Anti-capitalist politics in the time of COVID-19

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By David Harvey*

Covid-19 exhibits all the hallmarks of a class, gender, and race pandemic. While mitigation efforts are hidden in the rhetoric that “we're all in this together”, the practices, particularly of national governments, suggest more sinister motivations.

When I try to interpret, understand and analyze the daily flow of news, I tend to identify what happens in the context of two different but intertwined models of how capitalism works. The first level is a mapping of the inner contradictions of the circulation and accumulation of capital, as the value of money flows for profit through the different “moments” (as Marx calls them) of production, realization (consumption), distribution and distribution. reinvestment. This is a model of the capitalist economy as a spiral of endless expansion and growth.

It becomes quite complicated as it unfolds through, for example, geopolitical rivalries, uneven geographical developments, financial institutions, state policies, technological reconfigurations, and the ever-changing web of division of labor and social relations. However, I imagine this model to be embedded in a broader context of social reproduction (in homes and communities), in an ongoing and ever-evolving metabolic relationship with nature (including the “second nature” of urbanization and the built environment). and all kinds of cultural, scientific (knowledge-based), religious, and contingent formations that human populations commonly create across space and time.

These last “moments” embody the active expression of human wants, needs and desires, the passion for knowledge and meaning and the evolutionary quest for fulfillment in a context of changing institutional arrangements, political disputes, ideological clashes, losses, defeats, frustrations and disposals. This second model constitutes, so to speak, my working understanding of global capitalism as a distinct social formation, while the first deals with the contradictions within the economic mechanism that propels this social formation along certain paths of its historical and geographical evolution.

When, on January 26, 2020, I first read about a coronavirus gaining ground in China, I immediately thought of the implications for the global dynamics of capital accumulation. From my studies of the economic model, I knew that blockages and interruptions in the continuity of capital flows would lead to recessions, and that if recessions were wide and deep, this would signal the onset of crises. He also knew very well that China is the second largest economy in the world and that it had effectively rescued global capitalism after 2007/2008, therefore any blow to China's economy would have serious consequences for a global economy that was already in a sorry state.

The existing model of capital accumulation already had many problems. Protest movements took place almost everywhere (from Santiago to Beirut), many of which focused on the fact that the dominant economic model did not work for the vast majority of the population. This neoliberal model is increasingly based on fictitious capital, and on a vast expansion in the money supply and debt creation. The problem of effective demand that is insufficient to realize the mass of value that capital is capable of producing is already being faced.

So how could the dominant economic model, with its legitimacy deficit and delicate health, absorb and survive the inevitable impacts of a pandemic? The answer largely depends on how long the disruption can last and extend, for as Marx pointed out, recession occurs not because goods cannot be sold, but because they cannot be sold on time and on time.

I have long rejected the idea of ​​“nature” as something external and separate from culture, economy and everyday life. I adopt a more dialectical and relational view of the metabolic interaction with nature. Capital modifies the environmental conditions of its own reproduction, but it does so in a context of intended consequences (such as climate change) and autonomous and independent evolutionary forces that are constantly reshaping environmental conditions. From this point of view, there is no truly natural disaster. Viruses mutate all the time to stay safe. But the circumstances in which a mutation becomes life-threatening depend on human actions.

There are two relevant aspects to this. First, favorable environmental conditions increase the likelihood of vigorous mutations. For example, it is plausible to expect that intensive or unstable food supply systems in humid subtropical climates could contribute to this. Such systems exist in many places, including China south of the Yangtse and Southeast Asia. Second, the conditions that favor rapid transmission through host bodies vary greatly. High-density human populations appear to be an easy target for the host. It is known that measles epidemics, for example, only flourish in urban centers with large population concentrations, but quickly disappear in sparsely populated regions. The way humans interact, move, discipline themselves or forget to wash their hands also affects how diseases are transmitted.

Lately, SARS, bird flu and swine flu seem to have come out of China or Southeast Asia. China also suffered heavily from swine fever last year, resulting in mass culling of pigs and rising pork prices. I'm not saying all this to accuse China. There are many other places where environmental risks for viral mutation and spread are high. The 1918 Spanish flu may have come out of Kansas, Africa may have incubated HIV/AIDS, and certainly Ebola started in West Nile, while dengue seems to be flourishing in Latin America. However, the economic and demographic impacts of the spread of the virus depend on pre-existing cracks and vulnerabilities in the hegemonic economic model.

I wasn't too surprised to learn that COVID-19 was initially found in Wuhan (though whether it originated there is unknown). Clearly, the local effects are substantial, and as this was a major manufacturing hub, there would likely be global economic repercussions (though we still have no idea of ​​the magnitude). The big question is how contagion and spread might occur and how long it will last (until a vaccine is found).

Past experience has shown that one of the downsides of increasing globalization is the inability to prevent the rapid international spread of new diseases. We live in a highly connected world where almost everyone travels. The human networks for potential diffusion are vast and open. The danger (economic and demographic) is that the outage lasts a year or more.

While there was an immediate drop in global equity markets when the initial news broke, surprisingly it was followed by a rally for a month or more as markets hit new highs. The news seemed to indicate that business was normal everywhere except China. The belief seemed to be that we would experience a repeat of SARS which proved to be fairly quick, contained and of low global impact, despite having a high fatality rate and creating unnecessary panic (in hindsight) in financial markets.

When COVID-19 appeared, a dominant reaction was to portray it as a repeat of SARS, which made panic redundant. The fact that the epidemic was triggered in China, which quickly and relentlessly moved to contain its impacts, has also led the rest of the world to mistakenly treat the problem as something that happens “over there” and therefore outside the country’s view. and of the mind (accompanied by some troubling signs of anti-Chinese xenophobia in certain parts of the world). The spike the virus has put in China's otherwise triumphant growth story has been greeted with glee in certain government circles. Trump.

However, stories began to circulate of disruptions to global production chains running through Wuhan. These were largely ignored or treated as problems for certain product lines or corporations (such as Apple). Devaluations were taken to be local and private, not systemic. Signs of slumping consumer demand were also muted, although companies like McDonalds and Starbucks, which had large operations in the Chinese domestic market, had to close their doors for a while. The overlap of the Chinese New Year with the virus outbreak masked the impacts throughout January. The complacency of this response was misunderstood.

Initial reports of the virus's international spread were occasional and episodic, with a severe outbreak in South Korea and a few other hotspots such as Iran. But it was the Italian outbreak that triggered the first violent reaction. The stock market slump that began in mid-February fluctuated slightly, but by mid-March it had caused a net drop of nearly 30% in stock markets worldwide. The exponential escalation of infections has provoked a range of responses that are often inconsistent and sometimes panic-stricken.

President Trump has emulated King Canute in the face of a potential rising wave of illness and death. Some of the answers were strange. Getting the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates against a virus seemed odd, even when it was recognized that the move was intended to ease market shocks rather than slow the progress of the virus. Public authorities and health systems were caught almost everywhere off guard.

Forty years of neoliberalism in North and South America and Europe have left the public fully exposed and ill-prepared to deal with a public health crisis, despite earlier fears of SARS and Ebola providing plentiful warnings and compelling lessons about what would need to be done. done. In many parts of the so-called “civilized” world, local governments and regional/state authorities, who invariably form the first line of defense in public health and safety emergencies of this kind, have been starved of resources thanks to an austerity policy designed to finance tax cuts and subsidies to businesses and the rich.

The companies that make up the Big Pharma have little or no interest in unpaid research on infectious diseases (such as the entire class of coronaviruses known since the 1960s). A Big Pharma rarely invests in prevention. It has little interest in investing in preventing public health crises. She loves drawing cures. The sicker we are, the more they earn. Prevention does not contribute to shareholder value. The business model applied to public health provision has eliminated excess capacity to deal with an emergency. Nor is prevention a sufficiently attractive field of work to justify public-private partnerships.

President Trump slashed the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) budget and dissolved the pandemic task force at the National Security Council in the same spirit that he cut all research funding, including climate change. If I wanted to be anthropomorphic and metaphorical about this, I would conclude that COVID-19 is nature's revenge for over forty years of brutal and abusive mistreatment at the hands of violent and unregulated neoliberal extractivism.

