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Class Notes

Capitalism & COVID-19: A System Built to Maximize Profit Cannot Prioritize Care

COVID-19 is linked to a history of capitalism and racial terror that must be named.

Capitalism & COVID-19: A System Built to Maximize Profit Cannot Prioritize Care

An Anarchist Perspective by Millie Viajerx

May 9th, 2020

Recently we saw that states are in a bidding war to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, face-shields, and gloves to fight COVID-19. Just weeks ago New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had this to say about his experience competing with other state governments to get medical supplies: "We all wind up bidding up each other and competing against each other… you now literally will have a company call you up and say, ‘Well, California just outbid you.’ It’s like being on eBay… bidding on a ventilator.” 

131 people died from infection the same day Cuomo gave his remarks — 1,657 died globally. Since then, cases in the United States have shot up well over a million

Capitalists have always told us that capitalism is the most “efficient” way to organize society. They’ve told us that the forces of “supply and demand” are “objective” and therefore the best way to determine and meet human needs. They’ve preached that competition and profit are the ultimate motivators of human innovation rather than more cooperative ways of being which center a reciprocal relationship to land, care, and community. And, perhaps more than anything else, they’ve claimed that anybody, including Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BI&POC) have the same opportunity at upward mobility as “anybody else.”

But if the claims capitalists make about the merits of capitalism were true, why then is the United States, the global epicenter of capitalism, now also the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak? Why hasn’t the “free” market responded to ramp up production of PPE supplies or expanded medical care faster than the virus is spreading? Why hasn’t capitalism provided housing to unsheltered people who have no place to go? Why is the market throwing millions into unemployment when now, more than ever, they need money to secure their basic needs? And why are BI&POC disproportionately experiencing the impacts of COVID-19?

The answers to these questions lie within the history of settler colonialism and within capitalism’s irreconcilable contradictions. The reason we see state and federal governments threatening workers to return to work in order to “save the economy” rather than supporting us to be safe and cared for; the reason there seems to be no other choice for struggling people but to put ourselves at risk of infection for the chance at a little more money; the reason the stock market somehow carries more “value” than our lives — is because settler colonialism and capitalism are the embodiment of a system built to maximize profit at the expense of care.

Capitalism Leverages Scarcity to Create Conflict and Profit

Every crisis seems to shed new light on the failures of capitalism. That’s because capitalism itself is a never ending series of crises: war, poverty, gentrification, hunger, homelessness, unemployment, debt, environmental destruction, shortages of medical care, and climate change, to name a few. Each is a crisis created by capitalism’s inability to resolve its own internal contradictions. And wherever it has created class, racial, and gendered hierarchies to skate around those contradictions, they will be magnified by pandemics like COVID-19.

But before we get too far, what is capitalism exactly? And what about it magnifies crises?

Capitalism is a particular formation of social and economic relationships. It is characterized by distinct features, namely: private property, wage-labor, and profit. Other features of it have evolved over time, but these are essential. We’ll dive more into each of them later. But while we are defining capitalism, let’s also take care to define what capitalism is not. Capitalism is not merely the act of trade or the creation of markets. Wherever humans have existed throughout our evolutionary history, there has been trade for the things our individual labor could not produce. These are features of civilization, not capitalism. Many advocates of capitalism will attempt to strip away its core features to expand or contract capitalism’s definition to whatever suits their position. This is historical revisionism and should be rejected. 

Capitalism requires a deeply internalized belief in scarcity. It relies on this belief to scaffold social relationships rooted in hierarchy and domination. Scarcity is a part of our evolutionary history which refers to the historical gap between limited resources and abundant needs. And while scarcity still exists for some things, land for example, it no longer exists meaningfully for the majority of human needs. We are now able to provide enough food, water, shelter, and medical care for every person on Earth, but capitalists won’t tell us that: Capitalists need us to believe that scarcity still exists in a meaningful way so that we will live as if there are too many people to care for and too little resources to share. The belief in scarcity creates an environment where the powerful can coerce us into competition with each other and profit from conflict.

We know from capitalists' own economic theory that when the capacity to supply human needs has reached parity with human demand scarcity should have little impact on life. The cost of living is supposed to stabilize or decline — making life easier for everyone. That’s the world capitalists promised, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, the world is full of more rich people than ever before; and virtually all of the wealth generated by our labor is captured by a tiny minority of mostly white people. Only 5% of all new income from capitalism’s growth trickles down to the rest of us. All the while, for hundreds of years the cost of living has crept up no matter how much we produce because a stable or declining cost of living would hurt businesses’ ability to produce profit. And when businesses cannot produce profit they collapse. 

