Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Is Capitalism Dying? The Coronavirus Pandemic and the Capitalist Left

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has led some commentators on the capitalist left to wonder if the virus will do for capitalism as the Black Death of 1348-9 did for feudalism. What will rise from the "ashes of capitalism", they ask? Will it be a kinder and more humane economy; even a socialist one.

Paul Mason, the left wing journalist and Labour Party supporter, thinks a change is on the cards. Writing for Al Jazeera, (Will coronavirus signal the end of capitalism? 3 April 2020), Mason asks the question: "The peasants' revolt after the 14th-century plague saw off feudalism. After COVID-19, will it be the turn of capitalism?"

Mason went on to say:

Today, capitalism faces its own plague nightmare. Though the COVID-19 virus may kill between 1 percent and 4 percent of those who catch it, it is about to have an impact on a much more complex economy than the one that existed back in the 1340s - one with a much more fragile geopolitical order, and on a society already gripped with foreboding over climate change".

He said he was stunned:

"... when I saw analysts from the Australian investment group, Macquarie Wealth, one of most capitalist companies in the world, tell investors: "Conventional capitalism is dying, or at least mutating into something closer to a version of communism."

Mason concludes:

"...capitalism is unlikely to survive, long term - and in the short term it can only survive by adopting features of post-capitalism".

Post-Capitalism has nothing to do with socialism/communism

Mason's "post-capitalism" has nothing to do with socialism/communism. Socialism and communism mean the same thing - the abolition of the wages system, free and voluntary labour and no buying and selling of commodities. "Post-Capitalism" has nothing to do with a majority of socialists democratically and politically establishing the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

Instead Mason's "post-capitalism", is based upon a series of reforms such as the introduction by governments of a Universal Basic Income - a reform also pursued by free market think tanks. It also rests on a misreading of Marx's section on machines in the GRUNDISSE (pp 690 - 712), and the absurd belief that prices for a whole range of commodities will approach zero due to the introduction of robotics and artificial intelligence.

The adjective "post" means nothing. Wage labour will still be exploited in Mason's reformist utopia. In the short term capitalism will not adopt Mason's reforms and in the long-term capitalism's survival depends upon the working class.

Is Capitalism Dying?

What of the claim about capitalism's demise made by the investment bank, Macquarie Wealth? Is conventional capitalism "dying"? Nowhere in the world is the profit motive and capital accumulation dying, not even where there are trade depressions and high levels of unemployment.

Capitalism exists as a world-wide social system. Society is still based upon the ownership of living - the land, factories, railways and so on. Those workers who still remain in employment are being exploited; producing more social wealth than they receive in wages and salaries. They are still producing, what Marx called, "surplus value". Just look at Amazon and the profit this global corporation is making. It's CEO Jeff Bezos has seen his wealth jump to $30 billion. And Amazon is not alone in being profitable. So are the supermarket chains and the private companies supplying the health service.

Capitalism is not going to mutate into something nearer "communism". What Macquarie means by "communism" appears to be nationalisation or state capitalism. Communism means the abolition of employment, labour markets and the wages system not its retention. Where there are strong forms of nationalisation, like in the old Soviet Union, the working class were still exploited. And where is the evidence that mass nationalisation is going to take place? Most governments are still wedded to economic liberalism and privatisation.

The Black Death and Covid-19

What of the relationship between the Black Death, the emergence of capitalism and the grounds necessary for the establishment of socialism?

In England a third of the population died. And it affected the poor peasants more than it did the wealthy ruling class, much like Covid-18 today. The historian, Mark O'Brian wrote:

"Amongst the attendants of the House of lords,..., only 4.5 per cent died in 1348 and 13 per cent the following year. Only one member of the royal household was struck down...the wealthy ensured that they remained relatively protected from the rats and fleas that brought death to the doors of the rest of the population" (A HISTORY OF THE PEASANTS REVOLT OF 1381: WHEN ADAM DELVED AND EVE SPAN 2004, pp16-18).

In fact it was future generations of peasants who were later transformed into wage slaves. The peasants were defeated in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. And Richard II was wrong in telling the defeated peasants that "serfs they are and serfs they will remain". No social system lasts forever and Feudalism was no exception.

