The Virus of Capitalism

Przemysław Wielgosz

The truth of the inhuman and anti-democratic nature of capitalism has rarely been as evident as during the present pandemic. At the same time, it could be an opportunity for mass-scale progressive social change. Can we say, as Mao Zedong did, that because the world is plunged into chaos, things are excellent?

The pandemic crisis has seen the convergence and intensification of all the negative tendencies of recent decades. Today, we are threatened by a real virus as well as really existing capitalism. Considering the links between the epidemic and the insatiable mining and farming industries and various forms of natural exploitation, primarily deforestation, which has shortened the distance between the animal and human worlds, we are actually dealing with one particular virus, the virus of capitalism. That is the primary killer today. The fact that it creates the conditions for the interspecies transmission of diseases on an unprecedented scale is not the only reason. It suffices to compare the statistics of pandemic fatality in Italy and Spain with those in Germany and Korea. The main thing to be learned from this comparison is that even infections in the tens of thousands do not have to mean a death toll of catastrophic dimensions. The virus is not as virulent as the mortality rate for Lombardy might suggest.

Those defending the European Union against Russian trolls are telling a half-truth when they reassure each other that the EU is doing its best and it is the individual governments that are failing. Actually, the fact that they are failing is largely due to the Union’s own long-standing policies of promoting neoliberalism as the only economic practice, pushing financial sector interests and sacrificing social needs on the altar of competition, dismantling the public sector and social security, and finally, brutally imposing the cutbacks which ruined the Greek, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese societies during the 2007–2015 crisis. It is no accident that the present catastrophe hit countries whose economies were then ‘cured’ with austerity treatments administered by the Troika. The low mortality rates in spite of the high number of infections in Germany and Korea—two countries that did not pare down their health care and other public services—are the clearest sign that the real killer is, more than anything else, the neoliberal orthodoxy. Years of defunding the state, intoxicated cost-cutting, tax reductions, privatizations and austerities are now bearing poisonous fruit. This is also true for Poland, whose political class is mostly still immersed in its neoliberal slumber and seems determined to change Polish people’s lives into a daymare. The way statistics are spruced up through short supplies of tests to improve the stakes in the presidential election makes it clear that, for the politicians of PiS, staying in power is worth sacrificing lives for.

Epidemic Malthusians of All Persuasions

The crisis reveals much more than the bankruptcy of the neoliberal doctrine. It exposes the worst traits of the capitalist culture. In times of stability, they stay well hidden behind the façade of political correctness and ignorance. So long as they can only be seen in the peripheries of the global system (where, incidentally, some eighty percent of the planetary population live), they are not taken seriously in London, Paris or Warsaw. We are used to coping with scenes of violence, starvation and genocide, assuming them to be cultural specificities of Africa or the Middle East, which supposedly have less appreciation for the value of human life. This somewhat racist explanation no longer applies when persons such as Boris Johnson extol the beauty of the more vulnerable and the elderly perishing [1]. The British prime minister’s Malthusian discourse was just one episode, but one that will translate into tens of thousands of infections and deaths. Yet this was no isolated incident. What surfaced was the old colonial outlook of the British conservatives, the same one that drove the politics of the empire upon which the sun never set. In fact, Johnson exemplified the same logic followed in the mid-nineteenth century by Indian Viceroy Robert Bulwer-Lytton, who responded to recurring droughts on the subcontinent with a liberal policy of population adjustment – he abolished the granary system providing food for the population in the affected areas and relied on the invisible hand of the market when the disaster struck [2]. Certainly, there are considerable differences – Lytton was responsible for the deaths of some ten million Indians, Johnson decided to go down in history as the man who allowed five hundred thousand Britons to die. Otherwise, they both represent the same tradition of civilised barbarity. They are of the same sort as epidemic (and, lest it be forgotten, climate) denialist Donald Trump, and at least equally reality-proof Jarosław Kaczyński, dazzled by a vision of an election on May 10th.

The pandemic has become a stage for much more exotic alliances. Here we have conspiracy theories of some liberals spinning a new, fearsome version of the yellow menace story which harmonise with surrealist right-wing geopolitics exploiting a vision of war against China, but also, and worse, with very real acts of violence against Chinese minorities. We see the Malthusian Tory chiming in with a philosopher devoid of empathy who equates hospitals with concentration camps; supporters of the ‘good change’ as well as its critics, a media tycoon and the head of a leftist magazine speaking in unison. Boris Johnson says things which please Giorgio Agamben, who, by the way, borrows some of his ideas from the anti-vaxxers. We see the Civic Coalition joining forces with the ruling party to push Premier Morawiecki’s anti-crisis shield through the Polish parliament, and Sławomir Sierakowski getting disturbingly close to Grzegorz Hajdarowicz and Radosław Sikorski [3]. Polish national conservatives and neoliberals, backed by economic experts of the only legitimate political line, have decided to sacrifice the health and lives of the public on the altar of productivity. Their model might be Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon, who forces hundreds of thousands of employees to risk their health for the sake of profit while announcing a charitable operation on their behalf.

