COVID-19: a Geo-Political Watershed
Sunset of the American Imperium
The spread of COVID-19 has triggered a global social crisis that will have profound and lasting effects. When the pandemic initially erupted in January of 2020, the global capitalist economy was already turning downward after a remarkably lack-luster recovery from the Great Recession of 2008-9 and decades of “financialization” and austerity. But the unprecedented global economic shutdown that has taken place in response to the spread of COVID-19 has produced a far steeper drop than the Wall Street crash of October 1929 at the onset of the Great Depression. Nouriel Roubini, the New York University economics professor who correctly predicted the 2008 financial crisis, paints a vivid picture:
“The shock to the global economy from COVID-19 has been both faster and more severe than the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC) and even the Great Depression. In those two previous episodes, stock markets collapsed by 50% or more, credit markets froze up, massive bankruptcies followed, unemployment rates soared above 10%, and GDP contracted at an annualized rate of 10% or more. But all of this took around three years to play out. In the current crisis, similarly dire macroeconomic and financial outcomes have materialized in three weeks.”
In other words, [today] every component of aggregate demand—consumption, capital spending, exports—is in unprecedented free fall. While most self-serving commentators have been anticipating a V-shaped downturn—with output falling sharply for one quarter and then rapidly recovering the next – it should now be clear that the COVID-19 crisis is something else entirely. The contraction that is now underway looks to be neither V- nor U- nor L-shaped (a sharp downturn followed by stagnation). Rather, it looks like an I: a vertical line representing financial markets and the real economy plummeting.”
—Project Syndicate, 24 March
On 18 March the International Labour Organization (ILO) projected job losses of up to 25 million, compared to 22 million during the 2008-09 financial crisis. This estimate does not include the millions of workers who remain employed but whose hours (and earnings) have been sharply reduced. The ILO projected a possible $3.4 trillion drop in labor income, i.e., effective demand, which translates into millions of workers facing eviction or foreclosure (bloomberg.com, 2 April).
The impact is of course unevenly distributed—people in “underdeveloped” neo-colonies are subjected to “real-life, unpleasant experiments in the let-it-rip kind of approach…. The social consequences of death among the weak and the elderly are going to be just monstrous” (New York Times, 24 March). In the imperialist countries, those at the bottom of society are most vulnerable. In the U.S. immigrant workers make up a disproportionate percentage of the “at-risk” front line health workers, while blacks, who are more likely to have underlying health problems, are also disproportionately concentrated in poorer communities with underfunded and overstretched medical services, over-crowded housing and higher rates of homelessness and incarceration, all of which are factors in spreading the virus (axios.com, 4 April).
One of the most immediate effects of the pandemic has been the erosion of confidence in the wisdom and competence of the ruling elites of the American-dominated global imperialist world order. The neo-liberal mix of cutting social services, privatizing public-sector assets and pursuing the “efficiencies” of an international division of labor by relocating productive capacity to countries with lower labor costs, has been discredited. Decades spent squeezing out excess capacity while promoting “lean” production and “just in time” delivery, have produced complexly extended supply chains with intricate and narrowly specialized links. In March, when Italy’s MTA Advanced Automotive Solutions suspended production for a week at its Codogno plant outside Milan, Renault, BMW, and Jaguar Land Rover were all affected. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed how global supply chains can impede the ability of even highly developed economies to rapidly ramp up production and distribution of medical equipment and other vital products. As public health systems buckle, and “globalization” is widely seen as a vector for spreading contagion, it seems almost inevitable that these supply chains will be shortened with a shift toward domestic production of a broader range of essential goods.
The Irrationality of For-Profit Medicine
Mike Davis, an American leftist, has pointed out how the profit motive, which sets priorities for the U.S. medical-industrial complex, prepared the ground for the current catastrophe:
“It’s disappointing, to say the least, that in the [Democratic Party] primary debates neither [Bernie] Sanders or [Elizabeth] Warren has highlighted Big Pharma’s abdication of the research and development of new antibiotics and antivirals. Of the 18 largest pharmaceutical companies, 15 have totally abandoned the field. Heart medicines, addictive tranquilizers and treatments for male impotence are profit leaders, not the defenses against hospital infections, emergent diseases and traditional tropical killers. A universal vaccine for influenza—that is to say, a vaccine that targets the immutable parts of the virus’s surface proteins—has been a possibility for decades but never profitable enough to be a priority.”
