5 things Covid-19 tells us about capitalism
With the Covid-19 crisis, we not only face a massive human tragedy sweeping the world, moving from one epicentre to the next, but it’s clear that this marks an important turning point in history.
The new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, once a neo-liberal hawk, tells us that, “This is not a time for ideology and orthodoxy”. This is echoed by politicians in Northern Ireland who, in one chorus, echo the refrain that “this is not the time for politics”. This most certainly is not the time for their sectarian squabbling, but establishment politicians feel now is not the time to discuss politics because it exposes some truths about the politics and system they espouse and the society we live in.
Here are some of truths which demonstrate now is absolutely the time to discuss politics and ideology; now if the time to fight the capitalist system and to get involved in the struggle for a different type of society – a socialist society, run for the many, not the few:
- We are NOT all in this together
We are told that we are all in this together and the virus does not discriminate. These words ring hollow when it comes to testing. The top priorities for testing seem not to be the elderly, those with underlying health conditions or those on the front line fighting Covid-19, but those with an ‘underlying wealth condition’ like Prince Charles, who have no problems getting tested. The rest of us have no idea whether we have the virus or not, resulting in tragedies like the death of Kayla Williams – 36-year-old mother of three and wife of a refuse collector – the day after being told she was “not a priority” for testing.
As even BBC Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis put it: this virus is not a “great leveller”, with everyone, rich or poor, suffering the same consequences. Those who are on the front line right now – including nurses, bus drivers, warehouse staff and retail workers – are disproportionately the lower paid members of our workforce. They are more likely to catch the disease because they are more exposed.
Similarly, while billionaires can self isolate in mansions with massive grounds, the rest of us are stuck in often overcrowded houses. In Las Vegas, car parks are turned into areas for homeless people to sleep with appropriate social distancing – yet, the city has 100,000 empty hotel rooms! In recent years, understanding that we live in a society divided along class lines has increased. The spread of the virus has brought this into stark relief. For socialists, class is the most important and fundamental division in our society – this is the divide between the super-rich capitalist class and the overwhelming majority of us who have to work to survive, the working class.
- For capitalism, profit comes first and last
Worse still, many of these super-rich are ‘making a killing’ off the coronavirus crisis. Hedge fund managers have made billions by betting on a market crash. Similarly, Tory Jacob Rees-Mogg’s company Somerset Capital Management says investors have a “once in a generation” chance of “supernormal returns”. They are investing into businesses whose valuations have tumbled – but should bounce back. Potential gains of 500% are touted. All while most workers struggle simply to stay safe and to make ends meet.
The attitude of the capitalists brings out the reality of this system. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, in the course of the Covid crisis, has reclaimed the position of world’s richest man with a net worth of $125billion. He has fired workers fighting for decent and safe conditions. At the same time, he has the gall to set up a fund asking the public to donate to assist his struggling workers! Similarly, Easyjet asked their workers to take three months’ unpaid leave while making a £174 million payout to shareholders, including £6o million to its founder. This is not just a question of greed but is a reflection of the fact that, under capitalism, what matters is the bottom line: profit.
- Capitalism: A short-sighted system
The drive for profit makes this system incredibly short-sighted. After the SARS outbreak in 2003, big pharma abandoned much research into vaccines and treatments for coronaviruses because it wasn’t immediately profitable enough, leaving us to play catch-up now.
Research and development under capitalism is directed by those who fund it – billionaires or their political cronies. Overwhelmingly this means it’s geared towards what is most profitable, rather than what would most benefit humanity. Nowhere is this more evident than in medical science, where even Bill Gates famously noted that curing baldness for men receives more funding than curing malaria, which affected 219 million people in 2017!
We see the same short-sighted approach when it comes to our health service, which has been chronically underfunded for decades. In 2016, there was a three-day practice run – code-named Exercise Cygnus – which found the UK would be quickly overwhelmed by an outbreak similar to SARS. It is said to have exposed significant gaps in the NHS’s “surge capacity”, including significant issues with the supply of life-saving protective equipment for doctors and nurses.
If this is how ill-prepared and incapable the capitalist system is to deal with this pandemic, how can we expect it to deal with much more complex problems, such as the climate crisis?
- An inefficient system
Even when the government did prepare, capitalist markets – which we are told comprise the most efficient system – let them down. In 2006, the US government estimated that it would need 70,000 to deal with a ‘moderate pandemic’ of a SARS-like disease. It outsourced the production of these ventilators to Newport Medical which, in 2012, was bought over by Covidien, who decided to downgrade then soon drop the ventilator project. Covidien explicitly said it did so because the project just wasn’t profitable enough. In 2014, the US government let Covidien out of the contract and gave it instead to a Dutch company, Philips, who designed the ventilator. But it was too little, too late. The US government has 16,600 ventilators ready to go, with 10,000 ventilators due to arrive from Philips in mid-2020!
Similarly, in Britain, Michael Gove stated that the NHS was in need of 30,000 extra ventilators. Shockingly, when the government was asked a week later about their progress, they had only come up with 30. Many of the ventilators that are being produced now by companies like Dyson are based on their own patented models, not ones already being used by the NHS. This means that frontline medical staff are actually having to take precious time in the midst of a pandemic to retrain on how to use these new devices.
When it has not been profitable to stockpile this essential equipment, it simply hasn’t happened. Yet there is no shortage of stockpiles of arms and ammunition. The USA alone spends $36 billion a year on nuclear weapons. That is the equivalent of paying for 300,000 intensive care unit (ICU) beds, 35,000 ventilators and 75,000 doctors’ salaries. Similarly, the system has no problem stockpiling cash. In Britain alone, the top 1,000 richest people have got £771.3bn stashed in their bank accounts while, for years, working-class people have been told there is no ‘magic money tree.’
And our local Stormont politicians are no different. Take the revealing quote from Sinn Fein MLA and Finance Minister Conor Murphy, who said in relation to a lack of PPE that, “The truth is we needed to be in the market a couple of weeks earlier”. Not only does it illustrate how slow Stormont was to act but, more revealingly, its complete reliance on the market to source the necessary PPE. This is despite the factories that exist locally that could shift production in order to produce PPE.
Under the chaos of the market, profit is king and it is a struggle to get essentials. It means, rather than pooling resources, companies are in competition with each other. This leads to massive duplication – including when it comes to the research to find a vaccine. Socialists instead argue that the key sectors and major companies that dominate the economy should be publicly owned, so that we are not subject to the whims of the market. We argue that the enormous resources of society should be brought together in a planned economy, which would be democratically run by workers who would decide where resources should be focused and how to deal with the problems facing society.
- “Never waste a good crisis”
Left-wing journalist Naomi Klein has correctly warned against a “pandemic shock doctrine”. We can see an example of this in the form of repressive legislation introduced during the Covid-19 crisis. In Italy, tens of thousands have been fined for leaving their house, yet many companies are free to continue non-essential work. There is a clear need to maximise social distancing, but we know from experience that draconian powers in the hands of the state can be used against workers and others organising against the government. In the UK, the draconian legislation could last for two years. In Hungary, far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban now has the power to rule by decree, and emergency measures will include the arrest of those deemed to be promoting “fake news”. These measures will last for as long as Orban decides.
Similarly in the USA, the right wing have used this as a means of undermining abortion access. In six conservative states – Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas – abortions have been categorised as non-essential, except in very limited cases, effectively banning access to the procedure during the pandemic. Poland’s parliament is currently preparing to debate a new law that would make its already restrictive abortion laws significantly more stringent. This is a reflection of the fact that reforms, including democratic rights, won under capitalism will be clawed back by the system if the establishment is given the chance.
“Socialism or barbarism”
The system we live under has proven to be riddled with crisis and which offers humanity only a future of untold misery. From the refusals of non-essential businesses to close, to the attempts by Trump to prematurely end lockdown to protect Wall Street’s profits, the system has shown it doesn’t care about our lives and is guilty of what Fredrick Engels called “social murder” When capitalism places workers in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death.”. Socialists believe this system cannot be patched up. We need a transformation of society along socialist lines – taking society’s wealth out of the hands of a parasitic elite and instead putting it under the democratic control of the 99%, the working class. In the second part of this article, we will outline five reasons why you should get active now in fighting for socialism, including how workers have shown the incredible power they have to change the world.