The Covid-19 Pandemic: A symptom of the terminal phase of capitalist decadence

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The coronavirus epidemic is leaving thousands of dead around the world. Why? Because research into this kind of virus, which has been known about for a long time, was abandoned because it wasn’t seen as profitable! Because when the epidemic took off it was more important to the Chinese bourgeoisie to do everything to hide the gravity of the situation in order to protect its economy and its reputation; it didn’t hesitate to make up all kinds of lies and put pressure on the doctors who had sounded the alarm!

Because in all countries, the measures of isolation were taken too late, since the first concern of the state was “not to block the economy”, “not make business suffer”! Because everywhere, there weren’t enough masks, cleansing gel, equipment to test for the illness, hospital beds, ventilators…Is it necessary to recall that in France care workers and emergency workers have been striking for a year, denouncing the lack of human and material resources in the hospitals[1]? The politicians have the nerve to talk about protecting those most vulnerable to the virus, elderly people, at a time when the workers in residential care homes, the EHPAD, have also been out on strike over the past year, indignant about the mistreatment of the “residents” that results from a lack of workers to look after them. In France, which is the second biggest European economic power, it is impossible to find any masks. Even within the pneumological services, at the front line of the fight against the pandemic, the doctors have to limit themselves to three masks a day. In Italy, the same shameful situation prevails. Workers are forced to go to work, herded together on public transport, because they have to keep the economy going … as in the car factories for example, where they are again pressed together on the production line, without masks, soap or any other precautions.

Strikes have broken out in this country in the last few days. Here is a short extract from a testimony in Bologna, where workers raised the slogan “The workers are not lambs to the slaughter”. ”Strikes in the factories are multiplying. Forced to work without any health protection, workers are in revolt: ‘I am obliged to work in a work environment which puts my health in danger, the health of those close to me, my comrades at work, the people I meet…inside the warehouses and the factories none of the wise precepts we hear about all the time are worth anything. In many of these places, there is a total absence of the minimal conditions to avoid the spread of the virus:

  • The presence of workers in large numbers in reduced spaces has never been put in question
  • There isn’t even soap in the toilets!
  • Calling for gloves and masks? The bosses say these are just excuses by people who don’t want to work’”

The rallying cry for these strikes is “Your profits are worth more than our health!”. And this is indeed the reality under capitalism, this decadent system of exploitation. But these struggles show that hope does exist. The working class is the bearer of solidarity, dignity and unity. It is the bearer of a world which is no longer governed by the hunt for profit.

Faced with this pandemic, we not only have to develop solidarity, look after the most vulnerable, but also reflect on what capitalism is, why it’s rotting on its feet, and discuss such questions as much as possible in order to develop our collective understanding. The article that follows aims to contribute to this process.


At the end of our first article on the Covid-19 pandemic, we underlined: "Whether this new Covid-19 virus becomes a new pandemic, as happened with SARS, or whether it persists as a new seasonal respiratory virus, this new disease is a new warning that capitalism has become a danger to humanity and to life on this planet. The enormous capacity of the development of the productive forces, including medical science, to protect us from disease is being undermined by the criminal pursuit of profit, by the excessive concentration of a large part of the human population in unbearable cities, with the risks of new epidemics that this entails."
Today, this pandemic has become a problem on a major scale worldwide and has provoked a veritable economic "tsunami" with disastrous consequences. We will not go into the analysis of its economic implications here; we will do so in a future article. Here we will show the way in which this epidemic reveals the disease of capitalism.

We have confirmation: Covid-19 is a manifestation of capitalist decomposition!

