Could COVID-19 Kill Capitalism?

This is not your normal zoonotic pandemic virus. That would be the famous Black Plague of 1348 spread by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. It arrived in northern Italy from the Crimean Peninsula, and eventually reached all of Europe, killing off a third of the population. Recent archeology suggests the same plague had struck southern Sweden around 3000 BCE. It had appeared again in the form of Justinian’s Plague introduced from Egypt to Byzantium in 541. The Black Plague recrudesced in Italy throughout the early modern period (Milan 1575, Florence 1629, Sardinia 1652), and broke out in London 1665-6, Marseilles in 1720, Moscow 1771.

Another notorious zoonotic virus, the “Spanish” Flu of 1918, was normal in being transnationally fatal on a very large scale. As in most other cases authorities took measures to quarantine people, occasioning much fear and discomfort in a climate of future uncertainty.

HIV is another zoonotic virus, spread to humans by a green monkey and first detected in the U.S. in 1981. But spread mostly through intimate contact it required no quarantine measures. It produced great unease in the gay community, and radically altered consciousness about “safe sex.” But it too was normal. Similarly Ebola and SARS.

This plague is different. Not in its global scope and lethality; it, of course, invites comparisons with past pestilences. But this is plague unfolds in the age of instantaneous communication, information-sharing, international cooperation, and media scrutiny. (The masses were informed about the 1918 flu by newspapers. Few people in this country had radios at the time. There was, of course, no television and most homes lacked telephones.) And it plays out while much of global humanity is on order to stay at home.

Never before has humanity as a whole consciously refrained from labor, in order to preserve its future capacity to do what it always does: work to produce profits for the planet’s bosses. Never before have the bosses, through the state apparatuses they control, ordered people to stay home on a global scale in a calculated effort to prevent mass death.

They don’t need Karl Marx to tell them that human labor-power is the source of all value.

The fundamental contradiction in the capitalist system is, of course, the contradiction between the social production and private appropriation of wealth, the basic struggle over wages between the capitalist and working classes. One might say that in the (earlier) feudal system the main conflict was between the lord and land-bound serf and the degree to which the former could exploit the latter’s unfree labor-power.

In any case, as the Japanese shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (d. 1616) once observed, peasants should be taxed so that they neither live nor die. You want them alive so that they can produce rice for you; they’re no use for you dead. A little later a Japanese feudal administrator observed that peasants are like sesame; the more you squeeze them the more oil you get, at least to a point. The ruling class has to keep the oppressed alive in order to continue to oppress them.

Someone (Dr. Anthony Fauci?) at some point persuaded the Moron President that COVID-19 (“the Chinese virus”) was not going to go away soon, and that he would have to recommend a preventative lockdown. He has taken such measures as he has with manifest reluctance and distaste, annoyed at this troublesome thing, eager to put it behind us and get back to work as soon as possible.

On Saturday Trump identified the problem: to set people back to work before it’s safe, sentencing some to their deaths for the sake of capitalist profit? Or to delay the back-to-work order while the Dow-Jones average plummets relentlessly?

“What we’re doing right now,” declared the commander-in-chief, “I think it’s going to be very successful. But you know what? I don’t know. We have a big decision to make at a certain point. Okay? We have a big decision to make. We went this extra period of time, but I said it from the beginning. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself, and we cannot let that happen. We have an incredible country.”

Trump feels personally disappointed that the plague is raining on his parade. “We were having the greatest period in our country’s history from an economic standpoint in many other ways. We cannot let this continue. So at a certain point some hard decisions are going to have to be made.”

That Trump thinks the last three weeks have been “an extra period of time” as though it’s a gifted vacation granted by the Dear Leader; plus his grudging approach to the whole public health effort and crude demands for fawning gratitude for his leadership; plus his shameless appeal for Evangelicals’ support by repeated references to Easter and his dismay the churches can’t be filled; plus his snake-oil salesman’s promotion of an untested drug as a potential miracle fix; plus his repeated statements of optimism that we’ll all soon be back to work all suggest a willingness to return to normal prematurely.

“So, let me be extremely clear about one point,” he said at his daily virus news conference. “We will move heaven and earth to safeguard our great American citizens. We will continue to use every power, every authority, every single resource, we’ve got to keep our people healthy, safe, secure, and to get this thing over with. We want to finish this war. We have to get back to work. We have to open our country again. We have to open our country again. We don’t want to be doing this for months and months and months. We’re going to open our country again. This country wasn’t meant for this fewer, fewer, but we have to open our country again.”

Notice how illogical this is. One should at least insert a “But” before “We have to get back to work.” One has to finish the war before sending people out onto the mine-cleared battlefield. To equate the priorities as Trump does is to choose profit over people, obviously.

Trump went on at the news conference to express his solidarity will the most wealthy, powerful figures in corporate sports: “I just spoke with the commissioners, leaders of, I would say virtually all of the sports leagues.”

He then took time listing them all by name and title, as though referencing political endorsements:

“Rob Manfred, Commissioner of Baseball, Major League Baseball, Roger Goodell, Commissioner of the National Football League, Adam Silver, Commissioner of the National Basketball Association, Gary Bettman, Commissioner of the National Hockey League, Jay Monaghan, Commissioner of the PGA Tour, Cathy Engelbert, Commissioner of the Women’s National Basketball Association. Dana White, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Vince McMan, President of the WWE, Don Garber, Commissioner of Major League Soccer, Steve Phelps, President of NASCAR, Michael Wahn, Commissioner of the LPGA, Roger Penske, founder and Chairman Penske Corp and Drew Fleming, President of the Breeders’ Cup, and there were a couple of others on and these are all the great leaders of sport and they want to get back, they got to get back.”

Trump wants the people to know that all these corporate chairs and commissioners are sad right now. He added:

“They can’t do this.” (Often the identity of a pronoun in Trump-speak is unclear. This may mean, “Those people forcing the stadiums to shut down can’t do this,” or: “These fine team owners can’t put up with these damn rules.”)

“The sports weren’t designed for it. The whole concept of our nation wasn’t designed for [shut downs], we’re going to have to get back. We want to get back soon. Very soon.”

One can read such remarks as cheery “aspirational” statements; Fauci kindly applied that term. But I read them as threats. Trump is saying that if he thinks the economy is tanking critically, he will lighten up on the rules to put people back to work, and urge corporate lunches at restaurants, etc. If thousands die, well, it’s necessary because our country was never “meant” to be closed. By God, or whoever. The country, for Trump, was meant to make money.

Back to the Black Plague. I called it “normal” above because it is just one of many in world history and has had so many recurrences. But the 1348 plague in England, in fact, had abnormal consequences. It undermined feudal agriculture, by reducing the enserfed peasant population, and led directly to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Serfdom in England all but disappeared, and day-laborers’ wages rose. The revolt (Wat Tyler’s Rebellion) was not the “bourgeois revolution” that occurred under Cromwell in the 1640s, but it was a leap forward from feudalism.

Imagine COVID-19, by bankrupting capitalist states unable to balance the need to keep the global working class viable and squeezable and the need to squeeze them NOW, leading to the collapse of the whole system.

Imagine the incapacity of the bourgeois state (throughout at least Europe and the U.S.) to provide the minimal social services expected by the people, forcing them to establish (or resist to the death) public health and social welfare measures that contribute, long-term, to the fall of the capitalist system. In these dark claustrophobic times, let us think positively.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: