The Pandemic and the End of the Neoliberal Era

Atilio A. Boron

The coronavirus has unleashed a torrent of reflections and analyses that have as a common denominator the intention to outline the (diffuse) contours of the kind of society and economy that will re-emerge once the scourge has been controlled. There are plenty of reasons to enter into that kind of speculation, which should be informed and controlled, because if there is one thing we are completely sure of, it is that the first fatal victim of the pandemic was the neoliberal version of capitalism. And I say “version” because I have serious doubts that the virus in question has worked the miracle of ending not only neoliberalism but also the structure that supports it: capitalism as a mode of production and as an international system. But the neoliberal era is a still unburied but impossible corpse to resurrect. What will happen to capitalism? Well, that’s what this article is about.

I sympathize very much with the work and the person of Slavoj Zizek but this is not enough for me to agree with him when he states that the pandemic dealt “a Kill Bill blow to the capitalist system” after which, following the cinematic metaphor, it should drop dead within five seconds. It has not happened and will not happen because, as Lenin reminded us on more than one occasion, “capitalism will not fall if there are no social and political forces to make it fall”. Capitalism survived the so-called “Spanish flu,” which we now know came to light in Kansas in March 1918 at the Fort Riley military base, and was then spread uncontrollably by U.S. troops who marched into battle in World War I. The very imprecise estimates of its lethality range from 20, 50 to 100 million people, so it is not necessary to be a statistics obsessive to distrust the rigour of those estimates widely disseminated by many organizations, including the National Geographic Magazine . Capitalism also survived the tremendous global collapse produced by the Great Depression, showing an unusual resilience -already forewarned by the classics of Marxism- to process the crises and even come out stronger from them. To think that in the absence of those social and political forces pointed out by the Russian revolutionary (which at the moment are not perceived either in the United States or in the European countries) the longed-for demise of an immoral, unjust and predatory system, mortal enemy of humanity and nature, will now take place, is more an expression of desire than the product of a concrete analysis.

Zizek is confident that as a result of this crisis, humanity will be able to resort to “some form of reinvented communism” to save itself. This is certainly possible and desirable. But, like almost everything else in social life, it will depend on the outcome of the class struggle; more specifically on whether, to return to Lenin, “those on the bottom will not and cannot go on living as before,” which we do not yet know. But the bifurcation of the way out of this juncture presents another possible outcome, which Zizek identifies very clearly: “barbarism”, the reaffirmation of the domination of capital by resorting to the most brutal forms of economic exploitation, political-state coercion and manipulation of consciences and hearts through its hitherto intact media dictatorship. “Barbarism”, István Mészarós used to say with a dose of bitter irony, “if we are lucky.”

But why not think of another intermediate solution, neither the much feared “barbarism” (of which we have long been given increasing doses in the existing capitalism”) nor the equally longed-for option of a “reinvented communism”? Why not consider that a transition towards post-capitalism will inevitably be “unequal and combined”, with profound advances in some areas: the de-financialization of the economy, the de-commercialization of health and social security, for example, and those more hesitant, encountering greater resistance from the bourgeoisie, in areas such as the rigorous control of the global financial casino, the nationalization of the pharmaceutical industry (so that drugs will no longer be a commodity produced for profit), strategic industries and the media, as well as the public recovery of so-called “natural resources” (common goods, in fact)? Why not consider “those many socialisms” of which the great English Marxist Raymond Williams spoke premonitory in the mid-1980s of the last century?

Faced with the proposal of a “reinvented communism”, the South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han jumps into the ring to refute the Slovenian’s thesis and risks stating that “after the pandemic, capitalism will continue with greater strength”. It is a reckless statement because if anything is on the horizon it is the widespread call from all of society for much more active state intervention to control the disruptive effects of markets on the provision of basic services in health, housing, social security, transportation, etc. and to end the scandal of the hyper-concentration of half of all the planet’s wealth in the hands of the richest 1 percent of the world’s population. That post-pandemic world will have much more state and much less market, with populations “conscious” and politicized by the scourge to which they have been submitted and prone to seek solidarity and collective solutions, including “socialist” ones in countries like the United States, as Judith Butler reminds us, repudiating the individualistic and privatization rampage exalted for forty years by neoliberalism which led us to the tragic situation we are experiencing. Moreover, it is a world where the international system has definitely adopted a different format in the presence of a new dominant triad, although the specific weight of each of its actors is not the same. If Samir Amin was right at the end of the last century when he spoke of the triad formed by the United States, Europe and Japan, today it is the United States, China and Russia. And unlike the previous tripolar order, in which Europe and Japan were junior partners (not to say pawns or lackeys, which sounds a bit contemptuous but is the characterization they deserve) of Washington, today the latter has to deal with the formidable economic power of China, undoubtedly the current locomotive of the world economy relegating the United States to second place and which, moreover, has taken the lead in 5G technology and in Artificial Intelligence. In addition to the above, there is the no less threatening presence of a Russia that has returned to the forefront of world politics: rich in oil, energy and water; owning an immense territory (almost twice as large as the United States) and a powerful industrial complex that has produced state-of-the-art military technology that in several decisive areas is superior to that of the United States, Russia complements with its strength on the military plane the strength that China has in the field of economy. It is difficult, as Han says, for capitalism to acquire renewed strength in this unpromising international scenario. If it had the gravitation and global penetration that it used to have, it was because, as Samuel P. Huntington said, there was a “lone sheriff” who upheld the world capitalist order with its unquestionable economic, military, political and ideological primacy.

