Everyone who lived through the year 2020 will remember it as a year of unprecedented collapse, when every fault in the system was blown open and the lives of ordinary people were forever changed. The twin crises of COVID-19 and a global economic depression, exacerbated by the third and biggest crisis of global climate destruction, have illustrated capitalism’s doomed future more acutely than ever before.
COVID-19 and the Capitalist Death Trap
The range and depth of the devastation being wrought is no natural disaster, but a culmination of political choices made in the interest of profit. The capitalist ruling class worldwide is to blame in laying the groundwork for this crisis. Scientists have been warning about the likelihood of a pandemic for years. Each and every deadly feature of the current crisis was foreseeable and entirely avoidable. From the outset, the virus was on a collision course with a powder keg of vulnerabilities stored up in the system.
The climate catastrophe is bearing down full force: COVID-19 is not the first deadly pandemic caused by capitalism’s destruction of the environment, nor will it be the last. The obliteration of ecosystems by agribusiness has quadrupled the spread of animal-borne diseases into the human population over the last 50 years. The majority of new disease outbreaks of the last two decades has emerged and spread through for-profit practices including deforestation, intensive farming, and intrusion of agriculture into wildlife habitats. On top of this, fossil fuel emissions polluting the air we breathe have made human immune systems even more vulnerable to a virus, especially a respiratory one.
Thirty years of the neoliberal offensive have gutted social services, under-staffed and strained hospital budgets, and introduced greater levels of precarity by slashing safety nets. These cuts were widespread following the financial crisis of 2008 in the name of “cost saving,” but in reality represented a massive transfer of wealth to the super rich. Now, large sections of the working class are increasingly stuck in low wage jobs without paid sick leave, lack access to healthcare, and live in overcrowded housing.
In Italy, billions of euros in healthcare cuts, thousands of removed beds, and hundreds of closed hospitals paved the way for the outbreak to have the impact it did.
In the United States, rural hospital closures have deprived many of access to needed healthcare, particularly in the South. Since 2010, 120 hospitals have closed, with 2019 seeing the most rural hospital closures in a single year. The U.S., the only industrialized nation without some form of universal healthcare, has done the worst job by far of containing the virus. Nearly every day, states across the country set new records for deaths and new infections.
The System is Killing Us
Eighty percent of workers worldwide have been affected by COVID-19 lockdowns. Nearly half of workers globally employed in the informal economy are seeing their livelihoods destroyed, and a deterioration in working hours equivalent to 305 million full-time jobs is leading to a crippling loss of income for the entire global working class.
Seventy-one million people globally will be thrust into extreme poverty and forced to live on less than $1.90 a day. Renters will be hard hit as the global housing market contracts. In the U.S. alone, 40% of renters will experience shortfalls putting them at risk of eviction if Congress continues to withhold real relief.
Worldwide, school closures have deprived 90% of schoolchildren of education, and over 370 million have lost access to school meals they depend on. Deaths from COVID-19-linked hunger will soon exceed deaths from the virus itself; world hunger is on course to claim 12,000 lives per day by the end of 2020.
This summer will likely be the hottest on record. As scientists predicted, extreme heat is rapidly increasing COVID-19 transmission. In Israel, school reopening was followed by a massive heat wave. Administrators decided to close the windows instead of sending children home as they should have, which triggered a disastrous outbreak as classrooms became “a petri dish for COVID-19.” Hurricane season is here. Floods, fires, and natural disasters will displace millions, introducing the virus into new areas and clustering vulnerable survivors together.
Still, in 2020, despite massive struggles and countless sacrifices in the fight for liberation, the social poison of racial, ethnic, gender based as well as class oppression is as evident as ever. The deadly reality of social inequality has been not only exposed by this crisis, but also greatly exacerbated.
Longstanding structural disparities in health and living standards have resulted in massive gaps in COVID-19 cases and deaths along racial lines. Black people, as well as Latinos, in the U.S. face the paradoxical injustice of being overrepresented in frontline work which risks exposure to the virus, while also experiencing more pandemic-related job losses. It is impossible to make sense of these circumstances without understanding that capitalism is a fundamentally racist system which has relied on the subjugation of the Black population and on the super-exploitation of immigrants throughout its existence.
