Covidian Socioeconomics and the “World After”: Reflections Under a Lockdown

He who refuses to be involved in politics must endure to being ruled by inferior people“, Plato.

In the present horrific times of the insidious Covid-19 pandemic, our foremost thoughts and affections are with those among us who have passed away, felt seriously ill and are less privileged to withstand the current dire straits without much loss of income and opportunity.

What we knew at the beginning of this health crisis was that Covid-19, the illness caused by the acute respiratory SARS-CoV-2 virus, is most often lethal for the “least productive” members of society: the elderly, chronic ill and disabled. The young ones and the majority of the working population, especially those without serious underlying health conditions, will experience symptoms barely more significant than a regular flu.

That was indeed the initial and ideological reaction of the mendacious, incumbent British and USA right-wing administrations in agreement with the appointed chief medical and scientific advisers. Toggling between disease control and the economy, the headline was at mid-March 2020 that Britain (where we live) and USA plcs were staying open for business, inducing the fatal delay in enforcing early and strict lockdown measures that other developed countries had already implemented.

No need for extensive and timely testing of the population, preordering an adequate number of kits and increasing capacity in labs to handle coronavirus tests, stockpiling personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical and social services personnel. No wonder that statistics for Germany for example, persistently show a far more mature and effective response since the start of the outbreak.

In the cauldrons of neoliberalism, human life seems to be valued differently by the political and technocratic luminaries; the higher wisdom of public health professionals was that the productive workforce would eventually acquire “herd immunity”, a strategy that even the conservative Australian prime minister Scott Morrison chastized as a “death sentence”.

Dark rhetoric, dogma disguised as expertise, pseudo heroic and patriotic economism soon crash landed with a panic driven u-turn in the face of the disastrous scenario of hundreds of thousands of excess deaths, overwhelmed hospitals and a crisis of political legitimacy. It eventually became obvious that when matters of life and death are concerned, the calculus is different. Old, sick and vulnerable do die, we all will in due time. What fundamentally matters is how and under what circumstances lifes are ending.

Yet, the peddling of “salutary falsehoods” no longer seems to disgruntle the masses lured by the high priests of demagogic chauvinism, let alone seriously harm anybody’s political career. As we write this comment, tea-party and other white supremacists, encouraged by the tweets of the narcissistic USA president, demonstrate in open spacies against the alleged threats to their constitutional liberties that even modest, compared to other western democracies, lockdown measures do pause. Donald Trump, in front of bewildered medical experts and the press, pondered in late April 2020 as to whether infected humans, swallowing disinfectants and chlorine will kill the covid-19 virus. He should have drawn his presidential wisdom on chlorinated chicken as a staple of the healthy diet of USA citizens.

Sadly, all the evidence suggests that politicians like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have a free reign to engage, even at the perilous times of a pandemic, in what Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s travels, long ago called “the art of political lying”. Telling the truth does not require great art, Swift warned, not like “salutary falsehoods”, which he reckoned, need to be carefully crafted. A lie has to be believed only for an hour for its work to be done. Twitter, in the era of social media, helps. “Falsehood flies” said Swift, whereas “truth comes limping after it”.

This is not to say that geoeconomics is not shaping the ongoing pandemic. The relentless expansion of the Chinese economy in the new millenium has created the viral incubators. What were once local spillovers are now epidemics trawling their way through global webs of travel and trade. It is calculations of cost that define the number of intensive care units in hospitals and the stockpiles of ventilators. It is the commercial logic and relentless quest for profit in drug development that define the range of vaccines we have already available; dry, cost-profit spreadsheets dictate that obscure coronaviruses do not get the same priority as erectile disorder for the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.

The SARS-2 virus emerged in December 2019 at one terminus of a regional supply line in exotic foods in Wuhan, China, successfully setting off a human-to-human chain of infection, diffusing at first in the province and in a matter of eight weeks splattered itself across humanity.

Other than describing the wild food market in the typical orientalism, little effort has been expended on the most obvious of questions: How did the exotic food sector arrive at an urban standing in the largest market in Wuhan where it could sell its wares alongside more traditional livestock? Obviously, the exotic animals were not sold off in the black market from the back of a truck in a dark alleyway. Legal permits and payments were involved.

