Covid-19 and racism exposes the ‘muck and filth’ of capitalism

Issue section: 

There are organic links between the global anti-racist rebellion and the Covid-19 pandemic. As Socialist Review has repeatedly shown, there is a clear class nature to how the virus affects global populations. Poorer communities, many with underlying health conditions socially determined by what Engels called the slow ‘social murder’ implicit to capitalism, have suffered by far the worst consequences. Little surprise then that BAME communities the world over are disproportionately among those suffering, since the racism systemically embedded in capitalism from its birth, ensures the majority of people from black and minority ethnic communities are poor.
This is as true in Britain as it is elsewhere but is most clearly illustrated by the US. From New York, Iannis Delatolas describes these in detail in our global round-up, but one specific example illustrates the point graphically The rate for African-American people in the US dying once they’ve contracted the virus is, on average, three times that for white people. We have to take care with averaged calculations since within them there will be huge differences between white people in different class positions. But still, it is the case that proportionally more people from BAME communities are dying after infection. In many areas in the US, rates are higher still.
For example, in Kansas City, the rate for African-American people dying is seven times that of whites. That racism is systemically embedded in the structures and institutions of Kansas helps explain this shameful statistic. During the course of June, Donald Trump crowed about the fall in US unemployment. In many African-American areas of Kansas City — as elsewhere — unemployment has always been higher than national averages, and remains so. In the inner-city Blue Hills area, where 97 percent of the community are African-American, the rate has never fallen below 17 percent. In neighbouring Ivanhoe it remains above 26 percent.
As the Centre for American Progress put it last December, in general African American workers, “Continue to face systematically higher unemployment rates, fewer job opportunities, lower pay, poorer benefits, and greater job instability. These persistent differences reflect systematic barriers to quality jobs, such as outright discrimination against African American workers, as well as occupational segregation… and segmented labor markets in which Black workers are less likely to get hired into stable, well-paying jobs.”
As health insurance is routinely part of better paid employment contracts, this greatly disadvantages African-American workers in terms of adequate health coverage. Poor housing has been an issue framed by racist policies in Kansas since the end of the Second World War. As Kevin Fox Gotham documents in his book, Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development, post-war, “prominent developer-builders promoted the enforcement of explicitly racially restrictive covenants” in order to stop African-Americans from getting decent housing. This has resulted in areas of severe under-development with poor housing, poor amenities and health services, most often in inner-city areas and peopled by BAME communities.
On a broader scale, systemic developments such as this has led to a process of what is known as ‘hyper-segregation’, with BAME communities segregated spatially, educationally, politically and in many other ways. The education system in Kansas City, for example, did not begin to officially de-segregate until the 1980s, with a bungled attempt that has left a school system that in effect remains deeply divided along racial grounds. This is both the material context of the high fatality rates among African-Americans, and of the anger, frustration and determination now expressing itself through the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. The global anti-racist rebellion is beginning to expose to all that racism is not a bad tooth that can be pulled leaving the rest of the body intact. It is the marrow in capitalism’s bones.
The health crisis, the impending economic crisis and the power of the global antiracist rebellion has thrown the failings of political leadership the world over into sharp relief.
How the political elite is performing is daily under a very public microscope since the decisions they take have immediate and profound life and death consequences. Those decisions have been consistently appalling. In Britain, the pandemic strategy of Johnson’s Tory government has been criminally shambolic, costing thousands of workingclass lives. Lancet editor, Richard Horton described the management of the outbreak as, “the greatest science policy failure of a generation”.
Over the past months, the bosses’ paper, the Financial Times, has been among the government’s biggest critics, with headlines including: Uk’s Original Coronavirus Plan Risked ‘Hundreds Of Thousands’ Dead; How Testing Fiasco Exposed Britain’s Flawed Virus Response, and many more. Socialist journalist John Pilger has described the government’s lack of meaningful strategy as a “crime against humanity”.
This very public — and deadly — failure of Johnson’s government has led to a massive decline in its popularity. By mid-June only three out of every 10 people thought the Tories were doing a good job. Meanwhile, the dark cloud of recession, the depth of which can only be guessed at, hangs over us all. In April, Britain’s GDP declined by over 20 percent. All of the predictions for any post-Covid-19 world are for cutbacks and massive job losses. Research suggests up to 80 percent of charities are likely to collapse.
A key feature of neoliberalism has been to shift public social services out to charitable organisations such that they now maintain much of the social safety net. The last remnants of this are now in danger of disappearing. The panic and indecision at the heart of government continues to deepen divisions between the warring factions in the Tory party. This was most visible at the end of June when the government lost a vote in the Commons on a committee to oversee MP’s behaviour, thanks to a rebellion by 46 of its own back-benchers. The Tories are consistently exposed as incompetent risktakers, incapable of protecting our health, jobs and futures, who lie to suit their own very narrow and short-term purposes.
If the Labour party fixed the Tories in their sights the simmering anger in the country might find a political focus. Instead, as Starmer’s sacking of shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey suggests, Labour are set on yet another campaign of attacking the left within its own party, as Shaun Doherty explains on Page 7.
At a profound and more general level, the shambles in parliament is loosening the ideological straight-jacket that in normal times constrains us. The Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci would have described this period as an ‘organic crisis’— a condition in which the economic, political and ideological structures and practices that maintain capitalism’s grip on us fall into chronic and visible chaos. This creates a new terrain of social and political struggle, and the very real possibility of social transformation:
“If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e., is no longer ‘leading’ but only ‘dominant’, exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies… “The crisis consists in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
The anti-racist rebellion is the conduit by which more and more of us “become detached” from the broader range of traditional ideas, illustrated in the frequently expressed determination not to “return to the old normal”. The pulling down of the statues is one of the “morbid symptoms” of the visible decay of the old. These acts, and the countless global protests, embody our desire to cleanse ourselves of the “muck and filth” of capitalism, and begin to create the new.