—haymarketbooks.org, 12 March
Decades of underfunding has significantly reduced emergency medical capacity in the U.S., despite expert advice, resulting in critical shortages of protective gear for front-line health workers, ventilators and other essential medical equipment. COVID-19 hit the Eurozone after years of “Fiscal Compact” cuts that were supposed to impose market “discipline” on the public health sector. In Greece medical spending was slashed by more than a fifth; in Italy 70,000 hospital beds were cut, with similar reductions across the continent.
In both the U.S. and Britain, the initial response to the COVID-19 epidemic was to downplay the risks in order to prop-up financial markets. Donald Trump insisted that the coronavirus was essentially similar to the flu, while Boris Johnson suggested that Britons “take it on the chin” and allow the virus to run its course in order to achieve “herd immunity.” When the media revealed that the price of this brutal Social Darwinism would be the premature death of hundreds of thousands of older adults and people with underlying conditions, Johnson (who subsequently contracted the disease himself) abruptly reversed course.
Until a vaccine is available, the most effective way to control the pandemic is through regular, and repeated, mass testing to identify and treat those who are infected and track those with whom they have had contact. Widespread testing permits health officials to isolate potential hotspots before they get out of control, while allowing those who test negative for the virus to return to their regular activities without spreading the infection.
A test for the coronavirus was quickly developed as a result of cooperation between Chinese and European scientists and the World Health Organization [WHO]:
“On January 10th, three days after Chinese government officials announced that a novel coronavirus, now known as sars-CoV-2, was responsible for an upsurge of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China, a team of Chinese scientists uploaded a copy of the virus’s genome to an online repository, and virologists around the world set to work to develop diagnostic tests for the new disease. On January 21st, a team in Berlin, led by Christian Drosten, one of the scientists who discovered the original SARS virus, in 2003, submitted the first paper to describe a protocol for testing for SARS-CoV-2. (That protocol would form the basis for a test disseminated, early on, by the World Health Organization.) That same day, [Dr. Nancy] Messonnier announced that the C.D.C. [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] had finalized its own test, which it used to confirm the first known case of covid-19 in the U.S.”
—newyorker.com, 16 March
The CDC’s preference for a made-in-the-USA test meant that none of the hundreds of thousands of tests the WHO sent out internationally went to the U.S. Precious time was lost as it became clear that the CDC’s initial test was defective and a new batch had to be produced. The resulting interruption in testing allowed the epidemic to spread rapidly.
The damage from the testing failure was compounded by the derailment of an earlier federal government initiative to create an emergency stockpile of 70,000 portable ventilators in the aftermath of the SARS, MERS, swine and bird flu outbreaks, as the New York Times reported on 29 March:
“Thirteen years ago, a group of U.S. public health officials came up with a plan to address what they regarded as one of the medical system’s crucial vulnerabilities: a shortage of ventilators.
“The breathing-assistance machines tended to be bulky, expensive and limited in number. The plan was to build a large fleet of inexpensive portable devices to deploy in a flu pandemic or another crisis.
“Money was budgeted. A federal contract was signed [with Newport Medical Instruments, a small outfit in Costa Mesa, California]. Work got underway.
“And then things suddenly veered off course. A multibillion-dollar maker of medical devices [Covidien, a major manufacturer of medical devices] bought the small California company that had been hired to design the new machines. The project ultimately produced zero ventilators.”
This provides a textbook example of how the “magic of the marketplace” actually operates under conditions of monopoly capitalism:
“Covidien—a publicly traded company with sales of $12 billion that year—already sold traditional ventilators, but that was only a small part of its multifaceted businesses. In 2012 alone, Covidien bought five other medical device companies, in addition to Newport.
“Newport executives and government officials working on the ventilator contract said they immediately noticed a change when Covidien took over. Developing inexpensive portable ventilators no longer seemed like a top priority.”
—newyorktimes.com, 29 March
Given that the “top priority” was profit it is hardly surprising that Covidien management opted to mothball the $3000 Newport machine in favor of its $10,000 “traditional” model.
Even by the standards of America’s insular and notoriously short-sighted ruling class, the Trump administration’s record of incompetence has been staggering. An outstanding example of this was the 2018 decision to dismantle the National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, which had been “set up to be the ‘smoke alarm’ and get ahead of emergencies and sound a warning at the earliest sign of fire — ‘all with the goal of avoiding a six-alarm fire’” (apnews.com, 14 March).
