The Plan Is to Save Capital and Let the People Die

Hamilton Nolan April 6, 2020

People watch the arrival of the USNS Comfort Ship on March 30, 2020 in New York as seen from Weehawken, New Jersey. The naval hospital has 1,000 beds and 12 operating rooms. The Comfort will not treat Covid-19 patients. (Photo by Kena Betancur/ VIEWpress via Getty Images)

Fan­ta­size for a moment that we could set aside pol­i­tics and oper­ate based upon com­mon sense. What would the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment do to best mit­i­gate the dev­as­ta­tion that this pan­dem­ic will vis­it upon human beings? It would, first of all, pro­vide free health­care to every­one. It would dis­trib­ute med­ical resources nation­al­ly based on the great­est need. Then, to pro­tect peo­ple from the nec­es­sary eco­nom­ic deep freeze we are all in due to social dis­tanc­ing, the gov­ern­ment would pur­sue mea­sures that would get every­one through this time in one piece: It would sub­si­dize the nation’s pay­rolls, so that work­ers could stay in their jobs and busi­ness­es could restart eas­i­ly; it would sus­pend rent, for peo­ple and busi­ness­es alike; it would send every­one a month­ly basic income to pay for neces­si­ties until this is over; and it would avoid allow­ing small busi­ness­es to go bank­rupt, because those rep­re­sent mil­lions of jobs that peo­ple need to return to.

Those are all obvi­ous steps to take if your goal was to pro­tect humans. But imag­ine, instead, if you had an entire­ly dif­fer­ent goal: pro­tect­ing cap­i­tal. What would you do then? Well, you would pri­or­i­tize the health of cor­po­rate bal­ance sheets, rather than human bod­ies. You would keep the health­care indus­try, now boom­ing, in pri­vate hands; you would stim­u­late con­sumer demand via unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits, rather than by keep­ing work­ers on exist­ing pay­rolls, in order to cre­ate an enor­mous pool of cheap and des­per­ate labor; you would pur­sue tax cuts for the investor class; you would wel­come the oppor­tu­ni­ty to allow debt to pile up on indi­vid­u­als; and you wouldn’t be too sad about small busi­ness­es going bank­rupt — they are, after all, just ced­ing mar­ket share to big­ger, rich­er busi­ness­es. You would use this cri­sis to cre­ate a greater, not less­er, con­cen­tra­tion of wealth. You would emerge on the oth­er side with more, not less, inequal­i­ty. The truth is, it would be easy.

Now, guess what the U.S. fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is doing? It is allow­ing the unem­ploy­ment rate to sky­rock­et, as tens of mil­lions of work­ers are fired; it is allow­ing count­less small busi­ness­es to go bank­rupt, from incom­pe­tence and neglect; it has not even con­sid­ered a nation­al sus­pen­sion of rent, nor a strong nation­al pol­i­cy of paid sick leave, much less a nation­al sys­tem of free pub­lic health­care; as mil­lions of needy peo­ple strug­gle with decrepit and bro­ken state unem­ploy­ment sys­tems and wait weeks or months for their emer­gency checks to come, and essen­tial work­ers are forced to agi­tate or walk out to gain haz­ard pay, the admin­is­tra­tion plots a new bill fea­tur­ing a cap­i­tal gains tax cut and a waiv­er that would clear busi­ness­es of lia­bil­i­ty from employ­ees who con­tract the coro­n­avirus on the job.”

We are told we’re a nation at war. In real wars, we have high­er tax­es on the rich. This time, we are giv­ing investors a tax cut.

Whether Amer­i­cans know it or not, their gov­ern­ment is not work­ing for them. Their gov­ern­ment is work­ing on behalf of cap­i­tal. Humans are now a mere sec­ond-order, instru­men­tal fac­tor to be con­sid­ered based on how it affects cap­i­tal. In this per­ilous time, cap­i­tal must be pro­tect­ed and nur­tured, and we must draw resources from our entire soci­ety in order to help cap­i­tal sur­vive, in the same way that the body will draw blood from oth­er organs to save the brain. Peo­ple can be sac­ri­ficed — cap­i­tal is irre­place­able. We are nav­i­gat­ing our way through this so that cap­i­tal comes out okay on the oth­er side. It is no exag­ger­a­tion to say that tens or hun­dreds of thou­sands of Amer­i­cans will die because we are choos­ing this approach, rather than an approach that pri­or­i­tizes human life. They will die because we did not ded­i­cate resources before this pan­dem­ic to build­ing an ade­quate sys­tem of pub­lic health care, and they will die because we made the deci­sion dur­ing this pan­dem­ic to put the needs of cap­i­tal first. We did not keep work­ing peo­ple on pay­rolls, because that would be less advan­ta­geous for the own­ers of cap­i­tal. We did not nation­al­ize fac­to­ries, nor phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, because that would be less advan­ta­geous to the own­ers of cap­i­tal. And of course we did not release the pris­on­ers in the jails being rav­aged by this dis­ease. What would that do for the stock market?

When this is all over, politi­cians will stand up and say that the heroes of this cri­sis were the doc­tors and the nurs­es and the gro­cery work­ers who kept going, because we need­ed them to. But that will not be true. Doc­tors are get­ting pay cuts because they are no longer mak­ing rev­enue for their employ­ers with nonessen­tial pro­ce­dures; nurs­es are becom­ing sick and dying because we didn’t stock­pile enough cheap plas­tic masks; gro­cery work­ers are forced to beg and plead and strike for a cou­ple of dol­lars extra per hour, at the risk of their own lives. The true heroes of this cri­sis, from the per­spec­tive of those in charge, will be the pri­vate equi­ty firms that rush in to buy up dis­tressed busi­ness­es, and the hedge funds that pour mon­ey into cheap debt, and the investors that scoop up the homes that peo­ple will be evict­ed from. They are the ones that renew the blood of cap­i­tal, you see. They are the ones that will res­cue us. They are the ones who will shep­herd our pre­cious cap­i­tal through this dan­ger­ous time, and into the promised land.

They will have earned their cap­i­tal gains tax cut and legal pro­tec­tions and gov­ern­ment bailout and their hefty prof­its. Where else do the ten mil­lion of you peo­ple who are now unem­ployed expect to get jobs after this? Hm? Be grate­ful. Your will­ing­ness to work for very lit­tle after this means that you may be valu­able enough to make it prof­itable to not let you die. Congratulations.

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH