Corona capitalism has dawned. Self-isolation is the norm. ‘Work from home’ is the rule. And hell is anon.
What kind of hell, you may well ask? A hell of fission, or separation among institutions and people. Yet this hell is not totally knew. On the contrary: fission is the default of capitalism, which began with the separation between political and economic power from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. Before capitalism, states and markets were closely knit together, woven into a fabric of politico-economic power. Oligarchs (the rich) ruled and traded. But today, oligarchs trade but don’t rule. They leave that to ‘politicians’–who tend not to be oligarchs (with some notable exceptions) but nonetheless serve their interests, thanks to oligarchs’ use of money to ‘buy’ political power (particularly in the US) and the threat of capital flight preventing small states from deviating from market incentives. Once, we lived in regional states with regional markets. Now, we live in a world economy–but with mere nation-states, few (if any) of which have much say over the rules of the game. Before capitalism, there was what social scientist Jeffrey Winters terms ‘ruling oligarchy’, where oligarchs ruled politically. Under capitalism, there is ‘civil oligarchy’, where oligarchs trade and leave ruling to professional politicians.
Capitalism is fission–between states and markets (‘state-market disunity’) and among states themselves (‘interstate disunity’). These two forms of fission reinforce each other: without a world state (overcoming interstate disunity), states individually have little capacity to overcome state-market disunity, due to the threat of disinvestment. In a world of state-market disunity and interstate disunity, the gap between rich and poor also rises, as a ‘race to the bottom’ occurs in labour standards (creating ‘distributional inequality’). All this is underpinned by capitalist technological dynamism–beginning with the industrial revolution (dynamic ‘resource scarcity’). Scarcity hasn’t been overcome, but it has become more variable, resulting in boom-and-bust cycles which cause financial crises and outbreaks of diseases which run along the lines of capital and labour mobility…
You’ve guessed it: capitalism caused the corona virus. But how? Firstly, due to state-market disunity: in a world economy of profound and rapid movement in capital and labour, there is little freedom of any one state to put a halt to mobility. So, diseases spread fast. This happened in the past–capitalism began partly because the Black Death in the fourteenth century reduced British population sizes to such a degree that the price of labour went up dramatically, incentivising a shift from ‘inefficient’ peasant labour to ‘efficient’ wage labour. But, today, it’s faster. The Black Death took months and years to perforate through Eurasia. Coronavirus is taking weeks. The Black Death was a lot more deadly, mind. Indeed, since humans abandoned hunter-gathering and started congregating in agricultural centres–particularly urban ones from the fourth millennium BCE–the odds of catching animal-transmitted diseases went up dramatically. But isn’t capitalism meant to give us the medical technology to deal with such viruses? Antibiotics, etc.? Yes–but it doesn’t always provide us with the institutions we’d need to contain such an outbreak. Let me explain.
Coronavirus has spread, in part, through interstate air-travel. One problem already identified as its cause of spread is the lack of interstate coordination. Within China itself, coronavirus is starting to be fairly well contained. Outside of China, it’s spreading like–well–you would expect a virus would. But if a few lines of travel had been cut the moment the virus was known about in late 2019, the virus could have been prevented from spreading beyond its initial area of birth–or at least a few states, preventing it from attaining its now-global reach. To do that, we’d need not only more information sharing between states, but also more power sharing. We’d need someone to make a decision on the behalf of all states when and where capital/labour mobility is restricted, for the benefit of all. We’d need something more than mere state-market disunity and interstate disunity–the very causes of the present crisis, none the less. We’d need a world state.
How could a world state be legitimated, you may ask? It’s all very well proposing a ‘solution’–but if people won’t accept it, it’s no good. You’re right–states need legitimation; they need some level of popular acceptance, or at least acquiescence. Even autocracies need people to not violently rebel. And a world state would, ideally, have elements of procedural democracy to ensure substantive accountability and governmental dynamism. So how could it legitimate itself to its diverse (seven-billion plus) citizenry? It would need to meet these citizens’ expectations–specifically, the highest expectations of the citizens in the most demanding state. Like the US, or EU member-states.
