The pandemic and countermeasures have effects shaped by the neoliberal form of capitalism that has dominated since the 1980s. Three aspects are worth mentioning: 1.the independence of the financial sphere,2.the fragmentation of the labor markets, and 3.the weakening of social systems. In the financialized economy, measures to cushion the crisis strengthen the haves.
Lockdown light? – Corona crisis and capitalism
[This text by Jörg Goldberg, André Leisewitz, Gerd Wiegel, Michael Zander posted on 2/23/2021 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://diefreiheitsliebe.de/politik/lockdown-light-corona-krise-und-kapitalismus/.]
The Corona pandemic, as we know, does not affect everyone equally. But because epidemics also penetrate “the breezier and healthier neighborhoods inhabited by gentlemen capitalists,” the “upper middle classes” also fear it.
After all, spacing rules, home offices, and homeschooling are easier to endure in large apartments with gardens than in cramped living conditions. The more unequal a society, the more unequal the impact of disease: “Health (is) a profoundly unequally distributed resource”; this is also true for the chances of survival from Corona infection. Data from the UK and the US suggest that severe courses and deaths following SARS-CoV-2 infection are socially unequally distributed. Three main factors are hypothesized: first, occupational activities that make home office retreats impossible and that are often compensated with relatively low wages; second, cramped housing conditions and living in communal accommodations; third, pre-existing somatic conditions that are themselves socially unequally distributed.  In Germany, at the beginning of the pandemic, more affluent and particularly mobile people were infected, likely travelers for work and pleasure, but by the mid-2020s, this trend reversed. A study by Barmer Ersatzkasse shows that temporary workers in industry and logistics are particularly likely to contract corona, second only to health sector workers.
In the widespread general discourse on inequality, however, it is often forgotten that the pandemic and countermeasures have effects shaped by the neoliberal form of capitalism that has dominated since the 1980s.
Three aspects are worth mentioning:
the independence of the financial sphere,
the fragmentation of the labor markets, and
the weakening of social systems.
(1) In the financialized economy, politics and the artifice of economic laws ensure that measures to cushion the crisis strengthen the haves. This is exemplified by Blackrock, the world’s largest wealth fund, which increased assets under management from $7.4 trillion to $8.7 trillion in 2020. Revenues and profits beat analysts’ expectations. This is not surprising, as large financial assets continued to increase in 2020 despite the crisis. In Germany, financial assets rose by 400 billion to 6.7 trillion euros. The top 20 percent of the population benefited from the increase, holding a good 75 percent of the assets. The richest 0.1 percent, with one-fifth of the assets, benefited most, earning high returns on their investments. The lower half of the population has hardly any reserves or is in debt; middle groups with small reserves are reporting losses on balance. Exploding stock and security prices or real estate prices with interest rates close to zero are responsible for the increase in wealth.
The driving force is the expansive monetary policy of the central banks, which is supposed to counteract the crisis but instead directs more and more money into the financial markets. The one-sided orientation of pandemic policy also plays a role: Interventions in the activities of companies, especially in the manufacturing sector, have been taboo since the start of the ‘second wave’ in September 2020; even compliance with hygiene rules is hardly checked there.  Routine or even focussed health inspections are not carried out because the supervisory authorities are already understaffed and because the inspectors are now also in their home offices. In many sectors (mechanical engineering, chemicals/pharmaceuticals, construction), production in the fourth quarter of 2020 was above the previous year’s level, and exports to China are booming. Not surprisingly, of 160 major stock market index companies, only 23 expect dividend cuts, with almost half holding out the prospect of dividend increases. A tragedy was the dispute over more home office, which still reached fewer employees in January 2021 than in April 2020. On January 21, at the suggestion of Labor Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD), the German government issued a SARS-CoV-2 Occupational Health and Safety Ordinance, limited until March 15 (for the time being), which obliges companies, among other things, to offer employees home office “if there are no compelling operational reasons to the contrary.” While this was more than a rather non-binding recommendation, it was one with a backdoor. Under pressure from business owners, intended controls and sanction options were removed from the draft, and in effect what remained was a ‘tightened appeal’.
