Coronavirus Capitalism and “Exceptional” America  

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

As the global coronavirus public health and economic crisis of 2020 approaches the international workers’ day May 1st, let us consider 23 ways in which it is a crisis of and by capital and its class rule profits system:

+1.  The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back. United States capitalism was already on the verge of a major recession before COVID-19 hit.  All the classic signs were there:  absurdly inflated P/E ratios s (an absurdly inflated stock market), massively deb-leveraged corporations, giant consumer and student debt, savage economic inequality (so extreme that the top tenth of the U.S. upper 1 percent had more wealth than the nation’s bottom 90 percent), tens of millions living just one inadequate paycheck away from being unable to meet basic living expenses, and more.  If the virus hadn’t broken that camel’s back, something else would have done the job, albeit with a less devastating impact than an epic pandemic.

+2.  Pathogenic Growth Addiction. Thanks to its relentless compulsion to sustain its rate of profit with quantitative expansion and accumulation (“growth”), contemporary jet-, Internet-,and satellite-age capitalism stirs up “zoontic” agro-industrial pathogens and spreads them around the planet in a flick of the historical light-switch.

+3.  No Profit in Proper Public Health Protection. Given the lethal pathogen-stirring and pathogen-spreading nature of 21st Century global capitalism, public health experts and epidemiologists have been warning for years about the coming of the next planetary pandemic and the need to prepare for it.  A critical problem here is capitalism’s inadequate time scale: there’s no short-term profit in storing up unused hospital beds, PPE, respirators, ventilators, and medicine. The American for-profit medical industrial complex has been cutting back beds, space, and medical services in the neoliberal name of “streamlining” for decades.  It has been woefully under-prepared for the foretold crisis.  No surprise: capitalism is about short-term profits, not long-term planning for the common good.

+4. Wage Slavery and Expendable People. Capitalism throws millions out of jobs when it is no longer profitable to employ them. A vast swath of the populace is seen as disposable by capital when profits collapse. At the same time, when profits are damaged by the removal of too many people from workplaces and consumption zones (shopping malls, restaurants, coffee shops, sports stadiums, theaters, hotels, airports, etc.) to stem a pandemic, capital shows its understanding of working-class  people as expendable by pushing for a premature “re-opening of the economy.” Either way, capital’s coronavirus calculation is this: what is the right number and percentage of the population that should die or face serious respiratory decline for profits to stay afloat?  Too many deaths are a problem for capitalism but so are too few deaths!  We should make no mistake: a rapid re-opening will kill masses of American workers: As Mike Davis writes at Labor Notes:

“Sending millions of people back to work without protection or testing would be a death sentence for thousands. Thirty-four million workers are over 55; 10 million of them over 65. Millions more suffer from diabetes, chronic respiratory problems, and so on. Straight from home to work to ICU to morgue…Millions of our ‘essential workers’ face intolerable hazards because of the shortage of protective equipment. It will be weeks, at best, before there will be an adequate supply for medical workers. Workers in warehouses, markets, and fast food have no guarantee of ever receiving masks, unless legislation compels it. If this is a war, Trump’s refusal to use existing laws to federalize the manufacture of masks and ventilators is a war crime” (emphasis added).

+5. Inability to Pause Without a Massive Bailout of the Already Rich. Capitalism is so addicted to constant profit-boosting accumulation that it can’t pause its cancerous and eco-cidal “growth” attachment in the name of public health without requiring giant taxpayer bailouts for its wealthy investor class’s giant corporations and financial institutions – this while offering a relative pittance to the working, lower, and middle-class majority.

