spread of COVID-19 in the near future, it is clear that no return to a pre-pandemic ‘normal’ is possible. This global outbreak is simply ‘the one that got away’ and the world remains at risk of further pandemics in the years ahead. Indeed, we have entered the ‘era of pandemics,’ linked to a broader threat of ‘ecological breakdown.’ Capitalism, with its driving motivation of short term profit making, is a system at odds with the kind of just and rational responses this global crisis calls for.
As the pandemic has spread, we have seen the development of a veritable death cult of coronavirus denial, in which the far right has been extremely influential. However, high profile protests by those who see the pandemic as a hoax or a conspiracy are but a glimpse into what we will soon need to contend with. It would be possible to assemble an impressive international list of business and political leaders who chose to disregard scientific and medical evidence and pursue an ‘open for business’ approach in the face of the pandemic. Boris Johnson’s infamous comment that he would “let the bodies pile high in their thousands”, rather than lockdown the UK economy for a third time, is only a particularly crass expression of this trend. We live under a social and economic system that cannot but put profits ahead of human life.
In this period, marked as it is by hardship and uncertainty, there is enormous concern about the route that governments will take over the next few years. In that regard, a consensus on the way forward doesn’t yet exist among the ruling class. Plenty of examples can be found of a readiness to continue with the austerity agenda that was in full swing before the present crisis emerged. In Ontario, the provincial government seems ready to continue with deep cuts to healthcare and education systems. In the UK, the government wants to pass anti-protest legislation to suppress the mobilisation of minorities, environmental activists, and labour unions in an attempt to gain an upper hand over further social and economic dislocation.
On the other hand, there are those among the grandees of global capitalism who accept the reality that neoliberalism is in crisis and who look to something closer to an earlier Keynesian approach. Though it may be overstated for public consumption, the IMF is one such powerful body. The Biden administration in the US is playing a leading role in the shift towards economic stimulation, infrastructure restoration and increased emphasis on social provision. While the jarring impacts of the pandemic and the deeper economic problems have led to increased readiness on the part of governments to set aside neoliberal orthodoxy, it would be wrong to compare the present situation to that which followed the Second World War. At that time, the basis existed for an extended period of economic boom, with rising working class living standards and high levels of profit. That is certainly not the situation in 2021.
Whether global capitalism tries to recover from the pandemic shock with continued austerity or an uncertain experiment with forms of renewed economic stimulation unfolds, we may be sure that the measures that are taken will run counter to the interests of working class people and the needs of poor countries. There will be no adequate or lasting solutions to the economic crises and developing ecological catastrophe that marks the era of pandemics. Popular struggles will have to be taken up and movements built that can fight for real alternatives.
The limited and inadequate action taken by governments to protect people from the hardship that resulted throughout the pandemic led to some important grassroots ‘solidarity for survival’ organizing in response to the harsh reality of social abandonment. In Toronto, with the threat of mass evictions hanging over the heads of tenants who had fallen into rental arrears, some very tenacious and effective fight backs have occurred. Similarly, a brutal drive to evict the encampments that homeless people have set up in order to survive during the pandemic, has been met with some determined resistance. We have also seen efforts to bring together demands for adequate measures to contain the spread of the virus with the effort to ensure governments meet the needs of people facing hardship because of economic dislocation.
The crisis of neoliberalism that emerged with the financial crisis and Great Depression, in 2007–09, had already led to some powerful social upsurges, even before the onset of COVID-19. We saw an international wave of protests in 2019 that had a powerful impact. Early the following year, Canada was shaken by a country wide movement of Indigenous led solidarity that was mobilized to support the resistance of the Wet’suwet’en People to an attempt to drive a pipeline through their traditional territory.
Even in the midst of the global health crisis that the spread of the virus has brought with it, it has become clear that the quest for effective forms of social resistance has not been curtailed. Even with the pandemic raging, we have seen huge and resilient protest movements taking to the streets, along with other forms of fight back. Those placed in harm’s way, as ‘essential workers,’ have taken strike action in the US. The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, led to struggle for Black Lives on the streets of the US, spreading to other countries, that developed on an historic scale.
Also during this period, we have seen farmers in India take up a massive struggle against the neoliberal order that has shaken the Modi government and sent shock waves across the world. At the beginning of this year, the intense hardship caused by pandemic lockdowns led to a youth led upsurge of resistance in Tunisia. A plan to impose the burden of the crisis on poor and Indigenous people in Colombia sparked a general strike and mass protests. An attempt to restrict the right to protest has resulted in demonstrations across Britain and a movement to ‘kill the bill.’ Recent weeks have produced a united Palestinian resistance of enormous importance and have seen an enormous wave of international solidarity with their struggle.
Clearly, we are not living at a time when people lack the will to resist and fight for something better. The challenge is, however, to find the methods of struggle and forms of organization that can offer a sustained and effective means of resisting and fighting for real alternatives. All of the struggles considered here have emerged in response to different aspects of a general crisis of the capitalist system. Our movements certainly need to respond to the particular challenges and attacks that are produced by that crisis but the ways in which they intersect needs to be fully understood. Episodic social upsurges that challenge a given issue and then subside need to be developed into a much more sustained, unified, and politically conscious form. In this way, we must begin to go from largely defensive fights towards the building of a united offensive that links every struggle that is taken up to the goal of social transformation. This will require clear political perspectives and forms of democratic organization capable of sustained and united struggles.
Capitalism has shown itself to be the perfect system for generating pandemics on a global scale, threatening us with much greater ecological disaster. The conclusion to be drawn from the spread of COVID-19 across the world, is that, in this era of pandemics, adequate measures to preserve public health and social well being will not come from those with economic and political power. Capitalism is simply at odds with the needs of people and incapable of creating a sustainable relationship with the planet we live on. We, as working class people will have to fight and win the measures we need, and build a rational and just society that is based on the needs of the mass of people and not the enrichment of the few. To do so we must embrace the struggle, engage with and help build the organisations and movements needed, and participate and expand on the forms of collective and direct action that have already proved to be effective.