A Soft Landing for the System Formerly Known as Capitalism

Woody Woodruff
Editor and Contributor


The public money, approaching four trillion US dollars, that is being shelled out just by the US federal government to support capitalist exchange relations is never going to enable a full resumption of those exchange relations – that is, our jobs– post-pandemic. Many of those relations will be quite altered. Redirected and augmented, the money might move the needle enough to matter in the long term if only to prevent US workers from slipping into a decades-long funk from which diminished stance it would be hard for them to imagine the real change needed.

The question of which jobs can be – and which should be – preserved or not is less addressed, even in societies with a more social-democratic and pro-worker tendency.

The collapse of local economies can be mediated with short-term assistance – optimally, more to workers (Euro-style) than to businesses (Trump style). But a resumption of exchange relations at the pre-pandemic level will only be possible when a suite of vaccines and therapies can lure a public back to them. Some big-ticket parts of the past arrangements, including (unfortunately) mass surface transportation as well as the coddled excess of air transportation, will have to wait on the vaccine-therapy suites as well.

One rare virtue of the current tragedy has been its unmasking of the pathetic inadequacy of banks as intermediaries between their supposed customers and the money Congress is cascading their way. The banks’ parasitic sideshow status in parallel with the moving parts of genuine exchange relations is more naked with every failure to connect where it matters – all demonstrating the inadequacy of the capitalist system when some of its legacy practices are taken off the table by a virus that is, indeed, novel.

As socialists, we welcome the unmasking of these systemic inadequacies. But we have to concede that many of the aspects of capitalist relations pre-COVID-19 would have been largely mirrored in a system of exchange relations that could be called the socialist successor. In that peppy scenario, socialism would remedy the inequities of class-tiered incomes based on retail and hospitality sectors which are designed to extract rent while keeping workers down. But our organizing would trace the same demand/consumption pattern as capitalism’s practices. A good example, perhaps, of the poverty of our own imagination when we struggle with recipes for the cookshops of the future. Will those consumption patterns, those perceptions of want, of need, and the difference between them persist post-pandemic? If not, how do we adapt before capitalism beats us to it?

Workers whose labor involves contact with a customer base, socialists say, should be paid according to the critical importance of the work they do to the success of the enterprise. We wrote the book on that.

But then, enter a virus that makes human-to-human contact as those workers have known it quite lethal. This is not a problem that can be solved by conventional labor organizing. It is a problem that can be – and is being - solved by solidarity between workers and consumers – people who more than ever before share a vulnerability that emerges from human engagement.

Consumers and workers both want safety and health protections in that engagement – but workers don’t look forward to the job loss that will almost certainly result from the capitalist solution to the problem – which is, of course, a reorientation towards capital via expanded automation. Without invoking automation, economists and analysts passing on the Kool-Aid at Trump’s 19th Hole say 35 to 45 percent of the jobs lost will not return. Nevertheless automation is coming, inevitably. The problem will not be the automation itself, of course, but who owns and controls it.

Without the standard globalized patterns of production and consumption masking our everyday lives, stripped away by the pandemic, we see deep blurring of the distinction between workers and consumers. Commodities have not stopped being commodified, for sure, and producers and consumers are on opposite sides of blown-up supply chains. But that very fact has turned those still working into consumers, not least of impromptu care activities like child care.

A worker-consumer alliance around the necessity for public ownership of technology as it advances can forestall the problem of bosses’ scooping up even more rent from increased automation and declining payrolls. The window of opportunity, however, is brief because automation is not only attractive to bosses as cost-effective. Consumers, also, are likely to find increased automation reassuring for reasons of safety.

Left analysis should focus on riding the two new waves of worker dissatisfaction: same low wages made lower when factoring in risk of lethal danger: and distrust of returning to the sacrifice zones (enforced by threat of losing unemployment pay) where the virus has shown that another way is possible.” But we must help consumers think like workers: to see the ease and safety of touchless automation as a successor to human engagement through the lens of a looming, high-probability imminent threat to their own jobs. Many will have no trouble grasping that vision; others will need our analysis, well-positioned for their attention.

