Capitalism is the real pandemic

April 6, 2020

by Eugene Gogol

The pandemic is real and needs to be fought with all the information science can give us; with all our skill and creativity, done as safety as possible, and with our full humanness—that is our love for all of humanity. At the same time, we must critically interrogate this class-based, racist, sexist system that we live under. Capitalism—industrialized, automated, computerized, robotized—has led us to a dual moment that gravely threatens humanity: 1) a world economy collapsing under the impact of this deadly virus that may kill millions of us; 2) the emergence of climate chaos that, if not halted,  will make vast areas of our planet unfit for human habitation.

Neither COVID-19 nor the ongoing climate changes are merely “acts of nature.” Rather both have emerged at this moment because humanity is grounded—entrapped—in the economic-social-political system(s) of capital/capitalism. It is the behemoth that we must examine: the monster we must free ourselves from.

1. The pandemic of capital/capitalism

This dual threat to our existence was bound to emerge in a system which recognizes no limits. Capitalism is built on commodification (exchange value) of everything; produced by a form of work in which human beings’ concrete labor is perverted by capital and stolen from us as abstract labor that ends up in the pockets of the capitalist and the capitalist state. It is a system in which dead capital (machines, a factory system, automation) dominates living labor (ourselves as working people); in which production for production’s sake is its only aim, and which seeks to fully dominate the world. Karl Marx long ago analyzed the endless contradictions of the capitalist system. Today, we are experiencing first hand, those deep contradictions bringing forth the gravest of consequences. Our lives that hang in the balance.

While capitalism seeks complete domination, it is a weak and fragile system for organizing society. Time and time again it has yielded near collapse by full depressions and deep recessions. It birthed wars that killed millions and threatened the existence of humanity. When a society is based on extraction of surplus value (yielding capitalist profits), on exchange value rather than use value–and an extreme crisis hits, as in this moment of the deadly COVID-19– much of capitalism’s energy becomes focused on how to preserve exchange value, minimize economic loss, provide loans, grants, on how to keep this exchange-value, surplus-value producing economy afloat. Such savage capitalism places much less value on what happens to the lives and welfare of human beings during a crisis.

This is not to say that millions of human beings aren’t working heroically to save human life, and are doing so within the present system.  But the ideologists and administrators of capitalism have for centuries constructed barriers to freely expressed human creativity when it “interferes” with capital’s aims of accumulation and more accumulation.  Can we construct economic-political-social systems based on human freedom, not on the so-called free market, and/or statist control?

2. What the COVID-19 reveals about the deadly pandemic of capitalism

The pandemic of capitalism—what Marx had described and profoundly analyzed in Capital—has reached monstrous proportions. It has infected every continent, everywhere marshaling human labor power—its most fundamental commodity: workers in factories, laborers in fields, forests and mines, providing a vast quantity of raw materials and food stuffs, and now people in the gig economy. And of course, markets for consumer goods.

Karl Marx

Over decades, the owners, administrators and ideologues of this economic-social system have worked to “normalize” this system, seeking to obscure its grave contradictions.  But at this moment, COVID-19 is revealing to all how fragile, breakable, and yes deadly, this system of capitalism is—whether in private or state form.

Yes, COVID-19 is a deadly threat, not to be underestimated as many of our leaders have done. But as deadly as this virus is, it is far more deadly because it is occurring within the sickness of capitalist society—the pandemic of COVID-19 within the pandemic of capitalism. We can see this by examining how the virus is manifesting itself within capitalist society worldwide:

  • ItalyIn a terrible tragedy, thousands have already died from the virus. What is happening to the estimated 8,000 homeless people who live on Rome’s streets which are supposed to be empty? Where can they seek shelter and safety? How do they obtain food without money? Or wash their hands when there is no sink, water or soap available? Under capitalism, this is their everyday life, accepted as “normal.” Homelessness as a “way of life” is endemic to much of our societies. Only now with COVOD-19, when it is a matter of death over life, is it noticed.
  • IndiaIn face of COVOD-19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly ordered a nationwide lockdown to begin only four hours later. Forgotten, or simply considered expendable, were the hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers who worked in cities such as Delhi and instantly had no jobs, were homeless (as they usually slept at the job), had no income and no way to travel the often hundreds of miles to return home as all means of transportation were ordered shut down. “You fear the disease, living on the streets. But I fear hunger more, not corona,” commented one worker in Delhi, more than 100 miles from his home in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Walking was the only mode of transportation available. Such is Third World capitalism where hundreds of thousands of laborers need to leave their home states and travel to large cities in search of a precarious job lacking any benefits such as health insurance. Accepted as the “normal way of life,” it is only with the COVID-19 rampaging that there is any consciousness of the instability of these workers’ lives, not only because of the virus, but the reality of “everyday” capitalism in India and so many other parts of the world.
  • HondurasFaced with the virus, the government shut down private and public work, sending people home, and even imposing a curfew. Protests were held immediately. We don’t have water, we don’t have work, our children are hungry. Even a small solidarity basket of food and supplies should be sent to us,” was the response of one woman who participated in a protest in the capital Tegucigalpa. She and others face an impossible situation. Before the virus struck, 60% of the population lived in poverty with 40% in extreme poverty. Some 70% of workers are in the informal sector. But what happens to those who live and eat on what they make daily when there is no daily?
  • South Africahas the most COVOD-19 infections in Africa. With a long, difficult but magnificent liberation struggle against apartheid, South Africa’s masses were poised for a new emancipatory beginning. But betrayed in a struggle for genuine socialism, they were confined to a capitalist framework. South Africa has become one of the world’s most unequal societies, with millions of people living in townships with no clean water or public healthcare. Residents, living in informal settlements and rural areas stand in lines to get water, with many sharing a single bathroom facility. How will they fair in a lockdown against the virus? (See “Coronavirus: A Call for Solidarity in a Time of Crisis from Abalahli baseMjondolo.”)
  • RefugeesThe world has seen a dramatic increase in the number of refugees stemming from wars, authoritarian governments practicing racism and religious bigotry, lack of work, extreme poverty, out of control narco-gang violence and now climate change. Forced to flee, Middle Easterners and Africans drown trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea; Central American refugee women are frequently raped crossing through Mexico. Refugees, who survive their perilous journeys, are often herded into crowded camps lacking decent places to live, with poor sanitation, shortages of food and water. This has become capitalism’s  new “normal.”   Now with COVID-19 making inroads into these camps, we will be witnessing untold sickness and death. In Bangladesh, what will happen to the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled to escape persecution in Myanmar? In Kenya, what will be the fate of the near 200,000 in a refugee camp with only eight doctors? What about the civilians in Yemen where the whole country has become a refugee camp? The U.S. decided that now is the time to cut $70 million in healthcare aid. This in a country with a destroyed healthcare system that has suffered the two biggest cholera outbreaks in recent history.  In Syria, what about those trapped near the Turkish border after eight years of constant war at the hands of the Syrian government, and with Russian warplanes purposely destroying health clinics and hospitals, killing hundreds of healthcare workers? In Greece, will the 20,000 who have been herded into the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesvos now be devastated by COVO-19?
  • The Informal EconomyLong ago, Marx wrote of the growing army of the unemployed. Today this is a permanent feature of much of capitalism, with millions of workers forced to labor in the informal economy for survival. Selling merchandise on the streets, hiring oneself out for odd jobs with payment under the table, no health insurance, no benefits, and long hours just to survive, has become a way of life. With the pandemic, even that insufficient lifeline of the informal economy has disappeared in cities throughout the world. How can we continue to exist within an economic-social system which regards millions of us as completely disposable? Which provides little or no protection for so many?

 3. Where can we go from here? Constructing an emancipatory future

Workers and their supporters picket Amazon’s main delivery facility in Chicago on April 4, 2020. They were demanding decent healthcare policies in light of the pandemic. Photo: Alan Maass/Labor Notes.

There must of course be a battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. One that must be informed and led by knowledgeable scientists, and not by politicians whose views are suspect. Enough of the Trumps, Bolsonaros, Modis, Orban and their ilk, whose first concern is with the capitalist economy, human life be damned. But as one commentator noted: “The battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by a previously unknown coronavirus, is inevitably a battle over how society will change in responding and adapting to the pandemic.”  (See: “Pandemic as battlefield,” by Franklin Dmitryev.)  This is the battle that all of us—the masses of the world, the “wretched of the earth,” those from below and from the Left—must join.

Already the battle has begun. There have been numerous strikes, walkouts, protests around the world—not in opposition to fighting the pandemic—but in opposition to the capitalist economy-first mentality of so many politicians and misleaders. This is an important and needed beginning. At the same time there is the absolute necessity for us to critically interrogate the totality of capitalism. Capitalism represent a clear and present danger, a deadly threat to all of humanity.

Marx’s Capital is the fullest exposition of capitalism contradictions, its danger to humanity. At the same time Marx went further as he was searching for the living human forces who could and would uproot capitalism, root and branch. He found them in what he saw as human beings’ quest for total freedom, not as a static end, but as revolution, as an absolute movement of becoming, of negating the old and creating a freedom-filled emancipatory future. That human quest for freedom is what Marx developed as a philosophic world view that would not stop with reformism, or half-way measures, but would continue in permanence. It was a concept of revolution in permanence. Now is the time to call upon Marx’s ideas as we carry out our own needed revolution in permanence so that humanity can not only survive, but grow and develop unfettered by the deadly pandemic of class-society with its racism and sexism.

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