Today, the most pessimistic predictions are confirmed and the WHO (World Health Organisation) has recognised that this is a global pandemic that has already spread to 117 countries on all continents, that the number of people affected has exceeded 120,000, that the number of deaths in the first weeks of the pandemic was over 4,000, etc. What began as a "problem" inside China has now become a social crisis for the world's major capitalist powers (Japan, United States, Western Europe, etc.). In Italy alone, the number of deaths has already exceeded those caused worldwide by the SARS epidemic of 2002-03. And the draconian population control measures taken one month ago by the "tyrannical" Chinese authorities, such as the confinement of millions of people[2], and those of a veritable "social Darwinism" consisting of excluding all those who are not a "priority" from hospital services in the fight to contain the disease, are now commonplace in many large cities in all the affected countries on all continents.
The bourgeois "media" are constantly bombarding us with information, with recommendations and endless "explanations" of what they present to us as a kind of scourge, a new "natural" disaster. But there is nothing "natural" about this catastrophe; it is the result of the asphyxiating dictatorship of the senile and outmoded capitalist mode of production, in conflict with nature and a threat to the human species.

Revolutionaries are not equipped for producing epidemiological studies or in making prognoses on the evolution of diseases. Our role is to explain, on a materialist basis, the social conditions that make the occurrence of these catastrophic events possible and inevitable. We have therefore made it clear that it is in the nature of the capitalist system to put exploitation, profit and accumulation before human need and that it is not possible for any different kind of capitalism to exist.  But we can also affirm that those same capitalist relations of production which, at one point in history, had made possible an enormous development of the productive forces (of science, of a certain mastery of nature to limit the suffering imposed on humanity ...) have today become an obstacle to their development.  We have also explained how the prolongation for decades of this phase of capitalist decadence has led, in the absence of a revolutionary solution, to the entry into a new phase: that of social decomposition[3], where all these destructive tendencies are even more concentrated, producing a downward spiral of chaos, barbarism and the gradual collapse of the very social structures that guarantee a minimum of social cohesion, threatening the very survival of life on planet Earth.

Are these the delusions of a handful of old fashioned marxists?  Certainly not. The scientists who speak most authoritatively about the development of the current Covid-19 pandemic affirm that the proliferation of this type of epidemic is caused, among other things, by the accelerated degradation of the environment, which leads to a greater contagion from animals (zoonoses) that live among the human populations in order to survive, and is, at the same time, further assisted by the concentration of millions of human beings in megalopolises that produce a truly dramatic rise in contagion.  As we explained in our previous article on Covid-19[4], some doctors in China had indeed tried to warn of a new risk from a coronavirus epidemic, starting in December 2019, but they were directly censored and suppressed by the state, as this would threaten the image to which Chinese capital aspires as a major world power.

The ICC is also not the first to insist that one of the main driving forces behind the spread of this pandemic is the increased lack of coordination of the policies of various countries, which is one key features of capitalism, but which is reinforced to an ever greater extent by the advance of "every man for himself" and the inward-looking attitude which characterises states and capitalists in the phase of decomposition of this system and which tends to permeate all social relations.
We are not revealing anything new when we point out that the danger of this disease lies not so much in the virus itself, but in the fact that this pandemic is taking place against a background of enormous degradation, over decades and on a global scale, in health infrastructures. It is, in fact, the “administration" of these increasingly leaner and more defective structures that is dictating the policies of the various states, who have tended to delay the announcements of the appearance of new cases, even if it means prolonging the effects of this pandemic over time. And this irresponsible degradation of the resources accumulated by decades of human work - knowledge, technology, etc: does it not reflect an absolute lack of perspective, a total absence of concern for the future of the human species, which is characteristic of a form of social organisation - capitalism - that is in its phase of decomposition?

How is it possible that in the 21st century there is an epidemic that the world's most powerful states are unable to contain?

Of course, there have been other extremely deadly epidemics in the history of mankind. Nowadays, it is easy to find in the bourgeois "media" investigations and books on how smallpox and measles, cholera or the bubonic plague caused millions of deaths. What is missing in such claims is an explanation that the cause of these deaths is essentially the result of society's shortcomings, both in terms of the living conditions and the knowledge of nature. Capitalism poses, precisely, the historical possibility of overcoming this stage of material scarcity and, through the development of the productive forces, of laying the foundations for an abundance that could make possible a true unification and liberation of humanity in a communist society. If we consider the 19th century, namely the highest point of capitalist expansion, we can see how health, and therefore sickness, were no longer seen as fatalistic, how there was progress not only in research but also in communication between different researchers, how there was a real change towards a more "scientific" approach to medicine[5]. And all this has an application in the daily life of populations: from measures to improve public hygiene to vaccines, from the formation of medical specialisations to the creation of hospitals. The increase in world population (from one to two billion people) and especially in life expectancy (from 30-40 years at the beginning of the 19th century to 50-65 years in 1900) is essentially due to this advance in science and hygiene. None of this was done by the bourgeoisie in an altruistic spirit for the needs of the population. Capitalism was born "dripping with blood and mud", as Marx said. But in the midst of this horror, its aim was to obtain maximum profitability from the labour force, from the knowledge acquired by its wage slaves during the decades of learning new production techniques and to ensure the stability of the transport of supplies and goods, etc. This has made the exploiting class "interested" - at the least cost, to be true - in prolonging the working life of its employees, in ensuring the reproduction of the commodity that is labour power, in increasing relative surplus value by increasing the productivity of the exploited class.
This situation was reversed with the change of historical period between the ascendant period of capitalism and its decadence, which we revolutionaries have identified, along with the Communist International, since the First World War[6]. It is no coincidence that, around 1918, one of the deadliest epidemics in the history of humanity occurred: the so-called "Spanish flu" of 1918-19. In the magnitude of this pandemic, we see that it was not so much the virulence of the pathogen itself as the social conditions characteristic of imperialist war in capitalist decadence (global dimension of the conflict, impact of the war on the civilian population of the main nations, etc.) that explain the scale of the catastrophe: 50 million dead, almost twice as many as in the trenches.

The horror of war had a second, even more terrifying expression in 1939-45. The atrocities of the first imperialist carnage, such as the use of asphyxiating gases, were briefly set aside before the barbarities of the World War of 1939-45 were unleashed by all the participating powers: the German and Japanese military using human beings in experiments and the industrial mass murder of the Nazi concentration camps; the  early use of biological weapons (the British military experimented with anthrax, for example); the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans.

And how should we understand the so-called period of "peace" that followed? It is true that the major capitalist powers created health care systems, based on the model of the British NHS created in 1948 - which is considered one of the founding landmarks of the so-called "welfare state" - to provide "universal" health care that aimed, among other things, to prevent epidemics such as the Spanish flu. Was this 'capitalist humanitarianism' and a victory for the workers? Certainly not. The purpose of these measures was to ensure the renewal, at the lowest cost, of a workforce (a precious commodity because the war had sent large sectors of the proletariat to the grave) and to ensure that the productive work of reconstruction was fulfilled. And this does not mean that the "remedies" employed do not themselves become sources of new disorders. We see this, for example, in the use of antibiotics prescribed to combat infections but which, in serving the needs of capitalist productivity, are abusively prescribed on a regular basis to shorten periods of sick leave. This has led to a major problem of bacterial resistance - the so-called "superbugs"- which eventually diminishes the medicinal arsenal for attacking infections. This has also manifested itself in the increase of diseases such as obesity and diabetes, caused by a worsening quality of the diet of the working class - that is, a devalorisation of the reproduction of the labour power of the exploited class - and of the poorest strata of society, to the point that capitalism's use of food technology is a factor in the spread of obesity. And we can also see how the drugs dispensed to make the pain that this system of exploitation inflicts on the working population more bearable, have led to phenomena such as the epidemic caused by the extensive use of opiate substances. Until the arrival of the coronavirus, this was the number one health problem in the United States, causing more deaths than all the victims of the Vietnam War.

