This is an expanded version of my article, ‘Coronavirus and Capitalism’ which first appeared on Rebel-the New Socialist Website (http://www.rebelnews.ie/2020/03/17/coronavirus-capitalism)
In terms of medical and scientific knowledge and technology there has been no time in human history when we have been as well placed as we are today to deal with the kind of threat we are facing..
Yet it is hard to imagine a worse social and economic system for responding effectively than capitalism, especially capitalism in its current neo-liberal form. The problem is not just that many of our leaders and rulers, the likes of Donald and Trump Johnson and evidently don’t give a damn about the lives or deaths of ordinary people. It goes beyond that. Everything about how this system is organised pulls in precisely the opposite direction to tackling the pandemic in the way that is required even in the simplest medical terms.
First, there is the fundamental fact that under capitalism production is organised on the basis of private profit. Food is produced, houses are built, medicines and drugs are manufactured to make a profit. If they are not going to turn a profit they don’t get made. Supporters of capitalism think this is a good thing. They believe that without the incentive of profit either nothing would get produced at all or the only things that would be produced would be shoddy goods that don’t work.
But in a pandemic situation the absolutely urgent need is for massive amounts of goods and services (hand sanitizer, face masks, testing kits, respirators, health carers of all kinds) that cannot be supplied in time on the basis of market incentives. The economists and politicians who justify capitalism argue that if there is a shortage of a good for which there is demand the price of that good will rise and this will incentivise capitalists to produce more of it until demand and supply balance each other. In reality does not work even in ‘normal’ times. In a pandemic health crisis its consequences are catastrophic; it simply means that while we are waiting for the free market feedback mechanisms to work literally hundreds of thousands (globally, many millions) will die. This is so stark and so clear that in this situation even the most hardened neoliberal ideologue is forced to recognise the complete inadequacy of the market and the need for drastic state intervention. But this cuts against both their inclinations and the whole grain of the system.
Second, there is the fact that under capitalism production is organised competitively. Different businesses and companies are involved in ongoing ceaseless competition with one another. Again supporters of the system believe this is good and that what they call ‘the competitive spirit’ should be instilled in children from the earliest possible age. Even in the best of times this makes for absurdities like numerous brands of washing powder and mobile phone that are all more or less the same but pretend to be different in a bid to grab a bigger share of the market. But in this global health crisis such competition is utterly disastrous because it blocks any rational planning just at a time when planning is most needed. For example it leads to rival airline flying tens of thousands of ‘ghost flights’ for fear of losing their respective ‘slots’ at airports and my email inbox still as I write being bombarded with Ryanair adverts to book holidays. If a few pubs in the City Centre are open others will follow suit not to lose out and be put out of business; hence the madness of rammed pubs, clubs and streets on Saturday night.
It is equally damaging that the multiple competing decision making centres are not only within each country but between rival nation states. If ever there was a situation that cried out for our so-called world leaders to agree a common international plan it is this global pandemic . Instead we have different countries taking unilateral decisions and pursuing different strategies, like Britain keeping schools open when other countries are closing them. And, of course, here in Ireland we have the absurdity of two different policies on the island of Ireland, one dreadful one in the North (under British rule) and one slightly better one in the Republic, as if the virus could be stopped at the border; a state of affairs which the pro-British Unionists will fight to maintain – on ‘principle’.
Third, there is the fact that the coronavirus crisis is also generating a massive economic crisis. Here it is important to understand that it is NOT the sickness and deaths of large numbers of people that are making stock markets crash or causing a global recession; it is the panic that the pandemic is inducing in investors and especially the measures that have to be introduced to control it. The Second World War, which claimed 50 million lives, was actually very good for capitalism and lifted it out of the depression of the 1930s. Because capitalism is always prone to crises and crashes and requires endless unceasing growth to avoid collapse, taking perfectly sensible measures in the interests of public health like cutting back on air travel or mass sporting events or the sale of alcohol in pubs immediately threatens to plunge it into a disastrous downward spiral which will further damage the capacity of society to make the public health response needed to save countless lives.
