Pandemics, crises and capitalism

Maria Bonomi, AN - AM, woodcut, 93.00 cm x 95.00 cm, 1970.


Commentary on the newly released book

No one doubts the enormous problems that the COVID 19 pandemic has caused and is causing to the world economy. With a 3,5% drop in the GDP of the giant American economy, spectacular drops (around 10%) in some European countries, and with the also giant Chinese economy showing the lowest increase in its product in almost 50 years (only 2,3, 2020% growth), XNUMX enters economic history as a unique year.

In fact, in an increasingly interconnected world environment, economically and socially, the advent of the pandemic ended up combining three elements that, taken together, explain the unprecedented nature of the situation: demand crisis (already in progress and, from then on, even more acute), financial crisis (with the growth of investors' speculative appetite) and supply crisis (produced by the near stoppage of activities brought about by the virus, aggravated by the worldwide spread of the so-called global value chains).

It is easily understandable, therefore, that this apparently fortuitous event is attributed the exclusive blame for the disastrous scenario of the first year of this third decade of the XNUMXst century. But things are not so simple. The greatest merit of the book Pandemics, crises and capitalism it is to have gathered powerful arguments to show that this very bad situation also has deep roots, which are based on the current way of managing the capitalist economy and on the worsening of contradictions that are immanent to it.

Already in the first chapter, the four authors of the book, with Rosa Marques at the head (who has in social policies and health, it is worth noting, some of her research topics), recall the warning made by the director of the IMF, in October 2019 , as for growth, in the following year, even more anemic than that already signaled for the current year, it worsens, which should manifest itself in a synchronized way, affecting 90% of the countries. Everything indicates, therefore, that the pandemic, unprecedented in terms of the seriousness of its health consequences, has once and for all complicated an already quite difficult economic situation. Furthermore, it created a new layer of contradictions by demanding that national states act appropriately to such a situation. It is this set of puzzles that the book proposes to analyze from the point of view of the critique of political economy.

The 2008 international financial crisis is the first piece to deserve the authors' attention. Based on the most recent works of the French Marxist economist François Chesnais, they will argue that the mismatch between the volume of interest-bearing capital and that of the capital involved in the creation of surplus value, an element that is at the base of the referred crisis, remained unresolved before the pandemic and deepened with its arrival as the level of activity plummeted across the world. On the other hand, financial wealth, boosted by the general drop in interest rates, resumed its speculative appreciation after the slumps at the beginning of the pandemic, aggravating the potential for financial instability in the world system.

The “Covid crisis” (as, the authors believe, the present period will come to be called in the future) also had undeniable consequences in the panorama, already quite aggravated, of inequality – social, territorial, health conditions and access to services. By asymmetrically reaching poor and peripheral populations, a phenomenon that the authors study in detail in the case of Brazil, the pandemic revealed these ills in vivid colors. The “induced economic coma” policy (the terms are from the Unctad text) that the governments of almost all countries ended up adopting to face the spread of the virus was not enough to avoid the unveiling of inequality brought about by the pandemic, in which despite the high amounts involved in the programs – they were US$ 13 trillion, according to the book, in the G20 countries alone (p. 14).

However, it was precisely the extraordinary amount of resources mobilized by national states in the different types of policies to face the health crisis that led many analysts to claim that the pandemic had buried neoliberalism and turned all governments into Keynesians. This is a thesis that the authors reject. For them, neoliberalism and the domain of interest-bearing capital (or financial capital) are Siamese brothers, that is, they constitute an inseparable unit, so that it is in the context of a still neoliberal State that these policies must be analyzed.

In any case, for the authors, the pandemic produced a re-signification of public health, which evidently has consequences for the question of the role of the State. If it is true that one cannot say that governments have all become Keynesian overnight, one cannot fail to recognize that “the specialization of production resulting from the globalization of capital has taught, at least for some governments, that it is necessary to State to assume responsibility for part of health activities. This is in the name of national sovereignty and the requirement to maintain social cohesion” (p. 65).

They recall, in this sense, the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, clearly in tune with liberal ideas, stating, in March 2020, that it would be necessary “to rebuild our national and European sovereignty (…) to produce more on our soil” (p. 80 ). This reveals the potential of the pandemic to wreak havoc on current doctrine, as Macron's statement, although related to production associated with health (the president was speaking while visiting a medical and surgical products industry), could be extended to the system as a whole, increasingly structured exclusively by the imperatives of globalized capital.

Still on the key to the impactful consequences brought by Covid-19, the authors will remember the return of the debate on permanent basic income. The issue is associated, of course, with the inequality inherent in the system, which has deepened in recent decades and which the health crisis has laid bare. Investigating the history of this type of proposal and pointing out the discontinuous nature of its discussion (it enters the scene with more force whenever the economic crisis deepens), the authors will affirm that here, as in the case of public health, the pandemic will making initiatives in principle foreign to the canons of neoliberal management inescapable. For them, these are necessary measures for capital itself, given that it is imperative to face threats of disruption of the social fabric, whose consequences would be unpredictable.

Due to their systemic view of the problem, based on the principles of capitalist accumulation, the authors of the book will also bring up the issue of ongoing transformations in the scope of relations and the work process resulting from the rise of new technologies (industry 4.0, internet of things, artificial intelligence). The intervention of this factor in the discussion of the pandemic has to do precisely with its link to the problem of inequality, wide open with the new situation. According to the authors, the needs imposed by the search for control in the virus transmission process intensified the use of these elements, promoting changes that are here to stay. The immediate result of the restructuring is the extraordinary increase in unemployment, which will not reverse with the end of the pandemic, aggravating the already disastrous social situation.

The holistic analysis of the pandemic problem is completed by considering the environmental issue. In the last chapter of the book, the authors start by asking whether the improvements verified in the quality of the environment resulting from the prolonged periods of isolation would be enough to change behavior and ways of life, in particular, consumerism and, in a broader scope, the relationships themselves. between man and nature.

From the outset, they already state that the consumer relationship in capitalism is predatory by nature, regardless of human will. In addition, throughout the 19th century, consumption would have been erected into a value and a norm of conduct, which makes “it is pointless to imagine that it is possible […] based on the experience […] provoked by Covid-130, to establish another relationship with the act of buying” (p. 134). Remember here the Mexican sociologist and environmentalist Enrique Leff, for whom there is no plausible justification for assuming that the capitalist system is capable of internalizing the ecological and social conditions of sustainability, equity, justice and democracy (p. XNUMX).

The irreconcilable nature of capitalism with truly human values ​​leads the authors to examine, in the final part of the book, the alternatives, currently under discussion, of “Good Living” and Ecosocialism. The first, in line with the growing struggle and political importance of the Andean peoples in Latin America, expresses the philosophy of the original peoples, which seeks balance between human beings, between them and nature, and between the material world and the spiritual. The main feature that makes Good Living stand out as an alternative to today's toxic and dangerous world is that it does not contemplate the notion of progress introduced by capitalism, since it starts from the idea that time and space are not linear, but cyclical. Similarly, Ecosocialism also warns of the risk to human existence itself represented by the unlimited reproduction of capital and the commodification of all human activities and nature. In this sense, it will propose the centrality of social needs, individual well-being and ecological balance; in other words, “the return of the supremacy of use value”. That topos would be achieved, through the use of democratic planning, over a Great Transition between the current form of organization of the economy and a future one, exclusively in the service of humanity and at peace with nature.

Although not directly addressed by the book, the relationship between environmental degradation and the proliferation of pandemics is yet another argument demonstrating the importance of systematically dealing with both the advent of Covid-19 and the worsening of the economic and social crisis it produced. Recent study published by the famous magazine Nature[1] demonstrates, for example, that, in degraded environments, the populations of animals that harbor zoonotic diseases (capable of causing pandemics like the current one) are, on average, 2,5 times higher.

The awareness of these interrelations appears, however, in the first pages of the book. In the presentation, its authors recall that environmental degradation is perhaps the most urgent problem facing humanity: “This issue is closely related to the statement that we live in a period of pandemics and that the construction of the future cannot be postponed to tomorrow” (p. 8).

In short, reading Pandemics, Crises and Capitalism it proves to be essential for all those who wish to go beyond the daily news about infected people, deaths and vaccines, and understand not only the assumptions of the gloomy situation we are now experiencing, but also those that, unfortunately, seem yet to come.

*Leda Maria Paulani is a senior professor at FEA-USP. Author, among other books, of Modernity and economic discourse (Boitempo). []


Rosa Maria Marques, Marcel Guedes Leite, Solange Emilene Berwig and Marcelo Álvares Depieri. Pandemics, Crises and Capitalism. São Paulo, Popular Expression, 2021, 160 pages.


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