One Question
COVID-19 and Capitalism

One Question
COVID-19 and Capitalism

One Question is a regular series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This time, in the midst of economic and healthcare crises triggered by coronavirus, we ask:

How has the COVID-19 pandemic exposed inherent flaws in the capitalist system?

With responses from: Cinzia Arruzza; Neel Ahuja; Neil Faulkner; Seiji Yamada; Helen Yaffe; Michael Roberts; Sandro Mezzadra; Lindsey German; Dario Azzellini; Jodi Dean.

COVID-19

Cinzia Arruzza

Associate Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research and one of the national organisers of the 2017 and 2018 International Women’s Strike in the United States. She is author of Dangerous Liaisons: The Marriages and Divorces of Marxism and Feminism (Merlin Press, 2013) and A Wolf in the City: Tyranny and the Tyrant in Plato’s Republic (Oxford University Press, 2018), and co-author (with Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser) of Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto (Verso 2019).

When Western governments started taking into consideration harsh measures such as lockdowns and shelters in place, many on the Left focused on the disruptions and suspension of individual freedoms such measures would entail, fearing an authoritarian turn. While we must be cautious and think about what kind of long-term consequences these policies may have (such as further push towards online education and work from home in regular times), we should also be careful about not misinterpreting the current situation and the contradictions among interests currently at play.

As a matter of fact, the present crisis is exposing the fundamental contradiction between life-making and Capitalism and it should be analysed in these terms.

Governments have been extremely slow in putting in place suppression measures and are still particularly reticent about stopping non-essential production. Having to mediate between concerns about public health, the survival of healthcare systems, and limiting as much as possible the number of casualties, on the one hand, and catering to the interests of powerful capitalist corporations and their organisations, on the other, governments have regularly tended to privilege the latter.

Two prominent examples are the Italian government which, in addition to consistently shifting the blame onto individual behaviours, announced a stop to non-essential production that was a mere mockery (wallpaper production, to give an example, was included in the list of essential productive activities), triggering a wave of wildcat and legal strikes; and obviously Donald Trump, who recently announced that lockdowns will be over at Easter, that is, when experts predict an acceleration of the pace of contagion in the United States. Some GOP politicians, such as the Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, have even gone so far as to make explicit that some lives are dispensable when it comes to saving ‘the economy’.

This is the current, crucial, frontline of struggle today. Capitalist interests and the financial market would like to make millions of lives dispensable in the name of continuing to grow the economy; workers are fighting back, organising spontaneous work stoppages, using mass sickouts, calling for legal strikes, and demanding protections and rigid social distancing rules in essential workplaces that cannot be shut down.

The stories of these rebellions against being literally worked to death have rarely made it to the front pages of mainstream media, yet, it is this refusal to work that can manage to tip the balance in determining how the current crisis will be handled: whether it will be a moment of reckoning with the profound harms caused by neoliberalism or whether neoliberal capital’s logic will once again put us at work until we die.

Neel Ahuja

Core faculty member in the Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Program at the University of California-Santa Cruz, where he is Associate Professor of Feminist Studies and a member of the steering committee of the Center for Racial Justice. Neel is the author of Bioinsecurities: Disease Interventions, Empire, and the Government of Species (Duke University, 2016) and the upcoming book Planetary Specters: Race, Migration, and Climate Change in the Twenty-First Century.

There are several ways that we can begin to discuss how the current form of the capitalist system has contributed to making the COVID-19 crisis. Two widely discussed key features of the viral ecology are: (1) the expansion of monoculture agricultural economies, creating ripe ecological conditions for zoonotic disease emergence, and (2) the dependency of the mortality rate of the virus on hospital capacity, causing geographic variance in COVID-19’s capacity to produce mass premature death. This second problem has been exacerbated in countries that have exercised state-led neoliberal contraction in the health sector.

Other features of the systemic nature of the COVID-19 crisis have to do with supply chains, labour migrations, and transnational interdependencies. One key change that has occurred in China between the two coronavirus pandemics (SARS-1, 2002-3; SARS-2/COVID-19, 2019-20) is an intensification of rural-to-urban migration, coincident with its consolidation as the world hub for flexible manufacturing and component sourcing.

