System Crash: An Activists Guide to the Coming Democratic Revolution.
Neil Faulkner, Phil Hearse, Simon Hannah, Rowan Fortune and Nina Fortune.
How could this have happened? Someone propelled through a time warp from the 1960s would be astonished. Astonished to find a world laid low by a deadly virus. Astonished by economic collapse and mass unemployment. Astonished by looming environmental catastrophe. Astonished by an epidemic of police and military violence. Astonished that Europe allows thousands of migrants to drown in the Mediterranean. Astonished by a resurgence of the fascist politics of the 1930s. It would seem like they had landed in the middle of a dystopian science-fiction movie.
The capitalist world of the 1960s, and for a long time after, imagined it was making rapid progress towards ever greater prosperity, peace, democracy, freedom, and happiness – including, of course, the conquest of infectious disease. That self-image, promoted by conservatives, liberals, and social-democrats alike, was far from the whole truth, but it contained enough truth to convince many people, especially in the Western world, that they had ‘never had it so good’.
In Western countries, living standards were improving for most people, and so was their health – particularly with wider use of antibiotics and vaccines, and with the provision of free or low-cost health services. Limited progress on these fronts was also made in some of the so-called ‘Communist’ countries, and even in some countries of the Global South – though many of the latter suffered appalling military devastation at the hands of imperialist powers.
Today, that ideology of progress based on liberal democracy, national development, and social welfare, has collapsed. The self-confidence and optimism are gone. The world has become a dark place of corporate power, social collapse, and repressive violence.
We were warned. Since the 2008 banking crisis, repeated warnings have been issued, from across the political spectrum, that solving one financial meltdown by building another debt mountain could only result in another, yet more devastating economic collapse. Now it is upon us. The trigger last time was subprime mortgages. This time it is a deadly pathogen.
There had been countless predictions. From academic specialists, world health experts, leading public figures such as Barack Obama and Bill Gates, and not least from Marxist theorist Mike Davis in his bestselling 2005 book The Monster at Our Door. Davis warned that the appropriation of wild nature by capital, the industrialised rearing of animals in agribusiness complexes, the growth of megacities and their proximity to these complexes, and the desperate lack of basic health provision among the poor of the Global South were creating the conditions for a perfect storm of deadly viral infection on a world scale.
Few people, even on the Left, took Davis seriously. The relative ease with which the 2013-16 Ebola epidemic had been suppressed in West Africa – with ‘just’ 11,000 deaths – created a false sense of security. Ebola patients got sick within a couple of days of infection and often died rapidly. It was easy to see who was ill, and relatively easy to track those with whom they had been in contact.
Covid-19, by contrast, is a stealth virus. It causes mass infection, and transmission is easy and rapid. Yet the carriers are either asymptomatic or show symptoms only after a week or so of infection; the symptoms, moreover, vary widely in character and intensity, such that Covid often goes undetected even when it results in illness. This is ideal for spreading the disease unseen.
Deadly stealth is combined with potentially devastating immediate and long-terms effects on those seriously affected. The disease targets especially older people, those with weak immune systems or chronic respiratory problems (perhaps as many as 25% in the United States), and poor and ethnic-minority people. It is the biggest health challenge the world has faced since the so-called ‘Spanish flu’ of 1918-20. And it is one that neoliberal regimes in general, and far-right neoliberal regimes in particular – regimes harnessed to corporate power and the profit drive – are spectacularly incapable of meeting.
Who created the virus?
Where did the virus come from? Why did it spread so quickly? How have neoliberal governments responded? What is the relationship between the pandemic and the wider environmental, economic, and social crises of our time?
Much confusion surrounds the origin of the virus. This is partly because of deliberate political lying – like the rumour that it originated in a Chinese government laboratory in Wuhan. Also confusing is the fact that the causes of the pandemic are multiple. But everything is rooted in environmental and economic changes driven by the restructuring of agriculture, the creation of megacities, and global circuits of trade, transport, and travel – rooted, that is, in neoliberal capital accumulation.
The most insightful tracking of these intersecting factors has been the work of Mike Davis and also scientists Alex Liebman, Luis Fernando Chaves, and Roderick Wallace, summarised in the American Marxist magazine Monthly Review. They argue that while some lethal pathogens stem from industrialised agriculture itself, most come from wild animals and spill over into human communities, either because of deforestation or because they are brought into the markets of major cities. They refer to ‘the expanding peri-urban commodity circuits shipping these newly spilled-over pathogens in livestock and labour from the deepest hinterland to regional cities’.
Pathogens once contained in forest redoubts by their remoteness and the natural ‘firebreaks’ represented by biodiversity now find easy ways out – arriving in local markets as ‘bushmeat’ or following on the heels of livestock concentrations.
