Will the pandemic hasten the demise of capitalism?
Graffiti on a wall in Toronto. | C.J. Atkins / PW

The U.S. economy is collapsing by leaps and bounds. By the latest figures, over 30 million workers have applied for unemployment benefits in the past six weeks. Many economists are predicting a depression that will far surpass the Great Depression of the 1930s. The lines of cars at food banks stretching for miles are surreal enough to look like something out of a science fiction movie.

The pandemic has taken a toll on tens of millions of American lives and still has no end in sight, while the nation’s “chief executive,” seemingly gone mad, suggests citizens should inject themselves with disinfectant ( i.e., Clorox and Lysol) as protection against the virus.

Agribusiness farmers, meanwhile, are plowing up their fields to destroy tons of vegetables because of a disconnect in the food chain. Some southern states are re-opening their economies, beginning with gyms, fitness centers, beauty salons, and tattoo parlors (Are citizens so concerned with their looks right now?), and the list could on with the tragedies and absurdities of present-day America.

Small wonder the question has arisen: “Can capitalism survive the pandemic?” This is a query posed to me recently by a community activist in Nashville, and it’s one I’m sure is on the mind of countless others. Moreover, it’s also a question obviously on the minds of many mainstream news analysts, who have opined that whatever lies in the future, capitalism will never be the same.

More appropriately, I would pose the question as: Will the pandemic accelerate the demise of capitalism? The profit-driven system simply cannot provide for the people in times of extreme crisis and hardship or even in everyday life, as we all know. From the millions of unemployed relying on an insufficient safety net plagued with crashing application websites to the inability of authorities and employers to supply something as seemingly simple as a face mask to protect health care workers—the system is caught totally unprepared and unable to provide.

The New York Times on April 17 ran a thought-provoking front-page article comparing the current economic crisis to the Great Depression. The story referenced an iconic photograph of a Depression-era billboard that featured a smiling, stylishly dressed white family in a fancy car with their dog hanging out the window, while below this oversized panel citizens of color are lined up at a relief office. Across its top, the billboard brags “World’s Highest Standard of Living,” followed by the jingoistic tagline, “There’s no way like the American Way.” The irony is striking.

The billboard’s contrast is also striking: an imaginary happy, affluent white family depicted on an advertisement and real, impoverished Black and Brown people waiting in line for government aid to simply survive. Then, as now, millions of whites were also jobless, of course, but with people of color still being the hardest hit. The photograph, circa 1937, was by the celebrated groundbreaking photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White.

In the meantime, back in our present day, some economists are predicting unemployment will reach Depression-era levels and beyond. A prediction of 32% unemployment for the second quarter of this year exceeding the 25% jobless rate of the Great Depression is being advanced. Even in the 1930s, jobs didn’t disappear as rapidly as now. Trump’s self-proclaimed hallmark of triumph, the stock market, bounces about at times from being little more than a twitching cadaver to sporadically rising from the dead like a Frankenstein on steroids.

The changes that will have to be made for Americans to survive are similar to what happened during the Great Depression. That is one of the silver linings of this pandemic. In the Great Depression, the equally great people’s struggles ushered in so many benefits that we have today, including Social Security, unemployment insurance, and more. The struggles of this crisis must similarly usher in far-reaching reforms, just as happened in the 1930s.

Some of the changes that desperately need to be implemented are the following:

Paid sick leave for all workers; unemployment benefits for temporary workers, the majority of whom are required to sign documents prohibiting them from even applying for unemployment; vacant homes taken over by the homeless during this upheaval should be established as permanent residences and further relief for the homeless in general made available; the expansion and strengthening of social welfare programs already in place; essentials such as electricity and water should be free; the establishment of universal health care; a national moratorium on rent; overhaul and reform of the deplorable U.S. housing situation; relief for the tens of thousands of hungry children in the U.S.; forgiveness of student loans; an end to mass incarceration; special attention for relief for disproportionately affected workers of color, i.e., especially Native American, African American, Latino, and Asian American workers.

It has been widely reported that communities of color are especially hard hit, bearing the brunt of the layoffs. Among the most vulnerable and overlooked are the Indigenous people of the U.S. The coronavirus is already wreaking havoc among some reservation populations. The health disparities in Indian Country, with high rates of hypertension, diabetes, cancer, asthma, and heart disease, make Indigenous populations particularly vulnerable. This deplorable health situation is exacerbated by overcrowded housing that makes social distancing very difficult. It has been said that any disease that exists in mainstream society is multiplied six times in Indian Country.

There should be permanent increased funding for the Indian Health Service (IHS) and a public works program for reservation and urban Native Americans similar to the program put in place during the Great Depression. There should a massive economic aid package for all of Indian Country encompassing the reservation populations, many of whom still do not have running water or electricity, and all rural and urban Native Americans.

