The emergence of the Covid Left (Part I)

Justin Aukema

22 July 2022

Looking up a concrete tower. Photo (c) Justin Aukema.

A curious thing happened sometime in 2020. The political Left in many Western and other countries took a stance toward fighting Covid that may have seemed quite shocking just a few years earlier. Until quite recently, it may have been common for many on the Left to think of themselves as fighting “authority” or capital to some degree. But confronted by a disease that was clearly beyond any one individual’s control, many on the Left turned toward the once very object of their critique, the capitalist state and big business, as the savior they were seeking. In the process, countless individuals who had grown up in the 1990s singing along to Rage Against the Machine, “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me,” suddenly found themselves willfully ordering others to “do what they tell you!” 

What happened? For many on the political Left, the change has gone completely unnoticed. Yet still others have re-evaluated Covid as a blessing in disguise. They contend that Covid revealed the failures of decades of neoliberal austerity and individualism, and instead illustrated the need for a strong state and social cohesion-cooperation. Following this line of thought, prominent Leftists and Socialists have even loudly declared the end of the neoliberal paradigm. But the actual situation is much different. A small handful witnessed the complete opposite phenomenon unfolding before their very eyes: the complete capitulation of the Left to the dictates of the authoritarian biostate and big capital. It is beyond the scope of this paper to trace each one of the precise ways in which the Left lined up beyond corporations and authority and even acted as their loudest champions. But just consider the inflated Covid budgets passed by most rich nations, a large portion of which went into the pockets of big business, or the Left’s defacto support for and unwillingness to criticize Big Pharma as two key examples.

The result of this process was the formation of the Lockdown Left or the Covid Left as it is variously called. The core of the Covid Left’s ideology is prima facie organized around their particular desired responses to Covid. Digging deeper into this, we can also see that much of worldview is also actually an inverted form of neoliberalism. That is to say, the Covid Left superficially observed the workings of neoliberalism, e.g. fiscal austerity, deregulation, etc., and thus simply took the opposite policy stances vis-a-vis these things. In fact, this is rather unimaginative as we will shortly see. In any case, based simply on the above, it is possible to get a general picture of some of the basic characteristics of the Covid Left, which I outline below.

Characteristics of the Covid Left
Big State
Fiscal stimulus

This is certainly not an exhaustive list. But it conveys the gist of Covid Left ideology well enough. At first glance, some of this may seem benign. Yet it is also the particular way in which the Covid Left seeks to implement these things that is often problematic. Next, I will examine each one of these aspects in more detail, explaining how they fit into Covid Left core beliefs. And then I will demonstrate how, from a Marxist position, their particular approaches to these issues are highly flawed.

First, the Covid Left is Big State. That is to say, they want the state to play a bigger role in solving various social problems such as climate change or deadly diseases etc. Most of the Covid Left arrived at this position mostly by default and owing to their opposition to neoliberalism’s supposed lack of state intervention. However, their idea of the state is mostly a chimera. That is to say, the state they imagine exists, doesn’t actually exist. Simply put, this is because the role of capitalist states is to facilitate capital accumulation and to minimize class conflict. The capitalist state acts in the interest of the ruling capitalist class and not that of the workers or average people. Therefore, it is folly to assume that the capitalist state would act as benevolent benefactor of the mass of average citizens or that meaningful change can be achieved simply by relying on bourgeois politicians. The state can act as a positive tool of social change. But this is entirely predicated on the working class seizing political power of key state organs and offices. Absent this revolutionary class warfare aspect, the capitalist state can always and only act as a tool of oppression rather than of liberation. The Covid Left completely misunderstands this aspect and thus they problematically advocate for ceding more power and control to the state even in lieu of the most important precondition of Socialism, the political power of the proletariat.

Second, the Covid Left is in favor generally of fiscal stimulus. This too is highly unimaginative since much of what they advocate is simply regurgitated Keynesianism or New Deal-ism. But the Covid Left in fact makes no real attempt to hide this fact and in many cases, such as their support for programs such as the Green New Deal, willfully announces it. Now, anyone who knows even the least bit of economic history understands that both the original New Deal and Keynesianism were specifically implemented to counter Communism and to save capitalism from pending crisis and revolutionary class struggle. While it is true that, superficially, the two programs seem to have greatly strengthened the public sphere and the working class, there are at least two important caveats to remember. The first is that especially Keynesianism was always predicated on a global division of labor that privileged certain national economies, and certain segments of workers even nationally, over others. On top of this, a major pillar of Keynesianism was increased military spending and budgets, so that it helped create a vast military industrial complex that continues today. Indeed, this leads to the second point, which is that, under monopoly capitalism, states act as managers of vast amounts of accumulated capital and help open up new areas of investment and markets. In its most extreme form, this may lead to open conflicts and militarism as the state, acting as capital’s vanguard, forcefully attempts to marketize and to commodify previously non-commodified goods and labor, or runs up against other competing national state-capitalisms. Another caveat regarding stimulus spending in general is that all state revenues and budgets come from taxpayer’s money. As states accumulate ever larger budget or deficit spending, they are making claims on workers’ future labor and savings. And with long-term inflation or bouts of hyper-inflation, the state can wipe out much of its deficits while simultaneously eliminating the average people’s savings (as well as devaluing labor in general), thus robbing people twice. And this is not even to mention actual policy discussion of where or how state budgets are spent in the first place! So, as we can see, there is nothing inherently beneficial about increased state spending. But much of the current Covid Left, acting under the misguided analysis of Modern Monetary Theory etc. is blind to this fact.

