On the capitalism-pandemic relationship

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Nildo Viana*

The experience generated by the pandemic tends to erode the social foundations of subjectivism, as containment policies mean greater state presence and less space for individualism and its phantasmagorias.

The relationship between capitalism and the pandemic is complex and involves two fundamental elements. The first element is the capitalist production of pandemics. The second element is the fight against the pandemic in capitalism. Derived from this, we have a third element, which are the consequences of pandemics in capitalist society. This can be approached abstractly, on a more theoretical level, or it can be approached on the concrete level of contemporary capitalism. We approach, initially, on a more abstract plane and then on a more concrete plane.

The first element that needs to be highlighted is that capitalism produces pandemics. Undoubtedly, before capitalism there were outbreaks, epidemics and something close to pandemics.[I]. However, capitalism generates a globalization that did not exist before and, in addition, creates an international division of labor that generates interdependence between countries and constant international relations. The wide circulation of goods is fast and creates international flows of agents responsible for their materialization. Technological development, which affects means of transport, and the circulation of goods, makes the international flow of people something more and more intense.

On the other hand, state and military actions also move people internationally, in addition to sporting and artistic events, as well as education and work that generate international mobilization. The most recent social changes allowed, in turn, greater access to international flights, as well as the use of boats, land transport, allowing a passage from one country to another in a broader and faster way. The case of the current swarms of locusts that move from the Arab world to the African continent is just one example of the possibility that capitalism allows for the passage of a problem from one country or region to another.

In this context, viral diseases are more easily and quickly transferred from one country to another and the more capitalism develops, the more this is intense. Of course, we can also deal with the origin of viruses and their links with capitalism. Several viruses can emerge thanks to environmental and climate changes, caused by capitalism. Viruses can also arise through their manufacture by humans themselves, either for biological warfare or by pharmaceutical interests to profit from the subsequent cure of the manufactured disease.

Thus, capitalism is a producer of pandemics, although this does not immediately appear in people's consciousness, as the immediate is more visible, while the mediations/determinations are less perceptible. An event is quickly perceptible in itself, but its constitution process, its determinations, are no longer accessed by consciousness immediately, with rare exceptions. A virus that appears in city X refers to the responsibility of that place and not of the social, environmental and other conditions that allow its emergence, as well as transmission and dissemination.

The second element that we must highlight is the fight against pandemics in capitalism. Capitalism tends to create a high degree of dissemination of viral diseases, due to the elements already alluded to, and this is more serious when the mode of transmission is wider and the degree of transmissibility is higher. In the case of some viruses, the pandemic can take longer than in the case of others, and thus combating it is easier in the first case. The greater the transmission speed, the greater its dissemination. And, in that case, the conditions for their combat are worse.

Under capitalism, the fight against a pandemic occurs fundamentally through the state apparatus and, secondarily, through health services (state and private) and private initiatives, including pharmaceutical capital, research institutions, among others. However, the State cannot prioritize the fight against the pandemic, as it is linked to other interests, as it expresses the interests of the capitalist class.

This fight only becomes a priority when it appears as a threat to capitalism, whether on a purely economic level or on the level of popular reactions to the chaos that may ensue. And this is more serious in the current stage of capitalism, commanded by the integral accumulation regime, in which the State is neoliberal and has disrupted its coordination of the economy, reducing state interventionism, privatizing state-owned companies, etc. Thus, the capitalist state has a limited capacity to face pandemics with high transmissibility and dissemination.

Health services are also unable to face a pandemic, as they operate according to the capitalist logic of supply and demand. Private health services, including health plans, hospitals, clinics, professionals, etc., have an offer that is in accordance with the existing demand, which is that of those who can afford or have health plans.

The supply of private health services revolves around effective demand and not potential demand. For example, of the 100% of people who have health plans, we can say that, hypothetically, only 10 or 20% use it simultaneously. Sanitary capital guarantees a supply equivalent to this effective demand and not in relation to potential demand, which is 100% of users. The reason for this is obvious: health capital aims at profit and, therefore, generates supply relative to effective demand in order to be able to profit and offer, as more than that would reduce profitability. He has the capacity to expand the offer and can increase it a little, but it is limited and the margin for possible increase is relatively small, especially in the short term. Therefore, a pandemic with a high degree of transmissibility and dissemination tends to drastically increase demand and this occurs without the ability to increase supply in the same proportion.

