The coronavirus' next victim? Capitalism

The pandemic has exposed how political attacks on science are the only way to maintain the capitalist order

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published June 7, 2020 7:30PM (EDT)

Donald Trump | Hurricane | Atoms (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | Hurricane | Atoms (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The pandemic has deftly illustrated two lessons that we, as a civilization, must learn in order to survive: 

1. Science does not care about your political ideology.

2. The economic status quo — namely, free market capitalism — is fatally flawed, in ways that the coronavirus pandemic has brought to light.

The first lesson was evident in President Donald Trump's initial response to the coronavirus. Despite being warned as early as January that it was an existential threat, he dismissed his advisers' concerns as "alarmist" and did everything he could to ignore and downplay the problem so that the stock market wouldn't be negatively impacted. It took him more than ten weeks to declare a state of national emergency and, even then, America's ability to respond to the pandemic was weakened by the various budget-cutting policies he implemented prior to the pandemic that ignored expert advice and made it more difficult for the Centers for Disease Control to do its job.

A similar point could be made about man-made climate change. Even though the scientific consensus is clear — global climate change is real, caused by humans and poses an existential threat to our planet — Trump continues to deny it solely because fossil fuel companies and other special interest groups don't want to lose money.

There in an additional factor in both the coronavirus and climate change denialism, of course: A distrust of intellectuals who use pesky, inconvenient facts in disciplines like epidemiology and climatology to make arguments that go against conservative, free market doctrine. After all, a strong centralized government is needed to regulate the economy in ways that will protect the planet from climate change and to save lives as the pandemic worsens. Because right-wingers don't want to believe that the federal government should have this power, they cannot acknowledge that it is necessary on these occasions — and certainly not when doing so would seemingly concede a point to the left.

Yet scientific realities don't change simply because right-wing egos would be wounded if the left is proved correct about pandemics and ecological apocalypses. That is why the pandemic reveals that science must always take precedence over ideological whinging when it comes to shaping key policy decisions.

"Ultimately, of course, the science is a key part of any decision, but the science alone does not determine what that decision should be," Dr. Kevin Trenberth, a distinguished senior scientist in the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told Salon. "And the politicians are supposed to be the ones who assimilate all of the information, including the science, and also all of the possible consequences in all ways, shapes and forms including health, economics and society. And so on."

He added, "The problem is I don't think most politicians actually recognize their role, and it's much worse in the United States than it is in many other countries. And the reason it's much worse is because of advocacy, because of money in particular, because of Citizens United and the nasty politics that gets involved with using so-called dark money, television and all sorts of things like that."

This brings us to the other fundamental truth that has been illustrated by the pandemic — namely, that our free market capitalist system is inherently unsustainable.

Part of that unsustainability is rooted in ecology.

"I think that there are larger lessons and messages here about the sustainability of a global population of nearly 8 billion and growing people on a planet with finite resources," Dr. Michael E. Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, told Salon. "And what COVID-19 has laid bare is the fragility of this massive infrastructure which we've created to artificially maintain consumption far beyond the natural carrying capacity of the planet. And continued exploitation of fossil fuels, obviously, is inconsistent with a sustainable human society."

One of the chief problems with free market capitalism — or, for that matter, the global economic system in general — is that it depends on constant consumption in order to sustain itself. If that consumption is disrupted even for a brief period, the entire system grinds to a halt, with people losing their employment and poverty skyrocketing. As the coronavirus pandemic has revealed, this is not always because people need to be poor. It isn't as if we experienced a famine or the sudden depletion of a vital natural resource. The fundamentals of our economy remain as strong as they ever were; the problem is that, because people are not able to continue consuming, the edifice built on top of that foundation has begun to crumble.

"Going with the structural metaphor concept, there always huge cracks underneath the facades of capitalism, and the huge weight of this pandemic has widened those cracks," Norman Solomon, co-founder and national coordinator of and a Sanders delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, told Salon. "For the most part, the people who are the most vulnerable anyway to corporate capitalism, they're suffering the most, they're dying the most."

He added, "The entire political economy is geared to overproduction and over-consumption to maximize corporate profits. And at the same time, the access to consumable goods and services is so unequal. And I think these are coexisting problems. But if you look at it from 30,000 feet — I guess you can't look at it from 30,000 feet now because nobody is flying — but if you look at it from a macro- view, the extended consumption is insane."

The pandemic has also highlighted race and class differences in our society. Members of the African American and Latinx communities have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, with African Americans making up almost half of the coronavirus cases in Philadelphia and the African American and Latinx communities making up more than three out of every five coronavirus deaths in New York City. In terms of economic inequality, as the Brookings Institution writes, "people living paycheck to paycheck in service sector jobs are in a very different position to those working in salaried jobs they can do from home. Stark gaps in wealth, health and work have gone from being chronic problems to acute ones." The authors noted that even amenities that don't always seem essential, such as a fast internet connection, have become vital for psychological health during the pandemic — and this, too, underscores the income gap.

The one glimmer of hope here is that the pandemic may push Americans toward a more just economic and social system. J. Miles Coleman, the associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, told Salon on Thursday that "we're already intensely polarized as a country — people's partisan preferences can influence everything from their shopping habits to dating life — but if the economic situation worsens, it certainly opens the door for radicalization."

He added, "When the economy suffers, voters tend to be more open to anti-establishment or populist candidates: during the Great Depression, Huey Long with his 'Every Man a King' slogan tapped into that sentiment, and was seen as a threat to Franklin Roosevelt."

Certainly those changes would not come a moment too soon. We may pull through from this crisis, but global warming is just one of many future existential threats that lurk around the corner. Humanity is not going to survive — at least, not in any sense worth looking forward to — if it doesn't start paying attention to scientific fact and using that knowledge for the betterment of all of us, not just the privileged.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Capitalism Coronavirus Covid-19 Inequality Kevin Trenberth Michael Mann Norman Solomon Racism