The pandemic fighters are focusing on the private and leisure sectors. Businesses operating there are complaining of severe slumps, hitting low-paid workers in particular. The companies – which include large restaurant and hotel chains – and their associations are demanding higher government compensation, and the caps were raised again in January. Only larger companies will benefit. Microbusinesses and solo self-employed workers face bureaucratic requirements that cost money (tax accountants) and are difficult to overcome. Neither the government nor interest groups have come up with the idea of making companies and asset owners who are hardly affected by Corona or who benefit from it pay a share of the burden through targeted levies.
(2) In contrast, wage earners are facing massive attacks, even in areas that are benefiting from the crisis. Pressure on working conditions and incomes is increasing, and collectively agreed standards are being called into question. An impression of the corona-induced losses is provided by the global ILO Monitor. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates the decline in the volume of work in 2020 at 9 percent, corresponding to 255 million full-time jobs. Workers’ income losses (excluding government compensation) amount to $3.7 trillion, down 8.3 percent from 2019. Although losses are highest in emerging economies-where government compensation figures are scarce-high-income countries also experience losses of 7.8 percent. Women complain of larger declines (-5 percent) than men (-3.9 percent). In the developed countries, some of the income losses are cushioned by government compensation payments, in Germany by short-time working benefits. In April 2020, six million employees were affected by this, and in January 2021 around 2.6 million. The instrument has a highly unequal impact: as Mayer-Ahuja/Detje write, it is tailored to core workforces. In larger companies, it is often topped up. For those (above average) affected in the low-wage sector, wage cuts of up to 40 percent (depending on family status and duration of short-time work) threaten the existence of the workforce. ILO calculations that include state subsidies show that well-qualified workers in industrialized countries experience only minimal income losses; these only affect the less qualified. Excluded from receiving benefits in many cases are mini-jobbers, temporary workers and the solo self-employed.
The unequal distribution of losses in the labor market is shown by the 1.6 percent or 710,000 decline in German employment registered in the last quarter of 2020, while registered unemployment ‘only’ increased by about 500,000: people are being pushed out of the labor market who are not entitled to unemployment benefits. This affects employees who are not subject to social security contributions and solo self-employed workers. Low-wage sectors and ‘atypical’ employment lead to workers being pushed out of the labor market in crisis situations. As expected, low-income sectors are particularly affected: Trade, transport, hospitality and business service providers (=labor hire), quite predominantly women.
(3) A society’s ability to withstand crises depends on its social systems. In the context of Corona, we are talking about hospitals, nursing homes and health care offices. Alarm was sounded there even before the crisis. In this context, it is fortunate that the recommendation of the Bertelsmann study of 2019 to close almost 800 of 1,400 hospitals was not implemented. A significant proportion of those infected can be found in nursing homes and homes for the elderly. The required special protection can hardly be implemented, because already in 2018, according to the Federal Labor Office, 40,000 positions of elderly and nursing care were unfilled. The main role in pandemic control is played by the 400 municipal health offices, which have been systematically neglected in recent decades: As early as 2015, the professional association of German internists warned that they would no longer be able to fulfill their duties. Between 1995 and 2014, the number of doctors there had fallen by a third to around 2,500. Individual offices no longer had a physician. The “Kassel Appeal” of the Federal Association of Public Health Physicians of April 4, 2019, called on municipal employers’ associations to pay them according to the collective agreement for physicians, i.e., to put health offices and municipal hospitals on an equal footing. In 2019, a doctor in a health department earned 1,500 euros less than in a hospital.
The lockdown measures are justified with two main arguments: They say it is necessary to prevent hospitals from being overburdened and to allow health departments to track infections. Had hospital bed cuts of 25 percent (1991 to 2018) and rigid staff reductions been prevented, as well as the drying up of health departments, it would certainly have been easier to combat the pandemic more effectively. One often hears from supporters of the ‘black zero’ that the austerity policies of the past have expanded the state’s room for maneuver in the crisis. The opposite is the case: failure to invest and staff cuts in the public sector have weakened society’s resilience to the crisis.
