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Why Corona Matters for the Left

by Justus Spott

As of now the novel Corona virus (Sars-CoV-2) is spreading at exponential rates in Europe and the USA. On thursday, 11/3/2020 the German stock index DAX ended trading with the second biggest loss of its history. What does this mean for the left? Do we just have to stoically persevere? Or is Corona the crisis we have been waiting for? Isn’t Corona basically a non-political event like an Alien invasion?

“Never let a serious crisis go to waste” – Some neoliberal

“There is great disorder under heaven. The situation is excellent.” – Chairman Mao

Although Sars-CoV-2 does not have agency and so cannot be qualified as a genuine political agent, I will argue that Corona makes some existing political issues all the more apparent, creates genuinely new problems and most importantly has the potential to open up the window for intervention (kairós).

The Corona outbreak has personal, ideological, healthcare as well as economic and in turn potentially political consequences, which I will try to outline in this text.

The Personal

Corona is a sudden rupture into our daily routine. Most of us spend an extended period of time every day informing ourselves about new cases around the world and we look at charts like this one (here: total confirmed cases in Germany) to assess the likelihood of a curfew:

We buy toilet paper in bulk, start washing our hands manically and wince at the sound of a cough or a sneeze (sneezing is NOT a symptom of Corona). My girlfriend has stopped kissing me altogether. We talk to our families, friends, partners and co-workers. Some have already started working at home. Theatres, kindergartens and schools have been closed. All kinds of events have been cancelled and we expect more to come. This sets some duties which we would have considered indispensable a few weeks ago into new perspective. Maybe the world won’t end if we postpone this meeting or this deadline after all.

Finally it seems possible to evaluate priorities. Corona makes us realize how gridlocked most of us conduct their lives. We have established routines and preferences in our personal life as much as in our work life and political life and we are reluctant to overthrow them as they provide us with a foothold and security. Someone who changes their preferences and behaviour repeatedly is regarded as weak and unstable. We tend to value duties and responsibilities higher that we have committed to earlier and that fall into our personal responsibility even when newly emerging challenges that are our collective responsibility demand immediate action. This could be an unforeseen development at work but most importantly the climate and the refugee crisis are examples of such insufficiently prioritised disasters. The longer such denial persists the less likely the individual is to change course as it would have to concede guilt for not acting earlier. In order to cope with such cognitive dissonance one turns to victim blaming, magical thinking or conspiracy theories.

This also applicable to our political strategy. If being the likeable sluggish lefty, that wants to protect his/her fellow human beings from the continuing onslaught of capital hasn’t proven successful up until now, maybe it is time to re-evaluate our strategy and pursue an edgier, more power-conscious and creative politics.

Lastly, Corona is also an indicator for capitalist realism. One cannot resist to feel some excitement about a situation none of us have yet experienced. We are so used to the ever stable ever repeating pseudo-spectacle of neo-liberal politics that really any change, as terrible as it is, produces some kind of thrill as it at least temporarily suspends the spell of eternal recurrence.

The Ideological

In the beginning of the Corona epidemic, when it was strongly associated with China, racist impulses could be seen everywhere. In the Altstadt (oldtown, city center) of Düsseldorf, some Chinese playfully took up the issue and stood next to the subway entrance with signs saying: “We are Chinese, don’t be scared.” By now Corona has spread far and wide and the Asian countries seem to be the only ones capable of containing the virus for now. Now people suspect everyone of being infected, irrespective of race. But Corona will most likely be used by racists and bigots who will claim that it has foreign roots, that refugees pose an infection risk, that Europe should be even more shut off (as if it would not already be hermetically closed). The first few weeks of the virus have been alarming in this respect and now everyone is trying to blame the others. The Chinese try blaming the US army and US officials call it the China or Wuhan virus. Such a tradition goes back at least to the Middle Ages: “Syphilis had been called the “French disease” (Italian: mal francese) in Italy, Malta, Poland and Germany, and the “Italian disease” in France. In addition, the Dutch called it the “Spanish disease”, the Russians called it the “Polish disease”, and the Turks called it the “Christian disease” or “Frank (Western European) disease” (frengi). These “national” names were generally reflective of contemporary political spite between nations and frequently served as a sort of propaganda.” However there is also a chance that this will unite us. It has often been purported that humanity will only be able to close ranks if faced with a common enemy. Maybe there is a glimmer of hope for international cooperation and solidarity.

The Economical

Corona already has had a massive economic impact. It has disrupted supply chains from China and triggered massive losses for the tourist industry. However we do net yet know if it will have a lasting effect or if the crisis will be over as fast as it occurred. As mentioned earlier, 12/03/2020 was one of the worst days for the stock market ever with losses of about 12% globally. Irrespective of the underlying economic data, panicky herd-behaviour alone could entail a global recession.

If you take the facts into consideration, then there are several possible scenarios right now:

Either containment will work in the West and we will successfully dry out the infection so that economic activity can return to normal in about one month. When taking into account hidden infections and incubation time, this will probably be foreseeable two weeks after lockdown. However, we do not know whether heuristics derived from China will also apply to Europe; there, Corona likely hasn’t spread undetected as it has in China, where it has been spreading since mid-November 2019.

There is also a good possibility that containment will fail. which would wreak havoc globally. The only comparable case is the influenza pandemic of 1918. “The World Bank estimates that a global influenza pandemic would cost the world economy $800 billion and kill tens-of-millions of people.” However, most research indicates that in economic terms the effect of the 1918 pandemic had been short term. Only if the current system is a lot more unstable could we experience a real economic crash.

Businesses without revenue will still have to pay interest on their bonds and will still have to pay rent for their edifices. This problem touches the core of the capitalist system. The extraction of value is handed down the food chain. Landlords and banks extract rent and interest from businesses that in turn extract surplus value from labour, which forms the basis of capital accumulation. By contrast, in a communist society a temporary enforced idleness would pose no existential problem. As soon as the crisis were over, people would just continue to work. No lay-offs, credit defaults or unbalanced rent accounts would occur. We already see state planning and intervention comparable to a war economy in Italy where the army has been deployed to staff a factory for lung ventilators to speed up production. Couldn’t we implement similar measures to fight the climate and refugee crises?

The high fragility of capitalism is the reason why countries such as Germany are so reluctant in declaring lockdowns and similar measures. For sure, China is also a capitalist country; but the Chinese state has much firmer grip on its corporations and citizens. It has seen first hand in Wuhan the consequences of a collapse of sanitary infrastructure. Therefore, Chinese authorities have taken the appropriate measures to prevent the spread of the disease. We will soon find out if the West is also ready to do what it takes. Will the governments of Europe mishandle the crisis, will they prioritise economic over human welfare as it seems to be the case in the UK?

In Italy workers have taken fate into their own hands, starting a wildcat strike at Fiat. Hopefully, we can expect more of this in the near future.

The Medical

German Health Minister Jens Spahn and his acolytes have been advocating the “Danish model” of health care infrastructure in the recent years. It envisions closing many smaller district hospitals and building new supraregional mega hospitals with less beds and less personnel. While some centralisation of infrastructure might be reasonable, the reforms proposed by Spahn are essentially a continuation of neoliberal austerity politics.

Right now we are in dire need of every single hospital bed. In recent years, hospital workers have struggled for minimum staffing limits which have been suspended in the face of Corona. The shortage of staff leads to potentially life-threatening consequences for nurses as well as patients. But the problems in the German health care system run even deeper. Hospitals are paid based on so called diagnosis-related groups (“Fallpauschalensystem”) which means that they are paid a fixed amount of money for different types of treatments. Some treatments are very lucrative while others are not, so that we see a systematic statistical deferral in favour of more profitable but unnecessary treatments. Right now hospitals are starting to postpone all treatments that are not absolutely urgent to free beds for Corona patients. It is unclear whether hospitals will be able to generate enough revenue if they delay the more profitable treatments for long. Moreover, the DRG-system forces hospitals and other healthcare providers to reduce their operating costs as far as possible, decreasing overall capabilities. People get laid off, equipment is lacking. Neoliberal policies have made us very vulnerable.