Had the U.S. implemented widespread testing, aggressive tracing and quarantining of those potentially exposed, and locked down regional hotspots, as Vietnam, South Korea and China did, the outbreak might have been contained. Instead the White House issued bogus assurances that everything was under control and there was no need to worry. As late as 4 March Trump was still equating COVID-19 with the flu. By 11 March a mere 7,000 Americans had been tested. As a result, despite months of advance warning, the coronavirus was allowed to get out of control in the U.S., just as it had earlier in northern Italy (axios.com, 25 March).
U.S. Congress Bails Out ‘Zombie’ Corporations
The $2.2 trillion Coronavirus relief package passed by the U.S. Congress in late March provides a paltry one-time payment of $1,200 to taxpayers, far less than what millions of households will require to keep paying their bills and buying groceries. A key provision of the act was earmarking $454 billion to back “leveraged” loans to banks and corporations that could total as much as $4.5 trillion, while the total provided for support to state and local governments, small businesses and individual citizens is capped at $1.4 trillion (informationclearinghouse.info).
Most of the relief bill package is going to nominally profitable companies, including “blue chip” corporations like 3M, McDonald’s, Caterpillar and Boeing, which in recent years have been selling securities (i.e., issuing debt) and using the revenue to repurchase company stock, rather than upgrading technology, developing new products or expanding production. When the corporate bond market seized up, the “zombie” firms (defined as those “unable to cover debt servicing costs from current profits over an extended period” and which had only stayed afloat by piling up debt) ran into a credit crunch. Rather than letting them go bankrupt, as they should have according to “free market” theory, they have essentially been bailed out by the U.S. Treasury (financialpost.com, 3 March).
A 13 March article in the Financial Times reported:
“Companies have gorged on cheap debt for a decade, sending the global outstanding stock of non-financial corporate bonds to an all-time high of US$13.5 trillion by the end of last year, according to the OECD, or double where it stood in December 2008 in real terms.
“Borrowing costs had tumbled after central banks lowered interest rates to jolt their economies following the 2008 financial crisis. Investors, starved of yield from safer government bonds, saw lending to riskier companies as a way to juice returns.
“Ruchir Sharma, chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, estimates that one in six U.S. companies does not earn enough cash flow to cover interest payments on its debt. Such ‘zombie’ borrowers could keep putting off the crunch as long as debt markets kept letting them refinance. But now a reckoning is coming.”
The “stock-based compensation” model, which rewards senior management for appreciation in the price of company shares, incentivized leaders of major corporations to put rising stock valuations ahead of their firms’ long-term financial health. The easiest way to raise stock prices was to issue bonds and then buy back shares with the proceeds; company executives could then cash in their stock options. This “après moi, le deluge” [after me, the flood] approach reflects the demoralization of the U.S. bourgeoisie which, at its zenith, in the chaotic aftermath of World War II, imagined it could rationalize the entire capitalist world order. Today much of America’s corporate elite is instead engaged in cannibalizing their own companies through clever “financial engineering.”
While there is bi-partisan support in the U.S. for trillion-dollar corporate bailouts and tax cuts, most of the ruling class regards the provision of universal medicare as an unaffordable luxury. Yet this has proved a false economy, as uninsured workers and those with inadequate coverage, who cannot afford treatment, have helped spread the virus. The short-sighted denial of sick pay to 45 percent of the workforce has had similar consequences, forcing those who become ill to keep working in order to pay their bills.
The immense social strains generated by the ravages of COVID-19, and the manifest incapacity of the Trump administration to effectively address the problem, has created a serious crisis that could end up severely destabilizing American capitalism, as a 30 March article in Foreign Affairs, the premier global affairs journal of the American ruling class, notes:
“The United States, with its 330 million people, 270 million handguns, 80 million hourly workers with no statutory sick pay, and 28 million medically uninsured, faces challenges quite unlike those in other countries. Putting the economy in a freezer for six months or longer would destroy what’s left of its social fabric along with its growth model. But restarting it could turn the pandemic into a plague that could cause as much damage as the freezer.
“Which of these unappealing paths is the United States most likely to take? Again, examining its underlying growth model is revealing. It suggests that the United States will temporarily bail out companies, partially support consumption, and abandon the lockdown as soon as it can. Trump and those around him seem perfectly willing to gamble a few million lives to save their assets, betting that the health-care system will always be able to care for the elite.”
The fact that quality healthcare will still be available for the elite may not seem to the “few million” potential victims and their loved ones like a sufficient trade-off. The recent surge in the sale of guns and ammunition suggests that if “what’s left of the social fabric” starts to shred the results might leave American society unrecognizable.