Wild food, especially in China, is an increasingly formalised sector, evermore capitalised and deregulated by the same sources backing conventional, industrialised food production. The overlapping economic geography extends back from Wuhan market to the hinterlands where exotic and traditional foods are raised by commercialised operations bordering the edge of a contracting wilderness. As industrial production encroaches on the last of a forest, wild food operations must cat farther in to raise their delicacies. As a result, the most exotic of pathogens, in this case bat-hosted SARS-2, find their way onto a truck, whether in food animals or the labor tending them, shotgun from one end of a lenghening periurban circuit to the other before hitting the world stage.

Ecosystems in which such “wild” viruses were in part controlled by the Darwinian complexities of the tropical forest are being drastically streamlined by capital-led deforestation and, at the other end of periurban development by deficits in public health and environmental sanitation. While many salvatic pathogens are dying off in the wilderness together with their host species, a subset of infections that once burned out relatively quickly in the forest, are now propagating across susceptible human populations living in big cities whose vulnerability to infection is often exacerbated by a mix of western-type processed food diets with traditional, centuries old, food customs.

The advent of this health crisis not only confirms that “heavy-tailed” events have a profound impact on economic development but drives another nail into the coffin of one of the most (in)famous projects of the post-1980s, namely the systematic undervaluation by the neoliberal consensus of public goods and services in order to cheaply privatize them. It further demonstrates the merit, discredited by the neoliberal elites, of social institutions and practices such as well-funded healthcare systems, benevolent unemployment insurance and strong social care for the elderly, disabled, chronically and mentally-ill.

Neo-conservative political leaders, wax lyrical in simple, yet seductive language that lures their supporters and feeds the servile Pravdas of the rightwing press. They appear to be immensely grateful for the heroic efforts of frontline medical staff, cleaners, workers in social care, public transport personnel, police and firefighters.

The worshipping of corporate wealth -not so makers but certainly-takers, of the masters of rapacious rent seeking -financiers, bankers, corporate lawyers, chartered accountants, PR and management consultants- has temporarily paused ; instead, badly paid, overexploited nurses and carers without adequate PPE to safely look after the infected population, workers in the gig economy of food supply, deliveries and in the outsourced public services have for once been given the credit they deserve.

The fact that a significant part of the labour force struggles financially and an alarming number of people rely on food banks to survive, are reminders of the organic fragility of the economic system, the nature and precariousness of the modern working conditions.

Free resources in hospitals, especially fully equipped intensive care units, had been routinely chasticized as an inefficient and superfluous waste of taxpayers’ money for decades; in a populist u-turn, they are now praised by the instigators of the health and welfare cuts since the 2008-09 Great Recession as invaluable means to come to grips with the pandemic and keep the death toll low.

It is too soon to firmly comment on the demographics and geographics of Covid-19 related deaths but it is evident that profound inequalities in income/wealth distributions closely relate to the impact of the pandemic. Early statistics for the UK and the USA painfully show that fatalities fall disproportionally on the deprived population and on black and ethnic minorities.

The grisly league table of the coronavirus absolute death toll, in which US and Britain are on top, confirms also the deeper-rooted pathogens that the two epicenters of neoliberalism are breeding: a political culture of hubris and exceptionalism, atrophied public services and poor health for large parts of the population.

As the first wave of the epidemic is still ongoing, it may be premature and possibly misleading to compare the case fatality rates (CFR) between countries. The CFR represents the proportion of cases who die once a disease is over and is calculated with the simple formula: deaths/cases. Different recording practices and intensities of population testing clearly affect the confirmed coronavirus cases. Nevertheless, there are striking and persistent differences in the mortality rates among countries. As of 24 May 2020, data from Worldometers.info, show that: France has a CFR of 0.16 (28,367.00/182,584.00), UK has a CFR of 0.14 (36,793.00/259,559.00), Italy has a CFR of 0.14 (32,785.00/229,858.00), Spain has a CFR of 0.10 (28,752.00/282,852.00), US has a CFR of 0.06 (99,300.00/1,686,436.00), Germany has a CFR of 0.05 (8,371.00/180,328.00), Japan has a CFR of 0.05  (820.00/16,550.00), and South Korea has a CFR of 0.02 (267.00/11,206.00).

