The COVID-19 Vaccines: A Quick and Temporary Fix for Capitalism’s Latent Functions
The COVID-19 vaccines are meant to function as a panacea for restoring confidence and reestablishing the social order in the capitalist social system. Saving lives is part of the capitalist state’s stated intention, but many find this difficult to take at face value when considering all of the lives lost and destroyed every year to preventable causes (see Montes 2020). In this way, the COVID-19 vaccines will operate like therapeutics for cancer, diabetes and other diseases because they do not address the social and environmental causes that increase susceptibility to illness, or in this case, the coronavirus. In this view, the capitalist state prioritizes and normalizes profit-generating enterprises, which legitimizes its prevailing ideas with its capacity to engage in economic co-optation, and the use of coercion (Montes 2009). Capitalism creates the conditions that lead to social ills and diseases, which produce high susceptibility to viruses such as COVID-19. Similar to how state institutions (such as social welfare, police, the military, corrections and the legal system) serve to maintain the social order, so does medicine.
Many have realized that inequality is directly related to capitalism; however, they do not see its latent functions—i.e., the “unintended” consequences of social ills and diseases—as connected. Maybe the best way to view the COVID-19 vaccines is to see them as part of the arsenal of mechanisms used to manage capitalism’s latent functions. Historically, industrialization led to tremendous environmental and social transformations that forced millions of inhabitants into urban settings, who then had to contend with industrial wastes and polluted water and air; the slums that developed became the focal point for poverty and the spread of disease (Armelagos, Brown, and Turner 2004, 159). There, epidemics of smallpox, typhus, typhoid, diphtheria, measles and yellow fever became pandemic. According to George J. Armelagos, over half a century ago, advanced capitalist nations believed that they had eradicated contagious diseases. For example, in 1967, the Surgeon General of the United States, William H. Stewart, announced that victory over infectious diseases was imminent—“a victory that would close the book on modern plagues” (Armelagos 1998, 24). This boastful claim had largely been based on the development of vaccines and their widespread use.
However, with “international travel, global commerce and the accelerating destruction of ecosystems worldwide, people are inadvertently exposing themselves to a Pandora’s box of emerging microbial threats,” bringing about a new era in human illness and diabolical new diseases (Armelagos 1998, 24–25). In short, as capitalism expanded historically and continues to expand presently, in its efforts to commodify nature further, it brings many humans (primarily workers) closer to nature, resulting in exposure to deadly pathogens in search of higher profit margins.
The latent functions of the capitalist social system are the following. First, wealth development is based on the exploitation of labour and private property, resulting in the alienation of workers, the usurpation of land and resources, and the production and consumption of commodities; these activities are harmful and toxic, devastating large sectors of the population. The effects of labour exploitation and displacement result in people living in poverty and being alienated from production, and from a community. Secondly, related to the former, the results are that these individuals tend to experience higher rates of poverty, involvement in the criminal justice system (poverty is a source of crime because poverty contributes to need, Reiman and Leighton 2016, 31), interpersonal violence, and physical and psychological health issues. These latent functions, sequentially, translate into a higher risk of contracting diseases and greater susceptibility to deadly viruses. Infections also function by generating another market, a spinoff type of industry, to treat or manage symptoms of diseases. The therapeutic response to COVID-19 is in keeping with an overall medical response to the consequences of a market economy. Although Talcott Parsons’ (1951) functionalist theory was not developed as a critique of capitalism, it is tremendously insightful in understanding medicine’s role in capitalist society. According to Robert Merton, we should study the intended outcomes of institutions and their unanticipated latent consequences. To do this, we need to account for the factors that contribute to latent consequences. By analyzing social institutions, we can understand their role in upholding the social order (Merton 1949).
