COVID-19 manifests the crisis of capitalism, shows the urgency of a new human society

March 24, 2020

J.G.F. Héctor 3/23/20

The spread of COVID-19 in the world is not merely a “natural phenomenon.” Since its origin, it bears the mark of the class society in which we live, making its contradictions evident: in it, the accumulation of profits is everything; human existence, nothing. At the same time, this crisis gives us the opportunity to visualize the urgency of uprooting current society and giving rise to a new one. This must have as a necessary starting point the actions of workers, women, students, etc., who resist being “cannon fodder” in the face of the pandemic threat.

The birthmark of COVID-19 is capitalist

Since its first outbreaks in China late last year, the official response to COVID-19 evidenced its class status. As Gerry Emmett wrote in News & Letters: “When the epidemic began in Wuhan City, officials undervalued its seriousness, refused to cancel public events, and persecuted health workers and citizen journalists who were telling the truth.”[1]

Once the virus spread, government measures to try to contain it again showed its capitalist character: “The Italian case is paradigmatic…. [The] government [decided] to close stores and businesses across the country, but to leave factories and production activities open….”[2] Typical of capitalism: it can take some measures at the superficial level, that of consumption, while production must keep generating profits, even at the cost of workers’ lives:

Chinese factories generate around 20% of world manufacturing production. Already, many industries—from automotive to food to pharmaceuticals—are beginning to feel the effects of disrupted supply chains. The inhumanity of the logic of capitalism is obvious in the current demand that Chinese workers should return to the plants despite the great risk of contracting COVID-19.[3]

At the same time, the crisis provides the perfect opportunity for various governments to adopt measures that allow them to continue controlling the life of the population, at just the time when protests by women and other social sectors were on the rise; likewise, they will take advantage of the situation to promote a “national unity” that, using unions and other corporatist organizations, as well as the ideological confusion of certain parts of the left, helps them to blur the class contradictions.

COVID-19 did not originate the current social crisis; it only manifests it

But this vulnerability of human life to the pandemic is not an effect of COVID-19 itself, but of the social structure in which we are embedded; the virus only makes it more apparent. Capitalism is a system oriented towards the accumulation of profits, not towards the satisfaction of social needs. The public health system, supported by workers’ wages, only covers the minimum requirements so that they can continue to exist as workers, that is, as labor power in the service of capital, not as full human beings. In capitalism it cannot be otherwise, since the reproduction of life is always subordinate to the reproduction of capital. This is essentially the same in the so-called “first world” countries, or in those with “progressive” regimes, although these tend to allocate a greater amount of funds to their health systems. Hence, if even in “ordinary” moments public health systems are insufficient and inadequate, in emergency situations they simply become chaotic.

In Mexico, for example, if one decides to go to the private medical sector to get a COVID-19 screening test, its price will be well above what a worker with average wages can scrape together (4,000 pesos and up). The public system only has the resources to buy a few tests, and obtaining a greater number can only be done at the expense of indebtedness, ultimately paid for by the labor of the population. Not to mention the possible treatment, infinitely more expensive than virus detection.

Furthermore, although the quarantine decree adopted today (March 23) in Mexico and several other countries may be effective for certain activities and sectors of the population, it cannot in any way be effective for the nearly 60% of workers who live in the informal economy—who lack all kinds of social security and need to work day after day to be able to subsist—and for those workers on which the functioning of society largely depends (workers in public cleaning, drivers, merchants, etc.). This social sector will undoubtedly be accentuated during this period of crisis. Likewise, prisons, workplaces, the agglomeration of public transport and urban centers, all of them the historical product of capitalism, are today important sources of contagion for COVID-19. How do we feel safe in that context? In short, beyond the greater or lesser effectiveness of the response of one or the other government to the pandemic, it is capitalism as a whole that shows its inability to solve the problems that threaten human life.

Workers’ actions illuminate the road to a new society

Today, the possibility of giving rise to a new social system, in which we are really in a position to face the diseases and natural disasters that endanger existence, persists in the protests of thousands of workers—especially from China and Italy, where governments have taken the most authoritarian and contradictory measures—who refuse to be “slaughterhouse meat” for capital’s profits.

