Capitalism Has Failed in Fighting Coronavirus

By Richard D. Wolff, professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, in New York. Wolff’s weekly show, “Economic Update,” is syndicated by more than 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. His two recent books with Democracy at Work are Understanding Marxism and Understanding Socialism, both available at This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

​The desperate policies of panic-driven governments involve throwing huge amounts of money at the economies collapsed in response to the coronavirus threat. Monetary authorities create money and lend it at extremely low interest rates to the major corporations and especially big banks “to get them through the crisis.” Government treasuries borrow vast sums to get the collapsed economy back into what they imagine is “the normal, pre-virus economy.” Capitalism’s leaders are rushing into policy failures because of their ideological blinders.

​The problem of policies aimed to return the economy to what it was before the virus hit is this: Global capitalism, by 2019, was itself a major cause of the collapse in 2020. Capitalism’s scars from the crashes of 2000 and 2008-2009 had not healed. Years of low interest rates had enabled corporations and governments to “solve” all their problems by borrowing limitlessly at almost zero interest rate cost. All the new money pumped into economies by central banks had indeed caused the feared inflation, but chiefly in stock markets whose prices consequently spiraled dangerously far away from underlying economic values and realities. Inequalities of income and wealth reached historic highs.

​In short, capitalism had built up vulnerabilities to another crash that any number of possible triggers could unleash. The trigger this time was not the meltdown of 2000 or the sub-prime meltdown of 2008/9; it was a virus. And of course, mainstream ideology requires focusing on the trigger, not the vulnerability. Thus mainstream policies aim to reestablish pre-virus capitalism. Even if they succeed, that will return us to a capitalist system whose accumulated vulnerabilities will soon again collapse from yet another trigger.

​In the light of the coronavirus pandemic, I focus criticism on capitalism and the vulnerabilities it has accumulated for several reasons. Viruses are part of nature. They have attacked human beings—sometimes dangerously—in both distant and recent history. In 1918, the Spanish Flu killed nearly 700,000 in the United States and millions elsewhere. Recent viruses include SARS, MERS andEbola. What matters to public health is each society’s preparedness: stockpiled tests, masks, ventilators, hospital beds, trained personnel, etc., to manage dangerous viruses. In the U.S., such objects are produced by private capitalist enterprises whose goal is profit. It was not profitable to produce and stockpile such products, that was not and still is not being done.

Nor did the U.S. government produce or stockpile those medical products. Top U.S. government personnel privilege private capitalism; it is their primary objective to protect and strengthen. The result is that neither private capitalism nor the U.S. government performed the most basic duty of any economic system: to protect and maintain public health and safety. U.S. capitalism’s response to the coronavirus pandemic continues to be what it has been since December 2019: too little, too late. It failed. It is the problem.

The second reason I focus on capitalism is that the responses to today’s economic collapse by Trump, the GOP and most Democrats carefully avoid any criticism of capitalism. They all debate the virus, China, foreigners, other politicians, but never the system they all serve. When Trump and others press people to return to churches and jobs—despite risking their and others’ lives—they place reviving a collapsed capitalism ahead of public health.

The third reason capitalism gets blame here is that alternative systems—those not driven by a profit-first logic—could manage viruses better. While not profitable to produce and stockpile everything needed for a viral pandemic, it is efficient. The wealth already lost in this pandemic far exceeds the cost to have produced and stockpiled the tests and ventilators, the lack of which is contributing so much to today’s disaster. Capitalism often pursues profit at the expense of more urgent social needs and values. In this, capitalism is grossly inefficient. This pandemic is now bringing that truth home to people.

A worker-coop based economy—where workers democratically run enterprises, deciding what, how and where to produce, and what to do with any profits—could, and likely would, put social needs and goals (like proper preparation for pandemics) ahead of profits. Workers are the majority in all capitalist societies; their interests are those of the majority. Employers are always a small minority; theirs are the “special interests” of that minority. Capitalism gives that minority the position, profits and power to determine how the society as a whole lives or dies. That’s why all employees now wonder and worry about how long our jobs, incomes, homes and bank accounts will last—if we still have them. A minority (employers) decides all those questions and excludes the majority (employees) from making those decisions, even though that majority must live with their results.

Of course, the top priority now is to put public health and safety first. To that end, employees across the country are now thinking about refusing to obey orders to work in unsafe job conditions. U.S. capitalism has thus placed a general strike on today’s social agenda. A close second priority is to learn from capitalism’s failure in the face of the pandemic. We must not suffer such a dangerous and unnecessary social breakdown again. Thus system change is now also moving onto today’s social agenda.

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    1. BillC

      Yeah, American revolution, a fine mess you’ve gotten us into now: the productive capacity, public infrastructure, and social welfare of a third-world nation, all governed by an immensely rich and amoral elite. If we had remained loyal subjects of the English Crown, we might be almost as civilized as Canada!

      1. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

        Then Jimmy Saville would have been our problem as well. Instead, we got the Franklin Scandal. Everyone finds the nightmare dystopia they deserve, I suppose

  1. Mark

    Don’t blame capitalism. Blame the mistakes of our govenments and “leaders”. Blaming ‘capitalism’ is misses the real failings of our governments.

    1. Isotope_C14

      Capitalism requires continual growth. That isn’t possible on a world of finite resources. No government operating under a capitalist dogma can solve this inherent predicament.

      You can blame the leaders all you like, but they are constrained by the system that can’t see beyond the next quarterly profit projection.

    2. Jane

      The “real” failing of government is that they value capitalism over public good forgetting that if there is no public there is no capitalism.

    3. cnchal

      The word “capitalism” is a euphemism for “totally corrupt system”.

      The totally corrupt system has failed.

      For example, were this an honest system, Goldman 666 would have been wiped out in the GFC and Blankfein would be living in a cardboard box under a freeway overpass instead of bragging and gloating about doing gawd’s work while soaking in his looted billion dollars.

      1. KPL

        Yup! This time round you can add a few more swindlers to the list who have lined up for the alms provided by the Fed, Treasury and Politicians (all for hoi polloi’s sake ofcourse )

    4. Nancy

      How’s the Communist Government response in what ever place this started working out? Did they open the wet makets yet? How about that research lab it didn’t escape from.

    5. Watt4Bob

      Sorry Mark, but you’re missing the fact that our government is owned, lock, stock, and barrel, by the elite capitalist ideologues who fund our elections.

      So, yes, capitalism has taken control of our politics, and failed us miserably.

      Capitalism’s leaders are rushing into policy failures because of their ideological blinders.

      Our government’s purpose was supposed to be making things better for all of us, and capitalism’s purpose was to allow commerce to operate.

      Capitalism’s leaders bought off our political/government leaders, so they can’t be called ‘leaders’ anymore, they are followers, following the dictates of Capitalism’s leaders, who have failed us because their focus is exclusively on making money, which, as it turns out, has very little to do with making life better for all of us.

    6. chuck roast

      A bit short-sighted there Mark. The mistakes of the “leaders” who make up top tiers of our governments failed precisely because they are entirely at the service of capital. There, fixed that for ya’.

    7. The Historian

      Au contraire! Capitalism IS the problem. It is a system designed to reward those who accumulate the most capital at the expense of everyone and everything else. What we are seeing right now is the natural progression of capitalism. There is a small proportion of our population who crave money and power more than anything else and will do what they have to do to get that money and power. Capitalism is the perfect system to allow them to rise up and take control.

      I know that Adam Smith didn’t envision what we see today – he thought morality would make capitalists behave in a more humane manner, but if you have to depend on morality to make a system work, it is going to fail. Anyone can justify their behavior, even when it is deeply evil. Do you think Jamie Dimon and his class ever consider for a moment the morality of what they did to millions of Americans during the 2007-2008 housing crash and their, not the people they hurt, bailout? Do you think that they felt any guilt over taking that money from the taxpayers of this country? Do you think they feel any guilt over taking the Covid bailout, even though people are dying from lack of adequate medical protection and care in this country?

      But sadly, capitalism is the system we have and it is deeply embedded into everyone’s psyche. Most people cannot even imagine any other system. So all we can do is gradually change that system and try to wrest power from the 1% over time. Universal healthcare and universal education – and not just STEM but the humanities also – along with a guaranteed jobs program would do that. We need to get people into the Middle Class because the Middle Class have the time and the education to consider other options. The poor can’t make changes because their whole lives are given up to just survival and because in most cases they have been denied the education to see other options. They will join in, but they just don’t have the wherewithal to start anything.

      My greatest fear is that the 1% will drive capitalism to the brink where it cannot be brought back to something we can live with and that revolution will be the only option. But revolutions DO NOT make things better – all they seem to do is change one power base for another. That is NOT what we need. We need to disperse power and then we need to learn from that – that you can NEVER let one group control all the power, no matter how well meaning they sound.

      1. John Wright

        We also need to change what being USA “middle class” implies.

        If the guaranteed jobs program and universal education are installed and USA citizens resume consuming at a high (or higher) level, then there is the climate change train coming down the tracks to meet them.

        The American consumer has been trained to believe they will grab their piece of a constantly expanding, hydrocarbon fueled, economic growth pie.

        Will the Green New Deal ever be launched, scale up and arrive in time?

        I suggest the USA needs to push for a lower consumption middle class and upper class lifestyle.

        But can that be sold to the population and our leaders?

        1. The Historian

          You are right – I agree that we have to change Middle Class from Consumer Class to a class that values other things like the Environmentally Responsible Class – perhaps a class that goes out and uses its money to plant trees or clean up areas instead of going to the mall and buying things.

          1. TimH

            I suggest that the Environmentally Responsible Class has a small membership. There’s a much larger class of smug people (smuggies?) who believe that buying their new EV or hybrid SUV and updating the two AC units from 11 SEER to 13 SEER in their 4k sq ft under-insulated house is the entire sacrifice necessary from them.

          2. Anarcissie

            You’re going to change other people’s values? How? I haven’t had much success with that myself, but I’m always willing to learn.

            1. The Historian

              People in this country change their values all the time. Do you think Trump could have gotten elected in 1952? Do you think we were a Consumer Nation until Bernays and his friends decided that we should be? Did you ever read the Powell Memo of 1971? It was a blueprint for changing values and it worked!

              One of the reasons I want Bernie to win is not because he can do everything that he promises – he can’t – but simply because he will move the Overton window to the left and start changing people’s values.

              1. jonboinAR

                Yes, I think, Historian, that your, um, history shows us that societal values and direction tend to be profoundly moved by often small but persistent groups who steadily advance their point of view over time, sometimes several decades. See neo-liberalism, the gay rights movement, civil rights, for examples.

                1. jonboinAR

                  … which leads me to remark that Bernie Sanders’ movement will fail only if they get discouraged or bored after this (presumed) loss. Discouragement and quitting is a real danger but not inevitable, certainly.

                  1. Aumua

                    Well since the issues that Sanders has brought up and into public discourse are not going to just go away any time soon, I foresee many opportunities for ‘his movement’ to be revived and reborn under different banners.

            2. periol

              Two big-picture value changes in my short lifetime have been the cultural sea change regarding homosexuality and marijuana.

              The difference between the 90s and now is very significant on both issues. I can still remember being home my freshman year in college and telling my father he could think what he wants about my gay friend and I knew most of the world agreed with him but it would only be a matter of time because other generations would grow up learning not to hate. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was from the same time period.

              It can’t just be old people dying and the kids being chill. People have changed their minds, my parents included, on both issues.

              1. TimH

                There’s still a large gap in the expectations by a typical father for the sexual behaviour of his 18 year old daughter and his 18 year old son.

      2. Martin

        I disagree with your last point, to the effect that revolutions change nothing. The French Revolution decisively and permanently crippled the three tyrannies of monarchy, nobility, and church. We are all immensely better off for that. To a considerable extent, we owe modernity to the French Revolution.

        1. The Historian

          I think you’ve been reading too many romanticized histories of the French Revolution. The French went from revolution to the Reign Of Terror to Napoleon to the return of the monarchies, to another revolution in 1848 to the return of the monarchies. France did not get a sustainable republic until 1871, two generations after the French Revolution.

          In Europe, countries reacted to the French Revolution in various ways, some became more liberal, some became more despotic, particularly Russia, but in the end, the biggest result was a new form of nationalism which led to WWI which led to WWII.

          The French Revolution was complicated as were the results. You can’t just say that we are “better off” for it. I guess that would depend on where you were when it was happening. Millions of average people in Europe weren’t “better off” for it, particularly the generation of people that initially had to live through it. Don’t forget about them when you are thinking revolution.

    8. lyman alpha blob

      Yes, the problem is that because of its enemies trying to thwart it at every turn, we never been able to practice real capitalism.

        1. Massinissa

          I mean, they’re both capitalist now. China’s State Capitalism might not be Neoliberalism but it’s still capitalism.

        2. Aumua

          Yes, neither China nor Russia are or ever were Communist countries, in the Marxian sense anyway. Although they did call themselves that.

          I’m not even sure that ‘Communist country’ is even a thing at all, if Communism is a stateless, classless free association of individuals.

      1. tucsonSteve

        Correct my True Scotsman friend
        Capitalism, by definition, involves
        1) competition
        2) destruction of capital
        3) especially destruction of capital

        Example — you invest in equity or bonds of major airline and covid-19 hits. In capitalism, the equity goes to zero and the bondholders fight over the scraps in bankruptcy.
        It’s a risk that you took, investing in a domestic airline, and it didn’t work out. Life is hard, you move on.
        In the current system, the airline lobbies the Federal government and is given bailout money to minimize or prevent the destruction of capital. This is not capitalism.

    9. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

      There’s a useful discussion you rarely see. When most people in the US or europe rail against ‘socialism’ or ‘capitalism’ they rarely have a coherent thing in mind. When an Amaerican thinks ‘capitalism’ they think, ‘I invented this here thing by screwing together three things that have never been assembled in quite this manner before. My kids and I made a gross of them and made $40,000 selling them on Ebay- now we’re sending an application to be on ‘Shark Tank’!
      But what it really is is some Paul Singer type sees your idea then swindles you out of the IP through complicated legal chicanery. (Rule of Law really means Rule by Lawyers) Then when you keep making your Doodad(TM) in violation of his Cease & Desist’, the Sherriff turns up and seizes your garage and all the parts.
      They think of capitalism as being able to trade or buy and sell. But it’s really an ideology invented to give cover to the basest instincts of psychopaths and power made narcissists. This is why the ‘Killing the King ritual’ described in Fraser’s Golden Bough was a thing. If you don’t literally strangle these people to death they will enslave you.

  2. The Rev Kev

    That is the thing about modern capitalism. Everything has to be reduced to contracts as if that is the only way to define human relationships. Everywhere you look it is contracts for this and contracts for that. We haven’t got marriage contracts yet but we do have pre-nups which is awful close. It has become an obsession. But you want to know modern capitalism’s greatest failure? It is that they broke the Social Contract and pretended that no such thing existed. Most of the problems and injustices that you see today go back the the breaking of this fundamental contract.

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      i agree completely on the breaking of the Social Contract…it’s the ONLY Contract that “they” routinely fail to fetishise.
      Besides that, Transactions…including Contracts…are considered inherently Good under the neolib dispensation, and are therefore to be maximised: zero hour contracts, short term contracts, and a proliferation of middlemen, wetting their beaks all along the way.
      all the while, chanting solemnly about “efficiency”.
      it’s ludicrous…and should not be called “Capitalism”.
      Adam Smith wouldn’t recognise it as such….were there any employees or bosses at golden sacks who moved into a box in the alleyway behind the NYSE after the last casino collapse?
      That would have more closely resembled Capitalism.
      and here we are again….hypergamblers being made whole with a quickness and with incredible government largess…while Mainstreet withers away, until the time comes to “sweep it all up…related and not…”and consolidate the rest of the Real Economy into even fewer hands.
      If this portion of our ongoing apokalypse(Gr.”rending of the veil”) doesn’t wake up the Populace, I don’t know what will.
      If ever there was a time for Moneymen to fear for their lives, this is it.
      Let them eat tranches.

      1. tegnost

        yep, what we have now is really more like socialism for a small sliver of us and social darwinism for the rest. It hardly resembles capitalism

        1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

          Thank you. “Capitalism” is merely the soporific haze the nobility apply to cover up their institutionalized theft and to legitimize their inverted totalitarian and now national socialist credos.

          There is not a single thing about the $29 Trillion (GAO number) 2009 bailouts for example that can be described as “capitalist”. And accepting the framing of the argument as “Capitalism versus Other” simply plays into this hoax. Kind of like how idpol people think the fault lines should be “men versus women” or “black versus white” or “gay versus straight”. This is exactly what they want the debate to be because if a gay black single mother in Oakland ever figures out that their *economic interest* is completely aligned with that of a white MAGA truck driver in Nashville then they are sunk. *Class* is the real fault line and they know it.

          So “Capitalism vs Socialism” is precisely the debate they want us to have. The real fault line is “Monopolistic Neo-Feudalist Hyper-Socialists versus the Hobbesian Global 99% Peasantry”.

    2. ObjectiveFunction

      More than a bit clickbaity, that headline, and also a fair amount of begging the question in the article.

      Re your point, RK, I suppose I would draw a distinction between the personalized (if often unlovable) and sometimes self-policing (via artisan or professional guilds) capitalism practiced by local shopkeepers and productive property owner-operators, and the stone cold arms length rent seeking of today’s fully financialized corporations.

      For the former, ‘skin in the game’ means something more than ducats or digits on a computer. It might quite literally mean ‘skin’ — a handshake agreement, or the skin of one’s neck should the outraged mob prevail. Even large patriarchal monopolists like Carnegie, Morgan, Ford and Jobs (or Trump) viewed their enterprise as an extension of themselves, and might be appealed to for justice on a personal basis. Of course, they might simply call in the Pinkertons.

      For the latter capitalists, or more properly their agents, leaving one thin dime on the table at any moment is not merely a breach of covenants, but a cardinal sin: for pussies and losers. Rip their faces off dammit. And if the authorities alter the rules, find a greater fool, cash out and move on to the next arms length instrument.


      With usura hath no man a house of good stone
      each block cut smooth and well fitting
      that design might cover their face….

      no picture is made to endure nor to live with
      but it is made to sell and sell quickly
      with usura, sin against nature,
      is thy bread ever more of stale rags
      is thy bread dry as paper,
      with no mountain wheat, no strong flour
      with usura the line grows thick
      with usura is no clear demarcation
      and no man can find site for his dwelling.
      Stonecutter is kept from his tone
      weaver is kept from his loom
      wool comes not to market
      sheep bringeth no gain with usura…

      They have brought whores for Eleusis
      Corpses are set to banquet
      at behest of usura.

    3. diptherio

      To quibble:
      1) Marriage is already a contract.

      A marriage is a contract. You can write that contract yourself (in which case it’s called a “premarital agreement”), or you can accept the default contract written by your state legislators. Now comes the state of Louisiana, determined to expand its citizens’ options. Henceforth, Louisianians will be able to choose between two prefabricated contracts, each with very different provisions for divorce. The first option is similar to the no-fault contract that is standard in other states. The second–the so-called “covenant marriage”–makes divorce far more difficult.

      So it’s already contracts all the way down, including between the marital sheets.

      2) There is not now, and never has been, anything that we might refer to as a “social contract”. The whole concept is simply a way to obscure the social reality that the so-called social contract is whatever the ruling class decides it is at any given moment. If you are forced to accept the terms of a deal, and the counter-party can unilaterally change those terms, then what you have is not a contract but a species of extortion…just sayin’.

    4. rob

      It is just that we are well into a new “phase” of “capitalism”… We are out of “finance” capitalism…. and smack dab in the middle of “virtual” capitalism…. where the golden rule still is the guiding principle…. “those with the gold, make the rules”.
      And now … all the “contracts” where the beneficiary are “those with the gold” need to be expressly fulfilled… in a timely manner.. even if said person with gold makes stupid decisions and fails to plan ahead.. whereas for everyone else….they can go and jump in a lake…(albeit not one of “those with the gold”‘s; private lakes… or private seashores ,for that matter.)

      1. Susan the other

        “Virtual Capitalism” is a good phrase. Last nite on one of the evening news shows there was a report on people getting “virtual degrees” – everything is online. Can “virtual money” be far behind?

        1. coboarts

          Once all the colleges and universities build out their online capacity, as is being done as we speak/type, a lot of California’s most incredible college and university properties will start to look like real estate, me thinks.

        2. John

          We have had virtual money in the US since Nixon removed the last vestige of the gold standard in 1971. Fiat money is virtual money. The supply can never run out as it exists in the computer keyboards at the Federal Reserve. MMT explains this.

    5. ckimball

      Yes, those of us who are old ones have watched the progression.
      We remember when people believed differently. To be single mindedly
      concerned with money was considered vulgar. In school we were told
      that eternal vigilance was required to keep what we had….not wealth,
      Democracy. Manners were elevated and consideration for the comfort
      of others was important. We were encouraged to be inclusive, to be respectful and interested in other cultures and to be good diplomats when we traveled. There were values that we thought we were working toward.
      People’s spirits were high on the successes of the new deal. I heard it said more than twice, ‘we are going to be able to feed the world’. It was about generosity after the depression,after the war. It’s in us, the ones who have not elevated themselves so high, we can do it again….a change in attitude.

  3. Samuel Conner

    Markets (under certain conditions that often are not realized in practice — such as absence of monopoly or cartel) are pretty good at setting “efficient” prices. I think that they are not good at setting priorities — “what ought to be done.”

    But markets and the societies that serve them exist within ecosystems with finite limits and finite resilience. Eventually reality intrudes.

    1. eg

      Yup. One of the most fundamental decisions that a culture or society must decide is what is for sale, and what it not. Those decisions, by definition, exist outside of the market. In a forgotten time, these would have been explicitly characterized as moral decisions.This is why Adam Smith wrote “Theory of Moral Sentiments” and why the usual suspects never reference it in the cartoon version of him they foist upon hoi polloi.

      Markets are man-made, not some natural force as the shills and mountebanks would have you believe.

  4. jackiebass

    I believe the biggest driver in bad economic policy is probably cheap money. I remember when it was considered good if you could get a car loan for around 10%. Look at todays rate. Cheap money creates a mentality that a person has more disposable income than they actually have. The spend. using credit to buy expensive cars , homes, and consumer goods. As long as they can make the payment they feel OK. It leaves no room for necessary saving. In fact low rates discourage saving. Why save whether is little or no return? You might better just spend your money. It also ushers people to invest in the market. It can be risky because the market can suddenly go bust and wipe out peoples investment. Then they are left with nothing. Capitalism insists on continuous growth from spending. Stock holders insist on huge returns. It’s aa recipe for a catastrophe.

    1. JEHR

      I came across an interview with Professor Herman Daly by Phil Lawn where Daly explains Ecological Economics. The interview starts at 11:37. It is an alternative way of looking at the economy which turns upside-down the attributes of present-day economics with one that considers the environment in which the economy sits. It provides the background for looking at any economy in a more realistic and equitable way. He describes Natural Capital and Man-Made Capital and how they have to work together. His ideas also depend on an understanding of how MMT works.

      It is an interesting look at how an economy can be run equitably, sustainably and judiciously. It describes the goals of an economy: to decide three things: 1. the Scale of the Economy, 2. Equitable distribution, and 3. Efficient Allocation of Resources.

      From a conference held in Adelaide, Australia, in January 2020.

  5. Thuto

    The perverse incentive structure that drives capitalism has created a moral vacuum at its core. Once again, all this liquidity being pumped into the system will benefit those in close proximity to the money spigot. In my early forties, I’m too young to know the exact form of capitalism that declared “victory” over socialism all those years ago and the safeguards that were put in place to ensure it didn’t metastasize into the cancer that its current iteration has become, this virus has exposed the nakedness of the emperor in the most spectacular way. What’s disheartening is that there’s no collective soul searching happening in the upper echelons of power, instead the pockets of those close to the money spigot are being lined with cash to mop up the distressed assets that will litter the land at the end of crisis.

  6. Alex morfesis

    Eleanor and Teddy Roosevelt were capitalists…Ike was a capitalist…Patton was a capitalist…Marcus Garvey was a capitalist…MLK and Malcolm X practiced capitalism. Having worked on attempts at starting a few grocery co ops, worker co ops and credit unions, the human capital needed to make a co op work in America does not exist in almost any form. The majority of the organizations chanting about co ops are just tail biting training orgs with a huge failure rate…

    Despite what some might attempt to suggest, Paul Robeson lived a very capitalist life.

    What passes today for capitalism is simply cronyism…

    1. Arizona Slim

      Preach it, Alex!

      I have been employed by one co-op and worked for another organization that promoted co-ops. And, yes, I personally experienced what you said about human capital. It just wasn’t there.

      Hate to say it, but I found that the co-ops were magnets for, shall we say, people who couldn’t make it elsewhere. And that was just what those co-ops did NOT need.

    2. Pym of Nantucket

      I agree very much that today two people can be saying the words capitalism, communism, socialism and even fascism and be thinking of very different things. Simple terms are needed but more recently they are a barrier to communicating the problem.

      I think what is out of control is financialization and under that is a very nasty problem more related to how money comes into existence. The fundamental issue is that for most people currency acts like a commodity and those people are told that there is not enough “money” for healthcare, education or things that improve social mobility. For that tranche of society the penury is real.

      Then, at another tier of society, currency is not fuel for the machine, but lubricant, and folks in the star chamber can simply create it at will in staggering amounts. Is it surprising that mandarins close to the top are the mouths fed first? The trickle down comes out their rear ends and hopefully fertilizes some green shoots down with the very unwashed masses.

      How could we possibly think a system where the wealthy can fabricate money for themselves would work ? The lack of outrage is simply amazing to behold.

      1. lyman alpha blob

        Financialization is the inevitable endgame of a system that requires constant growth in order to survive.

        It all starts out OK – creating capital to mass produce needed goods and services. But at some point everyone has everything they could possibly need. Then they have everything they could possibly want. For the capitalist to achieve further growth, labor arbitrage and crapification come into play to increase profits by reducing expenses.

        Then when you can’t make things any cheaper or crappier, financialization comes into play as the capitalists begin to devour each other, which is what we are seeing on a large scale today with private equity, etc.

        Instead of doing anything productive, it becomes mere money grubbing.

        1. Pym of Nantucket

          They would argue that the economy then shifts to things that humans don’t need. The growth is in leisure and luxury. The most valuable company in the world is selling a phone/government surveillance platform for $1500 and people are fighting to get them, even in countries with much lower personal incomes.

          Like so many change issues, our own brainwashed state is the main barrier to getting to a greater world. A great deal of us who want change admittedly are part of the problem. One thing I am happy to see in the past couple weeks is how many of us are realizing we can do without a lot of the crap we have been striving for. It’s a bit like when the mirror cracks in The Lady if Shalott, except here now the curse is lifted.

        2. a different chris

          >But at some point everyone has everything they could possibly need.

          But note we got to the point where there was as much as everyone could possibly need but it was quite ill-distributed.

    3. diptherio

      Since co-ops have again become fashionable in the last 10 years or so, this is probably true:

      The majority of the organizations chanting about co ops are just tail biting training orgs with a huge failure rate.

      I’ve publicly criticized more than one of them. However, as the Sufis say, “there would be no counterfeiters if real gold did not exist.”

      Real gold:

      There are far more worker co-ops than most people are aware of, and there is a surprisingly broad-based network of support organizations to help them. There are also a lot of nonprofit industrial complex types padding their paychecks with grants to set up worker co-ops, despite not having experience in either cooperative practice, or business.

      Not everyone has the wherewithal to start and run a co-op, but there are plenty of people who do. And the cooperative model is one that has a long history among people being left out by the status quo economy.

      So while, as Fr. Jose Maria Arizmendiarrietta said of the Mondragon co-op, “this is not heaven and we are not angels,” co-ops have, and still can, provide much that the capitalist system (or whatever you want to call what we have now) does not.

      1. alex morfesis

        would love to see the us economy at 20% coops and credit unions…the swiss have the WIR and yes spain is much more ahead of the curve, as are the swiss as their largest grocers are techinically coops as also if not the top, then one of the top six grocers in the uk is also a coop…and the grocery coops in the uk were once over 25% of the market…

        but that still does not bring us to ever having a wholesale take over of the economy and it does not need to take it over to be effective as you properly point out..

    4. coboarts

      Without venturing as far as you’ve gone, researching the possibility for creating a co-op here in CA exposed exactly what you’ve stated – better just go with LLC, perhaps held in a trust. And if anyone wants to help me here, this is to shift some of the operations of the nonprofit where I serve on the board into an economic development role.

    5. Massinissa

      MLK and Malcolm X? Really?

      From MLK:

      “I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic… [Capitalism] started out with a noble and high motive… but like most human systems it fell victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today capitalism has out-lived its usefulness.”
      – Letter to Coretta Scott, July 18, 1952.

      “And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth.’ When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society…”
      –Speech to Southern Christian Leadership Conference Atlanta, Georgia, August 16, 1967.

      “Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis.”
      –Speech to Southern Christian Leadership Conference Atlanta, Georgia, August 16, 1967.

      MLK might not have been an anticapitalist per se, but he sure was sceptical of capitalism. or at least its excesses. I can find the same kinds of quotes from Malcolm, but I think I’ve mostly proven my point.

      Also, what the hell does Patton’s politics have to do with anything? In fact, that entire list seems random and disjointed. Why is a known racist like Teddy included next to Garvey, MLk and Malcolm? Why is Patton, who thought soldiers with PTSD were cowardly sissies, included, when he doesn’t even have anything to do with politics or economic thought?

      1. alex morfesis

        Patton did not have anything to do with politics or capitalism…he called FDR frank since Pattons father was an attorney for the Huntington Family railroads…and might have lived next door or down the street from the Huntington Family…and FDR was his long time friend…

        and if he had not been (familyblogged) we would never have heard of one Richard M Nixon…Patton filled the Rose Bowl after ww2 and was expected to run for congress in that district…lucky for Nixon, whose grandpa was friends with the newspapers that wrote those wonderful things about Patton to try to open the door for Nixon whose gramps might have been someone sorta kinda self important in the California GOP…

        Malcolm & MLK were fighting for black folks to get their fair share of capitalist america…they were not foolish enough to imagine they would gain rights and change the system at the same time with a population which is and was less than 15% of the citizenry…but we all can cut and paste a few words in a larger context…

        Random and disjointed or complete and american..

    6. Lynne

      Unfortunately, having been at the unregulated mercy of several co ops, I can say that co ops are also cronyism. The REA and gas co ops enrich the management at the expense of customers. Last year, seniors who purchased propane on contract so they would have heat instead had no propane and no heat for a month over Christmas, while the “manager” of the co op and the board racked up huge debts with their personal side hustles (the manager with his gambling problem, and the board with their fuel bills that somehow never went into collection). It was ugly, resulted in a state investigation, and ended with a whimper and no prosecutions, but plenty of misrepresentations to the investigators who lacked the accounting savvy to understand they were being lied to, and a takeover by another company. The one whistleblower was fired.

  7. farmboy

    “growth in yesterday’s empty-world economy was reasonable — in today’s full-world economy it is not. It is now generally recognized that there is too much debt worldwide, both public and private. The reason so much debt was incurred is that we have had absurdly unrealistic expectations about growth. We never expected that growth itself would begin to cost us more than it was worth, making us poorer, not richer. But it did. And the only solution our economists, bankers, and politicians have come up with is more of the same! Could we not at least take a short time-out to discuss the idea of a steady-state economy?”
    Herman Daly 2011, distinguished career at World Bank

    1. Pym of Nantucket

      I believe that perception of the prisoner’s dilemma creates fear of a no-growth economy. To choose no growth only works if everybody agrees on that approach. Historically the societies that has prevailed have been the ones that grew the most (there may be some exceptions but it is a fairly reliable general rule). You might think we are in a modern era and have moved past that thinking but I believe it is alive and well.

  8. Felix_47

    The criticism is valid but in this case had we just universally worn masks starting in January or even February and instituted case follow up the outbreak would have been controlled at reasonable cost. Until a vaccine is developed, and that is not a sure thing, everyone should wear masks. That is the only way asymptomatic carriers can be kept from infecting others to a large degree since nothing is 100%. We had many simple methods to control this before it got out of hand. That is what is upsetting. Wolfe is right about capitalism but it is apparent the southern older blacks and upper middle class suburban people are happy with the current system and they vote unlike the rest. They are more interested in appearances than substance and they have their benefits already.

  9. eyebear

    Capitalism is good for accounting – you can “see” if your feelings are in line with your double entry accounting. Does anyone remember, when we inserted the “zero” into our everyday knowledge? 1340… Genoa … Lubeck .. how small was the world in medieval times…

    Seriously: Capitalism is not our problem now – we need testing, isolating and tracking – and a good working public health service. Capitalism has nothing to do with it!

    1. a different chris

      Capitalism has everything to do with it. It’s why hospitals get shut if they have “not enough” occupancy, and that number rises and rises.

      >we need testing, isolating and tracking – and a good working public health service.

      All things we would have had if capitalism didn’t get in the way. And saying it’s “not our problem now” is like saying the bully went home for lunch so everything’s cool. He’s going to show up as soon as he gets another opportunity.

      1. eyebear

        Sorry, no. Capitalism is the only societal organisation which enables the individual to grasp his own fate with his hands and try to change it. There is no formula how capitalism has to be designed in a political way – you can do it with a dictatorship or feudalism or with a democracy.
        There is no way around doing the job, which has to be done now. And those jobs have to be done locally – since the advent of the 1st pandemic disease.

        Fun fact: every time the disease ended, the wages have gone up! So it’s like always with these pandemics: Just try not to die!

      1. eyebear

        Yes – and guess what – they had captalism in medieval times and they had the plague – together. So this is now the time to learn some italian words – quarantine derives from the italian word for the number forty.
        So, it’s like ever when such pandemics arrive in your society – just try not to die.

        This article doesn’t help in any meaningful way for the current situation in the english speaking countries – it would have been better, Jerri-Lynn Scofield wouldn’t have published this nonsense.

    2. eg

      Well, except for the way that it has shaped our world in its most recent neoliberal variant. In that sense it very much has something to do with it.

      Oh, and also the “but how are you going to pay for it?” response it generates to public health initiatives that would better prepare us for pandemic, along with any other attempt to provision the public good. Feh.

      So sure, other than that, what’s capitalism got to do with it? (with apologies to Monty Python and “what have the Romans ever done for us?”)

  10. Nels Nelson

    It was Keynes who said that capitalism requires the belief in that the wickedest of men will do the wickedest of things for the good of others. The reverence for markets to miraculously guide people to consumer nirvana through the price signal totally ignores that which is unseen and that is that prices do not include or often hide the costs of the wastes that industrial economies produce. Those costs are capitalism’s profits. Attempts to internalize those externalities are seen as interference by governments in the efficient operation of markets. The role of government is to see the public is protected from this perverse system which operates under the “Golden Rule”. Those that own the gold make the rules. I hope the current crisis will kickstart the second part of Polanyi’s double movement and see us proles get out the pitchforks and sharpen the guillotines.

      1. Nels Nelson

        I took both undergraduate and graduate courses in environmental economics from Professor Daly over 40 years ago. Well schooled in the Steady State Economy and the failures of markets and capitalism.

    1. Lil’D


      Capitalism is fine for “business “ but will not support the public good.

      Coops for many firms and a clear governmental system for public goods

      Currently running privatization of profit and socializing costs can’t be good…

  11. TroyIA

    So no mention of China and their system that attempted to suppress information about the outbreak followed by outright lies about the severity. Then the ineptitude of the WHO in offering advice about how to fight the virus.

    Covid-19 has spread to at least 170 countries with 3+ billion people under some kind of movement restrictions. I guarantee you all those countries aren’t run as capitalist systems yet they will face just as much economic hardship.

    1. BlueCat

      This type of thinking seems false, since it ignores more basic features that undercut the feature of making an early *mistake* that was a necessary condition for later mistakes. Early mistakes/delays were irrelevant to the larger problem, since they did not prevent but enabled other countries (South Korea, Singapore) to respond using similar methods. That is, China gave sufficient (if imperfect) warning to other countries: those that actually responded properly to the public information about the virus succeeded. What actually *prevented* a quick solution was the inability of the United States and EU to respond with any centralized mechanism (lack of testing kits and infrastructure). WHO turned out to be completely correct about methods of preventing the disease, and those countries that cooperated with the WHO (not just China) managed to stop the disease (unlike the USA, that failed to produce its own testing kits). (In other words, it does not matter what component mistakes the WHO made, since those that cooperated with the WHO were successful in fixing the epidemic.)
      Early mistakes are also irrelevant since they did not originate the wider class of problems: pandemics of this sort will always occur inevitably (and there is also the issue of bioterrorism/bioweapons). Any attempt to emphasize China’s early mistakes/delays is a false framing of the problem, since this is equivalent to believing that other countries should be *dependent* on countries immediately suppressing the first emergence of a pandemic: that is, it prevents the actual robust solution to the class of problems (a secondary response mechanism, possessed by China, South Korea and others). What undercuts the issue of making a mistake is the issue of *preventing* or enabling the solution to the problem.
      Also, one has to remember the absolute/relative distinction, in comparing any response to other cases: the US origin of the 1918 Flu epidemic (originated in Kansas), failed response to the H1N1 pandemic, etc.
      Regarding ‘imperfect information’: any robust response to the problem has to incorporate risk analysis, and reliably make decisions at the face of imperfect information in the actual world. Hence, component ‘mistakes’ may be part of a more robust solution. That is, the *mistakes* that were made (in giving imperfect information) were equivalent to the act of testing if other systems were robust enough to handle actual real-world problems. It turns out that those other systems (at least in the West) were completely broken; and so the early mistakes/delays made by China served to expose more fully how completely broken the other systems were. Equivalently: the Chinese system could recover from mistakes, and use the mistakes to expose how other systems are completely (not partially) broken. If your own system can’t tolerate mistakes that others make, then it can’t work.

    2. Massinissa

      Even China is part of the capitalist system, albeit a State Capitalist one. Before the Coronavirus they didn’t even have any kind of single payer. If you didn’t have money for medical treatment you were SOL. Capitalism can exist alongside incredible authoritarianism like in China, though it can also exist without it, or at least, with less nakedly obvious authoritarianism.

      All countries aside from North Korea and maybe a few others are part of the globalized capitalist economic system, despite having a wide variety of governing sytsems.

  12. Information v. Noise

    Well-regulated capitalism, led by competent, non-corrupt government leaders, seems a better solution than some sort of super-charged cooperatives. Such a system would have a place for strong unions that could bargain with management for reasonable wages and a private social safety net that would complement an adequate public social safety net. It is not clear, intuitively or otherwise, why private cooperatives would solve today’s problems, especially those like pandemics that strike the whole of society. No disagreement here that many of the economic steps being taken in response to the current pandemic are misplaced and insufficient. As they were in response to the Great Recession. And that bad actors then, as today, are not paying the price for their missteps (if not crimes). It seems that no society can be fully prepared for each broad catastrophe that comes it way – how many different kinds of pandemics should we be prepared to confront? What about cyber-terorrism, which could equally cut our legs out – should we (can we) be prepared to fully respond and mitigate each and every kind of cyber-attack? Better prepared, yes. But being fully prepared seems to be an impossibility.

    The few cooperatives I’ve observed up close have as many or more problems than any other organized group that I’ve encountered. Labor unions achieved much good in the US since the early 20th Century, but they suffered from their own corruptions and inefficiencies. The US auto unions walked hand-in-hand with the auto companies into the disasters of the Great Recession. I grew up in a union family (teachers), but labor contracts that relegate incompetent teachers to isolation rooms because they can’t be fired never struck me as particularly efficient or beneficial.

    In my view, an educated, engaged, and empathetic public that demands competence and which rejects cronyism is the best foundation for addressing Prof. Wolff’s concerns. Until such a citizenry emerges, the rest of the discussion is moot.

    1. The Historian

      I suggest you read “Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail”, by Piven and Cloward. Most unions fail because the leadership gets co-opted by the 1%.

      As far as cooperatives, I’ve done a bit of study on them and there are some reasons why most fail:

      1. The people of the cooperatives must have a strong belief in themselves. That is why religious cooperatives, like the Amish, the Hutterites, the Mennonites. and the Mormons have lasted where so many have failed. All cooperatives go through tough times and they will fragment unless they have something holding them together.

      2. The cooperatives that succeed have a firm belief that everyone is necessary to their survival and that no job is to lowly for anyone to do. If a job has to be done, then everyone is responsible for doing that job. No one is too good or too important to muck out the pigpen if that is the job that has to be done. When some people start thinking they are too good or too important to do a particular job, the collective will fail.

      3. The cooperatives that succeed have no leaders – everyone in the community is involved in decision making. I can remember going to a Mennonite community and asking to see manager or leader of the group and a group of people telling me they had no one leader – that they all were leaders.

      4. If the cooperative has someone “in charge”, then that person serves at the will of the rest of the members and can be removed any time the rest of the group feels the leader isn’t doing a good job. I find that most often with Native American governments. Many of the co-ops of the 1800’s failed because one or a few people wanted to run them, but they weren’t the people who understood what needed to be done. Ideology and great thinking just does not put food on the table.

      There are other reasons as well why collectives fail – they aren’t utopias – they are just like any other form of government and have their problems, but the ones that succeed seem to treat their people much better than what I see from other forms of government.

        1. The Historian

          Thank you for that link. I particularly liked the list of references. I have some more reading to do!!!

          1. Information v. Noise

            Thank you both for the reading suggestions. I will peruse.

            Historian – the weaknesses you identify in cooperatives strike me as a quick summary of the human condition. Seems like a tough hurdle to overcome in the long run. Ideological socialism and communism sound good on paper too, until you plug in real people. The few cooperatives I’ve been exposed to personally (food, housing, credit unions, ditch companies, rural electric; and, maybe I should include multi-family homeowner associations) have traveled pretty rocky roads with mixed results. Also, I haven’t seen them scaled up with much success – although maybe local control and local effect is all that cooperatives are about. Perhaps my own limited experience with cooperatives colors my world-view too much; maybe Diptherio’s White Paper and your book suggestion will broaden my outlook.

            I guess someday we’ll figure out what the second worst form of organizing ourselves economically is, after all the others.

            1. Tom Bradford

              My very limited experience of co-operatives is being involved in a community effort to bring wi-fi – the only alternative to dial-up – to a very small rural community that was simply ‘uneconomic’ for any commercial provider to serve.

              There was a very steep learning curve for a small group of us in what was then 802.11b/g, backbones, IP schemes &tc but the community as a whole entrusted us with the money to buy the gear and help with labour and gear to build solar-powered access points on hill-tops &tc. We made it work, and one of the ways we were able to make it work was that neighbours would relay signals to other neighbours with no access to the local ap – something no commercial outfit could contemplate.

              Twelve years later the system is not only working well but has grown, and has also encouraged similar schemes in other remote, sparsely-populated areas not economic for the commercial boys to serve.

              Perhaps this isn’t quite the sort of co-op this article addresses – it’s lead by a small group of volunteers who are willing to pick up the know-how to make it go and who get rewarded with an annual cheque voted at the agm to cover their expenses and recognise their contribution. The rest of the community supports them with cash and, usually, labour or the use of a JCB if required.

              Yet it’s been going 12 years now – expanding as folk on the edges want to join and helping others beyond that form their own networks – and a commercial operator who looked at provided coverage in the area didn’t bother because it couldn’t compete ‘economically’.

              Perhaps the lesson here is that co-ops don’t need to be like the Mennonites, whatever that is, with everyone equally invested in ‘leadership’ or running the thing, or even with an equal say in the project. The bulk of the folk in our co-op don’t even understand what’s going on at the top. All they want is the bits and bytes coming out of their modems. Yet it works because no-one is looking to make a profit out if it – and indeed there isn’t a profit to be made from it. And because it has the support of the community.

    2. diptherio

      Well-regulated capitalism, led by competent, non-corrupt government leaders, seems a better solution than some sort of super-charged cooperatives.

      Yeah, and let’s throw in some magic sparkle-ponies while we’re at it!

      I think you need to spend some more time around some more cooperatives before you propound an opinion about co-ops. Like, if you’ve only observed “a few” maybe you don’t actually know much about cooperatives in general? If I said traditionally-owned businesses were a bad idea because I’d observed “a few” and they were poorly organized, would you take me seriously? Would anyone? But when it comes to co-ops, many people seem to think that if one co-op they know about is dysfunctional, they must all be. Real galaxy-brain thinking, that.

      You might want to look into the economy of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, which is dominated by worker co-ops. And maybe do a search for Cooperative Home Care Associates, Arizmendi Bakeries, or Isthmus Engineering while you’re at it.

      The question is not, “do cooperatives have problems?” Of course they do. The question is “what type of problems would you rather have?” I’ll take the cooperative problems, thank you very much, while you’re waiting around for these mythical competent, non-corrupt political leaders to keep capitalist firms from destroying everything.

      Would a more cooperatized economy fix all our problems? Of course not. Would we have better problems to deal with, and more direct methods of addressing those problems? Yes.

    3. Massinissa

      The problem is that well-regulated capitalism is always rolled back by the elites in favor of neoliberalism. the well regulated capitalism of the New Deal progressive era has been progressively rolled back by the owners of capital, back to unregulated neoliberal capitalism. What you call ‘cronyism’ is a situation endemic to capitalism, as capitalism regularly facilitates the capture of the state apparatus by the wealthy in society. Regulation is against their normal interests, and only in times of political pressure and external circumstances will such necessary regulations be applied. The New Deal was an anomaly created by circumstances rather than something that can be instituted and maintained indefinitely.

  13. farmboy

    next phase before recovery, Eggs or Anarchy by William Sitwell. Lord Woolton, Minister for Food during WW2 patching together feeding a nation at war. Planting and picking fresh crops in the coming months will be problematic in the US.

  14. Carolinian

    While almost all of us here are in favor of reforming or discarding capitalism, the notion that an ideology is responsible for great natural disasters and should have prevented them is, I think, a fallacy of intellectuals. Thus the author trots out the now standard “tests and ventilators” explanation for what is happening and the idea that a different president or economic system could have somehow stopped this. But as has been pointed out in comments over the last few days, if you are sick enough to require a ventilator then you are likely done for anyway unless younger and then the ventilator itself may cause long term damage. And while testing and contact tracing are important tools it’s surely a stretch to think that this global disease could have been somehow nipped in the bud here in the US.

    Where I live people are by and large cooperating with the only defense we have–self quarantine–and to the extent that, say, family members are endangering each other that may be because the medical establishment itself doesn’t yet seem to have a handle on the disease. First we are told not to wear masks, then we are told we should. The assertion that all of this should have been predicted and prepared for dissolves in the reality that it’s all new–“novel”–and the response may depend more human ingenuity than medical books and preparation.

    1. coboarts

      We’ve been watching movies for years about pandemics. We have multiple government agencies that are supposed to be constantly planning and preparing for worst case scenarios. There are private and NGO organizations gaming pandemic scenarios. And this is the best we can do? What’s wrong with this picture?

      1. Carolinian

        All true, but by and large the rest of the world isn’t doing particularly better than the US. Of course the rest of the world is also capitalist now so perhaps that supports the author’s thesis.

        But I’ll stand by my comment. The important thing is not to think you know what’s going to happen but to be flexible and creative and smart once the crisis occurs. History is full of examples of countries being gobsmacked by the things that should have been prepared for. The enemy may not be capitalism but rather human nature.

        1. coboarts

          You’re missing my point, but I’m fully in agreement that flexibility is required for the reals and that humans aren’t very good at it.

    2. JEHR

      I think that when the ecology becomes so disturbed and disrupted by the activities of human beings (and by the sheer numbers of human beings living on earth) creates the right environment for viruses to thrive. We human beings do not respect our earth: we loot it, we kill it, we abuse it, we pollute it, we destroy it. Why wouldn’t those actions alone bring about the right conditions for viruses to thrive? Maybe the resulting pandemic is what we ourselves have created and nurtured.

    3. Cuibono

      And while testing and contact tracing are important tools it’s surely a stretch to think that this global disease could have been somehow nipped in the bud here in the US.”
      Depends what precisely you mean by nipped in the bud… We could surely have averted a LOT of death

      1. Carolinian

        It’s the mechanism of infection that seems to be different. Those previous diseases were deadlier, this one far more infectious.

        And NYC, our principle infection site, was running subways and celebrating St Patrick’s Day etc long after they shouldn’t have. Just be sure when you say “we” you mean all of us.

  15. Paul D

    Start by banning private equity first.
    Then ban private companies above a certain size.
    Then ensure that every publicly-head company is mandated to have worker representation on the board.

    Until there’s societal accountability for corporations, we’ll never get out of this cycle of wealth concentration.

  16. davinati

    Though capitalism’s excesses are have always been inhumane, globalism is the chief villain here. It has allowed our elites to hollow out the economy by offshoring, destroying unions and stealing worker pensions as a bonus. The obsession for not paying taxes enabled by globalist tax havens has led to the wholesale purchase of the government at all levels at surprisingly little cost. This further led to unassailable multinational tax avoidance schemes as standard business practice. It also allowed such wonderful clintonite ‘reforms’ as consolidation of the media into half a dozen companies who regularly enforce ideology of ‘free’ trade and unfettered corporate dominance. The other pillars of globalism are the Reaganite deregulation of everything and particularly Clintonite repeal of Glass-Steagall leading to the complete finacilisaion of the economy and China’s unconditional induction into the WTO leading to the aforementioned hollowing out of economy. The most bizarre aspect of this system is collapse is built in as seen starting in 1987 crash, third world leading crisis, savings and loan crisis, East Asian currency crisis, Mexico solvacy crisis, LTCM crisis, dot com collapse, Global Financial crisis, Euro currency crisis, and now the covid pandemic. Hearing reports from Davos about academics being bombarded about questions about how to escape to boltholes in New Zealand instead of how to make the system more stable revealed how irresponsible and utterly incompetant the global elite actually is. Maybe the reports of locals not welcoming them with open arms will wake them up to the futility of this. Can’t imagine the Kiwis being docile, willing hosts to such an invasion. Though I doubt it will lead to self reflection and reform and only serve to fill the plane with precious metals, armaments and ex milartary state operatives. They are just going to need to buy bigger planes.

  17. Susan the other

    Henry Kissinger today talking about the importance of keeping public trust. God, that’s a good one.

    1. Massinissa

      China hasn’t had communism since Deng Xiaoping. They have incredibly authoritarian state capitalism. They didn’t even have an equivalent of single payer until this year. Previously in China, as in like last year, if you didn’t have money, there was no healthcare for you. Very different from the variant of socialism practiced by the late Soviet Union. China is really capitalism with extensive state control of major capitalist enterprises. Which is how its become so incredibly central to global capitalism and global manufacturing.

      Your mention of Germany, however, is actually a good point, considering how they are also on a fairly neoliberal capitalist model and seem to be handling the crisis better than France, a nation that is normally very comparable to Germany.

    2. eyebear

      Communism is a kind of feudality – the aristocracy has been swapped against an institution which manages the process of becoming a member of the elite. Capitalism is the only societal development in which a democracy can evolve. But it’s not neccessary – think of my german heritage – capitalism went on in feudalistic times until 1918.

      The situation in germany is a mixture of old societal developments from the middle ages, like the länder, which means that any kind of political power always has to be shared between the central government and the local governments. And: the cities play an important part of the struggle against the corona pandemic – every local public health department tries to follow the guidelines from the RKI (Robert Koch-Institute) and to adapt them to the local necessities.

      Tomorrow we will see a closure of the border to France – if the musings in the biggest tabloid are correct. We will see how this pandemonium unfolds…

  18. David in Santa Cruz

    Whoa Nellie! Capitalism, Socialism, Communism, Anarcho-Syndicalism… Do these systems really matter? None are workable on a planet laboring under the burden of an unprecedented population of 7.8 Billion human beings.

    This explosion of numbers has enabled the commoditization and financialization of people and their labor on an unprecedented scale. Natural resources have been exploited and wasted to the breaking point, leaving only people themselves left to be mined for value by the rise of a global kleptocracy never before seen.

    Like any criminal enterprise, the global kleptocracy must rely on lies in order to survive. The lies that elites, be they feudal lords, religious leaders, the vanguard of the proletariat, or whatever other nonsense justifies their lying hustle, are “deserving” of more than the rest.

    Pandemics have indeed been with us since before the dawn of history. They thrive best when science and truth are suppressed, as they are so effectively in the cacophony of the Internet. The current pandemic should come as no surprise, nor should anyone be shocked that it has served to accelerate further looting by the global kleptocracy, like the six-trillion dollar U.S. corporate kleptocrat bail-out.

    However, we will be 8 Billion by 2023, even considering the few hundred thousand deaths from the current pandemic. The scramble for scarce natural resources will only serve to strengthen the global kleptocracy and further immiserate the vast mass of humanity, however they might organize themselves in this post-truth world.

    We’re on the Titanic and we’ve already hit the iceberg…

  19. Dang Me

    Although capitalism can be rightly criticized, it seems to be doing quite well. I would never have imagined another financial bailout could take place but it went through as easy as pie and still no complaints.

    The natural state of rule in the world is an authoritarian regime because it provides benefits and protections. At this time, the US is looking for protection so well prepared to surrender particularly when 401(k) balances and employer-sponsored health plans are at stake by the voting class.

    The non-voting class must be appeased but are not yet a factor. Until they are, capitalism has it made. We shall see how long the non-voting class can be controlled.

    If the elites can reboot captialism, I would not be at all surprised if the world becomes more capitalistic rather than less.

  20. Cuibono

    Where you see failure others see glowing success : Trillions worth and counting…
    What is not to like?

    “Let them eat hydroxy chloroquine” err cake

  21. Eric Anderson

    The third reason capitalism gets blame here is that alternative systems—those not driven by a profit-first logic—could manage viruses better.
    Wow! A lot of personal values packed into this line. Certainly doesn’t recognize profit as an accelerant.

  22. Nick Alcock

    You’re surely right about the ventilators (though the things are bulky and don’t last forever, and storing enough for a *pandemic* would be wildly inefficient: it’s more sensible to retain rapidly retoolable, local productive capacity so you can build such things rapidly at need).

    But… how on earth could anyone stockpile tests for a virus new to humanity in advance? Regardless of what economic model one is using, no tests could be made before the virus’s RNA was known, and some classes of test (antibody tests, for instance) require more than that: attempts to produce such tests have foundered expensively already, and no doubt will again. There’s no way anyone could have started producing tests before the middle of January. That most countries didn’t bother is worthy of condemnation, indeed (as is the fact that most countries couldn’t produce a lot of tests with good-enough reliability fast enough even if they wanted to, even once they knew how to do it), but stockpiling before that is a pipe-dream. The real problem is exponential growth: once the virus runs away and the curve tilts upwards, more tests are needed than anyone could practically produce. Changing your economic model isn’t a cure-all, and this it could not have fixed.

    1. Jeff W

      …no tests could be made before the virus’s RNA was known, and some classes of test (antibody tests, for instance) require more than that: attempts to produce such tests have foundered expensively already, and no doubt will again.

      As I noted in this comment:

      From this [March 19] Reuters piece “How South Korea trounced the U.S. in race to test for coronavirus”:

      In late January [27 January], South Korean health officials summoned representatives from more than 20 medical companies from their Lunar New Year celebrations to a conference room tucked inside Seoul’s busy train station.

      “…We believed that it could develop into a pandemic,” one attendee, Lee Sang-won, an infectious diseases expert at the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Reuters.

      “We acted like an army,” he said.

      Seven weeks after the train station meeting, the Koreans have tested well over 290,000 people and identified over 8,000 infections. New cases are falling off: Ninety-three were reported Wednesday [19 March], down from a daily peak of 909 two weeks earlier.

      The US and Korea each had its first coronavirus case on 20 January.

  23. Arthur Wilke

    Wolff portrays the outbreak and responses to Covid-19 to 1) capitalism’s failure to “protect and maintain public health and safety,” presumably by redundant, well maintained emergency supplies for treating acute illness emergencies, 2) diversionary reporting, commentary and politicians’ talk that excludes a criticism of capitalism, and 3) a narrow focus on profit based on prevailing notions of market “efficiency” that undervalue worst-case contingency preparations. The Covid-19, Wolf writes, “is now bringing that truth home to people.” This variant of the immiseration thesis – misery provoked thought and action – sidesteps the challenges many faced and continue to face and on which there are anecdotes and assessments that, for example, a number of drugs aren’t produced because they are orphan drugs – have therapeutic value for only a small portion of the population, are highly efficacious, inexpensive drugs for desperate people do not calculate in the business model and profitability projections in place that, among other things entail regulatory evasion regarding property rights, promoting alternative uses of existing drugs, purchasing generic drug manufacturers and returns based on flooding messages to physicians, would be patients and current patients. Often price, not the efficacy of the drugs are promoted. Meanwhile, for some time major sectors of the economic order have exhibited what Minsky described as instability though critiques based on this haven’t penetrated significant command posts nor intellectual centers and it doesn’t will occur now.

    What several comments on the Wolff piece have noted, there’s a lot of civic-spirited action related to the Covid-19 outbreak that’s observed. Something that might be more profitable to celebrate and promote that talk about a failed “system.” At the same time, there are system challenges, especially in logistics, that: a) may modify Wolff’s system criticism, and b) involve radical, possibly necessary, changes in the lives in which many of us are enmeshed.

    At the outset, in terms of logistics – getting things from here to there – in an efficient way isn’t limited to problematic profit-making capitalism and inept political leadership. Production and distribution matters attend any system, capitalist or not, an in contemporary affairs this is apparent when instead of focusing on an acute medical delivery crisis, it’s recognized that any significant crisis can provoke logistical problems. To illustrate this, take the case of the observed run on super markets. While a few get-rich hoarders, as witness some distributors on Amazon, have exploited the epidemic, many people are operating, not unlike rational subprime borrowers prior to the 2008-9 Great Recession. The latter, sometimes aided and abetted by participants in what Black tags systematic dangerous institutions, facilitated things like “liar’s loans,” many desperate people, nonetheless, reckoned to plunge in the housing market as a rational “now or never” maneuver that was encouraged by all nature of commentary and actions in life-time terms “always” went up.

    In the current logistical situation I’ll illustrate logical actions with the saga of the seeming shortage of toilet paper. In production terms, there’s no shortage of toilet paper or at least the right kind. The problem entails the production of toilet paper and related logistics.

    Supermarket consumers began experiencing the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak by admonitions to and some directives to “shelter in place” as businesses began to close. One of the problems following the directives is that the distribution of body elimination functions shifted significantly to households. With that, this put a strain on the supply of household toilet paper. Most non-hoarding people began to calculate they would need more which, in terms of the law of large numbers, disrupted the usual supply chain. (If we were to follow Wolff, a noncapitalist system would have a redundant supply of household toilet paper).

    As proclamations of “shelter in place” came to the forefront and preparing for the contingency of being self-quarantined for 14 days, the calculated need for toilet paper intensified (despite the fact that the vast majority of people will not be quarantined), calculated “needs” for toilet paper intensified.

    What about toilet paper used in various businesses, offices, schools, etc.? There is an abundance. However it is often produced in ways not designed for household use. Large, single ply paper is the norm. And even if there were volunteers, the rewinding and repacking of it would be problematic. With less problematic products, food banks for example, are not equipped to repackage large bulk items (e.g., cheese) and even if they were, many whose work force is older are less inclined to volunteer during the current outbreak.

    Asking manufacturers to repurpose their production of toilet paper may also entail problems, especially for single-ply, large roll production. And then there’s the contingency, will a business meet contractual obligations should the crisis abate?

    There are reports of logistical problems in the production of distribution of agricultural products such as milk and eggs. In some local markets, there’s a surplus of milk and recommendations are for farmers to dump milk. In other areas, egg prices are skyrocketing. Some of these conditions may be beyond uniform, nation-wide logistical operations. And calls for militarizing logistics, aside from concerns of such mobilizations, are generally long term operations which entail their own logistical challenges, although the construction of focused projects such as field hospitals is efficient and could have been operationalized by more competent leaders

    If we go through the list of household purchased commodities under conditions of “shelter in place” and “prepare for 14 days of isolation,” combined with the shifts in consumption (and elimination) patterns, the orderliness and civility many who have the means to buy things exhibit is remarkable. For rock-ribbed libertarian Republicans (for those with the means bid up the price and get all that one desires) there are complaints of a “loss of freedom.” It might be well to direct attention on these folk while commending civility of the multitude as a step in celebrating what people do. Maybe with such success, new critiques and institutions might be nurtured. Such are the situations many of us encounter with one another. And the encounters are more substantive than stories of a few hoarders and seemingly endless moralizing talk, orchestrated electoral politics disputes and idealist proposals regarding awareness of abstract system failings even as manifestations of the latter swirl about.

  24. Jeff

    We don’t trust. That’s why it looks like the system is broken. Capitalism the system is ok. The problem is that we’ve been hoodwinked for decades to believe that politicians”do the people’s business” when in reality they are giving us the business.

    Banks, airlines, carmakers, government, realtors, appliance makers, and on and on. I trust Costco, trader joes and the great burrito place down the street. That’s about it.

    Sad, huh?

    1. John

      Capitalism already has a good dose of socialism for the owners of capital. That $4.5 Trillion the Fed is going to be cranking out on their keyboards ain’t going to the workers.
      It’s always interesting to see generals prepare for and fight the last war. That stimulus bill last Friday is so 2008.
      I hope somebody is thinking about the summer hurricane and fire season.
      Mother Nature could be doing a double tap to make the point. You folks want unlimited growth? Look how the weather grows.

    2. Shiloh1

      Capitalism needs saving via a good dose of bankruptcies of the incompetent and corrupt companies, just as the original system intended.

  25. Aumua

    Great to see Prof. Wolff getting some airplay recently on NC. He just gets right down to the point, doesn’t he? I’ve been a fan for a while now.

    Also it’s interesting to see the support for, knee-jerk reactions against and also thoughtful criticism of his kind of world view. This thread has given me a lot to think about and look into. I have long maintained that a whole discussion of our definitions of words like Capitalism, Communism and worker co-op are necessary before we can have any real discussion on those topics. These words are tossed around very casually as if everyone knows what they mean, but behind our faces it is clear we have some very different ideas.

  26. VietnamVet

    FDR’s New Deal floundered when the USA became an Empire. Draftees refused to fight a colonial war in Vietnam. Civil Rights movements demanded everyone be treated the same. To remain in charge, the Elite mounted a counter revolt in the 1980s that created a simplified fake global free trade scheme ruled by aristocrats where profits define everything. Governments are secondary whose function was to pacify the riff-raff and foam the runway for the wealthy.

    In every crisis since 1963 US federal government has proven to be an incompetent failure. The Coronavirus Pandemic is just the latest example. What corporate media and the beneficiaries of the system avoid mentioning is that this is intentional.

    The only possible outcome of the pandemic are more failed states across the world including the West. The only alternative is a professional middle-class counter revolt to reestablish regulated capitalism and the primacy of democratic Constitutional government that works for the people. Unfortunately, more likely, are wide swaths of no-man’s lands around military nuclear armed feudal enclaves that drone deplorables who get to close to the barbed-wire.

  27. Sound of the Suburbs

    Keynesian, demand side economics is terrible.
    Don’t you remember the 1970s?
    Oh yeah.

    Neoclassical, supply side economics is terrible.
    Don’t you remember the 1930s?
    No, that was too long ago.

    Come on.
    Don’t you remember the last time the Americans believed in free markets in the 1920s, and they equated inflating asset prices with real wealth creation?
    The American economy turned into a ponzi scheme of inflated asset prices that collapsed in 1929.
    No, that was too long ago.

    Come on.
    Don’t you remember when the Americans let the reckless bankers and robber barons run riot in the 1920s, and they brought capitalism to its knees in the 1930s?
    No, that was too long ago.

    Sanders and Corbyn were unlucky; people still remembered when Keynesian ideas went wrong in the 1970s.
    The globalists were lucky; there ideas were so old no one remembered when their ideas went wrong in the 1930s.
    We threw the baby out with the bathwater in the 1980s and lost everything that had been learned in the 1930 and 1940s.

    Financial liberalisation sounds like a good idea doesn’t it policymakers?
    From their perspective it did, as everything that had been learnt in the 1930s and 1940s had been lost.
    Bankers make the most money when they are driving your economy towards a financial crisis, and the last time US bankers made as much money as they did before the 2008 was in the 1920s.
    “Show me the incentive and I’ll show you the outcome” Warren Buffet’s partner Charlie Munger
    Oh dear.

    The use of neoclassical economics and not knowing how banks really work ensures policymakers can’t see the problems that will develop.
    What’s wrong with neoclassical economics?
    The belief in the markets and price discovery makes everyone equate rising asset prices with real wealth creation, e.g. real estate and stocks.
    Bank credit starts flowing into inflating asset prices and debt starts to rise faster than GDP.
    The economy crashes in a Minsky Moment, e.g. 1929 and 2008.
    At 18 mins.
    If you don’t save the banks you get a Great Depression.
    If you save the banks but leave the debt in place you get a balance sheet recession and the economy struggles with the repayments on all that debt.

    Can you see when the UK started using neoclassical economics?
    (It isn’t hard)
    Before 1980 – banks lending into the right places that result in GDP growth (business and industry, creating new products and services in the economy)
    Debt grows with GDP
    After 1980 – banks lending into the wrong places that don’t result in GDP growth (real estate and financial speculation)
    Debt rises faster than GDP
    2008 – Minsky Moment and financial crisis
    After 2008 – Balance sheet recession and the economy struggles as debt repayments to banks destroy money. We are making the repayments on the debt we built up from 1980 – 2008.

    Our knowledge of banks has been going backwards since 1856.
    Credit creation theory -> fractional reserve theory -> financial intermediation theory
    “A lost century in economics: Three theories of banking and the conclusive evidence” Richard A. Werner
    Milton Freidman was on the right track with monetarism, but he used the “fractional reserve theory” of banking, so it didn’t work.
    Things then got worse and policymakers started using “financial intermediation theory”. Now they could convince themselves that debt doesn’t matter and we were really in trouble.

    World leaders systematically crashed their economies because they used neoclassical economics and didn’t know how banks worked.
    Japan led the way and everyone followed.
    At 25.30 mins you can see the super imposed private debt-to-GDP ratios.
    What Japan does in the 1980s; the US, the UK and Euro-zone do leading up to 2008 and China has done more recently.
    The PBoC saw the Minsky Moment coming unlike the BoJ, ECB, BoE and the FED, by looking at private debt-to-GDP ratio.
    Steve Keen saw 2008 coming in 2005 by looking at the private debt-to-GDP ratio.
    It shows you when bankers are using bank credit to inflate asset prices.

    1. Sound of the Suburbs

      At the end of the 1920s, the US was a ponzi scheme of over-inflated asset prices.
      The use of neoclassical economics and the belief in free markets, made them think that over-inflated asset prices represented real wealth accumulation.
      1929 – Wakey, wakey time

      The Americans worked it out in the 1930s, but had forgotten again by the 1980s.
      Where had all that wealth gone to?
      In the 1930s, they pondered over where all that wealth had gone to in 1929 and realised inflating asset prices doesn’t create real wealth, they came up with the GDP measure to track real wealth creation in the economy.
      The transfer of existing assets, like stocks and real estate, doesn’t create real wealth and therefore does not add to GDP. The real wealth creation in the economy is measured by GDP.
      Inflated asset prices aren’t real wealth, and this can disappear almost over-night, as it did in 1929 and 2008.
      Real wealth creation involves real work, producing new goods and services in the economy.

      That’s why we are getting all the real estate busts.
      1990s – UK, US (S&L), Canada (Toronto), Scandinavia, Japan, Philippines, Thailand
      2000s – Iceland, Dubai, US (2008), Vietnam
      2010s – Ireland, Spain, Greece, India
      Get ready to put Australia, Canada, Norway, Sweden and Hong Kong on the list.
      Inflated asset prices are just inflated asset price, nothing more.

      Henry Simons was a founder member of the Chicago School of Economics and he had worked out what was wrong with his beliefs in free markets in the 1930s.
      Banks can inflate asset prices with the money they create from bank loans.
      Henry Simons and Irving Fisher supported the Chicago Plan to take away the bankers ability to create money.
      “Simons envisioned banks that would have a choice of two types of holdings: long-term bonds and cash. Simultaneously, they would hold increased reserves, up to 100%. Simons saw this as beneficial in that its ultimate consequences would be the prevention of “bank-financed inflation of securities and real estate” through the leveraged creation of secondary forms of money.”
      Real estate lending was actually the biggest problem lending category leading to 1929.
      Richard Vague had noticed mortgage lending balloon from 5 trillion to 10 trillion from 2001 – 2007 and went back to look at the data before 1929.

      Henry Simons and Irving Fisher supported the Chicago Plan to take away the bankers ability to create money.
      “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” Irving Fisher 1929.
      This 1920’s neoclassical economist that believed in free markets knew this was a stable equilibrium. He became a laughing stock, but worked out where he had gone wrong.
      Banks can inflate asset prices with the money they create from bank loans, and he knew his belief in free markets was dependent on the Chicago Plan, as he had worked out the cause of his earlier mistake.
      Margin lending had inflated the US stock market to ridiculous levels.

      The IMF re-visited the Chicago plan after 2008.

      Why did it cause the US financial system to collapse?
      Bankers get to create money out of nothing, through bank loans, and get to charge interest on it.
      What could possibly go wrong?
      Bankers do need to ensure the vast majority of that money gets paid back, and this is where they keep falling flat on their faces. Banking requires prudent lending.
      If someone can’t repay a loan, they need to repossess that asset and sell it to recoup that money. If they use bank loans to inflate asset prices they get into a world of trouble when those asset prices collapse.
      As the real estate and stock market collapsed the banks became insolvent as their assets didn’t cover their liabilities.
      They could no longer repossess and sell those assets to cover the outstanding loans and they do need to get most of the money they lend out back again to balance their books.
      The banks become insolvent and collapsed, along with the US economy.

  28. Lee

    So what’s the solution NC, rather than continously posting pretty much the same critiques of the system??

    1. Yves Smith

      Please read our site Policies on “Assignments”. We don’t take them, particularly when the ask is on the order of “And why haven’t you put on an Aida matinee yet?”

      Your request and your posting under multiple handles are both rule violations. You are treading on thin ice.

  29. Kirk Seidenbecker

    In today’s world the title of Wolff’s article should be ‘Rentier Capitalism has Failed in Fighting the Coronavirus.’ Rent-seeking is the economic virus, made worse by captured policy makers.
    Favorite Keynes quote – “… the euthanasia of the rentier…” Here’s an extended bit of chapter 24 of his General Theory from where this was written –

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