we can think about what might happen if we try to respond to the coronavirus with the four extreme combinations:
1) State capitalism: centralised response,
prioritising exchange value 2) Barbarism: decentralised response
prioritising exchange value
3) State socialism: centralised response,
prioritising the protection of life 4) Mutual aid: decentralised response
prioritising the protection of life.
State capitalism is the dominant response we are seeing across the world right now. Typical examples are the UK, Spain and Denmark.
The state capitalist society continues to pursue exchange value as the guiding light of the economy. But it recognises that markets in crisis require support from the state. Given that many workers cannot work because they are ill, and fear for their lives, the state steps in with extended welfare. It also enacts massive Keynesian stimulus by extending credit and making direct payments to businesses.
The expectation here is that this will be for a short period. The primary function of the steps being taken is to allow as many businesses as possible to keep on trading. In the UK, for example, food is still distributed by markets (though the government has relaxed competition laws). Where workers are supported directly, this is done in ways that seek to minimise disruption of normal labour market functioning. So, for example, as in the UK, payments to workers have to be applied for and distributed by employers. And the size of payments is made on the basis of the exchange value a worker usually creates in the market, rather than the usefulness of their work.
Could this be a successful scenario? Possibly, but only if COVID-19 proves controllable over a short period. As full lockdown is avoided to maintain market functioning, transmission of infection is still likely to continue. In the UK, for
BARBARISM IS THE FUTURE IF WE CONTINUE TO RELY ON EXCHANGE VALUE AS OUR GUIDING PRINCIPLE AND YET REFUSE TO EXTEND SUPPORT TO THOSE WHO GET LOCKED OUT OF MARKETS BY ILLNESS OR UNEMPLOYMENT
respond to this pandemic. The subsequent failure of the economy and society would trigger political and social unrest, leading to a failed state and the collapse of both state and community welfare systems.
State socialism describes the first of the futures we could see with a cultural shift that places a different kind of value at the heart of the economy. This is the future we arrive at with an extension of the measures we are currently seeing in the UK, Spain and Denmark.
The key here is that measures like nationalisation of hospitals and payments to workers are seen not as tools to protect markets, but a way to protect life itself. In such a scenario, the state steps in to
Volunteers shop for groceries during the lockdown, in Arese, Italy protect the parts of the economy that are essential to life: the production of food, energy and shelter for instance, so that the basic provisions of life are no longer at the whim of the market. The state nationalises hospitals, and makes housing freely available. Finally, it provides all citizens with a means of accessing various goods—both basics and any consumer goods we are able to produce with a reduced workforce.
Citizens no longer rely on employers as intermediaries between them and the basic materials of life. Payments are made to everyone directly and are not related to the exchange value they create. Instead, payments are the same to all (on the basis that we deserve to be able to live, simply because we are alive), or they are based on
that community responses were central to tackling the West African Ebola outbreak. And we already see the roots of this future today in the groups organising care packages and community support. We can see this as a failure of state responses. Or we can see it as a pragmatic, compassionate societal response to an unfolding crisis.
These visions are extreme scenarios, caricatures, and likely to bleed into one another. My fear is the descent from state capitalism into barbarism. My hope is a blend of state socialism and mutual aid: a strong, democratic state that mobilises resources to build a stronger health system, prioritises protecting the vulnerable from the whims of the market and responds to and enables citizens to form mutual aid groups rather than working meaningless jobs.
What hopefully is clear is that all these scenarios leave some grounds for fear, but also some for hope. COVID-19 is highlighting serious deficiencies in our existing system. An effective response to this is likely to require radical social change. I have argued it requires a drastic move away from markets and the use of profits as the primary way of organising an economy. The upside of this is the possibility that we build a more humane system that leaves us more resilient in the face of future pandemics and other impending crises like climate change.
Social change can come from many places and with many influences. A key task for us all is demanding that emerging social forms come from an ethic that values care, life, and democracy. The central political task in this time of crisis is living and (virtually) organising around those values.