Not even two weeks into an extraordinary response to the novel coronavirus outbreak, the upper echelons of capital are wondering whether saving millions of lives is really worth the damage being done to their investment portfolios. According to reports, the debate among the ruling class is over whether or not to walk back some of the measures taken to slow the spread of the virus—efforts already considered tardy and inadequate by public health experts—in order to minimize business losses.
Like many elite notions, this idea was first launched in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. An unsigned editorial there is the most visible the vanguard of the bourgeoisie ever really make their deliberations, and (behind a paywall, of course) was especially candid.
After opening paragraphs congratulating the response to date, hoping that “with any luck” the nation’s health care system won’t collapse, they lay out their basic thesis:
“Yet the costs of this national shutdown are growing by the hour, and we don’t mean federal spending. We mean a tsunami of economic destruction that will cause tens of millions to lose their jobs as commerce and production simply cease. Many large companies can withstand a few weeks without revenue but that isn’t true of millions of small and mid-sized firms.”
After some attempts at pulling heartstrings over the entrepreneurs that will eat the most shit in the months to come—using the petit bourgeoisie as human shields for big business, as is custom—and some other telling admissions we’ll return to, they end with this:
“Dr. (Anthony) Fauci (Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) has explained this severe lockdown policy as lasting 14 days in its initial term. The national guidance would then be reconsidered depending on the spread of the disease. That should be the moment, if not sooner, to offer new guidance on what might be called phase two of the coronavirus pandemic campaign.”
They do not have the guts to explicitly state that this “phase two” would mean allowing most normal activity—the contact the virus needs to continue its spread—to return, but their weasel word description of “substantial social distancing… in some form” (emphasis mine) says it all. “This should not become a debate over how many lives to sacrifice against how many lost jobs we can tolerate… But no society can safeguard public health for long at the cost of its overall economic health.”
They don’t want to debate how many lives to sacrifice in the name of saving “jobs,”—a euphemism for the fortunes of employers, the bourgeoisie—but that’s a great way to describe dialing back the only measures so far demonstrated to work against this plague in the name of economic “health.”
How many lives are we talking about? As I write, 565 people have died of the disease in the United States, with fatalities doubling every 2-3 days. The experience in Europe and China indicates that response measures take roughly a week to slow the virus down. That means that we should see 2-3 more doublings before last week’s actions finally take effect, 2260 to 4520 dead people this week. The Journal and their allies are suggesting that we should let those effects last a week, and then ratchet up the spread of the virus again.
Even assuming a very optimistic scenario where the doubling drops by half—i.e. to once every 4-6 days—and then lands somewhere in the middle—say 3-5 days—that would mean somewhere between 72,000 and nearly 600,000 dead people just a month from now.
But it’s worse than that, because there are about 5 times as many critical cases as there are fatalities. The absolute best case scenario puts us at more than 360,000 critical cases in a country with less than 100,000 intensive care beds. The worst case puts us at 3,000,000.
You can then add thousands of deaths from non-coronavirus causes that could not get adequate treatment—car accidents, allergic reactions, heart attacks, etc. And that month cut off is arbitrary; the deaths would continue after that. In the New York Times Nicholas Kristof quoted a British epidemiologist as estimating a best case of 1.1 million. That best case involves much more distancing than what the Journal and company are proposing. They are calling for hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps millions, to be sacrificed for the sake of “economic health.”
This bloodthirsty logic is precisely the sort of thing capitalists project onto communists. This, however, brings us to the admission I alluded to above, buried in the middle of the editorial:
“Some in the media who don’t understand American business say that China managed a comparable shock to its economy and is now beginning to emerge on the other side. Why can’t the U.S. do it too? This ignores that the Chinese state owns an enormous stake in that economy and chose to absorb the losses. In the U.S. those losses will be borne by private owners and workers who rely on a functioning private economy. They have no state balance sheet to fall back on.”
We don’t need to debate the class character of the Chinese state—even the Communist Party of China will admit that “socialism with Chinese characteristics” accommodates global capital. Regardless, the Wall Street Journal openly admits that the options at hand are a state-controlled economy capable of stemming the plague’s advance or letting potentially millions of people die for the sake of sustaining a privately-owned one.
The US government could easily freeze all debts, rents, and other contractual payments, guarantee a short-term income for all families, and take all necessary measures to maintain provision of food, medicine, utilities, and vital services until the virus has run out of steam. But even a momentary economy run on the basis of human need and not the accumulation of profit poses the threat of a good example. It’s bad enough that China does it incompletely, hence official bellicosity against them even in this hour of mutual need.
There is no amount of human lives the ruling class wouldn’t trade to prevent that risk, especially when they know they are the least likely to die.
The only silver lining is that one way or the other most of us will come out on the other end of this nightmare, and when we do the argument we must make is clear: capitalism will continue to kill us by the millions and billions until it is stopped. You don’t even have to take our word for it—you can read it in the paper.
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