Covid-19 pandemic: An opportunity to press the reset button on capitalism?


If ever there were a golden opportunity for humankind to press the proverbial reset button regarding the unsustainable way in which we live, it is now, in the midst of the global coronavirus crisis. The pandemic has brought economies worldwide to a virtual standstill and, in the process, given us clear skies and a glimpse of what the planet would be like without our species. And, regrettably, it appears — from numerous videos and news reports — that the world and its (other) creatures would be better off without us. Just this morning someone sent me a picture of a group of cats, in which one stood on its hind legs and told the rest: “They were called ‘people’ and they walked like this!” 

That just about says it all. What a sorry state of affairs to have to admit that the human species’ short-sightedness, greed, and intent on amassing heaps of money, even if it means it is at the cost of the very condition of our continued existence — nature — have brought us to the brink of societal collapse. Many scientists — like this one — have stressed that it is humans’ “intrusion in nature” that has generated the transfer of the novel coronavirus to our species, and that — unless humans backed off — it would happen again. 

In 2010 David Harvey, an authority on Marxist studies, wrote about the limits nature poses for capitalist expansion in his book, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. He did so in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and then already he remarked that: “… there is a wide-ranging field of concern, of political anxiety and endeavour, that focuses on the idea of a crisis in the relation to nature, as a sustainable source of raw materials, as mere land for further capitalist (urban and agricultural) development, as well as a sink for an increasing stream of toxic waste.” 

A little further on, his words assume an almost prophetic tone: “There may be an imminent crisis in our relation to nature that will require widespread adaptations (cultural and social, as well as technical) if this barrier is to be successfully circumvented, at least for a time, within the framework of endless capital accumulation. The fact that capitalism has, in the past, successfully navigated around natural barriers, and that it has often done so profitably since environmental technologies have long been big business and can certainly become much bigger … does not mean that the nature question can never constitute some ultimate limit.” 

I would wager that the novel coronavirus constitutes an incontrovertible sign that such a limit has been reached. I know exactly how supporters of capitalism — including Big Pharma — would react: “It’s just a matter of finding a vaccine, and we’ll be on our way again!” And I would respond: “Read what virologists and other medical authorities have stated, time and again, that the difficulties posed by this coronavirus for the development of a vaccine are indicative of problems further down the line, because already — compared to its viral predecessors, like the SARS and MERS viruses — it has presented structural problems that did not exist before.” 

The point is: the evolution of such viruses will not stop here. Difficult as it is to tame the coronavirus, the next one may prove to be even more evasive, because — as Charles Darwin taught us — everything evolves to overcome threats in its environment, and viruses are no exception. 

Here, too, Harvey seems to have been prophetic regarding the probable emergence of the new pathogen that has paralysed the dominant economic system: “What we call the natural world is not some passive entity but, as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once put it, ‘a system in perpetual search of novelty’. To begin with, tectonic movements beneath the Earth’s surface generate instabilities that give us earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and other events, while instabilities in atmospheric and oceanic circulations give us hurricanes, tornadoes, snow storms, droughts and heat waves that have all manner of human consequences, albeit unevenly distributed, both geographically and socially. Furthermore, trading upon and profiting from human disasters induced by natural events is far too frequent a feature of capitalism to be taken lightly. 

“While human action has successfully eliminated the bubonic plague and smallpox, it now has to confront entirely new pathogens and diseases such as HIV/Aids, SARS, the West Nile virus, Ebola and avian flu, to say nothing of the potential for a new mutated influenza pandemic of the sort that killed millions back in 1918. Climates have long been subjected to a whole range of forces that uncomfortably mix together human-induced and non-human elements in such a way as to make it difficult to determine which is which, even when the very best scientific minds are collectively put to work to figure out the global climatic consequences of human action. While the effects are indisputable, the full range of consequences is almost impossible to determine.”

