Book Review: ‘Capitalism On A Ventilator’

Above photo: From the book cover.

The impact of COVID-19 in China And the U.S.

“Capitalism on a Ventilator: The Impact of COVID-19 in China & the U.S” chronicles the terminal decline of capitalism. The book itself is an example of what can be accomplished through cooperation by progressive working-class organizations.

This anthology is a collaboration by social justice advocates like Ajamu Baraka of the Black Alliance for Peace, Margaret Flowers and the late Kevin Zeese from Popular Resistance, The Grayzone’s Max Blumenthal, historian and journalist Vijay Prashad, and Workers World Party leaders Monica Moorehead and Deirdre Griswold. The brilliant political prisoner and jailhouse professor, Mumia Abu-Jamal, contributes an essay dictated to Prison Radio. Firsthand accounts and analysis come from Lee Siu Hin of the China-U.S. Solidarity Network, who co-edited the book with Sara Flounders of the International Action Center.

The compilation of these works is an act of internationalism and working-class unity. The result demonstrates the successes and true potential of a socialist system and exposes the cruelty and injustice of the capitalist system.

In reviewing this groundbreaking anthology, I had foremost in mind that many of our readers have lost a loved one to the novel coronavirus that broke out in late 2019 and quickly spread across the Earth. Some of you reading this may have contracted COVID-19 yourself. The virus does not discriminate in its indifference to race, gender, nationality and even class, as has become abundantly clear since the U.S. White House “super spreader event” in early October.

But capitalism, on the other hand, does discriminate — in order to survive. It must draw borders and then enforce them at the barrel of a gun. It must isolate communities from their neighbors, and it must pit co-workers against each other. It must make a virtue of competition while outlawing cooperation. 

“Capitalism intentionally breaks down social cohesion,” writes Sara Flounders in the book’s introduction. “Mass mobilizations, unions and community self-control organizations are a threat to exploitation. Police repression and racism are an essential part of the fabric of this society, used like Krazy Glue to forcibly hold together a crumbling system.”

Capitalist COVID’s toll on workers

Thirty-six and a half million workers in the U.S. joined the ranks of the unemployed as of October. As their jobs vanished, so did their health insurance. The lucky ones who kept their jobs faced the danger of exposure to a deadly virus. Grocery store and food distribution workers relied on pitiful wages without any guaranteed hazard pay. Even hospitals faced mass shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), as nurses and other health care workers had to reuse disposable facemasks and fashion smocks out of trashbags and tarps. 

One of the fastest growing job sectors in the U.S. is warehouse work, and the average salary is about $13 an hour. But none of these massive distribution networks were mobilized by the U.S. government to allocate dwindling supplies of PPE. Many of the 1.5 million warehouse workers are asking themselves if the risk of distributing cheap consumer goods during a pandemic is really “essential.”

The lives of our family members and friends and colleagues have been flung like coal into a furnace to keep the engine of capital running. For capitalism, this human sacrifice was, indeed, “essential” — essential to the functioning of a system whose sole purpose is to enable a small cohort of property owners to keep for themselves all the wealth that we create with our work. The stolen value of our collective labor is what they call profit. 

This theft isn’t a secret. It’s a capitalist crime that’s committed in broad daylight, on the books, with the sanction of the courts and the approbation of the corporate press — just like the state murder of George Floyd.

The COVID-19 pandemic death toll in the U.S. had already surpassed 100,000 by May 25, 2020, when workers of the world saw with clarity what this capitalist state considers truly essential to its survival. On that day, the lynching of George Floyd by Minneapolis police was murder and not a “mistake.” It was an atrocity, and it is not an aberration. 

Only with naked force can such a relatively small group of people — the capitalist class — maintain control over so many human beings. This class scatters and divides us with racist myths, xenophobic paranoia, the pseudoscience of “biological gender” and other outright lies, until workers and oppressed people lose sight of who our enemies really are.

As the virus festers, and we try to reckon with the fact that nearly a quarter of a million of us are now gone, we can come to only one conclusion: Mass death is the policy of the capitalist state.

Socialism pushes back COVID

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We know this because socialist states have shown us a different world is possible.

“The success of China’s struggle against the virus and the U.S. failure demonstrates the success of China’s socialist system and the failure and dysfunction of the U.S. capitalist system,” writes Lee Siu Hin. “It also shows that the arrogance of the U.S. — due to the ceaseless anti-communist cold war against China — meant that the U.S. could not put aside differences and learn from China’s successful experience.” 

Lee Siu Hin, who has appeared on Workers World Party’s weekly live broadcasts (every Thursday at 8 p.m. ET), was in China in January and on his return to the U.S. followed closely the mass mobilization of worker power to contain the spread of the virus.

According to the World Health Organization: “In the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history.” (“Truth and Propaganda about Coronavirus,” Vijay Prashad, Weiyan Zhu and Du Xiaojun)

The working class of China, Cuba, Vietnam and other socialist countries have provided us with an example of this truth. Every day, those of us living under capitalism confront unemployment, racism, ecological destruction, sexism and transphobia, poverty and homelessness and terror. Capitalism tells us that’s “just the way the world works.” 

But socialism shows that they are obstacles which can be overcome through the power of a united and uncompromising working class. 

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