Suffering in numbers.
The abstract science of mathematics is a language like music. But while music is in the realm of pure emotion, the language of mathematics only speaks to the mind not the heart. Numbers and equations do not lie. They are not, by essence, subjective. This being said, when the numbers are those of the dead, they can have the chilling emotional effect of a meat cleaver cutting through bones. While we have tried to stay away from the mainstream media litany of the death tolls, on April 25, 2020, we had passed 200,000 deaths globally. In the United States alone, by the end of April, the COVID-19 pandemic will have killed more people than the reported 58,220 US soldiers who died during the Vietnam war.
Neoliberal and populist war presidents?
Ironically, two political leaders who are supposed to be on opposite sides of the political spectrum have framed their COVID-19 crisis narrative as a war. One is French President Macron, a neoliberal globalist champion, and the other one is nationalist-populist US President Trump. Both, however, have a lot in common: they are proponents of global corporatism, are Commanders in Chief of their respective military but did not serve in the military. Trump was a reputed Vietnam war draft dodger, while Macron was born too late to have done the mandatory French military service. In either case, their war on COVID-19 is not going well. As a matter of fact, Trump and Macron are winning their war on COVID-19 like the US won in Vietnam or NATO won in Afghanistan. And incidentally, if the COVID-19 is a world war, both of these presidents and other world leaders should consider ordering a military draft.
The COVID-19 killing spree is not yet over, even in its first installment. It is hard to forecast, but in a month or two, once countries such as India, Indonesia, Pakistan and the entire African continent are computed in the tragic body count, we could globally reach 350,000 deaths. The worldwide government incompetence will continue and the litany of deaths will keep ticking away. Meanwhile, human suffering is not a great concern for capitalism’s ruling class, the economy and the financial markets are now their main focus.
Capitalism’s callous imperatives
Never mind their countless failures and shortcomings through the crisis, what mostly concerns our callous and cynical political and business leaders is COVID-19’s impact on the global economy. While the lockdown of half of humanity could have been beneficial for an extra couple of weeks from a healthcare standpoint, the enforcers of the imperative of global capitalism do not care. As far as salvaging what can still be saved from the current economic collapse, the political technocrats who serve the billionaire class are perfectly willing to sacrifice thousands of human lives. People are dying. Poor people are starving even in the so-called developed world and relying on food banks in places like Queens, New York; New Orleans; or Seine St. Denis, in Paris’ poor northern suburbs. But what truly matters for the worshippers of capitalism is the well being of their free-market God, a profane deity brought to its knees by the COVID-19 pandemic. Humanity is facing a time of reckoning. Despite what the global ruling class hopes for, the global economy has collapsed, and things will never return to normal.
The COVID-19 Great Depression
In just two months, the global economy was brought to a standstill. Airplanes are not flying; factories are not manufacturing, with the exception of face masks; oil has become worthless; three billion people are not consuming, with the exception of food products. The imposed hiatus for most global consumption and circulation of people and goods has blown a giant hole in the complex capitalist edifice. The main question now is will it recover. While the notion of a Great COVID-19 Depression has become accepted, governments worldwide are trying to give their citizens the idea that ultimately it will be okay again. As during the crash of 2008, worldwide national or supra-national banking institutions have followed the lead of the US Federal Reserve. Worldwide, the equivalent of about $7 trillion have been printed, and they are in the process of being injected in the financial markets. Without this, Wall Street and the other markets would already be worth as little as a barrel of US crude oil.
The oil war has come home to roost in the US
On April 21, the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) benchmark for US crude dropped below zero. As a matter of fact, it was trading at -$4.29 a barrel. Needless to say, despite the federal money injection, the impact on the US economy energy sector will be catastrophic. This situation was completely predictable. It was years in the making, with one geopolitical blunder after another. After all, for decades the US and its Saudi allies have used oil price as a weapon. The oil war has come home to roost.
During the Clinton administration, an oil price drop was used against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; Bush Jr.’s administration used it against Iran; and the Obama administration used it against Russia as retaliation over Ukraine. The Trump administration has applied the same policies with regime change goals in Iran and Venezuela. Like his predecessors, the de-facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Mohamed bin-Salman, has been fully on board for decades. The mechanics are simple: you try to achieve your regime change goals by bankrupting another country’s economy, especially if it mainly relies on oil extraction, as does Venezuela. But Maduro is still in place and the Iranians are holding on against all odds.
The Trump administration, despite its claim of being an America-First isolationist, has dutifully followed the post World War II US empire’s geopolitical strategy of asserting a worldwide dominance, even bigger than the Monroe doctrine, by engineering failed states. It is likely, however, that with 26 million unemployed, millions relying on food banks to eat, and an economy that has imploded, the US empire will have to scale back its ambitions. For global neoliberalism’s prodigal son, Emmanuel Macron, the economic and social landscapes are equally grim.
Anger in France: “la racaille” & Gilets Jaunes’ new sans-culottes?
Despite the tough lockdown for more than six weeks in France, clashes have occurred between youths in poor French suburbs and the police. It started Saturday, April 18 in Villeneuve La Garrenne with what appears to have been excessive police force against a motorcyclist. From there, it snowballed to the poor suburbs in other parts of Paris and elsewhere in France, specifically in Strasbourg, Roubaix and a Lyon suburb. In Strasbourg, a police station was set on fire. The French far-right has done its best to capitalize on the incident, which involved mainly young French citizens of North African or African origin. The far-right populist leader of the Rassemblement National, Marine Le Pen, called for a severe crackdown on the culprits of the social unrest. She made the racist claimed that “la racaille” (the human scum) had to be neutralized. Le Pen also attacked the Macron administration for doing something right, which was the release of 8,000 prisoners from prisons to avoid COVID-19 mass infections. This was to be expected from racist tough-on-crime Le Pen, but Eric Ciotti, a congressman from Les Republicains, a party that is supposed to be less Fascist than Le Pen’s, went a step further and called for L’intervention de l’armee et un couvre feu (a deployment of the military and a curfew).
Most people understand that, without the work of the six million French citizens of North African or African origin, France’s confinement would be a lot more challenging. Just like in New York, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles or New Orleans, the mothers and fathers of the angry youths in France are largely the ones who have kept the country going during the lockdown, day in and day out, often risking their lives, anonymously. They are the clerks in supermarkets, the truck drivers and other delivery persons, the janitors, the garbage collectors, the bus drivers and low-paid support staff in hospitals and nursing homes. Generation after generation, since the early 1960s, the largely North African immigrants have done the hard work that the Caucasian French no longer care to do. Former president Chirac called this social inequality a fracture sociale in the 1990s. So it was identified but never fixed, and the COVID-19 crisis has just made it more blatant. France will ease its lockdown after May 11. After this, if the social inequalities are not addressed by actions instead of only words, the angry youths of the poor suburbs could be joined by the Gilets Jaunes, whose movement just went underground.
Ecosocialism equation: climate crisis + COVID19 = systemic change
So far the central banks’ remedy quantitative easing, a euphemism for printing money, has been largely futile. The 3 trillion dollars and 1.5 trillion Euros injected are financial band-aids on our global economical Titanic. If this doomed ship represents our pre-COVID-19 mode of development, it should be cheerfully sacrificed along with the giant cargo ships and planes, which are the nervous system of a globalization that is choking on itself. The unfolding COVID-19 crisis has fully exposed the failures of governance and socio-economic systems worldwide.
Beyond their short-term post-COVID-19 strategies, few policymakers or business leaders have any valid answers. The ruling class’ model of globalization, based on corporate imperialism’s core principle of profit over people, is in ruins. In the middle of an unstoppable worldwide paradigm shift, so-called leaders and thinkers are in paradigm paralysis. They are trapped in a pre-COVID-19 reality bubble, unable to think outside the box.
As citizens of the world, we may look ahead possibly to a better future for the many. One critical systemic problem unlikely to survive COVID-19 is the extreme social inequality driven by hyper-capitalist wealth concentration. In a nutshell, the existential problem of capitalism that could cause its end is as follows: exactly 2,019 billionaires worldwide have more wealth than 60 percent of the world population. This is not only immoral but also unsustainable. Let us travel back in time to 1788 for a moment. In France, absolute King Louis XVI, who presumably combined the power of Macron and the wealth of France’s richest man Bernard Arnault, thought he was firmly in power. But within a year he was swept away by the French Revolution. The motto of the revolution and the subsequent French Republic was Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. These three notions still have power and value. If climate justice is added to them, this could be the foundation of an ecosocialist society.
While the Great Depression of 1929 unquestionably triggered the rise of Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany, humanity cannot afford for that history to repeat itself. The COVID-19 Great Depression upon us might be capitalism’s end game and the birth of a new global ecosocialist era based on social equality, real democracy with sound governance, zero economic growth, zero global military spending, and respectful harmony with what is left of the natural world.
Gilbert Mercier is the author of The Orwellian Empire. Photograph one by Larry Goodwin; two from the archive of Urban Museum; three and five from the archive of The National Guard; four by David Shankbone; seven by Lanpernas; eight by Francisco Anzola; nine by Denisbin; ten and twelve by Gilbert Mercier; and eleven from the archive of Leigh Blackall.