Guest Blog: Prof. Harry Glasbeek on Coronavirus and capitalism

The legendary Prof. Harry Glasbeek of Osgoode Hall Law School at York University has penned the following commentary on how the COVID-19 pandemic is revealing and reinforcing the deep flaws in our economic and social order. It ends on a hopeful note: the people will demand better, when the immediate health crisis has passed. Prof. Glasbeek is the author of Capitalism: A Crime Story.

An edited version of this commentary was originally published by Canadian Dimension.

Statements of the Obvious as Fuel for Anti-Capitalist Fire

We know that we have a pandemic. Times are grim.

Given the rapacious nature of capitalism, a rapaciousness never discouraged by our political leaders and opinion moulders, there were always going to be capitalists who would try to profit from the health crisis.   There is a report that financial investors and bankers are urging pharmaceutical companies to push up their prices (Lee Fang, The Intercept , 20 March, 2020)); Harvey Norman, a celebrated Australian billionaire, got everyone’s attention when he declared that sales were up at his electronic supplies’ stores and that he had invested in tanking shares to enable him to profit handsomely when things returned to ‘normal’; there is a cruise ship owner who, being stuck with a ship that carried infected passengers, some of whom died, offered needy cleaners very high wages to clean the ship to ready it for more profit-seeking operations; US senators, having been given advance notice of the coming pandemic and inevitable economic share market plunges that would accompany it, sold large parcels of their shares to less well-informed investors—they all claimed these timely and profitable sales were just a coincidence.  While it is easy to demonize these Senators they merely reflected a much more deliberate campaign by the truly wealthy to profit from the world’s anticipated ills.  

In early February, well before the general public had become aware of the looming problems, bankers and large financial houses, anticipating a downturn (growth was stagnating or dipping in many parts of the globe) had begun taking profits. They had sold large volumes of their equity and bond holdings while the going was good. This led to a panic on stock markets which then coincided with the fears stoked by the alarms raised over coronavirus. (Toussaint). All of a sudden two wars, two fronts had been opened. Capitalists are fighting on one front, the rest of  us on both.  

Lobbyists for large business are in full swing, begging law-makers to bail their masters out as their prospects are deteriorating. A Guardian headline said it all:” Washington lobbyists in frenzied battle to secure billion-dollar coronavirus bailouts” (20 March, 2020). As one interviewed Senator noted, it is hard to keep red-blooded entrepreneurs away when 2 trillion dollars have been put up for grab by a venal government. Airlines, cruise ship owners, hotels are putting their snouts into the trough, that is, the very people whose businesses did much to help spread the virus and whose profiteering is disastrous from an environmental point of view; fossil fuel corporations, miners, automobile manufacturers, are all gunning for some of these taxpayers funded spoils; all these outfits reach out for their tried and lethal weapon: the threat of a capitalist strike. They show governments how crucial they are to the people’s, and therefore to the governments’, well-being by laying-off workers by the hundreds of thousands. Their major contribution thus far to the solving of the pandemic is the further immiseration of the already suffering working class. They insist that they are not to be asked to do anything but look after themselves. Vanity Fair (23 March, 2020) reports that the Trump Administration has been beset by CEO’s telling it to resist political pressures to use emergency powers to force them to help get much-needed medical supplies; rather, they argue, the government should rely on voluntary co-operation which, thus far, has been found wanting. Of course, if we, the non-wealth owners, were wiling to pay them for their assistance, they will be right there for us. Governments are listening. The US has announced that it will make money available to private laboratories to do testing, to Google to ‘market’ the testing, to Walmart, Walgreens, CVS and Target to administer the testing; the Trudeau government has made $192 million available to help drug makers do vaccine research that they had   not done previously because to invest in that kind of public health-promoting research was just not profitable.  

