Who Are You to Call Me a Virus?

By Jeremy Salt


Trump Delivers Remarks During a Coronavirus Update Briefing 01d3b

So the actor Alec Baldwin thinks Trump is a virus. An interesting idea, the virus as a metaphor. Some would say the US itself is a virus, taking millions of lives in its endless wars. Yet others would say we, homo sapiens, are the virus. Imagine how we must look from a million miles away. Squiggling organisms hanging on to a clod of earth as it whirls through space.

Corona is only doing what viruses do. They latch on to living bodies, and die or mutate into different forms when the host can no longer sustain them, which is the state the host of the organism known as homo sapiens, Planet Earth, seems to be rapidly approaching. We adapt to changing circumstances, as all viruses do, but are we are reaching the point when it will be too late to adapt?

Like any virus, we are consuming our host, and never more greedily than in the past 100 years.We are being warned all the time that when the planet is ecologically dead, we will die too. We know this but, riddled with another virus, consumerism, we cannot stop ourselves. We take what we can while we can, just like the viral microdots colonizing our bodies as we once colonized Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. Those affected died in their millions. We in the ‘developed world’ lived off their poverty and plundered resources. Now it is our bodies being plundered by an enemy we cannot even see.

We are already being told there will be no return to the normal. Of course, there is no static normal any more than there is a static ‘human nature.’ ‘Normal’ and ‘human nature’ depend on geography, education, cultural conditioning, socio-economic structures and natural or man-made disasters such as war and earthquakes. Both change as circumstances change. Additionally, what is normal in one society is not necessarily regarded as normal somewhere else. ‘Normal’ is what we perceive as being normal, what we are taught to believe is normal but that changes, too. Who in the 19th century could have believed that governments around the world would pass legislation allowing men to marry each other?

Our greedy leaching of the planet’s resources may be hastening the frequency and increasing the scale of natural disasters. After all, how much battering can any fixed object take? Hit a rock often enough and hard enough and it will break. So will iron. While earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis have been recorded throughout history, sinkholes appear to be relatively new. They certainly weren’t in the news three or four decades ago. Could they be a sign that the tormented earth’s crust just can’t take it anymore?

Accelerating consumption requires accelerating industrialization to meet demand. We in the so-called ‘developed world’ know that even if we can drink clean water and breathe relatively fresh air, countless millions elsewhere don’t have either. They live in Africa or they work in the factories of China and Southeast Asia that produce the goods enabling us to lead the good life. Their cheap labor subsidizes the way we live. Their air, rivers, and seas are heavily polluted because of the absence of effective environmental safeguards in their world. This is not accidental or coincidental but the inevitable consequence of economic ‘globalization.’

When the normal gives way to the new normal, what will we learn, something or nothing? The fallout is bound to be substantial. The virus has again exposed the corrupt underpinnings of capitalism. This has happened many times before but we still don’t learn the lesson. Capitalism commodifies everything. Much of what used to have a moral value now has only a market value. Education is still regarded as a right and a necessity, as it certainly is for a corporate sector needing workers and consumers, but the quality frequently depends on money. As for health care, in most ‘liberal democracies’ the citizen only gets as much as he or she can afford. Public health in the US is frequently provided in hospitals starved of staff and resources. This is the same population the capitalist order wants to work and consume endlessly but is not prepared to pay for health services to make sure it can do both.

Globalization appeared as the latest evidence of the adaptability of the capitalist order. It was based on the ‘deregulation’ of economies, which added up to the clearing away of all global obstacles in the way of corporate profits. National borders were turned into lines on the map and governments into the regional satraps of corporations, which would make their offers and go somewhere else if their terms were not accepted. As they had the money, they had the power.

Societies were turned against each in the interests of profit. With tariff barriers dropped, the corporations closed their factories and headed for countries where labor was cheap and the workforce controlled by anti-strike legislation and the competition for jobs. In these countries, they could produce goods at a fraction of the production costs in their home countries. They could then export their goods back to the home country and sell them as if they had been made there.

This is not just what governments allowed but encouraged. They opened the door to the flight of manufacturing industry. In cities across the US, Britain, Australia, wherever one looked, once-thriving factories were abandoned and the people who worked in them left without jobs and possessed of skills employable only in other factories that had been closed down. The privatization of essential government services swung into effect at the same time. Given that no risk was involved in the supply of water, gas and electricity, this was no more than the transfer of vast amounts of public money into private pockets. Social services built up with public money over more than a century disappeared almost overnight. The fine old buildings from which these services were provided were sold off for corporate use.

These shifts were harnessed to the destruction of labor unions and the notion of ‘enterprise bargaining’ which left the individual worker in search or a higher salary or better working conditions to face the corporation on his or her own. This was like putting a bantamweight into the ring to fight a heavyweight. Herbert Spencer’s rugged 19th-century individualism and the jungle rules of social Darwinism underpinned the new order, summed up by Margaret Thatcher in her remark that “there is no such thing as society.” Economically, of course, for the corporations to take maximum advantage of the new/old circumstances, society – a word denoting a small or large human community working together for the common good and forming associations to protect common interests – there could be no such thing as what society used to be.

Alighting on new hosts, the virus of globalization left the old host in ruins. The rust belt in the US is the evidence. Factories were closed down en masse and cities fell into ruin. Livelihoods had already been swept from under the feet of blue and white-collar workers when the financial institutions collapsed in 2008/9. The endless privatization of profit was succeeded by the socialization of loss. It was the people who had to pay for the corruption and malpractice endemic in financial institutions, through the loss of their jobs and homes and the siphoning-off of their taxes. The res publica – the ‘public thing’ – had shown the people where their government’s first loyalties lay.

According to Mike Collins, writing in Forbes business magazine, “The operating principles of the big banks is a cesspool of greed, [lack of] ethics and criminal intent.” Insider trading was a large part of the picture, so was money-laundering with the US branch of HSBC bank, which was found to have laundered $881 billion for Mexican drug cartels. The rating agencies (Moody’s and Standard and Poor) giving a AAA rating to the banks granting a flood of unrepayable sub-prime mortgages were paid by the same banks. By 2015, Mike Collins estimated, the bailout had cost not the $700 billions the people were originally told but $16.8 trillion (Mike Collins, ‘The Big Bank Bailout,’ Forbes, July 14, 2015.)

There had to be some sacrificial lambs (Lehman Brothers) but with the help of ‘government’ money – the people’s money – the rest were soon back on their feet, making mega profits without having to pay back one cent of the torrents of cash that had pulled them out of the ditch. What better metaphor can there be for such rapacious capitalism than that of the virus? Having eaten its way through society – the host body – it was then given a new lease of life by a government elected to protect society.

The virus is a metaphor that has no limits. All living things consume to live. Something has to die so they can live. Some people eat to live. Others seem to live to eat. They are encouraged to over-consume by the addictive ingredients deliberately fed into the food and drink chain by producers. An obese population is an unhealthy population but one that keeps returning healthy profits even as medical costs soar that the corporations don’t have to pay. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 42.7 percent of the US population was obese in 2017/18, with the prevalence of obesity increasing 1999-2000 from 30.5 to 42.4 percent. The annual cost of treating obesity was $147 billion. Thus, while Africans and many others starve, many Americans are eating until they practically burst.

Extreme violence is another aspect of the American demographic. The viral nature of capitalism requires a police and a miitary to suppress discontent at home and open up new territories abroad. Profit-seeking can know no territorial limits. Like any virus, it will spread as fast and as far as it can. Eduardo Galeano’s ‘open veins’ of Latin America were veins opened up in every part of the non-European world. The prize was natural resources, the means were the cycles of invasion and occupation that have continued for centuries down to our time. When Donald Trump says of Syria’s oil that it is ours “and we will do with it what we want” he was only expressing the logic that has underlain imperialism all along, if rarely so crudely expressed.

