COVID-19, POSTCAPITALISM AND EXTERMINISM; IT’S TIME TO BUILD A BETTER FUTURE

by Yali Banton-Heath

As the UK’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak exposes capitalism for all its evils, now is the time to start laying the foundations for a better future.

We’ve been in the final throes of capitalism for some time now. Since the financial crash of 2008 long-term economic stagnation has persisted in the west, yet 1% of the world’s population have managed to hoard almost half of global wealth. As the world faces a global pandemic of the life-threatening novel coronavirus aka Covid-19, now more than ever the faults in our capitalist system are screaming out for scrutiny, and it is fast becoming obvious that inequality kills, and capitalism is to blame.  

In the UK, Boris Johnson’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been nauseating, and has laid bare his absolute lack of compassion for the most vulnerable in our society (if this hadn’t already proved obvious since he assumed office). A leaked Public Health England document predicted a worst case scenario in which up to 8 million people in the UK could be hospitalised, and around 500,000 people could lose their lives as a result of contracting Covid-19, yet the UK has resisted following advice by refusing to implement a lockdown strategy similar to those which are being employed by our European neighbours. Yes, our economy would suffer greatly, but lives would be saved in recompense. His delayed response, mockery and refusal to take what he has dubbed to be ‘draconian measures’ to protect the UK’s population is a dismal reflection of years of Tory austerity politics which places the interests of those at the top of the pile above those who are pushed to the bottom. 

In my mind’s eye, this delayed response can only be described as an act of ‘exterminism’.

First imagined in the 1980s by socialist historian E. P. Thompson, the phrase ‘exterminism’ was used to describe potential power wielded by the political elite to exterminate entire human populations through the threat of nuclear arms. It was subsequently adopted by sociologist Peter Frase to foreshadow a possible societal trajectory in a post-capitalism world. Frase’s 2016 book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism envisions exterminism as a wretched version of the future in which the wealthy elite eradicate surplus populations who no longer contribute to the workforce and therefore act as a burden on a society fixated with maximising capital. The backdrop to this scenario is a world which faces a scarcity of resources while simultaneously suffering the persistence of social and political hierarchy; not an altogether unimaginable scenario for the near future considering current levels of global hunger, climate breakdown, and growing inequality.

now more than ever the faults in our capitalist system are screaming out for scrutiny, and it is fast becoming obvious that inequality kills, and capitalism is to blame.  

In Four Futures the surplus population which exterminism targets is formed as a result of automation of production, thereby diminishing the need for human labour and a human workforce. It can be argued however, that such a concept could, and indeed should, be stretched to include capitalists’ views of the elderly, the disabled and the vulnerable as a ‘surplus population, as they pose a threat to the long-term viability of a capitalist system. 

Although these may seem like the musings of a conspiracy theorist, even if we took the automation of work out of the picture we are still presented with the reality that our government treats the elderly, those in need of care, and those with disabilities as a burden on society, and the workforce who care for them as unskilled and disposable.  

Last week a journalist for The Telegraph even commented on Twitter saying that Covid-19 “might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents”, and on Thursday Conservative politician Iain Duncan Smith remarked that the introduction of universal credit at the time would only provide “massive disincentives for people to work”.  Such remarks epitomise the opinion of the right-wing, that those who don’t engage in work and require support from the state are indeed superfluous to our society. Our Conservative government’s response to this virus can certainly be called out as a calculated cull, and by extension an act of exterminism.  

In his Notes on Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilization, E.P. Thompson wrote that:

“Exterminism designates those characteristics of a society… which thrust it in a direction whose outcome must be the extermination of multitudes. The outcome will be extermination, but this will not happen accidentally (even if the final trigger is “accidental”) but as the direct consequence of prior acts of policy, of the accumulation and perfection of the means of extermination, and of the structuring of whole societies so that these are directed towards that end.”

Is this not an adequate description of austerity in the UK under the Conservatives, privatisation of our healthcare system, and now Boris’s strategy in dealing with Covid-19?

