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John Bellamy Foster

Catastrophe capitalism and the COVID-19 crisis

John Bellamy Foster interviewed by Ömür Şahin Keyif for BirGün (Istanbul)

ÖŞK: In an interview with Michael D. Yates (“Trump, neo-fascism, and the COVID-19 Pandemic,”April 11, 2020, MR Online) you mentioned that “Capitalism is in its biggest crisis this century.” What makes this crisis the “biggest”? What will the outcome of this crisis look like? Will this crisis and failure lead to a major change in the paradigm?

JBF: When I said this was the biggest crisis so far this century, there has really been only one other major economic crisis in the last two decades and that was the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-2009, from which the system never really recovered, and which ushered in a period of what Robert W. McChesney and I, in the title of our 2012 book, called The Endless Crisis. Today, though, we are seeing the materialization of the deep structural contradictions of contemporary capitalism across a whole lot of measures: economic, ecological, epidemiological, and imperial/geopolitical that are together merging into a perfect global storm, which might be characterized as catastrophe capitalism. There is of course COVID-19, which, like other similar deadly zoonoses that have arisen in recent years, can be traced to global agribusiness with its monocultures and ecosystem destruction. But there is also the economic crisis. In the United States unemployment is now around 15 percent and rising (Goldman Sachs is now predicting that it will peak at 25 percent), something not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Nor will this go away instantly when social distancing stops, since it has revealed that the economy is a house of cards. The whole world financial structure is in peril, though right now Wall Street is benefitting from the huge governmental largesse associated with the stimulus and from world money seeking the dollar as a safe haven. Still, global commodity chains are broken everywhere and the globalization of the last few decades seems to be in retreat. Under these conditions we are likely to see continuing economic disarray.

Ecologically the dangers, including the rise of new zoonoses, are even greater, if one looks not only at the immediate present, but also takes into account the catastrophic conditions a few decades ahead, if capitalism continues to develop along the present path. According to a paper published recently in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 3.5 billion people may be pushed out of livable temperature zones by 2070. On top of all of this we are seeing the emergence of  a New Cold War and the beginnings of a new nuclear arms race, even growing threats of global thermonuclear conflagration. All of this caused the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists this year, before the onset of COVID-19, to declare that the famous doomsday clock is closer to apocalypse than ever. So, we are in a period of severe peril, and indeed total catastrophe if we don’t leave the burning house of capitalism.

The immediate result economically seems to be more rapid concentration of capital and an exacerbation of the class and imperial contradictions of the system. In terms of a change in “paradigm” there is certainly a pulling away from universal globalization and the implementation in its place of more national and even xenophobic strategies. The U.S. imperial state and U.S. corporations are now shifting toward attempts to “contain” China. The higher echelons of the capitalist class in the leading imperial countries at the center of the system, particularly the United States, see a world that is unstable and that continues to elude their grasp, and yet they are driven by the quest for ever greater power. Under these circumstances, the U.S. ruling class along with other ruling classes in the center of the system seem to be shifting increasingly toward neofascism as opposed to neoliberalism, that is a more directly totalitarian-capitalist model of state power, although the two are in many ways complementary. The so-called “trade war” (really about the struggle for control of information and financial capital, global commodity chains, and world economic hegemony) between the U.S. and China started before the crisis and represents the beginnings of titanic struggle. The COVID-19 pandemic has only brought this conflict to a head with the Trump administration using it to feed anti-Chinese sentiment. The really important question, since at the crux of the problem, is how all of this relates to the structural crisis of capital. In that respect one can expect a worsening of the systemic crisis along with increased polarization between those at the top and the bottom of the system. This is reflected in the United States in the gap between the billionaire/centimillionaires class and their hangers-on’s and everyone else (albeit with lower middle class employed as an increasingly militant rearguard).

ÖŞK: The health care system and health care workers in the United States are running out of PPE (Personal Protection Equipment). We saw a report of a nurse wearing a garbage bag as a gown. There are not enough hospital beds and ventilators. Why is it that the wealthiest country in the world does not have the basic equipment and hospitals?

JBF: There are a combination of factors involved here all related to neoliberal globalization under monopoly-finance capital. Multinational corporations in the United States have become dependent on the offshoring of production to the Global South to take advantage of low unit labor costs, a process known as the global labor arbitrage, which has generated huge capital surpluses. A single giant corporation, such as an automobile firm, may have as many as a million first-, second- and third-tier suppliers, largely invisible to the corporation itself, in its global commodity chain. This makes the economy vulnerable to supply-chain breakdowns, which have occurred in the context of the crisis, particularly with respect to PPE. This is combined with an emphasis on just-in-time production, which means among other things that inventories in warehouses are kept down and there is dependence on continuous, rapid supply from abroad. All of this is designed to reduce costs. There is no slack or wiggle room in the system. In the case of PPE we are seeing the effects of a global supply chain disruption (not to mention the hoarding of masks among the general population).

Underlying all of this is the fact that the U.S. health system is a highly privatized system that puts profits before people and generates huge returns by reducing access to medical care. It operates on a limited access, just-in-time basis, with no real public health infrastructure, and hence is less equipped than other systems to deal with a pandemic. Hospitals are actually shutting down in rural areas during the COVID-19 pandemic because they are unable to make their usual profits off of elective surgeries. In the urban areas the spike in COVID-19 patients easily overwhelms hospitals, which, during neoliberal restructuring, designed to elevate profits, have sought to limit their number of beds.

ÖŞK: The COVID-19 map tells us black and Hispanic communities are affected more than others. They are the major working-class groups in the United States. On the other hand, so called “essential workers” such as grocery store workers, warehouse workers and couriers, delivery workers, meat plant workers, agriculture workers are still working under unhealthy conditions with a major threat of coronavirus. What is this telling us about the general condition of the working class in the United States? 

JBF: In many ways your question says it all. The United States is a highly segregated society, a form of racial capitalism, so it is easy to perceive that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting black and Latinx communities. The working class and poor are disproportionately black and Hispanic. That means not only are the essential workers primarily people of color, but these same populations tend to live in impoverished conditions. This includes low income, high unemployment and underemployment, poor housing (including widespread homelessness), food deprivation, reliance on inadequate public transportation, lack of access to medical care, greater incidence of chronic health conditions, etc. Social distancing becomes virtually impossible under these conditions. It follows that COVID-19 spreads faster in working class and poor communities, including, especially, communities of color. None of this is new. Frederick Engel’s Condition of the Working Class in England, written in 1845, examined the etiology of disease as it affected the working class, and how this disproportionately hit oppressed ethnic populations, in that case the Irish proletarians in Manchester.

ÖŞK: U.S. President Donald Trump, a ‘neo-fascist’ in your evaluation, worked with corporate capitalists from the beginning of the crisis. First, he denied the existence of COVID-19, then he supported social distancing and government economic action once he saw that Wall Street was imperiled. Now he wants to reopen the nation. What would you say about Trump’s handling of the crisis? Do you think his crisis management proves us that he is a neo-fascist?

JBF Trump is a Wall Street, real estate gangster. He has been able to rise to the top in the U.S. political system because of the rise of a political-class formation that is best described as neofascist, for which he has become a focal point and a kind of friendly Führer figure for his followers with their red MAGA [Make America Great Again] hats. Neofascism, which is a fascism-lite when compared to its classical predecessors, is nonetheless part of the general fascist genus. It is the product of an opportunistic political-class alliance between monopoly-finance capital and the reactionary lower-middle class, which is primarily white, nationalistic, racist, and evangelical, and constitutes the rearguard of the capitalist system. Wall Street has hegemony in this alliance, which is primarily designed to protect the interests of what are called “the masters of the universe” in a hyper-polarized society and at a time of declining U.S. hegemony. But the political army consists mainly of white lower-middle class reactionaries, a very sizeable portion the population, but outnumbered by the working class. A century and a half after the defeat of the slave power in the United States its legacy is still present, and indeed was carried forward in the Jim Crow period and subsequently. So, the right organizes itself on the basis of racist codes and symbols, reflecting this history.

As to your final question here, I think Trump and his administration have responded to the crisis as one would expect, continually putting Wall Street and profits first, caring little about the underlying population. The COVID-19 crisis has been used to set aside environmental regulations, to promote a further coup attempt in Venezuela, to attack the World Health Organization, and to intensify its struggle for world hegemony with China. The power of the executive branch is being expanded while the separation of powers in the U.S. constitution is weakening. The neofascist thrust, I believe, is now deeply embedded in U.S. politics and goes beyond Trump and has even penetrated the Democratic Party. The latest act of the Trump administration in the last few days has been to veto a United Nations resolution for a global ceasefire during the pandemic.

