COVID-19, Capitalist Crises, Class Resistance

The Covid-19 pandemic arrived at a moment of multiple crises of the capitalist system: capital accumulation, ecology, governance, and science. The uprising following the murder of George Floyd now accelerates the ongoing crisis of structural racism, which Covid-19 starkly illustrated. Each has a history, but as they come together now, it becomes essential to grasp how each is evolving in itself, in relationship to the others, and in their shared root in the capitalist mode of production. The social struggles that are accompanying each crisis now seem to reveal a possible political recomposition of the US working class and the start of a virtuous cycle of struggles in which each aspect bolsters the other, ending decades of struggles in separate silos. Solving these intertwined crises will require replacing the capitalist mode of production and society with a non-exploitative, sustainable, egalitarian organization of life.

The pandemic jumped off at a time when capital as a whole faces a continuing crisis of accumulation. As George Caffentzis points out, even before Covid capitalists could borrow money at near (or even below) zero interest. That many use tax breaks and borrowing not to invest but to buy back stocks, pay higher dividends and speculate provides further evidence that, overall, accumulation is slow and subservient to speculation that drives bubble after bubble.

This crisis arose despite the success of the neoliberal strategy to reduce the level of subsistence of working people. In most of the world the level of material well-being has been driven down by the power of neoliberal capital. A key weapon has been new cycles of enclosure as everything from land to social services is increasingly privatized. In the Amazon and other areas, indigenous and peasant farming people are pushed out to enable expansion of timber, cattle, soybeans, mining, and oil and gas extraction. Across the so-called West, social services are privatized to simultaneously cut working class well-being and open new areas of profit. And it is not insignificant that Covid-19 apparently arrived in humans via the ‘wet market’ of ‘bush meat,’ a product of expanding incursions into forests, coupled with regional to global supply chains and human air travel, that in weeks spread the disease around the planet.

Neoliberalism was launched to solve the profits crisis working class struggles imposed on capital in the 1960’s. (Here I use ‘working class’ in a very broad sense: those who must work to live and who do not control the labor of others.) The struggles took many forms: more money for less work, refusals of social discipline (led above all by women and youth), against patriarchy, de-colonization across the “third world” and opposition to racialized capitalism (which in the US took the forms of civil rights and liberation movements). They fought not only in the workplace, but also in the home and the community, articulating a range of labor, human, gender, racial, sexual and other rights. The collapse of control over the behavior of workers underlay the profits crisis.

Neoliberalism is the common label for capital’s counterattack. It is named for 19th century British “liberalism,” which at its core has been the actual normal for most of capitalist history: brutal attack on working people, from forest, home and village to factory, truck, store and office. The strategy, ending the historically brief social democratic “new deal,” coupled policing (in the US, above all against black power) with austerity, which launched with attacks on the welfare wage and the use of oil-based inflation to drive down real wages, and continued around the planet with IMF structural adjustment programs to transform national liberation to neocolonialism.

This war decomposed and fragmented working class unity. Overall, workers have not been able as yet to adequately respond, though resistance to ending aspects of social democracy has had some successes. Powerful social movements in Latin America constituted the strongest example. They brought the “pink tide” governments to state power, but doing so revealed again that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery and wield it for its own purposes,” as Marx put it. These states engaged in redistribution that improved the daily lives of many, but the process created clientelism that demobilized and split the movements. The states also failed to expropriate means of production or the old ruling class. Together, these opened the door to neoliberal restoration in much of Latin America (though as always, violence also was frequently employed). However, movements are regrouping. In particular, South America’s southern cone nations have again become societies in motion, led first of all by women’s struggles. Still, around the planet, neoliberalism continues to dominate, despite deep and recurring economic crises.

The crisis of accumulation intertwines with the crisis of the Earth’s ecology, from global warming catastrophe to poisoning the ocean with plastics and CO2, from destruction of land fertility to droughts and fires complemented with deluges of rain and flooding. The relationship between humans and the rest of Earth is being torn apart.

In response, environmental movements are re-growing after the successful efforts at climate change denial demobilized large-scale popular resistance. Increasingly, these movements prioritize not only halting global warming but also environmental justice, often framed as both redistributionist and green, as in the US Green New Deal. Most, however, do not position themselves as explicitly anti-capitalist but rather declare opposition to the system’s reliance on fossil fuels that results in overwhelming pollution, and to aspects of production, such as industrial farming, that have launched the Earth’s sixth mass extinction.

Covid-19 also exposes more clearly the consequences of neoliberal governance, most obviously the hollowing out of health care systems. In Italy, for example, health care is nationalized but often not available as the state cut funding, as did many other nations. The US features a non-system of stretched thin public health, privatized and frequently unavailable or largely ineffective insurance, and vastly expensive medical care, all of which play out by class, race and immigrant status.

