The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Two Disasters—One Cause:
Capitalism

Mar 30, 2020

The following article is the editorial from The SPARK’s workplace newsletters, for the week of March 23, 2020.

We are being hit by two disasters. The disease caused by a newly discovered virus has spread into an international pandemic. The global economic system is collapsing. Whatever the immediate causes, both stem, finally, from the fact that unfettered capitalism is bent on the pursuit of profit, all else be damned.

The new Coronavirus that causes COVID-19 may have started in China, as Trump likes to say. But its spread around the world is based on the veins of trade through which European, Japanese and American capitalism pumped out blood for two centuries.

China was hit by a new, and then unknown virus. Chinese researchers, in the midst of the epidemic, were forced to work out the genome sequence for the new virus. But once they worked it out, they made it public. And that gave the rest of the world a precious gift, a chance to prepare.

A few researchers in this country and Europe individually began to work on the test that would be needed. But they got no money from government, and very little from elsewhere.

Every government ignored the problem. Trump even declared there was no problem. As recently as two weeks ago, he accused the media of spreading rumors trying to besmirch his reputation.

But as self-serving and blind as Trump is, he is only a small part of the problem. Since the 1980s, public health has been starved for resources. Federal and state budgets cut back money for scientific research into the issues public health deals with. Stocks of supplies needed for any contagious epidemic were reduced—and reduced again. The human networks needed to organize a concerted response to any new disease were practically dismantled. Public hospitals were eliminated.

Government money that should have gone to public health instead flooded into the banking system and into every big capitalist concern in the country. Everything of use to the population was deprived of money: not only public health, but roads, bridges, tunnels, water and sewage systems, public transit and, of course, public schools.

Today, a new virus is running riot. The public health system needed to mobilize a targeted, scientific response doesn’t exist. Government ignored the risk until the last moment. And so today, it can only shut down a very large part of society, thus bringing about an economic collapse.

The virus did not cause the economic collapse. It simply gave the final push to an economy that has long been sitting right on the edge of an abyss, ready to fall off.

The Federal Reserve bailed the economy out of the 2008 crisis by issuing nearly free money and unlimited credit. The big banks took the money, loaned it out to big corporations at very low interest rates. Corporations didn’t invest in more production and jobs. Instead they rewarded their big stockholders—and they speculated, driving up the prices of shares on Wall Street. But their debts to the financial system had to be repaid. Each year, as corporate debts came due, companies took out new loans—just to pay off old debts.

An economic researcher called it “the unexploded bomb of corporate debt.” Well now the bomb has exploded. And the increase in joblessness is faster than anything that happened even in the Great Depression.

We haven’t seen the worst of it yet, not for the economic collapse, nor for the deadly spread of an unconstrained virus, both of which will play back on each other.

This is what capitalism has bequeathed to us. This is the significance of Marx’s idea that if humanity doesn’t find the way to socialism it will have barbarism. Barbarism is the future directly in front of us unless the working class begins to pull together, to fight so that human need, not profit, is the measure of economic and political decisions. This is the fight for socialism, the fight that only the working class has the capacity to lead.