Virus conspires with drive for profit to ‘open the economy’
"Fodder for profits." | Art by Xian L. Olavarria for People's World

Capitalism is an enabler of the coronavirus’s spread. The dynamics of our nation’s capitalist economy are sabotaging efforts to protect the health and lives of the American people. That’s what’s behind the disastrous pressures to “re-open” the economy.

It’s not as if human survival depends on restaurants, bars, casinos, and shopping malls doing business. No, the truth is the push to re-open the economy is all about revving up the profit stream.

In our day and age, the productivity of the human race means there are enough resources to feed and shelter every human on the planet. We can do this with a minimum amount of human interaction for a considerable time. We also have the resources to re-design truly essential jobs to allow them to be done in the safest possible manner. The resources are there to provide health care, transport, and food production workers with full PPE. There’s no reason we can’t slow down the lines in meatpacking plants so the workers can spread out and work safely.

But the driving force in a capitalist economy is not provision for human needs; the driving force is generation of profit.

The profit equation requires workers on the job

There are two sides to capitalism’s profits equation.

For workers, having to sell your labor power in order for your family to survive is one side of the equation of a capitalist economy.

For capitalists, giant employers need workers to have no choice but to sell their labor power. They need us working and they need us working fast—on construction sites, in Amazon warehouses, and butchering meat in icy vaults on the Smithfield production lines.

When it comes right down to it, there’s only one tool the human race has available right now to put an end to the death and destruction of the new coronavirus. That tool is our ability to minimize human physical interaction.

The virus’s weak point is known: To survive, it must have access to a constant supply of new human victims. This access is made possible by close physical proximity. Fortunately, coronavirus is not like other epidemics. It is not a waterborne disease. It is not spread by rats, fleas, or mosquitoes. Human bodies are the virus’s only vectors; that fact gives us tremendous control. Humanity’s invincible weapon against the virus is physical distancing and quarantine and adapting workplaces of essential workers to make them safe. When each person with the disease infects less than one other person, the disease dies out.

Americans have demonstrated we are very willing to hunker down for a period. We’ll keep the kids at home, do without haircuts, concerts, restaurant meals, movies, shopping, ball games, vacations, and the other niceties of life. We’ll bite the bullet if it means protecting the health of the community.

We could hold things together while starving out the virus. Truly essential workers—health care, food production and distribution, workers who maintain utilities, communications, and crucial infrastructure—could be supported while all others isolate.

The catch is that to do what American families need and want to do requires an unqualified guarantee of food and shelter for all humans. What’s working against that is that capitalism cannot abide by a process that allows people NOT to work, a process that shuts down the profit machine.

Starving out workers before we starve out the virus

That’s why Donald Trump didn’t hesitate to order meatpacking workers back into plants where hundreds have died. When the plants were closed, as the workers and their union had demanded, the workers became eligible for unemployment compensation. With them forced open, profits for the multi-billion industry are back on track, but so is the death toll; when a job is “available,” no matter how dangerous, you no longer can get unemployment.

Capitalists have hijacked the term “essential” from meaning essential for human survival to essential for maintenance of profits. To win this argument, they’re leveraging the desperation of working class families who can’t survive without a paycheck into a political force to “re-open the economy.”

In America, what has happened is that millions of American families do NOT have access to the food and shelter that should be available so they can do the right thing and stay at home.

Stores may now be stocked with groceries, but families with zero ATM balances can’t buy them. Unemployment checks are tied up. And even at that, there are no assurances for more than a two-month relief period. Seven million undocumented workers are excluded. Workers for restaurants and other legitimate small businesses are left out in the cold as the big boys and hedge funds used their insider connections to jump the line and suck up all the funds that should have been there to keep their paychecks coming.

Tens of millions are terrified because, along with their jobs, they’ve lost their health insurance.

When people face denial of their livelihood, the only way to get a dollar coming in is to put their bodies back in the marketplace in exchange for a paycheck. The nail salon technician, the terrified Uber driver, the construction worker sitting out the busy season—they are not to blame. The system that fails to support them is to blame.

No wonder the American people are taking a look at socialism—a system where the workers who create all value would also own and make the decisions about how the factories, warehouses, food production facilities, and technology are used. It’s a system that would prioritize human life and health over profits.

Meanwhile, coronavirus is riding the waves of the capitalist economy. It’s a cruel, cold-blooded system that hurls human bodies into the maw of a ravenous virus.


Roberta Wood
Roberta Wood

Roberta Wood is a retired member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Wood was a steelworker in South Chicago, an officer of Steelworkers Local 65, and founding co-chair of the USWA District 31 Women's Caucus. She was previously Secretary-Treasurer of the Communist Party. Currently, she serves as a Senior Editor of People's World.