Socialists and collaborative-coop syndicalist comrades should also work to show that the horizontal and non-hierarchical character of mutual-aid organization go hand-in-hand – both in method and in affect – into the notion of collaborative, horizontal, non-hierarchical public ownership of previously private-sector activities. Low-touch retail, automation overseen by skill-enhanced remote workers, can integrate with supply chains connecting producers (also remote and automated) and consumers, all in safety. Mutual aid is not just delivering charity; as New Yorker writer Gia Tolentino says in noting the radical Kropotkinite origin of the strategy, “[b]oth mutual aid and charity address the effects of inequality, but mutual aid is aimed at the root causes – at the structures that created inequality in the first place.”

In the near term – two to four years – reliable vaccines will temper the behavioral requirements that are in place now. The coronavirus will never be absent – nor will it stop mutating steadily as flu varieties do now – which means adding to the annual death toll brought by flu varieties despite the annual scramble to stay ahead of them. There will be more safety, though not total safety. Still, will consumers have the same appetite for stuff?

The new prevalence and popularity of mutual-aid strategies leads us to wonder, hopefully, if rich-nation consumerism will be altered by Europe’s, the US’s and rich-trending Asia’s experience in quarantine. When those who are (still) prosperous in the post-pandemic rich world can have anything they want, will they still want it? Will they have absorbed the sense of how much less “stuff” a household really requires? Or will they act out a demand literally pent-up by home confinement, leading to a frenzy of getting and spending? How will ideas of “want” and “need” play out?

Kate Raworth, author of the entertaining Doughnut Economics of 2017, might not be confident about this outcome: “Reversing consumerism’s financial and cultural dominance in public and private life is set to be one of the twenty-first century’s most gripping psychological dramas,” Raworth is quoted by John Cassidy in a useful (but pre-pandemic) New Yorker article on sustainable economics and its theorists.

But. Who will still have the wherewithal to freely consume as the pandemic experience vastly accelerates automation to meet urgent safety concerns coupled with the classic impetus to realize greater production efficiency? How many fewer jobs will there be, how many households can consume above subsistence level?

Even The Economist proclaims that globalism is so, so over. This implies that everyday commodities would cost more, at the end of altered supply chains made less globalized and at a remove from just-in-time fulfillment strategies—unless e-commerce becomes publicly owned. As automated e-commerce colonizes the areas of hospitality, food production and entertainment – the last non-elite jobs left – public ownership of the robots (automation as a public utility) can and should be portrayed as the logical and emotional solution to what would otherwise cascade toward a jobless, hopeless post-pandemic society.

Facebook, Amazon, Google/Alphabet and other monopoly exploiters of the automated processes and technology they increasingly own are, actually, a target-rich environment for this two-track organizing. Workers have already absorbed that framework – the lessons of quarantine’s low-consumption, mutual-aid culture and consumers as workers will increasingly pick up on it. The narrative that most of this technology was developed at taxpayer expense and deftly appropriated for private profit is already well ingrained and adds restitutional equity to the proposal. Regulation that forces them to cede increasing public control is an equally viable emotional appeal considering their well-documented appropriation of the data of personal lives – we have become the product, in falling for their “free” internet toys.

A collective, publicly-owned and cooperative restructuring of a post-pandemic future can be an easy sell, and should also include appeals to efficiency. The early-industrial era’s quest for efficiency in devising a future, after all, was sidetracked by the literal no-brainer of capitalist exchange relations, a supremely inefficient system prone to endemic waste, but one that was touted as a perpetual motion machine – wax on, wax off, don’t give it another thought, workers. Once the unequal power relations of capital’s exploitation of labor were firmly established as a result, the perpetual motion machine became the nightmare of the totalitarian workplace – a landscape where human planning capacity and agency is more and more pinned into a corner.

Socialists are going to have to work hard to restore the human sense of agency; and the modified kinship of today’s accidentally “mutual” cultural life can knit those threads of agency together into a collaborative future. But we can hope that the post-coronavirus economic landscape will, er, unmask the previous hegemony for the wider public at an emotional level beyond our analysis. Capitalist practices failed, big-time, as they had never before.

It would be good if we socialists are not surprised by this opportunity, but see this instead as an opening to mobilize our ideas, which have already prepared us for it.

We have been conditioned to view work – done on someone else’s clock– as our exercise of agency. We need to wrench that capacity back in the direction of human freedom and recognize the shackles that the perpetual motion machine has delivered for the increasingly consolidated class fractions of workers and consumers. It is their turn to own the future’s means of production.