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Pandemic Capitalism

Pervasive inequality is a chosen catastrophe. It’s time for a rethink.

The main idea underpinning the current version of capitalism is blindingly simple: you only have to remember one thing - that your job is to maximize profits. And you only have to accept one lie - that in doing so, you benefit the collective. (Photo: Flickr/Andy Roberts. CC BY 2.0.)

The main idea underpinning the current version of capitalism is blindingly simple: you only have to remember one thing - that your job is to maximize profits. And you only have to accept one lie - that in doing so, you benefit the collective. (Photo: Flickr/Andy Roberts. CC BY 2.0.)

I was a canary in the economic coal mine.

It was a normal workday. I woke up and started my daily routine. Brush, shave, shower, dress… Except that morning’s routine stopped when I found myself face down in the shower. Scared and confused, I called out to my wife. She helped me up and got me to a doctor, who found me to be in good health. I spent the rest of the day resting, while feeling relieved by the diagnosis.

The next morning I was a bit apprehensive about the shower. The fear was warranted. I woke up on the floor again, more confused than the day before and terrified. My doctor suggested that I ‘put my affairs in order.’

That was ten years ago. The driving force was stress that stemmed from financial challenges. When outflows exceed inflows, the well eventually runs dry. Our remaining resources were circling the drain. Pride and an unjust economic system had us in a trap. I eventually broke.

We live our lives shackled to the ideas of dead economists.

My story isn’t unique. Millions of people live like this. Our porous safety net leaves us to fend for ourselves. Our myths tell us that we’ve failed in a system that’s built for success.

We live our lives shackled to the ideas of dead economists. It’s a natural occurrence. It takes time, effort, and resources to galvanize human systems. New ideas take hold, become dominant, and ossify. Those who benefit try to maintain their place. But complex systems aren’t static. The longer and harder the status quo is maintained, the greater the system contorts. Eventually, it breaks and reforms. The question is how.

The current flavor of ‘no holds barred’ capitalism sits at this precipice. For years, it has extracted everything within its reach. It has exploited our natural resources and damaged our ecosystems. It has claimed our time and effort, and even our hopes and dreams. All these things have been treated as resources to be mined for a system that’s systematically designed to benefit the few.

The main idea underpinning the current version of capitalism is blindingly simple: you only have to remember one thing - that your job is to maximize profits. And you only have to accept one lie - that in doing so, you benefit the collective. That might be tough to swallow, but there’s a good trick involved: buying in uncritically allows you to believe that your self-interest is benevolent. That so many people are willing to do so is captured by Upton Sinclair’s famous quip, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

The result is an absurdist cargo cult in which the haves take ever more while telling themselves that manna is surely falling from heaven upon the masses. Growth remains the answer even in an era of environmental breakdown. But it’s a brittle system that’s collapsing in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Our food system is a prime example.

Problems arose early on in the pandemic as conditions in meatpacking plants played to the strengths of the virus. By late April 2020, 5,000 workers had tested positive and dozens of plants had closed. Millions of animals were led to slaughter with no intent of feeding people. Instead, they were killed in service of mitigating financial losses. At a time when hunger was rife, we learned that a system built for efficiency was indifferent to challenges beyond its balance sheets.

Prior to the pandemic, 37 million Americans - 11 million of them children - lived in food-insecure households, meaning that they weren’t able to afford healthy food for their families. In June 2020, Feeding America, a national network of food banks, estimated that another 17 million individuals were at risk of joining that group. An April survey of mothers with children age 12 and under found that the percentage who were running out of food - and lacked enough money to purchase more - had jumped from an already dire range of 15-20% to around 40%.

The result? Millions of animals were slaughtered for naught, while millions of people lacked proper sustenance. That outcome was the result of ‘good business decisions.’

The state of family finances is dire. A report published in 2019 found that nearly 40% of Americans couldn’t come up with $500 without selling something or taking out a loan. Another survey found that 49% were planning to live paycheck to paycheck, and that was before a coronavirus-led string of over 46 million unemployment claims. Meanwhile, the total wealth of US billionaires surged by over $600 billion. Jeff Bezos ‘earned’ $24 billion in that time.

