Capitalism in the time of Coronavirus

Tristan Cross
Mar 14 · 6 min read

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” — Antonio Gramsci

The British government’s approach to a global pandemic is reducible to the re-appropriated Blitz poster-turned-facile tea towel slogan; Keep Calm and Carry On, and they aren’t ashamed of that fact. Their dubious interpretation of ‘herd immunity’ risks hundreds of thousands (according to more optimistic estimations) of avoidable deaths — effectively encouraging of the population to adopt a recklessly blasé attitude to contracting the potentially fatal coronavirus — is in the naked interest of limiting economic damage, an observation shared by those historically staunch critics of capitalism at The Times.

People are considered expendable in service of accumulation. Of course, this conflict of interest between capital and human life has existed entirely independently and irrespective of coronavirus. It’s worthy of consideration, though, just how much this global situation threatens to exacerbate these tensions. Capitalists might view the crisis posed by coronavirus as having arisen from some unique and unforeseen misfortune, but deliberate courses of action have been pursued that have recklessly increased society’s vulnerability to any such crisis.

The total erosion of workers rights, the failure of Universal Credit, the lack of provision of anything even vaguely resembling UBI, measly statutory sick pay, and the proliferation of precarious workers — a situation actively desired and engineered by private profiteers — has gravely reduced possible contingency during such a moment. Without income protections, the precariat labour force are being given a choice between taking their chances with a deadly pandemic in continuing to work, or immiseration. Spread or die. Many will have this choice removed from them.

Removed from work, or with decimated livelihoods, a huge amount of the population will be without the necessary incomes to maintain their rent. Here, Britain’s complete abdication of social house building and rapacious desire towards turning property into a commodity augured by unscrupulous rent-seeking has the potential to create another crisis. There is the distinct possibility of further swelling our already soaring homeless population, as well as the tanking our grotesquely bloated property market built on ersatz speculation.

The centralisation of work and capital in cities (particularly London) was already a pressure cooker situation that successive governments just ignored, now you’ve got millions of people in incredibly close quarters, crossing paths and becoming extremely difficult to contain. Add to this the necessity of commuting for the lower classes, which means public transportation is now going to be fertile ground for contagion.

Restaurants, cafes, pubs, bars, cinemas, venues and other public spaces face mandatory closure to contain the spread, but are also threatened by another risk. The population’s purchasing power is going to be smashed. How do people keep consuming when they have no money? The consequences of this won’t fall only on business owners, but onto employees forced into redundancy, and beyond. Where markets are interlinked and enmeshed with one another, if one industry fails, it threatens to indirectly bring down far more.

Capitalism has ruthlessly undermined the power of the local producer in favour of massive chain supermarkets. This eggs-in-one-basket approach (at the expense of communities which might otherwise be able to self-sustain) means food supply chains are at threat — both by the demand of hoarders, and potential restrictions on imports and exports of products which now (thanks, again, to the monopolistic practices of capitalists) often all come from the same supply chain. We could see food shortages and price gouging.

Unlike practically every other affected country, the British government are persisting in allowing schools open, apparently in part due to a threat to our GDP, while releasing statements to the effect that young children are at least risk, and often have symptomless reactions to the virus. This means you have a cohort of symptomless carriers passing it around themselves and anyone they come into contact with. This is further justified by mitigating further threats to GDP — parents would have to stay home from their work to look after their children. This would be disastrous, we are told, because some such parents might be key NHS staff. If we had socialised childcare (such as the kind contained within the National Care Service that Labour were proposing), then this would be far less of an issue. It boggles the mind that it’s considered less risky to have ‘key’ NHS staff exposed to the virus in contact with their own children.

It is some small grace that the NHS exists at all, and that we are not facing the same situation as those in the United States who may be disinclined from seeking treatment due to the financial penalty which may be incurred. However, the chronic underfunding of — and gradual introduction of privatisation within— our socialised healthcare system (again, ends sought by capitalist interest) means it is, according to an Intensive Care Unit doctor, alarmingly underprepared for the havoc coronavirus will wreak.

At every turn, self-interested capitalists have been dogmatically hacking away our various social safety nets and replacing them with incredibly volatile market forces — market forces which have already repeatedly shown their vulnerability to global collapse.

What should be unconscionable to consider (but was considered nevertheless by Tim Warner, an editor at The Telegraph) is that capital is incentivised to want those at particular risk of this virus — the elderly and the disabled — to succumb to it. “Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective,” Warner writes. “The COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.” The most at risk of the coronavirus — the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions — are seen as little more than burdens on the economy. Their purchasing power is often very low, their labour value often nonexistent, and their pensions to be paid. The previous decade of Tory austerity (and indeed, any other period of Tory rule) have more than evidenced their proclivity towards letting the vulnerable die in aid of balancing the books.

You have to wonder whether there might be some small chance that this finally causes many to see just how perverse this sublimation of human life to this abstract ‘economy’ is. How can an economy serve you if it’s happy to sacrifice you in order to maintain itself? Unfortunately, early polling suggests otherwise.

There is still the potential for a humane and communitarian response to this crisis, and we should demand it. Obligations for rents, bills, mortgages and debts should be immediately postponed, as should any activity which prioritises the interests of investors over the risks it poses to public health. Price gouging must be prohibited. Basic necessities should be taken out of the market and provided through the public domain where possible. Social care needs urgent funding and expansion, both for the necessary school closures, and in aiding the self-isolated elderly, especially those without dependents. Likewise, the capacity of the NHS — not just temporarily, but permanently, as much as the risk to public health future outbreaks might cause. Our infrastructure should be robust enough to handle as much contingency as possible. We need to urgently consider private property rights — particularly in the case of empty buildings which might be repurposed as medical facilities, or for other emergency utility. What’s more, we should consider why we continue to maintain any system which keeps us in a state of exploited precariousness, which gladly enables human suffering and which sees many of our continued existences as barriers to growth — before, during and after the coronavirus. We matter more than capitalism.

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Tristan Cross

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