Perhaps symptomatically, the less neoliberal countries, China and South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, have so far weathered the pandemic better than Italy, even if Iran denies this argument as a general principle. While there was plenty of evidence that China's handling of SARS was bad, with a lot of early cover-up and denial, this time President Xi quickly moved to demand transparency in reporting and evidence, as did South Korea. Still, valuable time was lost in China (just a few days makes a difference).

However, what was notable in China was the confinement of the epidemic to Hubei province, with Wuhan at its center. The epidemic has not spread to Beijing or the west or further south. The measures taken to geographically limit the virus were draconian. It would be almost impossible to replicate this model elsewhere for political, economic and cultural reasons. Reports coming out of China suggest that treatments and policies have been anything but careful. Furthermore, China and Singapore have deployed their surveillance powers on people at invasive and authoritarian levels.

But they appear to have been extremely effective as a whole, although if the opposite actions had been implemented a few days earlier, the models suggest that many deaths would have been prevented. This is important information: in any exponential growth process, there is a tipping point beyond which the increasing mass is completely out of control (note here again the importance of mass in relation to rate). The fact that Trump wasted time for so many weeks could still be costly for many human lives.

The economic effects are now out of control, both in China and beyond. Disruptions to corporate value chains and certain industries were more systemic and substantial than initially thought. The long-term effect could be to shorten or diversify supply chains, while moving towards less labor-intensive forms of production (with huge employment implications) and greater reliance on artificially intelligent production systems. The interruption of production chains implies laying off workers, which reduces final demand, while the demand for raw materials reduces productive consumption. These demand-side impacts alone would have produced a mild recession.

However, the greatest vulnerabilities exist elsewhere. The modes of consumption that exploded after 2007-2008 collapsed with devastating consequences. These modes were based on reducing the consumption rotation time as close as possible to zero. The avalanche of investments in such forms of consumption had to do with the maximum absorption of exponentially increasing volumes of capital in forms of consumption that had the shortest possible turnover time. International tourism was emblematic. International visits increased from 800 million to 1,4 billion between 2010 and 2018. This form of instant consumerism required massive investments in infrastructure, in airports and airlines, hotels and restaurants, theme parks and cultural events, etc.

They loci of capital accumulation is now drowning, airlines are near bankruptcy, hotels are empty and mass unemployment in the hospitality industry is imminent. Eating out is not a good idea and restaurants and bars have been closed in many places. Even delivery seems risky. The vast army of workers living on odd jobs or other forms of precarious work is being laid off with no visible means of support. Events such as cultural festivals, football and basketball tournaments, concerts, professional and business conventions and even political meetings around the elections are cancelled. These “event-based” forms of experiential consumerism have ended. Local government revenues collapsed. Universities and schools are closing.

Much of the vanguard model of contemporary capitalist consumerism is inoperable under current conditions. The push towards what Andre Gorz describes as “compensatory consumption” (in which alienated workers are supposed to recover their spirits through a packaged tropical beach vacation) has been held back.

But contemporary capitalist economies are seventy or eighty percent driven by consumption. Consumer confidence and sentiment over the last forty years has become the key to mobilizing effective demand, and capital has become increasingly demand and need oriented. This cost-effective source of energy has not been subject to wild fluctuations (with a few exceptions, such as the Icelandic volcanic eruption that grounded transatlantic flights for a few weeks).

But Covid-19 is sustaining not a violent fluctuation, but an omnipotent collapse at the heart of the form of consumption that predominates in the richest countries. The spiral form of endless capital accumulation is collapsing inwardly from one part of the world to another. The only thing that can save it is government-funded mass consumption conjured out of thin air. That will require socializing the entire US economy, for example, without calling it socialism.

There is a myth that infectious diseases do not recognize social barriers or limits or any other type of obstacles. As with many of these sayings, there is a certain truth to this. In the cholera epidemics of the XNUMXth century, the significance of class barriers was dramatic enough to give birth to a public health and sanitation movement (which became professional) that continues to this day. It was not always clear whether this movement was designed to protect everyone or just the upper classes. Today, however, the class differential and the social effects and impacts tell a different story.

