COVID-19 Exposes the Delicate Economic Balance We All Live in Under Capitalism

We live on a crisis-struck planet where surplus lives are struggling to survive in the wastelands of a rapidly shrinking economic order. The specter of a wageless life now befalls the billions.

COVID-19, just beginning its rampage, is battering our feeble institutions, revealing and exacerbating preexisting social and racial vulnerabilities, and laying bare the inadequacies of even the most robust social safety nets. The U.S. is staring at its sharpest unemployment rise in history.

As reported by Markets Insider, just in the three weeks leading up to April 11, more than 17 percent of U.S. workers (22 million) have filed for unemployment. Across the globe, the virus is profaning all that is sacred. Among the piles of bodies and financial debris, the legitimacy of capitalism is surely in doubt.

Still, capitalism is remarkably tenacious. Its deadly lunges between boom and bust — such as the 2008 financial crisis — though wreaking tremendous havoc for vast swathes of humanity, rarely open up possibilities for more dignified futures.

Cracks in the system should present political opportunities, no doubt, but pose such a threat to the status quo they are soon extinguished. Elites, backed up by a corporate and acquiescent media, scramble to return society to “normal.” Meanwhile, our imaginations are so caged by what British political theorist Mark Fisher termed “capitalist realism” that alternatives to “business as usual” are unthinkable.

Herein lies the tragedy of our conjuncture, one repeated time and time again. Capitalism is built upon inequities, contradictions and crises. Billions live under the most depressing and violent of systems, where the lines between slavery, naked survival and wage labor bleed together. But capitalism, under an impressive sleight of hand, only ever presents “more capitalism” as a solution to its discontents.

In a world without waged labor, where a growing number are now thrown into the garbage heap of capital, the logic of the system still preserves the vaulted status of “waged labor” as the eternal aspirational goal. Though workers are left in a world without work, any imaginaries that might produce alternative arrangements are placed off-limits. They simply become “nonsense.”

Governments across Europe and around the world are now attempting to prop up the waged labor system with remarkable consensus and speed, printing money out of thin air. The ruling classes are simply unable to accommodate any change to the holy link between waged labor and capital. The planetary crises we face — an Earth on fire, and now an Earth in lockdown — yield political solutions that can only entrench our collective misery.

Among desperate scenes of mass unemployment, hunger, economic meltdown, social unrest and authoritarian dictates, how long can we keep on pretending that the only solution to wageless life is waged labor — that the solution to capitalism is more capitalism? To invoke the now appallingly appropriate health care terminology: Why should we try to resuscitate the very system that constantly produces the preexisting (and existential) conditions of precarity and misery? We must unpack the “business-as-usual” model that global elites are desperate to protect.

Capitalism endlessly produces what philosopher Karl Marx termed “surplus populations.” Particularly through technological advancement, Marx explains, “The laboring population therefore produces, along with the accumulation of capital produced by it, the means by which it itself is made relatively superfluous, is turned into a relative surplus population; and it does this to an always increasing extent.” Industrializing England was the beating heart of this mass expulsion. The factories were spewing out textiles, smoke, slag and a disposable humanity. In turn, these surplus populations helped depress wages for capitalists.

Our era is defined as one in which surplus populations no longer provide a residual function for capitalism. What has changed, Polish-British sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman argues, is that recyclability has, in many cases, turned into outright disposability. That is, for many workers, being thrown out of the labor force is no longer a temporary condition: They have become eternally redundant, and thus disposable.

Surplus populations are not simply occupied in the figures of the homeless, refugees or the destitute. As the COVID-19 outbreak demonstrates, we are all potentially surplus. One paycheck separates us from pauperdom.

Pauperism is the destination for the unemployed in a world without work. As Marx and philosophical partner Friedrich Engels wrote, “The modern laborer … sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth.”

The figure of the pauper in the history of English capitalism was regarded as a social disease. Yet the dramatic rise of pauperism was inseparable from capitalist accumulation. “Only in the mode of production based in capital does pauperism appear as the result of labour itself, of the development of the productive force of labour,” Marx wrote. The worker and the pauper are not so distinct. In fact, “It is already contained in the concept of the free labourer, that he is a pauper: virtual pauper,” Marx writes. In short, to become surplus, one must always already be surplus.

Under capitalism, and as the current pandemic is demonstrating most emphatically, most of us exist as virtual paupers. Deprived of land, deprived of liberty and deprived of our own livelihood, we are at the mercy of the very system responsible for our pain. Wages are little compensation for the basic denial of our free humanity. Before we are laborers, we are paupers. In fact, we are laborers because we are paupers. As American cultural historian and professor Michael Denning argues, “wageless life, not wage labour, is the starting point in understanding the free market.”

The status quo that elites are scrambling to protect is mass pauperdom. It always has been. Many of us are actual paupers, with only the shirts on our back — but most of us are virtual paupers, teetering on the edge of disaster, unable to pay next month’s rent. Each of us is always soon-to-be surplus to capitalism. The pauper, with no home, no job, no security, now exists in staggering numbers. It presents a menace to both capitalism and human dignity.

A war of all against all is a very real future of our lockdown world. Hoarding, social unrest and a desperate scramble for waged labor at an “Amazon Fulfillment Center” are grim portents of a future that may yet pass. Nothing is certain.

Yet, as that most unlikely of guides for progressives, right-wing economist Milton Friedman reminded us, in times of crisis, “the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

As more of us join the swelling ranks of the planet’s surplus populations, perhaps our commonalities as virtual paupers will unite us. We can talk about solutions beyond wage labor, beyond more of the same. That would involve reclaiming the very conditions that produce a world of pauperdom: land, liberty and livelihood.