In the light of all of this, what are the chances for humanity to come to its senses and ditch the disastrous capitalist system for something better — whatever one might call that — something that would factor our indissoluble relationship with nature into economic relations? Even without having read Harvey, I would not be optimistic. People are fundamentally too attached to entrenched habits and customs (even bad ones: witness, patriarchy) to let go of these, even if their continued existence depends on it. Already companies the world over are champing at the bit to get going again, although I must add that some seem to have taken the lesson of the coronavirus seriously, up to a point — for instance, some airlines have announced seating and disinfectant regimen changes that would make it safer to fly. 

Critical thinking is required

In 2010 Harvey was not optimistic about fundamental change, with good reason, which hinges on the inability of institutions such as universities to integrate truly critical thinking into the courses on offer. The reason? Universities are in the ideological grip of the hegemonic economic system (which has the political system over a barrel), and will, therefore, not allow truly critical thinking to seep into economics and accounting courses. Harvey insists that it is “… only when these critical ideas [are] carried over into the fields of institutional arrangements, organisational forms, production systems, social relations, technologies and relations to nature that the world would truly change.”

Furthermore, as far as universities go, Harvey has more to add: “The repression of critical and radical currents of thought — or, to be more exact, the corralling of radicalism within the bounds of multiculturalism and cultural choice — creates a lamentable situation within the academy and beyond, no different in principle to having to ask the bankers who made the mess [in 2008] to clean it up with exactly the same tools as they used to get into it.” 

This may not seem to pertain to the coronavirus crisis, but it certainly does insofar as capitalism is at the basis of the encroachment on nature — need I remind anyone of the utterly stupid eradication of the world’s foreststo plant palm trees for palm oil, and to make way for soya-bean production? This is what has affected the habitat of wild animals which, because they are placed under stress, are more likely to shed the viruses they carry and infect humans. Hence, and I shall not mince my words here: capitalism is the enemy — not only of poor people, but of all people, as well as other living creatures. Here is a lengthy excerpt from Harvey, in which he pulls no punches (take note, university administrators, if you have the guts to do what is right and just): 

“But the current crop of academicians, intellectuals and experts in the social sciences and humanities are, by and large, ill-equipped to undertake such a collective task. Few seem predisposed to engage in that self-critical reflection that Robert Samuelson urged upon them. Universities continue to promote the same useless courses on neoclassical economic or rational-choice political theory as if nothing has happened and the vaunted business schools simply add a course or two on business ethics or how to make money out of other people’s bankruptcies. After all, the crisis arose out of human greed and there is nothing that can be done about that! 

“The current knowledge structure is clearly dysfunctional and equally clearly illegitimate. The only hope is that a new generation of perceptive students (in the broad sense of all those who seek to know the world) will clearly see that it is so and insist upon changing it. This happened in the 1960s. At various other critical points in history, student-inspired movements, recognising the disjunction between what is happening in the world and what they are being taught and fed by the media, were prepared to do something about it. There are signs, from Tehran to Athens and on many European university campuses of such a movement. How the new generation of students in China will act must surely be of deep concern in the corridors of political power in Beijing. 

“A youthful, student-led revolutionary movement, with all of its evident uncertainties and problems, is a necessary but not sufficient condition to produce that revolution in mental conceptions that can lead us to a more rational solution to the current problems of endless growth. The first lesson it must learn is that an ethical, non-exploitative and socially just capitalism that redounds to the benefit of all is impossible. It contradicts the very nature of what capital is about.”  

As far as a generation of critically thinking — and importantly, critically acting — students is concerned, I am happy to say that I have always taught my students, from undergraduate to doctoral level, of capitalism’s injustices (after all, as Socrates taught me, philosophy serves the truth, and not any ideological system), and several of them have become highly articulate critics of this deplorable system. Moreover, their very way of living testifies to their deep understanding of capitalism’s depravity, and of its cultivation of greed in people, not least students in business schools and economic faculties at universities. 

The time for such a critical student generation to advocate for the urgency of a transition to a life-promoting economic system has never been better than now, when the coronavirus has brought our world, and its problems, so clearly in focus.

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Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier is an honorary professor of philosophy at the University of the Free State, South Africa. As well as philosophy, he engages in productive explorations of disciplines such as architectural and psychoanalytical theory and film studies

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