The trillions of dollars being created out of thin air to rescue insolvent Wall Street banks and debt-ridden zombie corporations, coming after a similar bail-out in 2008, and the estimated $6 trillion squandered since 2001 in the failed attempt to establish control of the Middle East and its energy resources, must inevitably hasten the day that the U.S. dollar loses its status as the world’s reserve currency. In a multipolar world, where the dollar would be merely one currency among many, Washington will lose the privileges it has taken for granted during its 75 year reign as the arbiter of the global financial system—including the power to “sanction” other countries by obstructing their ability to conduct international financial transactions. A significant step in this direction came in late March with the EU’s first successful use of the INSTEX system to send medical equipment to Iran in defiance of U.S. sanctions (Deutsche Welle, 31 March). The eventual loss of the U.S. dollar’s status as the global reserve currency will mean that Washington can no longer bridge gaps between income and expenses by simply “raising the debt ceiling.” When debts can no longer be paid by issuing Treasury bills and printing dollars, America’s rulers will discover that borrowing requires saving, just as consumption requires production.
Pandemics & the Ecology of Disease
The outbreak of HIV in the early 1980s was the first of a series of new and dangerous global infections. In a 6 March article entitled “Global Viral Outbreaks Like Coronavirus, Once Rare, Will Become More Common,” the Wall Street Journal blandly reported just why “health experts and economists who study pandemics say [the COVID-19 outbreak] shouldn’t have come as a surprise at all”:
“Epidemics of infectious diseases have become a regular part of the global landscape in the past quarter-century, thanks in part to economic trends including urbanization, globalization and increased human consumption of animal proteins as society becomes more prosperous, these experts say.”
A 2012 New York Times article spelled it out clearly:
“most epidemics—AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme disease and hundreds more that have occurred over the last several decades—don’t just happen. They are a result of things people do to nature.
“Disease, it turns out, is largely an environmental issue. Sixty percent of emerging infectious diseases that affect humans are zoonotic—they originate in animals. And more than two-thirds of those originate in wildlife.
“Teams of veterinarians and conservation biologists are in the midst of a global effort with medical doctors and epidemiologists to understand the ‘ecology of disease.’ It is part of a project called Predict, which is financed by the United States Agency for International Development.”
The article, which optimistically projected that “The fate of the next pandemic may be riding on the work of Predict,” a project that was recently shut down by the Trump administration, continued:
“Diseases have always come out of the woods and wildlife and found their way into human populations—the plague and malaria are two examples. But emerging diseases [including Lyme and West Nile] have quadrupled in the last half-century, experts say, largely because of increasing human encroachment into habitat, especially in disease ‘hot spots’ around the globe, mostly in tropical regions. And with modern air travel and a robust market in wildlife trafficking, the potential for a serious outbreak in large population centers is enormous.”
According to Dr. Richard Ostfeld, a Lyme disease researcher:
“When we do things in an ecosystem that erode biodiversity — we chop forests into bits or replace habitat with agricultural fields — we tend to get rid of species that serve a protective role…There are a few species that are reservoirs and a lot of species that are not. The ones we encourage are the ones that play [viral or bacterial] reservoir roles.”
The policies that are destroying the biosphere are driven by the imperatives of profit-maximization, as is the wholesale overuse of antibiotics by corporate agribusiness in their industrial poultry and livestock factories which have led to antibiotic-resistant superbugs, a phenomenon the World Health Organization designated as a “global health emergency.” As is frequently the case, the short-term benefits of such anti-social practices accrue to the shareholders of the corporations which carry them out, while the expenses incurred as a consequence of the infections that result, which capitalist economic theory dismisses as “externalities,” are left to be borne by society as a whole.
Food Shortages – the New Normal?
An unintended consequence of the imposition of sweeping international travel restrictions in response to the pandemic has been a severe labor shortage in Britain, the U.S. and other countries that rely on a migrant agricultural workforce (bloomberg.com, 17 March).
Concerns about shortages of fresh fruit and vegetables in the near term as a result of restrictions on migrant labor are dwarfed by the uncertain future for food production created by the increasing rate of climate change. In 2019 a special report entitled “Climate Change and Land” by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sketched some of the implications of climate breakdown for global food production:
“Consider the mighty Himalayan glaciers. When we think about melting glaciers, we mourn the loss of a natural wonder and worry about sea level rise. We don’t think much about what glaciers have to do with food. But that’s where the real crunch is coming.