Economic and social impacts are filtered through “habitual” discriminations that are in evidence everywhere. For starters, the workforce expected to handle the growing number of patients is biased by gender, race, and ethnicity in most parts of the world. It is also reflected in the workforce in airports and other logistics sectors. This “new working class” is at the forefront and most at risk of contracting the virus at work or most likely to be laid off and left without resources due to the reduced economic activity imposed by the virus. There is also, for example, the issue of who can work from home and who cannot. This alters the social division of labor, as well as the question of who can afford to isolate or quarantine themselves (with or without pay) in the event of contact or infection.

Just as I learned to call the earthquakes in Nicaragua (1973) and Mexico City (1985) “class earthquakes,” the progress of Covid-19 exhibits all the hallmarks of a class, gender, and race pandemic. While mitigation efforts are conveniently cloaked in “we're all in this together” rhetoric, practices, particularly of national governments, suggest more sinister motivations.

The contemporary working class in the United States (composed primarily of African-Americans, Latinas, and salaried women) faces the ugly choice of contamination in the name of caring for and keeping major means of provision (such as grocery stores) open or unemployment without benefits (such as customer service). appropriate physician). Salaried employees (like me) work from home and receive the same salary as before, while CEOs fly around in helicopters and private jets to isolate themselves.

The working class in most parts of the world has long been socialized to behave like neoliberal good guys (which means blaming themselves or God if something goes wrong, but never daring to suggest that capitalism might be the problem. ) But even “good neoliberal guys” can see that there is something wrong with the way this pandemic is being responded to.

The big question is, how long will this last? It can take more than a year, and the longer it lasts, the greater the devaluation, including work. Unemployment levels will almost certainly rise to levels comparable to those of the 1930s, in the absence of massive state interventions that will have to go against the neoliberal credo. The immediate ramifications for the economy and everyday social life are manifold. But not all are bad. To the extent that contemporary consumerism was becoming excessive, it was on the verge of what Marx described as “excessive consumption and insane consumption, which means, in turn, the monstrous and the strange, the downfall of the whole”.

The recklessness of this excessive consumption has played an important role in environmental degradation. The cancellation of airline flights and the radical reduction in transport and movement have already had positive consequences in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. The air quality in Wuhan has improved a lot, as it has in many US cities. Ecotourism sites will have time to recover from permanent roadkill. Swans returned to the canals of Venice.

As the taste for reckless and mindless overconsumption wanes, there may be some long-term benefits. Fewer deaths on Mount Everest could be a good thing. And while nobody says it out loud, the demographic bias of the virus could end up affecting age pyramids, with long-term effects on social security rates and the future of the “health care industry”. Everyday life will be slower and for many it will be a blessing. The suggested social distancing rules could, if the emergency continues long enough, lead to cultural shifts. The only form of consumerism that is sure to benefit is what I call the “Netflix” economy, which caters to “addicts” anyway.

On the economic front, responses were conditioned by the exodus pattern of the 2007-2008 collapse. This entailed ultra-loose monetary policy, along with bailing out the banks, complemented by a dramatic increase in productive consumption through a massive expansion of infrastructure investment in China. The latter cannot now be repeated on the required scale. The rescue packages established in 2008 focused on the banks, but also involved the de facto nationalization of General Motors. Perhaps significantly, in the face of worker discontent and falling market demand, Detroit's three major automakers are closing, at least temporarily.

If China cannot repeat its 2007-8 role, then the onus of exiting the current economic crisis now shifts to the United States, and here is the final irony: the only policies that will work, both economically and politically, are far more socialist. that whatever Bernie Sanders could propose and these rescue programs will have to be initiated under the auspices of Donald Trump, presumably under the guise of “make America Great again”. All those Republicans who were viscerally opposed to the 2008 bailout will either have to swallow hard or defy Donald Trump. The latter, if he is shrewd, will cancel the elections on an emergency basis and declare the emergence of an imperial presidency to save capital and the world from “disruptions and revolutions”.

*David Harvey is a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).

Translation: Ricardo Maciel

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