COVID-19, capitalism, and perpetual war
COVID-19, capitalism, and perpetual war

A reporter on ABC News describes Scott Morrison as a wartime prime minister and says that the whole population is being conscripted into the fight against COVID-19. US president Donald Trump designates himself a wartime president and signs an executive order invoking special powers designed for times of military confrontation. Harvard University professor of economics Kenneth Rogoff tells the PBS News Hour: “I really feel like it's an alien invasion. We're being occupied ... We have to go in a military, wartime stance”. A Sky News correspondent in Lombardy, Italy, talks about medical staff being “on the frontline in this war”.

Everywhere it’s the same. The only language we can muster is that of military conflict. That there is no other terminology readily understood or widely available to describe the required response to the looming social and economic crisis highlights something about our world: in capitalist societies, single-minded mobilisations of state, society and economy have usually been carried out for mass destruction and mass murder. So it’s only natural, even though ironic, that the language of war would emerge just when the world needs cooperation, compassion and care.

There are many historical precedents being drawn on to try to understand the current moment: the transformative crisis of the 1970s, after which the economic consensus was shattered and out of which the neoliberal era was born; the Great Depression of the 1930s, which accelerated the shifts to state capitalism in the lead-up to World War Two; the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, which killed millions. There will be plenty to learn from each episode, no doubt. We might yet find, however, that 1914 is the best touchstone. Not as an analogy, but as the birth year of capitalism’s indefinite future, which helps us to understand the nature of the system and the global response to the pandemic.

The First World War was not just a catastrophe claiming tens of millions of lives and destroying Europe for a generation. It was the moment from which we have never escaped – the imperialist era. Russian revolutionaries Vladimir Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin, attempting to understand the conflict, wrote of war being the “highest stage” of capitalist competition, one in which the cut-throat rivalry between businesses could no longer be resolved without tremendous conflagrations between states. World War One was a signal that capitalism had conquered all economically and strategically valuable territory, that the colonial scramble was over and that the forcible redivision of the globe into spheres of great power influence was now the norm.

In the imperialist era, war could no longer be carried out on the margins by a warrior class, the rest of society remaining aloof. It required what Ernst Jünger, a decorated German soldier, termed “total mobilisation”. “In addition to the armies that meet on the battlefields, originate the modern armies of commerce and transport, foodstuffs, the manufacture of armaments – the army of labour in general”, he wrote in a 1930 essay. “In this unlimited marshalling of potential energies, which transforms the warring industrial countries into volcanic forges, we perhaps find the most striking sign of the dawn of the age of labour.”

World War Two proved to be an even greater nightmare of industrial slaughter – the mobilisation of the latest science and industrial technology to create killing machines the likes of which had never been seen, culminating with the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. In the Cold War that followed between the Soviet Union and the United States and their respective allies, the military industrial complex took shape. A permanent arms economy developed and, even in peacetime – or at least détente – war became the backdrop to all politics and the military became the advanced guard of scientific and technological development.

This is another reason why the language of war persists. The military is probably the only professional institution permanently maintained and easily deployable, yet which often does very little but sit in barracks. In the imperialist era, ruling classes, politicians and even many workers would laugh at the suggestion that we train and house a permanent staff of tens or hundreds of thousands of doctors and nurses who come out of their publicly funded accommodation only irregularly and in exceptional circumstances. But that’s exactly what we have with soldiers – more than 50,000 of them in Australia alone, a country with only a modest-size standing army. Twenty-three countries have an active military personnel count of more than 200,000. Four countries have more than one million. It is so naturalised that few people blink an eye. But many start to wonder, in times like these, why such a large permanent staff can’t be put to decent social use. Understandably, then, we start talking about deploying the military to help with social crises – who else is there to mobilise?


While we are in a seemingly unprecedented situation of pandemic and imminent economic shutdown, there is nevertheless a certain familiarity. Not just in the language being used, but in the logic of potential mobilisation, the jockeying between governments and the resurgence of states as key organisers of the economy. Not all of this is bad, of course. We need dramatic state intervention into the economy to prevent collapse, to distribute necessities and prevent capitalist hoarding – requisitions, nationalisations, wage and job guarantees, and more. It would be a step forward, for example, if Trump were to use the US Defense Production Act (i.e. war powers) to direct industry to produce medical equipment for sale at cost-of-production prices, or for nothing.  

