Reflections on Aspects of the Political Economy of the COVID 19 Pandemic

There are political, economic, ideological dimensions about how the pandemic is playing out in American life. First, the crisis is being framed in diametrically opposed ways. One frame says the crisis is really former President Obama’s fault and current President Trump, coming into office in the face of errors, is now rectifying the situation. He is in the process of saving the lives of thousands of Americans as the pandemic winds down. The legacy of the Obama era, Trump argues, is magnified by the incompetence or duplicity of the Chinese.

A second, and more accurate frame, is that the Trump administration is riddled with incompetence. As a result he ignored the early warning signs of crisis, fired experts on pandemics, and bungled efforts to ameliorate the worst effects of it. Governors, burdened with rising numbers of victims of the virus in their states, are desperately establishing health and safety rules, purchasing necessary equipment for first responders and citizens, and  trying within limits of interest and ideology to provide for the social welfare of  citizens. 

These state policies pit the governors against a federal government that regards the playing out of the crisis as part of a political drama. For the president, the crisis, his denigration of responses in the states to the pandemic, and criticisms of those who call for more concerted action to reverse the incidences of the disease, is all about him. Ultimately for Trump, much more than his opponents, policy decisions are shaped by the upcoming elections. 

Second, while 2020 politics shape the policy decisions during the crisis so do economics and ideology. With the spread of disease and death Trump was forced to accept modest but necessary state policies that sequestered people to slow the dramatic increases in those affected by the virus and deaths resulting from it. However, these policies have brought the economy to a halt. And as of May, the public debate has been  shifting from “is the crisis real” and “do we have to employ radical measures to reduce the incidence of the virus” to “when should we reopen the economy.” 

Most of the scientific evidence points to the need to continue the social and economic lockdown of the nation. But Trump, the rightwing sectors of the capitalist class, and the gun-toting base of Trump’s support are advocating an end to the policies of quarantining. Many mainstream politicians, CEOs and administrators of public institutions (for example university presidents) have indicated that the risk of not returning to economic activity as usual is more important than the risk that the pandemic might continue and grow. Concretely, among significant sectors of the ruling class, profit takes priority over public health. 

Third, the ideological justification of the profound danger to the survival of society as we know it comes down to arguments about the “magic of the marketplace” versus “government intervention” and  “governments’ trampling on personal freedom.” As the godfather of this ideology, Ronald Reagan, said: “Government is not the solution. Government is the problem.” And, to the extent that public policies have been based on science, science as an enterprise is being subjected to scorn and disbelief.

In addition, some specific elements of this drama worth mentioning are:

--Rightwing racists and militias are mobilizing to defend Trump while others party in public, refuse to wear masks, and in other ways show their defiance in the face of health risks 

--These public manifestations of protest against governmental efforts to mute the worst effects of the pandemic are being promoted with money, propagandizing, and staffing  by rightwing sectors of the ruling class. Most prominent in these prompts to mobilization are organizations well known by now: Charles Koch funded organizations such as ALEC, Americans for Prosperity, the State Policy Network, and the Heritage Foundation, and the NRA. Protests are not just spontaneous uprisings of ill-informed workers but well-planned efforts to reverse public policies designed to protect the health of the population. And they are targeted against those politicians Trump himself has attacked. 

But it is important to remember that vast majorities of those polled believe that the policies of reducing public activity and business as usual should be continued, Most Americans reject the calls for ending “government interference.” They accept the conclusions of scientists that the pandemic remains life-threatening.

--Public policies that have passed to mute the growing economic pain and suffering of average citizens, workers and small business persons, have redistributed enormous wealth to the largest corporations in the United States. Much needed bailout packages passed by Congress have not addressed enough the healthcare, food, housing, and other needs of the American people.

--This critical moment of the political, economic, and ideological struggle requires serious attention. As Naomi Klein has pointed out, the outcome of this crisis will determine the future of the United States and perhaps the global political economy. The forces of the libertarian right, sectors of neoliberalism, and white nationalism are working to return the United States to the Gilded Age, when the accumulation of wealth and the immiseration of the masses was extreme,  Jim Crow was law in the South and racist social practices predominated throughout the United States.

Alternatively, the pandemic has made clear to all that the capitalist economy and the US political system are broken. It is this awareness that could trigger the mobilization of masses of people to create another world: a world of democratic socialism.  This is the project that more and more people in the US and around the world are embracing. The time for rebuilding our mass movements and our left political parties in unity and expanding international solidarity is now. Another World is Still Possible.

by Harry Targ