The viral crisis has mutated into a global crisis of social reproduction with no end in sight. With the shutdown of factories, offices, schools and countless other institutions, many millions of people all over the world are facing loss of income, housing, and access to basic survival resources. Meanwhile, the deadly pandemic is raging on, spreading to the poorer countries of the world which are even less prepared to contain it. The whole world is shocked. The trust in the wisdom of our capitalist masters, and in their ability to deal with the present-day dangers, is suffering great damage. The imposing marble columns of the temples of government and finance don’t look so sturdy anymore. A feeling grows that all this could collapse. Many are scared. Many resorted to panic buying (stock-piling toilet paper in particular, which suggests that TP might become the post-apocalyptic currency☺). Some, seeking a target for their fear, mistreated Asian people. Many more took care of the most vulnerable, helped each other, showed solidarity with the health workers and the sick. These spontaneous reactions indicate the opposite directions in which the world could go.
This is a crisis of capitalism
Capitalism has not created this virus. It wasn’t concocted as a biological weapon. It did not escape from a secret lab. No need for fantasies, the reality is fantastic enough as it is. It’s not the first zoonosis (disease that jumps from non-human animals to humans). There are numerous zoonoses, some, but not most, causing epidemics. There have been several zoonotic pandemics in the last two decades (the major ones SARS, MERS and now Covid-19). These things just happen, our masters assure us, nobody is to blame. The pandemic and all its consequences are ‘an act of God’, like a hurricane. We all have to shelter until the weather changes.
But while capitalism bears no responsibility for the virus’s existence, it has created conditions that favor the emergence of zoonoses and their rapid spread.
Its compulsion to grow, to seek profit wherever it can find it, to turn all the earth’s resources into commodities and destroy what can’t be commodified in the process, not only is causing catastrophic climate-change but also increasing the chances of virus infection from tropical wild animal populations, as epidemiologists have warned for years. Deforestation is a major factor. It reduces the habitat for species that have never come into contact with humans before and that carry viruses for which we have not developed an immunity. New roads through the remaining forests increase both the cutting of trees and the shooting of wildlife for food. Some of the wildlife is eaten locally and replaces food sources lost as deforestation progresses; some hunters take advantage of the new roads and transport the food to urban markets. It’s cheaper than regular meat and many people are poor, so there you go. The loss of habitat also decimates many species of animals and drives some to extinction. With their predators gone, many harmful pests run amok. Climate change and pandemics are not two separate issues; they are the same problem. They have the same cause, capitalism’s relentless constraint to exploit more, to accumulate more value. The ‘more’ can never stop. The present pandemic will wane eventually. A vaccine and better treatments will be developed. But new pandemics will follow. Like the recurring flood and fire disasters, they will become part of the “new normal”, although there’s nothing normal about them.
As is often remarked, the fast spread of Covid-19 was made possible by the globalization of the economy that accelerated so much in recent decades. Capitalism has created a global world, and global connectedness will not go away. We live in it; we have to deal with the global challenges and the dangers that come with it. The present pandemic shows this starkly. But capitalism is constitutionally incapable to address a global crisis. Based as it is on competition, it cannot come up with a global solution to the spreading disease. Each nation tries to protect its own territory, closing its borders, competing for medical resources and (while there is some international cooperation in the research) competing for the riches that the discovery of a vaccine will bring.
The pandemic also puts a harsh spotlight on the class nature of capitalist society. The richer you are, the better you can protect yourself. Managers work from home. Those who are deemed to be essential workers still go to work, despite the health risks, often lacking proper protective equipment and paid minimum wages. Many millions of others are laid off. While in the richer countries they get unemployment benefits, in the poorer ones, they usually get nothing. Even in the US, many laid off workers lose their health insurance. Many millions will be unable to pay their mortgages, rents and other bills. The lower paid workers are also more vulnerable to the virus itself because of the greater occurrence of respiratory illnesses. The most vulnerable are the millions of homeless and the masses in the refugee camps, who can only answer to the directive to stay at home, “I wish I could…”
As we write this, it’s still unclear how deeply the pandemic will reach into the poorer parts of the world but it seems likely that it is there where the disease will be the most destructive. Not only are their health care systems woefully underfunded and completely incapable of dealing with a flood of patients, not only do many lack basic services like running water so that the directive of frequent hand-washing is impossible to follow, not only is ‘social distancing’ quite impossible in the overcrowded slum cities, but the work stoppage also deprives millions of income so that starvation and malnutrition, which suppresses the immune system’s response to infection, will come on top of the pandemic. It will be carnage. Millions will die. The rulers of the world will shed a tear or two for them and send a bit of aid over, while not feeling too sad about “the culling of the herd”.
Failings or choices?
