The COVID-19 corona epidemic that has taken over 16,99,019 lives all around the world has undoubtedly been a disaster with no parallels in modern history. Political and social analysts describe this pandemic as the reason for the most sustained period of worldwide public suffering since World War II and it indeed remains a fact that the global outreach of the virus has brought forth societal and economic shutdowns. The virus has not just wrecked the physical well-being of people globally but has also set in motion a precarious chain reaction that is all set to upset the veneer of stability in one country after another. If anything, this pandemic has laid bare the contradictions of the capitalist system like never before; for this time, unlike the 2008 global financial crisis, it would be difficult for the capitalist and neo-liberal models to rescue themselves without conceding ground to the biological implausibility of capitalist globalization.
While the national bourgeoisie is busy shifting the blame for the economic crisis on to the virus and many countries are significantly looking forward to accelerate protectionist tendencies, what the virus has in reality exposed is the deep-seated contradictions within the neo-liberal framework accumulated through decades. Hence, the crisis that we see today is a crisis of capitalism as a whole, as much as it is one triggered by corona. While it must be acknowledged that capitalism always delayed impending crises through different means such as massive credit expansions and racking up debt, thereby stonewalling growth, the bogey of capitalist advancement had to confront its current pandemic-sponsored rupture without any prior warnings. Thus, the virus seems to be only an unforeseen episode that turned spotlight on the deep fault-lines in non-democratization of economic power and freedom. While forfeiting the opportunities for building a truly international public healthcare infrastructure at the altar of the large pharmaceutical companies, little did the developed world envisage a time when thousands would be left dead with no antidote in sight for the worst ever viral attack.
It is in this context that many left wing intellectuals like the American historian and sociologist, Mike Davis, sees these times as a possible opportunity for “a second New Deal; the moment to reclaim social ownership and democratization of economy” (Zitelman, Forbes, 30March, 2020). However, the exhilaration over the assumed retreat of hyper-globalization, while presenting a chance to reset both global and personal landscapes, could also be a scenario where states get to reinforce nationalism. This is precisely because of how state is essentially a coercive institution which nurtures itself through class divisions in society. Consequently, as citizens world over would turn to their respective governments to protect them from the pandemic, the emergency powers at the disposal of these states currently, to combat the viral outbreak, in all likelihood would become the new status-quo. The “democratic aura” of the West has clearly been damaged by the lack of swiftness in their responses to tackling the crisis in comparison to say China, South Korea or Singapore. Hence, COVID-19 would by default become the most potent soft-power tool to turn the world into a less open, less free and more surveillance space.
It is indeed true that this crisis presents the best opportunity for fascist forces to engineer a parallel pandemic of despotism that would embolden deep-rooted resentments and frustrations in societies along religious, national and social prejudices. A societal set-up where the mob becomes the moral prosecutors and pro-bono law enforcers would definitely help in satisfying the morbidity of masses who finds the pandemic an excuse for a dangerous catharsis. The attack against Muslims in India, the linking of the pandemic to migrant population in Hungary, the furtherance of acrimony towards the Latinos and Hispanics and strengthening of border controls in USA are all testimonies to how every despot loves a good pandemic. Nevertheless, approaching the corona crisis as a crisis of industrial capitalism is also inspiring several anti-globalization activists and economists to understand the corona crisis as an avenue for radical wealth redistribution and as a way forward for catalyzing a transformative leap.
The casualities of natural events like Ebola, Zika, MERS, SARS, Influenza or now Corona are not just external shocks which are “given factors external to the economic system” (Nayeri, Our Place in the World, 27 March,2020). They are rather archetypes of how capitalist accumulation serves as the root cause of eco-social crises and how all such existential threats amplifies the overall crisis by undermining the most vulnerable groups and regions first off. The financial and economic crises kindled by corona are unearthing the structural weaknesses inherent in all the major world economic models including the USA. And this, being a far worse situation than 2008, also necessitates a coming together of various brands of political ideologies to devise fiscal policies that would help “slow, if not stop, the unfolding recession” (Goodman, The New York Times, 13 March, 2020). Societies are bound to change and look different post every major crisis and therefore, while all economic and political life was relentlessly committed to an upward redistribution of wealth for the past many decades, the anti-capitalist advocates believe that the solution to a pandemic of this scale lies in seizing the opportunity for a redistribution of financial resources as per social needs. They believe that the virus has in fact demonstrated the need for states to reorganize themselves beyond the framework of private accumulation of wealth (Damon and North, ICFI, 10 March, 2020).
The need to shift away from a market-oriented economic model towards a state-controlled supervision of the pandemic is best reflected in the words of the French Economist Thomas Piketty, when he talks of how “drastic state-led interventions in the economy during the corona crisis could show governments how much they can regulate the economy” (Zitelman, Forbes, 30 March, 2020). Many governments world over are being forced to take measures, unthinkable till a month back, in order to help people sail through the crisis. Paris Marx in his essay on Think (24 March, 2020) gives several such examples ranging from the nationalization of all private hospitals and health care providers in Spain to writing off mortgages in Italy to suspension of taxes, rents and utility bills for several companies in France including possible nationalization of bankrupt companies to halting evictions in USA, with states like California planning to provide shelters to at least 108,000 of its homeless. Many political analysts and economists are thus hopeful that the blind spots of capitalism and bad governance would necessitate a radical shift in political and economic practices. Consequently, they see the possibilities for a universal health care system, free medical coverage for low and middle income groups so that they do not have to dive into medical bankruptcies due to the prevailing private insurance mechanisms and an economic stimulus package that would encourage the state institutions to pump more money into the stock markets and ease off the burden of interest rates and loan debts on students and other vulnerable communities.
The renewed hope for a fundamental reorganization of society in these times comes from the understanding that this crisis has hit the capitalist model differently from the 1970’s or 2000’s as, while the virus followed the route map of global capitalism and transmitted itself world over through business, tourism and trade, its cardinal cause is also external to the economy. No scientist or economist can deny the fact that it is the fundamentals of the global capitalist model that helped the pandemic widen its target group- be it the heavy reliance of most on labour market or the grandeur of international connectivity. And these are not features specific or exclusive to any one economic policy paradigm; rather they are the essential characteristics of capitalism as such, making the corona crisis a global watershed moment. It is for this very reason that many left-wing intellectuals like William Davies vehemently talks about “how a crisis of this magnitude can never be truly resolved until many of the fundamentals of our social and economic life have been remade” (Zitelman, Forbes, 30 March, 2020).
While the neo-liberals are yet again managing to oversimplify the crisis by putting the responsibility of institutional failures to tackle the crisis on the state which they say had inadvertenly overindebted itself, the anti-capitalists too should exercise caution while clamouring for an all-powerful state in the pretext of mitigating the crisis of capitalism. Solidarity cannot be a synonym for ruthless state intervention. Nevertheless, the inoperability of many of the contemporary capitalist consumerist models under the present conditions necessitates a cultural, scientific and dogmatic alteration in the ways in which social formations are typically conceived by populations across space and time. The masses of the most advanced capitalist countries are entering this new phase of crisis not really after a period of growth and prosperity but rather after more than a decade of economic austerity and slowdown and this makes class struggle inevitable.
It is beyond doubt that the society at present is going through a phase that best represents the deficiency of a system of rule and social order based on capitalist advancement. The inadequacies of the market model have turned most of the market forces into temporary “socialists” who are waiting for the states to bail them out by passing on the unpaid bills to the working classes. The request from multi-billionaire Richard Branson for a state-supported bail-out of his Virgin Atlantic airlines with a net worth of 4 billion pounds while simultaneously asking his employees to go on unpaid leave bears testimony to how the bourgeoisie are relying on public money to rescue themselves from the chaos. However, it is the responsibility of the state systems to form the front line of defense when it comes to public health and safety and this can only be possible by discarding the austerity measures solely intended to design tax cuts and subsidies to redeem the corporates and the rich. As the endless accumulation of capital is clearly falling apart from within, all over the world, and the recklessness of consumerism is intensifying environmental degradation, a social democratic vision that couples public health measures with employment/ livelihood protection of the weakest seems to be the best way out.