Most wars have an economic motive, usually dressed up as what we are doing for you, not what we are doing to you. The wars on Iraq were not only about oil, as they were designed to pulverize a country regarded as threatening to ‘order’ and ‘stability’ as defined by the US and more generally ‘the West.’ The language was the same in the 19th century and between then and now, so were the consequences for the native population: mass destruction and death. By such means were ‘civilization’ and progress preserved. Only the principal actors (Britain and France in the 19th century, the US now) and the technology have changed, the latter allowing the invader to kill and crush more comprehensively.

American violence has a viral quality, intrinsic to the organism from the beginning of European settlement. Once the native Indian population had been suppressed, other threatening elements had to be contained and destroyed as they arose. As blackness threatened whiteness, Afro-American were enslaved, segregated, lynched and burnt alive until finally granted the rights and opportunities that came as the birth right of white Americans. Random killings by police, the massively disproportionate black prison population and the activism of white supremacists stand as the evidence even now that the virus of racism has not been suppressed.

Viruses always move on. Suppressed by a vaccine, they will mutate into a slightly different form and take root again in the host body. This is what the world is experiencing with the coronavirus, which surfaced just after the financial institutions began to plunge into a deeper abyss than 2007/8. According to the New York Times, the US administration is now contemplating “a vast financial bailout that would dwarf the federal government’s response to the 2008 crisis … the scale of the problem is unlike anything Washington has ever faced before.” This bailout “could” top $2 trillion and not the initial $18.3 billion approved by Congress. (‘Washington Weighs Big Bailout to Help US Economy Survive Coronavirus,’ New York Times, March 18, 2020. Note that the bailout is designed to rescue the ‘economy’ from the virus, not from the failures of a socio-economic system which has sent to the country to the wall time after time).

No questions as to where the money is going will be allowed despite the Freedom of Information Act: as the virus is allowing state governments to confine people to their homes, there can be no public protests. The police and national guard will be on hand to suppress those who defy the ban. Memories of outrage at the bilking of the public in 2008 will account for these precautions.

As one commentator has observed, in 2008 Wall Street was bailed out and Main Street landed with the bill. A repetition could ignite a public backlash with “potentially catastrophic consequences” (‘Washington Weighs Big Bailout,’ New York Times) so the bailout this time has to be handled with greater finesse, with more of the cash allocated to the hard-pressed citizenry. Even as the financial crisis broke, however, the familiar chicanery, insider trading and the timely selling-off of shares by corporations, was resurfacing.

Can this be mere coincidence, the appearance of one virus to hide the latest ravages of another? The corporate media dismisses the very notion as a “conspiracy theory,” as if governments do not scheme, plot and conspire all the time, against each other, against their mutual enemies and frequently against their own people. Within the realm of possibilities, the possibilities of an accidental release of the virus or of foul play by a government or rogue elements inside a government at least have to be allowed. We still don’t know who was behind the assassination of John Kennedy or the attacks of 9/11. How long will it be before we know the truth or, like these two other world historical events, will we ever know it?

The war on terror having run its course, the war on the virus has followed without a break, allowing governments to build on the ‘homeland security’ edifice constructed after 9/11. Outside fiction, police and the military everywhere are being handed unprecedented powers of arrest, surveillance, and control. In the US and elsewhere millions of people have been subjected to ‘lockdown,’ generally a term applied to a prison after a riot. Whatever a government decides to do, whatever measures it takes to bail out the financial institutions once again, the people will not be allowed into the street to protest.Panicked, fearful of the enemy they cannot see, terrorized by the media, confused by contradictory evidence, and baffled by statistics open to more than one reading, they are doing what they are being told. They have been too effectively frightened to go into the streets. Only the virus is in the headlines, allowing the bailout to proceed quietly behind the scenes.

We live in a world of viruses. Emptying the planet’s natural resources and preying on other species to feed ourselves, we behave no differently ourselves. Eventually, someone will come up with a cure for the coronavirus but who is going to cure us? We have to do it ourselves, but will we?

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