+6. Failure to Properly Allocate Labor for the Common Good.  As Richard Wolff, a rare Marxist economist who thankfully writes to be read by non-specialists and working-class people, reflects:

“A staggering 20 million U.S. employees have lost their jobs and filed for unemployment benefits during the month before April 15. This is absurd. We the people, the public, will now pay a portion of the wages and salaries their employers no longer do. The unemployed …would be far better off if they all got socially useful jobs as well as most of their former paychecks. The government could be such an employer of last resort: when private capitalists either cannot or will not hire because to do so is not profitable for them…But capitalists almost always oppose public jobs. They fear the competition with private capitalists that state employment might entail. …Society loses as the public pays the workers’ wages and salaries but gets no production of public goods and services in return….Congress’s recently passed law (CARES) plans to stimulate a crashed U.S. capitalism by giving major airlines some $25 billion to pay most of the wages and salaries of roughly 700,000 airline employees for the next six months. This is capitalist absurdity squared. Most of those employees will collect their paychecks but do no airline work because flying will remain too risky for too many over the next six months. One might expect airline employees to be required to do some sort of public service in return for their government paycheck. They might prepare safe workplaces to then produce the tests, masks, ventilators, gloves, etc., needed these days. They might be trained to test; to clean and disinfect workplaces, stores and athletic arenas; to teach using one-on-one social media tutorials; and so on. But no, in capitalist countries (with rare exceptions), private capitalists do not want and thus governments do not pass laws mandating that public sector jobs be required of the unemployed in exchange for their pay. Society loses, but capitalists are mollified.”

+7. Austerity. In its relentless quest to force down the broad social wage and the bargaining power of the working-class, capital exerts regular downward pressure on the governmental social safety net.  This makes multitudes more vulnerable to harm when mass layoffs and other disasters (e.g., hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, and pandemics) occur.

+8.  Employment-based Health Insurance (U.S.). In the arch-capitalist United States, bourgeois power is so extreme as to have prevented the elementarily humanistic introduction of universal national health insurance.  Hundreds of millions of Americans absurdly get their health insurance through employment – a truly idiotic linkage which means that many U.S. workers put not only their jobs but their families’ health care at risk by doing or saying anything their bosses don’t like.  When thrown out of employment, workers are often removed from the insurance rolls – no small problem in the middle of a public health crisis!

+9. Anarchic Market Competition, Price Gouging, and the Pandemic as a Medical Profit Opportunity. Capitalism has U.S. states, counties, and local governments perversely bidding against each other for scarce medical supplies states amidst an epic pandemic.  The giant medical need and public desperation created by the capitalogenic coronavirus crisis is a profit opportunity for medical corporations and enterprises, some more credible and legitimate than others. (The ridiculous and vicious U.S. president himself owns shares in a company whose malaria drug he is absurdly recommending as a cure for COVID-19 against the warnings of his own public health officials and medical science.) At the same time, the nation’s reigning, mafia-like for-profit health insurance corporations/syndicate are cashing in handsomely from the suspension of surgeries and other medical services and procedures during the COVID-19 crisis.

+10.  Fiscal Crises of the State(s). Capitalism hitches the fiscal social democratic and public health capacities to the functioning of the privately owned, for-profit economy.  When that economy tanks, so do public revenues and hence the ability of government to protect people against poverty, pollution, pestilence, and other plagues of the profits system. (The state governments that the corrupt fascist oligarch and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is telling to declare bankruptcy will become insolvent without massive federal aid.)

+11.  Monopolization. As in every major capitalist recession and depression, the COVID-19 meltdown is wiping out a vast swath of medium- and smaller-sized businesses and helping big firms swallow up and displace their slighter competition.  With shelter-in-place, COVID-19 is a boon for the absurdly under-taxed Internet e-commerce hegemon Amazon.  According to CNN, “Analysts expect that the company will report a more than 20% increase in sales — to a whopping $73 billion” at the end of April. As CNBC reports:

“Under orders to stay home, millions of Americans have turned to online marketplaces like Amazon to order much-needed essentials like toilet paper, food, hand sanitizer and cold medicine. In lieu of neighborhood supermarkets, consumers are relying on online grocery delivery services like Amazon Fresh, resulting in a cascade of delays and out-of-stock notices amid the unexpected rise in demand. Amazon has hired more than 100,000 new warehouse and delivery workers since March to help manage the surge in orders, and it’s planning to bring on 75,000 more workers…The unprecedented demand has propelled shares of Amazon to fresh highs. The stock hit an all-time high on April 16 and is up more than 28% for the year, compared with an 11% decline for the S&P 500. Investors have flocked to Amazon and other stay-at-home stocks like Netflix and Zoom in recent months, as consumers have come to depend on their services amid the lockdown…. The outlook is brighter than ever for Amazon. But its ascent is occurring against a worrying backdrop of financial turmoil in the retail industry and the broader economy. Brick-and-mortar stores that remain open face vanishing foot traffic, while other retailers across the U.S. have closed stores and furloughed thousands of employees. Smaller or non-essential businesses have also shut their doors and are hoping they’ll be able to stay afloat long enough to reopen. “

+12.  Complex Global Supply Chains. In its long quest for cheap labor and lax social and environmental U.S. and global capital have created vast and complex and competing firm-specific global supply chains that have been badly disturbed by the COVID-19 crisis.  For many firms without the resources of an Amazon or a Wal-Mart, the damage is likely beyond repair.

+13.  One World Economy, Many States. The world capitalist system is characterized by a single world economy and yet a multiplicity of nation states.  A global pandemic pits those nation states against each other in the struggle for scarce medical supplies. Humanity is woefully bereft of a single powerful authority to properly coordinate a unified human response to a global crisis. The unequal anarchy of nation states compliments and reinforces the unequal anarchy of the capitalist marketplace.

+14. Offshored Medical Production. In its quest for cheap labor and lax regulations, U.S. and Western capital has shifted much of its pharmaceutical production to China, making the West dangerously dependent on its great Eastern rival (or “frenemy”) for drugs needed to fight COVID-19, including perhaps a vaccine (if one is possible).

+15. Thought and Information Control.  With 90% or more of U.S, print and electronic media owned by just six companies and the Internet under the control of a few tech giants, big capital is able to marginalize serious and honest investigation and reporting on how it has caused the crisis and how it is taking advantage of it.  The analysis presented in this essay (rooted in common historical sense and knowledge) is largely banished from so-called mainstream media, very much like serious consideration of the crimes of the American Empire.

+16.  Mass Social Consumption. Since capital has long moved much of its production to other countries to access cheaper labor and more pliant regulations (to extract more surplus value from the planetary “web of life”, which includes human labor power), consumption makes up 70% of the U.S. economy.  The virus has blown up mass social consumption in restaurants, theaters, hotels, stadiums, and shopping centers, thereby slashing profits and hence employment in a vast swath of the U.S. economy. Because of American capitalism’s heavy dependence on mass social consumption for the realization of surplus value (for profits), some capitalists who are invested in social consumption (that includes the pathological real estate baron Donald Trump) are pressuring the nation’s governors and mayors for a recklessly precipitate “re-opening of America” – a sending back of millions of Americans to unsafe workplaces, shopping centers, theaters, restaurants and the like.

+ 17. Divide and Rule, Multiple Oppressions. Capitalism, the rule of the bourgeois possessing classes over the rest of humanity, depends on racial and ethnic (and other non-class) division within the working-class majority to stave off popular rebellion and revolution. Those who are multiply oppressed by “intersectional” racial, ethnic, sexual, national, religious, and other non-class oppression structures as well as by foundational class hierarchy are particularly vulnerable to economic misery and illnesses.  Pandemics and joblessness concentrate with special intensity and harshness among multiply oppressed and super-exploited people – as in the United States’ Black ghettoes, its disproportionately Black and Latino jails and prisons, and its all- Mexican and Central American migrant detention camps.