We also can’t forget the 2.3 million incarcerated in the U.S., majority Black and Latino, burning alive in prisons with poor ventilation, cramped spaces, and without adequate healthcare. Prison populations are experiencing triple the rate of COVID-19 deaths relative to the general population. Similar conditions persist for the 21,800 detained immigrants packed in ICE detention centers. ICE has continued to arrest, detain, and deport despite the pandemic, and has become a global superspreader. Undocumented immigrants, ineligible for unemployment insurance and especially vulnerable to informal eviction, are navigating this unprecedented crisis with few supports. Of the 43 million American renters at risk of being evicted from their homes, a disproportionate number will be people of color.
The current crisis is also having a disproportionate effect on women, causing some mainstream media outlets to declare a “she-cession.” Women, and particularly women of color, are heavily represented in industries hardest hit by closures and layoffs–including service, hospitality, and leisure. They are also over-represented in essential industries like healthcare. Meanwhile, working mothers at home find themselves enormously burdened as the demands of housework and childcare have intensified. Many are performing this household labor round-the-clock while simultaneously working jobs from home. Quarantine has caused an uptick in domestic violence at a time when stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions make it harder for survivors to escape abusive households.
A Disgraced Ruling Class
Right-wing governments worldwide have been impressive in their ability to do the exact opposite of what is needed in addressing the pandemic. While some capitalist governments were more effective in their policies, the failures of right wing regimes like those of Trump, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modi in India and Boris Johnson in Britain didn’t come from stupidity or ruthlessness alone. The rise of these regimes in itself reflects the impasse of neoliberal capitalism. But globally, the inability to prevent this catastrophe shows the limits of the nation state and a steadily decaying social system.
Rapid mass testing, contact tracing, universal provision of PPE, and accelerated production of necessary equipment are not impossible tasks. They are the bare minimum reasonable measures to respond to the virus, but accomplishing them has been an uphill battle. Lockdown measures which should have been immediate were delayed in the U.S. because the fear of losing out on profits far outweighed concern for public welfare. The ruling class has exploited every opportunity to maintain business as usual despite the objective circumstances, as capitalism proves constitutionally incapable of orienting itself to human need.
A global health and economic crisis warrants a global response. A society organized around need rather than greed would mean the global working class joining forces around shared goals of rapidly producing and distributing supplies, expediting research, and sharing information toward reaching the fastest and most widespread possible containment of the virus. This is not possible when cutthroat competition is a rule of the system.
Instead, de-globalization and economic nationalism have escalated. Front and center on the international stage is Trump and Xi Jinping, who are busy ramping up tensions, trade wars, military exercises, and publicly blaming the other’s regime for the virus.
The playing out of inter-imperialist rivalry demonstrates that all capitalism has to offer in this period is fear and misery. It is not one or the other individual leader to blame, but the ruling class globally, while the working class pays the price.
Toward Working-Class Leadership
The 2008-09 recession led to years of austerity and soaring inequality as the capitalists sought to make working people pay for the crisis and the gains of the “recovery” were funneled right back to the 1%.
Since then, millions more have seen and felt the strength of collective action. In 2019, mass uprisings in Haiti, Puerto Rico, Hong Kong, Sudan, Algeria, Ecuador, Chile, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and France shook the world. This year the #JusticeforGeorgeFloyd rebellion broke through the barrier of isolation, fear, and anxiety and replaced it with a spirit of defiance: people of all backgrounds flooded the streets in international solidarity with the fight against systemic racism and police repression. The working class, equipped with these experiences, can be confident in our potential to spearhead change.
For workers, capitalism has always boiled down to: “work or die.” Now, with botched reopening and the lapse of desperately needed benefits when cases are spiking, we are being told to work and die. This ruthless indifference toward the suffering of working people has unmasked the backwards priorities of this system and the naked profit-worship at its core.
Wall Street investment banker Kim Fennebresque summed up the callous attitude of the billionaire class to Vanity Fair in March: “People will die. People do die. It happens, right? People have to take responsibility for their own lives.”
This deranged logic would be unthinkable in a socialist society that actually put human lives before profit. Under a democratically planned economy, key decisions on how society should be run would not be dictated by bosses and CEOs willing to sacrifice their workers. Reopening the economy would not involve brushing aside hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths to send people back to work.
Anyone who doubts that workers themselves are best equipped to make these decisions should recall those GE workers at the start of the pandemic, who staged protests to demand the right to build ventilators. The narrow drive for profit warps the judgment of the bosses, while working people are capable of providing creative and inspiring ways to direct production toward serving human needs.
Under a workers’ government, elected councils of workers would plan production and distribution at every level of industry, nationally and internationally. These councils would have the power to prepare for and rapidly respond to crises. War and nationalism, useful only to the bosses, would disappear as workers worldwide reap the benefits of global coordination and solidarity. In this way we could effectively contain this pandemic and all future diseases while ensuring healthcare, housing, and education to all. We would finally be free to start the work of rapidly implementing the transition to renewable energy and green infrastructure while creating millions of jobs in the process.
As we plunge deeper into crisis with no resolution within the capitalist framework, broader masses of people will reach the conclusion that our only path forward is fighting for an alternative to this rotting system. Without addressing the underlying sickness of capitalism, we will see more and worse crises in the coming years.
Public health, economic security, a livable planet, freedom from oppression and authoritarian violence – these are shared goals of the great majority of people worldwide. Only a socialist system is capable of achieving real justice for this majority. We are at a crossroads between mass death and mass struggle. It is more important than ever that we begin the work now of building this system, and mark 2020 as not just a year of crisis but as a historic call to action.
The Crisis Generation
From the 2008 and 2020 recessions, to the rise of far-right leaders like Bolsonaro in Brazil and Trump in the U.S., the existential threat of climate change, and the coronavirus pandemic, capitalism offers no future to a generation who has only ever known crises.
The stranglehold of youth unemployment, astronomical student debt, and gutting of public education and social services will only intensify as capitalism continues its spiral into crisis. The Class of 2020 is entering the worst job market since the Great Depression, while many young people who do have jobs are underpaid workers on the front lines in essential industries during this pandemic.
It is no wonder that we are seeing a rise in mental health issues and suicide among young people, who are not only facing unemployment, insecure and unrewarding jobs, and high rent and tuition, but also racism, sexism, queerphobia, and transphobia. With the immense weight of oppression and inequality pushing down on working class youth, the failures of capitalism have driven many to look for radical solutions to society’s problems.
Nearly a third of Hong Kong protesters arrested in last year’s protests were under 18, and the violence and repression against mainly youth protesters fighting the extradition law inspired the teachers unions to join their students in the streets.
In the U.S., young people have played leading roles in the Black Lives Matter movement, March for our Lives, and Bernie Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. They have also watched their teachers go on strike through the Red for Ed strike wave and in many cases, students even joined their teachers on the picket lines!
The capitalist system is bankrupt – young people instinctively understand this, are increasingly embracing socialist ideas, and fighting back. Their energy and militancy can inspire older generations of working people to join their fight for a better world.
For-Profit Healthcare Nightmare
In the context of a public health emergency poised to claim the lives of several hundred thousand in the U.S. alone, an estimated 27 million Americans have lost their health coverage since March. If any one of these 27 million Americans fall sick with COVID-19 and need to see a doctor, they will almost certainly leave the hospital with insurmountable debt. The U.S.’ for-profit health care system is being exposed as prohibitively expensive and wildly inefficient.
The Affordable Care Act, which should in theory protect the uninsured during a crisis like this, is proving wholly inadequate. Close to three million Americans are ineligible for assistance in the 14 states that chose not to expand Medicaid. Many of those that do qualify for government subsidized private care cannot afford the high deductibles and copays attached to these plans.
The gaps and inequities in American health care have left Black and rural communities in particular chronically unable to access consistent, high quality care. This has left them vulnerable to some of the underlying conditions that are linked to high COVID-19 mortality like diabetes and hypertension.
At the beginning of the pandemic, images went viral of nurses at public hospitals in New York City wearing garbage bags as a replacement for proper PPE. Nurses, doctors, and other health care workers across the board are risking their lives every time they go to work. Meanwhile, government agencies from the EPA to The National Archives have found hundreds of thousands of pieces of PPE and unused medical equipment. Equipment that is not finding its way into the hands of health care workers due to a criminal lack of coordination at the government level.
Our highly mismanaged, for-profit health care system is a deadly consequence of a society built entirely around maintaining the wealth and stability of billionaires at the expense of human life. We need an immediate transition to Medicare for All with the ultimate goal of an entirely socialized health care system that is democratically organized by health care workers themselves.