Although such migration had begun earlier, the massive scale of the transition in the last two decades has been staggering, and an estimated 670 million people now live in China’s urban centres. The massifying ecological integration accompanying this shift ensures there is more movement across spatial divisions separating denser ecologies from monocultures, creating new zoonotic potentials. Whereas SARS-1 took root in the manufacturing centre of Guangdong, SARS-2 emerged in the context of rapid industrial development of Hubei.

It is also necessary to consider how the dependency of international markets, including the US consumer market and the rapidly growing Chinese market, on these population movements and urbanisation and industrialisation dynamics create openings for viral migration. Of course, much depends on the local epidemiology, so careful analysis of the political economies and political ecologies of viral emergence is crucial.

Such concerns bump up against a geopolitical context in which political elites in China, the US, and elsewhere are managing the crisis through frenetic oscillation between public nationalism and racism and behind-the-scenes acknowledgement that the structures that caused the crisis will have to be relied on to manage it. Neither US invocations of the ‘Chinese virus’ nor Chinese state conspiracy theories about a US military plot can abjure the deep mutual dependencies between these two state apparatuses. N95 masks in the US will be imported from China; the US will likely continue to serve as both a key Chinese export market and finance sink.

Nonetheless, in the US the racial panic around the virus will have long-lasting effects. Against more careful public health advice, a generation of children will grow up learning that touching any public surface carries the risk of death. This will have grave consequences for the embodied potential of social solidarity in the years to come, creating a key obstacle to radical transformation from this crisis moment.

In my book Bioinsecurities, I wrote about this sense of dread life, a channelling of the intimate sensation of a racialised fear of disease into new state capacities for remaking the body and the body politic. Whether autonomous forces of resistance can scale up the mutuality, sociality, and community that is required to rebuild health systems and ecologies will depend to some extent on whether we can balance careful attention to accurate information on public health with careful planning of solidarity and infrastructure at the massive scales required.

Neil Faulkner

Historian, archaeologist, and political thinker. Author of numerous books, including A People’s History of the Russian Revolution (Pluto, 2017), A Radical History of the World (Pluto, 2018) and Creeping Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It (Public Reading Rooms, 2019).

I don’t even agree with the question, because if you say that a system is ‘flawed’, you imply that it might be corrected. It is much worse than that: the system is inherently destructive of human wellbeing and ecological sustainability. Every aspect of the coronavirus crisis confirms this.

The outbreak is rooted in the filthy practices of capitalist agribusiness, where they are commodifying wild animals, creating vast breeding complexes, dumping waste products any old where, and doing this alongside teeming slum cities where there is minimal sanitation and public-health provision. This is how they create new viruses and how we get animal to human transmission. Experts have been predicting a global pandemic for a quarter of a century.

Then, when there’s an outbreak, we get state and corporate cover-up. This is not just with the Chinese Stalinist dictatorship, where they incarcerate whistleblowers and there is a culture of silence and submission at all levels of an authoritarian bureaucracy. It happens all over the world – every capitalist state and every capitalist corporation has a default position of cover-up until it is too late.

Now that we have a global pandemic, what else do we find? That 40 years of neoliberal attacks on public-health and social-care provision – all in the interests of profit – have left society defenceless. So there aren’t enough critical-care beds, there aren’t enough ventilators, there isn’t enough protective clothing, there aren’t the testing kits, there aren’t enough doctors and nurses – a litany of shortage due to deliberate neglect and rundown.

Presiding over this in Britain is the Johnson/Cummings regime – a far-right administration run in the interests of big business. The priorities are: social control, blaming someone else, and protecting private property and profit. So they did nothing for a month until the pandemic was out of control. Then, under pressure, they did too little, too late. Instead of the massive mobilisation of action and resources from below that we need, they continue to pander to the rich. Here’s just one example of that. They are paying private hospitals £2 million a day to use ‘their’ facilities – instead of simply requisitioning the lot and immediately placing them under the control of the health workers.