A world state would need to be rich. It would need to be prosperous. It would need to foster technological development on an unprecedented scale to maintain living standards, even in the midst of crises like the present one. To do that, it would need to take a leaf from states in the past in crises like our own–like the US and the UK at the height of World War II, which engaged in massive programmes of public spending and democratic economic planning. State-market disunity was substituted with state-market unity in crises like these. The ‘free market’ was replaced with something equating Bernie Sanders’ ideal of democratic socialism–state-led economic development, taking everyone into account. In World War II, though, such planning was temporary. Today, we’d need permanent institutions to guarantee people’s interests are protected. Luckily, the welfare state–created after World War II–hasn’t been so decimated by ‘neoliberal’ governments since the 1980s that it can’t be revived. Starting with the corona crisis, we could give people who could soon enter self-isolation (i.e., everyone) a very high universal basic income and high-quality universal basic services to ensure they live well despite the alienation and loneliness of self-isolation. This could be a platform for a post-work society where all but the most essential jobs are automated, and most people can choose whether to work or not. But how do we ensure people choose to do virtuous, and not simply luxurious, things in their new-found free time? With (you guessed it) a universal education system which gives everyone the analytical, philosophical, and social skills they need to live lives full to the brim with the virtues of moderation and contemplation. ‘Medicare for all’ first. ‘Virtue for all’ next.
How could such an expensive programme of public spending, public infrastructure investment, democratic economic planning, universal basic income, and public ownership of large parts of production (with single-payer systems for entertainment) be funded? With coordinated quantitative easing (or CQE, as I call it)–where global reserve bank (subject to a global democratic assembly) prints enough money at levels not high enough to produce hyperinflation and not low enough to lead to stagnancy. And with fiscal stimuli by the bank and the sovereign assembly, getting the balance right between overly large deficits and underinvestment. And if the world state gets high debts, so what? It’s a world state. It can implement ambitious policy, so long as its citizens vote for it, it’s in keeping with the agreed-upon global constitution of civic rights and liberties, and it does not undermine regional assemblies’ trust in the global democratic assembly (the world state, in this way, would be both democratic, constitutional, and somewhat federal in nature). Who’s gonna do capital flight to Mars when the world state owns space technology? (Go on, Elon–try it.)
Capitalism was an era of fission. Socialism can be an era of fusion–of states and markets, of states and states, and of collectives of people all around the world. Today, we are all in our bubble collectives–or, worse, our bubble individualities: isolated from the rest of the world. But under global democratic socialism, we can pursue fusion together. When isolation is necessary, we will still not be alone. We will always have each other. Our loved ones. Our friends. Our fellow citizens.
What about the last central fission: inequality? As it happens, a strong welfare state and public investment reduce inequality anyway–as the historic peacetime fall in inequality in the ’50s and ’60s showed (the ‘thirty glorious years’, or les treated années glorieuses, as the French call it). A universal basic income would itself require taxing the rich more and giving more to the poor. And single-payer entertainment (remember that one?) could allow everyone to have online films and music for free–without giving money to bloated profit-pursuing Behemoths like Spotify, Netflix, and Disney Plus. The fissions of disunity and inequality would fall. The fusions of unity and equality could rise.
What about scarcity? Well, if you automate production and socialise finance, technological development could proceed without the same boom-and-bust cycles of the contemporary era, as scarcity will no longer be dependent on the contingencies of private capital and labour flows around the world. The two causes of the 2008 financial crisis–deregulation and inequality–would evaporate, and scarcity could fall steadily, instead of varying dramatically. Technological development has risen under capitalism. But under socialism, it could rise even further, and scarcity fall even farther, all in a stable and managed fashion. The fission of expectations and reality would close, and we would see a fusion between the dreams of technology and the reality of steadily falling scarcity.
Scarcity, disunity, and inequality–gone! Abundance, unity, and equality–nigh! Away with fission, in with fusion! Technology, the state, and class structures would improve. What about culture?
Before corona hit, we were enmeshed in multiple culture wars on ‘identity politics’ issues like the gender norms of bathrooms and the diversity of Marvel films. These divided up the working class, replacing the twentieth-century ‘class war’ between capital and labour with a ‘culture war’ between, well, everyone! We were divided by ‘intersectionality’ into a million fragments in a hierarchy of oppression from the virtuous victims of an infinity of oppressions to the vicious benefactors of an infinity of privileges (‘white supremacy’ and ‘heteropatriarchy’–according to the liberal culture warriors–or ‘cultural Marxism’–according to right-wing culture warriors). These concepts all forgot the root causes of racism–namely: exploitation and alienation. In a world of disunity and inequality, the global working class is exploited by the global oligarchy. In order to prevent wage slaves from rebelling against their owners, the ruling class divided wage slaves from chattel slaves by ‘race’ in the early-modern period, before maintaining this imagined differentiation after chattel slavery was abolished.
