crowded street
(Image: Adobe)

The sensation of suddenly feeling one is in a dystopian science fiction is fairly common these days, but it really got a workout last Friday in the US when Donald Trump appeared for a press conference with a crack anti-virus team.

Scientists? Doctors? Some of them, but then: “I’d like to introduce the CEO of Target… such and such from Walmart… from Walgreens…” said the president, introducing one suit after another.

Google was working on a website. Walmart was going to set up testing stations in car parks.

This was Robocop meets Idiocracy, patching up a chaotic healthcare non-system, with corporate “partners”. Part of it was to give a counter-narrative — capital to the rescue! — to the obvious failure of the US response.

That was all to be expected. States in which the public sector has been cut, blasted apart and denigrated have performed badly. Those with both a functioning public system and efficient government fared best; both dirigiste societies like Singapore, and the old social democracies of northern Europe.

The US, its government having denigrated Italy, is on the edge of becoming Italy. The big corporations have staked their claim, with their hustled involvement in mass testing, eager to increase their role in regulation and control until they are fully quasi-state institutions.

That is a depressing prospect, consumer disaster capitalism in which the first industries to get government interest-free “loans” are cruise ships, entertainment and hospitality.

Nevertheless, that process is only occurring at one level of social action. At a deeper level, and with more insistence, the virus and the response to it are inherently tilted towards a “socialist” notion of social and economic life, one that is all the more powerful because in many places it is being advanced by politicians who have spent their life denigrating, or denying the existence of, anything called “society”.

They have no choice but to acknowledge it now in everything they do.

That observation has become commonplace, but two further things follow from it. The first is that the qualitative aspect of production is being disengaged from the quantitative, in a way that makes the nature of our economy visible.

No one doubts that there are essential services, very important services and dispensable services, which is why the bars are being closed but the pharmacies aren’t. No bright Chicago-style economist has popped up to say that, y’know, the choice between a ventilator and a box of chocolates is up to the consumer, etc etc, and the supply will emerge for the demand.

That no one rational is arguing this demonstrates the real nature of production as inherently social, and how most classical liberal justifications are fantasies about how the world works.

This perception is now something that the governments charged with managing this crisis are eager to avoid — so much so that Donald Trump is resisting the call to nationalise the production of ventilators.

Once that is done then of course the establishment has proved Bernie Sanders’s point magnificently. They will tolerate a higher death-toll to avoid fostering that perception, if they can.

But there is little they can do. From the moment you direct frontline treatment from the centre (even if you yoke in a few corporations into it) the question is then asked about directing next-level production and distribution — food, clothes, etc.

Should rationing be imposed? Exports limited? Once again, once the questions are posed, such measures are debated pro and con for common ends, not through the question of economic rights.

Finally, though rapidly, the question about who should do the work, and under what conditions, gets raised. This has started as a question of paid leave and sick days, but as the virus persists the question of who should do what and why will come to the fore.

The current round of measures in the US — shutting down cafes and bars and encouraging people to get take-away — assumes an underclass preparing the food, whose health and survival is not factored in. The continuation of “prepared food” depends on people turning up to prepare it.

The proposal for a wages freeze assumes that people will keep turning up to all these jobs as their conditions get worse. The question of who gets paid how much, and who decides, are sharpened when those in some of the lowest-paid jobs, such as cashiers and hotel cleaners, have some of the highest rates of risk.

This will occur at about the same time the other question gets posed — why our economy was so dependent on people spending ridiculous amounts of money on leisure to keep going? Shouldn’t an economy produce more of things like, hmmm, ventilators than espressotinis?

Indeed, we appear to be moving into the next stage about as fast as I can write this article.

Spain has nationalised its hospital system. Rent and fees freezes are being introduced by localities in the US and whole countries elsewhere. Amazon has started to prioritise stocking of essentials from its direct supply warehouses — ahead, one presumes, of being directed to do so.

They, and others, will of course try and destroy what remains of their competition using this process of consolidation. 

So this is a boon for advancing the argument for a rational socioeconomic process, and for demonstrating the existence of the social beneath the corporate, and which supports the corporate.

It is a time for putting some radical options on the table.

If only we could leave the house…

Peter Fray

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