State health services, on the other hand, are not for profit. However, they have expenses such as employee compensation, facilities, materials for service, etc. This isn't free, though users don't directly pay for it. The state health services get their resources through funds that are passed on by the State, which transfers part of the state income to them. State income, in turn, has its origin in society and, in the frying of eggs, in the global surplus value produced by the proletariat and drained in the form of taxes, fees and other means.

The state apparatus, however, has numerous expenses from the state bureaucracy to the various state apparatuses (education, culture, infrastructure, etc.) and therefore the resources assigned to the health sector depend on several determinations. In contemporary capitalism, with the establishment of neoliberalism, there is a guideline to reduce state spending on social assistance policies such as health and education.

Regardless of this, the state health services have a supply that is much lower than the effective demand, and, therefore, are unable to meet the potential demand. Bearing in mind that the users of these services are generally individuals from the lower classes, who have worse living, sanitary, urban conditions, which generates a greater tendency for health problems, as well as less financial capacity to seek private services, the situation is calamitous. This means unattended people and even death due to lack of care by health services.

At a time of a pandemic, in which effective demand increases dramatically, especially in the already mentioned case of a high degree of transmissibility and dissemination, state health services become unable to meet this increase in demand, as well as, over time, it is even more restricted because of the expenditure of resources (such as medicine, vaccines, etc.), unless the State starts transferring extra funds to maintain a minimum service.

Undoubtedly, state action can also be preventive and containment. It is possible, for example, to close airports to prevent the entry of contaminated people, as well as other measures. Preventive measures, the faster they occur, can be more effective. However, it is difficult for a country to maintain this type of measure for a long time, both due to economic necessity and social pressure. Therefore, its effectiveness depends on the speed of transmission and dissemination, being more effective if carried out in advance, which is difficult due to the resistance of sectors of society, especially due to the danger not being perceived and thus being an act apparently without justification or for other reasons. reasons, such as attachment to immediate interests, irrational beliefs, among other possibilities.

Of course, this varies according to time and society. In the past, with the interventionist state, state control would be easier. Today, with the neoliberal state, it is more difficult. Before, the spread was a little slower, now it's faster. Furthermore, state services in imperialist capitalist countries, even with their weakening with the emergence of neoliberalism, have more resources than in subordinate capitalist countries, to cite just one example. However, despite these differences, this is the case that, with variations in degree and intensity, occurs worldwide.

Finally, we have the consequences of this whole process. The first consequence that we can observe is who is most affected by the pandemic. At the beginning of the process, the hardest hit are individuals from the upper classes. In the current case of the coronavirus, for example, this is noticeable, as seen in the case of President Jair Messias Bolsonaro's entourage or singer Preta Gil, who were among the first cases of contagion. Once the virus arrives in the country, it starts to spread locally.

Individuals from the upper classes pass the virus on to others of the same class and also to individuals from the lower classes, such as domestic workers, employees of stores and companies, etc. When transmission becomes local, it tends to expand to the lower classes. These, due to their financial, environmental, health conditions, among others, are more fragile in the face of a pandemic. And this is even more serious in the case of workers, as most of them will not be dismissed or cannot stop working. Therefore, they are more exposed to contagious diseases.

State actions aimed at containing the advance of the spread, such as the stoppage of work and other social activities, as well as the closing of commerce and services, tend to generate economic problems and when it reaches the point of reaching the point of supply, it can generate hunger, revolts and other processes that are difficult to predict, but which may include spread of the virus. Even if this does not happen, consumption and production tend to be affected with greater or lesser severity depending on state action and the more general context, which tends to generate, even after the end of the pandemic, a serious economic crisis and others that may accompany you.

Thus, hunger, unemployment, death of infected people, are some of the short-term consequences of a pandemic of high proportions, and, in the medium term, a serious economic crisis that can generate many social problems and drastically affect the lower classes. , increasing lumpenproletarianization and impoverishment, as well as hitting the working classes with the need for a greater degree of exploitation for the resumption of capitalist accumulation.