Parsons (1951) viewed illness as potentially disruptive to the supposed equilibrium of the social system. In this context, everyone in society is seen as having a role or function. For example, a physician’s role is to treat the “sick” person, while the role of the “sick person” is to get well so he or she can return to carrying out their obligations as a functioning member of capitalist society. As a result, dysfunctionality and its potential for disruption are said to be remedied. Exposure to harmful conditions and toxins has become an integral part of the latent functions of capitalism. We should view diseases, social ills, and deadly viruses from this theoretical framework of capitalism’s intended and unintended consequences as well as how medicine—e.g., pharmaceutical corporations and the health care industry—serves a function in treating the individual to return to carrying out their “obligations” as a functioning member in capitalist society. There is precedent to this reasoning. It is not inconsequential that the pathological perspective was linked to Western capitalism (Pfohl 2009, 131). For Stephen Pfohl:
Just as the great classificatory project of the nineteenth century gave birth to human sciences, so did it provide and intellectual justification for new strategies of disciplinary control, strategies aimed at correcting, rehabilitating, or curing abnormal types and thereby converting them into an internally motivated supply of labor. In other words, in searching for scientific accounts and cures for abnormality, the human sciences legitimize the power of the capitalist enterprise out of which they are born (Pfohl 2009, 132).
It was clear to Michel Foucault that the birth of social medicine came to serve three functions: “medical assistance for the poor, control of the health of the labor force, and a general surveying of public health, whereby the wealthy classes would be protected from the greatest dangers” (Foucault 1994, 155). It was very apparent that the conversions of these three coexisting medical systems: a public welfare medicine designed for the poorest and for workers to be healthy enough to work; an administrative medicine responsible for general problems such as vaccinations for epidemics; and a private medicine that benefits those who could afford it served a critical function in maintaining capitalism (Foucault 1994, 155–56).
There may be much to learn from how capitalist economies are prone to crises and medicine’s role in the prevention of economic crises. For example, even with exploitation and imperialist expansion and resource usurpation, “profits and capital accumulation are not guaranteed. If there are no profits and accumulation (or even if they are squeezed) then businesses close, people lose jobs, debts are not paid, banks collapse, governments run out of money—in short, there is an economic crisis” (Easterling 2003). In this context, state institutions and their coordination of corporate interests collaborate to preserve the social order by implementing social reforms, with repressive and facilitative strategies to neutralize and incorporate known dissidents into the system. Medicine can also be seen as mediating capitalism’s consequences by treating workers who have been exposed to harmful materials and products. Lung cancer, mesothelioma, bladder cancer and leukemia are the most common cancers resulting from occupational exposure to carcinogens (CDC). After all, without a semi-healthy workforce, labour exploitation becomes problematic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created conditions similar to economic depressions or slumps for the vast amount of people who survive on wages. For many, the routinization of social life has been severely disrupted. In many US states, this has meant school closures, with many parents becoming tutors and multitasking between children and working from home. However, many workers do not have the opportunity to work from home; instead, they have lost their jobs, which adds to the volatility within households and communities. As we know, economic crises also create new market niches and opportunities for corporate mergers and acquisitions. These periods usually result in some restructuring of the economy. In short, capitalists do not let crises go to waste; they take financial advantage of them, as the current economic crisis is demonstrating. Pharmaceutical corporations are benefiting (e.g., developing pharmaceuticals related to treating COVID-19 patients and producing vaccines). Technology corporations are also benefiting from a growing market in products used for working from home, and retailers provide lockdown necessities online (e.g., Amazon and Walmart). In this way, indeed, not everyone is suffering economic hardship during this pandemic.
Scientists as bureaucrats in the continuity of capitalism
Much of the current corporate media coverage and the conservative democrat and republican political pundits and politicians in the United States portray medicine and its scientific experts such as Dr Anthony Fauci and Dr Deborah L. Birx (members of the US Department of State Task Force on COVID-19) as representing objective medical science. However, as we know, in most cases, it is not a matter of the personality or moral principles of a bureaucrat, elected or appointed. Rather, it is their position within a bureaucratic institution with which we should concern ourselves (Mills 1956). Bureaucratic institutions have an enormous influence on the individual’s psychology and cultural values. For Max Weber, “Once fully established, bureaucracy is among those social structures which are the hardest to destroy;” it is an instrument for those who control the bureaucratic apparatus for maintaining power (Gerth and Mills 1943, 228). In many situations, the individual is but a cog in an ever-moving machine, which prescribes to her/him a fixed route of march. “As for the individual bureaucrat, the purpose of the state becomes his [or her] private purpose, a hunt for promotion, careerism” (Marx 1843, 108).