“Half of Asia’s population depends on water that flows from Himalayan glaciers—not only for drinking and other household needs but, more importantly, for agriculture. For thousands of years, the runoff from those glaciers has been replenished each year by ice buildup in the mountains. But right now they’re melting at a much faster rate than they are being replaced. On our present trajectory, if our governments fail to accomplish radical emissions reductions, most of those glaciers will be gone within a single human lifetime. This will rip the heart out of the region’s food system, leaving 800 million people in crisis.
“And that’s just Asia. In Iraq, Syria, and much of the rest of the Middle East, droughts and desertification will render whole regions inhospitable to agriculture. Southern Europe will wither into an extension of the Sahara. Major food-growing regions in China and the United States will also take a hit. According to warnings from NASA, intensive droughts could turn the American plains and the Southwest into a giant dust bowl. Today all of these regions are reliable sources of food. Without urgent climate action, that will change. As David Wallace-Wells reports in The Uninhabitable Earth, scientists estimate that for every degree we heat the planet, the yields of staple cereal crops will decline by an average of about 10 percent. If we carry on with business as usual, key staples are likely to collapse by some 40 percent as the century wears on.
“There is a troubling irony here. Climate change is undermining global food systems, but at the same time our food systems are a major cause of climate breakdown. According to the IPCC, agriculture contributes nearly a quarter of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
“Of course, it’s not just any kind of agriculture that’s the problem here—it’s specifically the industrial model that has come to dominate farming over the past half-century or so. This approach relies not only on aggressive deforestation to make way for large-scale monoculture, which alone generates 10 percent of global greenhouse gases; it also depends on intensive plowing and heavy use of chemical fertilizers, which is rapidly degrading the planet’s soils and in the process releasing huge plumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”
—foreignpolicy.com, 21 August 2019
Globalization & Geopolitical Reconfiguration
The globalization of the production of drugs and medical equipment has given the Chinese deformed workers’ state a central role (according to Foreign Affairs, “China produces the vast majority of active pharmaceutical ingredients”). The Chinese factories that manufacture most of the ventilators required by patients whose lungs become unable to supply sufficient oxygen have been working overtime to fill urgent orders from around the world (bloomberg.com, 23 March).
While local Chinese Communist Party authorities initially attempted to suppress news of the COVID-19 outbreak, the central leadership eventually managed to restrict the spread of the virus to Wuhan and its surroundings. The 7 March issue of the Lancet reported:
“By striking contrast [with Northern Italy], the WHO-China joint mission report calls China’s vigorous public health measures toward this new coronavirus probably the most ‘ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history’. China seems to have avoided a substantial number of cases and fatalities, although there have been severe effects on the nation’s economy.”
Chinese authorities, using draconian police measures, enforced mass quarantines, travel bans and the shutdown of daily life. This, like the rapid expansion in the production of medical equipment and supplies, was facilitated by China’s centrally planned, although bureaucratically distorted and capitalist-infested, economy. While similar results were achieved by capitalist Singapore’s authoritarian regime, China’s record contrasts sharply with most of the self-styled “Free World.” A 13 March New York Times opinion piece was bluntly headlined: “China Bought the West Time. The West Squandered It.”
China’s assistance to Italy was widely publicized:
“The European Union has been incapable of providing meaningful assistance to Italy, the bloc’s third-largest member, which has been especially hard hit by the virus. After Germany, the EU’s most powerful member, banned the export of medical protection gear to avoid its own supply shortages of masks, gloves and suits, China stepped in.
“On March 12, China sent to Italy a team of nine Chinese medical staff along with some 30 tons of equipment on a flight organized by the Chinese Red Cross. “
—gatestoneinstitute.org, 22 March
Foreign Affairs pointed to the geopolitical implications:
“In early March, Italy called on other EU countries to provide emergency medical equipment as critical shortages forced its doctors to make heartbreaking decisions about which patients to try to save and which to let die. None of them responded. But China did, offering to sell ventilators, masks, protective suits, and swabs. As the China experts Rush Doshi and Julian Gewirtz have argued, Beijing seeks to portray itself as the leader of the global fight against the new coronavirus in order to promote goodwill and expand its influence.”
—foreignaffairs.com, 16 March
China offered Italy 1,000 ventilators, 50,000 test kits, 100,000 respirators and two million masks. According to the Gatestone article, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, Serbia and Spain also received Chinese help. Beijing also dispatched assistance to Venezuela, Iran, Cambodia and other “underdeveloped” countries. Chinese billionaire, Jack Ma, promised to send “20,000 test kits and 100,000 masks to each of Africa’s 54 countries” so that “Africa can be one step ahead of the coronavirus” (foreignaffairs.com, 18 March).
‘As Washington falters, Beijing is moving quickly’
Fortune, a leading American business journal, described China’s largesse as part of a “battle for hearts and minds,” and reported that Cyprus, Estonia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway and Ukraine had also reached out to China for help:
“Geopolitically, China’s move to brand itself as Europe’s savior aims to improve its standing on a global stage as both spar with the Trump administration. China and the U.S. have continued a wider fight for global influence…
“U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to Covid-19 as a ‘Chinese virus,’ and insisted Wednesday that the term wasn’t racist. He has also angered Europe, barring all travel from the continent without consulting U.S. allies.
“This week, Xi described China’s mass deployment of medical aid to Europe as an effort to further a ‘Health Silk Road,’ stretching his [Eurasian integration] Belt and Road trade-and-infrastructure initiative. Along with well-publicized state help for stricken countries such as Italy, aid is being channeled across the continent by private companies in the name of Beijing, helping to burnish China’s image from France to Ukraine.”
By contrast, as Foreign Affairs (16 March) noted:
“Far from serving as a global provider of public goods, the United States has few resources that it can offer to other states. To add insult to injury, the United States may soon find itself receiving Chinese charity: the billionaire cofounder of Alibaba, Jack Ma, has offered to donate 500,000 test kits and one million masks.”
“So far, the United States has not been a leader in the global response to the new coronavirus, and it has ceded at least some of that role to China. This pandemic is reshaping the geopolitics of globalization, but the United States isn’t adapting. Instead, it’s sick and hiding under the covers.”
A follow-up article fretted that the U.S. is “failing the test” of international leadership:
“The status of the United States as a global leader over the past seven decades has been built not just on wealth and power but also, and just as important, on the legitimacy that flows from the United States’ domestic governance, provision of global public goods, and ability and willingness to muster and coordinate a global response to crises. The coronavirus pandemic is testing all three elements of U.S. leadership. So far, Washington is failing the test.
“As Washington falters, Beijing is moving quickly and adeptly to take advantage of the opening created by U.S. mistakes, filling the vacuum to position itself as the global leader in pandemic response. It is working to tout its own system, provide material assistance to other countries, and even organize other governments….Beijing understands that if it is seen as leading, and Washington is seen as unable or unwilling to do so, this perception could fundamentally alter the United States’ position in global politics and the contest for leadership in the twenty-first century.”
—foreignaffairs.com, 18 March
It also observed that Beijing’s rising status derives from “the simple fact that much of what the world depends on to fight the coronavirus is made in China.” China’s current status of the “workshop of the world,” derives from the 1949 social revolution which uprooted imperialist influence, expropriated the indigenous capitalists and collectivized the means of production. Marxists advocate a workers’ political revolution to overturn the ruling Stalinist bureaucracy, while defending the Chinese workers’ state in any conflict with capitalist powers.
When the coronavirus struck, the Chinese regime not only mobilized domestic industry but also “(forced foreign factories in China to make them [N-95 respirators] and then sell them directly to the government), giving it another foreign policy tool in the form of medical equipment” according to Foreign Affairs. This eminently sensible policy contrasts starkly with the U.S. which “lacks the supply and capacity to meet many of its own demands” and is
“believed to have only one percent of the masks and respirators and perhaps ten percent of the ventilators needed to deal with the pandemic. The rest will have to be made up with imports from China or rapidly increased domestic manufacturing. Similarly, China’s share of the U.S. antibiotics market is more than 95 percent, and most of the ingredients cannot be manufactured domestically.”
‘Sick and Twisted’ U.S. Campaigns Against Iran & Venezuela
For years Iran has been among the chief victims of American financial “sanctions” and the Trump administration has seized on the outbreak of COVID-19 as a means to increase pressure on Tehran. On 20 March Reuters reported: “The United States sent Iran a blunt message this week: the spread of the coronavirus will not save it from U.S. sanctions that are choking off its oil revenues and isolating its economy.”
The criminal stupidity of this “maximum pressure” campaign has outraged some of the more rational members of the American bourgeoisie who understand that COVID-19 poses a global threat requiring a coordinated international response:
“‘We are not safe in any place until everyone all over the world is safe,’ Paul Anatharajah Tambyah, the president of the Asia-Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection, told the Wall Street Journal about a new wave of COVID-19 cases in east Asia.
“‘You have to facilitate these medical goods. Anyone who argues otherwise, or does otherwise, is a sociopath or a moron,’ said Jarrett Blanc, a former State Department official who monitored Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal that the Trump administration abandoned. ‘The U.S. should be busting its ass to make sure permissible medical exports are available to Iran. It’s in our self-interest.”’
—thedailybeast.com, 19 March
Daniel Larison, senior editor of the American Conservative, concurred:
“The ‘maximum pressure’ campaign is unjust, but to continue it in the midst of a public health disaster is truly sick and twisted. The administration’s refusal to offer sanctions relief at a time like this shows how irrational and malevolent this policy is, and it should make us all realize how senseless and destructive the economic war has been from the start.”
—theamericanconservative.com, 20 March
The U.S. policy of collective punishment of the Iranian people was condemned by Human Rights Watch last autumn:
“On several occasions, US officials have indicated that the pain US sanctions are causing for ordinary Iranians is intentional, part of a strategy to compel Iranian citizens to demand their autocratic government to ‘change behavior’– a recipe for collective punishment that infringes on Iranians’ economic rights”.
—Human Rights Watch, 19 February
Washington is pursuing a similarly cruel and stupid policy in Venezuela where it also hopes to use the pandemic as a lever for regime change. While China sent kits that Reuters (19 March) reported “would serve to test 300,000 Venezuelans,” the U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund cynically turned down a request by Caracas for assistance on the specious grounds that it lacked “clarity” as to the Maduro government’s legitimacy, a clear reference to the absurd claim of U.S. puppet Juan Guaidó to the Venezuelan presidency.
Revolutionary Reconstitution or Common Ruin?
Scientists and public-health authorities have been warning of the danger of infectious disease pandemics for decades. In light of this, the failure of the capitalist rulers of the U.S., their allies and various international agencies to make adequate preparation amounts to criminal negligence. When China first identified the threat in January, the production of diagnostic, protective and therapeutic equipment should have immediately been ramped up and a crash program of mass testing initiated wherever the disease manifested itself. Obviously the suppression of such outbreaks requires massive repeated testing, and yet neither European nor North American authorities acted soon enough to get ahead of the problem. Instead Trump and his cronies seemed almost gleeful that China was afflicted with what he continued to refer to as the “Chinese virus.”
Until large-scale testing and tracking can ensure that the outbreak is under control, it is obviously necessary to close all non-essential workplaces, while guaranteeing full pay for those affected. Front-line health workers, as well as others deemed “essential” like grocery store clerks, should have their pay doubled. They must be provided with every possible form of protection against infection. Anyone who tests positive for the virus, whether or not they are showing symptoms, must be immediately quarantined and given immediate access to free, top-quality treatment. In all cases their incomes must be maintained and their jobs guaranteed. All workers must have sick-pay coverage. Centralized, coordinated action is necessary and resources must be allocated to meet need, regardless of considerations of private profit. There is nothing inherently socialist about such obviously necessary measures—they are called for in order to prevent social disintegration by safeguarding the health and well-being of the population.
The failure of the capitalist authorities in almost every country to get on top of the situation before things got out of control led to attempts to reduce the rate of transmission by “physical distancing” and avoiding normal social activity. Most people have been willing to temporarily accept these restrictions to avoid getting ill and to help suppress the contagion, but many left and liberal commentators have expressed concerns about state authorities seeking to normalize mass digital surveillance and various other authoritarian measures. Hungary’s “illiberal democracy” has set the pace in this regard with right-wing prime minister Viktor Orbán being granted the right to rule by decree for an indefinite period.
Massive crises have, historically, produced massive upheavals and societal changes shaped by the outcome of struggle between competing social classes. The COVID-19 emergency has demonstrated to hundreds of millions of previously politically unengaged people around the world that their lives, and those of their loved ones, depend on many things that, as individuals, they cannot control, and which can only be addressed by collective action. Many ordinary working people, already aware that capitalism is a social system characterized by profound social inequality, are beginning to see the possibility that the systematic risks posed by the environmental “death spiral” caused by irreversible climate change may be connected to the incubation of future pandemics. Many are doubtless anticipating that the incapacity of the leaders of global capitalism to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak in a rational and humane fashion is likely to be repeated in the event of future pandemics or other catastrophic consequences of ecological breakdown.
