Endgame: When Late Capitalism Crumbles

Nurses at Mount Sinai West wearing garbage bags as PPE. Photo: Criselle Cruz Bermas

By Michelle R

As COVID-19 wreaks havoc on a global scale, the United States continues to demonstrate just how tragically underprepared it is for a public health crisis. 

Apart from irritatingly long grocery lines and empty shelves caused by panic-buying, there’s been a dramatic shortage of the medical supplies necessary on the front lines, including protective masks, surgical gowns, and test kits. 

Undoubtedly, the Trump Administration’s grave mishandling of the crisis has led to the U.S. now leading the world in COVID-19 cases, but the issue  has been brewing since long before Trump ever took office.

The underlying problem? Our capitalist system wasn’t designed to handle a crisis of this magnitude. In the third volume of Das Kapital, Karl Marx describes a late capitalist society where the world’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, and individual nations are taken over by the global market (sound familiar?).

Marxist theorist and activist Ernest Mandel was among those to popularize the term “late capitalism” about 50 years later, during the economic period between the mid-1940s and the early 1970s. During this period, the world “saw the rise of multinational corporations, mass communications, and international finance.” Mandel warned against the dangers of automation, globalization, and wage stagnation.

In the last 25 years, information technology has steadily “reduced the need for work, blurred the lines between work and free time, and loosened the relationship between work and wages,” to the point that it “psychologizes and individualizes” structural injustices in our system.

Today, for example, we see late capitalism in the hoarding and privatizing of information by big tech companies like Amazon or Facebook. On a more individual level is the current gig economy, where contract workers are lauded for working while going into labor, or for giving up their unused PTO to coworkers who need the sick leave because they’ve contracted COVID-19.

Late capitalism is that job description you saw last week that asks for a candidate who is “positively obsessed with e-commerce and spends all of their waking time talking about e-commerce until their friends and family get tired of it, ” or corporations using social issues to promote their brands. (Remember the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad?)

A Guardian article written by Paul Mason in 2015 lays out the various types of “shocks” that have the potential to force late capitalism to crumble, including (but not limited to) climate change and pandemic:

“…It does not take a bubonic plague to destroy social order and functional infrastructure in a financially complex and impoverished society,” Mason writes.

Nevertheless, a plague is the hand we were dealt, and American capitalism has failed to deal appropriately with it due to desire to increase short-term profits and cut costs wherever possible.

Dire shortages of medical supplies in times of public health crisis are difficult to address regardless of the economic system in place, but capitalism in particular exacerbates this problem by providing economic incentive not to prepare for emergencies.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest public health crisis that has occurred in the last hundred years, and the country’s inability to move quickly has already resulted in unnecessary deaths, with many more to come. The U.S. has a rate of five tests per million people, and only 45,000 ICU beds equipped to deal with COVID-19 patients. The U.S. currently has the highest number of recorded COVID-19 cases, at just over 140,000 (as of March 30).By comparison, South Korea has 4,000 tests per million patients and three times the number of ICU beds. They currently have around 9,600 COVID-19 cases (as of March 30). Both countries reported their first COVID-19 cases in January, around the same time.

Even the 2009 and 2018 flu seasons overwhelmed the hospital system with bed shortages, but the crisis didn’t start then; between 1981 and 1999, the hospital system saw a 39 percent decrease in its number of beds in an effort to maximize profits by operating at a consistently higher occupancy rate. This meant that hospitals could no longer handle an influx of patients in the event of a pandemic or other public health emergency.

Another example of short-term profit prioritization is the lack of a universal flu vaccine – a possibility for decades that has been continuously set aside because it is not profitable. (In contrast, Jonas Salk, who developed the vaccine for polio in the 1950s, never patented or took any money from it.)

At the very least, an economic model requires the following to combat a public health crisis: Quick access to test kits, guaranteed sick days for workers, and universal healthcare. 

Currently, 45 percent of the American workforce is denied paid sick leave and health insurance, which means that many workers will continue going to work while sick in fear of losing out on pay or being fired altogether, thus further spreading the illness. Those who do stay home sick may forgo a doctor’s visit out of fear of the cost. One in five Americans has already lost work hours or their jobs entirely due to the pandemic, and that number will certainly grow as isolation measures continue.

Additionally, mental health problems will be exacerbated as people continue to be shut off from society and from physical contact, and Asian-Americans will continue experiencing racism due to the president labeling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.”

Every day, more Americans are waking up to the realization that capitalism’s pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mantra is wildly unrealistic for most, and that it’s unable to sustain us in times of crisis. It’s probably safe to assert that most Americans do want some form of universal healthcare, and they want to be able to stay home when sick without going broke. It’s in everyone’s best interest that we develop a vaccine that’s available to everyone, regardless of income, to stop the spread of disease.

If nothing else, America’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has served as a cautionary tale of what happens when capitalism is allowed to run amok for so long. With all of this in mind, where will we be left once the cleanup from the pandemic is said and done? Perhaps a reform, or maybe a revolution altogether. 

After all, it’s called late capitalism for a reason.

About Rebecca Capua 117 Articles
Red Letter spotlights editor, former MWG OC