The failure to solve the accumulation crisis coupled with social democratic parties’ complicity in neoliberalism also fueled the rise of the neo-fascist right, from Orban to Bolsonaro, Modi to Trump. These movements are driven by racism and xenophobia. Too many white-identified working people in the US (and many other nations) fear not only a decline in their living standards but also that people of color are becoming equal, that their racial status as “white” is being devalued and must be reasserted.

While ideologues promote neoliberalism as the “freedom” of the individual, the regime actually requires more and stronger repression and policing. As those who are “free” try to sell their labor power at starvation wages or to stay on the shrinking available land, states must prevent them from rebelling. This repression may be enforced vigilante style, as in the US and most visibly now in India.

Some have argued that Covid-19 facilitates the use of “states of exception” to justify intensified repression. But poor people and minority populations in many nations, e.g. people of color in the US, have always faced “states of exception” of varying intensity. The militarized response to eruptions of anger against the police and the whole structure of racial capitalism demonstrates again the normality of “exception.” Right-wing whites organized in armed bands are left alone by the police.

With the pandemic comes also a battle over science. On the one side, science is presented as neutral and autonomous, above the frays of class, race and gender. On the other, science is denigrated and ignored as right-wingers push to “re-open the economy.” For a time, people in the US could watch daily the world of science personified by Dr. Fauci versus the world’s most prominent anti-scientist. Of course, Trump nods to science when convenient and Fauci will only contradict the leader with care, but the lines clear. In this way, science is politicized even as science strives to claim autonomy.

Science and technology have been capital’s handmaidens, by for example enabling coal, oil and gas fueled industrialization and transport, massive expansion of the use of plastic, and the genetic engineering, herbicides and pesticides of industrial farming. In the realm of aiding repression, science brought eugenics and Nazi death camp experiments.

But social movements developed a radical science that has exposed how science is intertwined with and largely serves capitalist development and repression. The Monthly Review article linked above explored the details of how capitalist globalization, which has required science and technology to advance, not only enabled but made inevitable the “accident” that brought COVID to humans.

Science now warns us of the dangers it helped bring about: global warming, extinctions, death of oceans, collapse of agriculture, and increased likelihood of more pandemics. Thus, the environmental movement generally says, listen to the science. They – and I am an active part of this movement – are not wrong, but the movement must be careful. Capitalists and their politicians as a class consistently go for the profitable solution regardless of long-term damage. Sometimes the damage is not immediately clear, though restoration of the soil was already a demand in the Communist Manifesto. At other times, the dangers are deliberately hidden or obfuscated, as in Exxon’s climate denial campaign. Some actions are transparently dangerous, such as seeding the atmosphere to block sunlight. Some are evidently self-serving, such as falsely claiming forest destruction is OK if tree farms are planted. Other actions can apparently place benefit and harm at great distance from one another. In this way, mining that destroys environments and people (mostly indigenous and campesinx) in the global south is “acceptable” to provide the global north/wealthier with electric cars, computers, “green” energy, etc. The ecological, class, women’s and racial justice movements must look closely, on a planetary level, at the consequences of scientific solutions to the ecological crisis when that science is wedded to capital.

The social relations of extractivism echo the exterminism and slavery that governed the conquest of the Americas and formed the foundation of “original accumulation.” This process was repeated again and again as a quite normal component of accumulation, perhaps most notably but hardly exceptionally in the Belgian Congo. Nazi Germany exemplified this aspect of capital, for example by creating complex layers of valuing labor power by national/racial identity and building many concentration camps for slave labor alongside those constructed solely for genocide. Capital has tried to ideologically distance itself from such practices, but it cannot help itself, it must remain true to its roots. That is, capital has always been and remains racial capital and so requires structural racism and white supremacy.

Before concluding: I have argued that the coronavirus emerged in the context of multiple forms of crisis: of accumulation/profitability, ecology, governance and science. All of these crises are manifestations of the mode of capitalist accumulation that has conquered the planet over the past five centuries, despite magnificent resistance and gains against capitalist brutality. If this is accurate, it militates that our solution requires the death of capitalism, not merely ameliorative steps, though certainly many such steps can render life better for billions of people.

In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein posits two ways out of the ecological crisis. She exposes capital’s growth imperative as ecologically impossible. However, she then talks about green investments and jobs and many other economic details that would seem to not contradict “growth.” In that vein, much of what she proposes appears as another effort to contain, constrain and control the forces of capitalism, and she is now an active supporter of the U.S. Green New Deal (GND). On the other hand, she presents the alternative of a world rooted in the wisdom and practices of many indigenous peoples, people for whom the planet, Mother Earth, is sacred, people who resist having their lives captured by the accumulation machine, even a “green” one. Her interesting work on Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria promotes an array of localized options for energy to replace the decayed fossil-fueled grid, and to remake agriculture, in ways that could lead beyond the reign of capital. Indigenous activists are our leaders in this effort, very aware of how capitalism is producing the death of the planet. Without a great deal of care, the GND will only delay ecological destruction, which extends well beyond the critical issue of global warming. And it may exacerbate rather than solve imperialism, as the GND resolution offered in Congress says nothing about the devastatingly bloated military budget.

