Working Hypotheses for the Political Economy of Modern Epidemics
By Stavros Mavroudeas
1. During the last 30 to 40 years, capitalism has become more and more prone to epidemics, in contrast to the prevailing belief that the advances in medicine and the creation of universal and developed health systems had put an end to such phenomena. Especially after 1975, we have the appearance of the ‘emerging epidemics’, i.e. dozens of new diseases, mainly due to viruses, with a frequency that has no analogue in history. These new epidemics are mainly zoonoses, i.e. animal viruses transmitted to humans.
2. The general explanation of this phenomenon lies in the Marxist thesis on the ‘metabolic gap’, that is, in the realistic argument that capitalism drastically worsens human-nature relations as it blindly promotes the commodification and exploitation of the latter, ignoring natural limitations and social consequences. This thesis does not imply accepting various outrageous ecological views on the return to nature and de-growth, which ignore the fact that (a) all human socio-economic systems intervene and metabolize nature and also that (b) this metabolism is necessary for ensuring even the basic survival of large sections of the human population. But it does mean that capitalism is uncontrollably expanding this metabolism as its central motive is the profitability of capital, which operates with a blind logic (‘après moi la deluge’: I do not care about the system’s survival so long as I get my profit).
3. But this general explanation does not suffice to explain this increase of epidemics during the last 30 to 40 years and needs to be supplemented with historical conjunctural determinations. We can reasonably identify the following factors. First, the uncontrolled growth of (otherwise necessary) industrial agriculture has led to the use of problematic hygienic methods that, however, enhance capitalist profitability and has already caused significant problems (e.g. salmonella). Secondly, due to the internationalization of capital (the so-called ‘globalization’), increasing competition internationally imposes the dominance of these production methods as they involve lower costs. Third, the uncontrolled growth of the capitalist agro-industrial complex dramatically limits virgin areas and brings humanity into contact with diseases and viruses that were previously restricted there and concerned small indigenous communities. The latter had either acquired relative immunity to them or the epidemics were limited to these communities and did not spread significantly. Fourth, the internationalization of capital with the proliferation of transport and communication routes between remote areas of the world facilitates the rapid transmission of epidemics throughout the world, while in the past was more limited and therefore more controllable. Fifth, the commodification of the use and consumption of exotic species enhances zoonotic diseases.
4. Most of these new epidemics (a) do not have strict class barriers but (b) have class asymmetric effects. They do not have strict class barriers because they are transmitted through consumer goods (in the diet) and social gathering and therefore classical methods of class segregation cannot be easily applied (e.g. ‘letting the plebeians die in their ghettos’). However, they have asymmetric effects as workers are more exposed to infections (e.g. ‘front-line workers’), have more unhealthy working and living conditions (e.g. buying cheaper and worse quality consumer products) and of course inferior health care.
5. The neoconservative capitalist restructuring of the past four decades weakened the public universal health systems as it has privatized (mostly indirectly) parts of them and their functions, reduced their funding and strengthened the private health sector. But the public universal health systems are only who can bear the large costs of treating the whole population during epidemic waves because this task is too expensive and non-profitable to be undertaken by the private health sector. That is why the latter, in the face of such epidemics, withdraws and remains only in ‘fillets” that promise significant profitability (extra profits), e.g. research in treatments, drugs and vaccines.
6. Dealing with any new epidemic—and until therapies and vaccines are found—requires restrictions on social and especially economic activities. These restrictions cause a recession or even a crisis in economic activity. This poses a crucial dilemma for capital: which curve to flatten? Meaning that it oscillates between dealing with the health crisis (which aggravates the economic crisis) or vice versa.
7. At the same time, however, capital treats this situation not only as a risk but also as an opportunity. In this way, it is experimenting more and more intensely with the creation of a ‘new’ economic and social normality that will strengthen its profitability and dominance.
8. At the social level, the ‘new normality’ means the imposition of ‘social distancing’ literally as a new dystopian way of life. However, it has a significant benefit for the capitalist system as it intensifies individualization and acts as a deterrent to collective popular mobilizations. Epidemic outbreaks produce mass social psychologies of anger and fear. The first leads to rebellion against the system that leaves society helpless. The second leads to submissiveness towards state power. For the Left, it is crucial to rely on the former and turn it from a blind emotion to a logical understanding (consciousness) and a program of struggle. At the same time, it must not underestimate the latter as there are objective health risks; but without accepting the dystopia of ‘social distancing’. This contradiction has a class dimension that is also manifested differently in countries with diverse levels of capitalist development. The working classes, under the threat of unemployment and poverty, often choose to return to work (even under the threat of an epidemic) in the face of ‘social distancing’: the dilemma of ‘dying of hunger or the virus?’. In contrast, middle-class strata with relative reserves of wealth and obsessions with the ‘quality of life’ become fanatical supporters of the most extreme forms of restriction of social and economic activities and even admirers of literally fascist control measures. Correspondingly, in developed capitalist economies, these layers are stronger and strongly influence developments. In contrast, in less developed capitalist economies (or in politically backward countries such as the United States), the working and popular strata are pushing for a return to work—as long as they have no political conscience to articulate their demands more fully and direct them against the capitalist system.
9. At the economic level, the ‘new regularity’ means extensive experiments with teleworking. The latter offers advantages but also poses problems for capital. Among the advantages are ability to limit and streamline production costs (particularly regarding wage and non-wage costs). Regarding wage, telework can lead to many categories of employees. Especially in the service sector and less in manufacturing, some jobs can be done through telework at home. Here two possible cases appear. In the first, tele-workers belong to the company but are paid lower wages. In the second, tele-workers may be formally independent and employed under a piecework pay system (a method of remuneration that increases surplus-value extraction). In both cases, there is a reduction in wage costs and savings in fixed capital costs. A consequence of all this experimentation is the rapid rise in unemployment (the augmentation of the reserve army of labour), resulting in further wage compression. The problems concern the ability to exercise managerial control and exert continuous pressure to increase productivity. Tele-work can cause difficulties in both these intertwined fields. In the case of piecework pay, the pressure to increase productivity can be facilitated by demanding higher production. But the downside is that there should be even a small increase in pay. In the case of typically waged tele-work productivity increases benefit more easily capital. But the exercise of managerial control is more difficult; and, thus, continuous productivity increases are more difficult to be achieved. That’s why management experiments extensively with cameras, recording operations, multiple teleconferences etc. However, all these processes of controlling and intensifying work require significant time loss and are also costly.
10. In contrast to these experiments by capital, the labour movement and the Left must demand the use of computer and telecommunications tools in order to reduce working time and increase work-sharing. Thus, instead of increasing, to reduce unemployment. At the same time, the use of these tools can only be helpful if they enhance human cooperation and interaction and, of course, help (instead of purging) human contact and collective processes.
This piece will appear as a commentary in the forthcoming issue of the Greek journal Marxism Textbooks.
Stavros Mavroudeas is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Social Policy at Panteion University, Greece.