COVID-19 / Coronavirus

Coronavirus : How a global pandemic is single-handedly unravelling capitalist economics

Post-industrial society has been plunged into a historic healthcare and trade crisis, and now capitalism needs to be paused. Will a global healthcare emergency transform healthcare and economics as we know it?

The wheels are rapidly coming off of capitalism’s runaway train, and we’re in a collective, televised race to repair it. With more than 225,000 official cases globally, and nearly 10,000 fatalities (at time of counting — a figure widely acknowledged as being hugely underreported), a highly contagious virus is rapidly debilitating and killing some of the most vulnerable people in communities across the world. And there’s only one way to stop it. Individually, we need to isolate ourselves from one another to stop the spread — to flatten a disease transmission curve that has already overwhelmed a number of the planet’s most sophisticated, well-funded healthcare systems.

The problem is, stopping the spread means hitting the pause button on global capitalism while we repair its machinery. Unfortunately, the system was built without one. And that means that bringing it to an unceremonious, grinding halt now has catastrophic human and economic consequences.

Pause that — can you play it back again?

Pausing the economy presents a problem that is both massively generalised and highly specific. The primary issue is that late capitalism is not designed to be stopped, ever. In fact, the spectacular success of capitalist economics has only ever traditionally been measured by one north-star metric — growth —which is essentially just another term for infinite ‘value’ extraction— and in a general sense, it’s designed to self-organise, resource and innovate at a pace that requires machine-like commitment from a biologically volatile primary resource — human beings. Industrial and post-industrial capitalism has raised the standard of living across the world spectacularly, in a short period of time. But that rise in standards doesn’t come without an overwhelming cost — and we’ve been deferring payment for a very, very long time.

But, the bill has finally arrived. And it turns out that needing to temporarily remove the vast majority of the international workforce from the unrelenting needs of the capitalist equation opens up a million tiny wounds in a giant economic patient — all of which need immediate treatment before they become fatal. Most of these nodes and networks notice it immediately and start losing blood rapidly. Others die immediately. None go unaffected.

Rube Goldberg’s final masterpiece

Our trade systems have become extraordinarily fast, unfathomably complex and simultaneously, profoundly delicate. We have crafted a global, cross-border spaghetti of systems and micro-economies that lean on each other heavily to remain upright. In late capitalism’s fundamental design flaw, it is absolutely critical that the relative poor — the workers that create the value and deliver the results remain healthy and active in order to hold the pieces together, because there is so little built-in redundancy for widespread personal crisis. This form of capitalism assumes that there will never be an unravelling serious enough to threaten it, which is why it’s got no proper killswitch - a fact true (just to a lesser extent) even of heavily socialised states.

And now, hundreds of thousands of us are sick. Some of our elderly and most vulnerable are dying. And those of us that aren’t sick, can’t work, because we might transmit it — and make other people sick enough to kill them, too. And at the back-end of 40 years of neoliberal, free-market economics, some of the world’s most ‘advanced’ political environments have either removed, privatised or hollowed out the basement machinery needed to stabilise capital markets by providing comprehensive, not-for-profit health, welfare and social services that step in to take the weight when crisis strikes. The loss of the working class is capitalism’s great nightmare. Alongside a terrible human cost, we’re watching entire industries that previously seemed indestructible falter - food service, hospitality, aviation and retail expecting massive state support in order to keep afloat — let alone, make a profit. But the people are sick, and all dominos fall together, eventually.

The sharp end of the ‘personal responsibility’ pipedream

There’s no good version of a global health crisis, but fate would have COVID-19 strike at a particularly unfortunate time — particularly in the context of post-industrial Western liberal populism. Rolling off of the back of 40 years of artificial financial stimulus, numerous recessions, aggressive healthcare, social state and benefit cuts, the welfare states of the UK, USA and Australia in particular (many European countries have managed to hold onto their more socially-focused roots more firmly) are barely left standing to support a class of people that capitalism desperately requires but has never adequately served. Decades of deep cuts into the flesh of government welfare, the systematic underfunding and privatisation of key infrastructure, combined with a whole host of globalist economic concerns concluded in two events that were really the most surreal manifestations of the brutality of these economic strategies — the election of populist celebrities Donald Trump, and Boris Johnson to office, in the USA and UK respectively. More than that, it arrives at the dawn of the UK’s highly controversial departure from the EU — the United Kingdom’s most economically isolationist act in modern history. We are alone, and we voted for it ourselves.