Much has been written and said about the failings of various governments in this crisis. And indeed, there have been many. But what is being described as “a failure” is often a choice. The scrapping of budgets for research of epidemics, the underfunding of health care, the diminishing hospital beds, the lack of test kits, ventilators, masks, etc., the dismissal of warnings from experts, the general lack of planning and preparedness, would be a colossal failure if assuring the well-being of the population were the priority of the ruling class. But in fact, it’s very low on its to do-list. Governments all over the world have butchered health care as well as other social expenditures in recent decades. That includes left-wing and right-wing governments, Democrats and Republicans, Labour and Conservatives. They did so to cut costs in order to make the national capital more profitable. That is their priority. That the cuts in health care now appear to be a costly affair, greatly undermining profits, will in no way alter that priority. Already, some in the ruling class, Trump included, are clamoring for a resumption of production, regardless of the health consequences. The lieutenant-governor of Texas was maybe a tad too honest when, in his haste to get the profit-machine running again, he called upon old people to sacrifice themselves for the economy.
Likewise, private industry’s priority is not the well-being of the population. The hospital industry and the big pharmaceutical companies have shown this all too clearly. What Big Pharma contributes to human well-being is merely a by-product of what it really produces: profit. And there has been little profit in the research and development of new antibiotics and antivirals. Of the 18 largest pharmaceutical companies, 15 have completely abandoned the field. They have focused instead on rich people’s diseases, addictive tranquilizers and male impotence drugs, neglecting the defenses against hospital infections, emergent diseases and tropical killers.
It was no different in the past. The worst pandemic in modern history, the “Spanish flu” of 1918-1920 (which should be called “the Kansas flu”, since that’s where it started) killed at least 50 million people because of choices, not failings. When the outbreak began, both sides in the inter-imperialist war chose not to make the protection of the population their priority, and instead focused their resources, including medical resources, on pursuing the war. More than half of the deaths occurred in India where the brutal requisitioning of grain for export to Britain combined with drought created food shortages. The sinister synergy between malnutrition and the viral pandemic spelled mass death. It could do so again. When facing human suffering on a grand scale, our capitalist rulers display unimaginable cruelty.
A recession that was bound to happen
So now we are in a deep recession. Economists claim it will be a V-shaped one, meaning that the recovery will be quick. Once the disease is under control and we can leave our houses, pent-up demand will get the money train back on track in no time. That assumes that the global economy was in good shape before the outbreak and can simply continue where it left off. But it wasn’t. Major countries like Germany and Japan were already entering recession territory. The trend was downwards everywhere. The upward curve of the debt burden and the downward curve of the general rate of profit were meeting again. The pandemic was the pin that popped the balloon. It made the return of the recession much more brutal and sharper but it didn’t cause it.
Unperforming debt (no longer yielding interest payments) triggered the financial crisis in 2008. Banks in the U.S. and Europe teetered on the edge of failure. Only massive government bailouts tided them through. To pull the global economy back from the brink, governments borrowed heavily from the future. The global economy suffered a difficult decade—a global ‘Great Recession’ followed by a persistent slump in western Europe, and slow growth and widening inequality in the U.S. It might have been far worse without desperate measures from central banks and China’s debt-fueled spending splurge.
In this decade, global debt rose to 250 trillion dollars (from 84 trillion in 2000 and 173 trillion in 2008). That is 320 % of the global GDP, 50 % more than 10 years earlier. Global government debt has risen with 77 %, global corporate debt with 51 %. Nobody in their right mind believes that this debt will ever be paid off. To the contrary, it will keep growing, as many companies and governments must borrow to pay interest on their old debt. Which is why it’s imperative that interest rates are kept as low as possible. But even rock bottom rates couldn’t prevent the debt-burden from rising and dragging profits down. “The past devours the future”, as Thomas Piketty wrote. Let’s look at the state of the two largest economies on the eve of the current recession.
Ten years ago, China had been enjoying strong economic growth for two decades, and largely avoided debt to fund it. Since then, China’s total debt has increased sevenfold. It accounts for more than half the outstanding debt of the entire emerging world, while its private sector has accounted for 70 percent of all new debt taken on anywhere in the world since the crisis of 2008. Household debt was equal to only 18.8 percent of China’s GDP. That number has since almost tripled, to 51 %. Corporate debt rose to 65 % of the GDP, the fastest rise of all major economies. Meanwhile, profits tanked. In the year before the crisis, the Chinese economy’s net overall profit was 726 billion dollars. Ten years later, its balance-sheet showed a loss of 34 billion. Even before the pandemic raised its ugly head, a wave of bankruptcies seemed all but inevitable in China.