In Hong Kong, a country under China’s colonial rule, health workers held a work stoppage Feb. 3–7 to demand a more effective government response to the appearance of COVID-19. This action was only the most recent link in the long history of dissatisfaction of workers with the progressive deterioration of their working conditions and the lack of medical equipment in hospitals. According to the China Bulletin, this marks “the beginning of a new era of labor activism in Hong Kong.”[4]

In various cities in Italy, workers have gone on strike demanding optimal security measures in their workplaces, or the total suspension of activities in non-essential economic areas. Its slogans such as “We are not slaughterhouse meat” and “Our health comes before your benefits” are the seed of a vision of a world in which the preservation of human life is the foundation of society, and not the accumulation of capital[5].

However, while the demand for real protective measures for workers is a pressing and crucial need, it is illusory to place the ultimate responsibility for social health in the hands of the State. Beyond its impotence in this area, to which we have referred above, is the fact that, once the crisis is over, it will strip itself of any appearance of interest in the well-being of the population and will return to its ordinary role of guaranteeing capital reproduction. The construction of a truly human society must necessarily proceed through the overcoming of the State and capital. For this to happen, a vision of the future is essential as a guide in achieving this objective.

“To hold high the flag of the struggle for humanity”

In a recent statement, the Zapatista indigenous peoples in resistance announced a series of measures that they will adopt in their communities to protect themselves from COVID-19; among them, the closure of their administrative workplaces, the caracoles. With this, the Zapatistas give us a sample of how an autonomous anti-capitalist project can respond to a threat to human life, putting its preservation above everything else. Furthermore, the Zapatista economy, focused on the satisfaction of social needs and not on the accumulation of capital, is undoubtedly better prepared, despite its technological limitations, to survive during this period of quarantine and world emergency.

At the same time, the Zapatista communiqué invites us “to continue the struggle in defense of territory and Mother Earth, to maintain the struggle for the disappeared, murdered, and imprisoned, and to hold high the flag of the struggle for humanity.”[6]

This appeal, in force at all times and circumstances, becomes even more relevant when the life of humanity is at imminent risk and the pillars of capitalist society are being seriously questioned. The seeds of a new society—with new labor, political, cultural, in short, human relations—can spring from the rebellion of the workers confronting capitalism’s treatment of their lives as worthless. For this new society, the force of the action—however massive and powerful it may be—or the necessary demands on the State are not enough.  It demands as well the presence in our struggles of a vision of the future that guides us in the construction of this new world, and not only in the reproduction of the current one with a reformed appearance. This is a crucial moment. The very existence of humanity is at stake.

[1] Gerry Emmett, “COVID-19: A World-Historic Threat.” News & Letters, vol. 65, no. 2, March-April 2020.

[2] Josefina L. Martínez and Diego Lotito, “Pandemia de coronavirus: crisis sanitaria, ‘estado de emergencia’ y protesta obrera”. Contrapunto, March 15, 2020.

[3] Gerry Emmett, “COVID-19: A World-Historic Threat”.

[4]  “Hong Kong’s New Health Worker’s Trade Union Was a Long Time Coming.” China Bulletin, February 18, 2020.

[5] Diego Lotito, “Estallidos de rabia y huelgas espontáneas en Italia por el coronavirus”., March 12, 2020.

[6]EZLN closes Caracoles Due to Coronavirus and Calls on People Not to Abandon Current Struggles.” Enlace Zapatista, March 17th, 2020.


One thought on “COVID-19 manifests the crisis of capitalism, shows the urgency of a new human society

  1. Very important article, placing the pandemic in the context of capitalism and the need for an absolutely opposite vision of a human society. Another aspect of capitalism is alienated production–not only alienating workers from what they produce but producing goods that are alien to a healthy environment.

    The move of production to more and more disposable items over the last half-century will wreak additional harm because of this crisis on the environment. If masks and hazmat suits, made of synthetic fibers that do not biodegrade, were still made of cotton cloth, they could be washed, sterilized and re-used safely many times over. Of course many disposable items perform better than earlier versions, but no thought, as Hector wrote, is given to anything but profit by the producers. Meanwhile, as with disposable diapers and generally unnecessary bottled water, our landfills and their profits

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