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The two viruses: COVID-19 and capitalism

Times are grim. Capitalism makes them worse.

Economic CrisisCOVID-19

We are living in a pandemic. These are unprecedented times.

Not to worry: our political leadership is taking this all very seriously. They will do everything necessary, we are told, to protect us.

Take the Ford government in Ontario, for example. It has suspended the application of collective agreements in the health care sector. Those workers will not stand in the way of our recovery.

Indeed, times are grim. Capitalism makes them worse.

The bad and the ugly

Given the rapacious nature of our social and economic system, one that is never discouraged by our political leaders and opinion moulders, there were always going to be those who would try to profit from a global health emergency.

Take this report published in The Intercept showing that financial investors and bankers are urging pharmaceutical companies to push up their prices.

Or consider Harvey Norman, a celebrated Australian billionaire, who got everyone’s attention when he declared that sales were up at his electronic supplies stores and that he had invested in tanking shares to enable him to profit handsomely when things returned to ‘normal’.

Not to be forgotten, the Carnival Corporation, a cruise ship line that got stuck with a vessel carrying infected passengers, some of whom died, has offered needy cleaners high wages to disinfect the ship and prepare it for more profitable operations during the upcoming summer holiday season.

Then there are the US senators who, having received advance notice of the coming pandemic and inevitable economic destruction that would accompany it, sold large parcels of their shares to less well-informed investors—they then claimed these timely and profitable sales were just a coincidence. While it is easy to demonize these politicians, they merely reflect a much more deliberate campaign by the ultra wealthy to profit from the world’s anticipated ills.

In early February, well before the general public had become aware of the looming pandemic, bankers and large financial houses, anticipating a downturn (growth was stagnating or dipping in many parts of the globe) had begun taking profits. They had sold large volumes of their equity and bond holdings while the going was good. This led to a panic in the stock market which then coincided with fears raised over coronavirus. All of a sudden two fronts had been opened. Capitalists are fighting on one side, the rest of us on both.

Lobbyists for big business, too, are in full swing. They are busy begging lawmakers to bail their masters out as their prospects deteriorate. A Guardian headline said it all: “Washington lobbyists in frenzied battle to secure billion-dollar coronavirus bailouts”.

As one interviewed US senator noted, it is hard to keep entrepreneurs away when two trillion dollars have been put up for grabs by a venal government. Airlines, cruise ship owners and hotels are putting their snouts into the trough; that is, the very people whose businesses did much to help spread the virus and whose profiteering is disastrous from an environmental point of view.

Fossil fuel corporations, mining companies and automobile manufacturers are all gunning for a piece of the taxpayer-funded spoils. Their major contribution thus far to solving the pandemic, however, has been the further immiseration of the already suffering working class. They insist that they are not to be asked to do anything but look after themselves.

On March 23, Vanity Fair reported that the Trump administration has been beset by CEOs telling it to resist political pressures to use emergency powers to force the government to procure much-needed medical supplies. Business leaders have argued the government should rely on voluntary cooperation which, thus far, has been found wanting. Of course, if we, the non-wealth holders, were willing to pay them for their assistance, they would be right there for us. Governments are listening. Now, the US government has announced it will make money available to private laboratories to do testing, to Google to ‘market’ the testing, and to retailers like Walmart, Walgreens, CVS and Target to administer the kits.

Meanwhile, the Trudeau government has made $192 million available to help drug makers conduct vaccine research that they had not done previously, because to invest in that kind of public health-promoting research was just not profitable.

The accumulating record is as clear as ever. Capitalists, while somewhat panicked, also see an opportunity. They are fighting to be saved, once again, from a crisis of their own making. To this end, they demand that they be supported. They do this under the guise that they, too, are victims of the virus and that, somehow, throwing money at them should be the primary means through which governments ought to combat the pandemic.

Not one of the truly wealthy Canadians or their corporations with tax avoiding cash in safe havens around the globe have offered to repatriate some of their money to help out during this crisis. They are willing to continue to exploit and profiteer while providing no indication what they are willing to sacrifice some of their own fortunes to advance the common good and to save lives. Those costs are to be borne by others.

