The pandemic and the morality of the ruling class

21 September, 2020

President of Madrid, Ayuso, with the President of Spaiin, Sánchez.

When the pandemic began to spread outside of China, European states delayed confinements as long as possible and were extremely reluctant to close down businesses. Despite the propaganda about social shields, aid, and so on, it was clear to us that they were prioritizing sustaining ongoing investments over saving lives. When finally, and only for a little more than a week, non-essential production was closed, the curve was flattened in Spain. But what seemed to be the end of the slaughter was immediately called into question by a hasty opening guided by the urgent need to go back into business, especially for companies linked to tourism. And although the summer’s developments indicated that a terrible autumn was brewing… September started with a return to school which could only lead to an explosion of infections and deaths. This is where we are right now.

Emancipation announcements during the pandemic

An avoidable slaughter. Avoidable if it had been the main priority

«Ice Palace» of Madrid transformed in a gigantic morgue during the peak of the pandemy.

The priority to save capital’s investments has guided the entire process and undermined to the extreme any resilience to outbreaks. The same media that lumped all those who warned of what was happening and where it was leading with people spreading fake news, are now “discovering” the obvious. Just yesterday, the opinion director of El Confidencial, a newspaper not at all suspicious of anti-capitalism, pointed out:

In reality, it seems that everyone decided that this could no longer be stopped, that everything had to be opened as quickly as possible and that, once the first wave was relaxed, the economy demanded a return to normal life as soon as possible. […]. The pressure from the economic sectors with the greatest weight to resume activity as soon as possible also led to an early cessation of the policies to contain the virus. And, secondly, the institutions returned to a policy of containing expenditure to avoid incurring an even greater deficit, after the great blow of the arrival of the coronavirus. The absence of trackers, of health personnel in primary care or the very poor management of public transport, as well as the enormous delay in processing many of the requests made to the administration, starting with temporary layoffs, share a common core: much more personnel is needed, but they do not want to incur more expenditure. Both elements had an obvious effect, which was to leave things to individual responsibility, which is not usually a good idea in a pandemic.

So, yes, we know the virus exists, but everything is contingent on a higher need, so we take largely useless containment measures. For instance: limiting mobility in affected areas is useful, but if schools remain open, people in those areas still have to go to work and bars are not closed, their effectiveness is substantially diminished. In this contrast between economic and health aspects, the former denies the latter…

Obviously the strategy of the parties had to try to immediately dilute this obviousness. That’s what they exist for. Just today the Spanish Minister of Transport, one of the heavyweights of the Sánchez government, stated in a brutally cynical manner that this denial of health in order to defend the economy had indeed happened… but only in the regional government of Madrid.

It is clear that in Madrid the principle of a conception that is not exclusive to the PP and that we have seen in the United States has been put forward: putting the economy above health. The public system has also been cut back and the private one has been enlarged. And then there is a vision that I would also say is certainly class-based, which sometimes slips through. Like when [Ayuso] talks about the living habits of some people, ignoring that these are not habits but living conditions to which a part of the population is subjected.

Anyone who has followed the government and its experts during these months cannot help but be amazed. The Spanish government has been the first to make it a priority to save the economy. Cuts in primary care and ICUs have been a constant for decades… and were organized by governments of both the PP and the PSOE as well as the PNV and Catalan independentists, from the Ministry of Health and from each autonomous region. Even if we add up all the so-called essential social expenditure, which includes the deployment of domestic care during the last decade, in 2018 the drop of 2010-14 had not yet been recovered and in 2019 it dropped again in all the autonomous regions. The result has been overwhelming in some communities: since 2009 in Catalonia social expenditures were cut by 19.6% and in Castilla-La Mancha by 15.4%.

Social shield?

Sánchez’s message during the first week of lockdown.

What the Sánchez government has been successful in doing is launching a propaganda blitz to try to convince us that it had established a social shield against the effects of the recession based on two pillars: the Minimum Vital Income and the temporary layoffs (ERTEs). But, when the bureaucratic collapses seem to be finally cleared, it turned out that neither one nor the other were what they promised.