It is not only hypocrisy for the Polish authorities to tighten social distancing requirements once again while remaining indifferent to the dramatic situation in Amazon’s warehouses, which employ almost twenty thousand people. More than anything else, it is a clear indication of whose interests are being represented by the Morawiecki government and which stakes it deems more important: the citizens’ lives and well-being, or the profits of a global corporation. Contrary to appearances, this is not about saving the economy and jobs. In a pandemic, forcing people to travel many kilometres and stay in one building with hundreds of others will not save the GDP, but it does guarantee a sharp increase in the number of people stricken by the disease. [4] The tools to keep the economy alive are to be found elsewhere. Certainly not in the hands of Bezos, Hajdarowicz and the like.

More of the Same

Yet, things may play out differently. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen is —at last!—breaking the unholy rules, pulled out of thin air, that restricted EU countries’ deficit levels to the three percent and public debt levels to the equally baseless figure of sixty percent, and she is encouraging governments to spend, and spend again, to save economies and people. [5] One feels like saying: too little too late! If anything can save the Union today, it will be courage to break the neoliberal muzzle that it imposed on European societies through the Maastricht Treaties and the Stability and Growth Pact. This is why the key question today is whether the vast pumping of public money into EU economies will mark a departure from another pathology, which was financing bonuses for the bankers who brought about the collapse of 2007–2009. The banks do not need more liquidity (because they have been using what the European Central Bank created for years); societies and public services need it as they do the ventilator air.
At a moment when the European Commission itself is ripe to adopt Keynesian measures, the Polish government and the opposition alike are proposing more of the same old story. The Anti-crisis Shield is, in fact, a sword pointed at millions of employees and self-employed people, as well as the health service. Whatever stands behind this project—be it cynicism, political calculation, or plain stupidity—a comparison between the planned expenditures to sustain the liquidity of banks (seventy billion zloty) and support for the health care system (seven and a half billion) prompts us to give failing grades to those who developed and voted for it. With this project, Poland has become the first state to use the pandemic to impose Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine on its society. [6] This mixture of economic ultraliberalism and state of exception would have no chance to pass under normal conditions. Yet it has become quite real now, with the prevailing sense of physical danger, reinforced by the widespread and very rational awareness of the inefficiency of the Polish health care system. We will all feel the consequences of today’s assault on societal democracy when the virus is gone. This is not a matter of a dictator coming to power, but the fact that, once the labour code is suspended, we will be effectively deprived of all formal civil rights to the same degree as the impoverishment that the majority of society will suffer.

Is the Pandemic Changing the World?

Does this mean we are already doomed? Will the advocates of tightening the economic and political screws treat us to their Thanos-style capitalism? What if, in exposing the truth of capitalism, the pandemic fuels its opponents?

History provides examples of positive changes that resulted from plagues. The Black Death of the fourteenth century is a classic example. It coincided with a great wave of peasant rebellions, which led historians to make it part of the context of the liberation of peasants from feudal dependence (in Poland, only temporarily) and the strengthening of the position of labour. We may also hypothesise links between effects of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1917–1920 and the simultaneous rise of a revolutionary tide in Europe and Asia. The present pandemic has similarly exposed the fragility of the global accumulation regime based on manufacturing that is delocalised to China and on globalised value and supply chains. What, until recently, seemed to be capital’s source of colossal advantage over labour and democracy confined by national boundaries has turned out to be the system’s weakest link. The blockage of manufacturing in one particular place and increased costs of transportation have brought globalisation enthusiasts and worshippers in the church of dematerialised economy down to earth. Capital may need them to turn more profit, but what societies need for their survival is material production, material products reaching material places.

