The Emergence of the Covid Left (Part II)

 Justin Aukema 

27 July 2022

A Japanese Nō mask. Photo (c) Justin Aukema, 2011

Introduction: The Covid Left’s Poverty of Philosophy

In Part I of this series, I introduced the formation of the Covid Left and discussed the basic tenets of their ideology. However, I did not yet delve into the main policies advocated by the Covid Left. So, this will be my first task in Part II. The main Covid Left policies are relatively simple. They are, namely, 1) masks, 2) vaccines, and 3) lockdowns. From the beginning of the Great Covid Madness, it was the Left that most strongly advocated for each of these three things.

How did these three things become the Covid Left’s preferred policies? Well, put simply, it all harkens back to their basic anti-individualist stance mentioned in Part I. The Covid Left saw its main enemy as neoliberalism and classical bourgeois economy. Within this, primary targets of attack, for them, were the ideas of “freedom,” “individualism,” and “self-interest.” The Covid Left assailed these ideas from the completely opposite perspective of anti-freedom, anti-individualism, and “collective good.” Now, I have already briefly explained why this line of reasoning was in fact very faulty. Namely, this is because capitalism already takes good things like freedom and turns them on their head, i.e. into a kind of slavery. So, the Covid Left was, in other words, already arguing against something that didn’t really exist in the first place. This is similar to Marx’s critique of Proudhon. Proudhon argued that private property was theft. But Marx countered that the working class already didn’t own anything. So how can you steal from someone what they don’t have? This is the basic point. What we have under capitalism isn’t in fact true freedom or individualism. Similarly, “self-interest” really only refers to the interests of the ruling class and not the working class. Thus the problem becomes obvious. The correct response to the Covid crisis, a la Marx, would have been to emphasize the need to extend individualism and to advance the self-interests of the working class rather than abstract notions of “society” as a whole. After all, “society” as it stands is nothing other than our present one, class divisions and hierarchies intact.

By denying the individual therefore through policies like masking and social isolation, the Covid Left did not illustrate its compassionate empathy for others but instead showed its utter contempt and callous disregard for their fellow man. I will not focus on each of the precise ways in which the Covid Left’s preferred policies were utterly devastating for the working class, average people, vulnerable populations, and children especially. Suffice to say that they most certainly did not save lives but instead had completely the opposite effect, by totally ruining them. Based purely on our conceptual understanding of the Left’s misunderstanding of Marx’s individualism we can already see how these things would have been the inevitable end point of their misguided policies. What happens when you try to take away something that people already lack? The answer is even more abject misery.

The Covid Left and Their Ideologues

Now, in the rest of this essay, I would like to change gears and focus on one of the main ideologues of the Covid Left, Alfredo Saad-Filho. Saad-Filho is an Economics professor and former UN advisor, as well as editor and member of prominent Socialist and Marxist journals. He has also written extensively on the topic of neoliberalism, including as an editor of Neoliberalism: A Critical Reader (2005). His views therefore warrant attention because of his prominent and respected positions in Left circles and in lieu of his very relevant research topic. On top of this, his writings on Covid reflect all of the worst misunderstandings that I have just analyzed above.

It is ironic that, given Saad-Filho’s interest in neoliberalism, in multiple essays written between 2020 and 2022, he argued that Covid in fact killed neoliberalism. His evidence seems to be the required social cohesion and state intervention that Covid mandated. However, this evidence, as we will see, is very flimsy. Saad-Filho’s fundamental mistake is that he fails to see that Covid didn’t kill neoliberalism, but rather that it advanced already present neoliberal trends through what Naomi Klein has called Pandemic Shock Therapy. The reason for this mistake is probably because, in his recent essays, Saad-Filho fails to honestly characterize what neoliberalism is in the first place.

There is no space here to explain every detail of neoliberalism. Everyone knows that it centers around three pillars of deregulation, liberalization, and privatization. But thinking in more broad historical terms, neoliberalism is simply another more recent stage in capitalist accumulation. As such, the underlying goals of neoliberalism remain unchanged from those of capitalism itself, i.e. value creation. Furthermore, we can also understand neoliberalism within this framework as a concerted attempt to steal power and wealth from workers and transfer it to the ruling classes. Massive wealth and income inequality in recent decades attests to neoliberalism’s success in this regard. Because neoliberal reforms are so unpopular with the working class, however, they are inevitably accompanied by increased state repression and authoritarianism. Meanwhile, continuing in its role as capital’s asset manager, state capitalism slides further from democratic control and toward rule by administrators and technocrats.