+ 18. Core and Periphery. The world capitalist system that has been run through the U.S. Pax Americana since 1945 divides the planet between a minority of wealthy “core states” (the U.S. plus Western Europe and the honorarily white nation of Japan) and a vast majority of relatively impoverished “semi-peripheral” and “periphery” states. The periphery’s assigned, core-structured roles are to provide cheap raw materials and labor power for the dominant core, to serve as a dumping ground for the core’s poisonous waste and inferior products, and to function as a training ground for the core’s military and as a place to test, dump and explode weapons and ordinance manufactured by the core’s predominantly U.S.-based military-industrial-complex. Capitalism’s economic, ecological and epidemiological crises are typically suffered with greatest pain and intensity in the vast nonwhite periphery (formerly known as the Third World,) where giant mega-cites contain vast shantytown slums that are breeding grounds for pandemics. Vast concentrations of people desperately seeking to escape ecological and related economic and political misery and violence in their peripheral homelands are detained in wretched core state migrant detention camps that also breed disease. At the same time, the core’s military superpower, the American capitalist Empire, targets insufficiently obedient states and regions – e.g. Iraq, Serbia, Iran, Venezuela, and Yemen – for devastating attacks and sanctions that increase their vulnerability to pandemics. (The United States and its client state Saudi Arabia have in recent years spread famines and brought the 19th Century disease of cholera back to life in Yemen with bombs, drones, missiles, and artillery – just one especially horrific example). Before it has run its full course, we should expect COVID-19 and the global depression it is sparking to cause its greatest death and misery in “the developing world.”

+ 19. Guns Over Medicine and Healing: The For-Profit Pentagon System. Given its exploitative and imperial nature and the unevenness of power between its constituent regions and states, capitalism long ago birthed a giant taxpayer-financed military-industrial-complex, a giant state-capitalist subsidy to high-tech corporations. The corporate Pentagon System eats up more than half of all federal discretionary spending, sucking money and skills away from the meeting of human and social needs to the manufacture and maintenance of a giant warfare state.

+ 20. Co-Morbidities. In multiple ways, capitalism produces a vast array of personal and public health problems – heart disease, obesity, hyper-tension, depression, anxiety, diabetes, cancer, overcrowding, hunger, malnutrition, poor sanitation, etc. – that that function as “co-morbidities” making millions super-susceptible to infection and death via flus, pneumonia, and pandemics like COVID-19.

+ 21. Mass Incarceration. The more it shreds the social safety net provided by “the left [social and democratic] hand of the state” (Pierre Bourdieu), the more capital relies on the repressive, police- and mass incarcerationist “right hand of the state”  to control its working and lower classes.  Neoliberal U.S. capitalism-imperialism’s vast, globally unmatched archipelago of jails, prisons, black sites, and migrant detention camps is a giant multi-territorial petri dish for the spread of COVID-19 among the disproportionately Black and brown millions kept behind bars (mostly white U.S. prison guards also experience heightened exposure).

+ 22. Mass Trumpian Stupidity. Capitalism is driven to turn much if not most of its populace into clueless, obedient, and one-dimensional workers and consumers devoid of elementary social, historical and natural intelligence.  It relentlessly assaults and undermines critical thinking and serious public education, generating mass ignorance and stupidity in ways that turn millions of people into anti-science dotards.  With a large section of the corporate-managed electorate rendered intellectually feckless,  incapable (often proudly) of grasping basic material and social processes like The Greenhouse Effect and pandemic contagion, it is hard to sustain a real public health policy and to stem fantastic ideas like the notions (advanced by no less of a moron than the current President of the United States) that global warming and COVID-19 as “Chinese hoaxes” – or that one can cure COVID-19 by injecting disinfectant or taking an unproven drug.

