Coronavirus reveals same contradictions as Great Depression: Will we learn this time?
Bronze figures at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, created by sculptor George Segal, depict jobless men waiting in a food line during the Great Depression. Millions of laid-off workers have applied for unemployment benefits as business shutdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic deepen, resulting in the worst U.S. economic catastrophe in decades. | J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Writing for CNN, Matt Egan recently reported, “U.S. credit card debt suddenly reversed course in March and fell by the largest percentage in more than 30 years. At the same time, savings rates climbed to levels unseen since Ronald Reagan was in the White House.”

Good news? Seemingly so. Americans appear to be behaving in economically responsible ways, eliminating expensive credit card debt and bolstering savings. Founding father Ben Franklin would be proud of these fiscally wise Americans, no?

Well, perhaps counter-intuitively, Egan’s article does not frame this behavioral development in sanguine terms, introduced by a headline that reads, rather ominously: “New threat to the economy: Americans are saving like it’s the 1980s.”

In what kind of economic environment is the fiscally conservative and seemingly sound economic conduct of individuals—saving responsibly and maintaining low levels of debt—at odds with the health of the overall economy itself, understood as threatening the health of the economy?

The answer is in an economic system such as our current arrangement, call it capitalism, fueled by consumerism.

Egan elaborates in his article, writing:

“The dramatic shifts in consumer behavior reflect the unprecedented turmoil in the U.S. economy caused by the pandemic. Although caution is a logical response to that uncertainty, hunkering down also poses a risk to the recovery in an economy dominated by consumer spending. A so-called V-shaped recovery can’t happen if consumers are sitting on the sidelines.”

Consumer spending accounts for 70% of the U.S. economy’s gross domestic product, and retail sales experienced their largest decline in April since such records started being kept in 1992.

Americans took to buying primarily the essentials, just what they actually need, tending to their own economic health. As they tend to their own economic health and focus on meeting their needs, the health of the overall economy suffers diametrically, no longer being fed by consumer dollars.

So, we see, unless Americans consume well beyond their need, even to the point of maintaining high levels of debt, our economy cannot sustain itself.

Does something seem wrong with this system in which we must behave counter to our own economic, and certainly environmental, health to serve the health of the system? We know it’s not good for our environment and that responsible stewardship of our environment requires curtailing our consumption.

And, of course, our history has presented this lesson before, only to have us resist it, neglecting to learn.

The Great Depression was caused by what economists call “overproduction.” Marx and Engels analyze overproduction as the primary cause of the cyclical crises we have experienced under capitalism, writing in The Communist Manifesto:

“In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that in all earlier epochs would have seemed an absurdity—the epidemic of overproduction. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; and why? Because there is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.”

The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, is available from International Publishers.

Companies produce too much such that that pace of consumption beyond need cannot keep up. When consumers cannot buy what is already on the shelves, companies stop producing and thus lay off workers. Then the workers cannot afford even to pay for the basic goods and services they need to meet their needs—for what is essential.

Because nobody is buying goods and services, prices plummet because of lack of demand. To bring prices back up—that is, to try to save the system—farmers start destroying crops, pouring milk down sewers, killing livestock.

Meanwhile, hungry folks are waiting in breadlines.

There’s the tragic irony of the economic depression: Amidst great abundance, people wanted for their most basic needs.

And this historical episode exemplifies what Marx saw as the central contradiction fueling historical development, which he understands, obviously, as a history of class struggle.

Historically, the relations of production—the way we organize our economy in terms of production and distribution—have existed in contradiction with and thus fettered the forces of production, meaning everything we have at our disposal in terms of people to work, natural resources, infrastructure, and so forth, to produce goods and services to meet human need.

If you’re paying attention, you’ll see the same phenomenon is occurring today. As Adam Jeffery and Emma Newburger reported for CNBC: “As the coronavirus pandemic disrupts supply chains across the country, farmers are being forced to destroy their crops, dump milk, and throw out perishable items that can’t be stored.”

Chickens are being euthanized in Iowa. Washington is experiencing a one billion pound surplus of potatoes. And Jeffery and Newburger report that, “At least $5 billion of fresh fruits and vegetables have already been wasted, according to estimates from the Produce Marketing Association, as many farmers plow ripe crops back into the soil.”

Meanwhile, we have record numbers of people waiting in lines at food banks, and the food banks do not have enough to go around.

After the Depression, the effort seemed to be to restore the economic system, a system that had just proven itself unable to the support the lives of those trying to live within it, a system that had just demonstrated itself to be informed by a titanic contradiction, creating a situation in which desperate want existed simultaneously with unused abundance.

Somehow we seemed to value the economic system more than the people living within it.

But the objective of any economy, you’ll learn in ECON 101, is to produce and distribute goods and services most efficiently and effectively to meet the needs of those living in the system.

We have the same lesson before us now. Will we choose a different response to it?

Will we choose a system that supports life? One that is able to distribute the abundance we produce to satisfy our collective hunger? That doesn’t make one put one’s life at risk when going to work to help produce what we all need to live?

We are adapting to live on what we need—at least those of us who can access what we need. Can we move beyond adapting our own individual behavior to adapt our overall economy to one designed first and foremost to meet our collective needs of food, shelter, health, education, clothing, entertainment, culture, and so forth?

It will mean not having an economy designed to produce profit and wealth first and meet need as subsidiary objective. It will likely mean we all need to work less and will definitely mean that having access to resources to meet our needs is not dependent on the work we do, the job we have.

It will mean we contribute what we are able and receive what we need.

We seem to have enough if we could distribute it accordingly and effectively.

It would mean achieving what Marx in Critique of the Gotha Program called “the higher phase of communist society,” operating according to the ethos: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

Critique of the Gotha Program, by Karl Marx, is available from International Publishers.

Technological developments have evolved our productive forces to the point that fewer workers are necessary to produce enough to meet our needs.  If we altered our understanding from work, no longer conceiving of work in terms of “jobs” individuals do to earn a wage to buy their bread but as what we each do to collectively contribute to society to produce what need, we could meaningfully de-couple the link between having a job and having access to resources (food, housing, healthcare, education, etc).  The inventions of “labor-saving” devices can do what they were meant to do, save us from labor, but without depriving people of having their needs met.

In this view, all not only share in the goods and services we collectively produce, we all share in the labor to the extent we can.

While in today’s situation, we all rely on grocery store employees and farmworkers, Marx would have us imagine a situation in which people would not be fixed in such occupations. It isn’t just the means of consumption Marx imagines distributing, but the means of production as well, even if it creates certain inefficiencies.  We would all share in social labor collectively. Maybe part of my year I would staff the grocery store or work in the fields. (I can assure you working conditions would change rapidly if we all shared in this work.)

In The German Ideology, Marx clarifies his critique of the capitalist division of labor and provides a vision of what a re-organization of work might look like, writing that the division of labor

“offers us the first example of how, as long as man remains in natural society, that is, as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily, but naturally, divided, man’s own deed becomes an alien power imposed on him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labor comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in a communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic.”

The German Ideology, by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, is available from International Publishers.

A political economy designed for human fulfillment and rather than centering on profit, one that doesn’t rely on over-consumption but focuses on managing production to meet need first and foremost—focusing on “essential work” as well as “essential consumption”—would take us a long way toward a healthier and more human way of life.

Maybe we can learn a lesson this time. We are already starting to adapt and change. Can we evolve for good into a system that makes sense, so our economy works for us, instead of us sacrificing ourselves for the economy?


Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.