Finally there is the class division that is inherent in capitalism. This means that those who take the most important decisions are, as a whole, least likely to pay the price. Posh toffs like Boris Johnson and billionaire bosses like Donald Trump know that they and their c lass will be relatively protected from the crisis. They can afford to contemplate with equanimity the ‘culling’ of a portion of the population assured that it will be mainly the workers, the poor , the elderly (the poor elderly, not the rich elderly) who won’t make it. Of course even Trump and Johnson are not immune, especially if the crisis continues, but the scale of the impact will be massively class differentiated as is the case with all health issues.
As ecosocialists we should note that all these basic features of capitalism which make it so bad at dealing with the coronavirus are precisely the same things that make capitalism unable to stop climate change. In some ways the coronavirus crisis is similar to the climate change crisis but compressed into a much shorter time frame. The fact that the threat posed by climate change is less immediate merely makes it all the easier for governments to procrastinate and kick the can down the road to future generations or even just the next government. Moreover it is much easier for the ruling classes to imagine that they can protect themselves and their ilk from the effects of climate change than from contracting the virus. This means that even though they have had an abundance of advanced warnings and know perfectly well what is coming down the tracks the various rival capitalisms and their governments remain unwilling to take the action they know is required.
At this point let’s shift the focus from the failings of capitalism to what actually needs to be done. Here are ten straightforward practical proposals which are obviously needed in the present crisis: these proposals are specifically geared to the situation in Ireland but most of them would apply in most countries:
- Establish a 32 county response to the emergency with a unified strategy North and South
- Requisition private beds and health care facilities to tackle the acute shortage of beds.
- Bring all private lab and research facilities under public control to improve diagnosis and treatment
- Greatly increase testing and redirect production under state control to produce testing kits, protective equipment and respirators , all of which are in short supply
- Establish an Emergency Relief Fund on a scale comparable to the Bank bail-outs of 2008 ie €64 billion or more to pay for emergency measures
- Provide emergency payments to all laid off, redundant and self-isolating workers
- Emergency testing and support for all care workers
- Freeze rents and mortgages and stop evictions so as not see a huge spike homelessness
- End Direct Provision because DP centres make social distancing and self-isolation impossible. The same is true of homeless hostels. Commandeer hotel rooms for asylum seekers and the homeless – there will be large scale vacancies due to the decline in tourism. This is not just about caring for the homeless and for asylum it is in all our interests.
- Urge communities to organise themselves to support the vulnerable and each other.
It would be easy to continue but the point I want to make is that not only are these proposals measures that socialists,such as People Before Profit in Ireland, have been advocating ,but they are in themselves steps in the direction of socialism. That is because producing for social need and mobilizing all the resources of society, including its economy, to serve the interests of the 99% instead of the interests of the 1% is exactly what socialism is all about.
An economy not based on a compulsion to grow and accumulate but on rational planning, including in many cases planning to freeze growth (for example to deal with climate change) would not collapse when growth was interrupted for a few weeks or months. A society where basic needs, such as housing, public transport , health care, essential foods etc were de-commodified i.e. free and paid for collectively out of general taxation in the way that water and education currently are in many countries, would save countless lives and prevent immense hardship in the current crisis; it would also make for a far better, healthier, more equal and generally saner society than the insanity of the capitalist rat-race we all supposed to engage in.
And exactly the same applies to tackling climate change. All the obvious things that need to be done- drawing up a national and global plan to phase out fossil fuels in time, not in 30 years; ending the compulsion to grow endlessly; ensuring a just transition for workers who lose their jobs and the for Global South who will suffer most through international solidarity; moving to free and greatly expanded public transport; planned aforestation on a massive scale – are precisely things socialists which should advocate any way and which, if implemented as part of democratic socialist planning would not only save humanity and countless species but create an enormously improved world for us all to live in.