Countries who are responsibly weathering the coronavirus storm are, as we write this entry, cautiously moving to a gradual unlockdown phase. The key challenge is to replace lockdowns with a comprehensive package of public health interventions involving mass testing, surveillance and real-time data (used strictly by government bodies and not shared by private big data firms) to identify clusters of the virus and quarantine those who are infected. Rather than putting everyone under lockdown, these measures would give state authorities valuable information about the spread of the virus, allowing them to identify hotspots and intervene early where is needed.

For the laughing stock of Europe though, the despicable UK political administration counseled by the shameful, knighted throng of chief scientific and medical advisors, there are no apologies on offer; no remorse for the shambolic efforts to deal with the health crisis and for the ensuing dreadful human loss and suffering. Undeterred by the failure, they carry on practicing what George Orwell castigated: “make murder respectable”.

We speculate here, but it looks more imminent than not that the next vile act of Boris Johnson and his incompetent Whitehall machine, rashing to lift the lockdown measures and mitigate the severity of the coming recession, will be to sermon the public that regrettably, x thousands of daily coronavirus infections are Natural and y tens or even hundreds of deaths per day are an Acceptable human sacrifice in order to ignite the ailing economy. Friendly media and intimate press will hail the resolve and determination of the political charlatan at the helm of the battered British government; in defiance of the colossal adverse economic impact of the pandemic and of the utmost need for frictionless trade, seal Brexit with a deal or not and end the “tyranny” of the European Union by 1 January 2021 will be used to dupe the British polulace and rekindle myopic patriotism. Mr Johnson’s decision to shun an EU scheme to procure medical PPE kits collectively has already sent a blunt message about his appetite for co-operation after Brexit.

As we have commented in the Episode 1 entry of our blog, neoclassical “theorists” have a long affinity with the “Natural” in their fallacious association of economics with the psysical world. Inevitably, they will once again prove their intellectual docility to the neoliberal vice by framing the restart of a market economy as a quantifiable trade-off between lockdown costs and the harm of the pandemic once restrictions are lifted.

As a reminder of the triviality of content, lack of potency and of the stupefying gap between the questions posed and the techniques, however refined, employed to answer them, the neoclassical orthodoxy in thrall with microfoundations will habitually draw indifference curves and set budget constraints to “optimally” address the problem in their infamous tradition of one-size-fits-all, obfuscating in the process the core aspects of pivotal and complex socioeconomic issues.

The socioeconomic realities of the coronavirus pandemic make neoclassical persuasion not only unfit for purpose but, bluntly repulsive since it: (i) Insinuates that aggregation of preferences is trivial overlooking the behavioural heterogeneity of people and the asymmetric impact of the pandemic in different income strata, social and age groups ; (ii) Comes with implicit and insane value judgements by attaching an arbitrary price/utility tag for human life lost, overlooking the fact that every life saved is a non-quantifiable benefit with large, positive, externalities for each society; (iii) Sees no role for virtue, ethics, altruism and community spirit that are evidencing in the global Anthropocene since the wake of the health crisis; (iv) Proves even conceptually suspect as, from an aggregate point of view, budget constraints are neither immovable (for example, emergency injection of nearly 8 trillion US dollars in G20 economies to mitigate the financial impact of the virus), nor relevant as some budgets will run out sooner than others due to pace heterogeneity in confronting the health crisis.

Deteriorating mental health and psychological disorders such as stress, anxiety and depression have intensified as a result of lockdowns, social distancing and the concomitant departure from the routines, safety nets and normalities of everyday life that keep alienation in a state of hibernation. A sense of estrangement characterizes many social relationships, while consumerism, which also dominates as a method of leisure, often fails to provide satisfactory fulfilment, promoting a shallow fleeting contentment and exacerbating a sense of dissatisfaction.

The dialectic interaction between economic organization and social formation that resulted in capital’s stranglehold on society has directly contributed to the devastating growth of alienated conditions, the Hegelian notion of “unhappy consciousness”, and has challenged the foundations on which humanity and humaneness evolve.