This gives a brief overview of neoliberalism. On the surface it is characterized by deregulation and privatization etc. But at its core it is concerned with the consolidation of wealth and power. Following from this, we can expect that in times of crisis the neoliberal state will not only rob more from the working class and public sphere but will also move toward more repressive police rule and hand over more power to corporations and the private sphere. The connections to Covid here should already be obvious. Governments around the world ordered people to stay at home under threat of fines or punishments while Big Tech expanded its penetration into people’s lives through the use of movement tracking software and digital vaccine passports. This is not to mention that the neoliberal solution to promote “health and safety” was simply to funnel money to Big Pharma for the manufacture of vaccines rather than to meaningfully invest in actual preventative treatments or overall well-being.

Given these things however it is astounding that one of the foremost scholars of neoliberalism, Saad-Filho, could end up promoting policies that ceded more power to the state and to corporations and functioning as a lackey for Pandemic Shock Therapy. Upon closer inspection it seems he is able to do these things only because he temporally disassociates neoliberalism from the pandemic entirely. That is to say, he says neoliberalism helped create the conditions for mass suffering in the pandemic e.g. through gutting public services etc. But he does not go on to explain how the pandemic also benefited neoliberalism. And this is because, through an amazing sleight of hand, Saad-Filho makes the economic paradigm the pandemic’s greatest victim. That is to say, he doesn’t connect the two because, for him, neoliberalism is already dead, killed by Covid.

Drawing from this, if neoliberalism is already dead then it can’t be benefiting from the pandemic. And anything that occurs during the pandemic is, according to his same logic, defacto not neoliberalism. Thus, the object of his critique is entirely static; it is confined to the past in his mind. But this is the ideological equivalent of kicking a dead horse. Moreover, it begs the question that if neoliberalism is “dead,” then what do we term what is happening during the pandemic? In fact, Saad-Filho’s answer to this question is “socialism.” The pandemic has ushered in a default war socialism; a full scale social mobilization led by the state and toward a common objective: defeating the virus. This is, thus, a bloodless revolution and one totally bereft of class conflict and struggle. Socialism comes about entirely through the good graces of the state and indeed mostly by accident in his view.

But this is all of course a lie. And his killing of neoliberalism is the basest form of intellectual sophistry. He assumes that the Covid Left will swoop in to fill the gaps. Yet this is a terrible misreading. As explained in the Part I of this essay, the Left actually lined up behind power and capital and acted as vanguards of the biosecurity state. Yet by ignoring this fact and positing the Covid Left as the default default victor of a slain neoliberalism, he gives it an almost unassailable justification. Almost.

In a 2020 essay for Critical Sociology, Saad-Filho begins by explaining the devastating nature of Covid for the economy (note he does not distinguish between Covid the disease and Covid policies as a social and political phenomenon). He then says that this has revealed the bankruptcy of neoliberalism as its former ideologues found themselves begging for government handouts or retreating into a “half-baked Keynesianism” (478). However, governments giving public money to the private sector, as explained in Part I, is a key part of neoliberalism, so it is unclear precisely how Saad-Filho logically arrives at this conclusion. Nevertheless, his argument remains unchanged: Western capitalist countries failed their citizens as a result of decades of neoliberal austerity and budget cuts. Namely, he says that these governments failed to protect the health and safety of their populations, and he specifically cites examples of being “unable to produce enough face masks.”

Thus begins Saad-Filho’s regression into the three preferred policies of the Covid Left as outlined in this essay, i.e. masks, lockdowns, and vaccines. All of these things, for him, represent the complete opposite of neoliberal-capitalist ideology and instead evidence what he claims is the greater social good and even Socialism itself. Considering the gross misunderstanding of the nature of Socialism already shared by much of the Covid Left, however, this should not be entirely surprising. Based on this tenuous premise, therefore, Saad-Filho goes on to argue for a strengthening of state power even to the point of authoritarianism. For example, he repeatedly praises China’s strict lockdowns, saying that the country “offered an example of how to confront” Covid (478) and calling their program a great “success” (479). Indeed, he makes no connection between the lockdowns themselves being the source of the working class’ suffering, and instead says that they were “proven to reduce the loss of life” even though they would “hurt profits” (479). Saad-Filho thus replicates the insane Leftist argument that the lockdowns hurt global capitalism rather than benefited it. There is no awareness here of how the working class lost billions perhaps even trillions of dollars during the pandemic while the ruling class gained nearly this same amount.

But probably none of this matters to Saad-Filho anyway. Instead, he seems to be happier about how Covid has supposedly killed not only neoliberalism, but also individualism, which he says was “shown to be a fraud” (481). What is most important for him are abstract notions of “health” and “safety” and that preserving these things, not freedom and liberty, should be the main functions of states. Indeed, in this regard he says that Covid has demonstrated that “states can take progressive roles,” and his primary example again seems to be China. No health policy is complete without “state capacity,” he claims at the end of his essay (482). One shudders to imagine, however, his ideal vision of a state: one with no individual freedom and where life itself has been reduced only to its barest subsistence essentials.

