Lim Mah Hui and Michael Heng Siam-Heng, COVID-19 and the Structural Crises of our Time (Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2022), 199 pages, paperback.
COVID-19 and the Structural Crises of our Time is a very timely and important book written by Mah-Hui Lim, a one-time sociology professor who went on to work in international banking, and Michael Heng Siam-Hang, a former professor of management studies.
Written from a Marxian perspective, the book situates the COVID-19 epidemic within global political economy. Specifically, it (1) explains how the crisis is in part a consequence of our global, capitalist way of life; (2) how our global political economy was affected by the crisis; (3) how different nations with different health care systems and ideologies reacted to the crisis; and (4) what we might expect in the future.
One key virtue of the book is that it is highly readable and engaging, even when it delves into important details of financial maneuvering. A further virtue is that the analysis is worldwide in scope, rather than confined to the United States. On the contrary, the book examines differential impacts and responses across the international order. Finally, its highly synthetic nature allows it to effectively draw together nature, economics, and politics in a unified way.
The Marxian perspective is evident as the the book traces a trajectory from competitive to monopoly to finance capitalism. Much more explicit, however, is the debt to Karl Polanyi’s argument in The Great Transformation that, with the birth of industrial capitalism, the market system was disembedded from the encompassing norms of reciprocity and social constraint, becoming autonomous and dominant. The result is what Polanyi termed market society, which we now call the neoliberal order.
The authors refer to this social disembedding of the market as the first great social transformation. However, it was likely not the first such transformation in human history. Prior to this, there was the transformation from nomadism to settled agriculture, with all the social hierarchies that transition created—including, eventually, slavery. Arguably, the so-called axial age (circa 800 BCE) was another important transformation. COVID-19 and the Structural Crises of our Time nevertheless seeks to call attention to the current order of financialized capitalism as a second great transformation, though it is unclear why the authors think the transition to monopoly capitalism was not also an equally great transformation. This would make finance capitalism the third great transformation, but they are certainly correct that it is this relatively new financialized phase of capitalism with which we now must contend.
After laying out this basic framework of the book, the authors begin with nature. Starting with the Justinian Plague, circa 500 CE, they take us through three subsequent pandemics before we arrive at the modern period, which saw the influenza epidemics of 1918 and 1957, as well as the advent of avian and swine flus.
Given this history, the authors argue, another worldwide pandemic was inevitable. To date, they observe, the deadliest such was the Bubonic Plague, circa 1350 CE. In that plague, Europe lost a third to half of its population, creating an acute labor shortage that, the argument goes, helped contribute to the demise of feudalism. Even historically, therefore, plagues have very destabilizing social consequences. Conversely, the authors observe, plagues also have causes that are social, such as the international commerce that spread the Bubonic plague from Asia to Europe. Nature and society, in other words, are always dialectically connected.
That dialectical connection has been intensified with the rise of industrialized capitalism, where, as the authors eloquently put it, “modern industrialized farms are nothing like the bucolic farmyards of children’s storybooks.” These farms’ vastness and conditions, they argue, “provide the perfect breeding grounds for new strains of viruses, laying the groundwork for future pandemics.”1
Of particular interest is the book’s in-depth discussion of how different countries fared with the virus. The United States led the list of the ten countries that fared most poorly in terms of both infection and mortality rates, but five of the ten were likewise “led by nationalist-populist leaders who disdained control measures.”2 Among the countries that fared much better were those in Asia, which “carried out effective surveillance, contact tracing and testing, stemming the spread of infection early on.”3
The next two chapters comprise the heart of the book, covering how different governments tried to ameliorate the drastic economic effects of the pandemic and how those very efforts, constrained by the tools available within a global neoliberal order, end up laying the groundwork for future crises.
The basic problem for all nations was the sudden stop of economic activity as lockdowns were quickly instituted across the world. One important point, which the authors observe has been little discussed, is that “in all the measures described… the public sector was the undisputed driver of the rescue effort…. Nobody expected the private sector to provide the solutions.”4
What governments did have at their disposal were fiscal and monetary policies. Fiscal policies that poured money into the hands of consumers in the form of various relief measures had profoundly positive effects, but it was monetary policies that kept economies from imploding. These monetary policies were primarily driven by central banks, which both kept interest rates inordinately low and engaged in “large-scale purchases of government bonds, especially called Quantitative Easing (QE), as a way to help federal and local governments finance the unexpected increase in expenditure.”5
The basic problem for the entire system of finance capitalism, COVID-19 and the Structural Crises of our Time argues, is that the remedies for each financial crisis add to the accumulating debt. At the same time, each new crisis leaves fewer arrows in governmental quivers that can be aimed at solutions. Thus, the book, published at the beginning of 2022, presciently asks how long interest rates can be kept low, and how long before inflationary remedies will need to be counteracted by policies pulling in the opposite direction. With the year not yet even out, we can already see the answer: Not long at all.
The penultimate chapter of the book, entitled “Populism and the Problem of Democracy,” returns us to Polanyi’s insight that capitalism and democracy are in tension. Here, the authors argue—as did Polanyi—that the social failures of neoliberal market dominance leave people looking across the globe for solutions beyond those offered by neoliberal elites. Authoritarian impulses are thus erupting not just in the United States, but throughout the world.
The final chapter then examines where the future might take us. Essentially, the authors envision three major alternatives. While the continuance of social democracy remains one possibility, two other possibilities are those of authoritarianism: a national, populist form of neoliberalism, bolstered by shows of force in the name of order and retrenchment; and the kind of elite, state-led management of capitalism exemplified by China. Being political in nature, all three forms represent, in a sense, different superstructures. In classical Marxian style, however, COVID-19 and the Structural Crises of our Time reminds us of the ultimate primacy of infrastructure. Unless the market is re-embedded within the fabric of socially protective norms, it will continue to be a tiger that political efforts hold only by the tail.
1. Lim Mah Hui and Michael Heng Siam-Heng, COVID-19 and the Structural Crises of our Time (Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2022), 30.
2. Lim Mah Hui and Michael Heng Siam-Heng, COVID-19 and the Structural Crises of our Time, 35.
3. Lim Mah Hui and Michael Heng Siam-Heng, COVID-19 and the Structural Crises of our Time, 41.
4. Lim Mah Hui and Michael Heng Siam-Heng, COVID-19 and the Structural Crises of our Time, 63.
5. Lim Mah Hui and Michael Heng Siam-Heng, COVID-19 and the Structural Crises of our Time, 67.