Covid has laid bare the capitalist dystopia in which we are already living

If 2020 has taught us anything it is that the current economic and political system is blocking our ability to solve humanity’s urgent problems.

The following is the full text of an article that was commissioned by the Institute of Art and Ideas and published in edited form on their website on 13 January 2021.


As we turn our backs with relief on 2020, we can’t help but ask ourselves: what does the future hold? Is 2021 likely to bring us some respite?

Sadly, in the short term, the answer is a decided ‘no’. For as long as the capitalist system remains in place we can expect only more of the same. The future in the short to medium term presents us with a decidedly dystopian vision.

Indeed, the experience of 2020 is that we don’t need to wait for the future to find ourselves living in a capitalist dystopia – the double whammy of economic and health crises combining in the last year have made it abundantly clear that we are already living in one.

Britain has had a bad pandemic – but it didn’t have to be that way

As far as the health crisis goes, there is a possibility that the distribution of covid vaccines might allow us finally to exit the repeated cycle of lockdowns and out-of-control virus spikes that we endured in 2020 (and face again in this new year), but not before many more people have died – and died from a cause that the rational, people-centred approach of governments like China’s and Cuba’s have demonstrated is entirely avoidable.

Contrary to the narrative that is being pushed hard in Britain’s compliant media, it was not a vaccine that we needed to save us from the nightmare of 2020 but simple health measures.

We needed mass testing to give health authorities accurate sight of the virus. We needed fully supported isolation on full pay in hotel or hospital rooms for all those testing positive or needing to quarantine. We needed the closure of air, sea and rail ports for everything but essential goods, with rigorous testing and quarantine for anyone coming in from abroad. We needed the (centrally-resourced) creation of covid-secure workplaces, restaurants, shops and schools (including the provision of more space and more staff to make that possible).

We needed to commandeer factories in order to manufacture PPE and to provide it free of charge to health workers, teachers, pupils and all public-facing and essential workers. We needed to commandeer private hospitals and their staff in order to provide extra bed space and staffing capacity to the underfunded and undermanned NHS.

By these simple and straightforward measures, the virus could have been controlled and the first lockdown may never have been needed – lockdown being an extremely blunt instrument and an admission that the situation has spun out of control. We did, after all, have ample warning from the health authorities in China about the nature of the new disease that we were facing. Not only did China identify the virus and sequence its genome, it was also able very early on to provide the world with comprehensive handbooks detailing best practice for treatments, for hospital protocols, and for isolating the virus from the wider population.

It is a sign of our leaders’ arrogance and stupidity that they were unable to learn from China’s experience. It is also an indication of how totally committed they are to serving the rich – in this case by channelling public funds to boost the profits of the private sector and buoy up the stock market rather than using that cash to meet the urgent needs of the people.

When they could have been pulling out all the stops in a national effort to prepare Britain for the arrival of Covid-19 on our shores, our rulers were more interested in scoring cheap propaganda points, branding China’s government as ‘brutal’ and ‘authoritarian’ for finding it necessary to impose a local (not national) lockdown in Wuhan as people there battled to get control of a rapidly-spreading and unknown viral pneumonia.

That hubris appears doubly shameful looking back on it now.

Even without a vaccine, China has been free of lockdowns and oppressive restrictions for some time. Parties and large sporting and musical events marked the lifting of restrictions in Wuhan. Britain, on the other hand, is entering a third national lockdown, having at no point come close to getting the virus under control.

In a country of 1.4 billion people, China has kept its death toll below 5,000. Here, with our comparatively tiny population of 65 million, it is now predicted that at least 100,000 Britons will have died before the vaccine programme starts to take effect – assuming it is as effective as we are all hoping it will be.

As we look back on the year of the pandemic we can see that what our own government implemented was not a health strategy but a profit maximisation strategy for the big corporations it serves. This was coupled with a PR campaign aimed at testing the waters for and then selling the government’s belated, reactive and contradictory health measures to a long-suffering and increasingly cynical public.

Capitalism isn’t working

Under the combined pressure of the economic and health crises in 2020, the absolute irrationality of capitalism has been revealed over and over again, in ways that simply defy the usual glib explanations of the system’s hired defenders.

How can we now justify the poverty pay and routine maltreatment of the key workers who have proved so indispensable to keeping the country going? Or the poorhouse pittance doled out so grudgingly to the unemployed, in a kind of slow-motion punishment beating?

How can we justify the huge and widening gulf of inequality that is exacerbating every aspect of the pandemic, from people’s ability to isolate when they come into contact with the virus to their likelihood of dying if they catch it?

It is clearer than it has ever been that the concept of ‘trickle-down’ economics is a lie. It is the poor who pay the rich, all day and every day, with their work and through their taxes. In doing so, they get poorer, while those at the top amass obscene wealth on an unprecedented, unimaginable and unjustifiable scale.

This is not an accident or an aberration; this is not a temporary blip. This is capitalism working exactly as its internal logic dictates.

Covid highlights the inescapable realities of capitalism

Covid did not create unemployment, poverty and inequality, which are unavoidable by-products of the anarchic capitalist system of production for profit (as opposed to rationally planned production for need) – but it has exacerbated and exposed them both as never before.

