“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”— Famously attributed to Slavoj Zizek.
“Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.”— Friedrich Engels.
In the past few years, I’ve been observing the encroachment of socialism into the political establishments of leading first-world nations, specifically the United States of America and the United Kingdom. In America, I watched Bernie Sanders battling to battle Trump, and in the UK, I watched Jeremy Corbyn battling David Cameron (then Theresa May, then Boris Johnson, and their lapdogs in the media).
The left and the right moved ever towards their extremities, and it seemed like a final decisive battle was being waged between humanity, as embodied in socialism, and barbarism, as embodied in the barely-there corpse of capitalism we insisted on dragging around. I watched UK and US electoral politics from a distance yet I always felt certain, right up till the very end, that our candidate (the people’s candidate) must win. There’s no way that he can’t win — conditions are so obviously terrible all around us! How could anyone be blind to that? How could anyone at all vote for anyone but him, unless they’re voters from 1% who only make up 1% anyway so who cares?
Both times I’ve been proven wrong and both times, the idea that anyone would vote to maintain the status quo (or even to fight the status quo by moving right, as with Trump 2016) seemed shocking to me only up until the last minute. Maybe I just live in an echo chamber, maybe it’s difficult for me to separate what I want from what’s realistically possible. Campaign period is a huge frenzy of passion, hope, and propaganda, but the day before the election, when nothing is possible anymore, reality seems to return in a rush and settle heavily as the results come in. I thought Jeremy would win until he didn’t, and then his loss made sense; I thought Bernie might win the nomination until Joe started sweeping delegates, and the possibility already seems dead.
In the first few days when lockdown measures started taking place all over the world and we started to feel the consequences of measures imposed desperately and recklessly in a state of crisis, I felt hopeful that this could be the start of something. With confused shock, the world watched every single thing that capitalism previously claimed was impossible become possible. Momentarily, it became easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the world.
In Malaysia, some state governments started offering allowances to laid-off workers or one-off payments to their citizens. In a news piece I read today, the state has also stepped in to requisition face masks from a company accused of price-gouging (paralleling a case with an individual “entrepreneur” in the US). Spain has nationalised hospitals, while France and the UK have started housing homeless people in hotels, and the US Senate just passed an economic stimulus deal which proposes an emergency monthly allowance cheque of $1200 for certain individuals. Over Twitter, we watched how communist governments in Vietnam and China efficiently organised essential services during their lockdown. Vietnam put in place a centralised food production and delivery system instead of leaving it to individual businesses, which would have allowed cracks for exploitation to seep through. Doctors from China, Cuba, and Venezuela — all socialist/communist countries — were sent all over the world to help fight the pandemic.
Momentarily, it seemed as if the contradictions within capitalism were exposing themselves faster than the virus. Graffiti appeared in London proclaiming, “MAKE THE RICH PAY FOR COVID 19” and “NO RENT” and “HANG RICHARD BRANSON”, punctuated with the hammer and sickle. People are becoming increasingly, aggressively aware that capitalism, and the governments who are colluding to protect capitalists, is incapable of dealing with a crisis.
Where are the protections for workers? Why is the state, supposedly a “democratic” representation of “the people”, not overriding the will of landlords and employers to impose rent relief and unconditional sick pay? Why doesn’t the state provide a universal allowance, or if not that, then follow Vietnam’s lead in producing and distributing food to everyone who needs it? Many countries are announcing “stimulus packages” to alleviate the burden of Covid-19, but a lot of this money is going into ailing ventures like airline companies and the stock market. When will we stop prioritising businesses over individuals?
To start thinking in this way is to start thinking about a total revolution of all social relations. The energy is clearly there, all over the world, as governments and corporations are shown up by community efforts and soup kitchens. But just like the waves that Corbyn and Sanders rode in on, I feel like this one is going to abate.
A friend asked me what my predictions for the aftermath of Covid-19 are, how I think this crisis may shape the new normal. I don’t think it will. (Besides perhaps an increased concern about hygiene.) Some people will be laid off, some businesses will close permanently, but this is already part of our everyday normal. All of the “socialist” measures now in place are crisis measures that will predictably be lifted again as the threat of the virus subsides and people try to square with the amount of carnage we’ve just lived through. We now know that full housing and an end to profiteering are within the realm of possibility, but the total structural change required to maintain this isn’t possible. We will most likely continue the way we were before, which is what many people want, but it means that we will never really be prepared to face another crisis without losing the same amount of people.
When the lieutenant governor of Texas proposed that elderly people should be OK with sacrificing themselves to get the American economy back on track, or when Boris Johnson drew up his “herd immunity” plan, we should not see these as accurate reflections of the scale of the crisis. Rather, they are simply the limits of capitalism’s logic. Death and suffering are already written into capitalism’s programming code. In one of his coronavirus commentaries, Zizek points to a strange yet believable observation made by an environmental resource economist that China’s lockdown probably prevented more deaths from air pollution than which died during the entire Covid-19 outbreak there! By staying home, the amount of pollution that would have been generated by vehicles and factories decreased dramatically.
A funny point, but a reasonable one once you realise that capitalism needs to kill, pollute, and destroy in order to live. Under capitalism, people already slip through the cracks anyway. When people say that “capitalism is the only system that works”, they are saying that homelessness, destitution, discrimination, and violence are requirements for their system to function properly. As an economic philosophy that puts individual gain over collective safety, capitalism operates on profit first and humanitarian feelings second (and then only insofar as they serve or at the very least do not damage the increment of profit).
Migrants are also a “by-product” of capitalism because their labour can be bought for much cheaper than domestic labour; put in competition with domestic labour, both wages are forced down, which benefits no one except their bosses. This phenomenon of tenants being threatened with eviction by their landlords is also another symptom of capitalism, as only those with the initial capital to do so can buy up property and then squeeze tenants for rent despite performing minimal labour beyond covering some maintenance (some landlords do not even do that). Another one of capitalism’s direct products is the phenomenon of price-gouging — it seems cruel now in light of the crisis but private pharmaceutical companies make their money precisely in this manner with other essential medicines everyday.
Socialism is the basic notion that nobody should have to struggle simply to live. Absolutely nobody. This is controversial to some. In my belief, everyone should be guaranteed, at the most minimum: food, a roof over their heads, basic education (at least literacy) and healthcare. This is not even to say that everyone should get their own house! (Even though I’m sure there are enough empty floors in all the pointless hotels, serviced apartments, and new phallic developments to house everyone.) Even just a communal apartment. Ho Chi Minh lived modestly in a traditional Vietnamese stilt house. Anyone who works really hard can get a better home or better food, whatever, but at the most minimum nobody should ever have to die just for being born, and if there are other luxuries that the elite few should give up to ensure this, then I think it is worth it.
Many consider this controversial but the bigger controversy should be capitalism and its requisite suffering. It is impossible to imagine its end because we have all been living under it for so long, but we must be able to try. We must question ourselves mercilessly about how badly we could want to hold on to our current way of living if someone has to die for it, or if the environment has to go to waste for it. (Nor is it a question of individual effort — while recycling and reducing one’s carbon footprint is admirable, the immense sacrifice of the environment requires an immense sacrifice in kind from us if we want to save it.) The lives we lose to coronavirus will not have been a failure of the doctors or nurses — they will have been a failure of the imagination. Many people fail to imagine how we could possibly save more people even as they refuse to do anything for the newly destitute. They keep asking how we will pay for it. Once you can start to believe the basic principle, all the answers will follow.