This is not the end. By interrupting the global economic bloodstream, the pandemic has accelerated several processes that have long heralded the exhaustion of the current economic model. In particular, we can expect the end of the era of cheap nature, to be plundered and poisoned with impunity. The link between this practice, responsible for a rapid and radical decline in biodiversity and the proliferation of new viruses, is too evident to be ignored. Its costs, economic or otherwise, have become dramatically apparent. Nevertheless, it is important that even after the pandemic, capital will no longer pursue its race to the bottom in search of the cheapest labour force on the current scale. The cheap labour zones scattered all over the globe, previously available due to liberalisation of the flow of capital and underpricing of transportation (thanks to subsidies for the oil industry), will be less accessible. The effects of these limitations will certainly not be evenly distributed. Some places and sectors may see improvements for the workforce, but others, especially in the global South, are likely to see a regression. But while the negative effects of the pandemic guaranteed by the very logic of capitalism, the odds for positive effects depend on a number of factors.

Politicise the Baseline Communism

However ambiguous the historical examples of the fourteenth century and 1917 are, they show that neither the epidemic nor the elite of the ancien régime do any good by themselves. After all, nobody in their right mind believes that the invisible hand of the market will save us from an economic collapse any more. Clearly, socialism for the wealthy and ultra-capitalism for the poor, which are at the heart of the Polish government and neoliberal opposition projects alike, will only exacerbate inequalities, poverty, and ultimately, recession. A real alternative is needed. Could it be the baseline communism that David Graeber describes? [7] Certainly, grassroots solidarity and mutual aid are now proving necessary for society to function. We are literally being saved by spontaneous forms of community that neoliberal capitalism has tried to eliminate and replace with market-driven consumer choices. Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has gone so far as to name this communovirus. [8] It is enough to compare its expression with the class particularism so striking in the discourse of media pundits and the predominantly conservative-liberal political class. While the former stokes hopes of overcoming the crisis and a bright future, the latter represents the opposite and a sure way to disaster. But in keeping with Graeber, and confirmed by the crisis experience, baseline activity is not sufficient (or sufficiently political). Grassroots activities – sewing masks, the Visible Hand and balcony concerts – are not enough. It goes without saying that it is impossible to imagine a better world after the pandemic without this movement. What we must realize, however, is that even the most magnificent acts of horizontal cooperation and heroism are no substitute for an efficient public sector, no more than occupying squats can substitute for national housing policy. The energy activated at the grassroots must find its way into reorganising the social order. This requires us to formalise new forms of self-organisation and propose a political project.

Growth? What Growth?

The mainstream debate in Poland resounds with calls to sustain production and growth. But haven’t we just learned that growth for its own sake is of no value? Isn’t it the same growth that has risen alongside precarity, the degradation of the public sphere, impoverishment and growing consumer debt over the past few decades? Neoliberal capitalism has long since severed the link between GDP growth dynamics and human development which was in place for four decades after 1945. Today, growth will not keep all the boats afloat; for a long time now, it has been sinking the smaller ones.

We hear that banks need money because they are using it to lend to consumers. Well, this is actually the best argument against them. The problem is not banks lacking liquidity. It is that the wages are so low that workers have to go into debt to buy a washing machine or go on holiday. Not only has the share of wages in GDP been declining for years, but much of them has been transferred to financial institutions by servicing consumer loans.

Whenever the idea of supporting wages arises, the neoliberal chorus responds: Where is the money for that? The answer is extremely simple: it could come from the same resources that fund bank bailouts. It would be cheaper and more effective. Even a solidarity income program to be paid to the three and a half million unemployed every a year (this is how numerous they can be in a few months) would cost fifteen billion zloty less than the amount being offered to banks. [9]

We Can’t Afford Austerities

Now is the time to ask strategic questions: Do we need growth? If so, what kind? What kind of financial system do we need: one that supplies the economy with liquidity or one that, conversely, drains it of liquidity through fiscal giveaways, privatisation of pension schemes or interest rate policies that result in inflating assets and encourage pumping profits into financial markets? And finally, can we afford to continue the austerities now that it is well known that the only effective way to boost the economy and reduce the debt is through public investment? Conventional economists and governments (like Poland’s) that are influenced by them are only interested in production (supply), adhering to the archaic notion of supply creating its own demand. Yet both experience and economic theory indicate that such one-sidedness simply does not work. What is needed most of all is the stimulation of demand. Certainly, this will not be achieved by encouraging consumption alone. While the latter is necessary for millions of people to survive, sufficient demand can only be created by public investment.

