world map Map of COVID-19 infected countries and territories. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Capitalism is subjecting itself to great strain and we must be prepared to help it on its way, writes John Clarke

The cascade of recent events, with a global pandemic out in front, has demonstrated the destructive irrationality of capitalism with a quite unprecedented force. What can you say when, in the most economically and military powerful country on earth, the central bank is prepared to pump more than a trillion dollars into the financial markets while almost 30 million people face the onset of Covid-19 without medical coverage? Meanwhile, in the midst of an acute shortage of testing materials, rich Americans can pay for same day test results at the hands of concierge doctors.

In Canada, as I write this, there is still a precious opportunity to slow the onset of the Coronavirus and save lives. Yet, the Tory government of Ontario refuses to restore the paid sick days for workers that it eliminated last year or to prevent employers from requiring sick notes from those who need to self-isolate in order to slow the spread of the virus. “As health providers, our hands are tied,” says Carolina Jimenez, a registered nurse and coordinator of the Decent Work and Health Network, “Our medical advice is to stay at home if you’re sick and it is made meaningless because so many of our patients do not have the financial means to do so.”

The degree to which the prevailing agenda of austerity and cutbacks has left people desperately vulnerable in the face of the pandemic, can be seen with particularly brutal clarity in the case of the swollen populations of homeless people. In Toronto, the hopelessly overcrowded shelters have been aptly described as ‘petri dishes’ that seem designed to accelerate the spread of COVID-19.  The overwhelmed Toronto shelters have had the pressure taken off them to some small degree by the ‘Out of the Cold’ back up facilities, run by religious organisations during the winter months. However, those who operate these places have now issued a statement that they will close them during the present health emergency because they can’t even offer the minimal standards provided by the official shelters. “Our guests are eating and sleeping in such close proximity they are coughing and sneezing on each other,” they say, adding, “Most of the OOTCS do not have showers or sufficient toilets and sinks to allow guests to practice the hygiene protocols listed by Toronto Public Health.” That such conditions have been tolerated in one of the wealthiest cities on earth is appalling. That the governing authorities would have allowed them to continue in the face of a pandemic, shows how apt the term ‘destructive irrationality’ really is.

Perhaps, however, this irrationality takes the most appalling turn of all with the incredible position taken by Boris Johnson that ‘exposing a large segment of the population will help build immunity and limit future infections.’ The suggestion that ‘herd immunity’ can be created by allowing this is dubious, to say the least, but it leaves out of the equation the obvious fact that this debatable result could only be achieved by abandoning to their fate a massive number of elderly people and others with compromised immune systems. The poorly concealed logic at work was articulated, as crassly as was humanly possible, by the Telegraph’s Jeremy Warner, when he suggested that, ‘Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.’

Of course, the horror of the present pandemic is not reducible to appalling government responses or expressions of class based indifference to human suffering. The virus that is rapidly infecting populations across the globe is a byproduct of capitalism’s misuse the resources of this planet and the other species that we share it with.  The destruction of habitat and the reckless use of intensive factory farming methods, bring with them the increased risks of pandemics. “So corona walks through the front door as a familiar monster,” writes Mike Davis. At the same time, he drives home the dreadful reality that the same system that has created this threat has systematically undermined the capacity to respond to it. “The current pandemic expands the argument: capitalist globalization now appears to be biologically unsustainable in the absence of a truly international public health infrastructure. But such an infrastructure will never exist until peoples’ movements break the power of Big Pharma and for-profit healthcare.”

Beyond the pandemic

The unleashing of COVID-19 and the inability to deal with it might be proof enough of the charge that capitalism has become a lethal liability. However, there is lots of additional evidence to support the case. The most damning of all is, of course, the onset of a climate crisis that has already spun out of control. ‘Flagship UN study shows accelerating climate change on land, sea and in the atmosphere,’ reads the headline. Yet high level dire warnings, pious declarations by world leaders and theatrical hand wringing by the Davos set, do nothing to arrest the march to utter global catastrophe. Whether the climate vandalism is undertaken by a crude denier, like Australia’s Scott Morrison, or a wily hypocrite like Canada’s Justin Trudeau, a profit driven system is fundamentally incapable of addressing the climate crisis and creating a sustainable relationship with the planet.

As populations sicken and the polar icecaps melt, a crisis on the financial markets points to a developing economic slump on a world scale. The mainstream media would have us believe that the Coronavirus was the fluke event that created this downturn but it’s clear that capitalism has a pre-existing condition that was ready to kick in anyway. The hopelessly inadequate recovery that followed the financial crisis and the Great Recession was already at the end of its rope and the pandemic only functioned as a final straw. In any event, global capitalism now confronts billions of people with a deep economic downturn and all the misery and hardship that brings with it.

Interlocking crises

Though there are other considerations that could well be included in this, if we take the threat of pandemics, the global downturn and the climate disaster that is already impacting tens of millions, it is clear that these interlocking crises have no viable solution within the framework of capitalism. COVID-19 provides a jarring sense of the enormity of what we confront. The only way out is one of revolutionary social transformation. I’m painfully aware that the forces that can pose such a solution are not even remotely equal to the task at this moment but we can’t lose sight of the earth shattering changes that are taking place or underestimate the degree to which radical demands and forms of struggle to obtain them can win massive support at such a time. Such struggles can lay the basis for incredible leaps in consciousness.

During the bombing of London, in World War Two, those in power had no intention of opening the Underground stations for people to take shelter from the bombs. The Boris Johnsons of the day had as much contempt for the working class ‘herd’ then as is the case today. It took left led direct action to open the stations as places of protection during the blitz. As employers put profits ahead of human lives in the face of the present pandemic, working class people are starting to take action.  In Italy, spontaneous strikes have spread across the country, to challenge employers who are determined to operate as normal in this dire health crisis. Workers at the Fiat Chrysler factory in Windsor, Ontario, have taken similar action, forcing their union leadership to back their demands. In New York City, education workers are responding to the refusal of the Mayor to close schools with a call for a ‘sick out’ to force the hands of the negligent political decision makers. It includes a strong and clear set of demands that the closing of the system not be done in a way that neglects the needs of working class families

What we glimpse, with such clear demands and powerful forms of action, is the kind of solidarity for survival that the present crises of capitalism require of us. In the wake of COVID-19, the demand to reverse the degradation of health care systems and the undermining of workers’ rights will take on a greatly intensified urgency and significance. The global downturn that will now unfold will put millions on a collision course with the inevitable attempt to restore profitability at a terrible human cost. The climate crisis can only increase the scale of resistance to its increasingly dreadful impacts. We are only beginning to understand the incredible changes and possibilities that will be opened up by the shock waves passing through the lives of millions of people. Social consciousness always lags behind social being but this is a time when a sudden narrowing of that gap can, literally, change the course of history. There may well have been no time when the need for such a surge was as desperately required or the political need to maximise it so utterly imperative.

John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.