As mainstream economists Anne Case and, Nobel laureate, Angus Deaton, have clearly evidenced in their very recent book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism: “Capitalism is not delivering to large fractions of the population; in the US, where the inequalities are clearest, real wages for men without a four-year college degree have fallen for half a century, even at a time when per capita GDP has robustly risen. Mortality rates are rising for the less-educated group at ages 25 through 64, and by enough that life expectancy for the entire US population has fallen for three years in a row, the first time such a reversal has happened since the end of the first world war and the great infuenza epidemic (our emphasis). Working-class Americans are dying by their own hands, from suicide, from alcoholic liver disease, and from overdoses of drugs, medically prescribed or not. Morbidity is rising too, and they are also suffering from an epidemic of chronic pain that, for many, makes a misery of daily life…American policy, instead of cushioning working people, has instead contributed to making their lives worse, reducing the share of labour, undermining pay and working conditions, and changing the legal framework in ways that favor business over workers.”

Under the neoliberal globalization and the resulting new mechanisms for enrichment of the very few through a state-sponsored appropriation of the economic surplus, more than ever in living memory, alienation deprives one’s self of creative and joyous selfhood. Alienation, predominantly manifests itself as the symptom of a deeply oppressive, poorly compensated and demoralizing labour process for the majority of the working force, coupled with the unfulfilling nature of both leisure activities and social relationships.

The new conditions of the Covidian way of life duly question the Robinson Crusoe core organizational metaphor of capitalist socioeconomics. The latter, represents the idealised economic agent, the independent, industrious and self sufficient human being, who absolutely knows their needs and surroundings; who rationally assesses their possibilities and makes choices; who seeks for novel ways to expand their potential; who conquers nature and defies backward-looking social checks; and who ingeniously combines all the means virtually available to them in order to increase personal prosperity and gratification.

However, mainstream social scientists are deliberately telling half of the story. Robinson Crusoe actually relied on the camaraderie of his fellowman Friday to deal with the obstacles they faced together, and he was only able to survive and progress by joining forces and associating with others.

The self-serving aspects of the homo-economicous and the dominance of rationalism in the private consciousness are increasingly proving at odds with the Covidian social and institutional actualities of a collectively beneficial economic functioning. Virtues such as relatedness, solidarity and gratification in giving are weighted in our restrained way of everyday life against the capitalist dogmas of self-reliance, greed, indulgence in possessing, rivalry and attainment at all social costs of individual success.

Will the “World After” the Covid-19 outbreak, once effective treatments and a safe vaccine are globally available, regress to what Erich Fromm, one of the intellectual pillars of psychoanalysis, called the “alienating pathology of normalcy” of the World Before? The defining legacy of the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed more people -estimates go above 50 million- than the first world war, was the acceleration of the provision of public healthcare.

Will historians of the future treat as a mere footnote the imprint of the worst health crisis in developed economies in a generation? The eminent psychologist and thinker Wilhelm Reich professed that ” Every social order creates those character forms which it needs for its preservation, the formation of a psychic structure which corresponds to the existing social order…The preservation of capitalism constituted the ultimate purpose for the instinctual repression of the majority and the formation of a shared character”. Will the social order in a bettering “World After” reflect the enlightment of the “Covidian Present”?

Will the structural malaises in the material conditions of the contemporary market system, as we have modestly explored in our earlier and original work on Warrant Economics and the Great Recession and very recently, in Warrant’s Neoliberalism: The Silent Face of State Levered Twenty-First Century Capitalism, be perused and the degradation of humanity and civic life, in all its forms, be reversed?

A lot of question marks at the end of this note with no prognosis on offer. We are aware that preserving the status quo is revered by the comfortists of every persuasion and income strata as much as the winds of change are enthused by each of the visionaries. That said, as anyone who has ever had a nasty cold has realised, illness, or the fear of it, lend themselves to reflection and introspection. John Donne was suffering from fever when he wrote his celebrated ode to a fulfilling co-existence starting with “No Man Is An Island”.

Economics as a Dismal Science, Episode 1. How the Unnatural Becomes Natural

The fascination with the “Natural” and/or “Ideal” of economists of the dominant group that views economics as a purely positive science (void of historical, philosophical and sociological building blocks) like the “Physics of the Society”, as the Nobel laureate James Tobin famously wrote and criticised, is longstanding (see for example, the (in)famous Natural Rate of Unemployment by which fallible   technocratic Deities confine a changing percentage of the active workforce to the reserve army of labourers; the latter is brutally exploited by the neoliberal  socioeconomic configuration of our doom-laden era).

Continue reading “Economics as a Dismal Science, Episode 1. How the Unnatural Becomes Natural”