The Uses and Abuses of Social Distancing Under Capitalism

Costas Panayotakis Apr 14, 2020

Critical accounts of the current pandemic have explained how social distancing is often an unaffordable luxury for the most underprivileged groups in rich and low-income countries alike.  One thing that has not received critical attention, however, is the term “social distancing” itself. Its use as a synonym for physical distancing is an ideological misnomer. Social distancing suggests a loosening of social ties, when, in fact, the pleas that authorities and public health officials make on behalf of physical distancing appeal to such feelings of social solidarity as still exist in otherwise competitive and individualistic capitalist societies.  

Capitalism undercuts the very sense of social solidarity authorities now evoke.

Using the term social distancing to designate a public health strategy that seeks to combat a pandemic ironically vilifies the very sense of social solidarity necessary if people are to sacrifice, for the good of the broader community and the most vulnerable to the disease, the habits on which their economic survival and general sense of well-being depend.

This paradox reflects a broader contradiction that sociological literature has sometimes explored: Capitalism depends, for its survival, on social ties that it simultaneously erodes through the competitive individualism and economic exploitation so central to its logic. 

In effect, capitalism itself illustrates both the difference and the tension between physical and social distancing. It has historically abolished physical distancing through its concentration of the population in large urban centers as well as through the technologies of transportation and communication that power economic and other forms of globalization. These processes, which vastly increase the likelihood and catastrophic impact of global pandemics, are compounded by capitalism’s industrialization of food production and the displacement of small farmers by large agribusiness corporations. 

This further fuels capitalism’s abolition of physical distancing in two ways. First, by pushing many ruined farmers into overcrowded urban slums in the global South which, lacking basic infrastructures such as running water, make physical distancing during a pandemic impossible. Secondly, by pushing other small farmers to marginal lands at the edge of wild forests, where they are more likely to come into contact with wild animals carrying viruses that can potentially trigger lethal pandemics.

On the other hand, capitalism undercuts the very sense of social solidarity authorities now evoke when they plea with the public to practice physical distancing. As critical accounts of capitalism have long recognized, capitalism undercuts social solidarity in a number of ways. Its exploitative nature leads to social and class conflict while encouraging capitalist elites to treat their workers as well as consumers as a means to their paramount goal of boosting profits.  

This instrumentalization of other human beings is, of course, not the product of individual capitalists’ personal malevolence but a structural product of the competitive economic pressures that elites themselves are subjected to.  

The transformation of labor-power into a commodity bought and sold in labor markets under capitalism also tends to divide workers, who find themselves competing for jobs that are often scarce. This competition makes it harder for them to unite in an effort to replace capitalism with a socio-economic order less inimical to social solidarity and the development and well-being of all human beings.  

The benefits capitalist elites derive from divisions within the ranks of working people have historically encouraged them to perpetuate discriminatory practices that reproduce racial, ethnic, gender, religious and other cleavages among workers. Such discriminatory practices only form part of the broader structural racism that accounts for the disproportionate impact of the current pandemic on African Americans.  

If capitalism’s abolition of physical distancing increases the likelihood of global pandemics, its erosion of social solidarity magnifies their catastrophic impact.

The lethal connection between capitalism and pandemics is also revealed in the brazenly hypocritical use that the beneficiaries of the prevailing order make of the concept of social distancing. Corporate giants, like Amazon, in their bid to capitalize on the pandemic by making their workers labor in hazardous conditions, fire labor activists who initiate protests against this situation by claiming that these activists were not practicing social distancing!  

Another example: Greece’s austerity-dispensing conservative government hypocritically hails doctors and nurses as heroes even as it fails to provide them with the basic protective gear needed for their health as well as the health of their families and their patients. And when these heroes recently mobilized against such criminal hypocrisy, they were met with police repression, undertaken under the pretext that the doctors and nurses were not keeping a safe distance apart.

 As one of these doctors pointed out, there is something ludicrous and offensive in the suggestion that the healthcare personnel fighting the pandemic needed the police and their political bosses to remind them of the elementary rules of public health.

Physical distancing is a crucial public health measure during pandemics. But the competition, exploitation and the general sense of alienation capitalism systematically generates — i.e. pre-existing social distancing — is a threat to human well-being no less grave than the virus currently haunting our thoughts. 

Capitalism’s erosion of social solidarity is already rearing its ugly head. Reports multiply that corporate and Wall Street elites are increasingly pushing President Trump to “reopen the economy,” even as public health experts warn of the lethal consequences of doing so prematurely. The winner in this fight between capitalism’s social distancing and the physical distancing that is helping us to ‘flatten the curve’ will probably determine how many more people in this country will be struck by disease and possibly lose their lives.

Costas Panayotakis is a professor of sociology at CUNY’s New York City College of Technology and the author of Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy and of the forthcoming The Capitalist Mode of Destruction (Manchester University Press).

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