Threatened with collapse, capitalists have built ways to manipulate supply and demand to produce the scarcity necessary to constantly drive prices higher. On the demand side of the economy this looks like constantly encouraging us to buy more stuff (corporations spent over 560 billion U.S. dollars on advertising in 2019) and purposefully designing products to fail so we have to replace them with newer versions. On the supply side manipulation looks like limiting access to affordable housing, destroying food, and restricting the outflow of medical care. The logic here is to maximize competition for a restricted amount of resources. The institutionalization of poverty that results isn’t even an afterthought. 

Take, for instance, the United States’ housing market. There are an estimated 3.5 million unsheltered people in the U.S. who are disproportionately Black and Indigenous. At the same time, there are 18.5 million vacant homes, many of which are owned by banks who bought millions of properties after 2008’s financial crisis. Capitalists know they cannot give a home to every unsheltered person in America because to do so would flood the market and dramatically drop prices. A dramatic decline in housing prices would hurt profits and could ignite another Great Recession. So banks keep as many properties vacant as necessary to generate competition and manipulate market prices higher. This creates a housing crisis of a different sort. Bankers don’t get hurt but millions of people who can no longer afford housing do.

The effect is circular: By producing scarcity capitalism creates crisis. By producing crisis capitalism creates the conditions for scarcity to dominate our choices.

Capitalism’s purpose then is not to mitigate or even to fight crises; its purpose is to create and manage crisis towards whatever end is most profitable. When a bigger crisis comes along that capitalists could not (or were unwilling to) anticipate, capitalism's capacity to navigate challenge is immediately strained — or it collapses. The people hit the hardest are always the most vulnerable. There is no better example of this than the United States. COVID-19 has intensified the racial and class inequities that capitalism creates and hides everyday. For the moment, COVID-19 has made them visible and obvious, but we should not forget that capitalism is always building itself toward sudden disruptions that destroy millions of people’s lives.

Capitalism and (In)Efficiency 

Another headline we saw recently was based on a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s school of business that read: “Reopening the Economy Would Add 233,000 Deaths by July but Save Millions of Jobs.” The study sought to “balance” the jobs “saved” from reopening the economy with “the associated cost to human life,” but only by colonial logic could preserving lives be measured against “saving jobs.” There should be no calculus between the two. No job is worth our lives. And yet, when we think about it, the utilitarianism of the study made sense once we understood that the lives taken won’t be the lives of those conducting or endorsing it. 

The unnamed victims of capitalism's death machine would (will) disproportionately be poor Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BI&POC), as we always have been. To white wealth our lives are merely collateral damage. We would be hard pressed to find a more acute example which demonstrates just how thoroughly capitalism is predicated on death, but this sort of cold-hearted calculus is a feature of capitalism’s reliance on money and profit as currency.

Capitalists always tell us that through competition the forces of "supply and demand" will find balance naturally; that the market is an "objective" and “efficient” place to determine and meet human needs. We have already discussed why at a practical level these assumptions are untrue. Business must always prioritize profit over human (and non-human) needs: remember the bidding war for PPE supplies? But in a world with billions of people — with billions of needs — we need to interrogate further whether this claim can be true or not. To this end, we need to investigate the features of capitalism and evaluate whether the metrics it uses to measure its success have any bearing on the quality and sustainability of life on Earth.

A closer look at capitalism’s essential features is important because it helps us weave together how we could be so poorly prepared for a pandemic like COVID-19.

On Private Property, Wage-Labor, and Profit

Private property is the foundation of capitalism. It is not surprising then that we are taught to seek land ownership as the surest way to economic freedom. What we are not taught is that private property is a relatively new (and white) concept in the history of our species — communally stewarded land has been the historical norm. This means land was considered a shared essential of life rather than a scarce commodity to hoard. In order for private property to gain dominance, capitalists needed to criminalize the common use of land (see the enclosure of the commons) and dispossess indigenous peoples from their native territories (see primitive accumulation, Manifest Destiny, slavery, and colonialism as examples). 

