Why Everything Has Gone Wrong with COVID 19: Examining the Role of Capitalism and the State in the Current Crisis

By Iswed Tiggjan

Introduction

Author’s note: It is expected that between the time of writing and the publishing of this essay the figures of cases and deaths from COVID are likely to have changed significantly with the situation further deteriorating. While these numbers may have changed, the core of the article’s argument remains the same. COVID is a capitalist made crisis and the response requires the working class engaging in direct struggle for it’s interests against those of the economic and political ruling classes.

On the first of February 2021 there were ten active cases of COVID in Australia. At the time of writing that number is now at 300 000 and is likely significantly higher when one factors in the number of people either unable or unwilling to get tested. Medical advice from the Queensland Chief Health Office suggests that numbers may be over triple what is being reported. It is feasible that current cases may be reaching towards 1 million, and if not that number will surely be reached shortly. Queensland, which has largely avoided any serious outbreaks of COVID up till now, is predicted to possibly have cases in the hundreds of thousands if not millions by the end of January. With a population of just over 5 million this would mean that 1 in 5 (if not more) people in Queensland may contract COVID in under a month.

Our political leaders would like to have us believe that not only was this inevitable, but that it is a positive thing. Catch omicron, build herd immunity and back to normalcy before the footy season starts. Some people may die, but it will only be a small amount, the elderly and vulnerable people with little to offer our capitalist system. 

If this was true in and of itself it would be a reprehensible position worth fighting against, but the reality is that omicron is not a pathway out of the pandemic. Despite the government’s misleading messaging, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has constantly stressed that omicron should not be considered mild, nor is it likely to be the final variant of COVID. The current crisis which we are only at the beginning of is much more dire than what the political establishment is willing to admit.

This crisis, and the pandemic overall, was not inevitable or unavoidable. This outcome was entirely and grimly predictable. The COVID 19 crisis is a crisis born of the harmful, destructive and illogical forces of capitalism and the state, and reminds us yet again of the dire pressing need for revolution and anarchist socialism. 

COVID-19: A Foreseeable Disaster?

Since at least the 1970’s medical experts have been loudly warning of the dire threat that a possible new virus – transmitted from live-stock to humans – could pose to the health and safety of humanity. Since then over three dozen new viruses have occured. In 2002-2003 the tangible threat posed by viruses in the coronavirus family reared its head with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak which eventually left 774 people dead across the globe. Since the SARS outbreak experts have repeatedly warned governments that a related virus from the corona family could easily emerge and proactive steps were required to combat this.

By and large the political and economic ruling classes of the world elected to ignore these warnings. In the west the majority of nations have spent the last twenty years gutting their healthcare systems and their capacity to respond to outbreaks rather than preparing themselves for a very predictable disaster. The fact that we would have an outbreak in early 2020 may not have been knowable, but what was known was that due to the massive scale of factory farming an eventual viral outbreak with the potential to cause a pandemic was inevitable, and likely long overdue.

Why was the capitalist system so woefully unprepared if the warnings had been so loud and clear for so long? Because of the lack of guaranteed profit and return for investment.  For capitalism, funding prevention of infectious diseases simply does not provide the profit motive needed to seriously invest in it, at least before an outbreak has already occured. While a logical society would understand that funding projects which can prevent a foreseeable disaster as intrisancy beneficial, for capitalism the profit motive reigns supreme.  Under capitalism private and public sectors are simply unable to incorporate the understanding that acting prematurely to respond to potential crises is a beneficial act. This same illogical drive for immediate profit is the same root cause of the climate crisis and the lack of response by capital over the past forty years. This drive for profit is killing the Earth and us. Capitalism cannot change its intrinsic nature, this drive for profit is at the heart of capitalism. It would be naive of us to expect capitalism to act in any other way.

The Capitalist Drive for Profit Over People  

The prioritizing of profit before all else didn’t just impact on the level of preparedness in the face of COVID, but is directly tied to the severity of the pandemic. In virtually every country across the globe the health of the economy has been put above all else, resulting in COVID spiraling rapidly out of control. When one hears talk about the importance of the economy or the health of the economy, it is important to remember that this is code for the profits of the capitalist class and small business owners. It is these profits that the Australian and state governments have been concerned with protecting over the pandemic. 

In an economy based on the needs and wellbeing of people (ie socialism) rather than profits the response to COVID would have been very different to what we have seen. As laid out by the Melbourne Anarchist Communist Group (MACG) an anarchist socialist response would have included:

(not having to worry) about the viability of business, so we could close down all non-essential activities. Construction, for example, could be put on care and maintenance. Production of luxuries or other low priority goods could be ceased, letting workers go home, turn their plant to medical equipment and supplies as required, or reinforce the supply chain of necessities. And a panel of medical experts, elected in each region and given parameters by the affected communities, would hold the necessary authority to set health guidelines.”