Capitalism has created coronavirus, spread it around the world, covered up its seriousness, and is now hamstringing efforts to achieve a co-ordinated, mass, popular response. And don’t get me started on Big Pharma and the whole issue of patents and profits as the world’s scientists struggle to find a vaccine.

Seiji Yamada

MD, MPH. A native of Hiroshima, he is now a family physician practicing and teaching in Hawaii.

The unrelenting encroachment into nature of the global capitalist economic system has led to the climate catastrophe, rising sea levels, ecological collapse, deforestation, water and air pollution, and mass species extinction. SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 disease, emerged in this context.

The starting point of the outbreak, Wuhan, is not even among China’s five largest cities. But as an industrial city with a large migrant and student population, its location as the transportation hub of China served to take the virus to the rest of China and the rest of the world. The globalised market economy is dependent on the free flow of capital and goods. China, with its cheap labour and lax environmental standards, is its workshop.

As the coronavirus dispersed around the globe, market forces helped it spread. In the US, where 32 million workers (a quarter of the private sector workforce) have no paid sick leave, food service workers and nursing assistants reasoned that if they took time off from work, they would have trouble paying for rent, utilities, or food. When the lockdown was imposed, servers found themselves out of a job, with no safety net to break their fall.

In January, when South Korea had its first case of coronavirus, its government asked its corporate sector to mass-produce test kits. But US corporations were not given an incentive to do the same. During the 2002-2003 (original) SARS outbreak, pharmaceutical corporations began to develop drugs against that virus, but stopped when the epidemic was brought under control.

For Big Pharma, there is little incentive to develop antimicrobials that bring about a cure in a week or two. Blockbuster drugs are cholesterol, cardiovascular, or psychiatric medications that drug reps convince docs to place patients on for life.

Under capitalist healthcare, an uninsured patient (without even being admitted to the hospital) was billed $34,927.43 – an incentive not to access healthcare and try to ride it out at home. If you were safely covered with employer-based insurance, your average out-of-pocket costs would still be over $1300.

While the US spends a larger proportion of its GDP on health than any other developed nation, much of it goes to Big Pharma, the insurance industry, and layers upon layers of administrators who pride themselves on their lean operations (except for their salaries, of course) and just-in-time-delivery. The US thus has little surge capacity to respond to the tsunami of critically ill coronavirus victims.

When the casinos of Wall Street went broke, they received a bipartisan bailout by the taxpayers. When the numbers of uninsured in America became a national disgrace, the solution was to subsidise premiums to enrol more people with private insurance. This time around, will the government subsidise the CEO salaries of petroleum and travel industry magnates, or will it help the people survive?

Helen Yaffe

Lecturer in Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow, specialising in Cuban and Latin American development. Her new book We Are Cuba! How a Revolutionary People Have Survived in a Post-Soviet World has just been published by Yale University Press. She is also the author of Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution (Palgrave 2009) and co-author with Gavin Brown of Youth Activism and Solidarity: the Non-Stop Picket against Apartheid (Routledge, 2017).

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, governments in advanced capitalist countries have adopted emergency powers giving them authority to direct production and distribution, restrict individual liberties and mobilise and channel national resources. These measures have been introduced as ‘a last resort’ in societies where neoliberalism has set deep economic and ideological roots. For decades we have been told that only the free market ensures efficiency. Now this global health crisis brings the very concept into question.

Profit-seeking markets cannot mobilise the medical resources required to save lives, protect vital and already-stretched public health services, stop economic collapse leaving millions homeless and destitute, safeguard production and distribution chains, or mandate changes in social behaviour. The state must take over or face catastrophe. In fact, capitalist governments have frequently adopted state management to save the capitalist system from crises: from wartime planning to the huge bank bailouts in 2008 that transferred trillions of public money to private banks.

So, let’s start from the premise that the state can achieve efficient outcomes, measured by societal need, not private profit. The Cuban response to COVID-19 illustrates this possibility; a remarkable achievement for a small, Caribbean island, underdeveloped by centuries of colonialism and imperialism, and subject to punitive, extra-territorial sanctions by the United States for 60 years.

After the Revolution of 1959, the Cuban state developed a free, universal healthcare system, providing more doctors per person than any other country. This is facilitated by free, universal access to education at all levels. The benefits are distributed globally; some 400,000 Cuban medical professionals have worked overseas in six decades, mainly in poor countries, providing healthcare that is free at the point of delivery.

Nearly 70% of the medicines consumed in Cuba are produced domestically by their entirely state-owned pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry. Free from private interests and financial speculation, it is integrated with the public healthcare system. ‘Our shareholders are all 11 million Cubans!’, Agustín Lage Dávila, Director for the Centre for Molecular Immunology replied to the head of a multinational pharmaceutical company who talked about how many investors they had.

Cuba is recognised globally both for its infectious disease controls and disaster risk reduction, usually in response to climate-related and natural disasters. The island’s ability to mobilise resources to protect human life is outstanding. These experiences are being harnessed to combat COVID-19. The Cuban healthcare system seeks prevention over cure, with a network of family doctors who live among their patients and are responsible for community health. Right now, healthcare personnel are conducting door to door health checks, testing, contact tracing, quarantining. This is accompanied by public education and information campaigns.

Cuban specialists are already in 37 countries providing expertise for fighting the pandemic, including in Italy. When a cruise ship with some 600 mostly British passengers had a handful of COVID-19 cases and was denied permission to dock in the US and elsewhere, Cuba let them in and assisted their transfer onto flights home. In exposing the character of capitalist system, the Coronavirus pandemic makes the case for alternative welfare-based development strategies.

Michael Roberts

Marxist economist who has worked in the City of London for over 30 years. His books include: The Long Depression (Haymarket, 2016), Marx 200: A review of Marx’s economics 200 years after his birth (Lulu 2018) and World in Crisis: A Global Analysis of Marx’s Law of Profitability (Haymarket 2018), co-edited with Guglielmo Carchedi. He blogs at thenextrecession.wordpress.com.

First, COVID-19 is not an ‘act of God’ or the result of the capricious and unpredictable power or nature. COVID-19 is not a ‘black swan’ event that came out of the blue. Virulent pandemics are becoming more frequent and dangerous because of capitalism’s drive for profit. The industrialising of agriculture; the destruction of habitats of wild animals previously remote from humans; and the capture and eating of these animals; has brought pathogens and viruses that have been in animals for thousands of years close to human hosts.

COVID-19 jumped from animals to humans, who have no immunity, like the 16th century Conquistadors who brought disease to native Americans and decimated 90% of them. Capitalism’s drive for profit without any regard for the environment and the balance of nature will lead to more pandemics.

Second, the world economy was already slowing down towards a new slump before COVID-19 hit. The pandemic was a trigger that exposed the underlying flaws in the capitalist mode of production. Production, investment and employment under capitalism undergo recurring crises that lead to periodic slumps which destroy the livelihoods (and lives) of billions.

The apologists of capital always argue that capitalism is the best possible system of social organisation, and that with clever macro policies, improvements in living conditions and ‘wealth’ can be achieved in a harmonious way. COVID-19 has (again) proved that proposition wrong, just as the global financial crash in 2008 did.

Inequality of wealth and income, both between the Global North and South, and within countries, has increased to new highs in the 21st century. There are still nearly 4bn people below what can be reasonably considered the poverty line. Unplanned and uncontrolled industrialisation and fossil fuel production are increasing ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions to levels that threaten extreme weather, the destruction of nature and even possible human extinction.

This is all the result of the capitalist mode of production for profit through the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, rather than a planned world economy based on cooperative and common ownership of the means of production that could meet the needs of humans in harmony with nature.

COVID-19 is really nature fighting back against capitalism. But the owners of the means of production, who employ the rest of us as they see fit, will suffer the least from the pandemic.

Sandro Mezzadra

Associate Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bologna. He is currently part of the ‘Mediterranea’ project, whose publications include: In the Marxian Workshops: Producing Subjects (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018). He is also author, with Brett Neilson, of Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor (Duke University, 2013) and The Politics of Operations: Excavating Contemporary Capitalism (Duke University, 2019).