The picture looked somewhat different in the U.S. Here too, both government debt and the debt of non-financial corporations more than doubled. However, the profit-rate rose in this decade in the U.S., in part because of stagnating wages. But this increase was almost exclusively due to the success of the 10 % largest companies, while the profit margins of firms in the bottom half remained mostly in negative territory. The firms in the top decile tend to dominate the sectors in which they operate. Largely shielded from competition, they could afford to spend relatively little on productive investment, which reduced their costs and augmented their profits (and the low spending on productivity-raising technology increased employment as well). Other companies invested more. Their debt burdens have risen steeply, while the leverage of the top 10 percent has remained almost flat.
A great number of companies in the bottom half in the US and China earned the nickname “zombie companies”. They are living deaths, not feasting on human flesh, except in a metaphorical way, but sustained by cheap money, by more debt. And so the past keeps eating the future.
Examining other countries would lead to the same conclusion: a recession was bound to occur, with or without a pandemic.
Shake that tree
But the pandemic made it worse. A general pause of all production except of the essentials could seem not so damaging in an economy where there is overproduction in almost all sectors. Let’s take a break, consume our stocks and start fresh afterwards. And, to restore the conditions for profitable growth, it would help if all unprofitable companies and the debt that they carry disappear from the scene. Except that this would lead to a great unraveling. The chain of payments that links all capitals, would break in a zillion places. The pandemic would become a pandemonium. This, of course, the ruling class will never allow to happen. As long as it can.
But it has no new solutions. So what else can it do than what it did in the previous recession: shake the money-tree, even more vigorously then back then because the danger is even greater. Trillions and trillions are showered on capital and, to a much lesser extent, on the population in general. The central banks resume their debt-buying operations. Limits on deficit spending fall by the wayside. This way a depression is averted, for now. But as mind-boggling as the amounts of new money are, they will not be enough to save many companies teetering at the brink, nor will the unemployment checks and one time bonusses prevent an impoverishment of the working class.
This tree is not for you and me
So much for the V-shape of this recession. It will be an L-shape at best. Or a letter yet to be invented. To a large extent the aftermath may resemble what happened after the previous recession, only worse. The gap between rich and poor will become even wider, since big capitals get most of the new money and the cheapest credit. The fact that they are rich makes them richer, more trustworthy, safe havens for value. Meanwhile, all the new debt will force governments to impose harsh austerity on the already impoverished working class. The holes in the so-called safety net will become ever wider. For the military and the police there will be no austerity of course, as international conflicts and social tensions will increase.
“There is no magic money-tree”, UK prime minister Theresa May said when justifying her cuts in health care and education. Now it turns out that there is such a tree, only you can’t shake it. “Not fair!” say voices on the left. If so much money can be created out of nothing, why was the austerity needed? Why does capital get the bulk and the rest of us a pittance? Why not create money to spend on health care and education and housing and wages and the environment?
The reply of most economists is that a massive creation of money to meet the needs of the general population, to increase its consumption, which thus brings that money into general circulation, would unleash inflation and drive up interest rates to paralyzing levels. The magic money tree can be shaken, is what they say, but it has to be shaken the right way.
So, what is the ‘right’ way? The goal must be to maintain the incentive to produce, to create value. That is what the system demands, that the accumulation process continues. If the incentive falls away, nothing moves any more. Since the incentive is profit, you have to direct the money from the magic tree to restoring the profitability of capital. The belief that production turns money into more money, that money increases in value when it’s loaned, must be maintained at all costs. All the measures taken now, the massive grants and loans and debt-buying, serve that purpose. Tax-cuts, wage cuts and the elimination of environmental regulations are helpful too. Whatever surplus this strategy yields can then be spent for the benefit of the population or not and thus be the subject of the public debate.
No doubt, greed, self-interest, ruling class solidarity, corruption and cruelty all play a role in how the massive amount of money that is now being created is divided. But the bottom line is that as long as the context is capitalism, the argument of the right is more correct than that of the left. Indeed, to stay on top in the cut-throat, crisis ridden capitalist world, the profitability of national capital must be defended at the expense of the population. Otherwise, capital will flee or lose its incentive to produce. In this world, where homelessness grows by the minute, where a child dies from hunger every 10 seconds, it makes sense to give money to the rich. Yes, this is absurd. But that’s because capitalism itself has become an absurdity.
That is what the capitalist left doesn’t see or doesn’t want to see. The capitalist left decries the excesses of capitalism, it wants to change the system to make it more just, it wants the state to create money to meet the needs of the population, to stop climate-change and much more. It sees in the present crisis a teaching moment, an opportunity to push back against ‘neo-liberalism’. Look, what the state can do! Imagine what it could do under a progressive leadership! They don’t want to see that changing the system doesn’t alter its course as long as it remains capitalist. The underlying base on which capitalism operates implies policies that both the left and the right in any given country share, at least in practice. No matter how much money is created to help the poor, this mode of operation will continue to create more and more disasters. More poverty, more people fleeing hunger and war, more anxiety and despair, more pandemics and environmental calamities, more crisis. Not changing the system but ending it must be the goal.
