By Eddie McCabe & Keishia Taylor, from the Summer 2020 edition of Socialist Alternative, the political journal of the Socialist Party.
Capitalism must go.
Virtually everything about the world today screams this. Take for example that in the midst of a global pandemic, when 1.6 billion people are in “immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed”, according to the International Labour Organisation, the billionaires of this world have found a bonanza. Over four weeks in April, the 621 billionaires in the US increased their wealth by $308 billion! At the same time 30 million workers in the US lost their jobs.
This fact exemplifies the insanity as well as the cruel injustice of the capitalist system. COVID-19 is a menacing disease and a serious threat in and of itself, but it must be stressed that the destruction being inflicted on the world today is not just the result of the virus — in many ways it could have been prevented. Rather, as we’ll go on to explain, it is the result of an economic and social system that is constitutionally incapable of responding to a global health emergency in the manner required to safeguard the health and lives of the public.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that a call for the overthrow of capitalism is the first thing you read in a socialist publication. It’s true that for socialists the innumerable horrors in the world today — all forms of poverty, violence, oppression — can more or less all be attributed to the capitalist system that’s dominated the world for the past 200 years. It’s the system that puts profit-making before literally everything else, and socialists have long argued for it to be done away with.
What’s more interesting and much more important, however, is that the realisation that “capitalism must go” extends far beyond (active or conscious) socialists. It’s a conclusion that’s dawning rapidly on millions of people. What other conclusion can really be drawn from the series of crises — nay catastrophes — that impend for the world we live in? Writing in a period of comparable turmoil in the early 20th century, German-Jewish philosopher, Walter Benjamin, put it like this:
“Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But the situation may be quite different. Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake.”
Whatever one thinks of the merits of this particular analogy, it does convey the urgency of the present situation. Never before has it been so apparent that capitalism is leading humanity to extinction — or that revolutionary socialist change is our only hope.
The year 2020
The year 2020 was the dawn of a new decade following twenty “lost years” in the 21st century, which more than anything were defined by wars, recession and political instability. Any idea that 2020 offered a chance for a new more hopeful start was quickly dashed by two major events in January:
- The assasination of Iranian Major General, Qasem Soleimani, by a US drone strike on 3 January, inflaming tension between two nuclear powers, and raising fears of a new world war.
- The terrifying images of Australian bushfires, exacerbated by global warming, which burnt more than 18 million hectares, destroyed over 5,900 buildings, killed at least 34 people and an estimated one billion animals. Gargantuan plumes of smoke reached as far eastwards as Chile.
Four months on and these events now seem like distant memories. In fact January 2020 will forever be remembered for the news that in the city of Wuhan in China, 11 million people were put on strict lockdown on 23 January to contain the spread of a novel coronavirus (first detected in December 2019). Cases had also been found in Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and the United States by then.
Not a promising start, but even then few predicted that two months on there would be over 300,000 cases of the virus and 11,000 deaths globally; three months on and reported cases exceeded 2.6 million spanning virtually every country on the planet, with over 180,000 deaths; and at the time of writing (May) there are more than 4.7 million reported cases and 310,000 deaths — with, unfortunately, no end in sight.
A new troubling world
The effect of this pandemic on society has been earth-shaking. Hundreds of millions of people are in lockdown, unable to leave their homes except to buy necessary supplies. Billions of people’s daily lives have been massively disrupted due to enforced measures of social distancing, including self-isolation, cocooning and quarantining for those most at risk. Life as most people know it has ground to an eerie halt.
Mass social anxiety about the uncertainty of future and genuine fears for loved ones are palpable — and for good reason. Much is still being discovered about this disease, including that as well as attacking the respiratory system, the virus is also attacking muscles, kidneys, circulatory system and the brain. It seems new strains may also be more contagious and despite earlier information about young children being less at risk, deadly illnesses linked to COVID-19 have been detected among children.