Not mentioned but centrally important for a socialist society is that all goods and services would be distributed based on need rather than for profit, with the entirety of societies focus being on supporting each other and recovering, rather than defending the rights of billionaires and small business tyrants to increase their wealth. 

Unfortunately we live in capitalism, and even the mildest forms of socialism are currently a far away dream. Early on in the pandemic the Australian state brought in some measures which surely assisted in avoiding the extremes of the crisis which were occurring in other countries. Some of these measures included lockdowns, eviction moratoriums, an increase to the dole, and the JobKeeper payments. Yet these measures were only temporary and almost all were repealed only a year into the pandemic.

As pointed out by MACG in September of last year:

The capitalist class in Australia wants to get back into the world economy. Certainly, mineral exports have been going gangbusters all along, but tourism and education, two huge export industries, have been closed down for over a year and the businesses in that sector are desperate to get going again. Capital also wants access to temporary migrant workers to be restored. Because their temporary status puts them at the mercy of employers, they are often employed at illegally low wage rates. Farmers and other bosses who make major use of this scam have been complaining bitterly about labour shortages.

The success of public health authorities in suppressing COVID-19 and then eliminating it from internal circulation (apart from periodic breaches in hotel quarantine) has produced a major problem for capitalism. Keeping COVID-19 out of the community has been greatly welcomed, but has led to the population being reluctant to rejoin the global economy while the virus is rampant overseas. Business has therefore had to pressure its political representatives to come up with a solution.


The solution that the political representatives developed? Letting COVID rip.

COVID cases at the end of 2020 with the variety of social supports and health measures in place – almost zero. COVID cases at the beginning of 2022 only a month into the “let it rip strategy” – ticking upwards of one million, with deaths climbing by the day.

Criticisms of what is occurring haven’t been rare, but they have been misplaced in their direction. We are not witnessing the result of incompetence from politicians or governments, rather we are seeing the results of a thought out strategy designed and implemented by the state to benefit capital at the expense of working class lives. 

The Conflicting Roles of the State in Responding to COVID

For anarchists the state is understood to be “a bureaucratic-military institution, dominating a territory through specialized armed forces (police and military) and bureaucratic layers of people who make decisions, ruling over—and separate from—the rest of the population.(Price, 2018). The state is not any social structure for decision making, or the taking on mass-scale projects, but a specific coercive structure of class rule.  The state goes beyond whichever particular ruling party is in power at any given time and is tightly intertwined with the capitalist system.

The role of the state structure is the reproduction of class society, which under capitalism means defending the interests of the capitalist class and ensuring the continuation of capitalist rule. In this model the capitalist class constitute the economic ruling class in society, and those that control the state (generals, politicians, judges, high-ranking bureaucrats ect) constitute the political ruling class. There is often overlap between these two ruling classes and they function in alliance with each other – one could not survive without the other. Yet between and within these two classes there are conflicts, and at times opposing interests. The state is not simply a lapdog of the capitalist class as sometimes assumed and it does develop interests of its own. Often different elements of the capitalist class itself may be pushing the state for differing competing interests. It is only in opposition to the working class that these two ruling classes are ever completely united.

In order for it to fulfill its task of ensuring the reproduction of capitalism the state can be considered to take on three main functions – these being economic, reproductive and repressive. The repressive function is clear and refers to the state’s use of its monopoly on violence to repress any threats to the capitalist class – attacks on striking workers, police repression, the military etc. It is in the reproductive and economic functions in which we can see the state buckling under contradictions brought on by COVID.

The economic function of the state refers to the need for the state to facilitate accumulation for the capitalist system, and to manage the economy in a way that ensures the future of capitalism. Despite the dreams of  “anarchist” capitalists, capitalism has always required a hands-on approach by the state. Early examples of the state’s role in assisting the capitalist economy include the extraction of wealth and the creation of the working class seen during colonisation and the enclosures and the more recent role of the state in ensuring that capitalism’s tendency towards economic crisis doesn’t result in complete economic collapse (think of the frequent bailouts and tax cuts for big business). The essential point is that the state has a key role in managing the capitalist economy and assisting the capitalist class in wealth accumulation. 

