Report on the Covid-19 pandemic and the period of capitalist decomposition

Printer-friendly version

This report was written for a recent congress of our section in France and will be followed by other reports on the world situation.

The disaster continues and worsens: officially there are 36 million infected and over a million deaths worldwide[1]. Having recklessly postponed preventive counter measures to the spread of the virus, then imposed a brutal shutdown of wide sectors of the economy, the different factions of the world bourgeoisie subsequently gambled on an economic recovery, at the expense of an even greater number of victims, by re-opening society while the pandemic had only temporarily abated in certain countries. As winter approaches it is clear that the gamble has not paid off, presaging a deterioration, at least in the medium term, both economically and medically. The burden of this disaster has fallen on the shoulders of the international working class.

Up till now one of the difficulties of recognising the fact that capitalism has entered the final phase of its historic decline - that of social decomposition – is that this present epoch, opened up definitively by the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989, had superficially appeared as a proliferation of symptoms with no apparent interconnection, unlike previous periods of capitalist decadence which were defined and dominated by such obvious landmarks as world war or proletarian revolution[2]. But now in 2020, the Covid pandemic, the most significant crisis in world history since the Second World War, has become an unmistakable emblem of this whole period of decomposition by bringing together a series of factors of chaos that signify the generalised putrefaction of the capitalist system. These include:

- the prolongation of the long-term economic crisis that began in 1967[3], and the consequent accumulation and intensification of austerity measures, has precipitated an inadequate and chaotic response to the pandemic by the bourgeoisie, which has in turn obliged the ruling class to massively aggravate the economic crisis by interrupting production for a significant period;

- the origins of the pandemic clearly lie in the accelerated destruction of the environment created by the persistence of the chronic capitalist crisis of overproduction;

- the disorganised rivalry of the imperialist powers, notably among former allies, has turned the reaction of the world bourgeoisie to the pandemic into a global fiasco;

- the ineptitude of the response of the ruling class to the health crisis has revealed the growing tendency to a loss of political control of the bourgeoisie and its state over society within each nation;

- the decline in the political and social competence of the ruling class and its state has been accompanied in an astonishing way by ideological putrefaction: the leaders of the most powerful capitalist nations are spewing out ridiculous lies and superstitious nonsense to justify their ineptitude.

Covid-19 has thus brought together in a clearer way than before the impact of decomposition on all the principle levels of capitalist society – economic, imperialist, political, ideological and social.

The current situation has also dispelled the significance of a number of phenomena that were supposed to contradict the analysis that capitalism had entered a terminal phase of chaos and social breakdown. These phenomena, our critics alleged, proved that our analysis should be ‘put in question’ or simply ignored. In particular, a few years ago the stunning growth rates of the Chinese economy appeared, to our critical commentators, to be a refutation that there was a period of decomposition and even of decadence. These observers had in reality been taken in by the ‘perfume of modernity’ emitted by Chinese industrial growth. Today, as a result of the Covid pandemic, not only has the Chinese economy stagnated but it has revealed a chronic backwardness that gives off the less pleasant aroma of underdevelopment and decay.

The ICC perspective from 1989 that world capitalism had entered a final phase of inner dissolution, based on the marxist method of analysing underlying global and long-term trends, instead of running after temporary novelties or sticking with outworn formulas, has been strikingly confirmed.

The present health catastrophe reveals, above all, an increasing loss of control of the capitalist class over its system and its increasing loss of perspective for human society as a whole. The increasing loss of mastery of the means that the bourgeoisie has hitherto developed to constrain and channel the effects of the historic decline of its mode of production has become more tangible.

Moreover, the current situation reveals the extent to which the capitalist class is not only less able to prevent a growing social chaos but is also increasingly aggravating the very decomposition that it previously kept in check.

Pandemic, decadence, decomposition.

In order to more fully understand why the Covid pandemic is symbolic of the capitalist decomposition period we have to see how it could not have happened in previous epochs in the way it has today.

Pandemics of course have been known in previous social formations and have had a devastating and accelerating effect on the decline of previous class societies, like the Justinian Plague at the end of ancient slave society or the Black Death at the close of feudal serfdom. But feudal decadence did not know a period of decomposition because a new mode of production (capitalism) was already taking shape within and alongside the old. The devastation of the plague even hastened the early development of the bourgeoisie.

The decadence of capitalism, the most dynamic system of the exploitation of labour in history, necessarily envelopes the whole of society and prevents any new form of production from emerging within it. This is why, in the absence of a route to world war and of the re-emergence of the proletarian alternative, capitalism has entered into a period of ‘ultra-decadence’ as the ICC Theses on Decomposition put it[4]. So, the present pandemic will not give way to any regeneration of mankind’s productive forces within existing society but forces us instead to glimpse the inevitability of the collapse of human society as a whole unless world capitalism is overthrown in its entirety. The resort to the medieval methods of quarantine in answer to Covid, when capitalism has developed the scientific, technological and social means to understand, pre-empt and contain the eruption of plagues, (but is unable to deploy them) is testimony to the impasse of a society that is ‘rotting on its feet’ and increasingly unable to utilise the productive forces that it has set in motion.

The history of the social impact of infectious disease in the life of capitalism gives us a further insight into the distinction to be made between the decadence of a system and the specific period of decomposition within its period of decline that began in 1914. The ascendancy of capitalism and even the history of most of its decadence show in fact a growing mastery of medical science and public health over infectious disease especially in the advanced countries. The promotion of public hygiene and sanitation, the conquering of smallpox and polio and the retreat of malaria for example, is evidence of this progress. Eventually, after the Second World War, non-communicable diseases became the dominant reasons for premature death in the heartlands of capitalism. We shouldn’t imagine that this improvement in the power of epidemiology took place for the humanitarian concerns that the bourgeoisie has claimed. The overriding goal was to create a stable environment for the intensification of exploitation demanded by the permanent crisis of capitalism and above all for the preparation and ultimate mobilisation of the populations for the military interests of imperialist blocs.

From the 1980s the positive trend against infectious disease started to reverse. New, or evolving pathogens began to emerge such as HIV, Zikah, Ebola, Sars, Mers, Nipah, N5N1, Dengue fever, etc. Vanquished diseases became more drug resistant. This development, particularly of zoonotic viruses, is linked to urban growth in the peripheral regions of capitalism - particularly of mass slums which account for 40% of this growth - and deforestation and burgeoning climate change. While epidemiology has been able to understand and track these viruses the state’s implementation of counter-measures has failed to keep pace with the threat. The insufficient and chaotic response of the bourgeoisies to Covid-19 is a striking confirmation of the capitalist state’s growing negligence toward the resurgence of infectious diseases and public health, and thus of a disregard of the importance of social protection at the most basic level. This development of growing social incompetence by the bourgeois state is linked to decades of cuts to the ‘social wage’, particularly of health services. But the growing disregard for public health can only be fully explained in the framework of the phase of decomposition, which favours irresponsible and short-term responses by large parts of the ruling class.

The conclusions to be drawn from this reversal in the progress of infectious disease control over the past few decades are inescapable: it is an illustration of the transition of decadent capitalism to a final period of decomposition.

Of course, the worsening of the permanent economic crisis of capitalism is the root cause of this transition, a crisis which is common to all periods of its decadence. But it is the management - or rather the growing mismanagement - of the effects of this crisis that has changed and is a key component of present and future disasters that are characteristic of the specific period of decomposition.

Those explanations which fail to take this transformation into account, like those of the International Communist Tendency for example, are left with the truism that the profit motive is to blame for the pandemic. For them the specific circumstances, timing and scale of the calamity remains a mystery.

Nor can the reaction of the bourgeoisie to the pandemic be explained by reverting to the schema of the Cold War period, as though the imperialist powers have ‘weaponised’ the Covid virus for imperialist military purposes and the mass quarantines are a mobilisation of the population in this regard. This explanation forgets that the main imperialist powers are no longer organised in contending imperialist blocs and do not have their hands free to mobilise the population behind their war aims. This is central to the stalemate between the two main classes that is the root cause of the period of decomposition.

Generally speaking, it is not viruses but vaccines which benefit imperialist bloc military ambitions[5]. The bourgeoisie has learnt the lessons of the Spanish flu of 1918 in this respect. Uncontrolled infections are a massive liability to the military as the demobilisation of several US aircraft carriers and a French aircraft carrier by Covid-19 has shown. By contrast, keeping deadly pathogens under strict control has always been a condition for every imperialist power’s bio-warfare capability.

This is not to say that the imperialist powers haven’t used the health crisis to further advance their interests at the expense of their rivals. But these efforts have on the whole revealed that the vacuum of world imperialist leadership left by the United States is increasing, without any other power, including China, being able to assume this role or capable of creating an alternative pole of attraction. The chaos at the level of imperialist conflicts has been confirmed by the Covid catastrophe.

The mass quarantine by the imperialist states today is certainly accompanied by the greater presence of the military in daily life and the use of war-like exhortations by the states. But this demobilisation of the population is to a considerable extent motivated by the state’s fear of the threat of social disorder in a period when the working class, while quiescent, remains undefeated.

The fundamental tendency to self-destruction that is the common feature of all periods of capitalist decadence has changed its dominant form in the period of decomposition from world war to a world chaos that only increases the threat of capitalism to society and humanity in its entirety.