Klein does not reconcile these two visions in her work. They could be complementary or opposed. Can what is emerging as a new movement for social democracy develop beyond that to a full movement to end capitalism? The GND valuably put on the public agenda action against global warming coupled with a resurrection of social democracy that would if implemented enhance equity, including racial equity. and the material well-being of those in need. But if it is silent on how current hyper-consumption by the global north and the wealthy everywhere is ecologically unsustainable, and silent also about the price to be paid and by whom for greening the wealthier, the GND will be dangerous for Earth and a great many of its inhabitants. Social transformation movements must beware solutions that empower capital more than they empower working people’s ability to organize ever stronger struggles.

To go beyond capitalism envisioned not simply as socialized ownership and control of the capitalist mode of production (about which the GND is in any event silent), the question becomes, will we move back into harmony with the rest of Mother Earth, guided in significant part by the wisdom of the indigenous? This is not only ecological, but also social, a restoration of community, of commons and commoning (to use Peter Linebaugh’s term). Of recognizing the primacy of healthy human and social reproduction, and thus a matriarchy not as the domination of women over men in an inversion of patriarchy, but of equity in service to well-being. Such a world would replace the state with new forms of self-governance and the administration of things – a possibility illuminated, for example, by the Zapatistas well as movements in Bolivia (see, especially, Rhythms of the Pachakuti).

It is largely women who are proposing and struggling to make that world, such as in Amazonia and in communal kitchens in Buenos Aires. How to get there appears less clear by far for those of us (like me) in the global north where a GND will be difficult to win politically but is not so hard to envision as a way of life. The path toward the community, toward local autonomies networked to provide that which requires wider agreement or production, seems less clear when sitting amidst so much of the congealed accumulation of capital. It obscures our vision, make us wish for the good state instead of the end of capital and its state in toto, makes us fear if we aim to go past social democracy we cannot succeed and all will collapse. Some science-based analyses conclude we humans will have no choice: to survive we will have to vastly reduce our energy consumption and shift to a highly localized mode of subsistence – one that could provide reasonable material comforts with deeper, richer sociality.

The pandemic and the ongoing crises have sparked multiple forms of resistance. Working people are launching struggles against vast layoffs, lack of safety at work, and what likely will soon be mass poverty. For example, the MayDay People’s Strike brought together local struggles over workplace safety, wages, health care, rent, immigration, incarceration, racism and environmental justice in a day of common actions, and aims to continue to build horizontal networks of resistance. Across dozens of cities and towns, thousands of people rallied via forms such as car caravans, workplace walkouts and strikes, and rent strikes, as well as online campaigns. Wildcat strikes have reached levels not seen in decades.

These struggles emerge also following the Sanders campaign. Two points about that campaign are most significant here. First, that it may prove to be the last gasp of the effort to restore – and expand – social democracy of the New Deal sort. Such a “Plan B” for capital instead of the “Plan A” of neoliberalism surfaces with each heightening of crisis, only to subside and neoliberalism has continued its advance. Second, the campaign’s appeal to Latinx people, young Blacks and youth in general, suggested the start of a political recomposition of the US working class that could launch struggles far more fundamental than the campaign itself.

The powerful wave of demonstrations following in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the most recent in a long train back through the centuries, has put an exclamation point on this emerging recomposition. Black resistance is joined by other people of color and large numbers of whites in opposition to racialized capitalism. Blacks are providing the leadership in this struggle, as Indigenous are providing essential leadership to the ecological movement, and women are everywhere also taking leadership, opposing as well the patriarchy that is fundamental to actually existing capitalism.

If this analysis be reasonably correct, the movements are beginning to enter a virtuous cycle in which the particular struggles reinforce one another, a situation not seen in the US since the late 1960s to early 1970s. Recall it was that cycle of struggle, here and internationally, that forced capital to neoliberalism. In fundamental ways, the inadequacy of white action against white supremacy ensured capital would win that round. The recomposition of the working class, in the US and in many other lands, emerging before our eyes in response to the multiple, interwoven crises, tells us we the people have a chance this time to get it right, to save ourselves and the planet.

Monty Neill co-founded the Midnight Notes Collective in the late 1970s, which for years has published journals, books and articles. He worked in education and prison reform, including many years as Executive Director of FairTest. He taught in pre-school, high school and college. He lives in Boston with his wife; they have a son and three adult grandchildren. Currently, he is most active with Extinction Rebellion.

This piece largely emerged from conversations with my fellow co-founders of Midnight Notes, George Caffentzis and John Willshire Carrera, joined at times also by Silvia Federici.