Capitalism’s viral load

In capitalist society, the market is an inevitable force to which everything else must be reconciled, no matter how brutal the cost. Yesterday US Trade Secretary Peter Navarro complained to the New York Times that medical experts warning about the effects of ending suppression orders too soon “appear tone deaf to the very significant losses of life and blows to American families that may result from an extended economic shutdown.” Navarro went on to say that economic shocks like these “can increase mortality rates associated with suicide, drug overdoses, alcohol poisoning, liver disease, lung cancer, poor diet and cigarettes.”

Combatting the novel coronavirus is a nearly overwhelming challenge because of the deadly ferocity of the disease, the velocity of its spread, and our limited knowledge in countering both severity and proliferation.

But dealing with “the very significant losses of life” caused by a major disruption of the economy is a different matter. The challenge of severity and proliferation in this realm are well within our power to counter. Indeed, the very increases in mortality that Navarro listed – suicide, overdose, alcohol poisoning, liver disease, lung cancer, and poor diet – have already been sharply on the rise in the US in recent years.

There are many tools available to stop businesses from laying off workers, to ensure that people who can neither manage rent nor mortgage payments stay in their homes, to provide healthcare without financially burdening patients, to relieve individuals and families burdened by debt, to protect vulnerable workers and the communities in which they live…the list goes on.

The Trump administration, the Republican Party in Congress, and the Federal Reserve have mostly gone the other direction, hoping to keep current wealth stratifications in place, protect the rich from economic harm, and ensure that worker power is in no way strengthened by the crisis. Biden, meanwhile, has had almost nothing to say about the brutality of the economic picture beyond offering a kinder and gentler rollout plan for a re-opened economy.

Unlike finding a ready treatment or vaccine for Covid 19, we know how to confront inequality. Doing so, however, requires a fundamental reorientation of the economy and a basic shift in political power. In the absence of a coherent political demand for fundamental change, dispersed workplace and community resistance has nevertheless grown in recent weeks. And organizations have begun to both chronicle the structural harms – which differ not only by class, but very starkly by race as well – of the pandemic and are pressing for more urgent and thoroughgoing responses.

The African American Policy Forum, for instance, has been holding an extraordinary series of weekly public webinars called Under the Blacklight, bringing together migrant labor activists, restaurant worker organizers, civil rights veterans, environmentalists, journalists, public health professionals and others to explore the social dimensions of the crisis and to think through collective responses. Such discussions are invaluable right now as we are granted the obligation and opportunity to re-imagine the world anew.

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