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Indybay Feature
Corona containment versus capital utilization
by Peter Samol
Thursday Aug 26th, 2021 10:45 AM
In the Corona crisis, it became obvious that our capitalist economic system is not suited to protect human life, insofar as this impedes its processes. There must finally be an end to eternal growth, the exploitation of nature and people and the shortage of time, an end to "more and more, faster and faster and further and further."
Corona Containment versus Capital Utilization
By Peter Samol

[This article published on 6/15/2020 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.krisis.org/2020/coronaeindaemmung-versus-kapitalverwertung/.]

At present (mid-June 2020), no one knows how long the corona pandemic will last, which has characterized our daily lives since mid-March of this year. It can only come to an end through a vaccine or through natural immunization. It will be many months before either occurs. According to official estimates, seven and a half million people worldwide have been infected so far. Even taking into account that the number of unreported cases is probably five to twenty times higher, it follows that we are still at the very beginning of the pandemic. A vaccine is also not in sight any time soon. According to serious estimates, an effective and safe vaccine will probably not be available until around the end of 2021.

The measures being implemented to contain the pandemic are historically unique. Their primary purpose is to avoid overburdening the health care system at any point in time. Indeed, sick people with very severe symptoms must be artificially ventilated in an intensive care unit for several weeks. Otherwise, they die. Ugly triage situations, such as those that occurred at times in Italy, France and Spain, must be avoided at all costs. Among other things, the measures had the effect of imposing a forced pause on our otherwise restless society. Output restrictions and orders to close almost all stores and restaurants brought economic life to a standstill in large parts from mid-March onward. For the first four weeks, only grocery stores, drugstores and pharmacies were allowed to be open. From the fifth week onward, the restrictions were rolled back, first slowly and then more and more rapidly. The main reason for this was to prevent the threat of bankruptcies. However, this considerably increases the risk that the infection figures will pick up speed and fall back into exponential growth. A second wave of Corona disease is thereby accepted, and it may well be that the constraints of our economic system will drive us back into the pandemic.

Fostering its emergence
The virus did not come out of nowhere. Both the emergence and the rapid spread of the pandemic are closely linked to the penetration of the capitalist economy into all regions of the world. Massive exports of cheap food are driving local producers in poorer countries into bankruptcy, and modern agribusiness with its land grabbing and intensive fishing of the world's oceans are doing the rest to cut people off from their original livelihoods. They often have no choice but to venture deeper and deeper into previously largely untouched jungles and savannahs. There, they consume wild animals or carry them off to markets in the big cities, where they come into contact with other species they would otherwise never have encountered. As a result, the pathogens that infect these animals mix and recombine to create entirely new types of pathogens, some of which are dangerous to humans. One of these is the coronavirus. Another mechanism of disease emergence is facilitated by the creation of vast plantations. Palm oil plantations, for example, provide ideal conditions for fruit bats, which form gigantic populations there. Each one of them carries billions of different viruses. The extremely high total number of pathogens massively increases the probability that novel mutations will develop, some of which can also be very dangerous for humans. This is how the Ebola pathogen is likely to have emerged. Once the new pathogens have jumped to humans, the high population density in modern cities, the trade network spun around the globe, and the rampant travel of business people and tourists subsequently ensure that the new germs spread very rapidly across the globe. The crisis is thus primarily the consequence of our highly expansive economic system, which inevitably brings humanity into conflict with nature. In this respect, the occurrence of the pandemic is no real surprise. Virologists point out that other viruses are already lying in wait and it may not be long before the next pandemic.