To compound the problem of the threat to the physical health of millions of people, agencies and experts now warn that “a historic wave of mental-health problems is approaching: depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.” In Italy, the first European country to be significantly impacted, with over 30,000 recorded deaths, this is now a major concern among survivors: “fear of dying, anxiety, depression, anger, panic attacks, insomnia and survivor’s guilt — all known to affect survivors of natural disasters and war — have emerged as common symptoms.” It doesn’t help that in most states mental health services were already hugely underfunded, fragmented and difficult to access.
In fact much of the stress that abounds in relation to COVID-19, is just as much about confidence, or lack thereof, in healthcare systems, and their ability to cope and treat patients adequately, as it is about the virus itself. Decades of neoliberal policies have decimated health services. Even the once exemplary NHS in Britain suffers from a shortage of doctors and nurses (there are currently 43,000 vacant nurse posts), working longer hours for less pay, as well as a shortage of hospital beds and medical equipment. Following a decade of Tory austerity 17,000 hospital beds were lost.Of course the situation is worse in the many parts of the world that never had a proper functioning universal healthcare system.
Added to all of this is the inability of the capitalist system to efficiently produce and equitably distribute personal protective equipment (PPE) in the quantities needed. Four months on and there are still major shortages, and ruthless competition between states to acquire whatever they can. Despicably, some manufacturers and suppliers are making a killing from this crisis, with NHS chief executives reporting inflated PPE prices of up to 825%! Clearly, emergency measures are in order to requisition and, where necessary, retool factories to upscale production to meet the demand — provided at cost prices. Profiting from a global pandemic is utterly unacceptable.
Economic crash exacerbates inequality
As an inescapable consequence of enacting measures to combat such an anti-social disease on a global scale, the world economy has gone into freefall; experiencing the sharpest downturn since the Great Depression — deeper and much more rapid than the Financial Crash in 2008. Such a dramatic shut-down of the global economy has never happened before, however it comes on top of economic trends pointing towards a downturn prior to the coronavirus crisis, so its potential depth and longevity should not be underestimated. Where things are headed is impossible to predict, but record highs of unemployment, public and private debt and state subsidies; alongside lows of investment, trade, production and consumer spending, are likely. The Bank of England has forecast that the world’s oldest industrial economy will experience its deepest recession in 300 years.
One remarkable feature of the current economic crash is that while the real economy has slowed down massively, stock markets have bounced back after an initial dramatic fall, especially in the US. This is linked to the unfounded optimism among some analysts that the economy will bounce back as soon as the lockdowns end, but no one knows when that will be, and a straightforward rapid recovery is unlikely even then.
Without a vaccine, moreover, a second wave of the virus is a real possibility — particularly given the reckless approach of some governments. While the world health organisation (WHO) has repeatedly warned against a premature return to work, the capitalist class is growing impatient. It is prepared to risk the health and lives of workers in order to return to business, regardless of whether it is safe to do so. And with continuing global shortages of PPE and testing behind where it should be in all countries, safety simply cannot be assured.
However the primary driving force behind the surge in the stock markets is the unprecedented injections of cash into financial markets by central banks, buying up corporate bonds and other financial instruments. This includes an historic €870 billion in packages from the European Central Bank, which was dwarfed by $4.5 trillion from the US Federal Reserve which is even hoovering up risky “junk” bonds. This effective bailout of the big banks and corporations, who can use basically unlimited loans from the Fed to buy back shares in their own companies, increasing their stock prices and in turn the bank balances of the super-rich elite. This bailout is the source of the billions of dollars currently being accrued at historic rates by the billionaire class. Jeff Bezoz alone made $24 billion between January and April, more than the entire GDP of Honduras — a country of 9.5 million people.
As always, such bailouts will ultimately be paid for by the working class — from whose exploitation real value in the economy is ultimately extracted, which is another reason why there is such a clamour from the capitalist class for an urgent return to work. The sheer lunacy of policies that funnel trillions of dollars into the coffers of the corporate elite should be registered. Clearly the economy would benefit much more if such bailouts were directed towards the working class and poor, who would actually spend it in the real economy, rather than simply adding to the cash piles of the likes of Amazon or Apple Inc. Not to mention what could be achieved if such resources were geared towards the world’s health crisis, or housing crisis, or climate crisis, or poverty crisis.
