It’s a mad, mad world

Death and conspiracy

The libertarian right is peddling nonsense. Yassamine Mather issues a health warning

Over the last couple of weeks I have studied some of the current libertarian theories about the erosion of individual rights and freedoms since the declaration of the lockdown, including the growing fear of states smothering individual rights, and I must admit it has been a revealing experience.

We have seen the threat of the launch of an anti-lockdown party by Nigel Farage, who echoes claims that the current restrictions are a threat to freedom and the hasty concessions given to thwart the potential rebellion by 80 Tory MPs over new fines and restrictions. Of course, in the United Kingdom, no-one, including Boris Johnson, seems to know what the new restrictions entail - for example, no-one seems able to present a rationale for the 10pm pub closure rule. There is no doubt that even loyal Tory MPs have little confidence in an incompetent, dithering government that has shown little respect for its own rules and regulations, although it is clear that neither Farage nor Tory rebels are genuinely concerned about personal freedoms.

Farage and the Tory rebels represent the concerns of small and medium-sized capital about loss of business and profitability. No doubt big capital is also facing a major crisis, but its lobbying of various states is more subtle and less obvious. After all, entire industries face decimation. Travel and hospitality have already made tens of thousands unemployed in the UK and millions unemployed globally, and are unlikely to recover from Covid-19 in the foreseeable future. There is sure to be a knock-on effect on the aerospace and car industries, which will make millions more unemployed. Most large city centres remain empty, demand has reduced dramatically and there is no sign that we will return to pre-Covid days any time soon.

However, to believe that all this is part of a huge conspiracy by governments, the media and medics is to believe in a conspiracy theory of the most bizarre type. Inevitably capitalist states can and will use current curbs on personal freedoms to increase their control over the working class. But libertarians who are expressing concern about ‘authoritarianism’ are mainly pro-capitalist rightwingers, whose main concern is the freedom of capitalism to increase exploitation and guarantee profit at all cost. In defence of such nonsense they quote the Tories’ initial ‘herd immunity’ response and the example of Sweden.

Parallel universe

So let us look at this supposed conspiracy between governments and the media (which seems to include all the press, TV and radio).

Firstly, there is considerable political diversity amongst the states involved, and their responses have been remarkably chaotic and contradictory, so it is difficult to find any kind of pattern that fits the allegation. The same is true of the media. In fact what the states and media have in common is their inconsistency - one day advocating the merits of lockdown, as opposed to the resultant economic hardship, and the opposite the next. That is true of both the liberal and conservative wings of the bourgeois media.

So what do these governments, as well as the media that supports them, serve? The answer to me is obvious: capitalism. But, according to some libertarians, that is not the case. Apparently, we live in an era where states are bureaucratic apparatuses that are both independent of capital and restrict capitalist expansion. Clearly these people live in a parallel universe. During the 20th century we have witnessed two world wars and dozens of smaller ones in the interests of capitalist expansion.

Since the mid-1970s there has been a relentless campaign by successive governments in the United States, the UK and most western countries, crucially on the ideological plain, to reduce the role of the state, for marketisation and of the free movement of capital. Take this from the European Union charter:

The free movement of capital is one of the four fundamental freedoms of the EU single market ... The liberalisation of capital flows progressed gradually. Restrictions on capital movements and payments, both between member-states and with third countries, have been prohibited since the start of 2004 ...1

Contrary to what our libertarians tell us, freedom of capital, far from increasing individual freedom, is actually anti-democratic, since it paves the way for more exploitation, the weakening of trade unions, longer working hours, poorer conditions and casualisation. The unequal distribution of wealth means that only the owners of property and/or the means of production enjoy more freedom.

Of course, the so-called reduced role of the state is only partial, especially at times of crises. Since 2009 and the economic crisis that engulfed banking and finance capital, most western powers have been pouring money into the economy to save it from collapse. States have engaged in quantitative easing - a monetary policy where the central bank buys government bonds or other financial assets in order to inject money into the economy and thereby promote expansion.

When there is an economic crisis, the overwhelming majority of the population, whose income depends on their labour, worry about losing their jobs and are therefore wary of spending too much money. Consumption goes down and businesses suffer a fall in profits, so they react by making more workers unemployed. This in itself reduces consumption and worsens the spiralling cycle of lower consumption and reduced profits.

In such circumstances central banks intervene by cutting the rate of interest to encourage spending. This is done to support capital, not restrict it! The presumption here is that lower rates of interest means less interest on savings, so there is no point in not spending money. The philosophy behind it is that consumption helps the economy stay healthy: in other words, it rescues capitalism from its own follies. However, over the last decade interest rates have been so low that they cannot be reduced any further. That is why we are seeing quantitative easing.

Libertarians often try to find a fundamental conflict between the interests of states and those of capital. There isn’t one. Governments intervene to rescue capitalism from inevitable crises, while pretending to be in favour of reduced intervention by the state.

