Pandemic, capitalism and fear

29 September, 2020

The government has declared 179 dead in the last 24 hours. They keep telling us that this is not March and arguing that fewer people are dying. But survivors are not left unscathed either. And there are now over 11,000 people hospitalized. Spain is the second European country in deaths per inhabitant and the country with the highest incidence at present. In Madrid incidence already exceeds 775 cases per hundred thousand inhabitants, in Navarra 683, in La Rioja 443 and in the whole country 290.

The always tame medical schools now ask for the total confinement of Madrid and for serious restrictions of mobility in all of Spain. But the state is paying attention to other matters. Very different ones. The central government and Madrid are discussing between two packages of measures that are clearly insufficient. It would be farcical were the variable at stake not human lives: the captain and the attendant of the Titanic discussing whether to scoop up the water with a spoon or a ladle. For reference, in Germany the restrictions that are now being discussed in Spain are imposed from 50 infected by one hundred thousand, in Madrid we are reaching 800.If the Madrid left did not manage to mobilize anyone this weekend, it was because the workers realized that the most “severe” measures – a few more trains, not serving drinks at the bar, increasing the number of neighborhoods with restrictions, and little else – were purely cosmetic. The underlying message was the same as the one the Madrid president unashamedly stated: this is about saving investments, not lives: “Madrid cannot be closed”, “because we would go broke”.

That is why, the real problem for them is the fearto be infected and to infect others. They are worried about losing the dense media-woven blindfold, of course. And they are willing to go perform endless sedative theatricals to keep their businesses open no matter what. Obviously, if we don’t stop them, what will happen is that many people will die.

But not all of our fears are so unpleasant to them. It is true that the fear of unemployment is as well founded as the fear of contagion: million and a half workers lost their jobs in the first half of the year. But they feed this fear. Because it paralyzes workers. As they feed the fear of reaching old age with a misery pension, bombarding us day in and day out with the urgency of pension reform. An urgency that is in fact their pressing need to erode them and partially privatize them by selling us this reform as a lesser evil.

Capitalism and fear

“The royal gift of healing”. Charles II of England performing a healing ceremony. Hundreds of thousands went to the restored king in order to receive the supposed gift of royal magical healing

All systems based on the exploitation of labor have resorted to and inculcated fear. After 8,000 years we carry it in our bones. In ancient systems or feudalism, exploitation was carried out through physical coercion. One had to fear the lord, the warrior, the tax and tithe collector … but also the magic of its bureaucratic-priestly stratum capable of predicting the unavoidable, of saving crops or healing the sick. The bourgeoisie then imposed a system in which exploitation took a fundamental and almost solely economic form. Humanity would no longer fear the elements. But the unavoidable, would now become the economic mechanism and its diseases: crises, unemployment, falls in wages. The new ruling class describes itself as if it were a group of new magicians, calling themselves wealth creators and demonstrate their special relationship with capital, as administrators and oracles of a new layer of social religion. Already its first theorists, such as Malthus or Bentham, insisted that the new social morality should encourage the fear of hunger and scarcity in order to ignite and keep the economic engine running. The fear of the contractions of capital replaced the fear of a medieval god, and just as in the difficult moments of the feudal agrarian world it was necessary to unite around the church in order to penalize and gain intercession before divine forces and their punishments, during crises it was necessary to unite around the bourgeoisie and accept sacrifices so that the economy would recover.

The bourgeoisie presents the onslaughts that accumulation pushes it against our living conditions as facts of Nature. Its trade unions teach again and again that without profit for the companies there cannot be employment nor needs can be met.

But let us not forget the role of science in rising capitalism. The system’s promise of progress incorporated a certain trade-off: one had to fear a free, uncontrollable economy, filled with what Keynes called animal spirits. But one would no longer fear the facts of a Nature which the development of the productive forces by capitalism tended to dominate.

The problem is that we are no longer in that youthful and expansive capitalism. This system became [[decadent|anti-historical] too long ago … and its own grammar of fear began to become unmanageable. The last two years are an overwhelming example. With a permanent tendency toward crisis underway, capital needed a perspective of massive income transfers from labor. Sacrifices. The way to conceive it: a technological change imposed by an apocalyptic natural threat requiring a sacred union, the green deal. The slogan: to manufacture fear, to sell if needed an unsustainable human extinction threat.

The message remains positive: the system can save Nature for the good of the species. But there is a substantial difference with the faith in progress of two hundred years ago: it is no longer the development provided by capitalism that will achieve it, it will not occur spontaneously in the market and accompanied by a development of welfare, knowledge and freedoms of the whole society. No, this time, according to the narrative, the danger would have been caused by the abuse of Nature, by past development. Because of it we have to make sacrifices now, they tell us. Back to the sacrifices to appease the natural forces!

And now with the covid we have a force of Nature – the pandemic – which poses a dichotomy. To stop the massacre, economic activity must be drastically reduced for a limited period, but not as short as many companies, in debt after a decade of crisis, could resist. There is no alternative. Things were clear from the start for the entire ruling class. Saving investments is a given. Saving lives depends on keeping companies from going bankrupt. Where national capital is large enough and the state has the capacity, as in Germany, Italy or China, after some initial doubts -which cost many lives- restrictions have been accepted even if they generate a cost to investments. The national capital as a whole distributes the losses through the state. In other places, such as Brazil, the USA or Iran, the virus is allowed to spread and everything is placed under individual responsibility with the sole aim of saving all businesses. Others, like Spain, are left in the middle and only manage to feed a second wave of slaughter without being able to certainly save the integrity of national capital. After a first period of confinement, the country was hastily reopened and the new slogan became… we cannot go back into lockdown because there would be further losses… and a lot of unemployment for you all. They want us to fear unemployment instead of the pandemic and to get used, as a new normality to hundreds of daily deaths.

That is to say, capital tells us, as it has always done, not to fear Nature. But this time not because it will correct its destructive course, but precisely because it renounces to subdue it. And that renunciation is the clearest possible expression that it is going against the tide of history. It no longer represents a form of societal organization capable of promoting development. In the dichotomy between pandemic slaughter and the needs of capital, it is openly opposed to the most basic human needs. It no longer frees Humanity from its old fears of Nature. It now competes to create even more fear of capitalism’s own impoverishing reflexes, of its destructive capacity.

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