The enduring hypocrisy of capitalists

Health care workers in Ontario are to be stripped of their collective agreement rights for a while. This reflects the never-very-hidden distaste for unionization. For-profit employers and right-wing governments militantly cling to the notion that freedom and liberty is eroded by the power of collectivized workers to limit their own exploitation. The temporary suspension of collective agreements means the Ontario government is now in a legal position to contract out some of the health care services to non-unionized workers and volunteers. Not only would these folks likely be underqualified, but—even more attractive to Ford-ites and their fellow travellers—they would not be unionized and could be more easily exploited. A dream coming true!

Of course, this is not how the government of Ontario justified its suspension of health care workers’ collective agreements. The government claims it needs maximum flexibility, and it sees the health care workers’ existing terms and conditions of labour as potential impediments to the maintenance of public health.

The assumption here is that health care workers, and indeed all workers, are just like capitalists. They are selfish, venal, greedy, and indifferent to the plight of others. Thus it is only right to strip them of the few powers that they have.

Naturally, no analogous attempt is being made to strip capitalists of the source of their power, or their ultimate right to use their wealth and assets to advance their own interests regardless of the harms they cause.

While some landlords are being asked to suspend their right to evict impecunious tenants, their right to arbitrarily enforce debts remains intact. For homeowners, commercial banks are willing to suspend the enforcement of mortgage payments for a while, but they have made it clear that the debts will have to be paid and that interest will be added. The restraints are voluntary, temporary and not fundamental. The right to profit from ownership is not challenged. There is no positive effort exerted by governments to force the owning class to act on behalf of the public’s welfare.

Moreover, this crisis provides us with even more evidence that, in a free market society, capitalists are never to be held responsible for the common good.

There have always been deep contradictions endemic to capitalism and the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing them into the open. The assumption that is propagated by neo-classical economists and other standard-bearers to make capitalism appear more palatable is that it is just an economic scheme, one which brings us all material prosperity. The way it does this is by insisting that the drive for individual acquisition inheres in all of us and is ineradicable. If we are free to act on this, wealth will be created for all. It assumes that it is possible to separate the economic sphere of life from the rest of social life. Yet, to the vast majority of the world, this makes little sense. This is not how they want to live. Serving one’s interest single-mindedly is, from the vantage point of most human beings, morally problematic. To most people, serving our loved ones and our communities, being altruistic and compassionate, are far more important aims.

Capitalist relations of production have always been—and always will be—out of step with human and humane traits. All too often, this truth is buried as the dominant class uses its hegemonic powers effectively to constrain our thinking. The current self-serving and anti-social posture taken by capitalists reveals they are content to let people suffer and die if this pandemic allows them to maintain or augment their wealth. The stakes could not be higher. Our response has the potential to make this horrific pandemic a crucial moment, or even the basis for a revolutionary transformation in social relations.

MTA New York City personnel perform disinfectant sanitization aboard an R-160 train in the Coney Island Yard on Tue., March 3, 2020, as a precautionary measure in response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Photo from Flickr.

Reimagining the ‘working class’

Public health officials and politicians of all stripes use every opportunity to praise and thank the brave frontline health care workers because they are putting in extraordinary shifts and exposing themselves knowingly to grave risks. As we have seen, however, this has not prevented the Ontario government from treating health care workers and their unions as potential enemies. Whose side is the government really on? Whose side are any of capital’s gatekeepers on?

In a recent editorial, the Toronto Star seems to have discovered that, while it has always celebrated firefighters, police officers, soldiers and doctors as indispensable members of our society, there are many others who deserve our admiration and praise. The Star identified workers in ‘supply chains’—that is, the truck drivers, shelf-stockers, couriers and cashiers—who, until only recently, were viewed with virtual indifference. The importance of these heretofore invisible workers has suddenly become obvious to many in white-collar society.

The pivotal role played by those who clean hospitals and long-term care homes, those who take care of children, operate subway trains and busses, maintain warehouses filled with essential products, collect our rubbish and sort our mail, and many more such ignored workers are now being acknowledged. It also has become clear to elites that, often, these ‘heroes’ are paid little more than the minimum wage and enjoy few or no benefits.

As David Graeber writes in his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory:

Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dockworkers would soon be in trouble…It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEO’s, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish.