Race is, of course, a fiction–made up by moderns, and unimaginable from the perspective of ancients (the Roman empire didn’t bother calling its emperor Septimius Severus ‘black’, because there wasn’t a concept of race back then, and thus no ‘racism’ in the modern sense of the term, though Benjamin Isaac notes there was ‘proto-racism’ at times in this period). But it’s been used by moderns to defend capitalism by masking real, material class antagonism with made-up, ideal status wars–‘the colour line’, as W.E.B. Du Bois put it. Nation-states also find it useful to use thick concepts like ‘nationhood’ and ‘ethnicity’ to defend their territorial integrity, while the free market also creates another fiction–the fiction of ‘individual autonomy’–to defend pitting market competitors against each other. Indeed, Kant’s notion of the autonomous individual (‘individualism’), separate and distinct from all other individuals, is analogous to the fascist notion of race, the nationalist notion of nation, and the liberal-culture-war concepts of individuated privilege/victimhood. Cultural divisions (through the prisms of individualism, racism, nationalism, etc.) are contorted expressions of class antagonism and interstate disunity. Without disunity and inequality, these divisions–in theory–should evaporate. The capitalist fission of cultural exclusivity could be replaced with the socialist fusion of cultural inclusivity.
Capitalism also creates a fission between those with cultural liberty and those without it. Culture is, by definition, the domain of life where we don’t do productive or political work–but instead freely pursue aesthetic or philosophic ideals. Cultural time is, or should be, free time. Today, not only is cultural time being invaded by the ‘free market’, making us (ironically) less free by bombarding us with advertising when we should be resting, but it’s also being invaded by work pressures. Instead of pursuing virtue in our free time–which Aristotle recommended we should–we are instead pursuing mere luxury and amusement. Our cultural time has become instrumentalised as a break from work, rather than as an end in itself. What’s more, wage slaves have almost no really free cultural time; only oligarchs like Jeff Bezos have the time to choose their own ends in life. But because oligarchs under capitalism are only powerful because they themselves are efficient at getting money, they spend their time trying to increase their horde. Under capitalism, superficially, there’s a gap between the class that has cultural time (the owner class: oligarchs) and the class that doesn’t (the rump working class: workers and professionals). In reality, we’re all cultural slaves, as almost none of us have the time to cultivate the virtues of moderate habits and philosophy, in pursuit of the good, and instead pursue the vulgar ends of money, pleasure, and status–which distract us from our purpose, and preoccupy us with a life of slavish economic work and slavish cultural activity.
By giving everyone a universal basic income and a good education, we can give everyone the cultural time for virtue. We can overcome the fission capitalism creates between those with time and those without, and create a world where all are free. We can replace vicious cultural fission with virtuous cultural fusion. We can replace boring homogeneity in cultural activities (listening to pop music, eating crisps, etc.) with a glorious heterogeneity. Ironically, ‘fusion’ means more–not less–diversity in cultural activity than ever before.
Capitalism is fission. Global democratic socialism, by contrast, is fusion–where we are united, as ancient Roman citizens were, to a common set of institutions, but also to something more: a common set of values, like virtue, collectivity, and the pursuit of the good. If these values seem elusive now, don’t worry–they are the ideational ‘superstructure’ (culture) which will emerge on top of the emerging material ‘base’ (tech, the state, and class).
So, against corona capitalism, for a better world, I propose the fusion manifesto:
- Resource abundance–the fusion of conditions and expectations (transitioning from dynamic scarcity to stable abundance through the automation and socialisation, or public ownership, of technology);
- Institutional unity–the fusion of states and markets, markets and states (transitioning from state-market disunity and interstate disunity to state unity through global democratic socialism; a democratic-socialist world state);
- Distributional inequality–the fusion of classes (transitioning from distributional inequality to distributional inequality through public investment, public ownership, and redistribution of wealth); and
- Cultural liberty and inclusivity–the fusion of cultures (transitioning from culture war to culture peace through giving people the freedom to choose their own ends in life, regardless of culture).
That way, we can satisfy everyone’s interests–for:
- Satisfaction; and
- Virtue, wisdom, and the pursuit of the good.
Scarcity, disunity, inequality, exclusivity and slavery. Or abundance, unity, equality, inclusivity, and liberty.
Death, alienation, dissatisfaction, and vice. Or life, collectivity, satisfaction, and virtue.
Fission. Or fusion.
Capitalism. Or socialism.
The highway to hell. Or the stairway to heaven.
Choose wisely. If we don’t, it might be the last free choice we make.
Note: The above piece was written on Sunday 15 March (before I had checked the news that day!). It therefore doesn’t cover the implementation since then of some of my policy recommendations—like sizeable fiscal stimuli and proposals for some form of universal basic income, and even more public ownership. Other recommendations I made—like a global sovereign democratic assembly—are yet to come to fruition. If neoliberal governments merely, as they did after the financial crisis, introduce temporary measures (e.g., stimulus) that are later watered down, the traditional pattern of rising capitalist fission may well return to haunt us.