The virus and capitalist society

Is anything good likely to come of this pandemic?

I have seen reports of reduction in air pollution over China, and less-than-truthful pictures of clear water and dolphins in the Venetian canals, presented as examples of such ‘good things’ – ‘the planet recovering’.  I have little sympathy for those sentiments. There is nothing good whatsoever about the catastrophic fall in human economic activity – nor will it provide any meaningful respite from pollution of the natural environment by human beings. The implication that humanity is a blight on the planet, and that restoration of nature can only take place at the expense of human beings, is thoroughly antisocial and reactionary.

However, there is one good thing, and only one, that will come out of the pandemic: some truths about the society we live in will be revealed. The virus has no respect for political parties and power, state institutions and authority, institutions of learning, news monopolies, venerable traditions and sacred beliefs, old habits of cringing submission to what exists – no respect even for the power of big money. It will ruthlessly strip away the lies and disguises, the sentimental illusions and self-delusions, and the ignorance on which capitalist society rests so heavily, and reveal changes long hidden beneath the surface. The true social relations under which we live will appear in all their hideous rottenness, decrepitude, and brutality. That process has already begun.

How the capitalist market distributes scarce medical equipment in a pandemic. Sign outside Westbrook Mall, Calgary, Canada. It was later taken down after protests.

Not everyone will welcome this glimpse of the truth. As we slip closer to the edge of the precipice, the truth appears unimaginable and terrifying, and the first reaction is often to recoil. But the truth is always better known than unknown.

Above all it is the capitalist ruling class that is afflicted by fear today – and you can see it in the faces of the rich and powerful. It fears its own helplessness in the face of the virus. Even more, it fears the terrible effects of the lockdowns, border closures, suspension of travel, and other measures taken to control the virus, on its stock values and profits. And as the evidence of its unforgivable inertia, its incompetence, paralysis, panic, and sheer class selfishness piles up, it fears the political consequences. In short, it displays the guilty fear of a criminal afraid of getting caught.

And whenever we feel fear, it is their fear infecting us. Outside of the ruling class itself, it is those who look to that class for protection and for solutions to the problem who are most affected by their fears, passivity and pessimism. Humanity has survived and overcome greater crises than this in the past, and will overcome this one too. The only questions are how and at what cost – and those are class questions. The sooner working people recognise the inability of the capitalist class to solve this crisis, and break from their political dependence on the capitalist rulers, the sooner fear of the contagion will transform into anger. Unforgiving anger towards the rulers, and the corresponding fighting resolve of the working class to take charge of the situation, are what will be needed in the weeks and months ahead.

For while the virus does not discriminate between classes, access to life-saving tests and health care, protective equipment, and other means for combating the virus is entirely determined by class. Make no mistake: the working class and other exploited layers will bear the brunt of both the health crisis and the economic crisis it has triggered.

As will the toilers of the semi-colonial world. The pandemic has struck first in the developed capitalist countries, almost certainly due to the greater frequency of international travel. But it can be expected to spread throughout the world before long. It is not difficult to see that measures to protect health are inseparable from social conditions – that hand-washing is impossible where water is scarce, physical distancing is impossible in crowded slums, or wherever people are living on the streets. Orders to stay home are impossible to follow where there is no economic support for workers and farmers thus idled.

What has the virus revealed so far?

In the first weeks, it has revealed in a striking manner both the absolute decline of the power of United States capitalism, and its relative decline in relation to China.

There was nothing especially admirable about the way the Chinese rulers confronted the virus when it first emerged in the city of Wuhan last December. Their immediate impulse was denial and cover-up: a doctor who attempted to alert his colleagues to the danger, Li Wenliang, was summoned to the Public Security Bureau, accused of ‘making false comments’ that had ‘severely disturbed the social order’ and forced to recant, in true Stalinist manner. Li later died of the disease.

Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan, was persecuted for his attempts to alert his colleagues to the existence of the new SARS-like virus in patients quarantined in his hospital.

But once the true scale of the crisis became clear – with the Wuhan hospitals overwhelmed with seriously ill patients, and thousands of medical staff themselves decimated by the disease – the government of China belatedly acted, and mobilised colossal resources, both material and labour, to confront the threat.

Letter Wuhan police told Li to sign. “”We hope you can calm down and reflect on your behaviour,” it says. Photo: BBC

First the 11 million people of the city of Wuhan, and later all 56 million people of the surrounding Hubei province, were locked down in the largest quarantine operation in history. Movement of people in and out of the city was cut off. Almost all private cars were ordered off the streets and public transport was sharply reduced. Educational institutions were shut down indefinitely. Residents were ordered to stay in their homes, with increasingly tight restrictions on their ability to leave at all, even to buy food or seek medical attention. Doors of some apartment complexes were chained shut with the residents inside; high fences were built around others. Only shops selling food or medicine were allowed to remain open. (At the same time, across the whole of China, car plants, factories producing electronics and other goods, shops and ports were shut down. Almost immediately, shortages of electronic and car parts were felt across the world.)

Fences were erected around residential complexes to prevent people going in or out as drastic restrictions were imposed in Wuhan. Photo: Aly Song, Reuters

Health officials went door-to-door in Wuhan, identifying people infected with the virus and isolating them immediately. Makeshift hospitals were set up in stadiums and exhibition centres to cope with the influx of patients, and thousands of medical workers were brought in from outside Hubei to replace those who had fallen ill. In one of the most spectacular feats, the 1,000-bed Huoshenshan Hospital was built from scratch in ten days, with two floors, several isolation wards and 30 intensive-care units. 7,500 labourers worked around the clock to assemble it, using pre-fabricated pieces brought in from a factory off-site, and 1,400 military medics staffed it when it opened. A second emergency hospital with 1,600 beds, built in a similar time frame, opened nearby a short time later.

Huoshenshan hospital under construction in Wuhan. Photo: Business Insider

Most bourgeois commentators, unable or unwilling to recognise the actions of a rival capitalist government mobilising the necessary resources to fight the contagion, sneeringly dismissed these achievements as a Public Relations coup by the Chinese government.  Yet for all its initial bungling and delayed start, and the undeniably brutal, anti-working-class manner in which it was undertaken, the lockdown in Wuhan was eventually successful in cutting the chains of transmission and bringing the epidemic under control – at least for the time being. It is due to be ended on April 8. The Wuhan lockdown thus became the model which many other countries facing a similar crisis sought to emulate. But few other countries have been able to carry it out to the same degree of effectiveness.

Nowhere have these failures been more starkly obvious than in the United States, the largest capitalist economy in the world, and one of the most technologically advanced.

As early as 11 January 2020 Chinese scientists published on the internet the DNA sequence of the Covid-19 virus, which enabled medical laboratories around the world to begin mass-producing test kits for the virus. Other countries therefore had an advantage not available to China. Within a week a German laboratory had produced the first test kits for worldwide distribution, and others soon followed. By the end of February, the United Nations World Health Organisation (WHO) had shipped tests to nearly 60 countries. Under the slogan “Test! Test! Test!” the WHO recommended that testing, isolation and contact tracing should be the “backbone” of the global response.

The United States was not one of those 60 countries. There, the authorities’ phase of denial and cover-up lasted even longer than in China. The US testing programme was further delayed by the government’s decision to use test kits developed in the US, and delayed again when the first of those kits proved faulty. At every mis-step, the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) downplayed the extent of the problem; meanwhile, during every delay, the disease spread undetected. Once the delayed testing programme finally became fully operational, there had already been major outbreaks of the virus in Iran, Italy, South Korea, and Japan – but testing was still limited to people who had recently travelled to China only.  The delays and limited scope of testing allowed the virus to become established and begin transmission within the local community, without epidemiologists even receiving sufficient data to enable them to track the progress of the disease.

South Korea has led the world in mass testing for Covid-19, as in this drive-through testing station. US testing has been hampered by shortages of test kits. Photo: WSJ

By mid-March, public health officials were warning of “widescale shortages of laboratory supplies and reagents” for Covid-19 testing. Because of these shortages, the officials recommended that testing be reserved for three groups of suspected cases: health-care workers and first responders; the elderly; and people with underlying health conditions. In some regions such as New York, where the shortages were even more dire, health officials narrowed the list even further, to hospitalised patients only, excluding for example health care workers who had been exposed to infected patients but did not have symptoms.

Some of the simplest, most basic materials needed for testing were in critically short supply, including swabs (which look like cotton buds, but are designed to preserve viral specimens). To some degree, these shortages have been overcome – by emergency airlifts of supplies from other countries, principally China.

Emergency airlift of test swabs from Italian manufacturer to US. Photo: Defense One

In an bid to overcome the shortages, on March 16 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was mandated to hand over authority to approve new tests to the state public health laboratories. A clinical-lab director told the New Yorker, “Every company is coming out of the woodwork saying, ‘I have the best test in the world,’ and ninety-five per cent of them will probably be crap… we are now in the Wild West of laboratory regulation. It’s really a let-the-buyer-beware world… there is very limited regulation of the quality, accuracy, and specificity of diagnostic tests for covid-19, and I think that’s a dangerous situation.”

The same dire shortages of test kits also applied to other items of equipment needed to fight the pandemic, including ventilators needed by acute patients. By 24 March, the Federal government had shipped 400 ventilators to New York, which was by then one of the epicentres of infection. “You want a pat on the back for sending 400 ventilators?” [New York Governor Andrew] Cuomo said. “What are we going to do with 400 ventilators when we need 30,000 ventilators? You’re missing the magnitude of the problem, and the problem is defined by the magnitude.”

Masks and other protective equipment needed by health workers who deal with infected patients are also in critically short supply. According to the New York Times, “When the pandemic first hit New York, medical workers changed gowns and masks each time they visited an infected patient. Then, they were told to keep their protective gear on until the end of their shift. As supplies became even more scarce, one doctor working on an intensive care unit said he was asked to turn in his mask and face shield at the end of his shift to be sterilized for future use. Others are being told to store their masks in a paper bag between shifts.”

“I’ve been to hospitals where nurses are wearing rubbish bags and that’s probably going to be the same scenario for a lot of us really, really soon,” New Zealand paramedic Chez Valenta, who is living in New York, told the New Zealand Herald. At least two nurses in New York have already died.


All the might of US industry, all of its unmatched financial resources and wealth, its machinery of state, all of its technological excellence, have been incapable of providing – even with three months’ advance warning of a looming pandemic – something as simple as a protective mask and a plastic gown to every health worker engaged in the fight against the virus. The enormity of this failure will have profound political consequences in the coming months and years.

It is a staggering indictment on the state of affairs in the world’s foremost imperialist power, of the feebleness and inadequacy of capitalist market mechanisms in the face of such an emergency, of the US ‘health care’ system where the profit needs of ‘health’ corporations prevail over the health needs of the population – even to the point of abandoning pandemic preparations as superfluous expense. (A decade ago, the State of California spent $200 million on a pandemic preparation plan that assembled the materials for three 200-bed hospitals, a stockpile of 50 million N95 respirators, 2,400 portable ventilators, and 21,000 additional hospital beds. The relatively small funds needed just to maintain those resources were cut in a budget-trimming exercise in 2011, the plan was abandoned and the materials given away or dumped.  Today all of those things are in critically short supply in California.)

And it stands as proof of the callous disregard for the lives and health of the workers in the health industry exhibited by the bosses in the big health corporations, and the government officials who cover for them. Across the US, these bosses are not hesitating to fire doctors, nurses and others for speaking out about the shortages of protective equipment and demanding safe working conditions.

Homeless workers ‘housed’ in open carpark in Las Vegas, a city with 15,000 empty hotel rooms. The white markings were painted on the concrete to keep people separated. Photo: CNN

If more proof were needed, there is no shortage of supplementary evidence of the rulers’ callous indifference towards human life – whether it is the herding of hundreds of homeless workers in Las Vegas to sleep on painted squares on a carpark pavement in the open air, while 15,000 hotel rooms in the city remain vacant, or the despicable ‘not-our-problem’ attitude expressed by the Governor of Florida (and others) towards the passengers on the infected cruise ship Zaandam, or the failure to protect the already-quarantined populations in the overcrowded prisons. “We are pleading with officers for better defences, [a prisoner at New York’s Rikers Island prison, where multiple cases have been confirmed, told Reuters]. “They just shrug. In the end, we are just inmates, second-class citizens. We are like livestock.”

At the same time, this situation demonstrates the high degree of dependence of the US economy on Chinese manufactures, and the fragility and lack of resilience in US industry due to its adoption of the just-in-time system. (Just-in-time practices, originally developed in Japan, were introduced throughout the industrial supply chain in the US from the 1980s, in order to reduce inventories and save on their associated warehousing and labour costs. It leaves industrial production extremely vulnerable to sudden shocks and disruptions to trade.) The United States remains, of course, the world’s foremost military power, and it continues to dominate the world capitalist economy through its weight in world finance and banking; the dollar remains the principal medium of world trade. But neither military power nor financial transactions create new value – in a capitalist economy, that takes place through productive investment in industry.  The virus has exposed, for the whole world to see, a gaping chasm between the military and financial might of the US and its industrial weakness and regression. That in itself constitutes a shattering blow to capitalist political stability.

Just over a hundred years ago, at the end of the First World War, Leon Trotsky was leading the military and political fight to defend the world’s first workers’ state from being crushed by imperialist invasion. He explained that the hopes of humanity rested on the European working class following the Russian example and wresting political power from the hands of the rapacious bourgeoisie.

Trotsky goes on to make a prediction: “If no revolution occurs in Europe, if the European working class proves unable to rise up against capital as a result of this war, if this monstrous assumption should be realised, that would mean that European civilisation is doomed… It would mean that Europe is doomed to disintegration, degeneration, regression. Yes, of course, if Europe is thrown back to barbarism, and if civilisation then develops elsewhere, in the East, in Asia, in America, if Europe is transformed into a backward peninsula of Asia, like the Balkans, which in their time were a focus of cultural development, but then came to a standstill and were transformed into the very backward south-eastern corner of Europe.”

While the European working class did rise up against capital in Germany, Hungary, and elsewhere, nowhere outside of the Russian empire did it succeed in seizing and holding power. In Germany, the class-collaborationist leadership of the working class came to the rescue of bourgeois rule, and the revolutionary opportunities passed.

The result was neither working class victory, nor – thanks to the survival for several decades of the Russian workers’ state – the immediate catastrophe Trotsky predicted as its alternative. Rather, a dangerous stalemate prevailed for most of the hundred years since that time, with murderous wars and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. The ‘American century’ has come and gone, with the US working class also failing to break from the political tutelage of the bourgeoisie. The European working class has paid a high price for this century-long delay in carrying out its historic task – in the millions dead in imperialist wars, the nightmare of fascism, and the prolonged impoverishment of the majority of the world’s toilers.

Now the virus reveals the surprising extent to which the processes outlined by Trotsky – the disintegration, degeneration and regression in Europe, and the United States, and their transformation into a backward peninsula of Asia – have actually taken place, beneath the surface appearances. This is a vivid illustration of what Trotsky called a turn in the curve of capitalist development.

Despite all the differences in the responses to the pandemic in China and the United States, they also shared much in common. Both governments, in both their denial and panic phases, were guided by the primary goal of maintaining the stability of capitalist political rule and minimising the disruption to capitalist profit-making. Both treated the working class as little more than a vector of contagion, to be constrained and ordered about, atomised, locked down, and where necessary, sacrificed to the greater goal.

The next post will take up what a working class response to the pandemic would look like.

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