As the pandemic spread, states around the world demonstrated and augmented their capacity to direct and control the movements of the entire population. Comparing the situation to wartime, they have deployed the military, given the police sweeping powers to detain people indefinitely, heightened surveillance (working with telecom firms and platform companies like Google and Facebook for that purpose), suspended constitutional rights like freedom of speech and assembly. Many of these draconian steps have nothing to do with the health crisis. One has to wonder if all that will disappear once the emergency is over. There are no “sunset provisions’ to ensure that these measures will be rescinded. The trend towards building up repressive powers and increased biocontrol over each individual predates the pandemic and will no doubt continue.
The health emergency aside, the ruling class has good reason to do this. The pandemic may very well be followed by a wave of class struggle. Many millions of people are now wondering how they are going to make ends meet. They see the states take care of capital at their expense, they see speculators making billions by shorting the stock market, they see companies laying off workers with no pay, they see hospitals forced to triage the sick, they see nursing home patients left as sitting ducks for the virus, they see the poor abandoned, they see workers forced to work without protection. Social discontent is brewing.
Indeed, class conflicts already multiplied in March, despite the fact that the need for social distancing is a huge obstacle for collective action. There were protests inside and outside prisons and migrant detention centers in Italy, Iran, Canada and the US, against the dangerous health conditions. There were many strikes of ‘non-essential’ workers that were being forced to go to work despite the danger. Shouting ‘Non siamo carne da macello’ – we are not slaughter meat – workers forced factories to close in all of Italy. For the same reason many wildcat strikes broke out in north America. Workers in car factories, ship yards and call centers among other places refused to work, staged sit-ins, sick-outs etc. Then there were also many acts of resistance by workers deemed essential, but not provided with adequate protection (masks, sanitizer etc.) nor receiving hazard pay. In the US alone this has led to strikes and protests of health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic, of public transit workers, fast food workers, meatpackers, sanitation workers, home care personnel and supermarket cashiers. At the time that we write this, a strike has broken out at Amazon in New York and at Instacart, a shopping delivery company that is now making fabulous profits while most of its workers earn less than 9 dollar an hour. Postal workers in the UK and bus driver and other civil sector workers in France struck for the same reasons. There are surely many more examples of collective resistance all over the world. Not surprisingly, they are underreported by the media.
There is a rent strike being organized. There is even talk of a general strike. It’s unlikely to happen soon, but the fact that the idea goes around is significant. It’s heart-warming to witness this will to resist, this refusal to be lambs for slaughter on the altar of capital.
A slow-motion collapse
Despite the speed of the pandemic and its economic impact, the structural crisis of capitalism is taking the form of a slow-motion depression. Every time the world economy nears the abyss, a massive infusion of money pulls it back, restores a normality which with every new round of this mad carrousel becomes more absurd, more contrary to the satisfaction of human needs. With every new round, mass death for the sake of the economy becomes more acceptable in the minds of the ruling class. Trump, when he expressed his desire to get things back to ‘normal’ by Easter, a move which could have led to the deaths of millions of people, or Boris Johnson, when he considered to let the British population acquire “herd immunity” (thus killing off all the weak), are maybe just a bit ahead of their times.
With every new round capital tries to lose more ballast. It is a slow-motion retreat from all that’s unprofitable, from the responsibility to dispense the social wage (health care, pensions, etc.); an abandonment of the masses that can’t be profitably employed anymore. It tries to do that so gradually that the frog doesn’t jump out of the heating water; so that the working class does not revolt.
It is vacating social space, literally as well as figuratively. But this is also an opportunity to occupy that space. Again, literally as well as figuratively. Literally: as we write this, some vacant dwellings in Los Angeles are being taken over by homeless people. Many other spaces are becoming empty shells, begging to be used for living, meeting, playing. They will be occupied, even though the law doesn’t allow it. The retreat of the state and its institutions from responsibility for the social reproduction forces us to self-organize. In this health emergency, we’ve seen the great potential of solidarity from which self-organization arises. So many people have spontaneously stepped up to the challenge. We see retired doctors and nurses volunteering, despite the risks to their own safety, people taking it upon them to stitch masks, to shop for their neighbors, to organize food assistance and different forms of mutual aid, to organize collective resistance.
As the system continues on its road to collapse, the need for solidarity and resistance will only increase. Not only will the social space vacated by capital be occupied, the points of production will have to be taken over by the workers and repurposed for human needs. There is in the working class – the vast majority of the population – an enormous reservoir of talent and creativity to build a new world. The skills, the knowledge and resources are there, more so than we realize. The social networks to activate these powers are not yet there, or are still incipient or dormant. The very need for them will awaken them.