The central most essential commodity that capitalism requires is a working class able to sell its labour, without which capitalism simply could not function. Yet when left to its own devices capitalism means  death and destitution for the working class to such extremes that the essential commodity begins to drop in numbers. Enter the state with its reproductive function. This function speaks to the need for the state to ensure that the working class is reproduced at a nessaracy rate and educated and trained appropriately in order to be able to fulfill the tasks capitalism requires. For examples of this function one can look to our public health and education systems.

Over the past two years in Australia we can see the state’s attempts to balance between these reproductive and economic functions. On one hand it is a bad outcome for capitalism for millions of the working class to die from a disease, but it is even worse for capitalism to have their profits impinged upon.

Importantly this speaks to the extreme power of global capital at this juncture and the utter destruction of even the lightest semblance of social democracy. The state has failed in both its reproductive and economic functions as they are intimately linked. One only has to look at the result of the “let it rip” strategy coming in right before Christmas with the intention that this would result in a mass wave of spending and capitalist profit. The outcome in practice was spending at levels of the strictest lockdowns as COVID swept the country and wiped out workers and the desire to spend, making thousands sick, and lowering profits further (at least for small and medium sized businesses).

Under liberal democracies the perceived legitimacy of the state is important. Liberalism attempts to portray the state as playing an essential role in a society held together by a social contract in which citizens voluntarily concede some of their freedoms in order to benefit from the state’s protection. The provision of healthcare, education and security form the basis of the state’s self-justificatory mythos.This need to maintain perceived legitimacy, combined with the prior mentioned functions can begin to explain  both why the Australian state acted in the way it did early in the pandemic – ie providing measures to combat the worst excesses of COVID – and why these measures have now been largely abandoned as the capitalist drive for profit and the pressures of the capitalist class have increasingly won the day.

In the current context with little by way of organised working class power capable of exerting pressure upon the state to prioritize their lives over profit such a result was largely inevitable. The political ruling class was never going to side with the interests of the majority without being forced to.

Vaccine Nationalism

Even with a powerful and militant working class capable of exerting its pressure upon the economic and political ruling classes for improved health measures and social support in Australia a truly internationalist response would be required. As pointed out by our comrades at Black Flag Sydney (BFS), vaccination rates in the global south remain desperately low, mostly due to vaccine nationalism by developed countries such as Australia. As long as the global south remains largely unvaccinated COVID will continue spreading and mutating into new variants capable of overcoming existing vaccines and prior immunities.

Such an outcome is again rooted deeply in the capitalist system of nation-states, with BFS correctly arguing that:

“The inability of states to cooperate on a global level to fight the pandemic is a direct outcome of the way capitalism, and imperialism, makes global cooperation impossible in general. This is true of all matters of foreign policy, from war to global pandemics. Rivalries between ruling classes take precedence over humanitarian needs in every instance: for example, witness the way vaccines are a tool of soft-power for both China and Australia in the Asia-Pacific region.”.

The Need for Working Class Power, The Importance of Unions, and What COVID Means for the Future

The scale of the COVID pandemic was not inevitable. Rather it was directly caused by the capitalist drive for profit. It is this same drive that is at the root of ever escalating climate crisis. Capitalism cannot be made into something it isn’t. This drive for profit, and it’s prioritization over people, will always remain central to the capitalist system. Revolution remains our only pathway to a humane system capable of dealing with the myriad of societal ending crises which we are faced with in the current historical epoch.

But the working class is not passive or powerless, nor are we completely at the whim of capitalism or some abstract historic processes. The working class can organise, the working class can fight back and it can greatly influence outcomes (it can even remake the world). While capitalism cannot be made into something it isn’t, the working class can conquer great concessions, even if revolution remains essential in order to go all the way.

Black Flag Sydney recently put forward a set of basic demands which they believe the working class should be encouraged to fight for in the current crisis and to which we would like to add our support. 

These demands are:

  • Mass investment in healthcare,
  • Proper health and safety at work, determined by the workers themselves,
  • Wide public distribution of air purifiers and N95 masks,
  • The ending of the private healthcare industry,
  • An end to the casualisation of work.
  • Totally free distribution of rapid antigen tests (RATs) to all members of the population, including non-citizens,
  • The publicly-funded creation of new PCR testing centres,
  • The redistribution of the vast majority of Australia’s vaccines to the developing world.

Historic experience tells us that revolutions do not erupt from nowhere, and that the degradation of conditions does not guarantee a massive increase of class consciousness or left wing ideas. It would be a dire mistake to think this is the case. Class consciousness needs to be nurtured through struggle. Revolution relies on human will as much as material conditions. COVID has unleashed social fissures that have long been bubbling under the surface and begun to lay bare the realities of capitalism, but for these social fissures to bear fruit for the workers movement there needs to be a deep commitment to organising and the development and application of effective strategies. The development of a coherent and applicable set of demands is an important step in this process.

