Will coronavirus signal the end of capitalism?

The peasants’ revolt after the 14th-century plague saw off feudalism. After COVID-19, will it be the turn of capitalism?

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is displayed after the closing bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City, New York
The Dow Jones Industrial Average is displayed after the closing bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in New York City on March 10, 2020 [Andrew Kelly/Reuters]

The pandemic begins in Asia, rips through the capital cities of Europe and wipes out at least a third of all human beings in its way. When it is all over, revolts begin, cherished institutions fall, and the entire economic system has to be reconfigured.

That is a short history of the Black Death, a bubonic plague pandemic caused by the bacterium, Yersinia pestis, which spread from Mongolia to Western Europe in the 1340s.

Because the economy then was based on local agriculture and crafts, ordinary life bounced back relatively quickly.

But, by radically reducing the number of workers, it gave the survivors increased bargaining power, which soon translated into new concepts of liberty among the population of medieval cities.

That, in turn, started a process of economic change that brought an end to the feudal system and, some argue, triggered the rise of capitalism.

Capitalism’s plague nightmare

Today, capitalism faces its own plague nightmare. Though the COVID-19 virus may kill between 1 percent and 4 percent of those who catch it, it is about to have an impact on a much more complex economy than the one that existed back in the 1340s – one with a much more fragile geopolitical order, and on a society already gripped with foreboding over climate change.

Let us consider the massive changes the pandemic has already forced.

First, the partial shutdown of daily life in large parts of China, India, most of Europe and numerous states in America.

Second, significant damage to the reputations of governments and political elites who either denied the seriousness of the crisis, or in the initial stages proved incapable of mobilising their healthcare systems to meet it.

Third, an immediate slump in consumer spending across all major economies which is certain to provoke the deepest recession in living memory: share prices have already collapsed and this, in turn, hurts middle-class families whose pension funds have to invest in shares. Meanwhile, the solvency of airlines, airports and hotel chains is in doubt.

In response, states have launched economic rescue packages so massive that most people have not yet got their heads around the implications. The US government will inject two trillion dollars into the economy – through a mixture of direct payments to citizens and loans to business – more than half of what it collects in taxes in a year.

Meanwhile, the central banks have switched to a new and aggressive form of quantitative easing. Just as after the last global financial crisis in 2008, they will create new money to buy up government debt – but this time, it is not going to be gradual, or focused on the safest government bonds. Introduced as a panic measure in 2008, it seems quantitative easing could be with us for decades.

Politicians are busy reassuring voters that it will be a “V-shaped recession” – a sharp slump followed by a bounce-back, because the “real economy”, they claim, is sound.

Collapsing foundations

To understand why that is over-optimistic, let us use the metaphor of a building.

In the 2008 financial crisis, it looked like the “roof” – the finance system – had collapsed onto the main structure which, though it was damaged, stood firm and we eventually rebuilt the roof.

This time, by contrast, it is the foundations that are collapsing – because all economic life in a capitalist system is based on compelling people to go to work and spend their wages.

Since we now have to compel them to stay away from work, and from all the places they usually spend their hard-earned salaries, it does not matter how strong the building itself is.

In fact, the building is not that strong. Much of the growth we have experienced during the 12 years since the last financial crisis has been fuelled by central banks printing money, governments bailing out the banking system and debt.

Instead of paying down debt, we amassed an estimated $72 trillion more of it.

Unlike the time of the bubonic plague, 21st-century trade and finance systems are complex – which, as we learned in 2008, means they are fragile. 

Many of the assets circulating in the finance system are – just as in the run-up to the 2008 crisis – complicated bundles of IOUs issued by banks, insurance groups and other financial companies. Their value lies in the fact that they give the holder a claim on future income.

Our gym memberships, our student loan repayments, our rents, our car repayments this year, next year and beyond are already counted as “paid”, with people in the finance system taking sophisticated bets on how much they are worth.

But what happens when we do not go to the gym, do not buy a new car? Some of those IOUs become worthless and the financial system has to be bailed out by the state.

The unthinkable is here

Even though most ordinary people do not understand how dangerous this is, the people in power do. That is why they have persuaded the central banks to effectively nationalise the bond markets.

This means that states are issuing debts to bail out people and companies – as with Trump’s two-trillion-dollar deal – and those debts are being swallowed up by another part of the state itself – the central bank.

Left-wing economists, myself included, have been warning that, in the long term, stagnant growth and high debt were likely to lead to these three policies: States paying citizens a universal income as automation makes well-paid work precarious and scarce; central banks lending directly to the state to keep it afloat; and large-scale public ownership of major corporations to maintain vital services that cannot be run at a profit.

On the rare occasions that such suggestions have ever been put to investors in the past, the response was usually a polite head-shake or, among people who witnessed the collapse of Soviet communism, outrage. It would kill capitalism, they said.