The pandemic and the state.

The loss of control by the bourgeoisie that has characterised the pandemic is mediated through the instrument of the state. What does this calamity reveal about state capitalism in the decomposition period?

We will recall, in order to help understand this question, the observation of the ICC pamphlet The Decadence of Capitalism on the ‘overturning of the superstructures’ that the growth of the role of the state in society is a feature of the decadence of all modes of production. The development of state capitalism is the extreme expression of this general historical phenomenon.

As the GCF[6] pointed out in 1952 state capitalism is not a solution to the contradictions of capitalism, even if it can delay their effects, but is an expression of them. The capacity of the state to hold a decaying society together, however invasive it becomes, is therefore destined to weaken over time and in the end become an aggravating factor of the very contradictions it is trying to contain. The decomposition of capitalism is the period in which a growing loss of control by the ruling class and its state becomes the dominant trend of social evolution, which Covid reveals so dramatically.

However, it would be wrong to imagine this loss of control develops in a uniform way at all levels of the state’s actions, or that it hits all nations equally or is merely a short-term phenomenon.

At the International level

With the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the consequent redundancy of the Western bloc, military structures like NATO have tended to lose their cohesion as the experience of the Balkan and Gulf wars have shown. The dislocation at the military and strategic level has inevitably been accompanied by the loss of power - at different speeds - of all the inter-state agencies that were set up under the aegis of US imperialism after the 2nd World War, such as the World Health Organisation and UNESCO at the social level, the EU (in its former guise), the World Bank, the IMF, the World Trade Organisation at the economic level. These agencies were designed to maintain the stability and the ‘soft power’ of the Western bloc under the leadership of the US.

The process of dissolution and weakening of these inter-state organisations has particularly intensified with the election of US president Trump in 2016.

The relative impotence of the WHO during the pandemic is eloquent in this regard and is connected to each state playing its own game chaotically with the deadly results we know. The ‘war of the masks’ and now the coming war of the vaccines, the proposed withdrawal from the WHO by the US, the attempt of China to manipulate this institution for its own benefit, hardly needs comment.

The impotence of the inter-state bodies and the resulting every-man-for-himself among the competing nation states has helped turn the pathogenic threat into a global disaster.

However, at the level of the world economy - despite the acceleration of the trade war and tendencies to regionalisation - the bourgeoisies have still been able to coordinate essential measures, like the action of the Federal Reserve Bank to preserve dollar liquidity throughout the world in March at the beginning of the economic shutdown.  Germany, after an initial reluctance, decided to try and coordinate with France an economic rescue package for the European Union as a whole.

Nevertheless, if the international bourgeoisie is still able to prevent a complete meltdown of important parts of the world economy it hasn’t been able to avoid the enormous long-term damage done to economic growth and world trade by the shutdown necessitated by the delayed and dislocated response to Covid-19. In comparison with the response of the G7 to the 2008 financial crash, the present situation shows the long term wearing out of the ability of the bourgeoisie to coordinate actions to slow down the economic crisis.

Of course, the tendency towards ‘every man for himself’ has always been a feature of the competitive nature of capitalism and its division into nation states. But today it is the absence of imperialist bloc discipline and perspective which has stimulated the resurgence of this tendency in a period of economic impasse and decline. Whereas before a certain amount of international cooperation was maintained, Covid-19 reveals its increasing absence.

At the national level

In the Theses on Decomposition in point 10 we noted that the disappearance of the perspective of world war exacerbates rivalries between cliques within each nation state as well as between the state themselves. The dislocation and unpreparedness concerning Covid-19 at the international level has been replicated to a greater or lesser degree in each nation state, particularly at the executive level:

A major characteristic of the decomposition of capitalist society we should emphasise is the growing difficulty of controlling the evolution of the political situation.” pt 9.

This was a prime factor in the collapse of the Eastern bloc aggravated by the aberrant nature of the Stalinist regime (a single party state that defined the ruling class itself). But the underlying causes of the conflicts in the ‘executive committee’ of the whole bourgeoisie - chronic economic crisis, loss of strategic perspective and foreign policy fiascos, disaffection of the population - is now hitting the advanced capitalisms, which is nowhere more clearly shown in the current crisis than in major countries where populist or populist-influenced governments, especially those led by Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have come to power. The conflicts in these major states inevitably reverberate in the other states which have, for the moment, followed a more rational policy.

Before these two countries were a symbol of the relative stability and cogency of world capitalism; the woeful performance of their bourgeoisies today shows they have instead become beacons of irrationality and disorder.