Also, tragically overlooked in this pandemic and in the so-called stimulus bill were the undocumented workers, countless numbers of whom are the Indigenous from south of the border. It is incomprehensible and beyond outrage that undocumented workers will not get stimulus checks.

Will COVID-19 force a lessening of the abominable inequities built into the capitalist system that keeps workers in such a state of subsistence that they can barely make a living even in the best of times? The virus crisis could serve as an impetus for a constructive upheaval of U.S. capitalist society. Low-income families who have long been living paycheck to paycheck with overdue bills, inadequate and unstable housing, poor health, and patchwork employment are only finding their lives intolerably exacerbated by this crisis. The poor are suffering more. One news commentator caustically remarked, “I was shocked and amazed that the capitalist economy is so fragile that we can’t let it rest for a few weeks.” Millions of workers have been let go, furloughed in today’s parlance, with no severance pay or health care coverage.

This is all leading some to speculate that the time is rapidly approaching for the development of conditions favorable for a revolutionary transformation. But it must be also kept in mind that Karl Marx said that although there can be no revolution without a revolutionary situation, not all revolutionary situations produce revolutions. The objective conditions can be present, but there must be present the subjective conditions—revolutionary consciousness—to produce a revolution. The subjective conditions can depend on the actions of a vanguard party.

The crisis can be used to raise the political consciousness of the masses of the huge inadequacies of the capitalist system hopefully to the point of realizing it belongs on the scrap heap of history. This struggle must be conducted in innovative and creative ways. As one Democratic politician (a former big city mayor) said recently on a Sunday morning news program, “We should never let a crisis go to waste.” Many are saying we need to come out of this better than when we went in. At the very, least capitalism will never be the same when this is over. Moreover, the championing and advocacy of socialism must be kept on the table.

We are on the cusp of a huge, transformative moment that could permanently change the world, hastening the demise of the global capitalist system. Even the bourgeois news analysts are proclaiming that the pandemic will reshape the planet. Again, the question must be posed, “Will the pandemic hasten the demise of the capitalist system?“ It very well could. Again, at the very least, the world will never be the same after the pandemic.

There needs to be a people’s program and a people’s initiative developed and presented to address the pandemic and the ensuing colossal economic collapse. We need working class approaches to deal with this political, health, and economic crisis. As that mayor said, this crisis should not be wasted. After the upheaval is over, the country should not go back to pre-pandemic days. We cannot go back to the capitalist “normal.”

In the meantime, Robert Reich (former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration) reminds us that the corporations received a “$500 billion windfall of taxpayer money as part of the $2 trillion coronavirus emergency relief package.” Reich added, “Working Americans got a measly one-time $1,200 check to get them through the months-long crisis…. almost an insult.” In fact, this amount is just an insulting token payment.

There is reportedly another relief package in the works, being prepared by Congress. A realistic relief package for the workers of this country would mean giving all working Americans enough money to stay at home, pay their bills, and also get the health care they need to carry them through the crisis. Sen. Bernie Sanders proposed that everyone be paid $2,000 a month as long as the emergency exists. In light of the fact that in the last six weeks over 30 million workers have filed for unemployment, the next relief package demands much, much more with a truly realistic disbursement increase for the jobless.

But last week, on April 28, in true Marie Antoinette fashion, Trump announced that he is opposed to any further cash payments to individuals. This was followed by another announcement that he advocates, another of his long cherished dreams, the defunding of the Social Security system by cutting payroll contributions, the source of its revenue. This is while Congress continues to throw trillions of dollars in bailouts to the parasitic corporations and their wealthy business oligarchs. Whose votes does Trump expect to garner, only those of the rich?

As for workers, the real foundation of the economy, a lifeline of the type needed should be the establishment of extensive public works programs similar to those of the 1930s and also public works programs for the nationally and racially oppressed of this country.

Without such a lifeline, there is much worse in the offing for the laboring and tyrannized masses. The path ahead is bristling with great dangers as well as possibilities; we could well be at a crossroads in the history of the world. Much can happen in a short period of time.

A quote from Lenin seems to aptly fit the current situation: “There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.” The weeks and months ahead could very well determine what happens for years and even decades to come.

Like all opinion articles published by People’s World, this one represents the views of its author.


Albert Bender
Albert Bender

Albert Bender is a Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and freelance reporter for Native and Non-Native publications. He is currently writing a legal treatise on Native American sovereignty and working on a book on the war crimes committed by the U.S. against the Maya people in the Guatemalan civil war He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous sovereignty, land restoration, and Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) issues and a former staff attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Oklahoma (LSEO) in Muskogee, Okla.