A socialist recovery from Covid-stricken capitalism?

Bryn Jones considers partial prescriptions for human survival

Humanity is sick – but so is capitalism: self-isolating in some countries and convalescing in others. Elsewhere it could be said to be on life-support: dependent on the drugs of ‘quantitative easing’, furloughed workers and government subsidies. For radical commentators like Grace Blakeley and Andreas Malm, only a transplant will transform the patient. British economist Blakeley sees Covid climaxing a chronically over-financialised economy. She prescribes pushing what has become a financial capital-corporate state hybrid towards a democratically accountable state system. On a different tack, Swedish ecologist Malm believes only radical surgery, comparable – in scope if not in methods – to Lenin and Trotsky’s war communism, can cure what he sees as a triple affliction: climate catastrophe, Covid pandemics and neo-colonial abuse of the ecosphere.

Blakeley considers climate issues indirectly, for their political and economic potential in a democratically accountable Green New Deal, while Malm’s deeper diagnosis sees inextricable and systemic links between climate, Covid and capitalist globalisation. His short book documents, in scrupulous detail, how corporate ravaging of (sub)tropical forest and savannah – for minerals, timber and plantation land – precipitates zoonotic diseases and epidemics: defined as those that spread from wildlife hosts to human populations. The recorded and potential list of zoonotics is daunting. Besides Covid-19, we have had Aids, MERS, SARS, Zika virus – with ‘avian flu’ still a contender – amongst many other latent viruses hitherto confined to remote human communities and locations.

Deforestation, desperate local populations smuggling or eating threatened species, together with the world’s most efficient carrier – air travel – have opened the fullest Pandora’s box of disease in world history. Malm compares the months it took the ancient world’s plagues to travel across and between the trade routes of empires, with the weeks it took ‘Spanish flu’ to globalise via steamship technology, and now the few hours to carry Covid from Wuhan in China to London and New York. I would add that consumer capitalism’s urban concentrations of humans in mass transport and entertainment, retailing and ‘hospitality’ businesses present perfect hot spots for contagion.

Both authors draw upon Marxian political economy traditions: Hilferding and Lenin in Blakeley’s explanation of the reappearance and intensification of monopoly finance capital; James O’Connor in Malm’s argument that capitalist over-development is undermining its prime condition of healthy and available labour power. However, Blakeley’s prescriptions advance classic Marxist insights further. After an excellent exposition of pre-Covid trends towards parasitic dependence of corporate and financial capital on state monetary policy (the Bank of England went from being Thatcherism’s guillotine to Osborne and Sunak’s intensive care unit), Blakeley argues that the left can work from the Tories’ punk Keynesianism and no longer needs to fight for state interventionism.

The once locked door to a state-directed economy is now almost off its hinges. The left’s demands, argues Blakeley, must now be to add democratic accountability and popular participation via the totemic Green New Deal. Her prescription lacks specifics, but the recent plea from the head of the CBI to have direct representation in government policy-making, together with unions and civil society organisations, may be a straw in a rising wind of change.

Malm however argues that, together with the defeat of social democratic possibilities such as the Sanders and Corbyn upsurges, the combined pandemic and climate crisis impacts are now so severe that ‘gradualism’ is obsolete. Instead, Malm evokes the ‘war communism’ to which Lenin resorted and Trotsky managed. Besieged on all sides and deprived of critical resources, the infant Soviet state commandeered labour and requisitioned business resources to restabilise the economy and end the civil war. Malm admits that his war communism prescription is more of an analogy and metaphor than a precise model. In Britain, appeals for sacrifice and control for the collective good might chime better with the nation’s ever-popular World War II nostalgia. As I have argued in previous editions of Chartist, a war footing state could rationalise Covid-spreading, carbon-spewing industries like aviation and re-deploy workforces into green energy, medicine and care work.

The Covid emergency has plunged most of the world into a dark tunnel. No one, including these authors, knows in exactly what new terrain we will emerge. Nevertheless, please study both these books if you want a clearer light than the ‘back to normal’ complacency of our current political leaders. Read Blakeley to see how financialisation, aided by the pandemic, is bringing capitalist economies to the brink of state guardianship. Read Malm for a forensic explanation of the combined impacts and barbarism of climate trashing and zoonotic plagues. But don’t look to either for road maps out of these interlinked crises. That book has yet to appear.

The Corona Crash: How the Pandemic Will Change Capitalism
by Grace Blakeley
Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the 21st Century
by Andreas Malm
both Verso, 2020

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