Even before the coronavirus crisis the argument for system change was compelling, but as John Molyneux outlines we cannot wait any longer.
Capitalism has always been morally indefensible because of the inequality, exploitation, war, racism and oppression that it inevitably generates. The threat of imminent catastrophic climate change lent urgency to the case by making it clear that capitalist business-as-usual was heading for the abyss in the not-very-distant future. Now the arrival of the coronavirus has added a whole new dimension to the question.
Public Health and Private Profit
First, it is clear that due to the pursuit of pro-capitalist, neoliberal policies over many decades, with the relentless cutting of public expenditure and services in favour of private enrichment Ireland, the UK, the US, and many other countries entered this crisis with health services that were unprepared and not fit for purpose. Ireland, in particular, lacked the doctors, nurses, ICU beds, personal protective equipment, and many of the facilities needed to face this, or any other, health emergency.
Second, it is evident that an economic system based on production for profit is repeatedly proven unwilling and/or unable to take the actions that were obviously necessary from a medical point of view. As the experts from the WHO pointed out from the beginning, the essence of containing and suppressing an epidemic lies in speed of response. It is surely obvious that every day lost in taking decisive action is an added day in which the virus spreads relatively freely through the population and round the globe – making it ever harder to limit or control. Nevertheless, and despite having access to the scientific information, the Irish Government – like Trump, like Johnson – dragged their feet, taking the necessary drastic measures only when absolutely compelled to. And the reason is simple; their first instinct was to protect ‘the economy’ i.e. the profits of big business over the health of the people. On Friday evening Varadkar announced a national lockdown requiring people to stay inside but on Saturday the government issued a list of ‘essential’ jobs for which people are still expected to go to work, which was so extensive as to hardly constitute a shut down at all.
Meanwhile media attention focuses on errant teenagers and other individuals while ignoring the crucial question of what is happening in workplaces. Similarly, in Britain, while lone walkers were being pilloried for a stroll in the hills, the London Underground continued running, with tens of thousands of workers packed on to crowded platforms and trains, in order to keep the wheels of business turning.
The same story is doubly true of the corporations and businesses themselves. Not only do we see rammed pubs in Temple Bar long after this was palpably irresponsible but construction sites, where social distancing and safe practices are impossible, have also been operating right through last week even where they were building absolutely non-essential offices or luxury flats. In the US, even Donald Trump, of all people, was bitterly castigating General Motors for their unwillingness to produce urgently needed life-saving ventilators and their demand for, in his words, ‘top dollar’.
At every level, private profit and public health pull in opposite directions.
From Health Crisis to Economic Crisis
Then there is the fact that this crisis will inevitably produce a massive national and global recession, very possibly of unprecedented proportions. In Ireland, several hundred thousand workers have already lost their jobs. In the US, the most important economy in the world, the numbers of unemployed are running into millions and rising by the day. The overwhelming likelihood is that these effects will escalate and spread in the coming months with terrible impacts on working people and the poor round the world. But it cannot be emphasised too strongly that this is not a result of some natural law. Capitalism as an economic system has always alternated between booms and slumps and the world economy has been teetering on the brink of recession for some time. The coronavirus is not the root cause but the trigger of a crash that was waiting to happen.
Moreover, a viral pandemic would be terrible in any form of society, but it is a consequence of how production is organised under capitalism that a health crisis turns directly into a massive economic crisis.
The fact that under capitalism the bulk of production takes place for profit and not human need means that any interruption in the flow of profit immediately stops production and has knock-on effects on other production. If 100,000 workers are laid off because restaurants and pubs are closed and sports events cancelled this doesn’t stop there. These workers’ purchasing power is thereby reduced and they spend less on food, clothes, electrical goods and much else. As demand for these goods falls so companies making these commodities start to lay off their workers and the downward spiral intensifies. At the same time stocks and shares fall in price and investors start to withhold investment. The slump deepens further. And then, as we know from the response of the Irish government and the EU to the 2007-8 crash and from every other slump in history, a struggle begins as to who will be made to pay for it.
The System is the Virus
System change is therefore a necessity if we are not going endure many more years of unemployment, austerity and poverty. But unfortunately, the reasons we need systemic change do not end here: this final one is utterly conclusive. The coronavirus is not an ‘act of God’ or a natural disaster, nor is it a one off. Rather, it is a consequence of a much deeper crisis in the relationship between human society and nature that has been brought about by capitalism. It is part – the most immediately deadly part – but in the end still a part of the wider rift with nature that also brings us: the clogging of the seas with plastic; the progressive acidification of the oceans; the developing scourge of air pollution in so many cities; and, above all, the threat of catastrophic climate change.
Specifically, the coronavirus is the latest and worst in a series of viral crises including HIV, H5N1 (‘Avian flu’) in the late 90s, H1N1 (‘Swine flu’) in 2009-10 which claimed up to 500,000 lives, MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) in 2012 which did not spread widely but had a very high death rate, and Ebola in 2013-16.
As epidemiologist, Rob Wallace, has shown in his book Big Farms Make Big Flu, this epidemic of epidemics is a combination of two things that are driven by capitalism – encroachment into the wild and industrial farming methods:
1. These viruses originate among wild animals. There is an unknowable number of them because they mutate. In the past we would have been less likely to come into contact with many of them, but as deforestation and further encroachment into the wild happens, we are more likely to come into contact with animals that carry these viruses.
2. Industrial farming of animals is happening now on a colossal scale, and it’s increasing. The manner in which these animals are farmed lends itself to disease spreading very quickly. The animals are kept in very close proximity. They also have very little genetic variation, so the immune systems of the animals will have roughly the same response. If one animal catches a virus it is likely to spread like wildfire to all the others. Also, the response to disease is often to slaughter the animals – this means that all of them are slaughtered, and any that might have developed a resistance to disease go with them. Once the virus makes its way to farm animals, it’s a much shorter hop to humans than it would have been from the wild.
The truth is that unless we change our method of farming, and that cannot be done on the scale required without changing our economic system, we are looking at the truly terrifying prospect of recurring and ever-more-deadly viral pandemics.
But if we need system change, what does that mean: change from capitalism to what? The question matters because we have had decades of neoliberal propaganda proclaiming that no alternative to capitalism was possible nor even conceivable. Here the experience of the last few weeks is extremely important because in so far as the Irish government (and the same is true of other governments) have been forced to address the health crisis, so they have also been forced to introduce socialist-type policies long advocated by the left and which previously they claimed could not be contemplated.
A single tier health service where treatment for Covid-19 does not depend on the size of your wallet; the requisitioning of private hospital beds; lifting the recruitment ban on hospital staff; raising unemployment benefits; freezing rents; ending evictions, and so on – all things which yesterday were supposed to be unthinkable or even unconstitutional, but which turn out to be perfectly possible. In other words, all of these policies point very clearly to the real alternative to capitalism, namely socialism; a system of socially planned production not for profit but for human need.
In short, add viral pandemics to economic crisis and catastrophic climate change and we have a recipe of global carnage on the scale of the Black Death. Move from capitalism to socialism and we have the possibility of resolving these interlocking crises and forging a sustainable future for human race.