From today’s perspective of Covid-19 mass death, the virtues of left-wing policies like Medicare for All are abundantly clear. Especially at the capitalist core, where, in the U.S., a stripped down, for profit, privatized, price-gouging, neoliberal health-care system has been proven wholly inadequate and been quickly swamped. Tens of millions cannot afford health insurance. They fall sick with Covid-19 and have a choice: suffer and spread the disease or go to a hospital, get treated and go bankrupt. M4A would correct that. In fact, every other plank of the Sanders campaign would correct similar abuses. In a sane world, that would lead to a leftish government to implement M4A, student loan forgiveness, progressive taxation and more. But this is not a sane world. And not all recent leftist governments have covered themselves with glory.
Take Greece. If ever there was a political party that betrayed its principles upon obtaining power, left-wing Syriza is that party. Elected on a wave of Greek disgust at EU austerity, Syriza held a referendum on whether Greeks should submit to that. The people resoundingly voted no, even at the risk of being booted out of the EU, whereupon Syriza promptly turned around and ignored the referendum. Not surprisingly, last July, a conservative party beat Syriza at the polls.
Was this a stunning instance of treachery by Syriza or was it something else? In the recently published essay collection, “Beyond Crisis,” one of the authors, John Holloway, argues it was something else, that for the last 30 years governments have adopted neoliberal policies “not because the leaders are traitors, but because that is the world in which governments are forced to operate.” An economy based on debt, deployed to ram austerity down the throats of workers and the middle class – that is contemporary, globalized, financialized and seemingly inescapable capitalism. Left-wing states – Greece, Venezuela, Bolivia – “have been unable (or unwilling) to break the dynamic of capitalist development.”
According to Theodoros Karyotis’ essay, in Greece “a sovereign debt crisis has been used as a pretext for a massive operation of wealth transfer from the popular classes to the local and international capitalist class.” Sound familiar? It should. It’s life as normal in the U.S., where every time the stock market shudders, political leaders become hysterical and demand that the Fed throw billions down the toilet to rescue the rich. Of course, what is also flushed away is social welfare; tax revenues which could decrease college tuition or subsidize medical care go to ceos, rich corporations and their dividends. As Holloway argues, it’s capitalism versus humanity.
This was already clear in another sphere: the climate crisis. There, capitalism sentences us to an unlivable planet, so that in the short term, fossil fuel corporations can rake in profits. With Covid-19, as with the climate, capitalism reveals its fundamental anti-human nature. “Capitalism has become our destiny,” Holloway writes. “And more and more it seems that this destiny is death…Yet we resist…because resistance is the defense of what we understand as our humanity, as our dignity…Capital flees from us…It may flee geographically in search of a more docile or more malleable labor. It also flees into technology, replacing us with machines.” He argues that we are in a stalemate “where capitalism is unable to tame us sufficiently,” and we haven’t created an alternative. This was written before Covid-19. So it does not account for the chance that capitalism may destroy itself. Its refusal to resuscitate the welfare state, its refusal to forgive debt, may undo it.
The 2020 financial crisis could become a depression. If so, we are not in uncharted waters. We know what that looks like. We can refer to the 1930s or glance at the carcass of Greek society after the banks bled it dry and tossed it in the dumpster. Misery for almost everyone. Unimaginable luxury for a very few. Now we have the added disaster of Covid-19. A plague that ravages a population which cannot afford health care. Overwhelmed hospitals where bodies pile up in the corridors. You can be sure there will be no shortage of ventilators for plutocrats. Still, that may not save them.