The Covid-19 pandemic cannot be separated from the rest of the problems affecting the health of humanity. On the contrary, they show that the situation can only get worse if it remains subject to the dehumanised and commercialised machine that is the capitalist health system of the 21st century. The origin of diseases today is not so much humanity’s lack of knowledge or technology. Similarly, current knowledge in epidemiology should make it possible to contain a new epidemic. For example: within just two weeks of the discovery of the disease, research laboratories had already succeeded in sequencing the virus that caused Covid-19. The obstacle that the population has to overcome is that society is subject to a mode of production that benefits an exploiting social minority and has become a hindrance to the fight against disease. What we are seeing is that the race to develop a vaccine, instead of being a collective and coordinated effort, is actually a commercial war between laboratories. Genuine human needs are subordinated to the laws of the capitalist jungle. Fierce competition to get a product to market first and to be able to take advantage of that advantage is the only thing that matters to any capitalist.

Who is threatening the future of humanity, is it "irresponsible" individuals or the pressures of decomposition within the social system?

At our recent 23rd International Congress, we adopted a resolution on the international situation, in which we returned to and re-affirmed the validity of what we had written in our Theses on Decomposition:

The May 1990 theses on decomposition highlight a whole series of characteristics in the evolution of society resulting from the entry of capitalism into this ultimate phase of its existence. The report adopted by the 22nd Congress noted the worsening of all these characteristics, such as:

- ‘the proliferation of famines in the ‘Third World’ countries…;

- the transformation of the ‘Third World’ into a vast slum, where hundreds of millions of human beings survive like rats in the sewers;

- the development of the same phenomenon in the heart of the major cities in the ‘advanced’ countries, … ;

- the recent proliferation of ‘accidental’ catastrophes (…) the increasingly devastating effects, on the human, social, and economic levels, of ’natural’ disasters …;

- the degradation of the environment, which is reaching staggering dimensions’ (Theses on decomposition, pt. 7)”

What we see today is that these manifestations have become the decisive factor in the evolution of capitalist society, and that it is only through them that we can interpret the emergence and development of major social events. If we look at what is happening with the Covid-19 pandemic, we can see the importance of the influence of two elements characteristic of this terminal phase of capitalism:

- First of all, China is not just the geographical setting for the origin of the most recent epidemics with the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003 and Covid-19. Beyond this circumstantial element, it is necessary to understand the characteristics of the development of Chinese capitalism at the stage of the decomposition of global capitalism and its influence on the current situation. In a few years, China has become the second world power with an enormous importance in world trade and economy, benefiting at first from the support of the US after its change of imperialist bloc (in 1972), and, after the disappearance of these blocs in 1989, as the main beneficiary of so-called globalisation. But precisely because of this, "China's power bears all the stigma of terminal capitalism: it is based on the over-exploitation of the proletariat's labour force, the unbridled development of the war economy of the national program of ‘military-civil fusion’ and is accompanied by the catastrophic destruction of the environment, while ‘national cohesion’ is based on the police control of the masses subjected to the political education of the One Party state (...).In fact, China is only a giant metastasis of the generalised militaristic cancer of the entire capitalist system: its military production has developed at a frenetic pace, its defence budget has increased sixfold in 20 years and it is ranked second in the world since 2010".[7] 
This development of China, which is so often put forward as an illustration of the enduring strength of capitalism, is in fact a clear manifestation of its decrepitude. Its technological conquests or its expansion throughout the world thanks to spectacular initiatives like the new "Silk Road", should not make us lose sight of the enormous conditions of overexploitation (the exhausting workdays, the poverty wages, etc.) where hundreds of millions of workers endure extremely poor housing, food and general living conditions, which, moreover, are further deteriorating. For example, per capita health expenditure, already meagre, has fallen by 2.3%. Another edifying example is that food is produced with very low hygiene standards or by ignoring them, as in the consumption of the meat from wild animals purchased on the black market. In the last two years, the worst epidemic in the history of African swine flu has spread inside China, necessitating the slaughter of 30% of these animals and causing a 70% increase in the price of pork meat.

- The second element that shows the growing impact of capitalist decomposition is the erosion of the minimum level of coordination that existed between the different national capitals. It is true that, as marxism has showed, the maximum unity to which capitalism can aspire - even reluctantly - is the national state, and therefore a super-imperialism is not possible. This does not mean that, when the world was divided into imperialist blocs, a whole series of structures were not created, from UNESCO to the WHO, which tried to implement a minimum of common interests between the different national capitals. But this tendency towards a minimum of coordination is deteriorating as the phase of capitalist decomposition progresses. As we have also analysed in the already quoted resolution on the international situation of our 23rd Congress: "The deepening of the crisis (as well as the demands of imperialist rivalry) is putting the multilateral institutions and mechanisms to a severe test”. (Point 20).

This can be seen, for example, in the role played by the WHO. The international coordination in the face of the SARS epidemic in 2002-03, as well as the speed of certain discoveries[8] in laboratories around the world, explains the low incidence today of a virus from a family very similar to that of the current Covid-19. However, this role has been jeopardised by the WHO's disproportionate response to the 2009 influenza A epidemic, in which the institution's alarmism was used to generate massive sales of the antiviral "Tamiflu" manufactured by a laboratory in which former US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, had a direct interest. Since then, the WHO has been almost relegated to the role of an NGO making pontificating "recommendations", but it is incapable of imposing its directives on the various national capitals. They are not even able to unify the statistical criteria for counting infected persons, which opens the door for each national capital to try to conceal, for as long as possible, the impact of the epidemic in their respective countries. This has happened not only in China, which tried to hide the first signs of the epidemic, but also in the United States, which is trying to sweep under the carpet the number of people affected so as not to reveal the weaknesses of a health system based on private insurance to which 30% of American citizens have practically no access. The heterogeneity of the criteria for the application of diagnostic tests, or the differences between the protocols for action in the different phases, undoubtedly have negative repercussions for containing the spread of a global pandemic. Worse still, each national capital is adopting protectionist measures in terms of the provision of protective and hygienic equipment or artificial ventilation devices, as Merkel's Germany is doing.

These are measures which put the defence of national interests above what might be more urgent needs in other countries.

How to overcome the threat to health produced by capitalist social relations?

The media propaganda is constantly bombarding us with appeals for individual citizens to show responsibility in order to prevent the collapse of the health systems which, in numerous countries, are showing signs of exhaustion (physical exhaustion of the workers in the sector, lack of material and technical resources, etc). The first thing to denounce here is that we are dealing here with the chronicle of a catastrophe foretold.  And not because of the irresponsibility of citizens but because of decades in the reduction of health spending, of jobs for health workers and budgets to maintain hospitals and medical research[9] Thus in Spain for example, one of these countries closest to this “collapse” we are being called on to avoid, successive cuts have led to the disappearance of 8000 hospital beds[10], with beds in intensive care below the European average and with materials in a poor state of repair (67% of ventilators are over 10 years old). The situation is very similar in Italy and France. In Britain, presented as the model of universal healthcare, we have seen a continual deterioration in quality over the last 50 years, with more than 100,000 vacancies for healthcare personnel. And all that well before Brexit!

And it’s these same health workers who have seen their living and working conditions get worse and worse, facing growing pressure to provide care to more patients and deal with more illnesses, with staff numbers being reduced more and more, who now face the added pressure of a collapse of health services as a result of the pandemic. And those who applaud the courage and self-sacrifice of these public employees are the same people who have been driving them to exhaustion by getting rid of official breaks, transferring them from one job to another and making them work – in the face of a pandemic whose future evolution is not known – without adequate protective equipment (masks, clothing, etc) or adequate training. The fact of making health personnel work in these conditions makes them all the more vulnerable to the impact of the disease itself. As we have seen in Italy where at least 10% of health workers have caught the virus.

And to force the workers to obey these orders, they resort to the repressive arsenal of the “state of emergency”, threatening them with all kinds of sanctions against those who refuse to obey. These policies of the authorities have in a number of cases made the existing chaos even worse.