The union movement has largely been passive throughout the COVID crisis and has avoided exerting its still impressive power to fight for genuinely progressive working class demands. Despite this, the union movement remains the most powerful tool that the working class has access to. While it is almost a cliche to say at this stage, the need to rebuild a militant and politically conscious rank and file capable of gaining independence for the movement from the ALP cannot be understated.

Working class power won’t develop spontaneously, it has to be nurtured through organisation, and grown through an ever expanding conquest of reforms through direct struggle, improving conditions for all workers, until the moment the working class is powerful and conscious enough to make the revolution.

COVID-19 has created possibilities and difficulties for the working class. Our conditions are more dire than any time since the Second World War. At the same time the importance of labour to the functioning of society has never been clearer. Capitalists and politicians becoming ill hasn’t affected society in the slightest, the workers becoming ill has brought it to a standstill. This can serve as a lesson for workers that in our capacity to stop and start production we have an immense power and that it is our labour that holds up the world.

The future remains uncertain, but what can be said with absolute certainty is the need for revolution, the destruction of capitalism and the state and the birth of an anarchist socialist society. Whether this can become a reality relies on the efforts of us all today.


Further Reading:

If you are interested in further analysis of COVID from an Australian anarchist communist perspective see:
Articles by Black Flag Sydney
Boosters for the Rich, Scarcity for the Poor: Vaccine Inequality Kills us All,
Thinking Through Vaccine Mandates,
Against Capitalism, Against the Pandemic: Our Stance on the Current Crisis

Articles by Melbourne Anarchist Communist Group
Transition to Disaster
the Plague

For an introductory overview of the tendencies and drives of capitalism and the structures of the state we recommend the following two books by Wayne Price:
The Value of Radical Theory: An Anarchist Introduction to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy

The Abolition of the State: Anarchist & Marxist Perspectives


References:

ABC News. (04/01/2022). Queensland Records 5,699 new COVID Cases as Closed Clinics Lead to Long Queues for Tests. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-01-04/qld-coronavirus-covid-cases-testing-delays/100735662

ABC News. (11/01/2022). A Great COVID-19 Divide is Widening in Western Australia as the State Edges Towards its Reopening. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-01-11/covid-divide-widens-in-wa-ahead-of-planned-reopening/100747722

ABC News. (07/01/2022). Australians are Spending as Though They Are in a COVID-19 Lockdown, Data from ANZ Bank Suggests. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-01-07/economic-crisis-covid-19-social-distancing-lockdown-anz-data/100744990


BBC NEWS. (07/01/22). COVID: Deadly Omicron Should Not be Called Mild, Warns WHO. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-59901547

Black Flag Sydney. (2022). Boosters for the Rich, Scarcity for the Poor: Vaccine Inequality Kills Us All. Mutiny. https://blackflagsydney.com/article/38

Peter Hannam. (11/01/2022). Australian Food Producers Hit by COVID Staff Shortages Welcome Isolation Rule Changes. Guardian Australia https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/jan/11/australian-food-producers-hit-by-covid-staff-shortages-welcome-isolation-rule-changes


Hattingh, S. (2020). Grave Diggers: The Grim Tales of States, Capitalism and COVID-19. https://zabalaza.net/2020/07/14/grave-diggers-the-grim-tale-of-states-capitalism-and-covid-19/

Malatesta, E. (1924). Anarchism and Reforms. https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/errico-malatesta-anarchism-and-reforms


Melbourne Anarchist Communist Group. (2020). The Plague. Published in The Anvil Vol 9, No 2. https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/melbourne-anarchist-communist-group-anarchism-in-a-pandemic-and-the-struggle-needed

Melbourne Anarchist Communist Group. (2021). Transition to Disaster. Published in The Anvil Vol 10 , No. 4. https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/melbourne-anarchist-communist-group-transition-to-disaster

Price, W. (2018). An Anarchist View of the Class Theory of the State. http://www.anarkismo.net/article/31082

Price, W. (2007). The Abolition of the State: Anarchist & Marxist Perspectives. Author House. https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/wayne-price-the-abolition-of-the-state

Price, W. (2013). The Value of Radical Theory: An Anarchist Introduction to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy. AK Press. https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/wayne-price-the-value-of-radical-theory


SBS News. (11/01/2022). Another 24 People Have Died from COVID-19 in NSW and Victoria as Cases Grow. https://www.sbs.com.au/news/another-24-people-have-died-from-covid-19-in-nsw-and-victoria-as-cases-grow/c75fe6c5-4607-429b-9678-574540a30513

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