After all, the institution of medicine is not part of an effort to detect and eradicate the causes of diseases. To do so would mean being involved in efforts to transform an unequal society (and the world) by improving the political economic and health conditions that can prevent the causes of diseases and social ills. As Herbert Marcuse stated many years ago, “the medium of technology, culture, politics, and the economy merge into an omnipresent system which swallows up or repulses all alternatives” (1968, xvi). In this context view, medicine is viewed as partial because it is embedded in the capitalist system. Medicine thereby regards afflicted individuals as consumers, and in many cases, lifelong consumers of an array of very profitable pharmaceuticals, and as serving a function in maintaining or restoring the system’s social order. In this case, the objective is to restore society to its pre-pandemic days.
The official views developed out of a highly fragmented bureaucratic capitalist social system are either unable or unwilling to connect medicine with the capitalist enterprise as an institution that functions to ensure its continuation. What is missed and obfuscated from “public discourse” is a more critical and holistic analysis that can connect the seemingly unconnected aspects of social problems to larger structures (Mills 1959), such as to capitalist social structures. Capitalism is a system in which the state’s institutions construct and sustain a reward system with ideologies of conformity. For Jeff Schmidt, “like all professionals, scientists, maintain ideological discipline in their work; they adhere to the dominant paradigms, and they work as if their work as if their employers’ priorities were their own—that is, they work uncritically toward assigned social goals” (Schmidt 2001, 82). An example of this is that for decades, scientists (many of whom hold medical and doctorate degrees from prestigious universities, e.g., Harvard University) have served their sponsors’ interests by finding tobacco to be safe and nonaddictive and attacked studies that find otherwise (Schmidt 2001, 35). Schmidt argues that regardless of whether the scientists serve corporate or the state’s interests, they are socialized/disciplined to be politically and intellectually subordinate to the status quo.
It is not just that the concept of a public health system is problematic because its function is not in the interest of the public’s well-being, but because it functions to ensure the system’s continuation. In this prolongation, the objective is to develop new and improved pharmaceuticals to manage the latent functions and thereby not address the causes of diseases but gain patient-consumers for new and continued products. If we are willing to grasp this, we can understand medicine and health care in American society. It is not that society has been made too reliant on the private sector, which it has (e.g., for essential equipment and services such as PPE, testing, ventilators and vaccines) and that health care systems operate like a capitalist enterprise (see Montes 2020). Rather, we are oblivious to how medicine is harnessed to maintain the latent functions of capitalism. It makes perfect sense that disruptive pandemics would be mediated with vaccines or other measures, ensuring the restoration of the status quo, where workers and the poor are healthy enough to fulfill their tasks. And that quality living conditions and health care continue to be provided for those who can afford it. It is also clear that the capitalist system, a very resilient system, would continue developing enormous spin-off industries. It is amassing astronomical profits for treating and maintaining large sectors of the population who have underlining health conditions with pharmaceuticals. These are the very same people that the system made sick in the first place.
To fully understand the complexity and yet sophisticated character of the capitalist social system, one needs to realize that there are many hidden latent functions that fragmented theoretical approaches are incapable of analyzing. Most importantly, the state’s institutions and its corporate sector are committed to its manifest intentions of maintaining the capitalist system. In so doing, they will ensure that the latent functions do not disrupt the status quo. The production and use of vaccines are nothing new. They have become quick fixes to larger and structural problems in the same way that social welfare, the legal system, the police, military, and corrections are used to maintain the political order. As history shows, the capitalist state is quite versed at accepting the human and environmental costs of capitalism, as illustrated with the various social ills and diseases listed earlier that kill people every year. The most vulnerable segments of the population— the worker and the ethno-racially oppressed (disproportionately working class and poor)—have little or no defense against the state-sponsored peddlers of toxic products, exploitation and polluted environments, making them highly susceptible to the COVID-19 virus. And as long as there is more profit to be made from treating people with pharmaceuticals than in enacting public policies that address the etiology of diseases and social ills (such as to improve the health and immunity of all people), the role of state institutions and their coordinated interests with pharmaceutical corporations will remain the same. When one considers this critical interpretation of the functionalist’s theoretical framework, we should understand how state institutions and medicine all function to uphold the capitalist social system.
For a more extensive version of this article, see Vince Montes, “COVID-19 vaccines: The partiality of medicine in United States capitalism” in Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, 12 February 2021.
Vince Montes is a lecturer in sociology. He earned a PhD in sociology and historical studies at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research, New York, NY.