In summary, capitalism encourages the production of pandemics and, at the same time, is unable to contain them when they are more serious, which can be intensified by slow or incompetent government actions, or even by the existence of an apparatus state with little interventionist force, as is the case of the current neoliberal state.

the concrete situation

At a more abstract level of analysis, this is the situation. Moving on to greater concreteness, as in the case of the coronavirus, we have a very specific situation and some consequences and trends. The origin of this virus is still not known properly (and reliably), as well as there is still no explanation of its specific characteristics (high degree of transmissibility and dissemination, in addition to the social issue, such as globalization and intense flow of people , goods, etc.)[ii].

However, the pandemic materialized and state actions were, in many cases, relatively quick and strong, which was surprising and which occurred due to access to information that the majority of the population does not have (and even some that may not yet be revealed). At first, the relatively quick state measures aimed at prevention and containment are justified by the inability of health services to meet a growing and unexpected demand, which is true, but does not seem to be the whole truth.

In any case, the pandemic is a reality and government actions, which vary from country to country and even within the same nation over time, were relatively quick and generally focused on containment. The coronavirus presented itself as a threat and therefore state measures were taken.

One important element is that the coronavirus has provoked illiberal actions by neoliberal governments. The expanded state intervention, the increase in state spending, among other initiatives, show state action against the dictates of hegemonic neoliberalism. The so-called containment measures, however, promote several criticisms and this has its reason for being: they are illiberal and, in addition, affect the process of production and distribution of goods, which, in the short term, may be acceptable, but their extension in time becomes, for capital, less and less sustainable, as well as affects small owners, self-employed workers, etc., and tends to generate bankruptcies, unemployment, reduced consumption, etc. This is one of the reasons why many oppose containment policies via domestic confinement, or “social isolation”.

The dilemma of contemporary capitalism from the expansion of the coronavirus is: either it seeks containment, generating a later serious economic crisis, or it does not contain it and generates a serious health crisis immediately. The policy of containment postpones the crisis, although with the passage of time it comes closer and closer to it. It postpones the health crisis, but approaches the economic crisis if it lasts too long. The non-containment policy lets the health crisis settle in and tries, through this, to let the disastrous consequences reach only individuals from the so-called "risk group" and lower classes, trying to maintain the "normality" of the production and distribution process. capitalists. So try to avoid the economic crisis[iii].

If the containment policy succeeds relatively more quickly, the subsequent economic crisis may be milder, but this is not what seems to be happening, as the coronavirus appears to be more dangerous than thought and the abandonment of containment policies could mean the your feedback[iv], it being necessary to resume such policies and in an even more difficult situation.

some trends

However, the consequences of the pandemic in the current context of contemporary capitalism point to some main trends. Government actions are already contrary to neoliberal guidelines and the economic consequences of such measures and the pandemic tend to generate a crisis of the integral accumulation regime. This accumulation regime was already destabilizing and was already pointing to a tendency towards a crisis.

However, the crisis is now an even more powerful and almost inevitable trend, as state spending on the policies adopted will generate a higher public debt, as well as will still be necessary, whether you like it or not, for its continuity, and inflation, after its monetarist restraint for quite some time, it tends to come back with a vengeance. Alongside this, unemployment, bankruptcies, and other consequences, which may vary in magnitude from country to country, will inevitably occur, and what can be speculated about is their intensity and severity.

Thus, the post-epidemic scenario points to a strong tendency towards the crisis of the integral accumulation regime which, in turn, can generate a crisis of capitalism. If this was already on the horizon, now it becomes more likely and close. The transition from a crisis of the accumulation regime to a crisis of capitalism is a trend, as occurred in the crisis of the conjugated accumulation regime in the late 1960s.

Thus, post-pandemic state policies may follow the direction of more neoliberalism, which tends to the political suicide of governments, or a resumption of state interventionism, whether in the form of authoritarian Keynesianism, or another statist form that combines state interventionism in the economy to save capitalist companies and a high degree of repression to avoid the intensification of class struggles[v].

One of the trends, therefore, is the crisis of neoliberalism. This state form is questioned by government actions that differ from neoliberalism guidelines during the coronavirus containment policies, and the economic chaos that will come later will demand its continuity, being a new need for capital and, therefore, a new political and economic task for society. bourgeoisie and the state apparatus. In this way, neoliberal or liberal-conservantist governments must change their policies or be replaced[vi].