Translated by Yari Lanci

Writing from Italy such a question is even more compelling. The economic effects of Coronavirus are indeed unprecedented. For the first time in decades, a crisis whose origin lies in the ‘real economy’ has violently hit global financial markets, resulting in unparalleled losses. With regard to global capitalism, a metaphor of ‘obstruction’ seems to be most apt in illustrating the present situation.

As in a mirror, this crisis reflects the inverted image of contemporary capitalism, whose circuits of valorisation and accumulation depend on the tireless movement of capital, commodities, and people. Supply chains, the links that constitute the logistic and infrastructural skeleton of capitalist globalisation, today appear to be blocked to a considerable extent. Stock market prices – which for quite some time have steered the extension of supply chains and their connected web of corridors, special zones, and hubs – are being forced to register such a blockage.

It is not wrong to say that the current pandemic has hit a point of no return in the development of global capitalism. I am in no way indulging in ‘crashing’ or apocalyptic fantasies. Capitalism will certainly continue to exist after Coronavirus, but it will be profoundly different to the version we have seen in the recent past – though it was already displaying some radical changes stemming from the financial crisis of 2007-2008. I think one should start from this, in order to understand what is happening in Italy. At the moment, Italy is a ‘laboratory’, although in fairly different terms than it was in the not so distant past.

At the risk of simplification, it could be said that there are two well-defined alternatives taking shape in response to the crisis. On the one hand, there is the ‘Malthusian’ response – essentially inspired by social Darwinism – which finds its example in the Johnson-Trump-Bolsonaro axis. On the other hand, an alternative response is emerging that aims at the requalification of the public health system as the fundamental instrument in order to tackle the current crisis – here, very different examples are provided by China, South Korea, and Italy.

In the first case, thousands of deaths among the population are seen as a form of natural selection; in the second, for reasons that are in large part contingent, the issue seems to be that ‘society must be defended’, with varying degrees of authoritarianism and social control.

It seems to me that right now, globally, there is a conflict under way that will have critical consequences not only for capitalism’s future but also – which is the same thing after all – our own lives. This struggle affects all countries, including the ones whose governments endorse ‘Malthusian’ solutions. More generally, the management of Coronavirus appears as a crucial field of conflict. Only the intensification of social struggles, now and in the following months, can give way to spaces of democracy and ‘care’ of the common. This applies to Italy no less than to the United States.

Lindsey German

Socialist writer and campaigner. Convenor of the Stop the War Coalition. Teaches work, employment and equality at the University of Hertfordshire.

The Coronavirus pandemic is the biggest crisis most of us have faced in our lifetimes. It is a threat which exposes that the way in which capitalist society is organised is not fit for protecting lives, but for maintaining profit.

Already the pandemic has demonstrated some of the best and the worst of existing society. Worst includes the response of the British government, which initially glibly announced that lots of our loved ones would die because the virus would be allowed to spread in order for us to develop ‘herd immunity’. While retreating publicly from that, it has dragged its feet over the closure of schools, and is refusing to test NHS staff, let alone the rest of the population.

Worst also includes the profiteering endemic when faced with shortages, the wilful underfunding of health systems which mean far more will die than would otherwise have been the case, and the employment practices which effectively make insecure workers choose between themselves and others staying free of infection, or paying for rent and food.

Among the best responses has been the selfless hard work of healthcare professionals, the local community networks springing up to help those ill or self-isolating, the neighbours, friends and families who offer to help, the workers who have taken action to ensure their own safety and those of others, the delivery drivers, catering workers and supermarket staff who have worked long hours.

It is one of the most basic human characteristics that we work and cooperate with one another. One of the main barriers to this happening is not individual greed or selfishness but the whole system based on private profit and the market, which puts a price on everything, and requires that we work to increase that profit, not for the good of humanity.

Capitalism is not delivering over this crisis, just as it doesn’t deliver over inequality, or climate change, or any of the other major issues facing humanity. We are at a turning point, and millions of people across the world will begin to see the fundamental flaws in a system which has brought us to this. When it is over, we cannot allow it to return to its old ways. Instead we have to organise to create a new system based on production for need, not profit, which can deal with the challenges facing humanity. The choices of socialism or barbarism are as stark as they have ever been.