This is a time for spending. But not on a bailout to save the big fish. Because in reality, just as the classics teach, workers spend as much as they earn, and capitalists only earn as much as they spend. We are being given an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of 2008–2009: instead of wasting funds once again, we could assign them to a goal that we should have long been pursuing anyway. This goal is the transformation of the energy system and a Green New Deal. The project is costly, demands technological innovation, is capital- and labour-intensive and bound to take years… which means it is perfectly suited to be a driving force for social development that will break with the capitalist idols of low cost and short-term profitability. The new economic consensus should favour deficit over austerities, public investment over the consolidation of markets, democratic rather than corporate-driven regulations, fostering cooperation within the EU, and ultimately, on a global scale, rather than bowing to the principle of competition, common goods rather than privatisation, protection of wages and jobs instead of rewarding profits, ending the era of precarity by taking all those employed under the umbrella of code agreements, and finally, establishing truly progressive taxation (including possession taxation). [10]

Socialise and Breathe

The present crisis shows that, contrary to what the uncritical and anachronistic readers of Michel Foucault might expect, we are not only threatened by an excess of panoptic institutions at present, but also by the weakening of democratic ones. To be sure, Big Brother is not a mere confabulation. The prospect of a Western surveillance capitalism or social credit in the Chinese model has become even more immediate in the pandemic. The spectre of the digitalisation of public life, which only recently stoked some technoenthusiasts’ minds, is now being associated with the collapse of the democratic community. It is one thing when political movements make use of new communication technologies, and quite another when actually existing common space is being amputated, and what was once a tool begins to dictate a society’s conditions of existence. This is particularly dangerous when the tool and network of communication, such as social media, are controlled by private capital. What will become of a democratic debate when its conditions and terms are set by Google or Facebook? We are in danger of the model for social life becoming a shopping mall, with its privatised, commercialised, secure and totally depoliticised space. In such a reality, the struggle to break the monopoly of private digital concerns and make cyberspace public has emerged as one of the most important political stakes of our time.

Today, freedom requires more democratic biopolitics, not a new libertarian Malthusianism. Democracy needs good public services, public hospitals, public drug factories and public research, whose results will find their way into the public domain. Instead of a state of exception, we need changed normalcy where the socialisation of part of the economy will be a sustainable solution, not a public-money drip for private capital. Who needs private health care if it only proves useful to its shareholders when it is most needed?

Who Creates Social Value?

As we redefine our priorities, we must ask what we can actually afford. Whose work do we really need in terms of the social value it generates? The epidemic is brutally verifying the pyramid of the relative importance of occupations. In this context, it is important to ask who should be more highly valued – a hospital cleaner and a courier service person or a marketing director and an HR manager? A paramedic and a packer in a logistics centre or a manager in a private health centre and a public relations department head in a corporation? When redesigning pay and prestige scales, the value of survival must be kept in mind. This is what workers in the USA and Poland are fighting for, as well as all those who accept the quarantine. Today, stopping work means survival, and that is why it should be rewarded. [11]

Are we seriously meant to believe that the people essential to saving lives and keeping society going are superfluous when it comes to making the political and economic decisions that affect it? This is a question of the political organisation of society and, at the same time, of the real meaning of constitutional provisions. Without economic democracy, without the real influence of workers and employees on strategic decisions concerning production and redistribution of wealth, formal rights, even if they survive, will become a mere façade for class privilege.

Interdependence or Exterminism

The crisis also provokes political questions, because even if the vaccine is soon developed and the pandemic controlled, this will not alter the fact that we are not going back to the old regime. It can only be much worse or finally get better. Signs seem to show that we are on the verge of the era of exterminism Peter Frase announced, a world of new hierarchies and shortages. [12] It will resemble the reality presented in Neill Blomkamp’s film Elysium—combining the effects of the pandemic, neoliberal orthodoxy and global inequalities, nationalism and the climate crisis. Nevertheless, the stakes of an egalitarian, abundant, and the ecological world have lost none of their relevance. On the contrary, it turns out to be the raison d’être of our societies and projects such as the European Union. Today, this is more obvious than ever. The suspension of laws and border closures will work in the short term, delaying the pandemic, but they will not stop it, or any that come in its wake. This can only be achieved through more democracy, more public sector and more egalitarianism. It is their deficit that will prove to be the greatest hazard.

The pandemic has done nothing to rehabilitate the nation-state. Indeed, it has highlighted all of its limitations. In Poland, distrust of statistics, ministers’ competences and authorities’ claims to be in control of the situation is pervasive. The same goes for the USA, Brazil, India, or Russia. As Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval observe, what we need is not more state sovereignty, but more public services. [13] These are not to be equated, as the pandemic situation adamantly proves. Historically, public services have not been gifts of the state but gains the subordinate classes have torn from the hands of governments and the capital they supported. The same is true today, as the Polish example clearly shows. What we are talking about is the issue of the presidential election. The drive to be elected during the pandemic was a sovereign expression of the authorities’ will, dramatically at odds with conserving lives, public health and social bonds. The logic of the right wing’s imperative to stay in power clashed against the democratic community’s logic of self-preservation. In this way, we had a first-hand experience of two conflicting orders: one in which the state is harnessed to satisfy social needs and one where society is subordinated to the needs of sovereign state and capital.

