By John de Plume
The coronacrisis threatens to drive capital accumulation, leading to more authoritarian forms of capitalism around the world, which will further the crisis of our social and planetary environment.
One Struggle / One Fight
We know that capital lives vampire-like, and ‘lives the more, the more labour it sucks’. But what vampire has had the same thirst for blood as does capital? A thirst that would grow ad infinitum and at an increasing rate of 3%. Today, in its global form, there is no longer anywhere for capital to grow; with no new terrain to colonise, no new subject to exploit, capital today sucks the blood of the Earth all the more. The current expansion of accumulation sees rainforests burn, oceans die, the ozone poisoned. The old vampire lurches from one economic crisis to another, unable to hide its derangement. There was no hiding it in 2008, when a failed banking system got bailed out by the state. So it is today, when the coronavirus pandemic and the inevitability of a looming global recession are combining to create the potential for an economic collapse worse than that of the great 1930s depression. And yet, today, as the virus forces industry temporarily off track, the roads are freer from cars, fewer planes pollute the skies. Demonstrably, where industry lives, nature dies, and where nature has been given a moment to breathe, it comes alive again. We can no longer pretend that the survival of the environment is compatible with the survival of capital and its cycles of boom-and-bust.
In the UK, decades of imposed fiscal austerity have impoverished the NHS as much as they have impoverished the material conditions of our lives. Despite the current crisis that is the virus, our healthcare workers find that they do not have the equipment, protections and resources that they need. Faced with the emerging pandemic, the state has been forced to reveal its hand – it has acted to protect the markets at any and all costs. It called for workers to keep working, for labour to bear the burden of the virus, for a herd immunity that was never going to happen. And when it could no longer pretend that its ambitions were viable, the Tories’ magic money tree appeared after all. But from employment furloughs to eviction amnesties, it is ultimately the anxieties of business that the state is seeking to appease. It is the protection of the perpetual motion of the economy – not the wellbeing of the people – that the state seeks through its subsidies and maintenance.
In the USA, the state is unable to provide healthcare en masse. But there, this March as the pandemic unfolded, the government’s economic agenda has become most stark. While American Lieutenant governor Dan Patrick made his call for people to die willingly in their supposed line of duty in the name of Americana capitalism, the White House is content to bail out the airlines and the climate-change-denying oil industry with multiple billions of dollars. The same month, the US state seized the moment of economic crisis to dismantle environmental controls on business and alleviate restrictions on the industrial emission of pollutants. Far from providing a remission from the ideology behind capitalist accumulation, the danger of the current moment is that, in utilising the present confusion and disorder, the state can enforce and expand market discipline. Whatever the social and environmental costs, it stands to do so.
Climate Justice / Workers’ Rights
Where the state is failing them, people have come together in community organising and mutual aid. Nonetheless, the greater the pandemic stresses the smooth running of capitalist production and consumption – and the more the system’s failures then leave its workers disillusioned and angry – the more viciously and aggressively the agents of capital will necessarily need to act in order to maintain their position. Larger, more powerful corporations stand to use the fallout of the economic chaos to consolidate ever more wealth, absorbing their smaller, economically struggling rivals. The rise of Amazon, for example, has left the consumer with ever fewer options in the market. Equally, in turn, workers have found themselves with ever fewer options of employment and forced therein to accept the worsening conditions laid down by such a corporation. Thanks to this – what amounts to a monopolistic position in the market – Amazon’s Jeff Bezos’ private wealth, for one example, has grown massively under the conditions of the crisis. Meanwhile, Amazon’s casualised workforce is left with the coercive non-choice between their safety or their wages. Worse, those disloyal to Imperium Amazonium can expect to be punished; this April it has become clear that speaking out and organising against the health and working conditions of Amazon is a firing offence. For Amazon – a paradigm of the contemporary hyper-corporation – clearly understands that the idea of dissent is as dangerous as the dissent itself and, in silencing critique, it means to impose its influence on us beyond the shop-floor and into our mode of thought and behaviour. If the virus will have casualties in these unsafe workplaces, the vampire does not mean to be one of them – by pushing onto us the choice between our wage and our health, capital means to survive and to grow at our cost. ‘There is no alternative’, it still tells us, anticipating us and the Earth’s environment to bear the burden of the current crisis just as we always have done before.
We know this system to be deranged – in its reacting to the pandemic, we have seen all the more clearly how far capitalist proceedings fail the environment. It is failing us and our local, social environment as equally far as it is exploiting the planetary, natural environment. And if we don’t like it, if we won’t accept it? The police are already more empowered by emergency legislation. Fascists and populist conspiracists are using the moment of confusion and anger to take power. We can expect corporations and oligarchs, playing the long game, to continue to manipulate this crisis further towards their financial interests, consolidating ever more wealth and polarising ever more wealth disparity. We can’t forget that, under social distancing, we have become more dependant than ever on the aptly named, tech-giant FAANG companies (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google), who were already some of the vampire’s sharpest teeth. Having monopolised contemporary communication tools, and through their illicit collections of mass data and information, such corporate actors are poised to hold exponentially more massive political agency in the post-corona world. We are already entering such a world, where – under the guise of public health – the state has been busy dismantling data privacy protections and legislations. In doing so, and with such opportunism, it has revealed the reality of the political application of the total surveillance apparatuses the tech-giants have long been building. This convergence of mass data and privacy deregulation, in the hands of both the state and the corporations, weaponises the technological dimension of contemporary life against us and in newly extensive and potentially authoritarian modes. But such an authoritarian direction of political economy might well be expected, for such a mode would be of necessity to those nodes of capitalist power that best hope to entrench and expand their influence in a time of emergency and crisis. Such is the thirst of the vampire. Where is our silver bullet?