The MVI will reach less than 100,000 families and the judicial fights with autonomous regions seem to point to the fact that the articulation with the aid already given by these regions will end up in a reduction of the total distributed, as already pointed out by the State Association of Directors and Managers of Social Services.

The ERTEs, the other pillar, were never intended to cover workers. If the CEOE has made the extension of ERTEs its workhorse, it is not out of a sudden and passionate humanitarian concern. The Bank of Spain is clear on this point: it defends its indefinite extension to save companies. And if there were any doubt, the cutback in the ERTEs to save the state’s accounts is being designed not to affect companies but rather the benefits of the workers.

The ruling class’ morality

Queues at an unemployment office in Madrid

Capitalist morality justifies itself on two pillars. The first of these is the freedom-equality duality.

The religion of the commodity constitutes the individual as a subject and endows him with a very particular morality, the morality of commercial exchange. […] It is this morality that makes it possible to uphold that the exchange of equals (all merchandise is exchanged for another of equal value) would produce by mere repetitive magic an increase in overall wealth […].

What does this mean? […] Simply that the social bond of exchange – based on the exploitation of labor power – is voluntary and does not generate greater responsibilities in those who buy labor power than in those who buy any other object: paying wages. A wage that is no more than the social value of that labor power by virtue of the equality of all that is voluntarily exchanged. Since exploitation is not an individual but a class relationship and since the capital-labor relationship is invisible under a “fair” and “free” exchange and therefore between socially “equal” values… exploitation vanishes frm view!

Religion” entry in our dictionary

For the morality of the mercantile exchange, any exchange to which both parties agree of their won will is free, no matter what their circumstances are. And if we accept the above, scarcity and the risk of death would be the true social driving force, indeed, the fuel of social progress. Because only scarcity leads the dispossessed to accept of their own will to work under the conditions imposed by accumulation, something which the first theoreticians of bourgeois morality understood very well:

Thomas Malthus construes a new moral order breaking with all the previous ones. Where Smith points out that the ‘laissez faire’ of free trade leads to the best of results thanks to accumulation, Malthus orders what he himself calls the social ‘machine’ to be set in motion by cutting off aid and forcing the poor to work in order to survive. Life is activity, and this activity can only be guaranteed by the threat of the evil of scarcity. Malthus’ entire statistical work on the need for population control, whose famous ratios he never demonstrates, serves as a justification for the moral argument that occupies the last two chapters of the treatise.

The seizure of commercial circulation by capital and the affirmation of bourgeois morality“, August 2019.

Let’s add all this to what we have experienced and seen during the pandemic. From the very beginning it was clear that the spread would put accumulation in jeopardy. Even before the pandemic arrived, export markets began to reduce their demand. And as the contagion began, the state’s goal was explicitly limited to preventing hospitals from collapsing. With relatively low infection rates, even ideological framing goals such as the 8M demonstration took precedence. Infections escalated and the state moved into a state of alarm whose main objective was to prevent the closure of non-essential production… something that in the end they had to do although to a smaller extent and with shorter times than would have been necessary to halt the spread. As if this wasn’t enough, as soon as the end of the lockdown was decreed, saving tourism became the new priority: the president of the government himself encouraged people to go out and celebrate and to do so without fear, the foreign minister prioritized opening borders to attract tourists… with so much zeal that it backfired on them: contagion rose, Sapin lost its status as a safe destination and the campaign ended with disastrous figures for tourist investments. At the end of August everything recommended reconsidering school reopening. Everything but the interests of capital: the return of workers to the companies should not be hindered by making them take care of children, consumption should not be restricted with new lockdowns, no matter what.

Now we have a rising epidemic and an accelerated crisis. What can we expect them to prioritize? Human needs – starting with the most basic of all, not to be infected or to spread a deadly disease – they have been subordinated from the beginning of the pandemic on maintaining the viability of capital investments. Unemployment is already at a record level, overwhelming if we add to that the unemployment hidden under temporary layoffs under misery subsidies. Some sources report that unemployment will reach 23%. Will they see in the situation of the workers a human need to be satisfied or will they see in it the forces of scarcity preparing the way for us to freely accept the reforms that they have been trying to impose for years?


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