Here, another aspect of the differential class-based impacts of the pandemic come to the fore: how many members of the working class can engage in spatial distancing and work from home?

Some employers are demanding that their workers wake up every day and take risks not being demanded of white-collar professionals. They praise them and bribe them. Retailers like Amazon have proudly announced that, in their concern for these now acknowledged as essential workers, they will grant them a small (and far overdue) raise. The hope is that this will keep them feeling appreciated as they continue to work and expose themselves to a deadly virus. Hypocrisy everywhere.

What’s more, while these newly appreciated workers are being recognized by those who ignored them yesterday, little attention is paid to the sacrifices demanded of their families. After all, at-risk workers need to return home. Their infections will be transmitted to the people they love the most. Scant attention is paid to this, but it fits a pattern: capitalists have always relied on the unpaid reproduction of the labour force, and now they are telling these real risk-takers that they are responsible to deal with the impacts as individuals, through hygiene, self-isolation and spatial distancing. It is up to them to avert the risks capitalists force them to take.

There will be a need, therefore, to scrutinize government interventions as they pump money into the economy, in part enlarging welfare payments to the more immediately vulnerable. The need to provide these grants to workers arises because private sector actors have spent decades cutting costs and, as usual, are happy to have their tabs picked up by taxpayers. As self-declared risk-takers and wealth creators, the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated that many entrepreneurs are often nothing more than a big bust.

The bailing out of workers left adrift by their employers may leave another legacy—it will be easier to make the case that the welfare regimes we had were never satisfactory in the first place, and that the inequalities we have been asked to endure, were, and remain, economically and morally unjustified. We were always told, as journalist Jonathan Cook has pointed out, that there was no magic money tree from which we could pick dollar bills to give to the less well-off. It turns out, as Cook argues, that when capital wants hand-outs, there are magic money trees everywhere.

The finding of these money-laden trees has been accompanied by an implicit admission that many Canadian (and American) citizens were not covered by the safety net because they were considered rightly excluded from it. Yet, it turns out that they should not have been; they were doing far from well. Self-employed people, small business owners, franchise operators, gig workers, as well as many part-time, casual and temporary employees, must be included in the rescue packages because they were never very far away from poverty. This crisis is pointing out the many lies by which our so-called advanced capitalist polities have been living.

Fuel for the anti-capitalist fire

The argument here is not that everyone is about to see the light and that when (if ever) this is all over, we will plump for socialism. As repeatedly noted, capital is fighting to maintain itself and is being aided by governments. Whatever the new ‘normal’ will be, capitalists will fight to remain the dominant class. We cannot assume that we will win that fight, but we should be in a better position to fight it.

The huge cracks in the system are getting wider and wider each day the virus controls our lives. This creates a number of platforms from which working class activists can launch anti-capitalist attacks that may lay the groundwork for more radical change.

For example, the global reach of the virus will make it more obvious to more people how interrelated human beings are, and how little our apparent differences mean when push comes to shove.

The evidence of how much we all rely on all sorts of people, no matter how apparently distant and different from us they may appear, could well lead to a better understanding of how interdependent we are, and how foolish the mantra of neoliberalism really is. It should be harder to keep people convinced that we are merely a bunch of individuals, that society does not exist and that there is no solidarity to be had.

It will be even more obvious, too, that the capitalist class is not actually opposed to government borrowing in order to look after the needy. After all, large corporations are urging governments to incur more debt as they portray themselves as the needy ones. Stock markets roar whenever a new announcement is made that a new money tree has been found.

What we have seen is that capitalism and a decent society cannot coexist. What we must strive for is a system that envisages the social ownership of the means of production, production run by workers to supply the needs we have as individuals and communities. The responses to the current crisis by capital and our governments do not fit the bill. The responses by non-owners, by workers and by our communities, on the other hand, exhibit the necessary ingredients. When it is all over, the hope must be that we can build on it.

Harry Glasbeek is a Professor Emeritus and Senior Scholar, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University. His latest books are Class Privilege: How Law Shelters Shareholders and Coddles Capitalism (2107) and the follow-up, Capitalism: A Crime Story (2018) both published by Between the Lines, Toronto. Professor Glasbeek is a frequent contributor to Canadian Dimension.


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