Both the US administration and the British government have, guided by nationalist bluster, willfully ignored and delayed their responses to the Covid calamity and even encouraged a lack of respect for the danger by the population; they have undermined the advice of the scientific authorities and are now opening up the economy while the virus is still raging. Both governments scrapped pandemic task forces on the eve of the Covid crisis.

Both governments, in different ways, are deliberately vandalising the established procedures of the democratic state and creating discord among the different state departments such as Trump’s abrogation of military protocol in his response to the Black Lives Matter protests and fraudulent manipulations of the judiciary, or Johnson’s current disruption of the civil service bureaucracy.

It’s true that, in a period of every-man-for-himself, each nation state has inevitably followed its own path. However, those states which have displayed more intelligence than others are also facing growing divisions and loss of control.

Populism is proving the idea of the Theses on Decomposition that senile capitalism is returning to a ‘second childhood’. Populism’s ideology pretends that the system can return to a youthful period of capitalist dynamism and less bureaucracy simply through demagogic phrases and disruptive initiatives. But in reality decadent capitalism in its phase of decomposition is exhausting all palliatives.

.While populism appeals to the xenophobic and petit bourgeois illusions of a disaffected population that is disoriented temporarily by the absence of a proletarian resurgence, it is clear from the current health crisis that populism’s programme - or anti-programme - has developed within the bourgeoisie and the state itself.

It is not accidental that the US and UK, of the more developed countries, have seen the greatest casualty rates for the pandemic.

However, it should be remembered that the economic agencies of the state in the majority of developed countries have by contrast remained stable and taken rapid emergency measures to prevent their economies going into free fall and delayed the effect of mass unemployment on the population.

Indeed, as a result of the actions of the central banks we are seeing the state strongly increase its role in the economy. For example:

Morgan Stanley [the investment bank] notes that the central banks of the G4 countries - US, Japan, Europe and the UK - will collectively expand their balance sheets by 28% of gross domestic production over this cycle. The equivalent number during the 2008 financial crisis was 7%.” Financial Times 27 June 2020.

The perspective for the development of state capitalism however, at root, is a sign that the state’s capacity for containing the crisis and the decomposition of capitalism is waning.

The increasing weight of the intervention of the state into every aspect of social life as a whole is not a solution to the growing decomposition of the latter.

It should not be forgotten that there is a strong resistance within these states to the vandalism of populism by the traditional liberal parties or important sections of them. In these countries this sector of the state bourgeoisie forms a vocal opposition, particularly through the media, which, as well as ridiculing populist buffoonery, can hold out the hope to the population of a return to democratic order and rationality, even if there is no real capacity now to close the populist Pandora’s box.

And we can be sure that the bourgeoisie in these countries has by no means forgotten the proletariat, and will be able to deploy all its dedicated agencies when the time comes.

The ‘boomerang’ effect experienced in the period of decomposition.

The Report on Decomposition of 2017 highlights the fact that in the first decades after the emergence of the economic crisis at the end of the 60s, the richest countries pushed the effects of the crisis onto the peripheries of system, while in the decomposition period, the tendency tends to reverse or rebound on the heartlands of capitalism - such as the spread of terrorism, mass influx of refugees and migrants, mass unemployment, destruction of the environment and now deadly epidemics to Europe and America. The current situation where the strongest capitalist country in the world has suffered the most from the pandemic is a confirmation of this tendency.

The Report also remarked in a prescient way that:

“…we considered that [decomposition] had no real impact on the evolution of the crisis of capitalism. If the current rise of populism were to lead to the coming power of this current in some of the main European countries, such an impact of decomposition will develop.”

One of the most significant aspects of the current calamity is that decomposition has indeed rebounded on the economy in a devastating way. And this experience has not diminished the taste of populism for further economic mayhem, as shown by the continuing economic war of the US against China, or the determination of the British government to pursue the suicidal and destructive course of Brexit.

The decomposition of the superstructure is taking its ‘revenge’ on the economic foundations of capitalism that gave rise to it.

When the economy trembles, the whole superstructure that relies on it enters into crisis and decomposition ….Beginning as consequences of a system they then most often become accelerating factors in the process of decline”.
Decadence of Capitalism
, Chapter 1.




[1] As of 9 October 2020

[2] This problem of perception was noted by The Report on Decomposition from the 22nd ICC Congress in 2017, International Review 163

[3] This long-term economic crisis, which has lasted over five decades, emerged at the end of the 1960s following two decades of post-war prosperity in the advanced countries. The worsening of this crisis has been punctuated by specific recessions and recoveries that have not resolved the underlying impasse.

[4] International Review 107, 1990

[5]  The antibiotic properties of penicillin were discovered in 1928. During the second world war the drug was mass produced by the US, and 2.3 million doses were prepared for the D-Day landings of June 1944.

[6] Gauche Communiste de France – precursor of the ICC