Viewed through the lens of race, this ugly picture becomes even more grotesque, since Black and Hispanic families have a fraction of the savings held by white families. They’re also far more likely to be renters, who lack the legal protections that benefit homeowners. Evictions, like incarcerations, hit such communities disproportionately, but the landlord still comes on the first of the month.

Back in April 2020, nearly a third of renters didn’t pay their rent on time, a significant increase over 2019. States put eviction moratoriums in place as the wave of unemployment unfolded, but those protections are expiring. Amid a global pandemic, millions of people are at risk of being turned out into the streets. Why?

The pervasive inequality we live with—in a system that tells us it will provide everyone with abundance—is a chosen catastrophe, a designed failure that’s thrust upon the many.

The answer is simple: doing otherwise would refute the central premise of capitalism - profit. Its ideology is a one-trick pony that only knows one answer - more.

For years, millions of people have struggled ever harder to survive in the maw of a relentless economic system that tells us that coming up short is a matter of personal failure. But we know that’s a lie. The pervasive inequality we live with—in a system that tells us it will provide everyone with abundance—is a chosen catastrophe, a designed failure that’s thrust upon the many.

It’s time for a rethink.

The current system is dying, but it won’t go quietly. We can allow it to continue thrashing about and possibly give rise to something even darker, or we can fight to build something better. The stirrings are out there in communities that are shifting towards justice and equality. Learn from them and push for such changes wherever you are. The situation is dire, but there’s opportunity in it.

Kenneth Boulding once claimed that “Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist.” Fortunately, Amsterdam is moving away from such madness by embracing Kate Raworth’s “doughnut economy,” which shows us how to provide for everyone’s essential needs while living within our ecological means.

If we can’t live within planetary limits, humanity is a failed project. If we can’t provide everyone’s necessities, humanity is a misnomer. Those are table stakes. Raworth’s ideas are fundamental pillars that underpin my new book on “Pandemic Capitalism” and promising alternatives. We ought to consider such possibilities in the context of the lockdowns. When most people were told to stay home from work, the people who fed you and took out your trash were deemed to be of the utmost importance; it’s just that capitalism has long treated them otherwise.

If we use this moment to rethink our economic systems, we should start by thinking about what we value and what we ought to reward. At minimum, shouldn’t people who are working in “essential” roles earn a living wage?

Let’s put this in context with recent reports on Gilead’s COVID-19 treatment, Remdesivir, which is becoming a sought after treatment for people hospitalized with the virus. A study of the medication found it shortened hospital stays by about four days, while reducing mortality and serious adverse events for hospitalized patients by around 5-6%.

When the firm’s pricing of a typical course was set at $2,340 it was met with outrage. Gilead’s Chairman and CEO, Daniel O’Day, penned an open letter in which he portrayed the choice as an act of benevolence. As he put it, Gilead would normally “price a medicine according to the value it provides,” before claiming that the medicine would save US patients approximately $12,000 in hospital charges. I don’t believe Upton Sinclair would’ve taken the bait.

Compare this with the choices of Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, who both developed vaccines for polio, and both put their discoveries into the commons. Their work led to polio’s eradication.

Salk and Sabin declined personal fortunes. By contrast, Gilead took $70 million in taxpayer assistance to develop their drug and then charged taxpayers thousands of dollars to access it. They did so while explaining that it was a ‘bargain’ that they’d only offer in the moment’s extreme circumstances.

These are the ‘normal’ but absurd outcomes of capitalism as we know it. Taking essential services and research out of corporate control is a necessary step. Universal Basic Incomes are another. With those, everyone would be guaranteed a reliable income stream. If we’re able to implement an economic system rooted in these alternatives, the reduction in striving will help us foster more Salks and Sabins.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought the tyranny of our economic system into sharp focus. We have a choice to make: will we reclaim our independence?

Chris Oestereich

Chris Oestereich lectures on social innovation at Thammasat University. He founded the Wicked Problems Collaborative, a press focused on humanity’s biggest challenges, and co-founded the Circular Design Lab, a systemic design laboratory. His latest book is Pandemic Capitalism.

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