Coronavirus pandemic — no bolt from the blue
Overcoming the problems we’re currently facing begins with a thorough understanding of where they stem from. Amidst the shock and awe that millions of people are experiencing, a common refrain has been to accept the narrative from the political and media establishment that “we’re all in this together”, which is reinforced by a widespread notion that the COVID-19 pandemic is essentially a natural disaster that nobody is responsible for and which nobody could have predicted. These notions are false, however.
The current pandemic was not unforeseen or unexpected, at least by the scientific community in the field of pathology. In fact it was warned about in numerous scientific reports, which were treated with the same urgent action by governments as countless climate reports — they were effectively ignored. After the Ebola epidemic in 2014 which killed approximately 11,000 people, the World Health Organisation (WHO) developed a plan for urgent research and development of diagnostic tests, vaccines and medicine. In this plan, they identified the family of coronaviruses as a likely cause of another major epidemic.
As the Ebola crisis ended, the urgency of this plan dissipated and little was done to put it into practice. The private pharmaceutical and healthcare industries, motivated entirely by profit, shifted their R&D into other areas. Exactly the same thing happened after the SARS and MERS coronavirus epidemics, in 2002-4 and 2012 respectively, where work begun on vaccines was shelved as the outbreaks were contained, in favour of more lucrative ventures. Only after the COVID-19 outbreak were these vaccines repurposed, but the work is years behind where it could have been. The madness of our reliance on a private pharmaceutical industry (worth over a trillion dollars annually) to safeguard our medical needs is illustrated by the fact that in 2018 a pitiful $36 million was spent on researching coronaviruses, while over $30 billion was spent on “marketing” in the US alone.
Capitalist governments, meanwhile, proved just as incapable in preparing for new outbreaks. In 2019, world leaders and others gathered to conduct a simulated response to a hypothetical global health emergency. Their conclusion was that humanity was gravely unprepared. Just a few months later COVID-19 would demonstrate this in reality with devastating ferocity. Notwithstanding the warnings from such simulations; or previous epidemics; or the scientific reports; no increases in investment were forthcoming for more R&D, ventilators or PPE — nevermind hospitals or healthcare systems in general.
There was, however, an increase in global military expenditure of 3.6% in 2019 to a colossal $1.9 trillion — the highest rate since the Cold War. Scandalously, the US — the country worst affected by COVID-19 — spent $35.1 billion just on nuclear weapons in 2019. This amount could have paid for 300,000 beds in intensive care units, 35,000 ventilators, and the salaries of 150,000 nurses and 75,000 doctors. All of which are desperately needed now. The weapons are useless — outside of the twisted logic of imperialist militarisation, at least.
The powers-that-be understood the potential for this to happen, which makes the under-preparedness of both the pharmaceutical industry and governments all the more criminal. To be clear, however, it is not incompetence that explains their reluctance to act. In the case of the pharma companies it can be explained by greed. After all, sickness is good for business. As Gerald Posner, author of Pharma: Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America, said recently: “Pharmaceutical companies view Covid-19 as a once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity”.
In the case of the governments it stems from the pressure they come under both from big pharma and also big agribusiness. The latter are well aware that a significant factor in the emergence of new dangerous pathogens is a byproduct of their operations, and that real action to prevent further outbreaks would necessitate an end to those operations.
Agribusiness & habitat destruction
The culpability of big agribusiness for the current pandemic should dominate all serious discussion on the causes of and solutions to the crisis. It’s largely ignored by the mainstream media and establishment politicians, however. Instead there is increasing focus on China, in the West at least, and a narrative that suggests China is to blame for the outbreak and spread of the virus — whether due to its failure to act and warn others promptly enough (which there may be some basis to), or because of a conspiracy involving a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (which there is no basis to). The latter of which involves dangerous myths, which are exposed by the evidence that exists.
The precise origins of COVID-19 remain unknown, although a wet market in Wuhan has been widely identified as a potential source. However as evolutionary biologist, Rob Wallace, noted:
“There are spatial clues in favor of the notion. Contact tracing linked infections back to the Hunan Wholesale SeaFood Market in Wuhan, where wild animals were sold… But how far back and how widely should we investigate? When exactly did the emergency really begin? The focus on the market misses the origins of wild agriculture out in the hinterlands and its increasing capitalization.”
