Capitalism and the coronavirus

By: William I. Robinson*

The confinement at home decreed in the United State (US) and in many countries of the world to confront Covid-19 has paralyzed the capitalist economy and has therefore demolished the process of capital accumulation. That this economic paralysis throws tens of millions of workers into a survival crisis is totally fortuitous to the concern of the transnational capitalist class (TCC) about already resuming the lucrative machinery, because capital cannot remain idle without ceasing to be capital.

The impulse to revive the accumulation explains that in may places in the US there have been demonstrations of the ultra-right to demand the lifting of the quarantine, just like the most reactionary sectors of capital promoted the Tea Party in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, a movement that in turn was activated in support of Trumpism.

While the protests seem spontaneous, they have been organized by the conservative groupings, among them, the Heritage Foundation, FreedomWorks and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which brings together the CEOs of the large corporations with local rightwing legislators in the US. President Trump himself inflamed the protesters through tweets, among them one that said: “Free Virginia, and protect your great Second Amendment, which is under siege.” He called for defending said amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees the right to bear arms, almost constituted a call to armed insurrection. Days later, Trump claimed to have “total” power –the classic definition of totalitarianism– to lift the quarantine.

Despite its populist rhetoric, Trumpism has served the TCC’s interests well in implementing a program of neoliberalism on steroids ranging from the regressive tax reform and widespread deregulation and privatization, to an expansion of subsidies to capital, cuts in social spending and union repression. Trump –himself a member of the CCT– took up where the Tea Party left off in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, forging a social base among the majority white sectors of the working class who previously enjoyed privileges, such as stable and well-paid employment, who in recent years have experienced a sharp socio-economic destabilization and downward mobility in the face of capitalist globalization. Just like the Tea Party that preceded him, Trump has known how to divert the growing social anxiety that these sectors feel, from a radical critique of the capitalist system to a racist and jingoist mobilization against the scapegoats, such as immigrants.

The growing crisis of capitalism has brought about a rapid political polarization in global society among an insurgent left and extreme rightwing and neofascist forces that have gained adherents in many countries. Both forces draw on the social base of millions that have been devastated by neoliberal austerity, impoverishment, insecure employment and relegation to the ranks of superfluous humanity.

The level of global social polarization and inequality is now unprecedented. The richest 1% percent of humanity controls more than half of the planet’s wealth while the lowest 80 percent has to settle for just 4.5 percent of that wealth. As popular discontent contra this inequality spreads, the ultra-right and neofascist mobilization plays a critical role in the effort of the dominant groups to channel said discontent towards support for the TCC’s agenda, disguised in populist rhetoric.

It’s in this context that conservative groups in the US have been determined to organize a response ultra-right to the health emergency sanitaria and economic crisis, encompassing a greater dose of ideological subterfuge and a renewed mobilization of their shock forces that now demand the lifting of confinement. Mass mobilization from below could well require demand that the State provide large-scale relief for the millions of workers and poor families instead of insisting on the immediate reopening of the economy. But the TCC and its political agents seek at all costs to prevent the masses from demanding a social welfare State in response to the crisis. That’s why they promote the reactionary revolt against confinement fueled by Trump and the ultra-right.

The TCC has endeavored to shift the burden of the crisis and the sacrifice that the pandemic imposes to the working and popular classes. To this end it has been able to count on the power of the capitalist State. Governments around the world have approved new massive bailouts for capital, while a few crumbs drain from this piñata to the working classes. The United States and European governments promised at least 8 trillion dollars in loans and subsidies to private corporations, roughly equivalent to all their profits in the Past two years.

It’s about class struggle from above. While these trillions of dollars accumulate in the highest part of the social pyramid, the crisis unleashed by the pandemic will leave more inequality, political tension, militarism and authoritarianism in its wake. The International Labor Organization warned that hundreds of millions of people could lose their employment, while the international agency Oxfam calculated that up to 500 million are at risk of falling into poverty. Even more ominous, the World Food Program warned about “famine of biblical proportions,” calculating that up to 130 million people could die of hunger due to the possible collapse of the food supply chains.

The class character of the pandemic is exposed. The class, ethnicity or nationality of its human carriers is not important to the virus, but it’s the poor, the marginalized and the working classes who do not enjoy the conditions to protect themselves and cannot secure medical attention in case or infection. Millions may die, not so much from infection, but rather because of the lack of access to vital services and resources. The dominant classes will utilize the pandemic as a smoke screen to consolidate a global police state. In the end, the capitalist crisis unleashed by the coronavirus will be more deadly for the impoverished workers than the virus itself.

* Professor of sociology, University of California at Santa Bárbara


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Thursday, May 6, 2020

Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: