The Pathogenic Profits System: Beyond Begging, Praying, and Capital
By Paul Street *
March 23, 2020
We live in an age of Orwellian untruth where falsehood is the norm. One key falsehood worth unmasking is the claim that the current COVID-19 stock market decline, soon to usher in a full-on recession, is a “black swan” – an unpredictable (and supposedly unpredicted) “surprise” event with great and negative consequences outside the normal operations of capitalism.
Nonsense. The new coronavirus is not really a surprise to those who know anything about the history of disease. Epidemics, like financial crises, have been a recurrent occurrence in the record of human civilization. Hundreds of epidemics have killed countless millions of people across a vast swath of human history. Wikipedia lists at least 80 epidemics, including 13 pandemics (a disease prevalent over a whole country or the world) since the onset of the modern world system in the 16th Century. By Wikipedia’s account, the 21st Century alone has already seen more than thirty epidemics, including four that went worldwide (Swine Flu 2009, MERS 2012, Zika virus 2016-16, and Covid-19 2020).
Public health experts and epidemiologists have long been advocating greater preparedness for the likely emergence of a next great worldwide epidemic – a pandemic. If it were a rational, decent, educated, and democratic society, the United States would be spending massive sums on epidemic/pandemic readiness instead of on a Pentagon System that transfers massive wealth to the owners of high-tech “defense” corporations while accounting for 40 percent of the world’s military expenditures and deploying weapons that can blow up the world many times over.
But it isn’t a rational, decent, or democratic society. It’s a capitalist society where concentrated wealth rules, where the ruling class fears real public education and knowledge, and where the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire privilege private profit and war preparedness over public health and disease preparedness and other social needs.
Deadly viruses have a natural basis that predate and will survive capitalism, but capitalism has a knack of both stirring them up and of spreading them beyond their origin sites and around the world in accord with what Marx and Engels rightly identified as its relentless tendency towards globalization. Capital digs its extraction hooks and sales and investment tentacles into every nook and cranny of the planet it can in the unremitting, geographically unbound pursuit of profit. Its system must expand in order to survive. “Healthy” profit rates depend on enlargement and “growth.”
Capitalism has a longstanding tendency towards boom and bust. When the “normal” creation and realization of profit through productive investment is blocked by limits of supply and/or demand and by excess investment, capital flows to financial investment that tends to inflate assets far beyond real economic value. The “moving paper fantasy” ultimately collides with the harsh material value reality. Speculative bubbles crash, leading to devaluation of capital, bankruptcies, unemployment, evictions, deepened poverty, heightened mortality, and other horrific outcomes.
Wikipedia lists 42 stock market crashes since 1837. When the crashes and the underlying imbalances that gave rise to them are big enough, they lead to recessions and even depressions, spreading misery and “social disruption.” Masses of ordinary people in the U.S. today are thrown out of work, off absurdly employment-based health insurance plans, out of homes they can no longer afford. They see their retirement incomes collapse thanks to steep declines in the stock market, to which their “defined contribution” pension plans are hitched through no choice of their own. Amidst all this distress, wealth becomes more concentrated as capitalists unable to ride out the storm are winnowed out and bought up on the cheap.
This is how capitalism “works.” In the current age of hyper-concentrated “too big to fail” corporate and financial consolidation and corporate oligarchy/plutocracy, big capital demands and receives massive public bailouts to protect elite wealth and profits. The working-class majority, by contrast, is inadequately protected
It’s called “socialism for the rich and capitalism for the rest.”
Did the coronavirus, itself partly symptomatic of inherently globalist capitalism, cause the current stock market collapse, which seems certain to hatch a major recession (perhaps even a bona fide depression)? Yes and no.
Yes, in that the virus is the spark that set the heap ablaze. No, in that the heap was already ripe kindling waiting for a match. If COVID-19 hadn’t started the fire, then something else would have soon enough. The system was overdue for a “correction,” thanks to tremendously inflated asset values, absurdly high P/E ratios, ridiculously debt-leveraged companies, extreme inequality, horribly inadequate wages, colossal consumer and student debt, and toxic financial and social deregulation. I’m not a political economist, but I’ve seen and researched enough of these events for these classic indicators to have had me wondering which day the collapse would come and what the trigger might be for the last two years.
So here we are again, with the rich calling for their corporations and financial institutions to be given corporate socialist bailouts – oh and please taxpayers foot their executives’ multi-million-dollar salaries. Are we really expected to suppress the common sense notion that we the people might just as well nationalize and collectivize giant parasitic businesses we end up re-capitalizing when their system melts down once again, in accord with its own inherent and internal contradictions. “Too big to fail” should be understood as “too big to be privately owned.”
Here we are again begging the masters – maybe I should follow the late George Carlin and say “our owners” – for minimally adequate protections for the working-class people who are being stripped of jobs and viable pensions and hence the ability to pay for necessities – food, clothing, medicine, doctor visits, and shelter (you know, stuff like that) – while the grotesquely super-rich “shelter in place” in obscenely opulent mansions and luxuriant condo complexes.
Begging and praying for them to halt evictions and to provide a universal basic income so that people can survive even if no employer finds it profitable to exploit their labor power anymore.
Begging and praying for them to open the jail, prison, and detention camp doors in America’s globally unmatched racist mass incarceration state so that millions of nonviolent prisoners and detainees can be released from viral breeding grounds where social distancing is impossible.
Begging and praying for them to join the rest of the civilized world in making health care a human right.
Begging and praying for them, I should add now, to redirect resources away from their giant corporate subsidies and their giant insane imperialist war machine (itself a gargantuan public subsidy for high-tech corporations)to the manufacture and free distribution of masks, test-kits, ventilators, respirators, and medical facilities.
Begging and praying for them not to corner all the best medical services and good for themselves while we are left to suffer and die.
Maybe one day thousands and then tens of thousands and millions and then tens of millions of us will stop begging and praying and start fighting for human decency, social justice, environmental and epidemiological sustainability, economic equality, and democracy.
…and Beyond Trump
I am aware that we are not supposed to be taking to the streets amidst the coronavirus crisis because doing so threatens to help spread the virus. How the masters must love that. What a dark and ironic gift both to (a) the many “liberals” I know for whom the only meaningful way to oust Trump is voting from some corporate Democrat for two minutes once every 1.460 days and (b) the Trumpenlefty sorts I still hear from who think that to see the demented white-nationalist oligarch and Biohazard Trump (accurately described by Noam Chomsky as “the most dangerous criminal in human history”) as an extraordinary threat to human life and the common good is to become a fan of corporate Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden. Such wonderful justifications for doing nothing while the dangerous and indecent tangerine beast wreaks havoc on the world.
In yet another predictable outrage, the beast’s henchmen are currently trying to turn the coronavirus into a new kind of pretext for indefinitely detaining domestic political opponents and stripping dissidents of habeas corpus – the constitutional right to appear before a judge after arrest and seek release. But, of course. As the left historian and journalist Terry Thomas writes, “They will use this emergency to push us further down road of authoritarianism. And meanwhile: truth is scientists know virtually nothing about this completely new virus. We are groping around in the dark. And while we are staying inside and focusing on keeping ourselves and others as safe as possible these people are working overtime figuring out ways to more effectively control us once this is over — if it gets over.”
A major reason to have been in the streets en masse has been that Trump is at very least fascistic and could not be trusted not to use a crisis (I was most concerned about a terror attack or a total economic meltdown but did sometimes wonder if a pandemic could do it) to jack up the dictatorial powers of the imperial presidency and take the cancellation of “normal” bourgeois law and checks and balances to a qualitatively new level.
But the virus is not likely forever – there’s no historical precedent for a forever pandemic. We can protest from our homes, both electronically and with banners, loudspeakers, banners, banging pots and more. And perhaps things will get so bad that we take to the streets anyway, marching six feet apart, coughing and sneezing and wheezing into the luxuriant corporate suites and abodes of the diseased plutocrats who impose the poisonous and parasitic plague of the pathogenic profits system on the people of the world.
We must protest not just against the demented orange Trumpenstein, of course, but against the lethal class rule system that hatched and empowered it along with so many other interlaced sicknesses of society and soul.
* Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)