Wild species such as pangolins, snakes and civets are consumed by the wealthy in China as a luxury, tonic and status symbol, and are also used for traditional medicine. The animals at these markets come from increasingly industrialised enterprises, as well as small-scale farms and wild hunting. Wildlife farming is worth $18 billion per year, and was until recently backed by the state and justified on the basis of jobs in impoverished areas (6.3 million throughout China).These larger scale wildlife farms tend to be located at the frontiers of human society, encroaching on forests and wildernesses, and growing industrialised farms push wild food operators ever deeper in search of game.
The emergence of new pathogens tends to occur where humans, in the form of big business (primarily agribusiness) and capitalist governments, are drastically changing the landscape, destroying forests, depleting soil, intensifying agriculture, mining, and building roads and settlements. For example, the beef industry is responsible for 65% of rainforest destruction globally, and 80% of deforested land in the Amazon. Laws formally limiting or banning deforestation, where they exist, are circumvented or ignored by profiteering agribusinesses, as well as small farmers and loggers desperate to make a living with scant alternatives.
The encroachment of human activity into wild habitats disrupts ecosystems and damages biodiversity — which have kept certain pathogens in check over millions of years — shaking loose viruses, which then seek new hosts. Bats are adaptable to ecosystem change and with their unique immune systems, act as reservoirs for old and new viruses. Dozens of SARS-like viruses have been identified in caves in Yunnan, China, by virologist Zheng-Li Shi — viruses which could infect humans. Human invasion of pristine forests brings these wild species and the pathogens they carry into contact with farmed animals, farmworkers and other people.
This new coronavirus is the sixth major epidemic in the last 26 years that originated in bats, mediated by a range of farmed, domesticated or hunted animals, such as horses (Hendra virus in Australia, 1994), pigs (Nipah virus Malaysia, 1998), civets (SARS in China, 2002), camels (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, 2012), and chimpanzees (Ebola in West Africa, 2014). Hence there is nothing specifically Chinese about emerging diseases. Again, these cases — their frequency and severity — should have served as warnings for urgent action.
The danger of food production for profit
But instead, agribusinesses are willing to conduct massive planet-destroying deforestation, exploit workers for poverty wages and expose them to toxins and disease, and pave the way for viruses to spread to human populations, all in the name of profit. Capitalism allows these agribusinesses to externalise the costs (financial and otherwise) to ecosystems, animals, consumers, farmworkers, and governments. They would not be able to survive if they had to foot the bill themselves. Wallace argues that the agribusiness industry, “backed by state power home and abroad, is now working as much with inﬂuenza as against it”, and wields its wealth and power in a “strategic alliance with inﬂuenza” to protects its own interests against those of people and the planet.
Instead of the rapacious destruction of our natural world that is a fundamental feature of the capitalist drive for profit, we need to safeguard natural habitats, end deforestation and protect ecosystems to ensure that dangerous pathogens stay in the wilderness. If pre-pandemic trends continue, crop demand for human consumption and animal feed will double by 2050. Barbaric and unsanitary factory farms, where livestock are plied with antibiotics leading to widespread antibiotic resistance, currently account for 72% of poultry production, 43% of egg production, and 55% of pork production.
Current approaches to food production must radically change. We need to engage in massive reforestation and rewilding as part of our endeavours to contain pathogens and reverse climate change. We need to end the barbaric treatment of animals in food production — factory farming should be eliminated, with alternative and decent-paying employment provided for its workforce. If animal agriculture is to continue, it must be at lower intensity, reject monoculture models, complement local ecosystems, and involve on-site breeding to develop immunities. Just as agribusiness commodifies and pillages our natural world, it exploits and oppresses its workers — we need a just transition to safe, sustainable food production and just distribution across the world’s population, including safe, quality jobs.