Boris purports that his government is doing all that it can in order to save lives while trying to limit economic disruption. But this ‘incapacity’ to implement radical measures is down to his government’s own belief in an ideology and economic system which prevents them from taking such action; that is, a belief in the sanctity of capitalism. 

this ‘incapacity’ to implement radical measures is down to his government’s own belief in an ideology and economic system […]; that is, a belief in the sanctity of capitalism

Austerity, creeping privatisation of the NHS, and the squeezing of the social care system to within an inch of its life are all very conscious, very deliberate and very well calculated moves made by the Tory government since they came to power. Although the advent of the virus was a natural phenomenon and its spread to the UK an inevitability, the way in which the government has responded to the outbreak may be an opportunistic attempt to ‘cull dependents’, while claiming that they had no choice in the matter. You can almost hear them muttering “checkmate” under their breaths. 

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Unsurprisingly, the same goes for Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic in the US with Senator Bernie Sanders commenting

If you’re a multimillionaire – you’re going to get through it… you’re going to get everything you need. You’re not worried about health care. You’re not worried about income coming in

The capitalist class will not only survive this pandemic as a result of their economic privilege – with many of the super-rich reportedly escaping on their private jets to self-isolate in holiday homes abroad – but some will even profit from it. Billionaire Richard Branson for example – who successfully sued the NHS in 2018 for £2m of public money – is now asking the government to sanction a £7.5bn bail-out package for the airline industry. 

Despite the government recently announcing a ban on evictions for UK renters, home-owners will be also permitted a 3 month ‘mortgage holiday’, giving landlords scope to actually turn a profit during this crisis. Furthermore, just to add insult to injury, after years of NHS privatisation, instead of offering their equipment and services for free private hospitals are now renting beds to the NHS – at a fee of £2.4 million per day of taxpayers’ money. 

So not only is Covid-19 exposing a system that is inherently unequal, inherently violent, and inherently incapable of providing support and protection for people most at risk, but it is also exposing our own government’s unwavering support of this ideology regardless of the human cost. 

But this pandemic may well be a tipping point.

Covid-19 will cause direct death as a result of health complications, but it will also cause indirect suffering through the colossal economic impact it will have on the working class. In an age where the common identity of the working class is dwindling, we urgently need to unite and start imagining a better society in the age of post-capitalism. We too can be opportunists in this uncertain time, and lay the foundations for an economy which protects everyone, not just those who can afford it. It won’t be a sudden change, but a gradual swell fought from below, meeting capitalist exterminism with equal ferocity through social agency and solidarity.

It won’t be a sudden change, but a gradual swell fought from below, meeting capitalist exterminism with equal ferocity through social agency and solidarity.

Mutual aid groups are already filling in the gaps of a struggling NHS and social care system, regular customers are buying vouchers to keep their local businesses afloat, hoteliers are offering free rooms to weary NHS staff, and teachers are providing educational support online to children who will have to miss school. This rejuvenation of the commons through unconditional care and provision of services in our communities is providing a safety net for those who are most physically, mentally, and economically vulnerable, in spite of government inaction.

Envisioning a future after capitalism is by no means a simple feat. It is daunting at best, and downright impossible at worst. Something that provides some light in these dark and confusing times, however, is Mark Fisher’s philosophy on what he called ‘acid communism’. Although its name may seem a bit extreme and a tad bizarre, its essence is far from that. It highlights the need for imagination, innovation, and thinking outside the boundaries which the current capitalist system places upon us. Fisher’s unfinished introduction to Acid Communism emphasises that,

Instead of seeking to overcome capital, we should focus on what capital must always obstruct: the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy.

This collective capacity and social agency will not only help to protect us from the imminent dangers of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and its immediate threat to health and wellbeing, but it will also contribute to forging a new common understanding and social awakening. 

So let’s produce and reconnect with local production – where possible let’s offer our time and labour to UK farms and help them feed the nation. Let’s care – and offer our compassion, support, and services to those who cannot fight this battle alone. And let’s enjoy – not forgetting to appreciate the small things in life and relish the beauty of social solidarity. 

Let this moment radicalise us. Let it change what we view as norms in society and let it embolden us to demand change from our government. The end of capitalism as we know it might be fast approaching. Years of Tory austerity have allowed for this moment of exterminism, but acid communism – or whatever label you find most fitting – is our way of fighting back.

Featured Image Credit: Flickr, Liz Mc (via Wikimedia Commons)


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