The sick healthcare system
The fact that the virus is hitting us so hard is also due to economic developments. As already mentioned, the aim of the current measures is primarily to avoid overstretching the healthcare system. How much opening is possible thus depends above all on the scope and resources of the public health system. At present, the pandemic is hitting a health care system that has been rebuilt for three decades according to financial-economic criteria and has been severely contracted in the process. Since the early 1990s, the number of hospital beds in Germany has been reduced by 30 percent, while at the same time the proportion of the population that is elderly and thus in need of treatment has grown. The most drastic reform was the system of flat rates per case, which was introduced in 2000. Since then, hospitals have been paid a fixed amount of money for each patient, the amount of which is based solely on the medical diagnosis. The duration of treatment and the actual treatment costs subsequently play no role. The fee-per-case system has set in motion enormous undesirable developments. Costs that do not generate a profit must be avoided at all costs under its regime. This also includes the provision of capacities for crisis and emergency cases. Intensive care beds, medications and equipment that would have to be stored unused would represent investments that do not generate a profit - which, from a business perspective, is a mortal sin punishable by corporate bankruptcy. Even in ordinary times, the flat-rate per-case system could hardly guarantee the normal operation of hospitals. Against this backdrop, it now seems scarcely believable that as late as the end of 2019, a study by the Bertelsmann Foundation called for a further 35 percent reduction in the number of hospital beds. All in all, it is no wonder that there is a sensitive shortage of emergency beds, ventilators and staff during the crisis. A similar situation is found at public health departments. Their task would actually be to trace back infection chains without any gaps and thus to locate as many infected persons as possible. As soon as the number of new infections falls below a certain level, this is theoretically possible. However, since the health authorities, like the hospitals, have been bled dry financially for years, this is hardly feasible in many cases. And it is doubtful whether the Corona scouts, who are mainly made up of students and instructed in crash courses, will be able to successfully close these gaps.

Money or health?
A basic contradiction runs through the entire Corona crisis. It is the contradiction between money and life. What is more important to us: our own economic existence or a healthy life? The deceleration that accompanied the containment measures, which in some cases went as far as bringing entire sectors of the economy to a complete standstill, is not foreseen in capitalism. This mode of economy is inscribed with a restlessness that no other form of socialization can match. As is well known, capital must constantly increase in order to maintain itself. For this purpose, it must be constantly reinvested in the production of goods, which must then be sold at a profit in order to reinvest the resulting income. All people are involved in this cycle, for better or worse. Only by participating in it - either as labor or by selling anything else - can you get the money you need to live in this society. Unfortunately, many economic activities favor the spread of the virus and have had to be drastically scaled down or even shut down.

In the face of this dilemma, most countries in the world decided to give priority to life and to greatly reduce production. Thus, the Corona pandemic sets a precedent. Never before has the general exploitation process been slowed down to such an extent, both knowingly and willingly. Could the pandemic perhaps be a historical turning point that leads us to break with the capitalist imperatives of "more and more, faster and faster, and further and further"? And instead develop a more sedate, people- and environment-friendly mode of production? When a great earthquake struck the city of Lisbon in 1755, the destruction and many deaths dealt a blow to Christian belief in a "Good God" from which it was never to recover. Could the Corona crisis perhaps have a similar effect in relation to the capitalist form of socialization?

The crisis brings with it some positive experiences and developments. Many people witnessed that the constraints of the existing system for the protection of human life can be suspended, at least for a while. In light of this precedent, they might ask in the future, for example, what is actually wrong with saving the climate as consistently as the virus was contained before. After all, eight to nine million people die each year as a result of air pollution. Moreover, slowing down our daily lives brought with it the experience for more than a few that life goes on even without the general restlessness that otherwise prevails. In this sense, reduced air and car traffic in many cities led to a pleasant and previously unknown calm.

However, such positive effects are countered by a number of negative experiences. For sales assistants in food retailing, nurses in hospitals, transport workers and all the other professionals who unexpectedly had the label "systemically important" attached to them (although the word "vital" would probably have been a better description), enormous additional work stress set in with quite a few overtime hours and extra shifts. In the food industry, even the applicable maximum working hours were suspended, allowing work shifts of up to twelve hours per day. There is nothing to suggest that anything will improve in the working conditions of the "systemically important" after the pandemic. At best, they will be restored to their old levels. Others are still suffering from home offices with simultaneous childcare and housework. This is where the classic double burden, which primarily affects women, resumes or becomes even more acute. Then there is the huge group of those who are affected by fears of loss and decline because their work is not needed at the moment. In the first weeks of the Corona crisis, the number of short-time workers rose to 10.14 million people. This affected almost one-third of employees subject to social security contributions, and still accounts for seven million, or nearly a quarter. According to the Ifo Institute for Economic Research, companies' HR departments are also preparing for a wave of layoffs. And the German Federation of Trade Unions is already warning of a corona crash on the training market. In addition, two-thirds of the approximately 4.5 million solo self-employed complain of a drop in sales of more than 75 percent. And in the Hartz IV sector, there was already a 40 percent increase in April.