Yet the spectre of total mobilisation for imperialist purposes is there, even in supportable measures such as the shutdown of national borders. Agree or disagree with the closures, they highlight the arbitrary demarcation between states that are the organising principle of global capitalism, as Karl Marx and Frederick Engels recognised more than 150 years ago. “The capitalist class keeps more and more doing away with the scattered state of the population, of the means of production, and of property. It has agglomerated population, centralised the means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands”, they wrote in the Communist Manifesto. “The necessary consequence of this was political centralisation. Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments, and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class-interest, one frontier, and one customs-tariff.”

Border closures don’t stop or slow the movement of all people (and with them the virus), they stop only non-citizens or non-residents, which are political categories rather than medical diagnoses. Borders privilege citizens above all others, creating a world of permanent, multi-dimensional political inequality; exclusion and inclusion based on the vagaries of where someone was born. And they create an implied social contract in which citizens supposedly owe the state a greater loyalty than we owe our brothers and sisters from around the world. That loyalty, the cultivation of it, is the precondition for major military conflict. Without it, there can be no total mobilisation.

“You’ve noticed, haven’t you, that in this time of crisis it’s ‘every country for itself’; you’re on your own”, wrote former prime minister and leading right-wing ideologue Tony Abbott in the Australian last week. “When things are bad, no one looks to the United Nations for help. They know it can only come from their own sovereign, national government.” Unfortunately, Abbott is half right. But that’s a reason to move beyond the national state system of division, anarchy and conflict, rather than bunker down in it. At a moment when we need coordination and cooperation, when it’s clear that workers across the world are in this thing together – because the virus will not discriminate based on skin colour, nationality, religion or ethnicity, but may well be treated according to one’s level of wealth – leading figures of the political right, and states themselves, are thinking of how to push the burdens of the crisis onto their rivals; how to entrench social divisions that will nevertheless be ignored by the pandemic.

The language of war in this context is nothing but enchantment with power, and drifts easily into dog whistles such as Trump’s insistence in calling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus” (as though it has a passport) and the outright drumbeats of Republican former (and probably future) US presidential candidate senator Marco Rubio, who has been calling for a reorganisation of the US, and therefore global, economy to bolster US “national security”. “This country made a decision about 30 years ago that the most efficient allocation of capital was to move many of the means of production to other countries”, he told Fox News’s Tucker Carlson in mid-March. “It was cheaper in China, but not just China but other places. Well, now that vulnerability is being exposed.

“It’s not just China anymore: India, Germany and Japan; a lot of the key ingredients and components for all kinds of things from Tylenol all the way to pharmaceuticals, and even in the electronics realm – those components, even if we make the final product here, we depend on those countries for those components and they are hoarding them. Bottom line is, we don’t win World War Two if we can't turn car factories and appliance factories and tank makers. We do not win that war. Industrial capacity is a critical component of our national security and we are learning that the hard way right now.”

We are in the midst of a great catastrophe. We need global cooperation, the sharing of scientific discoveries and medicines and resources made available to secure the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people. We need a total mobilisation of mutual aid. Yet despite the monumental resources and global supply chains at our disposal, we are seeing ominous glimpses of the reassertion of the competitive state system in which all purported solutions are, at the end of the day, national. Could it be any other way? Not under capitalism. With the First World War raging, Karl Kautsky, leader of the German Social Democratic Party and probably the most influential Marxist of the time, argued that, because of growing economic interdependency around the world, competition could give way to a more rational and far-sighted cooperation between capitalists.

“There is no economic necessity for the continuation of the great competition in the production of armaments after the close of the present war”, he wrote in the 1914 pamphlet Imperialism and the War. “At best such a continuation would serve the interests of only a few capitalist groups. On the contrary, capitalist industry is threatened by the conflicts between the various governments. Every far-sighted capitalist must call out to his associates: Capitalists of all lands unite! From a purely economic point of view, therefore, it is not impossible that capitalism is now to enter upon a new phase, a phase marked by the transfer of trust methods to international politics.”

Kautsky died in 1938 after fleeing the Nazis just before the next outbreak of imperial slaughter. Tragically, his wife Luise died in Auschwitz. The new phase of peaceful, cooperative capitalism never came. It never will. There will be noteworthy examples of international collaboration in the coming months. But if the crisis lingers, the pressures will mount in the other direction. It is not a whole new world. It’s the resurgent logic of imperialism and world economy, time and again theorised away, yet always the basis of international life – the powerful attempting to shift the costs onto their brethren in other parts of the world and onto the workers that serve them at home.

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