Covid did not create the problems in the health service, which has suffered a thousand cuts at the hands of privateers and profiteers for decades – but it has exacerbated and exposed them as never before.

Covid did not create the crisis in the nation’s physical and mental health, or the breakdown in our communities – but it has exacerbated and exposed those crises as never before.

Covid did not invent the capitalist corruption of science, nor the control of our healthcare systems by the interests of big pharma, but it has exacerbated and exposed those realities as never before.

Covid did not create the deep economic crisis under which the British and world economies are reeling, for that has its roots in the late 1970s, was temporarily reprieved by the bonanza of looting that followed the collapse of the USSR, then plumbed new depths in 2008 and again hovered on the brink of collapse for four years before the crash of February 2020 – but it has exacerbated and exposed that crisis as never before.

Covid is not responsible for the destruction of decently-paid secure jobs for the mass of workers in the west; it did not create the obscene situation whereby the most important jobs in our society are now done by those who are worst paid and least respected – but it has exacerbated and exposed that situation as never before.

Covid is not responsible for the fact that our most necessary key workers are not only underpaid and underappreciated, but horrendously understaffed and overworked (and that despite the existence of a growing army of the unemployed, desperate for useful work to do) – but it has exacerbated and exposed that fact as never before.

Covid did not create the poverty pay that forces working families into debt and onto the mercy of the food banks – but it has exacerbated and exposed that poverty as never before.

Covid did not create the inequality which has led to the businesses of the super-rich being bailed out to the tune of hundreds of billions in the last year, even as untold thousands of small businesses are collapsing into bankruptcy, ever larger numbers of the self-employed are finding themselves without means of support, and millions more formerly employed workers are being thrown with them onto the scrap heap of unemployment.

Covid did not create the cronyism and corruption that characterises the rule of the capitalist class – but it has exacerbated and exposed that corruption as never before.

Adding to the insult of a four-year parliamentary sit-in by our ‘elected representatives’ as they haggled over how best to avoid delivering on the Brexit referendum, has been the injury of watching those same ‘representatives’ squander untold billions of public money – first on bailing out big business and then on ‘covid procurement contracts’ for which there was, apparently, no stipulation to deliver any tangible product or result.

Never has there been so much scrutiny on the behaviour of governments by so many; and never has the servility of our ‘representative’ politicians to the super-rich (along with their determination to siphon as big a cut for themselves and their pals off the gravy train as possible) been so starkly on show.

Capitalism has no solutions to the problems it creates

To the problem of unemployment, the capitalists can only shrug and argue over whether or not to provide some support to those who are left without work, and how far above starvation level that subsidy should be fixed.

The discussions over some kind of ‘universal basic income’ are just one more admission that capitalism cannot find useful work for huge sections of the population. As automation proceeds (no new thing in the age of capital), more jobs are made redundant. What should lead to a lightening of the drudgery of many occupations and a freeing up of human labour for other types of work becomes just one more factor in ensuring that an ever-larger section of the workforce is considered to be ‘surplus to requirements’.

This squandering of human potential and wasting of human lives is the most shameful aspect of our capitalist society; the most pressing proof of the need for its replacement by a system that will allow all to work for the common good, to contribute to social life and to live in dignity.

In the face of the climate crisis, which demands immediate action, both unilateral and multilateral, the capitalists are likewise left shrugging and haggling over carbon quotas and plastic bag taxes while they do their best to pull the wool over our eyes with green-washing campaigns for big oil and state subsidies for monopoly corporations that promise to bring us ‘green’ versions of all the same old products. Rearranging the deckchairs on the deck of the Titanic was nothing as compared to the total inability of a profit-motivated system to take swift and decisive action, even in the interests of saving itself from ultimate annihilation!

At every turn, what maximises profit for an individual business today triumphs over what will benefit society in the long term. And it cannot be any other way, especially at a time of financial crisis, when even the biggest of monopolies is fighting for survival and defending to the death every fraction of a percentage point of its profit margin.

It is time the armies of would-be reformers of the system woke up to the hard truth: the logic of capitalism is entirely impervious to the logic of humanity – and never the twain shall meet. The ratcheting up of warning calls from canaries in the coalmine (like all those FT and Times commentators worrying about the social threat posed by growing inequality and insufficient benefits) will not ‘persuade’ the capitalists into acting other than as the embodiment of capital.

This has nothing to do with their individual personalities (although being a sociopath has definite advantages in the context of the capitalist-imperialist world order). A cataclysm approaches: they see it and yet the logic of the system means that they are powerless to act.

As the crisis deepens, the competition over profits increases to fever pitch. In the end, the only option left to our rulers is to drive us into the conflagration of another calamitous war. Not because they are particularly bloodthirsty individuals but because the need to maximise profits and win the battle of competition dictates that they need to control access to markets, control sources of raw materials and stamp out any resistance to their domination.

And therefore the choice left to us boils down to this: to change the system now, before such a war can be launched, or to wait until the war has forced us to wake up to the urgency of removing the system.

Dystopia is here right now, but it doesn’t have to be our future. The choice is ours.