After 150 years of labour struggle, capitalism came to an end in less than two weeks because of a virus.
What brought an end to capitalism was the moral code of the pandemic, not a class struggle—and that is consequential for what comes next. The sudden appearance of this distinct form of solidarity has much to teach us about social order, and about how capitalism is as much about moral culture as it about economics. It also points to how we might reinvent our economy and confront other crises, such as the climate emergency.
The global health emergency we are now living through was not, on its own, an economic crisis. But it has stopped economic activity cold, as work is interrupted to prevent the spread of Coronavirus.
What enabled this shut-down was not just the virus itself—which while grave, is much less a threat to humanity than climate change, which by contrast has had little impact on capitalist economic activity. Rather, from a sociological perspective, what makes this change possible is a rapid shift in the moral basis of collective solidarity.
While in our liberal, free market economy, individual responsibility and competitiveness are the moral values that are accorded worth, the moral code of the pandemic calls for a different set of justifications. We must all work together to “flatten the curve.”
This rapid switch of moral codes makes measures that would otherwise be seen as totalitarian and intolerable into shared sacrifice and moral necessity. The intangible feeling of togetherness has shifted, even if we are feeling it apart. Rather than “social distancing,” what we are experiencing is an intensification of collective life around a new sense of the sacred.
The moral code of the pandemic is something that we can observe in our very own behaviour. We follow new rules of physical distancing not out of obligation to arbitrary rules, but as a commitment to others.
The demand to “act like you have the virus” is not merely a public health measure. It is also a moral invocation. We feel obliged as individuals to do our part, knowing that we may infect others, potentially causing their deaths, even if we ourselves have only mild symptoms. This brings into being a different form of collective solidarity, founded on different principles of what is sacred, and what binds individuals to the will of the group.
Those who break quarantine are shamed. Profiting from the crisis is a sacred evil, drawing sharp rebuke. Suggesting that we just let the old and unproductive die sparks a social outcry. Indeed, #NotDying4WallStreet trended on social media after Texas governor Dan Patrick suggested that “seniors” were willing to “sacrifice” for the future of the economy.
The rapid shift in moral codes carries with it its own risks of abuse—the collective conscience can bind individuals together too tightly and lead to abuses of power, especially against poor and/or racialized people. But it also shows how we might change our society after this crisis, perhaps finding a better relationship between social and individual goals, or between nature and the economy.
Instead of economic self-interest, other values have suddenly emerged to organize our collective life: mutual care, regard for the elderly and the vulnerable, fairness for workers who would be laid-off—efforts that will have to last months.
These effectively put capitalism on hold—for months! Though parallels could be made to the way that war sparks a new sense of solidarity based on nationalistic exclusions, in this case, with as much as half of humanity under lockdown at time of writing, a global community of shared fate emerges to confront a shared threat. This is not war—for war means ramping up collective productive activity to increase the efficiency of the war machine against a common foe.
This common foe, Coronavirus, binds humanity together in a shared sacrifice of self-isolation, in which productive activity is reduced, and society is run from the intensive care unit (ICU) of over-burdened hospitals. Collective care, rather than productivity, compels not just individual action, but the emergency measures of the state. Any state that ignores the moral code of the pandemic risks a sacred reckoning.
Can these more inclusive, less competitive cultural codes replace the capitalist free market?
Certainly, the global health emergency shows how urgent it is for governments and the public to play a more active role in organizing economic life. The lack of basic equipment—face masks, testing kits, ventilators—for something as predictable as a pneumonia pandemic seems to suggest the inefficiency and inadequacy of the free market to handle our immediate needs. It has compounded all other social crises: availability of health insurance, migrant rights, housing rights, tax avoidance, lack of childcare and senior care, and the lack of a guaranteed income to meet basic needs.
Capital finds itself in an awkward situation. Capitalists can’t adequately advocate for their economic interests since to do so would violate the moral code of the pandemic of shared sacrifice. A hapless clown can be useful in times like these, but it is hard to see how the norms of shared sacrifice would remain indifferent to President Trump’s proposal to reopen the economy prematurely—a move that might cost over 2 million American lives.
Still, capitalists have been trying to assert economic interest against a virus that they claim is not deadly enough. After first ignoring Coronavirus, the political right is now trying to counter the moral code of the pandemic by redefining sacred sacrifice. The old, we are told, are ready to die to save capitalism. What a long way we have come in mere weeks.
The moral code of the pandemic offers broader alternatives that may also guide economic and social policy after the emergency—its sense of shared sacrifice and collective solidarity can also radically contest our high-carbon economy. Redistribution of wealth, greater income equality, and an economy designed to even out opportunities and protect the Earth’s climate are potentially within reach.
After the emergency, one can expect a righteous reckoning with the austerity measures which are now costing lives. It is soon yet to tell what political constellations will emerge from this reckoning, since our economic lives will also be in ruin. There is no return from here to the capitalist normal we once knew. Something different will be built.
What we can grasp hold of for now is the widespread solidarity, and the possibilities latent in it of building a brighter, more inclusive future. If the reconstruction to come is to build a more socially just global society, this solidarity might serve as a foundation.
Matthew Hayes is Associate Professor of Sociology and Canada Research Chair in Global and International Studies at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, Canada. He is the author of Gringolandia: Lifestyle Migration under Late Capitalism with University of Minnesota Press. His research and writing is on ethnographies of global inequality, and his public sociology is published in Rabble.ca and the New Brunswick Media Coop (nbmediacoop.org).