Ultra-capitalism, the real cause of our Covid-19 catastrophe

Why did the United States, judged by scientists convened by Johns Hopkins University shortly before the pandemic to be in the best position in the world to respond to such an event, suffer the worst result?

The name Donald Trump comes to mind. It is hard to imagine a response to the Covid-19 pandemic worse than Trump’s. But Trump’s disastrous policies are embedded in a larger picture that had been developing long before Donald Trump became president. Trump was the culmination of this process, but the dye had been cast long before Donald Trump was in the White House.

The central cause that the United States has suffered the worst per capita death rate from Covid-19 is the ultra-capitalist nature of our system, including the laissez-faire ideology and the hyper-individualist culture that corresponds to it. Full stop.

As far back as 1985, Grover Norquist, a prophet of the right, stated what would become the main Republican objective for more than a generation: to shrink government to the size you can drown in a bathtub. The right, and specifically the Republican party, has followed that playbook. They have spent the last four decades discrediting, defunding, and demoralizing government. When a deadly pandemic hit requiring an effective, coordinated, muscular government response, the architects of minimalist government employed a dual approach: deny the threat and let the virus run its course.

Confronting Covid-19 forcefully would legitimate government, require more resources to be given to the public sector, and contradict laissez-faire ideology. Republicans were not ready to shore up what they had for so long been tearing down. Moreover, it would have required choosing saving lives over maximizing profits in the short run and putting at risk the ideological underpinnings of ultra-capitalism that ensured maximal profits in the long run.

The response instead was planned pandemonium. The Merriam-Webster dictionary gives this example of the use of the pandemonium: “It is obvious that pandemonium would exist at most uncontrolled airports if every pilot did not conscientiously follow the traffic pattern.”

The situation in this country was worse. There was no attempt to agree on a traffic pattern because that would have required planning, governance, rules, and enforcement—all anathema to the minimal government mindset. The pandemonium was a product of an ideological choice, a model of society, a style of non-governance rather than an accidental series of mistakes and wrong choices. Pandemonium is a feature of the ruling ultra-capitalist paradigm we live under and not a bug in the program.

Applying Ockham’s razor which cuts out all unnecessary hypotheses, we can say that all the forces that singly and together have led to our disaster—lack of universal health care; disinvestment in public health; distrust in government scientists, in vaccines developed under government auspices (albeit by the private sector), and in government mask and vaccine mandates–can be traced to ultra-capitalism, hyper-individualism, and laissez-faire ideology.

A historical analogy is useful here. In the nineteenth century, Great Britain followed a policy of ultra-capitalism. It maintained that policy when the potato blight hit Ireland and rather than offer food aid kept importing meat and grains that would have fed the Irish. Millions of Irish died, and millions emigrated, as a result. Like with Covid-19 in the United States, this carnage was not accidental or inevitable. It was systemic and based on political choices and ideological beliefs by well-heeled elites that benefitted from the status quo.

Not coincidentally, the British generally saw the Irish through racist lenses, just as disposable as the minority workers in the United States today that have suffered the worst from the pandemic. Some high British officials were delighted about the decimation of the Irish. In the early days of the pandemic in the United States, there is reporting that people in the Trump campaign advised the administration not to worry overly about the virus because it was not mainly affecting Trump supporters. This was a time when the epicenters of Covid-19 were Democratic New York and states on the West Coast, sometimes identified as the Left Coast.

Now that Trump is out of power, Republican members of Congress and state governors and legislatures continue to aid and abet the spread of the virus by obstructing all of President Joe Biden’s control measures. Then, with breathtaking but characteristic hypocrisy, turn around and blame Biden for failing to end the pandemic. The Republican party could justly be called the pro-pandemic party.

The GOP is also the party of planned pandemonium and therefore a key contributor to the worst ills in American society because planned pandemonium is implicated in all our most serious social problems such as high maternal and infant mortality, declining life expectancy, extreme economic inequality, and racial injustice, among others.

To prevent another debacle like Covid-19 we must transform our society and revise our values not just tweak the most obvious flaws in the system. End ultra-capitalism and replace it with something like the kind of welfare state the United States had been moving toward under the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.