The global economy is caught in a contradiction — intensified but not entirely caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Epidemiology and climate science demand that we stay home in the short run, and that we demobilize and retool vast sectors of the economy in the long run. Yet capitalist economic models predicated on profitability and endless growth are impossible to reconcile with these human imperatives.
What has changed in the present pandemic is that the urgency of this contradiction has become more apparent. With every day that passes, as the case counts rise, it becomes less and less plausible that we will ever return to a pre-2020 “normal” after a period of quarantines and social distancing. Instead, figures like the president of the St. Louis branch of the Federal Reserve warn of 30 percent unemployment hitting the United States within months, a figure that would surpass even the Great Depression.
Into this breach rushes the Left, which is capable of at least attempting to deal with the crisis at an adequate scale. Now is the time for “disaster socialism” of a sort — our counterpart to the “disaster capitalism” identified by Naomi Klein, in which an immediate crisis is used as the pretext to push through fundamental structural changes.
This task is particularly urgent because it is not the only radical solution on offer. Rising among the ruling class — centered on the Republican Party, but not found only there — is what we might call the Party of Death.
In my book Four Futures, I speculated about various paths out of capitalism, in a context of ecological crisis and rapid technological change. The question, as I thought then and still believe today, is fundamentally not whether capitalism can be saved in anything like its past forms. It cannot. The question is what succeeds it, and the answer to that question is, in turn, determined by politics — by class struggle.
One of the “futures” I devised was called “exterminism.” It took as its point of departure an observation about one of the main historical contradictions of capitalism: on the one hand, capitalists depend on the working class for our labor, which is the fundamental source of their profits. But on the other, bosses fear workers, who are potentially dangerous and powerful precisely because of this indispensability, and their ability to bring the economy to a halt.
In this crisis, we are seeing that power anew — particularly in key sectors related to social reproduction, such as teaching, food distribution, and, of course, health care. But we also see ominous signs of what happens when large parts of the working class are rendered superfluous from the perspective of capital and come to be seen as more of a burden than a motor of capital accumulation.
In Four Futures, I highlighted automation as a force that could potentially lead to a large pool of superfluous workers, and that specter still lurks behind the present crisis. But the more immediate issue, related to the COVID-19 pandemic, is the large masses of people who are, for the ruling class, regarded as too old, too sick, or too otherwise unproductive to be profitable.
For the Party of Death, the pandemic itself begins to appear economically useful, and the measures needed to combat it can come to be seen as worse than the disease — which, from the narrow perspective of capital accumulation, they may well be.
Intimations of the Party of Death’s 2020 platform began to emerge almost as soon as the true danger of COVID-19 began to be widely understood. By early March, CNBC financial personality Rick Santelli — also notable for his role in kicking off the reactionary “Tea Party”— took to the air to warn against overreacting to the virus. “Maybe we’d be just better off if we gave it to everybody,” he suggested, “and then, in a month, it would be over.” As Adam Kotsko observes, Santelli was tapping into a streak of sadism that has long-standing appeal among the rich, and, unfortunately, among a certain number of workers, as well.
Santelli’s commentary was greeted with shock and disgust, but that hasn’t stopped it from continuing to permeate the higher levels of government and media. How else to understand the UK government’s abortive idea of pursuing “herd immunity” by taking a lax approach to the pandemic, with Boris Johnson adviser Dominic Cummings reportedly musing that “if that means some pensioners die, too bad.”
It now appears that this view is gaining popularity as the common sense of the Party of Death on both sides of the Atlantic. President Trump has ominously tweeted that we “CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.” Trump echoed the sentiments of Goldman Sachs chairman Lloyd Blankfein, who frets about “crushing the economy” and proposes we “within a very few weeks let those with a lower risk to the disease return to work.”
The Wall Street Journal has editorialized similarly, and the New York Times reports that Republicans have “pleaded with the White House to find ways to restart the economy, as financial markets continue to slide and job losses for April could be in the millions.”
Would that this view were limited to Republicans, however. Only this weekend, the same New York Times published two op-eds offering liberal versions of the Party of Death position, that reining in the pandemic is less important than reviving the economy — one of them, naturally, by ubiquitous bad-opinion-haver Thomas Friedman.
Unwilling either to talk to real experts in the field or to contemplate fundamental changes to the capitalist status quo, Friedman simply cherry picks a friendly academic to make his claim that we can get back to normal within a few weeks and simply “let many of us get the coronavirus, recover and get back to work.” Gregg Gonsalves of the Yale School of Public Health angrily tweeted out his criticism: “social distancing is going to hurt lots of people, but also prevent lots of deaths . . . why not think about how to ameliorate the downstream economic damage rather than making an epidemic worse?”
We know why, of course. “Ameliorating the downstream damage” would entail changes to our society that would challenge capitalism’s status quo. Which, for the likes of Lloyd Blankfein and Thomas Friedman, might as well be the end of the world. Hence, for them, the Party of Death offers the only feasible approach, however grim it may appear.
The ghoulishness of this strategy will become apparent when it is too late, when the hospitals fill and the health care system and the economy both collapse. At that point, a rhetorical strategy will have to be found that can exonerate everyone from Friedman to Trump for peddling nonsense solutions and miracle cures. This is why the Party of Death is also the party of personal responsibility — not theirs, of course, but ours. Those in power will be held blameless, and those with wealth will sadly lament the foolishness of the lesser orders. If only a few frat boys hadn’t partied in Miami Beach, it all could have been prevented.
The groundwork for this victim-blaming strategy is already being laid, as leaders encourage us to point fingers at one another for insufficiently isolating ourselves, rather than blame them for managing a crisis in the interests of capital rather than people. That isn’t to say that peer pressure for social distancing is a bad thing or unnecessary — right now, it’s one of the only tools we have to stay alive.
But it’s impossible to miss the contrast between New York governor Andrew Cuomo lecturing New Yorkers about staying home while still attempting to cut Medicaid in the midst of a pandemic, or the United States surgeon general warning that “there are not enough people out there who are taking this seriously,” even as the person who seems to take the situation the least seriously is his boss in the White House.
Socialists have always insisted that human needs should take precedence over profit, that the stock market is not the economy, and that we need to utterly transform an economy that is immiserating working people and destroying the planet. That message will only become more urgent as our opponents across different parts of the ruling class come to the conclusion — mournfully for some, gleefully for others — that in the contest between loss of profit and loss of life, they choose death.