Not everyone in the same boat
We have already referred to ecological aspects of the pandemic in Z 122. Even before the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, expert publications warned that massive global destruction of nature would make contacts between humans and wildlife, and thus the transmission of potentially dangerous viruses, more likely.
Christian Walzer, head of the Research Institute for Wildlife Science and Ecology at the University of Vienna, uses Ebola as an example to explain the accumulation of zoonoses, or the jumping of pathogens from animals to humans. “Since 1976, eleven Ebola outbreaks have been registered in the Congo region, four of them in the last three years.” At the same time, the natural foundations have been massively altered by human activity: “Since the middle of the 20th century (…) the global urban population has grown by 600 percent, while globally an area of about half the USA has been deforested and carbon emissions have quadrupled. By 2020, 75 percent of the Earth’s surface is considered heavily modified by human activities. Global mammalian biomass is now 60 percent livestock, 36 percent human, and only 4 percent wildlife.” This process is increasing the risk for further pandemics.
It is doubtful, however, “that we are all in the same boat.” The decisive driving forces behind this disruption of the “metabolism with nature” (Marx) are the capitalist mode of production and a world market that is far too little regulated in ecological terms. While the great mass of the population is struggling with the economic consequences of the crisis, the super-rich, among others, are profiting, as a study by the aid organization Oxfam shows: “The wealth of the ten richest men in the world (as of December 2020) has increased by almost half a trillion US dollars since February 2019 – despite the pandemic – to 1.12 trillion US dollars. This windfall would be more than enough to vaccinate the entire world population against Covid-19 and ensure that no one is plunged into poverty by the pandemic. In Germany, the ten richest Germans had a total wealth of around 242 billion US dollars at the end of 2020 – despite the pandemic, an increase of around 35 percent or 62.7 billion US dollars compared to February 2019.” In the Corona pandemic, the connection between class society, the capitalist mode of production and productive forces that have been transformed into “forces of destruction” is manifested.
A quarter of a year “lockdown light”
The first lockdown reduced Corona infections, which had increased exponentially from mid to late March 2020, by thirty percent in each of about three weeks. The 7-day incidence dropped back below 50, which should allow for follow-up and disruption of infection chains. A low point in new infections was reached in June; thereafter, case numbers rose again slightly until the end of September, only to skyrocket within a very short period of time in October to about four times the maximum reached in March. The “lockdown light” agreed upon by federal-state decision on October 28, 2020, went into effect on November 2, long after the number of new infections had exploded. The corresponding measures were limited until the end of November, but did not lead to a reduction in the number of infections. Extensions and tightening of the “lockdown light” followed at the end of November, in mid-December, and most recently on January 19, 2021, “initially limited until February 14.” RKI President Lothar Wieler stated bluntly that this was “not a real lockdown.” It was not until the second half of January that the measures gradually took effect.
