Capitalism and the Coronavirus
By B.K. Burton
It never ceases to amaze me to see how the system imbibes a certain sense of loyalty to it from Americans. I am speaking specifically about capitalism. People I speak to who will badmouth it one week will swing back to its supporter the next. This is usually borne of one of a few things or any combination of them. One is the idea we just can’t do any better than capitalism. It brings the most good to the most people possible and we are the most prosperous people the world has ever known. The other is looking at the carcasses of other political ideologies left in the graveyard of the 20th century as proof that capitalism won out by virtue of its virtues. Yet another is not being able to imagine or have a clear picture of how any other system would work. As long as people have a roof over their heads and enough junk food to keep them alive and operational enough to work for the capitalists then chances are, they aren’t going to revolt against the status quo. Minor hiccups such as the election of Donald Trump is about the best we can expect. Last but not least there is this ill-conceived idea of patriotism as it pertains to supporting the system their granddaddies supposedly fought for in World War 2. We should always fight to better our country. That is the true meaning of being a patriot, and that means standing against the status quo when it no longer is serving the people. Once you separate the idea of America the nation from the political clique propping up the democratic capitalist regime, often thought of as “America”, then there should be no difficulty breaking those bonds they have chained us with.
As it stands now however, the system is being and will continue to be questioned as we continue to wade through this quagmire that is the coronavirus. It has brought challenges to capitalism that is unparalleled in our history as a country. In my 32 years on earth, I have already experienced 3 crises that threw our economy into a tailspin to some degree or another. The first was 9/11. The stock markets took a dive and very costly wars were the ultimate result. The next was the 2008- 09 financial crisis and now it is SARS-CoV-2. If you count the stock market crash of '87 (the year I was born) you may say four so far during my lifetime. The first crisis was brought about by those who wished us harm, an existential threat. The financial crisis was due to a lack of safeguards and oversight. The removal of such safeguards was made at the behest of the very business interests that ultimately precipitated the crisis through bought and paid for political channels, which was all a byproduct of the system itself and the guiding principles of competition and profit motive. This threat seems to be the worst of the three and this is an existential threat originating in the natural world. In times past there have been pandemics far worse than this one, namely the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, and yet there was no talk of an economic crash that we are aware of. The crash came a decade later with the onset of the Great Depression. What makes these crises so acute in our own time when we are supposed to be more prosperous and powerful than ever? A tiny virus threatens to bring the entire western world to its knees in a matter of weeks. In acknowledging the severity of the threat, you have a Republican president using government to inject a record 2 trillion dollars into the economy. This also had to be done along with other measures akin to corporative policies undertaken by Mussolini and during the Obama administration to address the financial crisis, namely the State becoming the primary shareholder in key businesses until the companies could be made profitable again at which time the government would withdraw as a shareholder as we saw with the government buyout of GM. The most frightening thing is these hiccups are coming at very short intervals now and the threats are originating from many different sources. Each time the blanket has been pulled down revealing the sick patient we have seen and are seeing now that the body is severely emaciated. There is something very wrong about this. The system should not be this fragile. Without the salvation of the state, capitalism could not have carried on through the depression, the financial crisis, or now the coronavirus pandemic. I believe that this has not been lost on the ruling and political classes. The last thing they want is for the realization that I have just spelled out for you to permeate the consciousness of the American public.
With this being said it is worth noting that, in general, capitalism could not have survived this long without the bureaucracy and the other non-governmental institutions such as the Federal Reserve Bank acting as governors keeping the system more or less stable enough to function and carry on. This is also necessary to keep violent upheavals among the people from happening. Elections play into this mass psychology as well. The democratic capitalist regime has been masterful at keeping the majority of the citizens pacified and content enough to at least continue going to work and continue to vote in elections. When there is a reaction by the people to injustices presented by the irrational, unconscious portion of the system, i.e., capitalism, then the rational, conscious portion of it, the State has stepped in and moved to parry the anger of the populace and augment it in such a way as to keep order and the establishment operating. This is democracy. If we look in the right places in America’s history, we can see a story unfold. This is the story we want to tell.
