This week has been the most intense of the coronavirus epidemic so far in Europe, the US, South America – it is already a national emergency in Bolivia– and Africa, where Morocco has already had its first cases. Yesterday was the worst day in history for the main Wall Street indexes and almost all the European stock markets. But even if this week we only published articles on the epidemic and its consequences, its spread is only an accelerator in a global picture in which the antagonism between an anti-historical capitalist system and the satisfaction of the most basic human needs is brutally evident in every dimension of reality.
To begin with, we are told that the coming recession is a consequence of the epidemic… when the official data itself denies it. Economic data from January in Europe are now coming out, when the epidemic was not even considered as such in China (the first death reported in Wuhan is from the 11th). In Germany Exports fell by 2.1% compared to the previous year. Not only Germany, the G20 bloc, was already stagnant and on the verge of recession with a total GDP growth of only 0.6% as of December 2019. The “severe recession” expected in Germany this year is not a product of the virus, it was incubating much earlier.
How have the answers been? The ECB (European Central Bank) has announced a program to provide liquidity to small and medium sized enterprises, to buy more government debt and to relax banking rules. In addition, the ECB will buy $120 billion in assets by the end of the year to encourage the capital market. A boost for stagnant accumulation… at the expense of a greater risk of financial crisis, because in the end, the flagship measure is that banks will be able to fall below the required capital requirements. It’s not reassuring.
The European Commission, for its part, is trying to restore the momentum towards a continental capital concentration among “European champions”, taking advantage of the fact that the fear of Chinese competition is beginning to be greater than the disputes between neighboring national capitals, at least between Germany and France. This is not to be welcomed: a large-scale cross-border concentration of capital would not only aggravate the regional differences between the “European fertile crescent” (regions with higher capitalization) and the rest of the continent but would also provide the basis for an even more aggressive European imperialism.
And no, there is nothing “humanitarian”, charitable or universalistic about European imperialism. And whoever wants to see this only has to take a look at the common European policy in the Mediterranean: secret prisons for refugees, families and children crammed into the holds of military cargo ships in appalling conditions, police charges and smoke canisters against those waiting at the border to apply for asylum and… an “offer they can’t refuse” to those who have literally been rotting in the Greek camps for years: 1,700 euros to return to the same place they were fleeing from.
The whole renegotiation of the agreement with Turkey is about increasingly opaque implementation of this criminal and anti-human policy, paying the Turkish state to do discreetly what Brussels does not dare to say out loud. Are we exaggerating? This week The Guardian revealed how crimes against humanity in Libya were the result of “a coordinated and illegal attack by the European Union on the rights of desperate people trying to cross the Mediterranean”. Of course, what should have been the biggest scandal in the history of the EU did not make the front page or open the news.
While negotiations are ongoing, Turkey continues to militarily threaten Greece. After an incident at the Aegean Sea border in which a Turkish coastguard ship rammed a Greek coastguard, Erdogan bragged that he was ordering his navy to keep chasing the Greek coastguards. Result: daily incidents at sea accompanied by constant airspace violations and gunfire from a special operations group targeting a military vehicle at the Evros border. Yesterday, Turkey reported large-scale military exercises on the Aegean, worsening the tension.
This increased war threat follows a new summit with Putin that has consolidated the ceasefire and reinstated joint patrols with Russia in Idlib. Erdogan offered Putin joint oil exploitation of Northern Syria. Putin was open to the idea and even raised the possibility of inviting the US to the plunder to avoid interference.
In other words, relative calm in Idlib has only served to shift Erdogan’s military pressure towards the Aegean and the Western Mediterranean. No promise of plunder is sufficient for increasingly dysfunctional semi-colonial economies. In Turkey, youth unemployment figures rose this week to 25% and the overall rate to 13.7%, extremely high figures for a social protection system light years behind the Europeans.
Russia, for its part, is engaged in an oil price war with Saudi Arabia that places both sides at a gross losses on their main production and forces their oil companies to compensate with financial funds which are obviously not in good shape either. There are no profitable applications for capital, even in the speculative markets. Significantly, both Salman in Arabia and Putin in Russia are in the midst of purges and legal changes to establish their power. They both know that what is coming is an aggravation of the internal and external contradictions of their regimes and their national capitals, and they want to secure the reins.
They are not alone. In Argentina, Alberto Fernández declared that “the world is conspiring to make our exit [of the crisis] more difficult”… so immediately rumors are multiplying about an upcoming declaration of default. Even without the massive spread of the epidemic, the impact on national capital would take the GDP from the predicted 1.4% drop to 2.7%. While the president recommended drinking hot drinks as a prophylactic against the disease -a pure urban legend that could in fact increase its spread in the country of shared mate- the hope of the Argentine government, like that of so many others, was that the virus would not spread with average temperatures above 30º. There is no evidence that this is the case. And in fact, contagion within Argentina itself leads one to believe that it is not and that the quarantine law may therefore only be the prologue to an extension of the epidemic.
The covid-19 pandemic is exposing the permanent disaster that capitalism is today: hospital structures saturated by default, emergency services eroded by “anti-crisis policies,” housing in which three and sometimes four generations are crowded together with insufficient space… and states that give priority to keeping capital accumulation going instead of closing down workplaces, even though they know they are putting a large number of workers at high risk of contagion from a serious disease.
In countries where the virus has begun to spread and there are cases of community contagion, there is no other option but to close down all non-essential production, carry out tests, ensure the distribution of drugs and food for all, and consider paid time off work during home confinement. When companies are closed and absence from work is paid as leave, “individual responsibility” will start making sense. When companies are closed and absence from work is paid as leave, “individual responsibility” will start making sense. Meanwhile, they try to pass the buck by keeping us working despite increasing the danger of disease spread. Waiting for the last moment to shut down production, however much they disguise it, will only increase the number of infections and deaths, as the graph above shows.
In this situation it becomes clear that workers are the only social class whose interests represent universal human needs, starting with the most basic: life and physical integrity. Underneath the “coronavirus strikes” in Italy -which are still raging– now also in Belgium, and the conflicts that are hatching from PSA in France to Renfe in Spain, there is the only social force that represents a hope for the whole of Humanity by affirming the primacy of human life over the agony of profits.