The “lockdown light” that was initially announced for a few weeks has thus already extended over more than a quarter of a year. It differs from the lockdown in spring 2020 in many respects. The spread of the epidemic was favored by a number of factors in the fall/winter (drop in temperature; higher level of infestation; emergence of more aggressive mutants). More significantly, from the outset, “lockdown light” was subject to the nebulously worded proviso “that economic life must be kept in tact.”  This was used to describe the fact that – unlike in the spring of 2020 – the contact restrictions intended to reduce the risk of infection were limited to the private and leisure sectors (and thus the consumer, service and cultural sectors associated with passenger traffic) – this initially included keeping schools and daycare centers open – and an extension to restrictions that would have affected the economy as a whole was taboo (see Section 1). With the epidemic having a more favorable chance of spreading than in the spring, much weaker measures were taken to avoid getting in the way of the massive upturn in the economy (especially exports). In the spring, companies in the manufacturing sector welcomed short-time work in the face of collapsed supply chains in order to save on labor costs; in the fall, they strictly rejected all measures going beyond “lockdown light”; they were “relieved” when no stricter requirements were imposed in January either. Measured by indicators such as mobility, home office use or short-time work, the weaker measures had about half the effect, but they entailed a long-lasting restriction of individual basic rights, high social burdens on the lower social strata (lower groups of the working class, the precarious sector, the solo self-employed, etc., as described above) and a permanent social debate about the burdens of the crisis and the sense and nonsense of the respective measures, as well as constant demands from a wide variety of interest groups for an early relaxation. In addition, there were the alternating waves of promises of vaccination and announcements of delays in delivery by pharmaceutical companies, to which the federal and state governments found themselves helplessly at the mercy of. Public acceptance of the measures declined accordingly from 75 percent approval (spring/summer) to 65 percent (October) and below 50 percent in January 2021.
If the Covid 19 pandemic is believed to be a real threat to public health that must be contained by measures affecting all of society – there is no evidence to contradict this – then corresponding effective, democratically controlled measures must also be demanded on the part of the state in the interest of the population. This was underscored in the left-wing spectrum with calls for a “solidarity lockdown” and, most recently, the “ZeroCovid” appeal, which was discussed relatively widely in the social media and, in some cases, also in the national press. In contrast, the “lockdown light” that has dragged on for months with its one-sided permanent burdens also undermines societal crisis resilience from a socio-psychological perspective (see above, section 1).
The corresponding demands are about professionally secured measures to protect the health of all, which are at the same time socially just and democratically legitimized. Which therefore, to mention at least a few aspects,
protect those affected by them according to their social situation – here massive unequal treatment, dominance of property and capital exploitation interests, etc. are to be noted;
provide adequate protection for the age and social groups that are particularly vulnerable to health risks;
grant appropriate support and protection measures for the social and age groups whose social situation and life prospects are particularly affected by lockdown measures (e.g. schoolchildren and their teaching staff, health care workers, workers in institutions providing care for the elderly and children, etc.);
involve the economy as a whole, including large corporate enterprises, and not shift the burden solely to the leisure sector, opening up the private sector to health protection and appropriate controls to the extent necessary;
safeguard democratic rights and put a stop to authoritarian desires for emergency – i.e., the tendency to make the executive branch independent, the de facto sidelining of parliamentary institutions, the preference for “advice” to the executive branch by lobbying institutions of capital (business associations that put property interests first – with compensation demands and the demand not to harm “the economy” – that take health protection of the workforce out of the discussion, etc.); and
bring the crisis profiteers (e.g., mail-order companies, industries marginally affected by the lockdown consequences, pharmaceutical corporations funded with millions) and large wealth owners to bear the costs of the crisis (cf. the Left’s demand for a millionaire’s tax) and push vaccine production by releasing licenses;
Call for international solidarity in fighting the pandemic and dealing with its economic and social consequences. Just as vaccines must be treated as public goods and distributed globally according to urgency and need (rather than by order and payment), priorities must be set so that the most vulnerable countries and populations receive the greatest support.
These are at least some elementary criteria against which to measure political movements and protests.