Third, the Covid Left favors regulation and/or, some of the more “radical” elements, nationalization of key industries e.g. health, energy, etc. In fact, there is nothing inherently wrong with this per se. Assuming that deregulation and nationalization lead to more democratic control by workers and general decommodification, these things certainly have an important place in the Socialist strategy playbook. However, this too must be predicated on workers seizing political control and taking the helm of the state, as well as abolishing wage labor. Otherwise, “nationalization” will simply devolve into the default outcome of monopoly capitalism, or State Socialism, wherein state and industry merge to act in each other's own mutual interest. The centralization and concentration of ever larger amounts of capital, of dead labor, already predicate an increased role of the state. Thus, there is nothing inherently new or even radical about enlarged state involvement. Furthermore, concurrent with the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, i.e. less value creation, states may frequently obtain a more authoritarian bent as they attempt to keep surplus populations in check, e.g. by regulating supply/demand, restricting movement etc.

The fact that nationalization does not intrinsically lead to socialism should already be blatantly apparent given the state’s intervention in financial markets since the 2008 crisis and throughout successive crises. For instance, in Japan, the government purchased the majority of TEPCO stocks after the 3.11 nuclear meltdown, and it is actively investing money in private company Central Japan Railway to build an insanely expensive maglev train, itself touted as a “national” project. This is the same basic function observed during Covid as well, as governments around the world deliberately funneled taxpayer money to private drug companies. Now, many on the Covid Left facilely witness this phenomenon and mistakenly draw the conclusion that, given the heavy state involvement, such companies are already basically nationalized. But in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. This represents a consolidation of wealth and power under monopoly capitalism, and not a positive move toward more democratic control. Such state-corporate tie ups are, if anything, harder to break up and regulate, and will oppose worker control with that much more vigor.

Fourth, the Covid Left is anti-individualism and anti-freedom. In a companion piece for this essay, I will outline the precise ways and give examples of how the Covid Left does this. For the time being, however, I will limit the discussion to basic generalities. The Covid Left takes both these juvenile stances in response to their understanding of the dominant capitalist paradigm, neoliberalism. As has already been analyzed by David Harvey and others, neoliberalism co-opted the language of individualism and freedom in the West especially to try to make itself more appealing to hippy and slacker generations. In fact, this was so successful, that “freedom” especially has now partly become a rallying cry of the political right, and one of the main points of critique for the (Covid) Left. But this is truly a sad state of affairs. Individualism and freedom have long been key objectives for Marxists and Socialists. Indeed, individual liberation was the key goal underlying Marx’s entire critique of capitalist economy. That is to say, he opposed wage labor as a kind of slavery that denied true human emancipation. Moreover, in his conception, individual liberation was a necessary prerequisite for the reformation of “species-being” (Gattungswessen). Indeed, even Harvey also distinguishes between the negative kinds of individualism and freedom promoted by neoliberalism, and true, positive individualism. Going further, we can note that this is not a new phenomenon either. Capitalism and liberalism have always contained a contradiction vis-a-vis the concept of “freedom.” On the one hand, the capitalist narrowly defines “freedom” as only the “freedom” to buy and sell labor power. On the other hand, Liberalism more broadly recognizes the universal potential for another kind of philosophical freedom which means liberation from bondage, tyranny, and oppression etc. Thus, to simply take a stance as “anti-freedom” or “anti-individual” not only perpetuates the myth of capitalist economy that this is all that freedom is, but it also denies the central tenet of Liberalism on which any future Socialist society must be built.

Based on the above, I have now traced a brief sketch of what the Covid Left is and what their core beliefs are. But much work remains to be done. I have not yet actually examined any of the Covid Left’s specific responses to Covid per se nor the policies they advocated in this regard. This will be my task for the second part of this essay series. Specifically, in Part II I will examine one of the main ideologues for the Covid Left, Alfredo Saad-Filho, and demonstrate how his writings on Covid policy illustrate precisely the general thought pattern I have outlined here.

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