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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 4/29/20

Coronavirus Capitalism and "Exceptional" America

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From Counterpunch

(Image by Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair)   Details   DMCA

As the global coronavirus public health and economic crisis of 2020 approaches the international workers' day May 1, 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 (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 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.)

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Paul Street ( and is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (2004), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007), Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (more...)
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