Money in the age of pandemic

Who will pay the price?

As a result of Covid-19, class divisions will become ever clearer, writes Paul Demarty

On April 6, many households received a letter from Boris Johnson, explaining the government’s message: “Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives”. That was also the day the news broke that the prime minister’s coronavirus symptoms had worsened, and he was now moving from his home to St Thomas’s Hospital, where, as I write, he remains in intensive care

The premier plainly did not stay home overmuch in the run-up to his infection, and we well know that hiding away at that point was probably too late - as we learned, when several other advisors and aides also turned out to be infected. We also learned that Johnson, as an on-off member of the cabinet under Theresa May, was complicit under the doctrine of collective responsibility for the failure to publish the results of a stress-test exercise that revealed that the national health service would suffer great strain, should a pandemic occur. His foolish refusal to follow the existing best practices of mass testing and tracing - instead following a sub-Strangelove scheme from his pet behavioural economists - has almost certainly cost lives.

Though there are limited indications that the spread of the disease has slowed as a result of social-distancing measures, the reality is dawning that there will be a prolonged period of interruption to normal life. That is reflected in the dire economic situation: while the slight brightening of the picture on the epidemiological front has found reflection in stock markets and the like, enormous damage has already been done, and it is hard to know how many others may follow the example of Debenhams, which finally limped into administration. All the more so, the further down the food chain we look - the 20% of small business expected, by some estimates, to go to the wall, and the workers whose jobs are disappearing out from under them.

The coronavirus crisis inverts - in reality - a popular ideological fantasy of the neoliberal era. The rising tide lifts all boats, we were told by a succession of wise people with PPE degrees who understood micro-modelling. So long as economic growth kept ticking along at three percent, then everyone would be better off - even if some would be vastly better off (“We have no problem with people getting filthy rich,” Peter Mandelson famously told us, rather on this basis).

This idea is only very arguably true for the period in which it was popular - that is, if we confine ourselves to cherry-picked statistical abstractions, reconcile ourselves to a permanent base level of unemployment in the lower-to-middle single-digit range, and ignore stagnant real wages in advanced economies. (In an earlier boom, after World War II, it corresponded more to reality, but only because fear of the Soviets forced widespread concessions to the labour movement in the west, including vastly higher levels of taxation and redistribution.)

Of course, even were we to accept the ‘rising tides’ thesis, its moral impetus cannot survive confrontation with the reality of capitalist crisis. The credit crunch of 2007 and its effect throughout the global economy demonstrated this well enough. Those who created and profited from essentially fraudulent financial instruments made off like bandits, while their maids and chauffeurs had their houses foreclosed.

Yet, in spite of the global nature of the financial crisis, its negative consequences were unevenly distributed in space and time, so that people could convince themselves that the problem resulted from idiots taking out loans they could not afford, etc. However, the contraction in economic activity resulting from Covid-19 looks everywhere in the advanced capitalist world to be comparable to, or worse than, that suffered by Greece in 2010-15. Now, as in 2007-08 - Boris Johnson’s trip to hospital notwithstanding - it is clear that the wealthy, and those in the upper layers of the professional classes, are insulated from the worst effects. Whether or not a rising tide lifts all boats, a sinking ship drowns the steerage passengers first.

It is the working class - and the lower layers of the petty bourgeoisie - who pay the price for putting the economy into a medically induced coma. And they will also foot the bill for the resumption of ‘normality’, if the Tories have anything to do with it (and if the glorious new era of feeble ‘moderate’ governance in the Labour Party turns out as expected). There is a set of painfully obvious lessons about preparedness, about spare capacity in the health service, and about the vulnerability of capitalism to endogenous and exogenous shocks, which are fresh in the mind, but will be repressed with great energy when the pandemic burns itself out, as sooner or later it will.

