Capitalism kills. Photo: Flickr/Jeremy Hunsinger Capitalism kills. Photo: Flickr/Jeremy Hunsinger

The ruling class is debating whether or not it’s worth saving the lives of those it can no longer exploit; this is barbarism, writes Kevin Ovenden

“Not even two weeks into an extraordinary response to the novel coronavirus outbreak, the upper echelons of capital are wondering whether saving millions of lives is really worth the damage being done to their investment portfolios. According to reports, the debate among the ruling class is over whether or not to walk back some of the measures taken to slow the spread of the virus — efforts already considered tardy and inadequate by public health experts — in order to minimize business losses.”

– J. E Karla, The Wall Street Journal’s pitch for mass murder is catching on in capitalist circles, Hampton Institute

The London Times is also today trailing this elite sociopathic argument. Its article says that if 6.4% is knocked off GDP, then “more years of life” will be lost than through Covid-19. It is an “argument” that is set to grow as we know its thinking already informs the Downing Street operation.

It is false in several respects.

Trump was exposed as lying when he said a severe and ongoing recession would lead to a suicide rate greater than the fatality rate of the virus. The figures – a conjecture based on extrapolating from the 2008 crash – do not bear that out.

More importantly is this:

Covid-19 is a natural phenomenon, though as virologists and epidemiologists have been pointing out for years, chaotic capitalist expansion and destruction of settled ecosystems mean that the outbreak of novel viruses transmitting to humans and then human to human contact is dramatically increased.

It is also true that social measures can limit the virus and buy time for development of treatments and a vaccine.

Nevertheless, it is natural in the sense that it is a pathogen that spreads and infects according to objective, natural laws.

Economic hardship and resulting greater mortality rates out of a recession are not objective natural processes like a virus replicating itself through infection, a basic process that is independent of the organisation of society and economy.

Capitalism is objective in the sense that it is independent of how any of us conceives of it and it follows economic laws. But it is a social organisation. It is truly socially constructed. And the impacts of both booms and slumps are socially determined according to the balance between different class and political interests.

The 120,000 excess deaths from austerity in Britain were not due to a law of nature like the spread of a dangerous pathogen.

They were a political choice. And the other side of those deaths is a fabulous extension of the wealth and power of the 1% at the top.

The false argument coming from parts of that 1% now is that they are protecting human well-being by preserving their system and getting back to profit-making, at the cost of what is thought to be a 1% general mortality rate from the pandemic (though we don’t know the figure accurately).

And note the chilling implication of the statistical measure “years of life lost”.

It is that old people and those with often disabling conditions who would statistically die sooner rather than later can be allowed to die in large numbers in preference to fewer, younger and fitter people dying who would have had many more years ahead of them.

This is not because the billionaire class cares deeply about the long life and well-being of a 30-year-old construction worker.

It is that such a worker has probably another 40 years of exploitable labour power ahead of them. The 80-year-old pensioner who has already contributed decades of labour does not. Indeed she is drawing down her deferred wages built up in the form of a pension in her years of paid employment.

So behind this sickening and mendacious capitalist argument is this two-fold reality:

Capital threatens to make working people pay and suffer from the recession that is already underway. It then points to that suffering and impact on life and death as a reason, with the force of supposed natural law, to allow “less productive” people die in large number now in the name of some free-market and obscene utilitarian ethic.

One of Marx’s favourite metaphors for capitalism was the vampire.

Against this, socialists must, among many other things, put as loudly as possible the only human position, one shared at least nominally by all the great religions and moral systems:

Every single life matters. Capitalism is incompatible with acting upon that. And in manifold crisis reverts the barbarism of declaring some life as expendable and not worth preserving, or living.

We know what true horror that invites.

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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