Transmission is facilitated by deforestation (for logging or to create vast monoculture complexes), which the authors refer to as the ‘destruction of environmental complexity which has previously kept pathogens in check’. Rapid export and re-export of agricultural commodities, as well globalised air travel, then completes capitalism’s mechanism for producing and spreading deadly diseases.
So the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 is not something new, but part of a pattern of pathogen transmission which has accelerated since the Millennium: ‘The wide variety of pathogens, representing different taxa, source hosts, modes of transmission, clinical courses, and epidemiological outcomes, have all the hallmarks that send us running wild-eyed to our search engines upon each outbreak, and mark different parts and pathways along the same kinds of circuits of land use and value accumulation.’
Creeping fascism and eugenic massacre
The precise origin of the virus – whether it came from a bat, a duck, or a monkey – is secondary. What really matters is the environmental, economic, and social framework that enabled its transmission. Central to its virulence has been the behaviour of far-right neoliberal regimes across the world.
The mainly right-wing and far-right governments that dominate the world today have transformed the pandemic into a massacre of the elderly, the sick, and the poor. Neoliberalism, with its laser focus on short-term business returns, has been unable to create strategies that simultaneously suppress the virus and sustain profits.
At the time of writing (October 2020), there have been about 45 million recorded infections and 1.2 million fatalities, according to the World Health Organisation (WTO). The WTO says the pandemic is out of control and getting worse in large areas of the world, especially the United States, Brazil, India, and much of Europe.
As Umair Haque explains, exploding virus transmission across the US is liable to make the disease permanent and risks the country becoming an isolated ‘plague state’:
At 100,000 cases a day or so, society begins to stop functioning almost entirely. Schools and universities stay shut. Banks and stores never open up. Hospitals and ICUs are overwhelmed. Just providing people the basics – daily water, food, energy, medicine – has now become a critical and crucial challenge. Society’s basic systems of healthcare, education, finance, employment all begin to break, crash, and burn. Bang! There goes society.
This may be overly pessimistic, but that it can be even discussed shows how perilous the situation has become, and how incompetent are the regimes responsible. It is striking that the governments with the worst record – the United States, Brazil, and the UK – are those with the most right-wing and cavalier pro-business regimes. All three governments were reluctant to go into lockdown and desperate to come out of it, so the pandemic was allowed to rage, increasing the death toll, the economic damage, and the long-term impact.
Among the countries most successful in suppressing the virus have been South Korea, Hong Kong, China, and Japan. They locked down early, created effective track-and-trace systems, and mobilised huge resources to provide protective clothing and other essential medical equipment. They were also the countries that enforced effective social distancing and quarantine measures such as sealing borders.
Brazil’s central government was unwilling to do anything to counter the disease, which Bolsonaro described as ‘a little flu’. Trump’s government has been less consistently philistine, but no national strategy has emerged. In Britain, the Johnson government has had the ambition to ‘flatten the curve’ of the virus, but not suppress it – which would have involved a longer lockdown and comprehensive testing, tracking, and tracing.
The British government’s initial flirtation with the quasi-fascist notion of ‘herd immunity’ – implying hundreds of thousands of deaths – revealed its central priority: staying open for business. Equally telling was its deliberate bypassing of medical experts, the NHS, local government, and community action, in order to hand lucrative contracts to private corporations for the provision of PPE, the carrying out of tests, and the establishment of a track-and-trace system – with the entirely predictable consequence of serial failure.
The disease is not going away any time soon. It cannot be entirely eradicated until there is a vaccine, and there may never be one. It could be much more effectively suppressed, but not so long as we are in the hands of neoliberal corporate regimes like the Bolsonaro, Trump, and Johnson governments.
In the medium term, the policies of these regimes are likely to prove economically catastrophic. The British economy has already gone off a cliff, with a 25% contraction in just two months (March and April 2020) and real levels of unemployment expected to rise to five million by the end of the year.
We are looking at economic damage on a scale not seen since the 1930s, and an economic collapse unprecedented in the history of capitalism.
Neoliberal governments sabotaged pandemic preparation. The coronavirus puts in question the whole organisation of society. Governments are meant to plan and prepare for major crises, including health crises. In the US and Britain, they did the opposite.
In Britain, the post-2010 Tory government allowed stocks of protective equipment to degrade and go out-of-date, and suppressed the results of the 2016 NHS exercise (Operation Cygnus), which found that the health service was unprepared for a major pandemic.
This, of course, was because the government was ideologically hostile to the NHS. Prominent members of it had proclaimed their desire to see this public service sold off to private corporations. The NHS was consistently underfunded and allowed to run down. Bed occupancy in hospitals was between 94 and 98% before the pandemic – which meant they were effectively full-up. They were also chronically under-staffed, a problem made much worse by Brexit, with an estimated 40,000 European nurses either going home or never coming at all because of fears about residency status.