In a situation where countries are failing, it is very symptomatic that the real source of dependable knowledge and support has turned out to be the World Health Organization (WHO)—an institution that has been underfunded for many years and is challenged by the current Washington administration, which decided to reduce its contribution to the maintenance of the organization by fifty-three percent in early 2020. [14] The world needs far more structures like the WHO today. In other words, we need to democratise forms of global interdependence, so that they are no longer burdened by the logics of the accumulation of capital and geopolitics, which only exacerbate the global polarisation. This is the only way to promote equal chances for survival and interdependence as a source of sustainable development. The extent of the catastrophe that awaits the global South without solidarity from the North and China is unimaginable. In the local European arena, an agenda of this kind would mean making such ideas as European health and environmental policy and European minimum wage a reality. If neoliberal globalisation is co-responsible for the pandemic, the vaccine will not mean erecting walls, but globalisation of social, sanitary, environmental and employment standards.

We have become citizens of a global pandemic and we need the kind of institutions that will reflect this shared citizenship.

For this reason, if times have become even harder on us in the early spring of 2020, we must not stop at criticising the actions of those in power, we cannot afford to be moderate and conservative. If we want to preserve the social gains previous generations have struggled to win, if we do not want simply to survive, we cannot afford to do no more than look back. We have to go far beyond what has seemed possible.

* * *

[1] J. Olender, Brytyjczycy na czołówkę z koronawirusem, Krytyka Polityczna, March 17, 2020, [accessed: April 2, 2020].

[2] M. Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, El Nino, Famines and The Waking of the Third World, London–New York: Verso, 2001.

[3] G. Agamben, The state of exception provoked by an unmotivated emergency in: Positions, February 27, 2020 [accessed June 8, 2020]. Originally published in: il manifesto, February 26, 2020. A. Leszczyński, Think-tank Instrat: rządowa tarcza pisana pod naciskiem wielkiego biznesu. Cofa nas do XIX wieku, OKO.Press, March 31, 2020, [accessed: April 2, 2020]. S. Sierakowski, Lekarstwo gorsze od choroby?,, March 23, 2020, [accessed: April 2, 2020]. G. Hajdarowicz, Koronawirus: konieczna natychmiastowa zmiana polityki, Rzeczpospolita, March 23, 2020, [accessed: April 2, 2020]. R. Sikorski, Poważny głos polskiego biznesu, [accessed: Apr 2, 2020].

[4] See research by scholars of the Cambridge University economic department, Economic Damage Could Be Worse Without Lockdown and Social Distancing—Study, [accessed: April 2, 2020].

[5] This quotation comes from a video posted on Ursula von der Leyen’s Twitter account: ‘Today we triggered for the very first time the general escape clause. This means that national governments can pump into their economies as much money as they need to. We are suspending all limitations that have been preventing this’. For more information on the activation of the escape clause, see the communication on the European Commission website:…/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_459 [accessed: April 2, 2020].

[6] N. Klein, Coronavirus Is the Perfect Disaster for “Disaster Capitalism,ʼ, March 13, 2020, [accessed: April 2, 2020].

[7] D. Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, New York: Melville House 2011.

[8] J. L. Nancy, Communovirus, Libération, March 24, 2020.

[9] Ł. Komuda, Popyt, panie premierze, Le Monde diplomatique – edycja polska, March–April 2020.

[10] More about the economic transformation can be found in Regeneracja zamiast tarczy, manifest środowiska naukowego badań nad gospodarką, [accessed: April 2, 2020]. J. Zygmuntowski, A Decade of Regeneration: How We Beat the Coronavirus, and the Crisis of Capitalism, [accessed: June 8, 2020].

[11] A. Temkin, Przeżycie to zysk. Kim chcemy być po drugiej stronie pandemii, Polska The Times, March 25, 2020.

[12] P. Frase, Four Futures: Life after Capitalism, New York: Verso 2016.

[13] P. Dardot, C. Laval, L’épreuve politique de la pandémie, Mediapart, March 19, 2020, [accessed: April 2, 2020]. Echoing Léon Duguit, the writers contend that public services are not an instrument of state power, but a concession to the needs of society, an obligation towards them. Through this sector, citizens can control the functions of the state and hold it accountable.

[14] S. Shah, Dlaczego pandemie są coraz częstsze?, Le Monde diplomatique – edycja polska, March–April, 2020.

Translated into English by Jerzy P. Listwan