Far from being a source of freedom then, private property has been a pillar of inequality especially felt by BI&POC. There simply isn't enough arable land for everyone to own, but everyone needs access to the food, water, and resources land provides. Since everything we need comes from our landbases — food, building materials, minerals, etc. — this tangible example of scarcity creates a class structure where some own property while the vast majority do not. It is this structure between a land-owning class and a class without land that gives birth to the wage-labor system. Without direct access to land, we must rent ourselves and our labor out to the land-owning class to gain access to money and the necessities land provides. 

Today we call this process of renting ourselves out employment — and most employment comes in the form of a job. But (surprise suprise) jobs too are a form of scarcity that capitalism creates to gate access to resources and prioritize profit over meeting our basic needs. The ability for jobs to provide enough wages to cover the rising cost of life under capitalism is predicated on there being enough jobs for everyone to have one and for employers to consistently raise wages. Herein lies the contradiction: Capitalism cannot provide enough jobs, much less well paying jobs, for every worker without sacrificing profit. Capitalists must always make a choice between prioritizing paying workers or making more money. 

An economic system structured around the institutions of private property, wage-labor, and profit will always produce chronic inequality that must leave billions exposed to crisis. And histories of white settler colonialism, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, cishetero patriarchy, ableism, and state violence ensure that this exposure cannot be impartial. When capitalist economies are doing well and access to jobs are plentiful, the last people to be lifted out of poverty will be BI&POC, disabled people, trans and nonbinary people, and especially anyone who exists at the intersections of these identities. Conversely, when capitalist economies are doing poorly and well-paying jobs are scarce, these groups will be the first to suffer. 

Since the virus began spreading throughout the U.S. and the economy “shut down,” unemployment rates have shot up from a fifty year low of 3.5 percent to 4.4 percent. According to Reuters, “the largest increases were seen among Asians and Latinos, with increases of 1.6 percentage points each…” So far Black people have seen their rates rise at the same pace as the national rate, although the unemployment rate for Black people is now 6.7 percent — “65 percent higher than for whites.” The Pew Research Center also reported “Nearly half of Hispanics (49 percent) say their household has had someone lose their job or take a pay cut because of the COVID-19 outbreak,” compared to 29 percent for white people. 

On GDP and Employment Rates

Capitalism measures its “success” in more ways than we can interrogate here, but it focuses primarily on the rate of its expansion and its ability to extract labor from workers. Two of its primary metrics are Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employment rates. 

GDP is meant to measure the aggregate value of all products and services created within a country during a specific period of time. For example, if we add up the value of every product in every shopping mall and grocery store in the country over a year, we will get part of GDP. This number must constantly travel upward because it signals an expanding economy. What GDP actually measures though is the rate at which capitalism can convert stolen landbases to consumable products. This is demonstrated by the terms capitalists use to explain any contraction in capitalist expansion. A “recession” is a slowdown in economic growth that lasts only months. An economic “depression” is more severe and constitutes a decline in expansion. Both bring austerity, job loss, lower wages, foreclosures, and widespread poverty. 

Employment rates measure how many people are currently active in the workforce. In theory, employment has a correlative relationship to GDP. If GDP trends upwards, this signals an expanding economy, which can mean more jobs and pressure for wages to move higher. If it trends downwards, then this spells a decline in employment and provides pressure to freeze any upward movement in wages. What employment rates actually measure is the amount of labor capitalists need to expand business or protect profit — nothing more, nothing less. We have already discussed how capitalism must steal the real value of workers’ wages to make money; and we have already shown how BI&POC are the first to suffer in any downturn. 

As capitalism lives on the downturns are becoming harder to avoid. Advances in automation and the capacity for corporations to outsource wage-labor to cheaper workforces have created an environment where GDP must dramatically increase year over year or risk chronic under-employment and frozen wages. For the better part of three decades that’s what we’ve seen. From 1973 to 2013 workers’ productivity increased by 74 percent. Their wages moved a mere 9 percent higher. For the wealthiest Americans, the top 1 percent, the picture looks starkly different. Their wages grew 138 percent over the same period. This of course doesn’t account for the demographic breakdown of these disparities, but if anything about America has held consistent we can assume the lionshare of any gains went to white people.