Dario Azzellini

Visiting Scholar at the Latin American Studies Program, Cornell University (Ithaca). Recent publications include The Class Strikes Back: Self-Organised Workers’ Struggles in the Twenty-First Century (Brill/Haymarket, 2018) with Michael G. Kraft. More information: www.azzellini.net.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only exposed inherent flaws in the capitalist system, it is clearly showing that the question is capitalism or life.

In the first place, the food system and industrial agriculture are helping to unleash new diseases. The increasing global inequality due to neoliberal capitalism (but also inherent to capitalism in general) promotes the spread of the virus and condemns to death poor people generally and especially people in the global South. The pressure of companies to keep any production going has contributed to the further spread of the virus through workplaces and the (often insufficient) public transport systems people use to get to work.

The death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic is not natural, it is due to the cuts in health care systems and health care facilities over the past two decades, that left many countries with insufficient health care infrastructure. Doctors, medical staff and hospitals cannot cope with the increased need for medical attention.

The question of capitalism or life does not stop there. We have to add the insane and unjustified costs of health care equipment, test kits, medicine etc., and the insanity of patents that makes labs and researchers in the pharma industry compete with each other instead of collaborating in the search for cures and vaccines.

In Italy a group of volunteers started to 3D print valves for life-saving coronavirus treatments the supplier was not able to deliver in time. The original valve costs about US$ 11,000, the 3D replica US$1. The valve manufacturer not only refused to hand out the blueprints, it also threatened to sue for patent infringement. The volunteers produced the valves anyway and they are saving lives. This is Italy, one of the richest countries in the world. Now think about the global South.

Nevertheless, the pandemic is also clearly showing who is doing the really relevant work for society, and it’s not the bankers and managers. We can see that the market is not able to solve anything and that it is once again society that has to bail out capitalist companies. We can also observe how industrial conversion is apparently no problem if car manufacturers such as Volkswagen, FIAT-Chrysler, Rolls-Royce and Jaguar can suddenly switch to the production of ventilators and sophisticated medical equipment.

We have to keep all that in mind and make a decision: capitalism or life.

Jodi Dean

Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She is the author or editor of thirteen books, including The Communist Horizon (Verso, 2012), Crowds and Party (Verso, 2016), and Comrade (Verso, 2019).

I’ve been thinking about COVID-19 time.

We already know that the time of capital, of the self-valorisation of value, is futural, anticipatory, always oriented to not now but later. This is what drives intensifications of production – the speed up and automation, the push to get more out of workers to generate the more of whatever might lead to more profit in the future. The same with investment: forecasting what will happen is what generates bets now; they are always bets on a future.

Capitalist time is out of joint with the time of the virus. How? Tests for the virus look backward: did infection happen? What was the cause of the sickness one presents? It’s why in the US in particular we are playing catch up. Capitalists didn’t see profit in anticipating the epidemic – ‘too many’ ventilators and empty beds are but heaps of dead capital. We can only know where the virus was, make guesses about how it travelled.

The time of life with COVID-19 is asynchronous, fragmented, dissonant. The rhythms of our lives have been disrupted – school, train, work, drinks, home or whatever familiar combinations gave our life its specific punctuation. Private time appears in its excesses: too much or too little, utterly alone or overbearingly together.

At the same time, too much time becomes absorbed in screens. Every meeting, every communication – work, entertainment, connection, boredom – has the same interface whether we want it or not. Like the PBS show for tweens said in the seventies ‘c’mon and zoom-zoom-zooma-zoom.’

Working from home makes work endless, a new elongation of the workday enabled not just by the technology but by the elimination of specific sites for work. It’s not a snow day and the demands just keep coming.

Capitalist time is impatient. No rest (and they never learn this means no recovery). No time to live, or to try to save lives. No time to wait out the epidemic, protect the frontline medical workers, develop a vaccine and save some lives. For us there’s no time to waste. For capitalists it’s wasted time.

And with the tantrums and temper of a child incapable of waiting, of accepting the imperative of constraint now for the sake of a future good, the president and his class – he’s not alone in this; Lloyd Blankfein has weighed in on behalf of the banks – are saying ‘Time’s up’.