Donald Trump, as in so many ways, is the ‘vision of the future’ here. Responsible elite society tuts at his truculent press conferences, his wishful thinking about miracle cures (which has now led bizarrely to a US culture war over the anti-malarial drug, chloroquine), the crudity of his attempts to secure all the world’s supply-lines of ventilators and surgical masks, and his obviously greater interest in the numbers on which he has staked his political career (unemployment and stock indices) than the vast human suffering unfolding in American society. Remember those tuts, when we are back to subordinating human life to the will of the financial markets, complacently waiting for a clever person to come up with a technical fix for climate change, and pursuing ‘our interests’ on the world stage ...

Class society

At that point, ‘the markets’ will demand a new age of austerity, gratitude being foreign to them altogether. Astute readers will note that the last iteration of that particular wheeze left the NHS - and many of its peers in other countries - woefully ill-equipped to deal with a pandemic in the first place. Those laid off or furloughed in this period can expect to be rehired under worse pay and conditions. And the Tories will sweeten the pill with ‘law and order’ show-trials of those who deliberately coughed on others or looted corner-shops, while the idiotic wonks of the notorious nudge unit - whose arrogance and close connection to the prime minister’s kitchen cabinet makes them culpable in the deaths of thousands - will suffer nothing any worse than temporary embarrassment.

That is the script, as it currently reads: but, just as there is the small matter of politics shaping all these events, behind a pervasive mask of ‘scienciness’ appropriate to the circumstances, so the achievement of this future falls to politics. Will a Tory government with a huge majority (facing a Labour Party scared back to the right by electoral defeat and precious little else besides) manage it? Put like that, it certainly seems so, although, of course, this outcome is hardly inevitable.

That is because objectively capitalist society wilts in front of these sorts of disasters. The two archetypes whose alternating motion governs capitalist politics - the parties of liberty and of order - must both be found wanting. In the former case, the anarchy of the market can hardly help: it cannot be left up to the crooked incentives of individual businesses to decide whether to shut up shop when such a disaster arises. Its opponent, the party of order, may seem on the face of it to be on safer ground; yet we observe - in the case of Trump and also Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, two of the less pleasant representatives of such a trend - extremely marked incompetence and courting of disaster, with in both cases a degree of enthusiastic support from below.

In the end, this is no mystery, because the myth of great men is just that: a myth. The fish rots, as they say, from the head down. Bonapartes are no less corrupt than liberal technocrats, and so they are incentivised to bury bad news; subordinate positions in such hierarchies are appointed according to patronage, and thus share the same incentives. When reality intrudes, and draconian measures must be adopted, yet more rot is discovered; for those junior officials (and police) are themselves corrupt, and so distrusted by broad masses, who are thus less likely to obey serious restrictions on their way of life, even those advocated by the very best epidemiology.

The countries who have done well in this period - South Korea, say - are strictly those with severe viral epidemics in their recent history, such that the artificial amnesia generated by these twin political-ideological complexes has yet to set in fully enough to cause chaos. As for the rest of us, lessons will be learned in the immediate wake of all this; but they will fade, and the political cycle will bury them in complacency.

So this disaster ought to teach us more than it will by default. It is said, in the Marxist political tradition, that the party is the memory of the class. This is a rather literary formulation, interpreted very widely in different sub-traditions; but the core of the matter is that the class struggle spans generations, centuries, millennia, and its successful prosecution by the proletariat demands a voracious hunger for that history in all its richness as a kind of cardinal virtue. The snide philistine who asks what the War of the Spanish Succession has to do with the quality of bus services in Bristol, or the smug hipster who claims (as Marxisant ‘communisation’ theorists do) that we had a change of historical epochs mysteriously overnight in 1973, which invalidates the whole preceding tradition, denies this saying, even in its abstract, literary form.

The lessons of the current situation are clear: society is divided into classes and that division is ultimately (and, today, with near-comic obviousness) a matter of life and death. It is a lesson worth building a party around - and the work towards that end must be stepped up.