The situation is even worse in other parts of the world. In India, China and even more so in many poorer countries, millions of migrant workers who have suddenly become unemployed literally don't know where to go. Keeping their distance or staying at home is simply impossible for these people. In addition, the destruction of rainforests around the globe has accelerated dramatically. In Brazil, Congo, Indonesia and many other tropical countries, governments can no longer, or no longer want to, exercise their control functions due to the disease. At the same time, even more desperate people than before are being driven into the jungles. There they search for gold, cut wood or try to find food. This could trigger the next pandemic.

In the industrialized countries, public transportation is suffering a major setback because many fear catching the disease there. In addition to a welcome trend toward bicycles, there is therefore unfortunately also one toward increased use of the car. Although it would be completely absurd, there is also the threat of further closures or privatizations of public hospitals in the future. Many of the municipalities responsible for financing their building fabric were already financially strapped before the Corona crisis. Now, the pandemic is causing them to lose up to 12 billion euros in business tax revenue. The governing coalition could not bring itself to support the municipalities. Although Berlin will in future assume three quarters of the accommodation costs for recipients of Hartz IV and basic benefits (previously it was half), this will only bring in around four billion euros for the municipalities. This means that drastic cuts in municipal budgets, which could also hit hospitals hard, can hardly be avoided.

And after the pandemic?
In the Corona crisis, it became obvious that our capitalist economic system is not suited to protect human life, insofar as this impedes its processes. Instead, states around the world had to intervene and thwart it with all their might. But this works only for a short time, within which masses of economic problems accumulate. Unlike in the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake, the current crisis does not seem to be leading to problems of legitimacy for the ruling social system. No one asks the obvious question why it is practically impossible in our society to shut down the production of non-essential goods and services for as long as it would take. On the contrary, the longer the pandemic lasts, the more and the louder the voices calling for a return to the old patterns. It is generally regarded as uncontroversial that the economy should be restarted as quickly as possible in order to set in motion a gigantic race to catch up on lost profits and opportunities for exploitation.

Nor should one be deceived by the fact that perhaps the hour of some environmentally friendly technologies will soon come. For it is foreseeable that these will only be those that can be used profitably. Considerations of consistently withdrawing health care from the market do go a step further. But even if these were implemented, they would not fundamentally call into question the capitalist form of wealth production. However, this was already severely tarnished before the corona-induced lockdown. Since the financial crisis of 2007 and subsequent years, total global debt has been $255 trillion, three times the annual global domestic product. In fact, for more than four decades, the entire global economy has been based solely on the financial sector and the amount of money that is created and circulated there on a daily basis. It is not even possible to create as much real value as would be necessary to pay off the mountain of debt recorded in the various papers. On the contrary, new technologies are constantly making human labor superfluous even faster in the future. At the same time, the associated cheapening of production processes reduces the value of all products, so that they can contribute less and less to servicing the financial claims securitized in all those securities. This raises the question of whether our society can still afford to maintain the capitalist form of economy. If you include the current crisis, it has already had to be rescued three times since the turn of the millennium with the help of costly state intervention.

In the current crisis, almost all sectors - apart from the digital industry and the providers of goods and services in the healthcare, food and transport sectors - have suffered heavy losses. In addition, there will be a slump in tax revenues of around 100 billion euros this year alone, and the Corona stimulus package will cost 130 billion. Globally, there will be new all-time records for government debt levels. The ensuing efforts to pay them off are likely to fuel ideologies and concrete measures aimed at a tight growth path. What is to be feared then is a pro-business policy including welfare state cuts, further privatization of public infrastructure and an even tougher benefits regime than before.

Yet the capitalist form of socialization is already a very questionable event in normal operation. Here, humans and nature are merely resources that are unceremoniously burned for the endless creation of value. The former are worn out in their work just as ruthlessly and brought to the brink of collapse as nature, which for the current economic regime represents nothing more than a supplier of raw materials and a dumping ground. Unfortunately, there is much to suggest that little will change in this regard even after the Corona crisis. Capital can only function by constantly multiplying. This multiplication is subject to an exponential dynamic just like the growth of viruses. Albeit with the difference that its reproduction time is measured in years and not in days. Even with environmentally friendly technologies, the capitalist growth dynamic therefore inevitably has the consequence of absorbing everything - really everything - and destroying it in the process. At least if it does not collapse first or, what would be desirable, is actively abolished by the people. There must finally be an end to eternal growth, the exploitation of nature and people and the shortage of time, an end to "more and more, faster and faster and further and further."
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