But if blame must be laid at some group’s feet, why not call it the “capitalism virus”? After all, it was the capitalist drive for wild animal “delicacies,” as well as capitalist driven expansion into wild areas that created the vector for SARS-CoV-2 to jump to human carriers. It was the unregulated capitalism of the “wet markets” in Wuhan that enabled the virus to spread unchecked, just as it was rampant capitalism that enabled the disease to spread like wildfire over the entire world. It was capitalism that destroyed healthcare in this country and replaced it with medically based profit streams, eliminating any ability to deal with emergencies in the name of “streamlining” those profits. It is capitalism that has shuttered hospitals because the real estate was more valuable than the hospital itself. It is capitalism that has manufactured a scarcity of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) in the name of profits.
And now it is capitalism that is demanding that basic life saving steps be disregarded in the name of “reopening” the economy. This is in no way a reflection of concern for the well over 34,000,000 people who have lost their jobs since the pandemic hit, of course. As far as capitalism is concerned, these are merely disposable commodities to be used until they are used up, and then thrown away. This is not an example of me engaging in an excess of rhetoric. The White House’s own economic advisor Kevin Hassett just recently could not trouble himself to speak of workers as people, describing them instead as “capital stock.” Hassett was all smiles as he did so, and completely oblivious to the kinds of Soylent Green references his obtuse, casual, and unreflectively brutal dehumanization was going to generate.
But that, after all, is capitalism; and this is the capitalism plague. There was a semi-humorous (and presumably apocryphal) story going around, back when I was still a computer tech (so, well over 20 years ago), that Microsoft’s unofficial motto was, “Work harder, and the coffee is free.”
This piece of bitter irony usefully reminds us of another one: how capitalism enfolds its “capital stock” within its own ideology, so that the people who actually do the labor become willfully complicit in their own exploitation and degradation. Recall from my earlier post my discussion of the clueless rube who had his child stand with a sign happily declaring “Work is Freedom,” absolutely oblivious to the history of that phrase and the monstrous evil behind it. And it is far from evident that the sad, self-absorbed boob who posted the picture would have hesitated any even if he did know that history. (Indeed, there is no evidence that I am aware of to indicate that the individual was ignorant of the full content of his sign, only the assumption that no one who did understand it could possibly be so devoid of basic intelligence and decency as to proceed in such a fashion.)
This illustrates some part of the addictive behavior, a vicious codependency, that arises between capitalism and its “stocks.” (Addiction itself is often characterized as a disease, of course.) Laborers come to identify themselves not by their humanity or personhood, but according to the labor they are trapped into performing in the name of basic survival. A form of abused person syndrome, rather than fighting back or leaving, the abused person makes excuses and justifications for the abuser. What is worse, much of the labor these abused persons are justifying are in the form of bullshit jobs, jobs which perform no meaningful function and comprise vacuous actions that accomplish nothing, and are directed toward no genuine end.
I’ve been highlighting this latter with a minor terminological difference in the above: I’ve been speaking of “labor” rather than work. People do, in fact, want to work, in the sense of being engaged in meaningful and productive pursuits. But “meaningful” and “productive” in this context must not be defined by capitalism, as the latter would (and has and does) reduce such things to exploitive and bullshit labor.ii Rather, such meaningful work might involve gathering food for one’s family, repairing something of value so that it once again of service to the community, creating something new that can be shared with others. Or even going in to one’s job and having that work actually involve the persons doing that work; involve them as a creative and respected contributors to a larger project, rather than as disposable parts in a machine that simply grinds through such parts, using them until they are used up, and then throwing them away.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not exposed any of these facts about capitalism that were not already obvious to anyone for no more effort than merely looking. Indeed, most of these things were already thoroughly analyzed by Marx some 160 years ago. (Applying the psychology of addiction and codependency is fairly new, since such studies did not exist in Marx’s time.) But it is pressing matters with sufficient urgency that at least a few of these facts are beginning to seep through the patently boundless human capacity for denial that keeps the teetering jenga set that is the infrastructure of capitalism from collapsing entirely.
And, of course, it is a bald-faced lie that “we” cannot afford to stay closed, limiting the death and suffering from COVID-19 be damned. There is no real “we” in the above, just and only corporations and the super wealthy who are upset by their loss of profits and the hits their stock portfolios are taking. These same people have received TRILLIONS of dollars in tax give-aways, not just since Trump took office but over the last several decades. That money has simply been stove-piped out of the economy and into off-shore tax shelters. THAT is what we cannot, and never could, afford.
– – – – – – – – – – –
iAs of this writing, US deaths are just under 101,000 people. By the time I finish writing this blog post, they will have exceeded that number. See https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries for running updates.
iiJohn Dewey has discussed this topic in so many places that I’m rather at a loss to suggest one. I suppose Freedom and Culture would be as good a starting place as any.