Could corona kill off global capitalism?

Bryn Jones sees parallels between the film Parasite and the destructive subversion of globalisation by Covid-19

By dark coincidence, acclaim for Bong Joon-ho’s film Parasite coincided with the upsurge of the coronavirus epidemic. Coincidence? Well viruses are, in effect, parasites. Bong’s ‘parasites’ are the downtrodden but devious working class Kim family who insinuate themselves into the home and family life of the elite, bourgeois Park family. In previous eras this coronavirus (COVID-19) might have been confined to the animal species in which it originated, or to local Chinese populations with few connections to the wider world. But, in the era of globalisation, 4.3 billion people travel between countries and continents. COVID-19 creates a type of infectious disease that can be seen as both symptom of global society and an outcome of its economic tentacles. Contemporary capitalism dominates and destroys the natural world through its corporate, scientific technological complex. (A force eulogised by neoliberal technophiles, like government Svengali Dominic Cummings.) The massive creations of this complex can harvest all other life forms and engineer their environments for corporate exploitation. Yet they are threatened by a microscopic entity: measured at only 0.00012 millimetres. Alongside climate change, COVID-19 might be the equivalent of the vengeful Kims against globalised capitalism.

Epidemic researchers have been warning for years that global travel could spread obscure but lethal diseases rapidly from previously remote locations to international populations who lack acquired immunity. Some regard the containment of the deadly Ebola virus to the unfortunate peoples of a few West African countries as a narrowly avoided global catastrophe. There is a broader irony here. Like the Kims, though in a more elemental sense, viruses have a devastatingly ruthless ‘intelligence’. Viruses are so rudimentary that they barely qualify as a life form. Yet they take to an extreme the over-riding logic of life: they exist, proliferate and infect solely for the purpose of reproducing themselves, and only by invading the cells of host organisms. Globally connected humans are the perfect hosts. They interact so frequently, intensively and extensively that the spread of corona-type viruses is virtually guaranteed. The particular cunning of COVID-19 is a capacity to lie dormant before the host exhibits any symptoms. The apparently healthy carrier then infects many other humans without being detected. Global travel means country-hopping hosts maximise the spread. It is this potency, rather than the actual threat to human life, that poses an existential but hitherto disregarded threat to capitalism’s stock markets, corporations and governments. All of these now depend on global movement and flows of finance, products and people. Yet these flows give a new relevance to Marx’s famous dictum that capitalists are the gravediggers of their own system.

Mass infection – or even the quarantines imposed to contain it – means collapse of sales, disrupted supply chains and insolvencies. These, in turn will shrink bank reserves, tax revenues, and undermine governments’ fiscal health. Economists are, for good reason, comparing corona syndrome to the 2008 sub-prime financial crisis. Except this time monetary and fiscal ingenuity alone cannot stem the underlying biological forces. How seriously or permanently will COVID-19 disable neoliberal globalisation and its component national economies? Neoliberal elites see it as a blip after which everything will return to normal. Yet the expansion of government and corporate debt, not to mention the hit to consumer finances, may have lasting impacts. The patent need for state intervention in health care, business support and implicit Keynesian financial and fiscal intervention inevitably sets precedents for future episodes of economic crisis and reform. These may well arise from future pandemics if global economic activities persist. Step to one side market forces – the Big State is back. A corona virus, or some other infection, could disrupt globalisation and market forces so much that reformation to a more localised, less commoditised and less hubristic system becomes a more attractive proposition.

In HG Wells’s classic novel and recently revived film version, War of the Worlds, robotically augmented Martians vanquish the earthlings’ comparatively primitive military, putting humanity at their mercy. Yet the Martians are killed off, not by human technology but by commonplace earth-based bacteria, against which they have no resistance. Could the primitive, minute COVID-19, or its successors, play a bigger role in thwarting hi-tech, neoliberal globalisation than the so far unsuccessful efforts of anti-globalisation protesters, climate activists and labour movements? A point to ponder as you wash your hands – yet again.

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