Within capitalism’s racial hierarchy, chronic unemployment and underemployment mean BI&POC cannot rely on capitalism to provide any sort of lasting social and economic freedom. Faced with this reality, we must interrogate our relationship to capitalism. If on one hand the absence of growth disproportionately reflects a decline in the quality of life for BI&POC, and on the other hand the presence of growth still cannot guarantee any meaningful upward mobility for the vast majority of non-white people, what good is capitalism to us?

As Vann Newkirk once put it on Twitter, "A system cannot fail those it was never built to protect." Capitalism is a tool of white settler colonialism. Its “success” is measured by its ability to aggregate wealth for its privileged classes. That wealth is created through the systematic theft of workers’ wages, through coercing us into competition with each other, through the strict enforcement of violent hierarchy, and through the destruction of stolen landbases. The inequality it generates in its wake disproportionately impacts BI&POC and leaves us vulnerable to the whims of colonial power and poorly equipped to navigate large-scale crises like COVID-19.

COVID-19 Doesn't Have a Racial Bias — Capitalism Does

COVID-19 demonstrates that capitalism is incapable of caring for us because it cannot stop without collapse. If it shuts down even for a moment, let alone months, it wreaks havoc on our lives. In the past few weeks we’ve seen the government race to bailout corporations with multiple stimulus bills. We’ve seen businesses of all sizes shut their doors causing a cascade of unemployment now past 20.5 million. Predictions are that those numbers will continue to rise. We’ve seen tenants declare they cannot pay rent because they no longer have a source of income. We’ve seen the government relax regulations on polluters and rollback decades of climate advocacy. We’ve seen farmers dump dairy products and destroy crops

Through all of this we’ve also seen the racial and class inequities of capitalism magnified as COVID-19 kills poor BI&POC at higher rates than white people. Early data released by New York City, where the outbreak has hit hardest, shows that the coronavirus is killing Black and Latino people at twice the rate of white people. Racial disparities have been found in Los Angeles, Chicago, Milwaukee, Atlanta, and New Orleans. On resource starved reservations, COVID-19 has killed more people in the Navajo Nation than in the entire state of New Mexico, which has a population 13 times larger. The Indian Health Service reports that cases are rapidly escalating within nations near Oklahoma City, Billings, Albuquerque, and in Alaska.

But COVID-19 doesn’t have a racial bias — capitalism does. The virus is impacting BI&POC most because it unearths generations of systemic oppression and environmental racism. White people have never experienced decades of redlining, hundreds of broken treaties, or legacies of racist immigration enforcement. Instead, they have been handed generational wealth from ancestors whose land was acquired by displacing or killing indigenous people. Compounded over hundreds of years, white people now own 98% of land in the U.S — collectively worth more than a trillion dollars. Such disparity has allowed white people to insulate themselves from the harshest impacts of the outbreak. Many of them have homes where they can shelter in place, vacation getaways they can flee to, and well-paying jobs they can work from home. 

On the other hand, generations of housing discrimination have left Black people disproportionately exposed to homelessness and directly at risk of infection. Generations of dispossession, segregation, and racist immigration policies have left most BI&POC landless with only the option to congregate in cities where jobs are easier to find, where again we are vulnerable to infection. Generations of racialized access to education and well-paying jobs have left non-white people in low-paying service jobs and unable to work from home — who must put themselves at risk for money. Since shelter-in-place started, commuting has fallen by 38%, meaning 62% of us are still commuting to work; and disproportionately those people are BI&POC taking public transit to “essential jobs,” both hotspots for infection. 

Once infected, generations of exposure to poor air quality, food deserts, medical apartheid, and the collective social and emotional trauma of state terror have left BI&POC with higher rates of asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions which leave us immunocompromised and compound the chances of death. 

COVID-19 is linked to a history of capitalism and racial terror that must be named. The reason BI&POC cannot shelter-in-place at the same rates as white people is directly related to a history of slavery, of genocide, and colonization. BI&POC could not be as prepared for COVID-19 as white people because generations of violence ensured we wouldn’t be. We have to reconcile with the fact that capitalism is a system created and rooted in white settler colonialism: It has always had a racial bias and it always will. We will never be able to build systems where we center the collective care necessary for our survival if we remain invested in protecting a system that was designed to kill us. 

But all is not lost — there are lessons to be learned here. Of the many things we will take away from this crisis we should remember this: COVID-19 reveals how fragile capitalism is. What then would it take to bring it down? 

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