The Coronavirus. A Tentative Political Economy Analysis

By Zeki Ergas

Introduction

 What we know about the virus is that it started in Wuhan in China in an open-air market that sold butchered wild and domesticated animals; that, probably, has migrated from animals to humans through bats; that it is very contagious and that, therefore, until a vaccine is found all that can be done is trying to stop its contagion; that old, sick, obese, poor, black and uneducated people are far more vulnerable than healthy, rich and educated people; that the ideological content of the fight against it is very strong: countries like the US that are extremely individualistic being, in the name of liberty, willing to pay a heavy price; that, bad as it is, this may only be a first wave, that will in the fall be followed by a second one that could be worse; that the chances of a vaccine to be developed within a year to cure it are strong; that,  however, the possibility that the virus may mutate and become an even more deadly one, exists; and that, finally, we may have, in the future, have to learn to live with comparable or worse pandemics that will occur at unknowable times.

Its Impact  on the Future 
It shone a powerful light on the terrible inequalities that exist in the world. Which are part and parcel of a globalized economic system controlled by large multunational corporations. It is clear that under it, in the last thirty years or so, the rich have become richer. Not all the poor have become poorer, however. In Asia, perhaps one billion people have escaped misery. But, not much has changed in Africa, much of the Middle East and Central and South America. And, it is often forgotten, or deliberately disregarded, that there exists quite a lot of poverty (if not downright misery) even in the richer European countries and  the United States. A very negative evolution in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in Western Europe, has been the dramatic shrinking of the middle class. As a consequence, we are, in those developed societies, presently faced with a very differentiated social structure, including:

the extremely rich (the billionaires)                                                ii
the very rich (the multimillionaires)                                                    iii
the rich (the millionaires)                                                                iv
the affluent (those who have enough money to live well)                v
those who ‘manage’, albeit with some difficulty                               vi
the poor                                                                                   vii
the miserable (‘the wretched of the earth’).

Within this very differentiated social structure, we can, with a notable degree of certainty, affirm that the first three categories of the rich have been those that have grown the fastest in the last thirty years or so; and that the next two, which correspond to the old upper, middle and lower middle classes have survived, but are struggling; while the last two, whose overall numbers may have decreased, but are still very important, possibly more than a billion people, live in utter poverty and unacceptable misery.

So, that’s, grosso modo, the present situation. What about the future? Will the world continue as before, that is, as a globalized economic system run by fiercely individualistic and nationalistic interests? Or, are we going to have, in a world shocked, scandalized and traumatised by the inequalities underlined by the pandemic, initiate  revolutionary systemic change?

We all know that, if the present system continues, perhaps in thirty years, perhaps in fifty years, the total collapse of the planet and  humanity is in the cards.

So, revolutionary systemic change is indispensable. Of course, we don’t exactly know what form it will take, if it occurs. What we do know, however, is that it will have to encompass a- human solidarity, and b- the protection of the planet. Concerning a-, we need to understand that what unites us, the undeniable fact that we are all human beings, is far more important than what seems to separate us: race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, culture, wealth, technology, sex and age; and, concerning b-, we must acknowledge that, for reasons that have been abudantly discussed, unlimited economic growth is impossible. The Greeks, who are the founding fathers of the western civilisation, have taught us that in ethics the most important thing, which applies to all the virtues – courage, intelligence, wisdom, etc. – is the concept of limit, which means that all extremes are bad and should be avoided. Unfortunately, the western world has disregarded that absolutely essentialconcept, believing, or appearing to believe, that economic growth can be unlimited. And, what’s more, the rest of the world has followed suit. And that, in the name of sacrosanct liberty, which is presented as the ultimate value of the western civilisation. But is it really? Isaiah Berlin, in his path-breaking essays, has shown us that it is not because liberty is only one of the three ultimate values of human civilisation. The other two being equality and justice. Berlin has convincingly demonstrated that the terribly important task is to try to find an optimal balance combining all three. Because if we concentrate on only one of them, the other two will suffer, and we will have a dysfunctional society. The United States is the supreme example of what happens when liberty is the paramount value. We have a country which is very productive, but also very unequal and unjust; the Soviet Union is the supreme example of what happens when the paramount value is equality, productivity suffers; as for justice, no country can aim at perfect justice because, in an imperfect world, that’s impossible. So, we need to find an optimal balance combining all three, which will be based on a lot of cultural factors, and compromises will have to be made. It is not an easy task, but the scandinavian countries, which have worked out a system known as social welfare, have perhaps come closest to a solution.

But, of course, a national solution is a partial one. A complete solution would have to be international and, in other words, one  encompassing the entire world. That is what Albert Einstein et Bertrand Russell, some eighty years ago, have tried to do by  proposing a world government that would abolish war and distribute resources and wealth fairly among the various peoples of the world.

Can revolutionary systemic change happen peacefully? It has not been in the past. But does that necessarily mean that it cannot be in the future. Certainly, those whose interests and privileges are in the status quo will fight. But will the battleground be that of a bloody civil war. I don’t believe so. Civil wars are a thing of the past. There may be some violence, but the main battleground will be that of ideas. And, if revolutionary systemic change is an idea whose time has come, it cannot be stopped. It is possible that the progressive forces trying to initiate it are not yet strong enough. But, sooner or later, they will be. Because only revolutionary systemic change can save the planet and humanity from impending disaster.