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You are here: Platypus /COVID, capitalism, and communism

COVID, capitalism, and communism

Karyn Pomerantz

Platypus Review 141 | November 2021

DISASTERS REVEAL THE TRUE NATURE OF CAPITALISM, and there is no greater disaster than the state of capitalism today, from the climate, austerity programs, migration, and the pandemics of COVID and HIV. While corona is a virus that kills millions of people, capitalism imperils the entire working class. As with other disasters, it requires a revolution to eliminate its root causes and prevent new variants and pandemics. There is really no time to lose while we debate the perfect response and spend endless hours begging politicians to act.

In a nutshell, capitalism is the driver of pandemics and the major barrier to their elimination, because of its lethal physical and social effects on the working class. This article calls for a coordinated, international movement led by a party to establish a worker-controlled communist state.

Origins of COVID-19

Biologically, the corona virus is a retrovirus that invades the cells of an animal or person, destroying cells, and leading to disease. HIV is also a retrovirus that kills immune cells, causing infections. Corona primarily damages the lungs, inducing suffocation and harming other organs as well. Vaccines prevent viral diseases, such as polio, but they do not cure them. Over time, if the viral spread continues, variants or mutations occur that may be more transmissible and deadly, such as the Delta variant. Therefore, we need to look upstream to the social and economic factors that lead to viral diseases. Corona originates in animals; it uses  zoonotic transmission, spilling over from animals to humans.

Structurally, COVID-19 originates from capitalist modes of production. It is closely related to the food industry. Capitalists commodify or commercialize everything. People and animals are marketable, bought, sold, and exploited for profits accruing to a minority. The food industry is a prime example.

What are the ways the food industry causes spillovers and pandemics? Rob Wallace, an important epidemiologist writing on pandemics’ structural origins in Big Farms Make Big Flu and Dead Epidemiologists, describes how major agricultural corporations like Tyson, Monsanto, and Smithfield and investors like Goldman-Sachs externalize profits and socialize the risks and costs. That is, take the loot and offload the problems on us.

Corporate irresponsibility:

  • Farming closer to forests and deforestation, leading to closer contact between people and animal carriers, such as bats and chimps.
  • Factory farming, caging animals like chickens and pigs in crowded conditions that reduce immunity and facilitate the spread of disease.
  • Speeding up production in meatpacking plants with little protection for workers, who are “treated as sides of beef.”[1]
  • Globalizing the production and consumption of food so that an infected pig grown in Asia can be barbecued in the US and other distant regions.
  • Decreasing regulation and monitoring of production sites.

Under capitalism, the government serves the rich, whether led by Democrats or Republicans. It facilitates the spread of disease except when it threatens corporate profits. Therefore, we see governments encourage masks and vaccination while opening schools and businesses.

Government culpability for COVID-19 and other diseases include:

  • Increasing worker vulnerability through austerity programs that eliminate or reduce jobs, unemployment compensation, rent cancellation, affordability and availability of food, access to health care, and housing.
  • Reducing funding for 700 jobs at the CDC, which is responsible for disease prevention, surveillance, and vaccine recommendations.
  • Decreasing inspections of factories.
  • Spreading confusing messages. There is no national policy about prevention and protection; each state can make decisions about vaccination and masking.
  • Allowing misinformation about immunizations and masking.
  • Creating trade policies, such as the TRIPS agreement that protects pharmaceutical companies from sharing their vaccine and drug information, and others, like NAFTA, which prohibit countries from interfering with corporate profits.
  • Enforcing immigration policies that criminalize and endanger people trying to enter the U.S. and European countries, leaving them unvaccinated, caged in crowded conditions, or living unsheltered.
  • Denying asylum to thousands of Haitians and Central Americans from entering the U.S. under the guise of avoiding disease transmission, a provision of the Title 42 public health law.
  • Incarcerating people in crowded conditions and denying their release, especially elderly and sick people.
  • Hoarding the vaccines and refusing to support the vaccine patent waiver to give other countries access to the technology to produce vaccines.

The effects on the working class are disastrous. As of mid-September, approximately 228,000,000 have contracted the virus, and close to 5,000,000 have died.[2]

Racism

COVID-19 represents the typical distribution of disease. Its morbidity, hospitalization, and mortality rates are higher for low income black, Latin, and indigenous people than better-resourced white workers on average. Because of the typical racist labor patterns, these workers provide services in retail, transportation, and hospitality, and are therefore more likely to be exposed to the virus. Many of their jobs do not provide sick leave that would allow them to heal and get the vaccine. White workers also suffer from racism. On average, their wages are higher, and their unemployment rates are lower. However, the ability of racist ideas to divide workers and create conflicts between them, imperils all workers’ economic and social well-being. The unity of workers globally is critical.[3]

This is clearly unrelated to anything biological; there are no genetic differences between these groups. However, politicians and the public continue to blame patients for choosing unhealthy behaviors and exposures. Immigrants are often portrayed as disease vectors, and the risk of transmission to U.S. residents  is used as a reason to block their entrance into the U.S.

Never mind that impoverished people live in crowded and risky environments where exposure to the corona virus is more likely. Or that remote working is impossible because they have jobs that require face-to-face working conditions. Forget that 30,000,000 people under 65 in 2020 have no health insurance to cover medical visits with primary caregivers and secure medication for conditions that predispose them to more severe COVID-19 complications. Ignore the history of oppressive healthcare and experimentation that fosters mistrust and vaccine hesitancy.

Oppression of women

The pandemic has pulled women out of their jobs as they take primary responsibility for childcare and household tasks. Women serve as the primary commodities in the social reproduction of the working class through giving birth, raising children, and providing elder care. Women have lost $800 billion in income globally, losing over 64 million jobs.[4] Ten percent of U.S women left their jobs, and 47% took unpaid sick leave.[5] These factors will increase pay and gender inequities, and reduce family income, creating family conflicts and mental stress.

Nationalism and vaccine equity

Access to vaccines follows the pattern of access to any other essential component of life. Countries like the U.S. have an abundance of vaccines, while countries in Africa have a scarcity due to the profit imperatives of the pharmaceutical companies that produced Moderna (primarily funded by NIH), Pfizer, and others. Globally, 5.5 billion doses have been given. However, 80% have been given in high- and upper-income nations and only 2 percent in Africa; low-income countries have only vaccinated 1.5 doses for every 100 people.[6]

Anti-working-class vaccine refusal

Masks, social distancing, and vaccination can reduce the risk of acquiring and spreading the virus. The U.S. promulgates a culture of individualism and selfishness. In this context, the government allows people to refuse life-saving interventions during a global pandemic under the guise of individual choice. As of this publication, unvaccinated people have flooded hospitals, pushing out patients who need elective surgery and cancer treatment, and exhausting caregivers who face a situation that is totally preventable. Idaho now allows hospitals to ration care, such as ICU beds and oxygen.

Anti-vaccination is anti-working class. Being anti-vaccination is an anti-working-class position. It is also racist since black, indigenous, and Latin workers are contracting and dying from COVID-19 at higher rates.

The right-wing nationalists inflame the anti-vaccine movement by spreading lies and attacking science. This gutter-racist and anti-science propaganda serves to divide the working class of the United States. The white nationalists want to continue the terms that represent the brutality of racism that our class has felt for centuries. They want to silence us by turning a rational and scientific response to a deadly disease into a personal choice under the guise of freedom. Freedom is the understanding of necessity not reckless actions that endanger the world.

Teachers and health care providers who refuse vaccination under the excuse that it is “my body, my choice,” belittle the very real struggle women have over their own means of reproduction. They are a danger to their students and patients, as well as their families and themselves.

The history of racist and sexist medical experiments worldwide rightly sows distrust in the medical establishment and the government. However, when vaccination is soundly based on scientific evidence, vaccine hesitancy will cause black and Latin students and their families to suffer more. The bosses have their own reasons for wanting to get us to sacrifice for the social good, like protecting their profits and building for war, but we need to fight for workers to serve our own interests. It is not “segregation” to quarantine potential disease carriers during a global pandemic!

Amid a pandemic, people who vaccinate exemplify social responsibility to their fellow workers to keep the vulnerable from dying. Participation in vaccine clinical trials and the dedication of healthcare workers are other displays of social responsibility. Whether conscious or not, they serve the working class.

Organizing goals: reforms, socialism, or communism?

These causes and effects can help us determine our goals. Exploitation, the ability of capitalists to make profit from workers’ production, forms the basis of capitalism. Elections, union organizing, legislation, collectives, mutual aid, or social safety nets do not abolish this fundamental feature. They do not change the class of people who control the economy and government, who can always take back any gains workers make. The calls for abolition of prisons and policing may win some changes, such as using mental-health social workers instead of police officers to intervene in confrontations. However, the ruling class will not eliminate police departments since they are essential to control workers. The ruling class will not create the social conditions that reduce the impoverishment behind many criminalized activities, such as drug wars or sex work. Do we really want to free killer cops like Derek Chauvin or allow many others to work unindicted and unconvicted?

To prevent outbreaks like corona, workers need to seize and maintain power. A communist society based on collective ownership of land, resources, and production can create humane and safe means of food production. It can eliminate wages that create hierarchies of inequality. Without profit and exploitation, we can reduce racist practices and beliefs, and socialize (share) so-called women’s work with public childcare, cooking and dining, and respite for parents.

Communism differs from socialism in these major ways. Socialism maintains a wage system, uses elections to “win,” and doesn’t change the class controlling industry. It does redistribute resources to workers and promotes healthy policies. However, socialists cannot achieve equality without taking control, and capitalists do not relinquish power without a tremendous armed battle.

Communism espouses similar goals that socialists have. However, it will abolish the wage system that ranks workers in a hierarchy based on jobs and wages. People will contribute services and receive the necessities, recognizing that we all have basic needs. Families with more children or medical problems will receive housing, food, and care based on these needs. Communists organize a party to debate political positions, organize struggles, and deploy people to different issues. They unite workers from around the world to fight racism, the oppression of women, and poverty, recognizing that capitalism oppresses workers of all nationalities and so-called racial categories. Communists use democratic centralism to make and carry out decisions, spending as much time as necessary to decide and then having everyone implement the decision. We can learn from the mistakes of the Soviet Union and China as we develop new ways to organize society and make new mistakes. Both societies allowed bourgeois (business) people to share power with the working class, thinking that they would support communist goals. They didn’t. Capitalism wasn’t born in a day; communism will develop and advance as we learn what works to achieve our goals.

In the field of public health, the state can pour people and other resources into scientific research, vaccinations, health care for all, and decent living conditions.

After the revolution in Russia, people’s health improved dramatically due to improved nutrition and housing. Life expectancy increased by close to 30 years by 1970, and infant mortality dropped from 250 deaths per 1000 births to 20 per 1000 births. The Soviet government aimed to eliminate all infectious diseases, often using authoritarian means. It created the Sanitation and Epidemiology Service to identify and quarantine people with infections, vaccinate populations, conduct medical research, and build medical schools, plague-research labs, and sanitation training centers; its reach and effects spread into nearly every Soviet village. While many may condemn their forceful measures, they eliminated infectious diseases, including cholera, TB, tetanus, typhoid, measles, and whooping cough. The director of the major research lab said that the interventions worked, “and isn’t that what mattered?” When the Soviet Union dissolved, life expectancy plummeted and chronic diseases increased as the government stopped funding research.[7]

The Chinese communist state also achieved huge improvements in public health after the 1949 Revolution. It mobilized masses of people to remove snails from waterways to successfully stop the spread of schistosomiasis, offered jobs to drug dealers and sex workers to end their practices, and legalized divorce so women could leave exploitative relationships.[8] They also mobilized young people to train as teachers and “barefoot doctors,” the forebears of physician assistants. Deployed to the rural villages, they increased literacy and provided basic healthcare that villagers never had.[9] Many people who condemn the Cultural Revolution are wealthier people who lost their personal wealth and position without hearing the voices of poorer workers.

Chemical Defense Unit, USSR, ca. 1930s

Organizing strategies: reform struggles, mutual aid, anti-racism; Left/liberal errors

Our goals influence our organizing strategies. People trying to reform capitalism, such as demanding higher wages or voting rights, focus on lobbying politicians and staging rallies for the media.

Building cooperatives is another popular strategy. People hope these non-profit worker- and community-owned enterprises will grow and overwhelm capitalism. However, these cannot scale up to include everyone, and more importantly, there will never be a peaceful change of power and economic systems (see South Africa!).

There are some important benefits of reforms. First, we cannot sit by and do nothing when our brothers and sisters suffer so much from COVID, hunger, climate disasters, and the lack of housing. Second, campaigns teach us how the system works, whom we can trust, and how to breach divisions. Most importantly, we can meet people who want to fight for more.

However, continuing to vote for politicians who claim to be against pharma greed but vote against negotiating drug prices in Medicare or who claim to be concerned about climate change but support fossil-fuel industries, is clearly a losing strategy. Spending weeks and months with legislators, who pass legislation that will be vetoed or make speeches when they already know a reform is doomed, is another time and life waster for progressive folks.

Mutual aid is often charity rather than class solidarity, but many good folks are in this effort. This is an early form of political commitment that mirrors the adage “from each according to political commitment and to each according to need.”[10] The selfless rescue missions of ordinary people, including white men evacuating black families from flooded homes during Hurricane Katrina, demonstrate the solidarity of workers facing disasters. Rebecca Solnit, in A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (2010), presents the stories of workers providing recovery and mutual aid that the government refused to provide. While mutual aid cannot replace the working class in power, it builds trust and solidarity among neighbors and can be used to make demands on the government and raise revolutionary ideas.

Many public health workers have felt overwhelmed by the efforts to deal with structural racism, COVID-19 disparities, pandemic unemployment, and evictions. Energized by the George Floyd protests many felt that change might really be possible. Efforts to remove police from schools and replace police with mental-health advocates seemed like a no-brainer. Certainly, the pandemic made it seem like mutual aid in neighborhoods could help workers survive while a new government could keep workers solvent and housed. Few thought the Democratic Biden government would allow people to lose unemployment benefits and refuse rent cancellation. Zoom connected people all over the world in vibrant discussions and organizing; surely that solidarity would help build the movement. Vaccines of all sorts would stop COVID. Workers would be respected, and universal healthcare would be the logical solution just like free vaccinations.

Unfortunately, the expanded activity has not guaranteed any of these things. State power still resides with finance capital on Wall Street and the bankers and industrialists of the U.S. Racism and sexism remain unchecked and worsened in many areas.

Police murder continues. More families lose loved ones, including white people, but disproportionately among black and Latin workers. The criminal legal system continues to incarcerate at the same rate so that jails that were partially emptied during COVID are back in strength during Delta. School-board members and residents with BLM signs in their yards resist changes to policing in schools and neighborhoods.

Internationally fascist groups are gaining strength, and the EU does not even want to support the TRIPS waiver to make vaccine production possible around the globe. China is now seizing its opportunity in Afghanistan to expand its Belt and Road Initiative, tightening its control over Hong Kong and the Uyghurs, and building its military in the South China Sea. Vaccine imperialism is a new concept as Chinese vaccines compete in South America and Africa.

The only hope for the working classes of the world is a communist revolution built on antiracism and working-class solidarity, rejecting all alliances with anti-U.S. imperialist powers, such as China. If destroying capitalism is our goal, it is urgent to unite the working class, including GIs, conduct political education to win hearts and minds, and recruit masses of people to the party. Meeting activists in the struggles for reform is necessary, but only using our time to build a revolutionary communist party with the outlook of seizing state power can be worth anything in the long and short run. We invite you to join the Progressive Labor Party, read our newspaper, Challenge-Desafio at plp.org, and join our study groups.


[1] Rob Wallace, Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of COVID-19 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2020).

[2] “Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count,” New York Times, available online at <https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/us/covid-cases.html>.

[3] See <multiracialunity.org> for articles promoting this argument.

[4] “COVID-19 cost women globally over $800 billion in lost income in one year,” Oxfam International, April 29, 2021, available online at <https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/covid-19-cost-women-globally-over-800-billion-lost-income-one-year>.

[5] Usha Ranji, Brittni Frederiksen, Alina Salganicoff, and Michelle Long, "Women, Work, and Family During COVID-19: Findings from the KFF Women's Health Survey,” Kaiser Family Foundation, March 22, 2021, available online at <https://www.kff.org/womens-health-policy/issue-brief/women-work-and-family-during-covid-19-findings-from-the-kff-womens-health-survey/>.

[6] Tyler Pager, Laurie McGinley, and Dan Diamond, “U.S. to buy hundreds of millions more doses of Pfizer vaccine to donate to the world,” Washington Post, September 17, 2021, available online at <https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2021/09/17/biden-pfizer-vaccine-global/>.

[7] Laurie Garrett, Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health (New York: Hyperion, 2000).

[8] Joshua S. Horn, Away with All Pests: An English Surgeon in People's China, 1954–1969 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971).

[9] Dongping Han, The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008). See also an interview with Han that was part of the symposium, “Rediscovering China’s Cultural Revolution 1966–76: Art and Politics, Lived Experience, Legacies of Liberation,” hosted by Revolution Books at the University of California at Berkeley, November 6, 2009, available online at <https://www.c-span.org/video/?290017-1/the-unknown-cultural-revolution>.

[10] A play on a phrase from Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme” (1875).