COVID-19 has triggered a global economic crisis.
The world economy was limping along before pandemic-related workplace closures pushed it over the edge. Production is disrupted, lives are torn apart, and governments are sinking into debt. The UK and German economies are officially in recession. According to the chair of the US Federal Reserve, “The scope and speed of this downturn are without modern precedent.”
This is a revolutionary situation. The ruling class can no longer rule in the old way, and the ruled are unwilling to be ruled in the old way.
There are two possible outcomes to this crisis: the ruling class (temporarily) stabilize their social order; or the ruled organize themselves to take power.
Capitalists understand this. Their media warn, “This Pandemic Will Lead to Social Revolutions” and “The Revolution Is Under Way Already.” The wealthy owner of Cartier luxury jewelry reports being unable to sleep for fear that the poor will rise up and bring down the rich.
Their fears are justified.
Before COVID-19, mass political protests had reached an historic high. The Carnegie global protest tracker reports more than 100 major anti-government protests and 30 governments or leaders being overthrown since 2017. Now millions more workers face job loss and uncertain futures.
The capitalist economy can be revived only by increasing worker productivity (more output per worker per hour), and workers resist being forced to work harder for less. It will not be easy to raise profits while keeping workers down. Nevertheless, capitalists have done it before.
Capitalists cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. – Marx and Engels, 1848.
Capitalism is a dynamic system. Competition for capital forced the transition from individual hand labor to industrial mass production. Turning farms into cities radically changed how people live.
The 20th century computer revolution promised to boost productivity, creating more leisure time and a higher standard of living for all.
Between 1973 and 2000, the output per worker per hour nearly doubled in the US. In other words, all the goods and services produced in 1973 could be produced in half the time by 2000. In The Overworked American (1991), Juliet Schor explained that if the benefits of computer technology had been shared,
We actually could have chosen the four-hour day. Or a working year of six months. Or every worker in the United States could be taking every other year off from work — with pay.
As with all technology, the benefits of automation went exclusively to the capitalist class. Bosses became fabulously wealthy, while workers suffered mass layoffs, lower wages, and more dehumanizing, routinized, and precarious jobs.
Amazon has “patented designs for a wristband that can precisely track where warehouse employees are placing their hands and use vibrations to nudge them in a different direction.”
In China, “businesses and the military are fitting workers with headgear that monitors their brain waves and emotions to increase productivity and profits.”
The computerized factory model was quickly adopted throughout society, including the social service sector:
Hospitals now function like factories, with different departments attending to different parts of the body in assembly-line fashion, moving patients through the system within predetermined time limits. The use of health information technology (HIT), tracking badges, standardized procedures, and ‘just-in-time’ staffing contribute to making ‘medical error’ the third leading cause of death in the US.
Public schools operate like mini-factories. Quality control is imposed in the form of zero tolerance, standardized testing, directed learning to raise test scores, and scripted teaching programs that aim to control “everything that happens in the classroom, right down to instructions on the appropriate hand gestures to make while teaching.”
The computer revolution gave rise to trillion-dollar tech corporations: Microsoft, Samsung, Apple, Google, Amazon, Alibaba, etc. Big Tech is now bigger than Big Oil, and they are teaming up for mutual benefit. Their continued growth and the preservation of capitalism have become inseparable.
Whatever the problem, technology offers ‘solutions’ that raise profits and increase capitalist control.
Tech solutions can be worse than the problems they promise to solve. Nuclear power is still promoted as a clean and sustainable energy source, despite the fact that nuclear power plants produce plutonium for nuclear weapons and highly toxic radioactive waste.
After 9/11, the US Patriot Act was quickly passed under the pretext of keeping Americans safe. The State was given unprecedented powers to spy on anyone for any reason, while reducing judicial oversight, public accountability, and the legal right to challenge government searches.
Capitalists do not use mass surveillance to keep us safe. They don’t care about threats to working people; they only care about threats to their wealth and power. Introduced as emergency measures, surveillance technologies continue to be used to secure capitalist control.
Criminal risk assessment algorithms (computer formulas) that claim to identify who is dangerous amplify social bias. Heavily policed populations have more contact with the legal system, so algorithms are more likely to target individuals from these groups as criminal, increasing their oppression.
Technological ‘solutions’ do not address the systemic roots of social problems. Life-changing decisions are removed from human beings and assigned to computer programmers. These secret algorithms can be adjusted to deliver any desired result, and the victims of their decisions have no recourse.
Facial recognition software identifies people who are not wearing masks, thermal cameras monitor body temperatures, and phones track where people go and who they meet. This technology is prone to errors, identifying infection where there is none (false positives) and failing to detect infections in people with no symptoms (false negatives).
More reliable information can be gathered by training ordinary people to conduct repeated surveys in their own neighborhoods, where those they question are more likely to know and trust them.
COVID-19 could be eradicated with widespread adoption of door-to-door testing and contact tracing. This approach has proved effective at lowering infection rates. However, there are only 2,200 contact tracers in the entire United States, when more than 100,000 are needed.
Capitalists are afraid to let workers play an active role in ending this pandemic. They prefer technological solutions, however ineffective, that keep them in control. One example is using computer-based models to calculate when the cost of keeping people off work outweighs the number of deaths from infection.
Prolonged social isolation has increased reliance on computer technology for remote work, remote learning, and remote delivery of goods and services. Seizing the opportunity, tech companies are pushing governments to make this trend permanent. Naomi Klein calls this the “Screen New Deal.”
Anticipating a major shortfall in New York’s education budget, the governor has partnered with tech giants to build a “smarter education system” based on remote learning that requires no buildings, no classrooms, and fewer troublesome teachers.
Teachers and parents oppose making remote learning permanent. They point to the limits of screen-based instruction, the importance of learning in a social setting, the risk of exploiting students for commercial gain, and the need for children to be in school so parents can work.
While wealthy families can accommodate home schooling, it places an intolerable burden on working-class families and especially on women who must also work outside the home. Even before COVID-19, working-class families were staggering under the weight of care-giving tasks that cost-cutting governments no longer provide.
Children cannot develop socially and emotionally in isolation, and they cannot feel safe when trapped at home with frustrated adults who are overwhelmed with responsibilities and stressed over making ends meet.
Since the lock-down began, hospitals report a rise in severe child abuse injuries and deaths. One sex-abuse hotline reported an unprecedented increase in calls from minors who cannot escape their abusers.
The digital dystopia our rulers are planning will deepen inequality between the better-off who can work at home with health-preserving technologies, and the rest of us who will be abandoned to suffer deprived and disease-spreading conditions.
Stockpile ventilators, not bombs
We are not “at war” with COVID-19. Part of the reason we’re in this predicament is that we hollowed out America’s public health system in favor of military spending.
Homeland ‘security’ and national ‘defense’ do not keep people safe; they secure the power of the ruling class.
While many Americans were anxiously awaiting their $1,200 payments from that congressional aid and relief package, the Department of Defense was expediting contract payments to the arms industry.
Between 2001 and 2020, the US spent an average $700 billion per year on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Compare this with the less than $8 billion allocated in 2020 to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The US budget for 2021 cut funding for the CDC, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency while giving the Pentagon $1.2 trillion, boosting military spending 50 percent higher than it was before Trump took office.
Next to nothing is invested in basic infection-control measures such as housing relief to prevent thousands more workers being made homeless, forced to crowd into the homes of friends and relatives, or warehoused in shelters, all of which encourage the spread of infection.
Never satisfied, US politicians want half a billion dollars to buy more Lockheed Martin F-35 jet fighters. Over 90,000 ventilators could be purchased for the same price. Meanwhile, American laboratories warn of insufficient funding to increase virus testing to the level needed to reopen the economy safely.
This pandemic cannot be stopped by military means. On the contrary, the more societies invest in war, the less they invest in public health.
Punitive economic sanctions against Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, and other nations block their ability to obtain medicines and medical equipment to manage the pandemic.
Deporting thousands of sick refugees to Central America and the Caribbean has made the US the “Wuhan of the Americas.” And the spread of COVID-19 through the armed forces will transmit the virus to America’s 883 military bases in 183 countries.
The capitalist class are primarily concerned with accumulating wealth and power. Their concern for human health has always been limited to protecting themselves from contagion, ensuring that workers are fit enough to exploit, and reducing liability for sickness, injury, or death.
It is not possible to end this pandemic, or prevent future ones, and also preserve the capitalist system.