Two instructive headlines from the bourgeois financial news web site Business Insider give an indication of how the balance of global wealth has shifted since the covid-19 pandemic began in early 2020.
The first: “Billionaires made $3.9 trillion during the pandemic,” informing us that the likes of the Victorian workhouse logistics baron Jeff Bezos and the Bolivian coup-mongering Boer Elon Musk saw their net worth rise by $3.9 trillion over the past year.¹ And the second: “Workers lost $3.7 trillion in earnings during the pandemic: Women and Gen Z saw the biggest losses,” indicating in fairly stark terms where the super-exploiters’ new-found increases in wealth came from.²
We can quibble about where the missing $0.2 trillion came from another time—sheer ingenuity and force of will, perhaps—but the overarching message is clear: the past year has seen the world’s major capitalists pull off the greatest upward transfer of wealth in the shortest space of time in world history. Of course “upward transfer of wealth” is simply a euphemism for the daylight robbery of the working class.
The figures referred to by Business Insider were taken from an Oxfam report on global inequality and unpaid work³ and a report by the International Labour Organization on the economic consequences of covid-19, both published in January 2021.⁴ The reports are worth reading for their stark findings, if not for their predictably disappointing milquetoast conclusions and solutions, concentrating mainly on quantitative taxing measures and woolly language about “equality” as a means of addressing the desperate situations they describe.
Liberals and reformists are at pains to deny what we as revolutionaries have known for over a century now and is borne out by historical fact: inequality is an inherent and unavoidable part of capitalism, and, by its own internal logic, in the pursuit of growth and profit in a world of finite resources it will only increase. In the immortal words of James Connolly, “the day has passed for patching up the capitalist system; it must go.”⁵
But what has the ruling class been up to while workers have been living under lockdown of one sort or another over the past twelve months? In Britain, the Tory government has moved to criminalise protest through a controversial new Policing Bill, justified in part under the pretence of protecting public health. As well as giving the police more draconian powers to crack down on public protest, the bill refers to protests that cause “an adverse impact to businesses.”⁶ Such a move could result in the criminalisation of economic boycotts, such as the anti-Zionist Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, among other things.
The effects of the bill would be far-reaching and have been ably summarised in the Morning Star and elsewhere; but we should be under no illusions: our political class will not be far behind their colonial masters in pursuing similar legislation here when the opportunity arises.
Discussion of climate change, undoubtedly considered the most pressing issue facing the planet in 2019, subsided greatly with the events of the past year. However, pollution, waste, war and the burning of fossil fuels still continue, as well as an estimated 4 billion disposable masks that are being discarded globally every day.⁷ The ruling class have wasted no time in capitalising on this, by investing in “green” technologies and, of course, buying stakes in the global water supply.
We must be clear: one of the central reasons for capitalists’ moves to privatise water is the certainty of even more widespread water scarcity in the coming years, as a direct result of climate change. Indeed Oxfam estimates that by 2025, 2.4 billion people could be without access to clean drinking-water—a captive market that they intend to readily exploit.
Disappointingly, in the name of supporting measures taken to defend public health, many on the left have taken a reactionary position in relation to acknowledging the class dynamics of covid-related restrictions, both domestically and globally.
So-called “lockdown” has not meant lockdown for all. It must be remembered that essential workers in factories, food-processing plants, health services, public transport, delivery and logistics and many other industries are unable to do their jobs “remotely,” working in a high-risk environment to provide the goods and services required for society to function. At the same time access to health, education and other essential services has been drastically limited for those without the financial means to gain access to private solutions. Practical supports for workers’ mental health have been subsumed by “mindfulness” webinars and the likes, while “remote learning” has taken the place of real educational opportunities and access to libraries. “Lockdown,” the public-health measure, presented an opportunity for capitalists that they readily accepted; and the scale of the crisis in which we are living—already well in train before 2020 began—has yet to be fully realised.
For one, we can be certain that the shift of office labour to remote working undertaken under covid-19 will mean further large-scale loss of jobs and the erosion of workers’ rights, as well as significant effects on physical and mental health.
The dystopian future promised by climate change represents a very real public health crisis, which is already the lived reality for many in the developing world. At the time of writing more than 2.7 million people globally have died of covid-19 since the pandemic began. The only people to benefit from this global tragedy have been the ruling class, and they are in the process of consolidating their gains.
How long are we going to let them get away with it?
- Juliana Kaplan, “Billionaires made $3.9 trillion during the pandemic—enough to pay for everyone’s vaccine,” Business Insider (https://www.businessinsider.com/billionaires-made-39-trillion-during-the-pandemic-coronavirus-vaccines-2021-1)
- Juliana Kaplan, “Workers lost $3.7 trillion in earnings during the pandemic: Women and Gen Z saw the biggest losses,” Business Insider (https://www.businessinsider.com/workers-lost-37-trillion-in-earnings-during-the-pandemic-2021-1)
- Max Lawson, “Time to care: Unpaid and underpaid care work and the global inequality crisis,” Oxfam International, 20 January 2020 (https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/time-care)
- International Labour Organization, “ILO Monitor: Covid-19 and the world of work,” 25 January 2021 (https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@dgreports/@dcomm/documents/briefingnote/wcms_767028.pdf)
- James Connolly, Labour, Nationality and Religion, 1910 (https://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1910/lnr/06.htm)
- Maya Wolfe-Robinson, “Guidance on policing protests may breach human rights, say campaigners,” Guardian (London), 24 March 2021 (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/24/guidance-on-policing-protests-may-breach-human-rights-say-campaigners)
- University of Southern Denmark, “Face masks and the environment: Preventing the next plastic problem,” Science Daily, 10 March 2021 (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/03/210310122431.htm)