Corona protests: No left-wing criticism
Leftist criticism of federal and state Corona policies must be measured against the standards developed above. Those who do not address the obvious class character of both the health policy measures and the policies to combat the economic consequences make themselves susceptible to individualistic-esoteric and reactionary positions. In the numerous street protests under the label “Querdenken” or other organizers against the measures to contain the pandemic, there are undeniably quite a number of participants who locate themselves politically on the left and/or also have a past in different scenes of the political left. What attracts and connects them is likely to be anti-authoritarianism, anti-statism, distrust of elites, rule and supranational organizations. However, if one looks at the demands and objectives of the protests, one is struck by the abstractness and narrow-mindedness (such as the rejection of the mask requirement) of their “critique of domination” and the almost complete absence of sociopolitical or even class-political issues, with a subjective-individualist perspective on individual liberties dominating to a large extent. In these movements, the protest against the Corona measures rather articulates a general and fundamental rejection of the restriction of rights perceived as paternalism and coercion, which in many cases no longer cares about concrete evidence, fact-checking and causalities, but instead incorporates what is happening into a grand conspiracy context with which “the rulers” want to consolidate their power over the ruled. The points of contact of such a critique, in many cases based on ‘alternative facts’, to the far right are obvious and are used accordingly by the political right. In this respect, it is not surprising that these protests are increasingly characterized by persons, groups and ideological slogans of the extreme right. This does not speak against the subjective left-wing positioning of many of those involved, but it does show how little well-founded explicitly left-wing criticism is anchored in this movement. The ostentatious confession of being neither left-wing nor right-wing is usually the starting point for a shift of emphasis to the right.
Thus, Oliver Nachtwey, Robert Schäfer, and Nadine Frei describe the Corona protest movement in an empirical approach as “a movement (…) that comes rather from the left, but moves more to the right.” Nachtwey, Schäfer, and Frei have presented a first non-representative empirical study on participants of the Corona protests, which at least gives some indications about this movement. With a relatively high average age of 48 and a female-male ratio of 60:40, the survey reveals an above-average level of education, with 34 percent college graduates and another 31 percent with high school diplomas. 35 percent of respondents say they work full-time, while three percent are unemployed. The proportion of self-employed is well above average (25 percent compared with around 10 percent in the population as a whole), 46 percent say they have personnel responsibility in their job, and 32 percent count themselves among the upper middle class.
Obviously, these figures suggest, the majority of protesters are not primarily those who are hardest hit socially or financially by the crisis. However, the high proportion of self-employed suggests that some of them are suffering from the lockdown measures. In a study by the Hans Böckler Foundation involving some 6,300 workers, those respondents who reported income losses tended to agree more with conspiracy myths.
The previous party political preferences indicated by respondents in the Nachtwey et al. survey illustrate the heterogeneous origins of protesters, some of whom tended to be on the left, while at the same time being distant from the parties carrying the government. The Greens, for example, were ahead of the Left with 23 percent and the AfD with 15 percent. The CDU/CSU, FDP and SPD followed behind with 10, 7 and 6 percent respectively. In the future, however, only the AfD will play a role for the respondents with 27 percent, while the Left will drop to 5 and the Greens together with the CDU/CSU and SPD (one, one and zero percent) will play virtually no role. However, 61 percent say they would vote “Other” in the future, documenting a general turning away from established politics, including the AfD.
Nachtwey, Schäfer, Frei assume that there is great heterogeneity within the movement, which is linked by “shared mentalities. In terms of content, this is reflected in an “ostentatious distinction, i.e. the striving for otherness. The criticism is not aimed at individual measures, but rather at a “general suspicion” that can be articulated through the Corona crisis: “Against the rich and powerful, against science, orthodox medicine, the judiciary and police, etc.”. The criticism therefore also often digresses, quickly one is at 9/11 and draws parallels to National Socialism.” (60) More important than the criticism is the self-portrayal as a critic. The demonstrations were part of a series of politically diverse protests that went beyond “traditional forms of representation. (63) They were characterized by a “deep alienation from the core institutions of liberal democracy” (62), which is an expression of the “loss of control” of the political system in the face of an unleashed capitalism, which was also discussed in line 117. What is needed, then, is a left-wing treatment of the current crisis that addresses this connection without giving space to mystifying narratives of the great restructuring, the conspiracy of the elites or other dark forces. The sell-out of public services, the class-based inequality of contagion risks or the question of who bears the costs of the crisis are better starting points for this than QAnon conspiracy, virus denial or vaccination hysteria.
This text by Jörg Goldberg, André Leisewitz, Gerd Wiegel, Michael Zander appeared in the March issue of Z. Marxist Renewal magazine.