Public ownership and planning
With the billionaire class at the helm, industries and governments will not implement the fundamental changes needed to stop food production unleashing more deadly pandemics. The immense global food and agricultural industry was worth $8.7 trillion in 2018 and accounted for 10% of global consumer spending, 40% of employment, and 30% of greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide in 2015. Within that, power and wealth are concentrated, not only geographically, but in ever fewer giant multinational corporations. For example, only four corporations — ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Dreyfus — control of more than 75% of the global grain trade, a feature likely to be intensified by the context of a global depression.
Production of something as fundamentally necessary as food, which can have such devastating global consequences in the wrong hands, must be organised on the basis of a democratic plan, not left to the anarchy of the ‘free market’. If the corporations dominating this industry can’t be relied on to put the interests of people and the planet ahead of their profits (and they can’t), then there is no alternative but to take them out of private hands and into public ownership. With workers at the heart of management and as part of an overall plan for the economy the industry could be transformed and utilised to serve the interests of consumers, farmers, workers and the environment, with local, regional and global cooperation.
Such an aspiration is necessary and entirely reasonable. These are not utopian proposals. Quite the contrary; they are rational measures based on the reality and the gravity of the situation. In fact the same clearly applies to the pharmaceutical industry, which the pandemic demonstrates. The same applies to the energy industry, which the climate crisis demonstrates. Between them, these three industries, which are supposed to provide central necessities of life, have a death grip on humanity’s ability to avert and respond to crises — of which we currently face multiple major ones all at once.
In the throes of the pandemic, the fragility of life as we know it, the flaws of the capitalist system, and the need for a socialist alternative are clearer than ever before. We are hurtling into continued coronavirus chaos and misery, the deepest economic depression in history, and the catastrophic destruction of our climate and planet. The question is who can pull the emergency brake, avert disaster and build a brighter future?
A world to win
It didn’t have to be like this. Even if we were to accept that outbreaks of new diseases are unavoidable in certain circumstances, the rapid spread of this virus was due to the delayed or insufficient action by governments, and even if some acted quicker and better than others, the globalised economy and society we live in today means we’re only as strong as our weakest link. Geopolitical tensions and destructive rivalries between different capitalist states are hardly conducive to the type of international cooperation that a virus outbreak necessitates. Trump’s sanctions against Iran, which have been maintained despite the outbreak and significantly increased the death toll there, is probably the most egregious example of this.
The death toll everywhere is significantly higher than it needed to be. If all hospitals and healthcare facilities were fully resourced with enough nurses and doctors and equipped with sufficient ICU beds, ventilators, PPE etc., countless lives could have been saved. That they aren’t, is due to the legacy of right-wing policies over decades and a dreadful failure by governments to prepare for an outbreak such as this – despite the warnings. As the virus continues to spread around the globe, including to poorer regions, these deficiencies will become even more glaringly apparent, with unfortunately tragic consequences.
The responsibility for all this lies with the capitalist market system, ruled over by the capitalist class and their political representatives. The coronavirus crisis is another major indictment of capitalism, and likewise another argument in the burning case for revolution and socialism.
In many ways, however, the crisis has also shown clearly who really runs the world – who we need and who we can do without. The working class – the labouring majority in every society, including those essential workers on the frontlines in health, retail, sanitation, transport and all the public services that are so crucial to the present effort – has once again demonstrated its position as the essential, progressive class. The capitalists offer nothing.
Workers already run the world in reality, we just don’t own and control it; the billionaires do. But think of what the world would look like if workers did collectively own the economic and natural resources, and had the political power to democratically plan how we use them. Only then could we make sure no more lives are lost needlessly to this virus, and that measures are taken to prevent future pandemics. Or that measures are taken to stop climate change, or to provide quality housing, education and jobs for all, and achieve all of the other possibilities that human ingenuity is capable of but impeded by a dysfunctional and outmoded system.
The potential in this moment was summed up recently in the words of Arundhati Roy:
“Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” 
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 Greenpeace, “Corporate Control of Our Food”, n.d., www.greenpeace.org
 Arundhati Roy, “Arundhati Roy: ‘The pandemic is a portal’”, 3 April 2020, www.ft.com