The social paralysis and terrible anxiety generated by the steadily rising coronavirus death toll is shaking confidence in the authority of the existing social order and making many at the bottom of the global social pyramid receptive to new ideas, in particular the idea that it makes more sense to prioritize the needs of the vast majority than cater to the whims of a tiny sliver of wealthy social parasites.
Of course, any popular movement that seeks to challenge the sanctity of private profit will inevitably spur the ruling class to resort to increased police state repression. Discontent may also find expression in rising support for xenophobic right-wing populism, or outright fascism. But such responses will not and cannot address the underlying problems, and the depth and breadth of popular disenchantment with the inequality and manifest irrationality of the whole system of production for profit. These dynamics make it unlikely that those who seek to re-establish social equilibrium through brute authoritarianism will succeed for any length of time.
In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels observed that throughout history major class conflicts between oppressors and oppressed have tended to result in either the “revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” The COVID-19 crisis may have brought humanity to such a juncture today, even though, as yet, there have been only limited and geographically isolated instances of overt class struggle (e.g., the walkouts by Amazon and other warehouse workers; the strikes by autoworkers at Chrysler plants in North America, Fiat in Italy and Mercedes in Spain). In the U.S. there has been attempts to organize rent strikes and mass resistance to evictions. Local authorities in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston and New York, responding to such sentiments, have banned evictions during the crisis. But leftist organizers are demanding that rent be waived, not merely postponed, for the duration of the crisis (usatoday.com, 31 March).
The coronavirus pandemic has produced a heightened sense of vulnerability among hundreds of millions of people, and popularized the notion that society has a responsibility to provide everyone with equal access to high-quality medical care, rather than rationing treatment on the basis of the ability to pay. From this recognition it is a short step to see that the other essentials of human life and happiness—food, shelter, education and meaningful employment—should be available to everyone. This can only be achieved by reorganizing the economy to make meeting human need, not private profit, the priority. The possibility of utilizing the enormous potential of scientific knowledge and technology to free humanity from scarcity, insecurity and inequality can only be realized through revolutionary struggle to uproot the capitalist dog-eat-dog social system. This requires the construction of a disciplined, mass revolutionary workers’ movement on an international basis along the lines of the Bolshevik party that led the Russian workers to victory in 1917.
For the Rebirth of the Fourth International!
The forces of the revolutionary left today are weaker than they were in the 1960s and 70s, and miniscule compared to what they were a century ago when Lenin and Trotsky headed the Soviet workers’ state and the allegiance of millions of workers made the Communist International an important political force in countries around the globe.
It is obvious that, despite the absence of a viable revolutionary working-class leadership, immense possibilities exist for a leftist resurgence. The social devastation incurred by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic combined with the imminent prospect of a massive economic downturn makes it clear that we are entering a period of intense social turmoil. The vast majority of the world’s peoples, including the relatively privileged and historically insulated populations of the imperial heartlands, are going to come to the stark realization that the existing capitalist social order is incapable of offering a secure future for them, their children and their grandchildren because of the ecological and social devastation it has semi-automatically engendered, even as it prepares the conditions for a new world war.
After decades of relative stasis there are many signs that we are entering the preliminary stages of a radical transformation, in which the capitalist rulers of the “free world” may begin to move away from the traditional mechanisms of bourgeois-democratic electoralism in favor of some combination of a strong state propped up by “artificially intelligent” surveillance and naked brute force. This poses a situation fundamentally similar to that described by Leon Trotsky in his Transitional Program of 1938:
“The question is not one of a ‘normal’ collision between opposing material interests. The question is one of guarding the proletariat from decay, demoralization and ruin. The question is one of life or death of the only creative and progressive class, and by that token of the future of mankind. If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish. ‘Realizability’ or ‘unrealizability’ is in the given instance a question of the relationship of forces, which can be decided only by the struggle. By means of this struggle, no matter what immediate practical successes may be, the workers will best come to understand the necessity of liquidating capitalist slavery.”
The burning issue confronting humanity today, as it was in 1938, is the necessity to resolve the “historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat” through the construction of a revolutionary movement rooted in the international workers’ movement. We are a long way from the realization of such a goal, but the exigencies of the current situation, and a surge of popular leftist sentiment, may well help accelerate a series of splits and fusions among the existing formations of the ostensibly revolutionary left culminating in the rebirth of Trotsky’s Fourth International. We of the Bolshevik Tendency look forward to participating in the coming leftist resurgence and the struggles required to forge the political instrument – the international revolutionary party – that can “liquidate capitalist slavery” once and for all.