Neoliberal ideology and the various liberal conceptions will weaken. Thus, the trend is towards greater state interventionism in the economy, as well as greater social repression. This last aspect must be strengthened by the intensification of class struggles. The wild strikes that have already emerged point precisely to a greater tendency for the intensification of social struggles and the general consequences on the population, such as an even greater increase in unemployment, financial difficulties, increasing poverty, tending to generalize social discontent and demonstrations, protests, strikes, etc.

In addition to neoliberalism, other aspects of the integral accumulation regime tend to be affected, such as labor relations, in which capital will tend to increase the rate of exploitation (and the increase in unemployment and the supply of labor can contribute to this process). and intensify the search for an increase in absolute surplus value, as well as international relations tend to change, not only due to nationalist proposals that will be strengthened (including due to the trauma and a certain paranoia that will emerge after the pandemic), but due to measures concrete in general and an attempt to increase the international exploitation of the imperialist bloc in relation to the subordinate bloc.

The capitalist mode of production will be affected by the post-pandemic situation and capital's solution is always to increase exploitation, internal (of the proletariat in each country) and external (of imperialist countries over subordinated countries, which means an even greater increase in exploitation of the latter's workers).

The crisis of the subjectivist paradigm

Another trend is the crisis of the subjectivist paradigm. Subjectivism and its derivatives, such as individualism, valuing the “subject” and “subjectivity”, correspond to the regime of integral accumulation and neoliberalism. A situation in which nationalization and state interventionism tend to increase, its social foundations tend to be eroded. The tendency towards statism means a tendency towards objectivism and holism, which is opposed to subjectivism and individualism.

Republican, nationalist, fascist, social-democratic conceptions, among others, all of which are holistic, tend to gain ground and the most likely change in state policies also point to this. The very experience generated by the pandemic, despite the imaginary and unrealistic discourses of some, tends to erode the social bases of subjectivism, since not only did containment policies mean greater state presence and less space for individualism and its phantasmagorias, but also the discourses identities and groups lose their meaning in the face of the collective situation that affected the entire population.

Thus, the tendency is to retreat from subjectivist ideologies, including “identity politics” and its strength in social movements, and focus on social issues, increasing the space for popular social movements and the labor and workers’ movement in general[vii]. As much as many insist on subjectivist discourses, on identities and “minorities”, which were already heading towards exhaustion, their space tends to be drastically diluted. The sectors that have a slower perception of cultural mutations will, over time, adapt to the new hegemonic conceptions, which, from now on, tend to be based on objectivism and holism[viii].

The most likely is that the crisis of the integral accumulation regime will generate a moment of transition, in which some will still insist on neoliberal solutions and many will look for alternatives and statism will be the main characteristic and the return to Keynesianism and other similar conceptions will be the strongest trend. In other words, the dominant class will look for a way out and a new regime of accumulation. Difficulties in this regard are evident, including for assuming an even more intense increase in the exploitation rate. Undoubtedly, fascism and war still remain as a way out in imperialist countries.

On the other hand, the tendency to strengthen worker and social struggles in general is another element that will weigh in the balance and promote a distinct and humanizing tendency, which is the radical and total transformation of social relations. The return of the struggle of the proletariat and other workers who tend to gather around it, generates another trend that is to transform the crisis of the accumulation regime into a crisis of capitalism. The emergence of new attempts at proletarian revolutions can occur with the unfolding of these struggles. And so, out of chaos, a new society can emerge. The tendency towards barbarism coexists with the tendency towards generalized self-management, towards a self-managed society.

Thus, in terms of trends, post-pandemic capitalism will not be the same, not only because of the pandemic, but mainly because of its economic consequences. And the lower classes tend to suffer firsthand the consequences and attempts to recover from post-pandemic capitalism. The intensification of class struggles and the radicalization of workers' struggles and social struggles in general is a powerful trend, alongside others. And again the possibility of radical and total social transformation is on the horizon. And that is why we must work towards strengthening this trend instead of sitting back and not fighting the other trend, an even more cruel capitalism, even with a tendency towards dictatorial regimes, population impoverishment and wars.