Faced with this situation, which imposes on the health personnel the fait accompli of the disastrous state of the care system, the workers in this sector are forced to apply methods which are close to those of eugenics, since they have no choice but to devote the meagre resources available to them to those patients who have the best chance of surviving, as we have seen with the directives issued by the Italian association of anaesthetists and emergency staff, which characterises the situation as a “state of war”[11]. And this is indeed a war on human need waged by the logic of capital, where the workers in this sector are afflicted with growing anxiety because they have to apply these inhuman laws. The anguish expressed by many of these workers is the result of the fact that they can’t even rebel against such criteria, or refuse to work in shameful conditions, or even reject making sacrifices in their living conditions, because if they did this by going on strike this would have a serious impact on their own class brothers and sisters, on the rest of the exploited. They can’t even meet together with other comrades, physically express their solidarity with other workers because that would contravene the rules of “social isolation” imposed to prevent the spread of the epidemic.

Our comrades in the health sector can’t come out in open struggle in the present situation but the rest of the working class can’t leave them on their own. All workers are victims of this system and all workers will sooner or later pay the costs of this epidemic. Whether it’s as a result of cuts in non-priority health services (suspension of surgical operations, medical consultations etc) or through the suppression of thousands of temporary contracts, or the reduction of wages to the level of sick pay etc. And to accept all this would give the green light to new and even more brutal anti-working class attacks that are being prepared. We must therefore continue to sharpen the weapons of class solidarity with rage in our hearts, as we saw recently with the strikes in France against pension “reforms”.

The explosion of the insurmountable contradictions of capitalism at the heart of the health system are unequivocal symptoms of the terminal phase of capitalism’s senility. Just as the virus has the strongest impact on aging bodies, provoking the most serious illnesses, so the healthcare system has been profoundly weakened by years of austerity and “management” based not on the needs of the population but on the demands of capitalism in crisis and decline. The same goes for the capitalist economy, which has been kept going artificially by manipulating the law of value and plunging head first into a sea of debt. This has made it so fragile that the epidemic could well trigger a new and brutal global recession.

But the proletariat is not merely the victim of this catastrophe for humanity that is capitalism. It is also the class which has the potential, the historic capacity, to eradicate the system once and for all, through its struggle, through developing its consciousness and its class solidarity. Only the communist revolution can and must replace human relations based on division and competition by relations based on solidarity, by organising production, labour, the resources of humanity and of nature on the basis of human need and not the laws of profit which serve an exploiting minority.

Valerio, 13.3.20




[1] Macron made a speech on television full of detestable boasting about the “excellence of the French health system”, supposedly free and accessible to all, while saluting the devotion of the health personnel. The response was immediate: numerous photos on social media of carers, nurses and doctors brandishing a placard addressed to the president: “You can count on us. The inverse remains to be proved!”

[2] Clearly, it was necessary to prevent people from travelling and to encourage them to stay at home, to prevent the spread of infection. But the way in which these measures were imposed (virtually no state support for the care of children or the elderly, where it was needed, heavy monitoring of the population - and all this while the work in the factories, for example, was not affected) bears the mark of the modus operandi of capitalist state totalitarianism. In our next articles, we will also come back to the impact of these actions on the daily life of the exploited in the world.

[5] By searching for the objective causes of the infections and not religious or fantastic causes (the "4 humours" theory of ancient medicine, for example), by trying to get a materialist view of human anatomy and physiology, etc., it became possible to identify the causes of these infections.

[6]  See in the most recent issues of our International Review (Nos. 162 and 163) our articles on the centenary of the Communist International.

[8]  For example, the role of civets as an intermediate transmitter of the disease to humans led to a lightning elimination of these animals in China, which very quickly stopped the spread of the disease.

[9] In France for example, research into the coronavirus family which followed the 2002-3 epidemic was suddenly interrupted in 2005 as a result of budget cuts

[10] This tendency is a dynamic which can be seen in all countries and under governments of all political colours, as we can see from this  graphique d’Euroestat

[11] See (in Italian) "Recomendaciones UCI en Italia".