And Covid-19 has reminded us of another aspect of the Thatcher/Reagan era. The two leaders were opposed to any collectivist philosophy. Thatcher proudly declared, “There is no such a thing as society.” Whether consciously or unconsciously, anti-mask demonstrators are following in Margaret Thatcher’s footsteps: there is no such a thing as collective responsibility; my freedom not to wear a mask is more important that the risk I present to an older or sicker citizen, who might die of Covid-19.

It is also false to claim that the media has followed obediently the line pursued by governments. In the UK we have seen extensive coverage of the views of those who have challenged lockdown - both those who have argued against its economic costs (mainly the owners of capital) and those who have questioned the state’s increasing authoritarianism. After all hardly a day goes by without an article like those of former supreme court judge Lord Sumption, who regularly denounces “No10’s rule of muddle and authoritarianism”.2 Clearly, we should not entirely dismiss his arguments.

Perhaps the most ridiculous claim is that all medics who support lockdown are paid by government agencies and therefore follow the line dictated by the state. When it comes to Covid-19 - and indeed a very large number of diseases - the scientific/medical community has different opinions. This is a relatively new virus and specialists are learning more about it all the time. However, the divergent opinions we see do not fit the neat division proposed by our libertarians. Those medics sceptical about the health benefits of lockdown are widely reported and, given the fact that they are often university researchers, one could argue they are as much paid by the state as those medics directly involved in the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).

Academics and researchers at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine are often quoted by the media, but they have expressed a wide variety of opinions about the medical benefits of lockdown.

For example, the remarks of Carl Heneghan are often sensationalised by the likes of the Daily Mail. Readers would be well advised to look at his in-depth articles on the CEBM’s website, such as ‘Global Covid-19 case fatality rates’.3

Some libertarians tell us that the large number of fatalities in 2020 compensates for the lower figures last year, in what they describe as the ‘tinderbox effect’. One could give some credibility to this argument, had the increased death toll been in the tens of thousands. However, in the week when the number of deaths attributed to Covid-19 reached one million globally it is impossible to take such comments seriously.

Over the last few months we have heard a lot about Sweden’s low rate of infection as proof that herd immunity has worked, but, if you look at the death rate per million inhabitants, Sweden is in 10th position globally - only three places below UK.4 The lower rate could be explained by the fact that the health infrastructure in Sweden is stronger than in the UK, where the NHS has faced constant budget cuts along with a ‘just in time’ policy for availability of beds for patients.5

In recent weeks, as the number of infections has gone up, the Swedish government has conceded that a much tighter implementation of restrictions at the local level will be necessary, with the recommendation to wear masks in public areas. In fact herd immunity in Sweden is a bit of myth. As early as March, elderly citizens were told to self-isolate and people were encouraged to work from home.

Long term

It is far too early to discuss the long-term effects of the pandemic on the global economy, the class struggle and the future of the planet … However, we are seeing the initial signs of what might indicate the trends of the next couple of decades.

Even before the pandemic neoliberal capital was in crisis. Quantitative easing had made a mockery of claims that we have left behind the era of state intervention. However, the data from the pandemic has proved beyond doubt that states where public spending on health, sanitation and social welfare were higher fared much better in dealing with Covis-19. That is why Germany and Sweden fared much better than the UK and the US, let alone Peru, India and Brazil.

According to professor Mariana Mazzucato,

Decades of privatisation, outsourcing, and budget cuts in the name of ‘efficiency’ have significantly hampered many governments’ responses to the Covid-19 crisis ....

In 2018 alone, the UK government outsourced health contracts worth £9.2 billion ($11.2 billion), putting 84% of beds in care homes in the hands of private-sector operators (including private equity firms). Making matters worse, since 2015, the UK’s national health service has endured £1 billion in budget cuts.6

And, then there is Our World In Data,

Contrary to the idea of a trade-off, we see that countries which suffered the most severe economic downturns - like Peru, Spain and the UK - are generally among the countries with the highest Covid-19 death rate.7

Also the reverse is true: countries where the economic impact has been modest - like Taiwan, South Korea, and Lithuania - have also managed to keep the death rate low. Notice too that countries with similar falls in GDP have witnessed very different death rates. For instance, compare the US and Sweden with Denmark and Poland. All four countries saw economic contractions of around 8-9%, but the death rates are markedly different: the US and Sweden have recorded five to 10 times more deaths per million.

In poorer countries, appalling living conditions, lack of sanitation and overcrowded housing will result in large numbers of deaths. In other words, imperialist exploitation will have a murderous effect.

  1. europarl.europa.eu/factsheets/en/sheet/39/free-movement-of-capital.↩︎

  2. dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-8776267/Ex-Supreme-Court-judge-LORD-SUMPTION-denounces-No10s-rule-muddle-authoritarianism.html.↩︎

  3. cebm.net/covid-19/global-covid-19-case-fatality-rates.↩︎

  4. statista.com/statistics/1104709/coronavirus-deaths-worldwide-per-million-inhabitants.↩︎

  5. ft.com/content/5da1906e-6a1f-11ea-800d-da70cff6e4d3.↩︎

  6. businesspost.ie/columnists/comment-smallgovernment-has-been-a-big-failure-in-thispandemic-b3ae8f2e.↩︎

  7. ourworldindata.org/covid-health-economy.↩︎