In March 2020 when the COVID pandemic was first tightening its deadly grip on America and the newscasters were looking horrified as they read the figures they were getting, a phrase flashed through my head: “The Plague that Killed Capitalism.”
Who knows where the ideas that streak through your mind come from? Initially I dismissed the idea as a joke. It seemed far-fetched. What could possibly threaten the reign of the mighty capitalism that rules the world? But once the proposition had presented itself, it seemed to demand consideration. I started watching, and wondering: can capitalism survive COVID? How will it be transformed?
It was only too apparent by the shocking reporting that was pouring out of the TV hour by hour that our society, as it is now structured around free market capitalism, is in no way up to the task of dealing with a disaster on the scale of COVID. Just looking at the extent of the devastation and death, it was obvious that our profit-based health systems were not equipped to combat this lethal virus. It was not a profitable proposition.
Most disasters are selective, but COVID attacked everyone everywhere all at once. The country can abandon New Orleans after a devastating hurricane, and a few weeks later, the news cycles will have found other things to fixate on. When disasters are popping up one place at a time, they can be selectively viewed for a while and then ignored while the eye of the news shifts to something else. But COVID offered no opportunities for finding replacement news stories because it was everywhere and it was relentless. It was the only story.
When suddenly almost everything stopped, it became obvious that our systems were going to have to change to adapt to the extreme circumstances. Congress passed major pandemic relief packages while still under Trump and the Republican-controlled Senate. Then the Koch’s Heritage Foundation and its oligarchical allies freaked out at what looked a lot like socialism. They fought back against the sudden abandonment of their purist version of free market capitalism. The mediasphere was suddenly flooded with a tsunami of misinformation to turn people against public health measures and make COVID a divisive political issue. Because responsible measures were not put in place at the beginning of the pandemic, we now have a disease that will probably always be with us.
Trump and the Republicans had to give in to the pressure for the government to step in and bail out working people, not just corporations this time. But after the backlash from the oligarchs, they backed off and fell into line. Then the party line became all about getting the country running again, getting everyone back to work before they had time to reflect on the treadmill they had been so well trained to endure.
We’re still in the heat of that battle against medical science that was launched by the Republicans. To maintain their tenuous hold on control now, it appears that the oligarchs have decided it’s time to come out in front for authoritarianism, no more pretending to believe in democracy.
So capitalism was broadsided, took a real wallop and is now staggering around trying to reclaim its hold, but struggling to do it. Will this really be the plague that killed capitalism? Or will capitalism kill democracy instead? Stay tuned.
A thought experiment
I can hear my conservatively conditioned friends saying, “What do you have against capitalism? It’s provided you the highest standard of living in history.”
“Highest standard of living” in this context means “abundant cheap consumer goods.” That’s what capitalism does well. I don’t agree that “abundant cheap consumer goods” equates to a high standard of living, but even to the extent that I agree capitalism has provided that benefit, it’s a very selective benefit. Capitalism has not provided that for a broad swath of the population, certainly not for the worker who earns pennies a day working like a slave to allow you to become awash in consumer goods.
To clarify, capitalism is one word, but it’s been used to describe many different variations of economic and political systems. There was the capitalism of the Dutch West India Company that founded New Amsterdam, which later became New York. There was the capitalism of the colonial period, and that of the antebellum South, when cotton became the richest industry in history, driven by the cotton gin and free slave labor. There was post-Civil War capitalism and Manifest Destiny. And there was the Gilded Age of the late 19th century when the Robber Barons ruled. In the 1930s Franklin D. Roosevelt oversaw the moderation of capitalism, introducing some socialist measures to keep capitalism from destroying itself with its own excesses.
At the same time FDR was pulling capitalism off the edge of a cliff, capitalism in Italy and Germany was moving further to the right. There it evolved into the most extreme, brutal forms of capitalism, the fascism of Mussolini and Hitler, examples of what happens when capitalism loses all restraint.
FDR’s New Deal set up the framework of liberal capitalism that produced decades of social and economic stability, and a strengthening middle class, the world that the Baby Boomers grew up in. Then came the Reagan “Greed is Good” Revolution and the push to the right which has continued to evolve into the 21st century corporate globalism that we are now experiencing, and which is now reeling under the knockout blow of COVID.
In response to the question, what do I have against capitalism, I propose a single thought experiment. We now know that we are locked into global warming. As we see environmental disasters of many kinds breaking out all over the world, we know that there will be no “preventing” global warming. There may be ways of mitigating it. I have great hopes that important strides will be made in technology to help us adapt to climate change. But that can only happen if we can push away the resistance to acknowledging the problem that is still preventing action, even as we are being consumed by the disaster. Even today, in the midst of increasing disasters, constructive actions are still being blocked by the powerful oil and coal industries.