The history of America, as it pertains to the industrial revolution, and all of the socio-economic consequences that cascaded from it didn’t really vary much from European countries. True, the class warfare was more acute in Europe than America, yet it is enough to know that the working conditions that came from the industrial revolution caused a reaction from workers and triggered an instinct to bond together to bargain collectively. This gave rise to the labor union movement in America and at times it was radical and spilled over into bloodshed. One notable example was the West Virginia coal mine wars. The Great Depression hit, and the modern welfare state came into being in this country. The State stepped in and saved the system borrowing heavily from fascist Italy’s economic policies to accomplish this. Everything changed with the second world war having been won. This was a new era where democratic capitalism as we know it today would be established. The regime, fresh off new lands for market expansion having been won, a huge wave of national sentiment of solidarity, and a booming war economy, was sitting on fertile soil to begin anew and squash the labor movement. What occurred was the formation of a certain social contract. The Communist Party of China operates in a similar social contract with its people. For China, the people allow the Communist Party one-party rule in return for good governance. In America, this was done first but in a different way. The democratic capitalist regime would be allowed to govern and keep the ruling classes in positions of prestige and keep private property in exchange for voting rights. I believe that this is essentially why you saw a major expansion of voting rights after the war, giving people more of a say in the system, whether real or imagined, keeping them placated. The vote kept people more or less docile and governable. As technology progressed goods became more complex. This created more jobs at first, although most would be shipped overseas in due time. The complexity this brought to the economy, however, brought with it middle management jobs in all industries and services. What we now have is a job market where there is very little heavy industry or skilled trades. The jobs of today are not unionized. This along with laws killing the labor movement is the source of its demise. The laws in theory at least can be reversed. The outflow of jobs abroad is a much larger economic trend that is not so easily reversed, as it would mean that the inviolability of private property, itself, would have to be questioned. This is hardly possible at this stage in the game. The political will does not exist to do it. The outsourcing of industrial jobs and the plethora of middle management positions in the industries left in America means that the lines between the proletariat and bourgeoisie have become all the more blurred. This is what has led to an indifferent acceptance of the system and not to put too fine a point on it this is the reason people are more or less apathetic.
It leaves us with the question, how will capitalism end? Will it end? How do we know that it will end? While I am no Marxist, we can look to Mr. Marx for some pointers or at least for a frame of reference from whence our theory on the matter might spring. For one, I am in agreement with Marx, as well as the revolutionary syndicalists of Italy immediately preceding the rise of Fascism, that capitalism still has a historical role to play. Marx gave this frame of reference; he said that there were five epochs, and they were to occur in this order: primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and finally, communism. Just as capitalism in our own time has been rocked by existential threats in the environment as well as the other sources I mentioned in the beginning of this segment, the epochs have passed through history due to many of the same externalities. In my own opinion, I believe that one epoch largely passed due to a warmer climate and the abatement of the black death in Europe. This brought on the renaissance and the enlightenment. In this example, I believe Marx was more or less accurate in his theory of historical materialism, namely that the environment or material conditions (loosely interpreted) gave the impetus for the passing of one epoch to the next. Without the Enlightenment I do not believe that capitalism would have been born along with the Industrial Revolution. Science had to flourish once again for the technological advancements to occur. This began the passing of feudalism but with the necessary rise of the bourgeoisie, and a point in history was reached where landlordism became pointless and this is ultimately what handed the reigns of history to the bourgeoisie. According to Marx’s dialectic, everything is material and a result of class struggle. He borrowed this from Hegel but attempted to synthesize it into a more graspable governing entity, namely class struggle or dialectical materialism. Nowhere did Marx take into account the State and rational human will in all of this. While Marx was a philosopher in his own right, I believe that his dialectic was fashioned more to fit his political aims, whereas Hegel’s dialectic still to me seems the more correct. Through thesis and anti-thesis there comes synthesis. But as we have seen in our own time with 9/11 or now the coronavirus, the State and rational human will must be part of that dialectic, which, whether we like the vague idea of Hegel or not, we must admit history is guided by some world spirit we cannot calculate or anticipate.
Through all of this, I believe, like the fascists and national syndicalists before me, that capitalism still has a historical role to play. We can augment it and we can effectively neuter it perhaps, but it will not pass away until something occurs that makes the structure irrelevant just as landlordism became irrelevant. When this occurs - and we know it must - society will likely take the path of least resistance and a small few must guide whatever movement comes next. At this point in our history, it feels like we are experiencing what Revelation in the Bible calls “birth pangs.” The system has become so complex and so lean due to competition that the body cannot sustain any shock. It is a delicate house of cards built up to the heavens. There are no reserves of fat on the body to keep it alive in times of scarcity and famine. The only thing keeping it alive is the ventilator of the state. As previously stated, the hiccups are coming at shorter intervals. The coughs are becoming more acute and pronounced. It is only a matter of time before the conditions are right and the death rattle is heard. Is that time now? Only time will tell. Who the next epoch could pass to and to whom the reigns of history will go to next we can’t know but we should look forward to it and strive to meet it as best