As an economic means of cultivating the soil for profit, villeinage was doomed. "With such surly and mutinous labour and no police to enforce it, it proved impossible to make it pay." (Arthur Bryant, THE FIRE AND THE ROSE, 1965, page 64). Unable to find enough labour to work their demesne (a piece of private property attached to the manor), lords found it more profitable to lease out the land.

The Feudal ruling class did not disappear until forced out by class struggle over a number of centuries, a class struggle which took place with an emerging capitalist class. The Black Death did not see a return to pre- fourteenth century social relations but a gradual removal of the peasants from the commons, revolutionary changes in agrarian production and the creation of a propertyless class of workers forced onto the labour market. That was the fate waiting the descendants of the peasants.

Mason conveniently leaves out of his account of historical change the class struggle, which, for Marx, was the "motor force of history" (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO). And for someone who has read Marx, Mason has paid little or no attention to Marx's detailed study of "So-called Primitive Accumulation in part 8 of the first volume of CAPITAL (chapters 26 to 32).

Will capitalism survive Covid-19?

What of the Coronavirus pandemic? Is it threatening capitalism, as Mason and others believe?

The current world death toll from Covid-19 as of 19th May 2020 was 320,326. Given a world population of 7.5 billion this is a ratio of about 1 person dying in 24,000. The Spanish flu, 1918- 1920, claimed an estimated 50 million lives, that's 1 in 36 people worldwide.

Around 9 million people die of hunger and hunger-related diseases every year. That's 25,000 human beings every single day. This is rarely reported or commented upon. No one has ever said that mass starvation on a global scale will threaten capitalism.

The First World War claimed another estimated 18 million lives and added together that amounts to about 1 person in 26 worldwide.

The equivalent today would, and could, reach 300m but, sadly as in 1920, this will have no effect on the relationship of exploitation between labour and capital that Marx identified and explained in CAPITAL in 1867.

For the same reason, the OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES published by the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1904, remains unaltered as a sound and valid description of the capitalist world we live in today. There is no current threat to the private ownership of the means of production and distribution by a minority capitalist class to the exclusion of a working class majority.

Socialists remain in a minority. There is dissent but it is largely directed to futile reformism and leaders. Popularlism and nationalism remain strong counter ideologies. Capitalism remains a global system of class exploitation where the profit motive dominates economic thinking and the accumulation of capital holds true.

Only the working class can abolish capitalism

While capitalism is prone to economic crises it can take huge economic hits, wars, conflicts, environmental degradation, pandemics and survive.

There were 55 million dead during the Second World War with complete devastation of two major capitalist powers: Germany and Japan. Japan was also faced with the horror and devastation of two nuclear bombs dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, West Germany and Japan both emerged as powerful world countries some 25 years later.

Putting global warming into context, capitalism will survive even if parts of the earth become uninhabitable and some other parts are environmentally damaged. There is nothing in the scientific forecasts by scientists that say that capitalism would become impossible to function as a global system of class exploitation. It is poor propaganda to frighten workers into becoming socialists on spurious or false statistics and arguments.

Nevertheless economic crises, war and pandemics do not suit the capitalist propaganda machine. Capitalist propaganda continually endeavours, through its spurious economic industry of think tanks, universities, and media to try and convince a confused working class that history shows that things continually get better and better and, therefore, capitalism does not need to be replaced by socialism. Capitalism can never get better for the working class. Capitalism can never be made to work in its interests.

The real 'impossibilists' are the Mason's of the world - the left wingers and social democrats, who believe that capitalism can be regulated and tamed into an amicable socially responsible regime that will distribute its wealth equitably. It can’t. It does not exist for this purpose. So the only route to establishing socialism remains the working class. They will have to politically think and act in their own interests. Otherwise capitalism will just go from one pandemic to the next, from one economic crisis to the next and one war to the next.

Notes:

Daily statistics on Covid-19
https://www.theworldcounts.com/challenges/people-and-poverty/hunger-and-obesity/how-many-people-die-from-hunger-each-year

WW1 18million deaths in WW1 (military & civilian)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I_casualties
https://www.livescience.com/spanish-flu.html

Nancy Bristow's book AMERICAN PANDEMIC: THE LOST WORLDS OF THE 1918 INFLUENZA EPIDEMIC (Oxford University Press, 2016) explains that the virus affected as many as 500 million people around the world. At the time, this represented a third of the global population. As many as 50 million people died from the virus, though the true figure is thought to be even higher.

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