In terms of technology and knowledge, we should be better placed than ever to tackle the threat of Covid-19 but, as John Molyneux explains, capitalism is making things very difficult.
In terms of technology, and of medical and scientific knowledge, there has been no time in human history when we have been as well placed as we are today to deal with the kind of threat we are facing.
Yet it is hard to imagine a worse social and economic system for responding effectively than capitalism, especially capitalism in its current neo-liberal form. The problem is not just that many of our leaders and rulers, the likes of Trump, Johnson and Varadkar, evidently don’t give a damn about the lives or deaths of ordinary people. It goes beyond that. Everything about how this system is organised pulls in precisely the opposite direction to tackling the pandemic in the way that is required – even in the simplest medical terms.
Competition for Profit
First, there is the fundamental fact that under capitalism production is organised on the basis of private profit. Food is produced, houses are built, medicines and drugs are manufactured to make a profit. If they are not going to turn a profit, they don’t get made. Supporters of capitalism think this is a good thing. They believe that without the incentive of profit,either nothing would get produced at all or the only things that would be produced would be shoddy goods that don’t work.
But in a pandemic situation the absolutely urgent need is for massive amounts of goods and services (hand sanitiser, face masks, testing kits, ventilators, health carers of all kinds) that cannot be supplied in time on the basis of market incentives. The economists and politicians who justify capitalism argue that if there is a shortage of a good for which there is demand, the price of that good will rise. This, in turn, will incentivise capitalists to produce more of it until demand and supply balance each other out. As we have seen with the housing crisis, this does not work even in ‘normal’ times. In a pandemic health crisis, the consequences are catastrophic; it simply means that while we are waiting for the free market ‘feedback mechanisms’ to work, literally hundreds of thousands of people (globally, many millions) will die. This is so stark and so clear that in this situation even the most hardened neoliberal ideologue is forced to recognise the complete inadequacy of the market and the need for drastic state intervention. But this cuts against both their inclinations and the whole grain of the system.
Second, there is the fact that under capitalism production is organised competitively. Different businesses and companies are involved in ongoing and ceaseless competition with one another. Again, supporters of the system believe that this is good and that what they call ‘the competitive spirit’ should be instilled in children from the earliest possible age. Even in the best of times this makes for absurdities like numerous brands of washing powder and mobile phones that are all more or less the same but pretend to be different in a bid to grab a bigger share of the market. But in this global health crisis such competition is utterly disastrous because it blocks any rational planning just at a time when planning is most needed. For example, it leads to rival airlines flying tens of thousands of ‘ghost flights’ for fear of losing their respective ‘slots’ at airports – and my email inbox as I write is still being bombarded with Ryanair adverts to book holidays! If one pub in Temple Bar is open later, others will follow suit not to lose out and be put out of business; hence the madness of rammed pubs, clubs and streets on Saturday night.
It is equally damaging that the multiple competing decision making centres are not only within each country but between rival nation states. If ever there was a situation that cried out for our so-called world leaders to agree a common international plan, it is this global pandemic. Instead we have different countries taking unilateral decisions and pursuing different strategies, like Britain keeping schools open when other countries are closing them. And, of course, the absurdity of two different policies on the island of Ireland as if the virus could be stopped at the border – which political Unionists will no doubt fight to maintain, on principle.
Third, there is the fact that the coronavirus crisis is also generating an economic crisis. Here it is important to understand that it is not the sickness and deaths of large numbers of people that are making stock markets crash or causing a global recession. Rather, it is the panic that the pandemic, and especially the measures that have to be introduced to control it, is inducing in investors. The Second World War, which claimed 50 million lives, was actually very good for capitalism and lifted it out of the depression of the 1930s. Because capitalism is always prone to crises and crashes and requires endless unceasing growth to avoid collapse, taking perfectly sensible measures in the interests of public health like cutting back on air travel, mass sporting events or the sale of alcohol in pubs immediately threatens to plunge it into a disastrous downward spiral which will further damage the capacity of society to make the public health response needed to save countless lives.
One virus for the rich, another for the poor
Finally, there is the class division that is inherent in capitalism. This means that those who take the most important decisions are, as a whole, least likely to pay the price. Posh toffs like Boris Johnson and billionaire bosses like Donald Trump know that they and their class will be relatively protected from the crisis. They can afford to contemplate with equanimity the ‘culling’ of a portion of the population assured that it will mainly be the workers, the poor, and the elderly (the poor elderly, not the rich elderly) who won’t make it. Of course even Trump and Johnson are not immune, especially if the crisis continues, but the scale of the impact will be massively differentiated along class lines as with all health issues.
Incidentally, all these basic features of capitalism which make it so bad at dealing with the coronavirus are precisely the same things that make capitalism unable to stop climate change.
That is the context under which this pandemic has exploded; so what actually needs to be done? Here are ten straightforward practical proposals which are obviously needed to address the crisis in Ireland and to protect as many people as possible:
1. Establish a 32-county response to the emergency with a unified strategy North and South. Central to this is prevailing upon the Stormont Executive that they must break immediately from the reckless approach of the British Government and implement concrete social distancing measures;
2. Requisition private beds and health care facilities to tackle the acute shortage of beds. This has already happened in Spain, but by comparison, Boris Johnson is set to pay £2.4million everyday to ‘rent’ private facilities in the UK.
Bring all private lab and research facilities under public control to improve diagnosis and treatment;
Redirect production under state control to produce testing kits, protective equipment and respirators , all of which are in short supply;
3. Establish an Emergency Relief Fund, North and South on a scale comparable to the Bank bail-out ie €64 billion or more to pay for emergency measures;
4. Provide emergency payments to all laid off, redundant and self-isolating workers;
5. Greatly increase testing, including emergency testing and support for all care workers;
6. Freeze rents and mortgages, and stop evictions so as not see a huge spike homelessness;
7. End Direct Provision because DP centres make social distancing and self-isolation impossible. The same is true of homeless hostels. Commandeer hotel rooms for asylum seekers and the homeless – there will be large scale vacancies due to the decline in tourism. This is not just about caring for the homeless and for asylum seekers – it is in all our interests.
8. Urge communities to organise themselves to support the vulnerable and each other, which practising social distancing.
It would be easy to continue but the point I want to make is that not only are these proposals measures that socialists such as People Before Profit have been advocating but they are in themselves steps in the direction of socialism. That is because producing for social need and mobilizing all the resources of society, including its economy, to serve the interests of the 99% instead of the interests of the 1% is exactly what socialism is all about.
An economy not based on a compulsion to grow and accumulate but on rational planning, including in many cases planning to freeze growth (for example to deal with climate change) would not collapse when growth was interrupted for a few weeks or months. A society where basic needs, such as housing, public transport, health care, essential foods etc., are de-commodified (i.e. free in the way that water and education currently are) and paid for collectively out of general taxation, would save countless lives and prevent immense hardship in the current crisis. Crucially, it would also make for a far better, healthier, more equal and generally saner society than the insanity of the capitalist rat-race we are all supposed to engage in.