Brexit Coronavirus Democracy International Left Politics Neoliberalism

Covid-19, Toilet Paper and American Hegemony

These days it feels like every app on my phone has some Covid-19 related content. One of them has a list of all the rich and famous who’ve fallen victim to the virus – movie stars, sports people, politicians. I’ve seen the related conversations on social media, where people debate who the most famous victim is. Macabre, but I did give it some thought myself. I don’t think I’m overstating the potential when I say that capitalism could be a victim of the virus and that it’s facing an existential threat – or at the very least the USA’s global hegemony (of which predatory capitalism is an essential part, and the UK a useful weak minded sycophant whenever the Yanks need an “international consensus”) is in trouble.

It was the toilet paper that got me thinking so. Or at least, it was the panic buying of the toilet paper which in turn gave rise to many media commentaries of the situation that made me think, “maybe capitalism’s finally had it”. The international media has certainly covered the panic buying, particularly in countries like America and Britain. Chinese social media of course had a rather humorous take on it. In China people were buying lots of rice, but in the UK it was loo roll! (And in fairness, the Chinese weren’t panic buying, they were just buying slightly more of some staple foods than normal.)

Of course, tissues weren’t the only thing that people had been panic buying – but it got the most press coverage. Probably because it makes for an absurd and amusing story. The truth was that people were panic buying and hoarding many things. Toilet paper wasn’t even the first thing to sell out. Hand sanitisers and disposable gloves typically sold out first in most places, followed by fresh food and then frozen and canned goods. Somewhere in the middle of all this, people bought a lot of loo roll.

So what has this got to do with my hope for the impending end to American hegemony? Well, generally speaking there is the underlying political philosophy in Western countries (and especially in the US and UK) that the government can’t be trusted and that self-reliance is vital. Toilet paper is cheap, it’s not going to spoil, and you’ll need it eventually even if there isn’t a shortage. Hoarding it gives people a sense of security and self reliance when everything else seems so uncertain – from their income to their very health. In countries like China and South Korea, peoples’ sense of security comes from their trust in their government. In China, for example, while people have mixed feelings about the authorities (more so local officials than the national government), reliance on the government is much higher and citizens have high expectations of it. As Asian countries become more influential on the world stage the negative political philosophy of the West will be undermined.

Asian attitudes towards the government stand in stark contrast to Western systems that privilege private property protections and divide government to limit its power. Starting with the economist Milton Friedman (and his disciples), billionaires, economists and the media have waged a battle across many decades to convince politicians and the voting public that government is the problem – not the solution. Reagan even said it: “Government is the problem”, which to people like himself and Thatcher meant that decision making had to be handed over to the business world. A world which is devoted to maximising private profit and is unencumbered by those who are concerned about the common good. In the West this has come to be known as neo-liberalism. And it’s been brutal. A succession of crises and burst bubbles and an untold number of premature deaths.

The current crisis in the West is not just a crisis caused by a virus – it is a crisis caused by the economic system’s inability to respond to the virus. Other countries have been able to deal with the crisis better than the USA and UK (for example) because they have a different, less evil philosophy governing their economy. Chomsky brilliantly explains the problem:

“The depth of the pathology is revealed clearly by one of the most dramatic — and murderous — failures: the lack of ventilators that is one the major bottlenecks in confronting the pandemic. The Department of Health and Human Services foresaw the problem, and contracted with a small firm to produce inexpensive, easy-to-use ventilators. But then capitalist logic intervened. The firm was bought by a major corporation, Covidien, which sidelined the project, and, “In 2014, with no ventilators having been delivered to the government, Covidien executives told officials at the [federal] biomedical research agency that they wanted to get out of the contract, according to three former federal officials. The executives complained that it was not sufficiently profitable for the company.””

People are dying because it’s not sufficiently profitable for rich people to make ventilators. Just let that sink in. It is actually profitable, although it’s the sort of thing that even if it was loss making should still be pursued. But it’s not loss making, it’s profitable. It’s just not sufficiently profitable. So people have to die. That is capitalism. That is the logic of the decision makers (businesses and billionaires) in countries like the USA and the UK. And because of the legacy of Friedman, the ideology of our ruling class dictates that government can not intervene to fix gross failures in the capitalist markets. That is our political economy and it is killing people. And of course it is mostly poor people who have to die. There was a ventilator available for Boris Johnson.

Many Westerners unfortunately reacted to the original outbreak in a culturally insensitive and even openly racist way. This was fuelled by politicians and the media who have blamed Chinese culture for creating the virus and accusing the Chinese government of deliberately spreading and /or covering up the virus. Despite initial impressions that China had severely bungled things, there is now a growing belief that they have handled the outbreak far better than Western countries. And with this growing belief come the questions: Why have they handled it better when it took them by surprise but we had at least two months advanced warning? Why can they build new hospitals in 10 days, but we can’t? Why can they reorganise their economy to ensure production of vital equipment like ventilators, but we can’t? Why can they put saving lives before maximising profits, but we can’t? As socialists we have to make sure our answers to these questions are heard. We can’t do these things currently because of the political economy that we’ve been chained to. But if we break those chains then we can. We can start putting people before profit again. There are alternative ways to do things.

Internationally there is also (finally!) an increasing lack of faith in America’s ability to be a world leader – and especially a lack of faith in their ability to lead a global response to a crisis such as this pandemic. While the British media may fret over whatever crazy thing Trump has said or done this time, don’t expect them to say very much about America’s declining influence in the world. They have after all just convinced the British public into voting for Brexit in order to position us closer to America politically. The idea that sacrificing our NHS to American business interests will return Britain to the level of global influence enjoyed in the days of the Empire is an illusion that must be maintained.

Trust me on this one, America is finding it harder and harder to get its own way internationally – which, in addition to his policy of America First, will go some way to explaining Trump’s evil decision to withdraw funding from the World Health Organisation right at the peak of a deadly global pandemic. It’s an all too predictable temper tantrum from the grown up toddler in the White House. It’s not even the only evil action by America during this crisis. They have refused to ease sanctions on Iran, cut health aid to Yemen, they literally stole plane loads of medical equipment meant for other countries and shockingly even tried to buy a German pharmaceutical company working on a vaccine for Covid-19 – with the caveat that America would own the vaccine and control who does and doesn’t receive access to it.

In contrast, the Chinese government have been making calls for greater international cooperation. Despite claims to the contrary in Western media, China was has also been entirely open and honest about the situation. On December 31 they informed the World Health Organization (WHO) of the spread of pneumonia-like symptoms with unknown etiology, and on January 7 China informed the WHO that scientists had identified the source as a coronavirus and had sequenced the genome (which they made available to the scientific world).  Now that the virus is under control in China, China has been shipping medical supplies to badly affected areas around the world. Globally, people and governments are starting to learn the obvious lesson – that there is much to be gained in working with China rather than continuing to just blindly follow America. Pakistan for example, once one of America’s most reliable allies in the region, has pivoted almost entirely to China. (Which to be fair will also have a lot to do with America constantly bombing Pakistani civilians in their own country. Chinese diplomacy trumped American aggression in Pakistan.)

The uni-polar age of American hegemony is coming to an end, and hopefully with it an end to neo-liberal capitalism as the “only game in town”. While this will undoubtedly throw up new challenges in international affairs, if we can avoid sleepwalking into a second Cold War then I am very hopeful for the future in a multi-polar political landscape. The challenges we face such as climate catastrophe and any future pandemics will be handled much more efficiently in a world free from the unreasonable demands of neo-liberal capitalism. A world with genuine international cooperation, and enough toilet paper for everyone.

By Beinn Irbhinn



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