After the Pandemic: A Return to Capitalist Normalcy Will Only Create More Crises

Costas Panayotakis Mar 29, 2021

Ever since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a lot of discussion and speculation in the mainstream media about how long it will take us to return to ‘normalcy.’  This is understandable given how much everyone’s life has been (in different ways and to different extents depending on one’s socio-economic position) upended by the pandemic. However, it obscures the extent to which our current predicament is not an unfortunate, exceptional accident but only a more extreme manifestation of a long-standing trend that a return to the normalcy of contemporary capitalist societies would only perpetuate.  This long-standing trend is one of declining long-term benefits from capitalist development (as illustrated by the stalling levels of life satisfaction recorded even in affluent countries having experienced increased levels of consumption in recent decades) and of simultaneously mounting capitalist destruction.

Growing capitalist destruction is manifest in the multiplicity of social, economic, political and ecological crises we have been experiencing, with all these crises either fueling or in turn being fueled by the current pandemic. The regular emergence of potentially lethal pathogens in recent decades is connected to the fact that capitalist pursuit of profit is increasingly encroaching on the most remote zones of the planet, thus bringing growing numbers of people in contact with animals harboring potentially lethal viruses.  Meanwhile, the virulence of these pathogens is often multiplied by the industrialization of food and livestock production carried out by profit-driven capitalist corporations.  These are long-standing processes that have accelerated in recent decades under neoliberal capitalism and will certainly not be reversed should we manage to return to the pre-pandemic business as usual. 

The only normalcy that the Biden presidency is likely to restore is the only normalcy possible under capitalism, namely that of regularly having to put out ever more destructive social, economic, ecological and public health fires.

Keeping this in mind also changes our understanding of the massive socio-economic crises that the onset of the pandemic has seemingly triggered.  While mainstream media and the financial press portray this latest crisis as an ‘exogenous shock’ to the capitalist economy, recognizing the connections between capitalist profit-seeking and the emergence of deadly pandemics also exposes the current socio-economic crisis as a crisis of capitalism.  Meanwhile, the disproportionate impact of the pandemic and the attendant economic crisis on people of color and women has shed light on the limited progress towards racial and gender equality that has been achieved ever since the Civil Rights movement launched a series of anti-racist, feminist and other social justice struggles in the period stretching from the 1950s to the 1970s.  This is not surprising given the fact that the resurgence of capitalist interests in the neoliberal era has crucially depended on an alliance between an economically conservative corporate sector and socially conservative political forces determined to reverse any gains towards racial, gender and other forms of social equality achieved as a result of that popular movement upsurge.

As the social and economic effects of neoliberal policies have been devastating for a majority of the population, a crisis of democracy has resulted.  These policies have led to the deindustrialization of large swathes of the Global North, paving the road for the rise of Trumpism and the authoritarian far right in many parts of the world.  These same policies have rendered governments hostage to the dictates of financial markets controlled by the tiny wealthy elites managing to enrich themselves even in the midst of the current pandemic. In doing so, they have also undercut people’s faith in democracy in many parts of the world, thus also leading to declining political participation.  And while mainstream media represent the economic conservatism of capitalist elites as focused on small government, this coverage obscures the fact that these elites are not opposed to large government when it comes to corporate welfare and the funding of the repressive apparatus of the state (police, the military, prisons, and so on) defending the ‘right’ of the super-rich to increase their wealth at the expense of the disenfranchised majority and the planet.

As recent events have shown, the Biden administration’s determination to continue the pursuit of a new Cold War against China and Russia, which has, in various forms, characterized American foreign policy since the Obama administration, is unlikely to change this trend.  The Biden administration may prove more competent when it comes to managing the COVID-19 pandemic.  Coming after Trump’s disastrous four years in office, such a development is welcome.  It is worth noting, however, that in doing so, the Biden Administration will only be proving more adept at containing the most egregious effects of a destructive socio-economic system this administration is otherwise wholeheartedly committed to.  The only normalcy that the Biden presidency is likely to restore, therefore, is the only normalcy possible under capitalism, namely that of regularly having to put out ever more destructive social, economic, ecological and public health fires and then debating on how best to return to the normalcy that set these (literal and metaphorical) fires in the first place.

Costas Panayotakis teaches Sociology at CUNY’s New York City College of Technology and is the author of The Capitalist Mode of Destruction (Manchester University Press).

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