Currently, the primary one is in the hands of China, and the enormous military spending of the United States is not enough to win a war against a small country like North Korea, or against one of the poorest nations on the planet like Afghanistan. Washington’s political ascendancy is held in check with pins just in its “inner courtyard”: Latin America and the Caribbean, but in the midst of great upheaval. And its international prestige has been greatly weakened: China was able to control the pandemic and the United States was not; China, Russia and Cuba are helping to combat it in Europe, and Cuba, a world example of solidarity, is sending doctors and medicines to all five continents while the only thing that comes to mind among those transiting through the White House is to send 30,000 soldiers for a military exercise with NATO and to intensify sanctions against Cuba, Venezuela and Iran, in what constitutes a flagrant war crime. Their former hegemony is now a thing of the past. What is being discussed today in the halls of the U.S. government agencies is not whether the country is in decline or not, but the slope and pace of the decline. And the pandemic is accelerating this process by the hour.

The South Korean Byung-Chul Han is right, however, when he says that “no virus is capable of making revolution” but falls into redundancy when he writes that “we cannot leave the revolution in the hands of the virus.” Of course not! Let’s look at the historical record: the Russian Revolution broke out before the “Spanish flu” pandemic, and the victory of the revolutionary processes in China, Vietnam and Cuba were not preceded by any pandemic. Revolution is made by the subordinate classes when they become aware of the exploitation and oppression to which they are subjected; when they glimpse that far from being an unattainable illusion a post-capitalist world is possible and, finally, when they succeed in organizing themselves on a national and international scale to fight against an “imperial bourgeoisie” that once strongly intertwined the interests of the capitalists in the developed countries. Today, thanks to Donald Trump, that iron unity at the top of the imperialist system has been irreparably broken and the struggle above is one of all against all, while China and Russia continue patiently and without hubris to build the alliances that will sustain a new world order.

One last thought. I believe that we must gauge the extraordinary seriousness of the economic effects of this pandemic, which will make a return to the past impossible. The various governments of the world have been forced to face a cruel dilemma: the health of the population or the vigour of the economy. The recent statements by Donald Trump (and other leaders such as Angela Merkel and Boris Johnson) that he will not adopt a strategy of containing the contagion by quarantining large sections of the population because this would paralyze the economy, highlights the basic contradiction of capitalism. Because, it is worth remembering, if the population does not go to work, the process of value creation stops and then there is neither extraction nor realization of surplus value. The virus jumps from the people to the economy, and this causes fear in capitalist governments that are reluctant to impose or maintain quarantine because business needs people to go out on the streets and go to work even though they know it puts their health at risk. According to Mike Davis, 45 percent of the U.S. workforce “has no access to paid sick leave and is virtually forced to go to work and spread infection or be left with an empty plate. The situation is untenable on the side of capital, which needs to exploit its workforce and finds it intolerable that it should stay at home; and on the side of the workers, who, if they go to work or become infected or do the same to others, and if they stay at home, have no money to meet their most basic needs. This critical crossroads explains Trump’s growing belligerence against Cuba, Venezuela and Iran, and his insistence on attributing the origin of the pandemic to the Chinese. He has to create a smokescreen to hide the dire consequences of decades of underfunding the public health system and complicity with the structural scams of his country’s private medicine and pharmaceutical industry. Alternatively, they can blame the cause of the economic recession on those who advise people to stay at home. In any case, and regardless of whether the way out of this crisis will be a “renewed communism” as Zizek would like, or a hybrid experiment clearly pointing in the direction of post-capitalism, this pandemic (as clearly explained by Mike Davis, David Harvey, Iñaki Gil of San Vicente, Juanlu González, Vicenç Navarro, Alain Badiou, Fernando Buen Abad, Pablo Guadarrama, Rocco Carbone, Ernesto López, Wim Dierckxsens and Walter Formento in various articles that circulate profusely on the web) has moved the tectonic plates of global capitalism and nothing can ever be the same again. Besides, nobody wants the world to go back to the way it was before, except for the handful of tycoons who became rich from the savage plundering perpetrated during the neoliberal era. This is a tremendous challenge for those of us who want to build a post-capitalist world because, without a doubt, the pandemic and its devastating effects offer a unique, unexpected opportunity that it would be unforgivable to miss. Therefore, the watchword of the hour for all the anti-capitalist forces of the planet is: to raise awareness, to organize and to fight; to fight until the end, as Fidel wanted when, in a memorable meeting with intellectuals held within the framework of the International Book Fair of Havana, in February 2012, he said goodbye to us and said: “if they say to you: be assured that the planet is ending and this thinking species is ending, what are you going to do, start crying? I think we have to fight, that’s what we’ve always done”. Let’s get to work!

Translation by Internationalist 360º