Thoughts from the outside: Epidemic #2: fentanyl

January 30, 2021

From the January-February 2021 issue of News & Letters

by Faruq

COVID-19 is a disaster. The numbers of cases and deaths are mounting. The vaccine is not getting to enough people to stem the outbreak.

Another scourge stalks the streets of San Francisco.


Every day I see the effects of fentanyl. Fentanyl is an opioid 50-100 times more powerful than morphine. It is the favored drug to ease the pain of life on the street among those discarded by society. In the richest part of the country this epidemic is greater than COVID. In San Francisco COVID-19 killed 191 people in 2020, while well over 600 died of drug overdoses (see “Fentanyl Seized, but Fatal ODs Soar on Streets,” San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 3, 2021).

Throughout every day and night, you hear ambulance sirens rushing to victims. But many times they are stuck in traffic, not able to get there in time. At my job, a lot of the people carry and are trained to use Narcan. It was used over 3,000 times in 2020 to bring someone back from the brink of death.

When I approach someone passed out on the street, I feel I should warn them the city will charge them $3,700 for an ambulance ride. They are more scared of that charge than of whatever is wrong with them. If they can, they get up and run.

No epidemic has killed more people than capitalism. The people on the street are denied any inkling of freedom, their minimal allocation of food is taken away to pay for those ambulance rides, for example. When you are no longer needed by the capitalist machine, you are spit out, obsolete, not necessary. Capitalism is trying to convince you that this is your fault. Yet it is impossible to have any job security. At all levels of work, many jobs are replaced by robots.

When I was growing up, people wanted to get into construction. That was a secure future then. You could make a living, put your children through school, etc. Now the “secure” job is a guard, becoming a part of the security apparatus, protecting capital from the discarded people on the street. In that job you set yourself against the people you came from. Even if you have a well-paid job, and try to “give back,” or go into politics in an attempt to change things for the better for your people, most times you get co-opted and end up only perpetuating this system. Going into the system is not a way to change it.


What I see on the street every day is what Marx projected as the absolute inhumanity of capitalism: creation of a growing redundant and discarded population.

There is no overcoming this with increased productivity by introducing new and better machines. Ever increasing productivity this way is what got us here. For example, today there are proposals to dredge the bay to allow bigger ships. Seeing the ships up close, you realize how huge they already are! There is more stuff going through the ports, but several orders of magnitude fewer longshoremen necessary to load and unload them.

Capitalism has long outlived its usefulness. When people’s livelihood is taken away, they have a right to defend themselves. Yet we shouldn’t repeat the 1960s failed attempt to overcome capitalism with sheer enthusiasm for a new world. We have to transcend current relations. Marx’s Capital is the best book to explain every aspect of capitalism, especially how the law of value structures our relations which we have to take hold of for ourselves. Otherwise we’ll end up not making it, like the 1960s. Most people, even most Marxists, think that Capital is about economics rather than new human relations. If you think like that, you miss the boat.

Marx pointed out his original contribution is the split in the category of labor: the contradiction between abstract labor, the content of value (machines), and concrete labor, the human activity. It is downright wrong to say Marx’s legacy is a labor theory of value. Marx speaks now to those who would break with value production and enlarge our concept of labor to be the affirmation and development of human essential powers (see “New perspectives on Marx’s Humanist Essays”  in Nov.-Dec. 2020 N&L).

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