Drink deep

This particular strain of self-sufficiency politics is bright, intoxicating, and highly addictive. Built on the backbone of a narrative of ‘personal responsibility’, ‘meritocracy’ and infinite, all-consuming ambition, it demands a robotic, machine-like worship of productivity across a suite of unintuitive, sometimes inhumane industries in exchange for the usually minor variable reward that just-about satiates those in poverty, the relative poor and the middle class. But the neoliberal political machine is highly-focused, and ruthless — and it demands all of the economic power, with none of the social responsibility. Western neoliberal governments are powered at their deepest levels by an assumption that free capital markets will regulate themselves — but by then regularly providing taxpayer funded bailouts for businesses that become so aggressively ambitious, so irresponsibly managed and so absolutely enormous in scale, that they cannot be allowed to fail without tearing a colossal hole in the global economic landscape. This is all of the richest rewards of both capitalism and socialism, at the same time — but only for the rich. Among a narrative of independence, personal responsibility and self sufficiency, the hypocrisy is palpable for those that have been at the sharp-end of faux-empowerment corporatist politics for their entire lives. Neither the maths, nor the philosophy works out.

“But now, the mood has changed. Public tolerance for government bailouts for the untouchable, celebrated winners of an extremely extractive system has been worn through to its threads. And sometimes, it takes one crisis to truly understand the depths of another.”

And crisis always strikes, eventually. And some crises are more marketable and manoeuvrable than others. Our economic recessions are often caused by abstract global business market manipulation that somehow concludes in ‘oops, main spreadsheet gone bye-bye — and its your fault in a way that you wouldn’t understand’. The layers of abstraction are too complex and opaque to properly challenge, so we pay the bill, take some blame and feel grateful that some of our jobs still exist on the other side.

But disease is a natural, tangible, unifying disaster, with a profound physiological and psychological cost. It’s a reminder that humanity, in many senses, really is ‘in it together’, and that regardless of our class conditioning we’re biologically, the same bags of calorie powered meat. It illustrates that self interest, individualism, libertarianism — they fold like a deckchair when the social contract is plunged into the kind of crisis that shows that collectively, we’re all only as stable as the weakest of us. Beyond that, it awakes a people-powered consciousness and agility that shakes the entire house of cards, lit up inside the hundreds of millions of people that are now plunged into economic despair and face huge, long-term instability. Disease is capitalism’s utter nemesis. Outgunned and outmanned, it needs other weapons — but they’re all blunted from when they used them during the last, manufactured financial crisis.

In the UK, so far, Rishi Sunak, has announced a series of measures designed to prevent the United Kingdom from financial ruin. But truthfully, it’s not enough. It boils down to this:

  • Massive transitionary loans (£330bn, in fact), for businesses that don’t know when, or if they’ll have any customers again.
  • Temporary eviction prevention, for renters that don’t know when, or if, they’ll have jobs again.
  • Temporary mortgage holidays, for landlords that may now not have jobs, or renters with jobs.

It’s the dying gasp of a creature in crisis — using only what it knows to try to save itself.

The payload lies dormant

So now, after 75 years of incentivising and rewarding self-interest, leaving the poor on the fringes of a society that makes profound demands on their human rights, we’ve got a massive social pickle on our hands. It looks like this:

  • Everyone now needs to work together for mutual good, in a society that so far, has been run entirely on independence and personal gain. Our neighbours don’t know each other, or the value of solidarity —because all our incentives have discouraged and shamed it at the expense of winning a never-ending imaginary productivity competition. The fetishisation of winning — by squeezing absolutely massive gains out of a fractured, stressed population is now useless. We don’t know how to care for each other, or feel any responsibility to each other— because that’s the diametric opposite of our reward structure. This is precisely the reason that we’re panic buying. That there’s no rice, or toilet roll left in the United Kingdom. That people will not stay home — even though they are extremely likely to carry and transmit the disease. A profound self-interest is in play because we’ve been rewarded handsomely for that very same attitude for all of our lives.
  • The UK and US in particular have filled their cabinets and senates with professional corporate lobbyists, fake strongmen, cartoon celebrities and some third-rate stockbrokers — and together, they have no idea what to do next. Philosophically, I’d argue that their personal insulation means that many of these people can’t understand humanitarian crises outside of how it affects their pension. Practically, I’d argue that they’re under-skilled in problem solving and empathy. Either way, free-market middle managers are the wrong leadership to deliver a robust solution to a delicate, nuanced crisis that can’t be delivered via Microsoft PowerPoint.
  • We have never imagined an alternative system. This is critical. Liberal capitalist ideas are so pervasive, and so powerful, and have been, for so long, that we do not even have the language for the transformative political paradigm shift that is going to be needed in order to prevent this ever happening again. Socialism isn’t the answer. Neither is capitalism. Neither is communism, or any of the other paths we took to get here. 2020 requires brand new thought — we’ve created industries and companies with sufficient wealth, power and capability that some dimension of this massive technological success needs to regularly and thoroughly find its way to the bottom of the chain to create a better, more stable life for everyone.
  • We have discovered a class of people who are effectively economically immune to the side effects of COVID-19. They are insulated, and will not lose their jobs, or incomes, and it’s likely that they’ll be at lower risk of fatality than the poor and disadvantaged. While our health is intrinsically linked, our abilities to survive a massive systemic shockwave couldn’t be further divorced from the realities of the very rich — and the relative poor are becoming restless.