The return of neoliberalism?

Writing one year later in 2021, Saad-Filho revisited many of his earlier arguments with some revision. The biggest was that neoliberalism wasn’t dead this time, and that we should fight against its return. But the rest of the arguments remained mostly the same. His biggest contention remained that Covid had proven that neoliberal states were unable to effectively respond to the virus. Now, again, if he had been talking about treatment and strengthening health services, I would actually mostly agree with Saad-Filho on this point. But he repeatedly makes it clear that this is not all he is talking about. Instead, he once again praises the lockdowns, which he now notes were unfortunate but “inevitable” (183). And in this regard, he praises China for being “highly successful in largely eliminating the coronavirus” (183). This is in contrast to Western states like the US which he deemed to be largely failures. Such neoliberal states can’t “mobilise state capacities in the interests of public health” in the same way that presumably less neoliberal states like China can (183).

Saad-Filho then explains numerous lessons that he thinks the Left, meaning the Covid Left, can draw from the pandemic. The first is that neoliberalism can’t protect populations since it can’t provide public services which, he says, could have allowed “more people to stay at home” (184). This is rather hilarious and makes one wonder if Saad-Filho isn’t really just being facetious. His vision of “strengthening” health systems and “countering” neoliberalism is simply to have more people stay in lockdown. It is unbelievable that he seems to wilfully ignore how lockdowns themselves were the primary contributor to the massive transfer of wealth away from the working class to the ruling class, or how Covid was used as a kind of Pandemic Shock Therapy to shutter public spaces in the name of fighting disease. Another is, he says, that health is paramount for the economy. But this, too, seems to either be sophistry or wilful ignorance, since it has been proven that lockdowns did not save lives and, in fact, all evidence seems to point in the opposite direction: that countries which locked down the hardest had more negative social problems.

But perhaps the most astounding “lesson” that Saad-Filho draws from the pandemic is that, he says, the so-called trade off between democracy and effectively combating the virus was in fact shown to be false. Now, what he means here seems to be this: that states are justified in taking draconian and authoritarian measures in the name of fighting disease and that this in no way compromises the notion of “democracy.” As evidence of this, Saad-Filho immediately criticizes states which he felt didn’t lock down quickly or extensively enough. What becomes apparent therefore is that Saad-Filho completely fails to engage in any kind of self criticism. Since fighting the virus via any and all means possible are completely justified in his mind, it is therefore unimaginable to him that they would impinge on democracy let alone contribute to authoritarianism or neoliberalism.

And herein lies a basic inconsistency with Saad-Filho and the Covid Left in general. They are completely blind to the fact that it is not the opposition’s policies, not those of the so-called “anti-vaxxers,” or Freedom Convoy etc. that contribute to the increase of authoritarian state control, surveillance capitalism, and neoliberal shock therapy, but rather their very own policies that do this. They cannot see this because, apparently, in their minds, what they are fighting for is the greater social good, it is Socialism itself and therefore it simply could not be the source of the working class’ suffering.

Lessons from the Covid Left

What lessons can we learn from the emergence of the Covid Left? Well, one would likely be that we should be very skeptical of movements that have sublimation of the individual as a prerequisite for achieving any kind of “greater social good.” This is because, amongst other things including the reasons already outlined, what constitutes the “greater good” is frequently not accurately understood and very often it is even later proven to be wrong. Simple cost-benefit analysis of the lockdowns seems to attest to this. The other is the urgent need to better understand notions of the “individual.” Although much of the Covid Left criticized individualism, I would argue that they in fact were guilty of propagating an even worse kind of individual responsibility than they purported to be opposing. For instance, throughout the pandemic young kids were told to mask up lest they be responsible for killing grandma. This is a horribly inaccurate and traumatizing thing to tell a child. Not only that, but probably never before in the history of medicine has responsibility for the spread of a disease been placed solely on the individual. Yet this is precisely what the Covid Left did!

Other lessons are perhaps too numerous to count. They will most certainly become more evident over time. But one more thing is certain. This is that the Left has undergone a profound change, and one which I doubt it can ever recover from. It has taken all of its latent inaccuracies and inconsistencies and lumped them into a policy-centered ideology that makes the elimination of a single virus its sole goal. It has in other words morphed into the Covid Left. For those of us of a more critical mindset, the only options now are to denounce this new entity as an impostor, or to abandon the Left altogether.

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