Scientists made public findings in the 1970s that predicted what has now happened. At that time, we could have prevented it. If we’d had the national will to move away from the energy sources that were potentially destroying life on earth, we could have averted it. We will still have to do that if we want our civilization to survive, but we’ve lost the chance to stop global warming.
So why didn’t we do anything? Because science, wisdom or civic responsibility do not rule our society, even in the case of the most extreme emergency that literally endangers life on earth. Profit rules, and that has come to mean short-term profit for a few. That’s capitalism. Are we being asked to weigh “abundant cheap consumer goods” against a stable environment that we can survive in?
A changing mindset
Einstein said you can’t solve a problem with the same mindset that created the problem. Capitalism is a mindset. In its most pure form it says that if something is not making a profit, it should not exist, and this principle it extends to human beings.
Under our current form of capitalism, if a person loses his job because his employer moved production to a low-wage country, and he can no longer afford his rent or mortgage, we let him struggle to survive on the streets without shelter until the elements have worn him down and people are stepping over him on the sidewalk.
Ironically, in the case of COVID, the right-wing’s efforts to stop common sense public health measures with the intention of ending lockdowns and getting the country back to work, have backfired. They extended the time we have had to deal with the pandemic. Their actions to oppose health measures such as masks and vaccines have made matters much worse—for them as well as the rest of us. Their panicky, knee-jerk reactions have worked against their own objectives. These are the masterminds of the right wing, and they can’t be trusted even to do what’s best for themselves. Maybe their panic was justified. Maybe COVID really did strike a mortal blow against capitalism.
Now we have the Great Resignation. After front line workers were acknowledged as the essential workers who were keeping the country fed and functioning during the deadliest times of the pandemic, they became more aware of their importance and of the bad deal they were being subjected to with lousy wages and benefits, and even mortal danger. The COVID crisis has caused masses of people to reconsider their values and their livelihoods.
When vaccines had made it possible for businesses to open again, demand came roaring back and businesses couldn’t staff up quickly enough to meet the demand. The Great Resignation went all the way up the food chain to CEOs. Obviously, we are witnessing some kind of movement.
When employers were frustrated re-hiring workers, we started hearing a lot of grousing that nobody wanted to work anymore because the government was handing out money. It would have been more accurate to say that people were not being attracted to the terms they were offering. Rather than complaining about how lazy people are, it would have made sense for them to look at what they were offering and ask why it was not appealing to prospective employees.
Some aspects of capitalism will of course remain as the economic infrastructure of our world. But it seems unlikely that the extreme free market capitalist mindset that has been pushed upon the American public in recent decades can survive the pandemic. It has already lost ground, but the capitalists are clawing to hold onto power at any cost. That drama is still playing out.
In a system like ours that is dominated by corporations with a media system that projects the values of the corporations that own it, it’s possible to let the infrastructure collapse piece by piece as the media shifts its focus from one disaster to the next. But with COVID, it was no longer possible to do that.
With a pandemic that does not respect any boundaries of land or class, the country can’t just let the poor die. If you don’t attend to the health of everyone, no one, even the rich, will be safe. That necessity cuts to the core of pure capitalism, which would prefer to let those who can’t afford to live, “go ahead and die and reduce the surplus population.” It doesn’t work with COVID. You can isolate yourself more if you are rich than if you are an employee of McDonald’s. But even the rich are living in a very reduced, restricted world.
The big motto of the conservative revival was the Grover Norquist pledge to reduce government “to the size that we can drown it in the bathtub.” Under the onslaught of COVID, this extreme conservatism that has taken over the Republican Party has brought us closer to seeing what that kind of country looks like. It looks increasingly like a failed state, where outside of the gated communities it can get pretty bleak even for the privileged class. With a pandemic as lethal, pervasive and relentless as COVID on the loose, it’s not a very nice world even for the rich.
After I flashed on the phrase “the plague that killed capitalism,” I looked into how the bubonic plague of the 1300s affected societies, and I learned that it destroyed the feudal social structure of Europe.
Who knows? I believe we’re looking at something big. Far right capitalism has had a good run. I could do with some FDR-style capitalism. However, as someone said, to those who have been rooting for the fall of the empire, be careful what you wish for. The world after the fall of the Roman Empire was not so great either.
Oh well. We’re just aboard for the ride.
David Cogswell is a freelance writer and the author of four books: “Chomsky for Beginners”, “Zinn for Beginners”, “Unions for Beginners” and “Existentialism for Beginners.”