But now, the unthinkable is here – all of it: Universal payments, state bailouts and the funding of state debts by central banks have all been adopted at a speed that has shocked even the usual advocates of these measures.

The question is, are we going to do this enthusiastically, and with a clear vision of the society that emerges on the other side, or reluctantly, with the intent to revive the system that has just broken down?

Let us understand why economists have been so hostile to these crisis measures up to now.

With universal income payments, British conservative politician Iain Duncan Smith pointed out, the problem is they might “discourage people from going to work“.

When it comes to state ownership and attempts to plan production (for example, the current scramble for ventilators), free-market economists believe such attempts at human control get in the way of the market, which, in their opinion, functions as an intelligent machine, bringing order to the world in a way no planning agency or government can ever do.

As for the funding of state debts by central banks, this is seen as an admission of moral defeat by capitalism: It is entrepreneurship and competition that are supposed to drive growth, not the Bank of England or the Fed printing money and lending it to their treasuries. Therefore, a capitalism permanently reliant on these mechanisms is unthinkable to most traditional economists. 

Into the short term

For me, these emergency measures have always been thinkable. Since 2015, I have argued we will be forced to adopt a new, and very different, model of capitalism; if not by the economic costs of supporting ageing populations, then by the threat of climate chaos.

But the COVID-19 crisis brings everything into the short term.

The capitalism that emerges from this in the mid-2020s will have already paid out tens of billions of dollars in basic income payments; it will have seen airlines and hotel chains nationalised; and the government debts of the advanced economies, currently averaging 103 percent of their gross domestic product, will be way above that. We do not know how much higher, because we do not know yet how far GDP will fall.

If we are really unlucky, a series of debt defaults and the disintegration of government coherence in some fragile states could seriously damage the multilateral global order. Security planners fear that if states like Venezuela, North Korea or Ukraine were to fall into chaos, the temptation for neighbouring giants like the US, China and Russia to “rescue” them by sending in troops would be strong.

We have seen rapid deglobalisation before, in the early 1930s. It starts with a banking crisis, leads to the break-up of international currency arrangements and ends with the repudiation of treaties and forcible annexations.

Although today’s crisis starts with much stronger institutions – the International Monetary Fund, World Health Organisation, United Nations among others – we face the same basic problem as in the 1930s: the absence of a single powerful country prepared to take the lead, set standards of behaviour and act as a lender of last resort.

If we follow the orthodox economic playbook now, just as after 2008, once the crisis is over, political elites will call for more austerity – healthcare cuts, wage cuts and tax rises for ordinary people to reduce government spending and erode the debt pile.

It is the logic of the free market, but many people will see it as madness.

In the 14th century, once the mass death phase of the plague was over, that is exactly what the feudal elites tried to do: to reimpose their old privileges and traditions and economic logic – on a population that had just lived through the most traumatic event imaginable.

Back then, it led to immediate and bloody revolts – the Peasants’ Revolt in England, the so-called Jacquerie in France and the takeover of cities like Ghent, Paris and Florence by artisans – led by a very feisty group of citizens called, in French, the “bourgeois”. 

Though the post-plague revolts failed, writes historian Samuel Kline Cohn in his book, Lust for Liberty, they led to a permanent change of mindset among the masses, “from utter despondency and fear to a new confidence … that they, too, could change the world, fundamentally altering the social and political conditions of their lives”. And that, in turn, paved the way for the bourgeois revolutions that unleashed capitalism.

Planet capitalism

To understand what we have to do today, we need a wider framework than exists in the minds of most politicians.

To them, both the COVID-19 and the climate crises look like asteroids hitting a planet: external shocks requiring a temporary and reversible response. In fact, they are shocks generated by “planet capitalism” itself – or at least in the form we have adopted it.

We do not know what an industrial capitalism without carbon would look like because our institutions, practices and cultures are all based around fossil fuel extraction.

Likewise, we do not know what globalisation would look like without a billion people living in slums, without deforestation, live animal markets and without widespread diseases of poverty in the developed world – again because these have become fundamental features of capitalism as it really exists.

That is why I have argued that capitalism is unlikely to survive, long term – and in the short term it can only survive by adopting features of “post-capitalism”.

Until the coronavirus hit, that seemed like a cry in the wilderness. Even the relatively mild programmes of state intervention advocated by figures like left-wing politicians such as the UK’s Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, or Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders have been rejected by voters.

So, I was stunned when I saw analysts from the Australian investment group, Macquarie Wealth, one of most capitalist companies in the world, tell investors: “Conventional capitalism is dying, or at least mutating into something closer to a version of communism.”

The Macquarie analysts understood that this is not just because we suddenly need state intervention, but also because ordinary people’s priorities have moved market choices to concepts of fairness and wellbeing.

If the great plague of the 14th century triggered a post-feudal imagination, it is possible – and desirable – that this one triggers a post-capitalist imagination. And fast.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.