Where do we stand in the pandemic?
The pandemic has changed and will continue to change our societies and economies globally, and with it the lives of each of us individually. These changes vary by latitude, but can be summarized and viewed as a general process.
1. Unprecedented debt
In the battle against Covid-19, governments around the world are on track to be more indebted than at any time in modern history, surpassing even the period of World War II.
From Germany to Japan, from Canada to China, authorities have taken colossal loans from central banks, which have invested in measures to support businesses (and in some countries, workers) and protect the population and economy from the damage caused by the pandemic.
At the same time, corporations, emboldened by unprecedented government support for the markets, are selling bonds as never before. In 2020 alone, global debt has increased by USD 19.5 trillion. The figures for 2021 are likely to deepen this trend even further.
We can draw an interesting parallel with the financial crisis of 2008, when governments used a similar scheme – pouring in huge sums of money to save the economy from the collapse of the financial sector. Those who were forced to pay this debt were not to blame for the crisis – the working class (including pensioners, students and the unemployed) – in the form of austerity measures, freezing pensions and wages, reducing investment in public services, etc., which became known as ‘austerity’.
There is hardly any doubt who will also pay the debt generated by the government’s response to the pandemic. The inevitable austerity will be introduced after the pandemic is contained, when the economy returns to its `normal` course. But while we wait for that to happen, we are already beginning to feel the effects of the unprecedented pouring of trillions of debt into the economy – inflation that will be on the rise in the coming years and which, combined with the expected austerity, will have a devastating effect on the purchasing power and living standards of workers, especially in already poor countries like Bulgaria.
2. Information technology boom
The global pandemic has further accelerated the already accelerated pace of digitisation. This has affected all spheres and its effects are mixed. On the one hand, the digitisation of public services has made them increasingly accessible, while on the other, digital learning has exacerbated inequalities in the education system and further marginalised children from poor families without access to the internet and a computer. And the rise of e-commerce globally has helped to accelerate the concentration of capital and power in tech giants like Amazon.
3. Social isolation
Prolonged lockdowns paralyzed social life for months. While proving to have a beneficial impact on the spread of contagion, social isolation has had a hugely negative impact on people’s mental state, leading to a range of problems including an increase in domestic violence and exacerbation of mental disorders among those prone to them. Lockdowns have also paralysed the organisational life of many political and trade union organisations, given that online meetings are no substitute for face-to-face meetings and mass events.
4. Panic and mass psychosis
The capitalist regime reveals its complete inability to manage a crisis of global scale. States have reacted to the threat chaotically, introducing indiscriminate measures. In Bulgaria, this was clearly visible in the first days of the pandemic, when, with single-digit numbers of new infections, the entire country was blocked by a complete lockdown, while only a few months later, with thousands of new infections every day, not even rudimentary measures were put in place. The behaviour of the authorities in the course of the pandemic moved smoothly from panic to petty calculation. Whether there would be measures and what they would be depended (and still depend) more on the immediate material interests of the various business lobbies in the country than on the real need to protect the health of the population.
Capitalist logic also poisons the global initiative to develop and mass distribute an effective vaccine. It turned out that the entire scientific capacity of mankind was concentrated in a handful of private corporations, which used their hegemony in this dire situation to amass fabulous profits by patenting newly discovered vaccines and thus limiting their spread.
The results? Fizer Bayontech made $21.5 billion in sales in just one year, doubling the value of the giant corporation and making its two owners (who are husband and wife) multi-billionaires in just a few months. Moderna is expected to make between $18 and $20 billion in 2021, and the value of the company has grown by a whopping +372%. The portfolio of the company’s CEO, Stepan Bansel who owns 9% of the shares, swelled to $5 billion. At the same time, the patent on vaccines and the market principle of their distribution has led to a terrible inequality in access to vaccination worldwide. While in rich countries the average vaccination rate is as high as 80%, in poor countries it is only 1%.
5. Boom in conspiracy theories
The global pandemic represents an unprecedented event in our generation and extremes in public reaction are to be expected. For some, fear of the pandemic has manifested itself in overreaction, self-isolation, overstocking with products and paranoia. For others, fear has expressed itself in denial of reality and indulgence in conspiracy theories. This trend has been aided by several factors not necessarily directly related to the pandemic… On the one hand are the most obvious, such as the collapse in public education and information literacy of the population.
But they are not enough to explain the spread of susceptibility to conspiratorial thinking, which is by no means limited to uneducated people and those above middle age who have trouble finding their way online.
An important, and perhaps key, factor in the current conspiracy boom is the deepening distrust of institutions worldwide. The last forty years, marked by the rise and peak of neoliberalism, have seen the complete emptying of our already mere façade of democracy, with the traditional political clash between left and right completely obliterated. By the 1980s, although occupying the centre of the political spectrum, the main parties clashed on issues of national economic development, such as the opposition between Keynesianism and monetarism in the post-war period, for example.
After the complete victory of monetarism in the 1980s and the collapse of the welfare states in the East and West, even this (essentially reformist) political clash was obliterated and replaced by a clash in the cultural sphere – for or against LGBTI+ rights, for or against abortion, etc. At the same time, market reforms have stripped the state of its artificially grafted social obligations and exposed its original function – repressive. This development has quite naturally led to a widespread collapse of trust in traditional parties, official institutions and the state as a whole. But this collapse of confidence is taking place at a time of unprecedented weakness of the working class worldwide.
Thus the rupture between the social body on the one hand and the state and capitalist economy on the other was not realized in a revolutionary upsurge, but found vent in populism, nationalism and conspiracy theories. Their growing popularity, especially in times of pandemic, is fueled by a massive misunderstanding of the processes described above in this submission. The concentration of power and money in the technological giants leads to fear of technology and modernisation, the lack of class analysis of global political and economic processes leads to their explanation in terms of a global conspiracy, and fear and lack of perspective leads to anti-social behaviour.
The discontent is controlled by nationalist, right-wing populist and religious organisations, which play the counter-revolutionary role they have historically always assumed – to divert analysis away from class contradictions and critique of the state and capitalism, towards easily digestible racist and conspiratorial explanations of what is happening.
Thus, in the unprecedented power of corporations like Pfizer, the public is harnessed to see a secret conspiracy of some abstract global elite, rather than a logical consequence of the capitalist development of world politics and economics in recent decades. While class analysis would undoubtedly make millions of people see the empowerment of corporations as a historical stage of class struggle in direct relation to their concrete experience as workers, and spur them to action against the capitalist system, conspiracy theories fool people with delusional ideas of secret conspiracies and overlords of the world that disconnect them from reality and the struggle, ultimately leading them into a dead end.
The organizing principle of religious power mechanisms, whose `mysteries` are accessible only to the initiated, states – “No secret confers greater power than one that does not exist, because it cannot be revealed.” Similarly, there is no enemy more powerful than one that does not exist because it can never be defeated. The boom in conspiracy theories is a direct expression of the victory of liberal individualism, which corrodes societies and educates the individual in antisocial behavior.
The crisis from an anarchist perspective
Anarchists must not allow ourselves to be carried away by populism and conspiracy theories. We must stand firm for all measures that protect the lives and health of people during the pandemic, but also attack the profiteering and systemic problems that have already led to the preventable deaths of hundreds of thousands. At the same time, we cannot turn a blind eye to the authoritarian approach of the state to enforcing anti-epidemic measures, and we must oppose any attempt by it to use the emergency situation to militarise public control and the police.
Particularly damaging in this respect are measures to compulsorily vaccinate workers under threat of dismissal, which are not only repressive and authoritarian, but also achieve the opposite effect in the fight against the spread of infection. Many people are asking: is the state so concerned about people’s health that it resorts to such measures? The answer is no. Mass vaccination is undoubtedly the most effective way of tackling infection and protecting ourselves and our loved ones. However, behind the mass vaccination campaigns organised all over the world, there is no concern for our health, but purely economic interests. The state and the capitalist interests it represents need to return the economy to its so-called ‘normal’ functioning. This cannot happen without a mass vaccination campaign to contain the contagion as quickly as possible.
But is there an alternative to the authoritarian approach and compulsory vaccination? The answer again is no, not in modern capitalist society. The state is a satrap not only by vocation but also by necessity. The state authorities have no choice but to use coercion, precisely because of people’s complete distrust of institutions on the one hand and, on the other, the widespread individualism and anti-social behaviour inculcated among people by this same neoliberal state for decades. The state and the capitalist system thus find themselves trapped by the effects of their own policies, which force them to lay bare their repressive nature. Not only has the state lost its ability to persuade, but even any information that comes from state or super-state institutions is rejected a priori by ordinary people. In some cases, this would be healthy scepticism, but in the context of the pandemic it constitutes social suicide.
The average citizen has been exploited, robbed and lied to enough by official institutions to build the belief that the state is lying to him. At the same time, however, he is too apolitical and disoriented to understand that not only can the state lie to him, but an army of far-right Youtube preachers, religious cults and anti-vax gurus can do it equally well.
The average person, the ordinary worker, has been disconnected from their organisations and their role as a political subject, producing their own analysis and pursuing their collective political interests as part of the working class. In the place of the worker, a depoliticized, individualized being, a product of the so-called `Transition`, appeared, venturing under the equally individualized and depoliticized concept of “citizen”. This citizen is detached from his or her community and from the very idea of the existence of a community of interests and is provided as an object, not a subject, of politics (and the economy). The citizen is the object of political campaigns in the same way that he is the object of marketing ones – both consumer and product. Characteristic of this product of transition is the binary thinking developed as a result of complete depoliticization and the dominant liberal individualism. This binary thinking does not allow for multilayered analysis and deep insight into political problems. It is thanks to it that skepticism of the state and official institutions turns into sheepish trust in random online charlatans.
As with any other liberal movement, the class composition of the anti-vax movement is dominated by small businessmen, but the crowd is a motley clown troupe including New Age hipsters, libertarians, far-right organizations, and disoriented middle-aged social media housewives.
The campaign against vaccines is entirely dominated by the neoliberal context in which it is taking place. It is essentially liberal, in the spirit of classical liberal campaigns that put the individual consumer at their centre and express themselves in the sphere of consumerism on the principle of “I vote with my money!”; “I won’t shop in that store because it doesn’t offer environmentally friendly products”, for example. Similarly, refusal of vaccination as a form of boycott emphasises individual choice and personal integrity, while rejecting social responsibility as part of a conspiracy against the individual.
It is no accident that the anti-vax movement plagiarizes its slogans from popular liberal protest movements, such as the abortion rights movement’s slogan, “My body, My Choice!” It is also no coincidence that the anti-vax and anti-choice movements in general are concentrated in Euro-Atlantic countries. The anti-vax movement is, above all, a revolt against public healthcare as such. It is no coincidence that the leaders of the protest are, on the one hand, religious NGOs, which have been attacking the social welfare system and public education for years, and on the other hand, far-right parties and organisations, such as Renaissance (a far right political party in Bulgaria), whose political programme prioritises the privatisation of public healthcare. At the same time, the private anti-vax industry generates tens of millions of dollars from gullible people paying for ‘alternative health advice’ and treatment with dangerous veterinary drugs.
Beyond the purely anti-vax movement, the way the states are managing the pandemic has also sparked revolt among a section of the working class. In countries where the latter is weak (as is the case in Bulgaria), workers are taken in by the anti-vaxxer movements and the far right, and are used by them for both mass and status, especially where medical workers are concerned. In countries where the working class is relatively strong, such as France and Italy say, workers do not allow themselves to be melted into the anti-vaxxer movement and manage, to some extent, to impose their own agenda. Thus, most workers’ organisations (e.g. SUD Solidaire) have come out in support of mass vaccination, accompanied by opposition to authoritarian measures to impose compulsory vaccination (most notably threats of dismissal) and green certificates, as well as opposition to conspiracy theories and far-right theses. However, this strategy poses many risks, as the movement globally remains essentially dominated by anti-vaxxer and conspiratorial tendencies that will undoubtedly draw some workers to the far right.
Both the state response to the pandemic and the conspiratorial movements below are the result of the capitalist system’s helplessness to mobilize the masses to address collective problems. This inability is rooted in the individualist foundations of capitalism, which for more than three hundred years has waged war not only against workers but against the idea of society in general, of a shared existence. The conspiratorial movements and their calls for individual rescue fit perfectly into the capitalist march against society.
What is the alternative? Many people are tempted to speculate on “how a classless/communist/anarchist or other alternative to today’s society would deal with such a pandemic”. We personally don’t like posing such abstract challenges and indulging in idle theorizing and utopia painting. Suffice it to say that in a communist classless society, organised on a free and democratic basis, the question of the authoritarian application of anti-epidemic measures would not be on the agenda at all, since the social institutions themselves would be built on a voluntary bottom-up basis and would therefore enjoy full public confidence, without which they would be impossible. In the present capitalist society, there is no alternative. States have no choice but to use coercion to get in the way of this collection of individuals, each brought up to look after their own interests, which we still more habitually call society.
Some people on the left are trying to find potential in movements resisting the measures, but this is, in our view, chasing a chimera. The mobilizations against the measures are dominated by small businessmen united by their individual material interests and angry apolitical masses united by their own disorientation. The small businessman expects the privileges that have been granted to the big players, as he sees himself as part of the “business community”, even though he has been left to suffer the effects of the crisis on (almost) an equal footing with the workers. This is the reason for the anger of the petty bourgeois who make up the core of the protests against the measures and vaccines. But apart from class composition, what determines the reactionary character of the protests is that at the heart of the movement is the opposition of individual rights against the common good.
The anti-vax protests are an expression of a combination of anger, disorientation and lack of perspective. This makes them the ideal environment for the far right. So the fact that the far-right dominates the protests is neither an accident nor the result of insufficient activism by workers’ organisations. By engaging in these protests, the left can only be further marginalised and serve as a useful idiot and mouthpiece for power-drawing conservative political forces.
The period that will give the left a platform will come when governments ask the working class to pay for the crisis by imposing another austerity.