So the initial NHS chaos as the pandemic struck – lack of beds, lack of equipment, overworked staff, and, catastrophically, older patients infected with Covid being shunted back into care homes, where 30,000 have died of the disease – was due to a decade-long Tory programme of cuts.
The argument that health expenditure is being stretched by an ageing population is utterly bogus. The rich are getting richer, billions are wasted on arms, and there is always money for bank bailouts. The British government is currently creating hundreds of billions of pounds of new money to limit the economic damage of lockdown measures. Britain, in any case, spends less on health per capita than other leading European states.
In reality, the rundown of the NHS has been a ‘softening-up’ exercise, a preparation for widespread privatisation and the creation of a two-tier system where many procedures are only available privately. The disaster that would mean, especially for the poor and the elderly, can be observed in the United States, where people are sometimes forced to sell their homes to pay for essential medical care.
In Britain, the United States, and Brazil, government policy deserves to be called ‘eugenic’, because it involves the understanding – not openly admitted – that the old, the sick, and the poor would die disproportionately. Poorer working-class people tend to have more underlying health conditions, frequently poverty and stress related, and their jobs are often essential front-line jobs that cannot be done from home. This is the main reason that BAME people have been disproportionately hit by the virus.
In the UK, government eugenics is almost explicit. As long ago as 2013, the now Prime Minister Boris Johnson invoked pseudo-scientific notions of IQ to promote the idea that people ‘who are already very far from equal in raw ability’ might also be different in ‘spiritual worth’. Toby Young, who worked for the Tory government in 2018, publicly advocated ‘progressive eugenics’ in 2015. The Tory MP Ben Bradley blogged that benefit claimants, described as a ‘vast sea of unemployed wasters’, should get vasectomies. One of Dominic Cumming’s so-called ‘super forecasters’, Andrew Sabisky, has also promoted racist IQ claims and eugenics.
The most far-right neoliberal governments, including Britain’s, have been responsible for tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. But that is not just because Johnson, Trump, and Bolsonaro have made bad choices. They are managing a political system – neoliberal capitalism – which is experiencing simultaneous crises of economy, society, and environment, with morbid political consequences, notably the rise of far-right movements. Capitalism is increasingly incapable of upholding the life, liberty, and well-being of the overwhelming majority – those who are neither rich nor middle class.
Retreat from Camelot
When the 43-year old John F Kennedy was elected US President in November 1960, he seemed, with his brother, Attorney-General Robert Kennedy, to epitomise the spirit of post-war liberalism – capitalist certainly, but also democratic and socially progressive. Millions of people worldwide were taken in.
Kennedy came from a very rich family, organised the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, initiated large-scale US intervention in Vietnam, and, with his brother, refused to protect the Freedom Riders and other Civil Rights activists being murdered and brutalised in the American Deep South.
But the Kennedy entourage, especially the immediate family of the two brothers, including the conventionally glamorous Jackie Kennedy and brother-in-law film star Peter Lawford, were dubbed ‘Camelot’ after the court of the mythical King Arthur. For the increasingly affluent middle classes in the Western world, the Kennedys seemed to embody the spirit of the times.
After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, his successor Lyndon Johnson sent 500,000 troops to South Vietnam and started the genocidal bombing of North Vietnam. But he was also responsible for the 1965 Civil Rights Act and the ‘Great Society’ project. Escalating imperialist war on the other side of the world did not preclude social reform at home.
The Great Society programme involved major government spending on welfare, medical care, transport, and both urban and rural poverty. The progressive spirit of the times was represented in Britain by the election in 1964 of Harold Wilson’s Labour government with its promise of ‘the white-hot heat of the technological revolution’.
Nearly 60 years on, the spirit of ‘Camelot’, and indeed the wider capitalist self-confidence of the boom years, has gone, buried beneath the devastation wrought by neoliberalism from 1979 onwards. The turn away from the mixed-economy, welfare-state model that seemed to have worked so well between 1948 and 1973 was never a success.
Growth rates in the neoliberal era were only ever half what they had been during the post-war boom. The economic system became highly dysfunctional – dominated by banks, debt, and speculation, with grotesque and ever rising levels of corporate power and social inequality. But even the neoliberal dystopia – with its competitive individualism, its greed and selfishness, its mindless consumerism and celebrity culture – is now falling apart.
Even if the coronavirus is suppressed – and there is no sign of that happening any time soon – the world economy will have taken its biggest hit since the 1930s, perhaps the biggest ever, and all the underlying problems will remain of a chronically unstable debt-based economy, worldwide social devastation, a serial breakdown of the international order, and a rapidly accelerating environmental crisis.
Anti*Capitalist Resistance will soon be publishing this new book on the world crisis and the popular resistance in print format. Because of the urgency of the political situation, however, we will be publishing the book chapters as a series of long-read online articles over the next month or so. This is the first chapter.