The accumulating record is as clear as it can be. Capitalists, while somewhat panicked, also see an opportunity. They are fighting to be saved, once again, from a crisis of their own making. To this end, they demand that they be supported. They do this under the guise that they, too, are victims of the virus and that, somehow, throwing money at them should be the primary way by means of which governments are to fight the virus.  Not one of the truly rich Canadians or their corporations with tax avoiding cash in safe havens have offered to bring some of their money back to help out their fellow Canadians. They are willing to continue to exploit and profiteer and are giving no indication what they are willing to sacrifice to advance the common good, to save lives and to ameliorate immiseration. Those costs are to be borne by others. The rest of us.  

And health care workers.            

The good  

Health care workers in Ontario are to be stripped of their collective agreement rights for a while. This reflects the never-very-hidden distaste for unionization. For-profit employers and right-wing governments militantly hang on to the notion that freedom and liberty is eroded by the unnatural capacity of collectivized workers to limit the exploitation of individual workers. The suspension of the collective agreements means that the Ontario government is now in a legal position to contract out some of the health care work to non-unionized workers and volunteers. Not only would such folk not be as well-qualified as the current health care providers are (if they turn out to be qualified at all) but—even more attractive to Ford-ites and their fellow travellers–they would not unionized and more easily exploited. A dream coming true!  

Of course, this is not how the government of Ontario justified its suspension of health care workers’ collective agreements. The government claim is that it needs maximum flexibility. The government sees the health workers’ existing terms and conditions of work as potential impediments to the maintenance of public health. Armed with the rights won at the bargaining table, workers might insist on their rights during a time when our interest is in having them work as they never have before. They might refuse to work in unsafe conditions; they might refuse to do jobs their agreement does not require them to do; they might insist on limits on shifts, hours of work, etc., .that is, they might insist on rights won at the bargaining table and hinder the fight against the virus.  

All these not so well-hidden innuendoes are there, even as there is not a scintilla of evidence of any of this happening.  

The assumption is that health care workers, indeed, all workers, are just like capitalists. They are selfish, venal, greedy, indifferent to the plight of others. Thus it is right to strip them of such powers as they have. Two points jump out.  

First, note no analogous attempt is being made to strip capitalists of the source of their power, their ultimate right to use their wealth and assets to advance their own causes regardless of the harms they cause. While some are being asked to suspend their right to evict impecunious tenants, their right to preserve their right to enforce the debts remains intact. Or, inasmuch as commercial banks are willing to suspend the enforcement of mortgage debts for a while, they have made it clear that the debts will have to be paid and that interest will be added. The restraints are voluntary, temporary and not fundamental. The right to profit from ownership is not challenged. There is no positive effort exerted by governments to force the owning class to act on behalf of the public’s welfare.  

The crisis provides us with evidence that, in a capitalist society, capitalists are not to be held responsible for the common good. All others are.  

Second, all the evidence we have is that workers are nowhere near as selfish, greedy, indifferent to the plight of others as red-blooded capitalists are. The predominant impulse of non-capitalists is to look after each other. There are countless stories of people, very ordinary people, dropping off groceries for those who are house-bound, of flowers being sent to isolated people, of cakes being baked and shared with neighbours, of students, no longer able to attend their schools and universities, walking dogs for those unable to do so, Facebook groups being set up to link isolated people with those willing/able to do errands and to  help make deliveries; of restaurants, using their remaining supplies by offering free meals to food banks and to anyone else who needs them, of restaurants run by celebrity chefs setting up special deliveries of foods prepared by them while closed, only charging fees that cover the cost of deliveries, of people handmaking masks to deliver to hospitals, of registered nurses sending out daily reports from hospitals and giving public health advice/information,  of ‘choir/choir/choir’ doing community sing alongs, of kids setting up homework groups, of desperate people in Italy singing with and to each other, trying to lift each others’ spirits, of Spanish and English folk opening their windows in the evening to get together to applaud the health care workers who are looking after them. All this is self-organized. All of this is individually or communally organized. All of this is non-hierarchical. All of this is spontaneous. People care, they care about each other.  

There always has been a deep contradiction in capitalism and the pandemic is bringing it into the open. The assumption which is supposed to make capitalism acceptable is that it is just an economic scheme, one which brings us all material welfare. The way it does this is by a holding out that the drive for individual acquisition inheres in all of us and is ineradicable. If we are free to act on this, wealth will be created for all. It assumes that it is possible to separate the economic sphere of life from the rest of social life (Polanyi). But, to the vast majority of the world, this makes no sense. This is not how they want to, or indeed do, live. Serving one’s interest single-mindedly is, from most human beings’ vantage point, morally problematic. To most people, serving our loved ones, our communities, being altruistic, compassionate, willing to share, are all much more morally/socially acceptable ends than the satisfaction of greed.  

Capitalist relations of production have always been—and always will be—out of step with human and humane traits. This truth is, all too often, buried as the dominant class uses its hegemonic powers effectively to constrain our thinking. The current crude self-serving, anti-social, postures taken by capitalists reveal that they are content to let people suffer and die if this allows them to maintain and/or to augment their wealth. The crassness of capitalists has the potential to make this horrific pandemic a crucial moment, a profound basis for a transformation in social relations

Lydia O’Connor, in Huffpost (25 March, 2020, “Billionaires want People Back At Work, Even If It Kills Them”, cites Paychex founder, Tom Galisano [net worth $3Billion] that hurting the economy ‘could be worse than losing a few more people” and Dick Kovachevik [former CEO of Wells Fargo, a corporation that stole and defrauded its clients during the subprime scandal] who said that ‘we’ll gradually bring these people back and see what happens. Some of them will get sick, some may even die…do you want to take an economic risk or health risk?”

The most significant legacy of this crisis may be that it will be easier for people to see that capitalists judge things only in dollar terms and value dollars more, way more, than they do human beings.

The many hypocrisies

Public health officials and politicians of all stripes use every opportunity to praise and thank the brave frontline health care workers because they are working extraordinary shifts, exposing themselves knowingly to grave risks. As seen, this has not prevented the Ontario government to treat health care workers and their unions as potential enemies and betrayers of public health. How sincere are they? Whose side are they on? Whose side are any of capital’s gatekeepers on?

The Toronto Star,  with its editorial “A new breed of heroes steps up in the crisis”, has just discovered that, while they have always celebrated firefighters, police officers, soldiers, doctors as truly worthwhile workers, it turns out that there are some other workers who merit our admiration. They identify workers in ‘supply chains’, that is, workers who, only yesterday, were lowly regarded workers, as wrongly neglected contributors to society. The importance of what were virtually invisible workers, from the farmer to the truck driver to the people stocking the shelves to the cashiers taking the money, has suddenly become obvious to The Star and the people it serves. The pivotal role of those who clean hospitals and long term care homes, who take care of children, operate subway trains and busses, of warehouse workers, of rubbish collectors, of letter sorters and carriers, and many more such much-ignored workers is being acknowledged. It also has become clear to the elites that, often, these ‘heroes’ are paid little more than the minimum wage and that they do not have much security in their jobs. The Toronto Star does not ask how, what it now calls, essential workers came to be so poorly treated. They now express their gratitude and—somewhat mealy-mouthedly—express the hope that things will get better for these workers in the future.

Whatever the true feelings of the individual writer of this discovery of a to-be-heralded workforce may have been, the true motivation for writing it is plain. Underlying this expression of sensibility is a plea. The Star and its allies in the world of wealth and politics are frightened stiff that their previous contemptuous treatment of these workers might cause them to be angry and resistant, lead them to not to provide the services that those of us, cowering in isolation (including some of their rich and influential friends), need so badly. They are frightened. They are like the feudal landlords during the Black Plague of 1349. They were worried that, as workers were confronted by death and disease, they would no longer mind the herds, tend to the crops. They might give in to what the lords of the day called a “merriment of despair”. The Star and the people whose views they represent, our contemporary lords and masters, cannot afford this kind of spirit to prevail.

Here another aspect of the class-based different impact of the health and economic crisis comes to the fore. One of the ways in which the virus is being contained is by asking those of us who can to work from home. How many of the working class can actually do this? And however many it is, it does not include the supposedly less skilled, the supposedly less educated, the definitely worst paid, the distinctly more precariously employed. But it is they who do what needs to be done, it is they who make things, transport things, maintain things, operate things. We need them to survive. As David Graeber writes: ”Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dockworkers would soon be in trouble…It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEO’s, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish”. Graeber notes wryly that the latter group, the ‘work at home crowd’, are more highly valued and paid in our capitalist world. The Star, and the rich and ritzy it worries about, know it is necessary to keep the downtrodden workers at work. Some cajoling, some bribery is in order.

Some employers who do not want to stop profiteering need these workers to pitch up every day and take those risks. They praise them and bribe them. Retailers are proudly claiming that, in their concern for these now acknowledged essential workers, they will give them a pitiful raise. The hope is that this will keep them feel appreciated as they continue to work, serve and expose themselves, that they will not use their basic right to refuse palpably unsafe working conditions. The workers are being soft-soaped and paid a little danger money by the class that is taking as little risk as it can. Hypocrisy everywhere.

While the newly discovered workers are being recognized by those who ignored them yesterday, little attention is being paid to the sacrifices demanded of their families. The at-risk workers go home. Their infections will infect the very people they love the most. Scant attention is paid to them. It fits a pattern: capitalists have always relied on the unpaid reproduction of the labour force, on the unpaid-for nurturing of this work force and on the collectively paid-for training and health maintenance of this work force. There is thus a continuum here: as they express appreciation of workers taking risks, capitalism persists in imposing costs and hardships on these very same workers and on society writ large. More: governments and opinion leaders are telling these real risk-takers that they are responsible to deal with the risks as individuals: hygiene, self-isolation, social distancing—it is up to them to avert risks capitalists want them to take.

There will be a need, therefore, to scrutinize the interventions by governments as  they pump money into the economy, in part enlarging welfare payments to the more immediately vulnerable. The need to make these grants to workers arises because the private sector actors are cutting costs and, as usual, are happy to have their tabs picked up by governments, by the rest of us. They will grandiosely keep some workers on their payrolls provided that the payrolls become the responsibility of governments and taxpayers. It aids them indirectly, as well, as the otherwise destitute workers can continue to consume and to pay bills, at least for a little while longer. As self-declared risk-takers and wealth creators, the crisis demonstrates that ‘entrepreneurs’ are a big bust. ‘Hypocrisy and irresponsibility’ should become a label that activists will be able to stick on capitalism better than they ever could.

This bailing out of workers left adrift by their employers may leave another  legacy—it will be easier to make the case that the welfare regimes we had were never satisfactory, that the inequalities with which we have been asked to live, were, and remain, economically and morally unjustified. We were always told, as Jonathan Cook reminds us, that there was no magic money tree from which we could pick dollar bills to give to the less well-off. It turns out, as Cook goes on to say, that when capital wants hand-outs, that there are magic money trees everywhere.

This finding of these money-laden trees is accompanied by an implicit admission that it was always understood that many Canadians (and US) citizens were not covered by the safety net because they were considered rightly excluded from it. Yet, it turns out that they should not have been; they were doing far from well. Self-employed people, small business owners, franchise operators, gig workers, as well as many part-time, casual, temporary employees, have had to be included in the rescue packages because they were never very far away from poverty. The crisis is pointing out the many lies by which our so-called advanced capitalist polities have been living.

The fuel for the anti-capitalism fire

The argument here is not that everyone is about to see the light and that when (if ever) this is all over, we will plump for socialism. As repeatedly noted, capital is fighting to maintain itself and is being aided by governments. Whatever the new ‘normal’ will be, capitalists will fight to remain the dominant class. We cannot assume that we will win that fight. But we should be in a better position to fight it.  The huge cracks in the system are getting wider and wider each day the virus controls our lives. This creates a number of platforms from which working class activists can launch anti-capitalism attacks that may lay the groundwork for more radical change. Some of these platforms include:  

The use made of ‘othering’ to keep us apart will be harder to deploy. The global reach of the virus will make it more obvious to more people how interrelated human beings are, how little our apparent differences mean when shove comes to push.

The evidence of how much we all  rely on all sorts of people, no matter how apparently distant and different from us, may well lead to a better understanding of how interdependent we are, how foolish the mantra of big capital to the effect that there is no such thing as society, really is. It should be harder to keep people convinced that we are merely a bunch of individuals and families, that there is no solidarity to be had;

The evidence that capitalism has never been and never will be a system of social relations based on merit has been revealed as, all of a sudden, their mouth pieces have had to acknowledge the worth of poorly regarded and paid people. It should educate the rest of us to accord respect to all who provide things we need as opposed to things the rich teach us to desire;

It will be even more obvious than it was after the 2008 meltdown that flesh and blood capitalists do not actually believe governments should not borrow in order to look after the needy. They are urging the governments to do more borrowing, to incur more debt, as they portray themselves as the needy ones. Their stock markets roar whenever a new announcement is made that a new money tree has been found, most of whose fruit is to go them. As this is being written, a huge cheer can be heard, emanating from Bay Street, as the government announced that it is about to buy devaluing assets from private profiteers. If all of this is remembered or kept in people’s minds, it may make a claim that capitalists are risk-takers and wealth creators who are entitled to privileges easier to resist when next made (as we should expect it will be).

The responses to the crisis have included laying-off masses of workers, leaving their plight to be alleviated by others. Capitalism’s primary value system, one that argues that unfettered selfishness is an acceptable moral stance, is on show like it rarely has been. It is a value system that has little appeal and the virus crisis could well lead to regard those who hold on to this immoral sensibility to be social lepers;

A repugnant indifference for others has been on display. The crass, monstrous brand of utilitarianism by some outspoken capitalists and their media and political supporters who have vividly expressed a willingness to further their narrow economic project at the expense of human lives, should leave a lasting imprint on us all.

The list could be longer. But the picture of what many more people than ever before will know is clear.

Capitalism and a decent, a human, society do not mix. What must be striven for is a system that envisages the social ownership of the means of production, production run by workers and their communities to supply the needs we have as individuals and communities.  The responses to the current crisis by capital and our governments do not fit the bill. The responses by non-owners, by workers, by our communities, exhibit the necessary ingredients. When it is all over, the hope must be that we can build on that .

One comment

  • Great article- this brings to mind that the progressive economics space may want to think about bringing into focus a research effort to track and monitor labour force dynamics through this extended period. It will be critical to help union leaders, policy makers and worker groups provide a nuanced critical review of the short – and medium term impacts of this Covid19 economy. I am sure many govt agencies will be on top of this- however- we know from our past crisis the analysis and critical review of the data has on many occasions been unbalanced. I can see three files being very helpful to build critical monitoring and assessment. The Labour Force Survey Micro file, the SEPH payroll outputs. Most other data sources will not be helpful as they are too far behind in time frame. I am not sure the job openings data will be helpful. The process for this must ramp up quickly- as timing is everything here. I do have the LFS micro file set up for analytical data queries. It would be interesting to see where actual hours worked by many critical demographic and dependent variables of stock and flows of workers move through this time. We could also bring in some of the income data from the LFS as it does collect wage levels. The variability is quite large on a monthly basis- however it should provide some interesting insights. Also this process will be ongoing for some time- and eventually the SEPH will be helpful as well to validate or correct the LFS wage income. This combines with EI and other relief measures should be able to allow some wage and govt transfers estimates of many fundamentals. This is not a back of the envelop exercise and therefore will require some time and resources to build such. I would hope that the unions through either the CLC or the various union research houses will come together to help build this space. I would also encourage academics and applied progressive economists and sociologists to help out. We need to bring together some new insight to these very dark times in which the economy could easily slip into a major depression. Recall- that not one country in the world will be an island to beggar thy neighbour like recovery process. This is a critical difference from any other time in history! So understanding the changes within labour market is fundamental in developing solutions and policy building- and more importantly from a worker perspective. Please contact me if you are interested in any data metrics or other ideas that could be explored. For the next while will be trying to build some critical metrics and research into this space.

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