ÖŞK: Despite the situation in the United States, Trump’s ratings are high. There are people in the street who protest the precautions. There is a report on a man wearing a KKK hood as a face covering in a grocery store. What do you think that this situation says about the possibility of change in the country?

JBF: Trump has, as I have noted, very strong support in the reactionary white lower middle class, extending to some extent to the more privileged elements of the working class. This sector votes in higher percentages than the general working-class population, which impacts how the polls are rated, and hence Trump’s rankings. The lower-middle class, which has historically enjoyed certain privileges, has been hit hard by neoliberalism and has gone in a nationalist, racist direction, urged on and financed by the top echelons of corporate capital. His poll numbers were also inflated for a time by a rallying around the flag in the context of the coronavirus which has been presented as a threat emanating from China. The lower middle class is antagonistic not only towards the working class as a whole (which is constantly under attack) but also towards the upper-middle class, which it associates with liberalism/neoliberalism and big government, and of course it is xenophobic to an extreme. Meanwhile, the establishment Democrats represented by Joe Biden, have moved further to the right and are clearly interested in a neoliberal/neofascist alliance, with neoliberalism though in the driving seat. In foreign policy, the Democrats have been mainly interested in promoting the  NATO-based New Cold War against Russia. In contrast, the Trump Republicans have wanted a detente with Russia (but are now backing off from that) while focusing on an economic and even possible military war with China to secure U.S. hegemony in the face of its relative decline. Much of this parallels the growing economic and political power interests of monopoly-finance capital. The latest signs are that the Biden campaign is now adopting xenophobic slogans against China as well, following Trump in this respect.

This is not the whole story, however. The bulk of the U.S. working class, which is the most diverse sector of the population and the most numerous is strongly anti-Trump and increasingly disenchanted. At this point the U.S. electoral process—which has always been democratic in form plutocratic in content, is so thoroughly corrupted that the results are bound to be disastrous in way or another for working people. Nevertheless, there is a volcano at the bottom of U.S. society and working-class eruptions—though at this point lacking any organized basis—are a growing possibility in the context of overall U.S. economic decline, widespread social destruction and fracturing, and class and racial warfare. This is heightened by a proclivity toward socialism  among the young, who realize that it represents the only viable future.

ÖŞK: The pandemic showed that the system in the United States is inadequate to deal with this crisis. Why in such a system don’t we see social nets that help people to be in solidarity with each other?

JBF: I think this only needs a short answer. The United States is a system of monopoly capitalism, in its most recent phase of monopoly-finance capital. The primary goal of such a system is profit/accumulation. The kind of social supports you mention would go against the logic of the system. In fact, the last few decades of neoliberal hegemony have seen the destruction of social nets and any pretense of social solidarity.

It is often said at the top in this country that the United States has the best health system in the world—ignoring the fact that it is consistently at the bottom among industrial countries in nearly all health indicators. Yet, in a perverse sense this claim  is true because the purpose of the health system as perceived by capitalism is not to provide health services but to promote profit. Measured in those terms, the U.S. does have the best health system, i.e. the most profitable one. And, of course, the medical technology available in the United States is very advanced for those rich enough to pay for it.

ÖŞK: We don’t know the source of the pandemic for sure yet. It is believed that the change of the ecological system and climate crisis will bring us more outbreaks like this. What kind of changes are needed to handle these kinds of crises in the future?

JBF: Actually, a lot is known in general about the etiology of disease in the case of the new zoonoses, which are mainly a product of global agribusiness. This has been extensively studied by researchers associated with Structural One Health. I would highly recommend the article “COVID-19 and the Circuits of Capital” by Rob Wallace and his colleagues in the May 2020 issue of Monthly Review. In terms of what we need to do to handle these kinds of crises in the future, it clear that it starts with prevention, which means overturning the present practices of agribusiness and the whole global food commodity chain. It is also necessary to give much more priority to public health. But more important than all of this we have to promote the alternative logic of socialism, including the creation of a society of substantive equality and ecological sustainability. That is, we must overturn the present system that prides itself in its “creative destruction.” There is no other way for humanity.

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