+ 23. Capitalist Inequality Puts Anti-Science Fascist Lunatics in Power. The savage economic inequalities that are written into the inner logic of capitalism put a pandemic-spreading anti-science lunatic, the demented fascistic oligarch named Donald Trump, atop the world’s most powerful nation. In his useful book How Fascism Works, Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley notes that one of contemporary right-wing nationalist authoritarianism’s key taproots is harsh socioeconomic disparity:

“Ever since Plato and Aristotle wrote on the topic, political theorists have known that democracy cannot flourish on soil poisoned by inequality…the resentments bred by such divisions are tempting targets for demagogues…Dramatic inequality poses a mortal danger to the shared reality required for a healthy liberal democracy…[such] inequality breeds delusions that mask reality, undermining the possibility of joint deliberation to sole society’s divisions (pp.76-77, emphasis added)…Under conditions of stark economic inequality, when the benefits of liberal education, and the exposure to diverse cultures and norms are available only to the wealthy few, liberal tolerance can be smoothly represented as elite privilege.  Stark economic inequality creates conditions richly conducive to fascist demagoguery. It is a fantasy to think that liberal democratic norms can flourish under such conditions” (p. 185, emphasis added).

The political culture of pseudo-democratic duplicity and disingenuousness generated by modern capitalist inequality and plutocracy creates space for fascist-style politicians who “appear to be sincere” and “signal authenticity” by “standing for division and conflict without apology.  Such a candidate,” Stanley writes, “might openly side with Christians or Muslims and atheists, or native-born [white] Americans over immigrants, or whites over blacks…They might openly and brazenly lie…[and] signal authenticity by openly and explicitly rejecting what are presumed to be sacrosanct political values….Such politicians,” Stanley argues, come off to many jaded voters as “a breath of fresh air in a political culture that seems dominated by real and imagined hypocrisy.”  Fascist politicos’ “open rejection of democratic values” is “taken as political bravery, as a signal of authenticity.”

That is no small part of how malevolent far-right politicos – many of them dedicated enemies of science in service to the common good (e.g. the malevolent right-wing narcissist and instinctual fascist Trump and Brazil’s monumentally despicable and ecocidal racist Jair Bolsonaro) – have risen to power at home and abroad. The opening is provided by fake-progressive capitalist neo-“liberals” (in the U.S) and neoliberal social democrats and fake “socialists” (in Europe and elsewhere), whose claims to speak on behalf of the popular majority and democracy are repeatedly discredited by their underlying commitment to dominant capitalist social hierarchies. The demented fascist uber-assholes Trump and Bolsonaro, both of whom have acted to increase COVID-19 deaths in their own nations and thus in the world, are outcomes of capitalism in this and other ways.

A Shithole Capitalist Superpower

Trump infamously coined the phrase “shithole country” as an insult for deeply poor African nations and Haiti. He might want to look at the homeland he’s helped poison, with COVID-19 now rising in the “red” (rural, white, and Republican) regions where his fascistic Trumpenvolk hold electoral away. The United States, with just over 4 percent of the world’s population, is home to nearly a third of the planet’s COVID-19 cases. Some European states have a higher per-capita coronavirus death rate, but the shithole Superpower blew the chance to learn from their experience. Under the command of its malignant Stable Genius, the shithole U.S. federal government has no serious plan for mass testing and tracing. Hospitals scramble to secure PPE from dodgy private brokers behind the scenes.

This is not entirely surprising. Thanks to its extreme capitalism and savagely unequal class oppression, the U.S. has consistently scored at the bottom among rich nations in terms of social and public health. Inequality poisons societies on numerous levels.  The most poisoned OECD state by far has long been the U.S., which is too brutally capitalist to protect human beings and other living things to a remotely proper degree.

We must not “return to normalcy” – to ecocidal, savagely unequal, oppressive, authoritarian, and pathogenic capitalism – in the wake of COVID-19 (whenever the virus finally plays out).  The “normalcy” for which many naturally and understandably pine brought us to the current crisis and promises to take us into ever worse catastrophes going forward.  As Istvan Meszaros wrote 19 years ago, “it’s socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky.”

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).