Parasite and Virus: the Political Economy of American Empire in the Coronavirus Pandemic
As the US reigns supreme as the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, much of what is obscured about the US economy in normal times has been laid bare and new dynamics have been set in motion. Many are legitimately pointing out that minimum wage laborers play a more essential role than they are given credit for, providing much more value than what they are paid for. There is definitely truth to this. With unprecedented numbers of people facing unemployment and ever-shifting definitions of essential workers, millions are being held hostage between exposure to the virus on the one hand, and losing paychecks, homes, benefits, etc, on the other. The precariousness of people’s lives in the wealthiest country on earth is being exposed in a whole new light.
But let’s pull back the lens because there is much more to be seen.
There is enormous wealth in the world today — massive infrastructure, extraordinary luxury and also just mounds and mounds of stuff. And so much of this stuff seems to be floating around the United States even today. Some of that flow has been disrupted, but even that disruption seems to be more a matter of transitioning to a new normal rather than a lack of goods. How is that surplus sustained when so many people are out of work, and not producing anything? Even as people begin to realize that they, or the people around them may not be able to afford what they need now or in the very near future, most of the stuff itself seems to be there. In fact, food is getting destroyed because it can’t be distributed in the same ways, and the price of oil has dropped below zero. Obviously most americans don’t actually manufacture any necessities but… well, if you start thinking about that, then that leads to a whole lot of other questions…
The US is a parasitic society, where even the “essential” workforce is overwhelmingly concentrated in transportation/logistics and service industries, not manufacturing and production. This has a lot of implications. But one important implication is that, while the great majority of people living in this country are dependent on what are being deemed essential workers, the capitalists who comprise the imperialist ruling class are not so dependent on those workers. The foundation of most of their wealth is largely in the third world. As Raymond Lotta has written, “80 percent of world trade flows through, and one in five jobs worldwide is linked to, global supply chains. These vast, interconnected networks of exploitation are the backbone of the imperialist world economy. They cheapen the cost of the raw materials and parts that enter into production carried out in the U.S. The low-priced consumer goods produced by super-exploited workers in the “Global South” cheapens the cost of labor power in the U.S. Out of these production networks surplus value (profit) is siphoned, concentrated, and distributed upward and upward to the imperialist banks, investor groups, and firms like Walmart, GM, and Apple.”
He goes on to say that “These grids of production are also the invisible foundation of the “consumer society” of the rich capitalist countries — so utterly irrational and so utterly wasteful that if everyone in the world lived as Americans do, it would take the resources of four or five Earths.”
Bob Avakian has laid out that “It is important to understand that, contrary to the prevailing notions of bourgeois economics, value is not “added” in the commercial sphere, through the sale of the product; instead, what happens through such commercial transactions is the realization of value that has already been created through the application of variable capital, that is, the exploitation of wage-labor, in the process of production.” The distribution of goods is not incidental — it clearly is necessary in sustaining life. But in terms of the capitalist-imperialist system, this is just the details. Problems here can be worked out with minimal disruption. A most disconcerting fact: as righteous as it is for people working retail in the imperialist cores to demand and receive a living wage, even that money is extracted from the profits of third-world exploitation.
On the other hand, 11% of the GDP of the US is in manufacturing and 1% in agricultural production. A small percentage, but like the lack of production, the content of what America produces is also being exposed by this pandemic. Chemical production far outstips other manufacturing. It’s largely dependent on fossil fuels, employs less than one million people nationwide, and is largely geared towards supporting other industries (like producing fertilizer), not products for consumers. Cattle, soy, and some other agricultural production exists, much of which is overwhelmingly structured on the super-exploitation of migrant and immigrant labor. There is also oil, natural gas and coal production in the US. Each of these industries are heavily subsidized by the state, geared towards export, and propped up to influence global markets and politics in directions favorable to US imperialism. In large part, the agricultural workforce is marginalized and oppressed, ‘without any rights a white man is bound to respect,’ placed in a position where organizing for their economic interests can lead to deportation or worse. The fossil fuel workforce is propped up by the wages of white supremacy, and now consciously organized in pro-industry unions in direct opposition to the interest of humanity as global warming ravishes the earth. Lastly, the Military Industrial Complex employs millions in the production of weapons of imperialist war and the support structure to deploy those weapons. The basic thread that ties together the great majority of production in the US is that it exists not to provide sustenance to the population, but to maintain control over a global empire, while its workers are significantly compromised from any kind of organized proletarian political position.
Simultaneously more exposed than ever, we see how tens of millions of Black and brown people living in this country have been warehoused in penitentiaries and ghettos for decades, deemed less than human because they cannot be profitably exploited by this system. In the prisons under the conditions of the pandemic, every parole violation has turned into a potential death sentence. While for the ”free” population, the virus kills Black and Latino people at significantly higher rates than whites due to the health issues attributed to the harder lives of many oppressed people and medical apartheid.
So we see in the richest of all countries tens of millions cast off as subhuman, tens of millions more part of an ever-more-desperate but never essential legitimate economy, only now realizing how easily they can be cast aside. Another set of tens of millions who make little to nothing in jobs that are so essential to the continued distribution of goods that they are all but forced at gunpoint to maintain regular exposure to the virus. The ranks of medical professionals are now daily fighting a losing battle against a pandemic without the most basic protections, even as the extraordinarily inflated US medical industry is the most profitable in the world. All of this as we drift towards a fascist, globally warmed, future on the flotsam of third world misery.
What does all of this mean for those who see the multiple disasters and crises unfolding in front of our eyes and want to affect real change?
Well, one thing must that be recognized first is that while it may seem that we’re floating along on all of this, capitalism is churning the waters and there are definite currents pushing things in definite directions. It’s not a secret cabal meeting around a table, but through its most basic mechanisms this system recognizes opportunity, and uses every crisis to reorganize itself on higher levels in novel ways. Some blocs of capital may be pushed aside if they cannot compete in any new situation but others are ready and willing to fill the role. And the political representatives of various factions of imperialists are feverishly working to take advantage of this crisis, with the fascists in power seizing the initiative in the halls of power and in the streets with their mass mobilizations. A full analysis of the political platforms shaping up in response to this crisis is beyond the scope of this article. But what this does make clear is that the fascists are not unleashing their hordes because they ‘need the workers to go back to work.’ it is not merely a question of putting profit over people. It is a conscious political battle over the role of science in society, over the expendability of human life, and the further normalization that some categories are much more expendable than others, all the while being able to seize on this crisis to advance the agenda they have been fighting for for the last three years. And the bourgeois democratic agenda, insofar as one is being fought for at all, is more crystal clear than ever. It has nothing to do with producing the necessities of life, and everything to do with redistributing the spoils of a parasitic empire.
And regarding our power? All kinds of ideas about all kinds of strikes have been floated non-stop as forms of exercising some level of control by the people on the bottom of society over the changes that are shaping up. And some small walkouts have been started up, by grocery workers and Amazon workers for example. While action to demand basic protections for workers are absolutely essential, righteous, and should be supported, this is not a means through which we can hope to affect the direction of the massive changes that are coming. Imagine a strike at Walmart, as some have.* Even if it goes company wide, even if it takes that company down, it does not hit the points of production, mostly scattered through the third world. All of those products can go through other outlets in the American market, or to other markets around the world, or that production can be retooled to other purposes with those same super-exploited workers and the US imperialists won’t blink an eye.
There is a very real, and horrifying potential for that epicenter to shift to the third world in the coming months, with devastating, even genocidal results. This is beyond the scope of this article, but must be taken very seriously by anyone who cares about humanity, and it will have devastating effects globally as well.
This is not a system with a single weak point or even a few. It’s not a system wherein the workers in the heart of the empire can bring their rulers down through withholding their labor. It’s a system that wreaks havoc on people’s lives even as it buys them off, that undermines the kind of social structures that could nourish human beings in disaster, and then rains down crisis after crisis. It is a system that creates fragile Rube Goldberg-esque schemes of just-on-time production, and hordes life-saving equipment to auction off to the highest bidder right when everyone needs them. While all of this is reason enough to overthrow it, and seems like it would make their system topple over at the slightest gust of wind, it in fact creates a situation where any simple or small-scale attempt to serve humanity instead of profit brings down quick and mighty punishment. They have created a situation where the only way to play the game is to play by their convoluted rules. As fascism consolidates, the spontaneous rules of the system are ever more ruthlessly and consciously enforced, both by the state and by its increasingly unleashed and unhinged fascist social base.
What this points to is the need to raise people’s sights to the political struggle to upend the whole game, not just break the rules, to overthrow this system, and to recontextualize economic and local struggles within that. It points to the conscious transcendence necessary for people to understand the struggle for survival in a way that serves creating a radically better world. It points to the need to break from the individualism so deeply ingrained across the American political spectrum. Ultimately it points to the central theses of the new communism that “In the relation between being scientific and being partisan, being consistently scientific is principal, and the basis for being, correctly and fully, partisan to the proletarian revolution and its goal of communism,” that “the whole world comes first,” and that “we need to approach everything — evaluate every political program and every organized force in society, every kind of culture, values and ways of treating people — according to how it relates to the revolution we need, to end all oppression. We should unite with people whenever we can, and struggle with them whenever we need to, to advance the revolution.”
Because without these conscious collective scientific transformations, there is no resolution of these contradictions in the interests of humanity.