“Ooooooh!” Hear that eerie sound? That’s Karl Marx, turning over, moaning from the grave: “Ooooooh, oh you shudda listened to meeeee.. . !”
If we are listening to the wisdom of the past, he might specify: “I warned you of capitalism’s unending manipulation of markets, rising and falling of stock market, booms and busts, seemingly endless crises of rising unemployment, of lower wages.”
Actually, some “like it like that”—the (extra greedy type) capitalist, who, almost like another economist, Thomas Malthus, (1766-1834) argued the population would outgrow its resources but could be “culled” through famine or disease. Interesting, isn’t it, the constant drum-beat for “rolling-back” the self-distancing, the closures of the economy? Mostly, the cacophony comes from right wingers—Fox, Laura Ingraham, et. al.,(with Trump himself falsely tweeting “Liberate!”) He and the Right blame WHO, Bill Gates, Dr. Fauci—anyone except themselves. Marx’s spirit must be having a ball!
You hadn’t thought of Karl Marx for a long time, right? There must be dozens of young scholars right now, hastening to update their knowledge and use of Marx’s theories to square with COVID19 times. They may be asking: What of the over 700,000 cases in the US and over 37,000 deaths? Causes? The role of capitalism? Marx (1818-83), along with collaborator, Friedrich Engels (1820-95) were social economists, seminal thinkers, who laid much of the groundwork for contemporary social theory. How can those theories help us to think this through in this time of struggle?
Ideas do help. I hope we can apply them freshly, wisely. But one thing we do know is that COVID19 is deadly—to people and to the economy. Effects of the pandemic “widen the wealth gap” (Karen Ho, Quartz,18 Apr 20). How, you may ask? Among other aspects of the fall-out, J.P. Morgan, the nation’s largest bank, has raised qualifications for mortgages (minimum credit score: 700; 20% down payment), effectively increasing the wealth gap between Whites and non-White Americans. (Home ownership is a major component for growing wealth and building equity.)
Die-hard, non-reformed capitalists might have missed that piece of the wealth puzzle. They may be more like a leading industrialist interviewed by a reporter: “how did you make your fortune?” The response: “Simple. I bought an apple for 5 cents, polished it, sold it for 10 cents, then bought two and sold them for 20 cents, and so on.” Then were you rich? “No, then my wife’s father died and left us a million dollars!” (Bertell Ollman, “Bird’s Eye View”).
The gap gets wider. And, Marx would say, the value of work, created by workers, becomes more valuable, while their wages diminish. Marx also would note the alienation from, the estrangement of humans from their work – from their society even—becomes more overwhelming, more unfair, intolerable. The current federal minimum wage is worth less today than what it was 50 years ago (Academic American Encyclopedia,Arete Publishers, 1981). Hence: in this time of CV crisis, the response of government—the “stimulus” plan. Have capitalists become socialists overnight?
No, but rebellion must be prevented; the masses must be placated. The system can’t afford even a moderate revolution, certainly not one driven from the masses. So, no more government policy of a hypocritical “socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor,” but a little bit more socialism now added for the middle class (and a little for the poor). Again, Marx’s spirit must be enjoying the game (and gagging, as many do, at Trump’s daring to call his plans “science-based.”)
Don’t be afraid of adding a bit of Marxist analysis to your repertoire. He is not the bogey-man; Marxism is just a method of analysis that sees social and political conflict as a matter of unequal class relations. This is not only true with regard to relative power within the system but especially painful when it comes to economic inequality and resulting gaps in wealth and access to good health care. Republicans and other Right Wingers are still fighting to eliminate even the very moderate coverage of “Obamacare.”
And now? Amid continued, recurring COVID19 threats? Among other failures of capitalist leadership are the Trump responses: not only the daily, contradictory news “conferences,” the pushing Dr. Fauci and other experts to the side, but – the piéce de résistance-– cutting funds for World Health Organization! This Trump action alone will “do lasting damage as the President insults allies and undermines alliances” (Simon Tisdall, “U.S. Global Reputation,” The Guardian,12 Apr 20). Tisdall continues: “to a watching world, the absence of a fair, affordable health care system and a disproportionate death toll among ethnic populations shows the US to be like “a poor, developing country,” certainly not the “most influential nation on earth.”
Meanwhile, COVID19 is hardly over. “The pandemic is just getting started.” Lock-downs are a strain on the economy but “so would be the deaths of thousands of people” (William Hanage, Professor of Infectious Disease, Harvard University, “Blunt Reality Check,“18 Apr 20). As we binge watch, wait-out the storm, even television adds a send-up to the crisis; viz:“Corona Zombies,” (by Charles Band, courtesy of “Full Moon,” 18 Apr 20). The show is an irreverent satire, “part gonzo Italian Zombie remix” which shows an “inept world leadership and mass-media gone wild.” Susan Sontag, long ago, explained in her essay, “Imaginations of Disaster,” that such films try to “lift us out of our distrust“ and, in a way, “normalize what is psychologically unbearable.” But, for me, it is not enough.
The “perfect storm” is complete. Add to the inherently contradictory, imperfect capitalistic system: the threat of the pandemic and then Trump himself, and the scenario is set for disaster. “The Trump administration’s self-centered, haphazard, tone-deaf response to COVID 19 already cost America trillions of dollars and thousands of otherwise preventable deaths” (Stephen Walt, Professor of International Relations, Harvard University).
Trump’s response to the pandemic, which he once dismissed as a hoax, is so “woefully inadequate” it threatens to lead to the “ruination of America’s reputation as a safe, trustworthy, competent international leader and partner.” (Tisdall). Those who wish to defend and preserve capitalism—hopefully, a reformed, contemporary variety, with a human touch—must quickly realize Trump is the enemy, not Marx. Aspects of Marxism (progressive socialism) may be, if not the savior, at least a palliative, helping workers of all classes to survive, until the system itself can be made more human, more protective of life and liberty.