But most seriously — neoliberal economics has absolutely no idea how to back out of this, or any, global health emergency. If they inject huge volumes of cash into the stock market as stimulus, it’s political suicide, because the electorate have run out of patience for socialism for the rich. If they inject huge volumes of cash into people’s pockets, there are giant corporate casualties within their own class, and it ruins the myth of a necessary austerity and crushes the backbone of Conservative politics.

Beyond that — critically — if they do, over the short term, properly introduce the necessary wealth redistribution, bans on evictions, mortgage holidays, improvements to renter’s rights, put in place a temporary or permanent Universal Basic Income (to stop the massive drought of cash that is about to occur), it proves that those were just the arbitrary rules of runaway liberal markets — and that those things were never impossible in the first place. It proves that there is in fact, a magic money tree. It proves that this form of trade is too fragile, too independent and too singular - that the working class do have power, volition and autonomy, and they don’t need to be worked to the bone, month to month, for the cyclical trappings of a made-up material life that can come apart at any moment. Make no mistake — COVID-19 is neoliberalism’s most significant existential reckoning — and there are dire economic and humanitarian consequences for making the wrong play. I’d intimate that Boris Johnson and Donald Trump might not bear the ideal philosophies to govern during a time of chaotic reconfiguration.

Questions

In closing, the Coronavirus pandemic raises a whole series of existential questions about the nature of the system’s underbelly. I don’t have answers to them, but they need to be asked:

  • We now have an economy full of powerful, cash-rich businesses built on the back of the barely-fair wages of millions of ordinary people. What is their responsibility now? When their own employees can’t work? Legally, nothing. But how is this transposed to a greater moral obligation, and mapped to their own corporate survival?
  • Public health emergencies require new legal powers to control physical movement and hard-earned civil liberties. Precisely what power is needed to protect UK citizens? For how long? How will the legislation be wound back after the crisis subsides? How do we balance ultimate public safety and our unified civic responsibility with respecting our human autonomy and freedoms? How do we ensure new, temporary in-crisis powers don’t find their way into post-crisis society, ready to be exploited at large?
  • The government are now going to work directly with technology companies in ways that will be totally opaque to us. How do we moderate and regulate this? How is our personal data going to be preserved and respected so that it’s not used illegally into the future?
  • How can software and hardware technologies be mobilised as a front-line, civic tool for good — used to connect, empower and reward humans in their local communities immediately, during times of intense economic hardship?

But most tricky of all:

  • How do we create a shared sense of mission, obligation and support for each other, in a new political reality that rejects the now useless, old-world rules of self-interest, hoarding and dog-eat-dog survivalism? How do we re-incentivise the individual around community, mobility, and protection for one another? What, precisely, are the steps towards building globally linked support networks that leverage the thought, reward, and technology, that will do that?

The Coronavirus has done more to instil, amplify and mobilise genuine class consciousness, social stability concerns and far-reaching civil rights questions across the West than anything else in living memory. And what we demand now determines what we receive in the future. In a world where evictions can be banned, debt suspended, proper sick pay introduced, insurance enforced, and a reality that money is indeed created for the people - not just by the people, we’re left hovering — leaning over, into a pitch-black abyss, watching it stare straight back into us.

And with that, there’s really only one question left to ask. The easiest way to lose your power is to act like you don’t have any. So what’s going to emerge when the darkness subsides?

Twitter: Thomas K R

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Technologist, citizen. On political theory, power, ideology and a more human future. Another world is possible. ✊🏼💻🛠🌏✨

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