*Nildo Viana is professor of sociology at the Federal University of Goiás. Author, among other books by Bourgeois hegemony and hegemonic renewals (Editor CRV).


John Clarke. “Coronavirus, climate and capital: the destructive irrationality of capitalism”. In: mutatis mutandis. Available in: https://revolucio2080.blogspot.com/2020/03/coronavirus-clima-e-capital.html

Nildo Viana. Bourgeois hegemony and hegemonic renewals. Curitiba, CRV, 2019.


[I] An outbreak occurs when the spread of a disease suddenly reaches a certain region, such as a neighborhood or a city. An epidemic occurs when the number of cases is extensive and affects several regions (cities, states, etc.). The pandemic, in turn, occurs when a disease spreads and advances through several regions, becoming generalized, reaching, tendentially or concretely, all countries and continents. Some diseases cannot generate a pandemic, because for this to exist there would have to be similar environmental conditions in all affected places (which, on our planet, is something that only human action could generate, such as a generalized nuclear war or generalized pollution) or be contagious, passing from human to human. Contagious diseases are different and some are more easily and capable of contagion, thus generating greater potential for the formation of a pandemic. Thus, dengue can generate an epidemic, but not a pandemic, as it is transmitted by a mosquito and it is difficult for this to settle in all places, due to climatic and environmental differences, etc. Influenza, in its various forms, for example, has greater pandemic potential, as it is contagious, and more especially in its more aggressive forms.

[ii] Undoubtedly, for credulous people who trust official information and “scientific authorities” (with their divergences and different degrees of reliability), there seems to be no doubt and everything is sufficiently explained. However, what we question here is the reliability of such information and analyses, no matter how much they come from supposed scientists, renowned or recognized, and institutions (such as the WHO - World Health Organization), because the interests behind these institutions and the limits of ordinary scientific knowledge could hardly be trusted in their speeches.

[iii] The two crises, health and economic, are intertwined, but the focus of some is the first and others the second, and one tends to generate the other later.

[iv] This can be seen in news that points to concern about this, although there are additional issues to be analyzed (immunization, for example): https://noticias.r7.com/saude/coronavirus-chegar-ao-pico-da-curva-de-contagio-nao-encerra-quarentena-dizem-especialistas-04042020

[v] Even hygienist and sanitarist discourses tend to strengthen and justify/legitimize state actions.

[vi] In the case of Brazil, the Bolsonaro government once again showed its incompetence by not seizing the opportunity to undo the alliance of its conservatism with neoliberalism, both due to pressure from sectors of government and capital, and due to a lack of strategic capacity. The concessions to neoliberalism could have been overcome if it had adopted, taking advantage of the situation, a statist form, which is the most adequate to conservatism. This means that, in the case of Brazil, the Bolsonaro government will face increasing difficulties in maintaining itself and this will become more serious for the simple reason that capital itself will abandon neoliberal guidelines because it needs state support, which could even mean the end of such a government before the end of the mandate or else a drastic change in its orientation.

[vii] Undoubtedly, the lower classes are the ones that will suffer the most from the pandemic and, above all, the post-pandemic situation (CLARKE, 2020).

[viii] A quick analysis of the history of capitalism demonstrates precisely the alternation between such positions: enlightenment (before the French revolution), romanticism (post-revolution), positivism (intensive accumulation regime), organicism (Nazi-fascism and warlike accumulation regime), reproductiveism ( post-World War II combined accumulation regime), subjectivism (integral accumulation regime, post-1980) (VIANA, 2019). Thus, the relay shows the strength of certain conceptions (which manifest themselves in different ways, but follow some basic elements and which can be observed in the Enlightenment-Positivism-Reproductivism sequence and in the Romanticism-Organicism-Subjectivism sequence, with a given characteristic assuming more strength depending on the hegemonic paradigm, and bearing in mind that organicism was regional (Nazi-fascism in Germany and Italy), despite having similar ones that did not become hegemonic in other countries. The holistic character was present in almost all, but objectivism was typical of the Enlightenment, Positivism and Reproductivism. These antinomies of bourgeois thought help to explain the recombination of elements of the bourgeois episteme in each regime of accumulation, according to the needs of capital and the economic and political tasks of the bourgeoisie, carried out via the state apparatus, generating hegemonic paradigms that correspond to them.

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