In the US, which doesn’t even have universal health insurance, the situation is especially bleak. Persons who cannot afford treatment will likely avoid being tested as a positive result would imply that they would be unable to continue working without gaining access to free medical attention. The House of Representatives just passed a bill aimed at providing free testing as well as paid sick leave for two weeks in order to alleviate these obvious shortcomings of the USA’s health care system. Still, the case for universal health care is stronger than ever now.

Privately funded pharmaceutical research also isn’t well suited to address potential viral outbreaks as the development of vaccines for potential epidemics is too risky an investment. In 2016, researchers in Texas had developed a vaccine for a strain of the Corona virus but couldn’t procure the 3 million dollars needed for testing. Big Pharma abandoned vaccine and antibiotics research in favour of more profitable drugs for chronic illnesses.

The Political

What does all this mean for the left? Shouldn’t we all unite for the common good and abandon political strife for the time being? The answer has to be a decisive no. As the introductory quotes suggest, the potential for change only emerges in a situation of crisis. Any such crisis that delegitimises the existing authorities will do. Some of us tend to dismiss the Corona epidemic as the wrong kind of crisis. But neo-liberals and authoritarian leaders will not hesitate to make a move. The CSU (conservative Bavarian branch of the ruling party in Germany) already put forth a paper attacking the plans to introduce a financial transaction tax, calling for tax cuts for businesses in view of the looming recession. Fortunately neo-liberalism has been thoroughly disproven and discredited: It is common knowledge by now that tax reductions don’t affect investment quotas at all. One can also easily imagine how the pandemic could be used to declare a state of emergency and to postpone elections in order to stifle the opposition and the democratic process.

Leftists seem baffled because a virus just doesn’t fit into their political imagination,  where a gradual organisation of the working class will eventually topple bourgeois state power. I don’t know yet if the Corona crisis will become as serious as projected. But if it does, we have to use it ruthlessly and opportunistically, because it attacks capitalism where it hurts.

It may show how decisive action can be taken in face of an existential risk. We must raise questions which hurt those in power. One of those might be: Why don’t we see comparable efforts with regard to climate change? Especially when “the lockdown may save more lives from pollution reduction than are threatened by the virus itself”? Another question: Why do states resort to direct planning in the face of the crisis? All of a sudden, state planning and deficit spending might not be unreasonable after all.

But what if we won’t be able to contain the virus? Then we will have a blatant demonstration that our leaders either are incompetent or inhuman. We can show the public that those in power have prioritised capitalism over human well-being. China has shown that the imposition of holidays and travel restrictions can be effective measures of containment albeit with some economic cost. The reason the West has been reluctant to impose such measures is the fear of an economic crisis in a market setting of a near to zero base lending rate and ongoing quantitative easing. This could be a heavy blow to a patient already in palliative care.

Further Reading

“Capitalism only Works in Theory”: Leigh Phillips’ & Michael Rozworski’s People’s Republic of Walmart​

In "People's Republic of Walmart", Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski show that large companies are organised as planned economies.

What is Folk-Politics?

Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams criticise the politics of immediacy that is widespread among the left. If we can not get rid of it, we are destined to fail.

Chronicles from Quarantined Italy

Italy has been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak. What lessons can socialists draw?

Chronicles from Quarantined Italy

Italy has been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak. What lessons can socialists draw?

“Capitalism only Works in Theory”: Leigh Phillips’ & Michael Rozworski’s People’s Republic of Walmart​

In "People's Republic of Walmart", Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski show that large companies are organised as planned economies.

What is Folk-Politics?

Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams criticise the politics of immediacy that is widespread among the left. If we can not get rid of it, we are destined to fail.