The Historical Road Leading to Today’s Crises and Beyond
“Radhika Desai’s Capitalism, Coronavirus and War explains why the dream of a neoliberal ‘end of history’ has turned out to be a dead end. Her excellent book provides a clear perspective to frame the internal contradictions of America’s neoliberal policies that are driving Western capitalism into austerity and a chronic health crisis as its New Cold War actually is a class war.” Michael Hudson 
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It has been close to three years now since a teenie-weenie little virus made its debut on the world stage and wreaked havoc on our health care system, our education system, our political gatherings, our recreation time and practically every aspect of our lives. Or so we are told anyway. 
Regardless, the panic generated by “V the virus” was enough to institute lock-downs, new social distancing, masking rules and all the other efforts that are all to familiar to every listener not entirely isolated from humanity even in the smallest villages. By March of 2020, for a time, it was really the dominant story to appear regularly in the mainstream news. 
Three years later, experts are saying this crisis is far from over. Nevertheless, we are now largely looking at the crisis through the rear view mirror and can assess how well and how poorly each country fared against this demon which we came to label SARS-CoV-2. 
Not surprisingly, judging by the data, some societies coped far better than others.
Professor of political studies Radhika Desai noticed that while countries like the U.S., the UK, and younger brother Canada were advanced countries compared to most, the death toll stemming (allegedly) from COVID-19 was much larger than in China and other countries around the world! She found through her research that the tendency since the 1970s to embrace neoliberal financialization, devoted to protecting what she calls “predatory” capitalist giants as opposed to more ‘people-centred’ policies was a likely culprit in turning the health-care nuisance caused by SARS-CoV-2 into a major health and economic catastrophe from which we are all still reeling.
This episode of the Global Research News hour focuses much of the program interviewing Professor Desai about her recently published book, Capitalism, Coronavirus and War: A Geopolitical Economy, which delved not only into the span of the pandemic, but also explored a history of capitalism confronting its own crises from 1914 and the Thirty Year Crisis that followed, to the age of neo-liberalism from the 70s to the present, to the now largely self-defeating NATO war against Russia in Ukraine.
This is followed by an interview with Mahdi Nazemroaya, who has done a lot of field work in China, who could add his own insights into China’s COVID-19 approach and its economic and political relationship with the United States.
Radhika Desai is Professor in the Department of Political Studies and Director of the Geopolitical Economy Research Group (GERG) at the University of Manitoba in Canada; she edits newcoldwar.org, a project associated with GERG, and is the Convener of the International Manifesto Group. Her book is available free for download here.
Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG) specializing in geopolitics and strategic issues.
(Global Research News Hour Episode 376)
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Transcription of Radhika Desai, January 10, 2023
Global Research: Capitalism, Coronavirus, and War is the latest book by Professor Radhika Desai. It makes the point that the economic crisis ultimately was a crisis at the very heart of the neoliberal financialised capitalist system. And the virus only served to accelerate the decline of the US-dominated world capitalist imperial order. And measures taken in the wars that followed only accelerates it. It accelerates the decline even further.
This model follows a history going back to the very beginnings and plots other times where capitalist power ran up against issues and used state power to help them emerge from the pressures that would lead to eradication.
What steps should the Left take today to prevent this same state rescue attempt, or possibly something even worse from succeeding. The book’s author is here with me to share a little of her understanding. Dr. Radhika Desai is a professor at the Department of Political Studies, and director of the Geopolitical Economy Research Group at the University of Manitoba in Canada. She is the author of several other books, now including “Geopolitical Economy: After US Hegemony, Globalization and Empire.”
Radhika, thank you for joining us. It’s good to have you back on.
Radhika Desai: Always a pleasure to be on your show, Michael.
GR: Now, in your book, you contend that – and Marx and Engels contend – that capitalism runs up against internal contradictions. The capitalist trajectory takes it from competitiveness, to monarchy capitalism which, combined with pressure from the working class, ultimately results in socialism. And that, historically, it is the actions of the capitalist state that force systems to remain capitalist as opposed to going socialist.
With this pandemic situation that we are sort of coming out of, the latest crisis that pushed – you know, challenging our model, you know. This points to how the neoliberal systems put the capitalist state and particularly their strongest advocates, the US and Great Britain, at a supreme disadvantage in dealing with the situation. Especially when you compare it to socialist economies or countries where neoliberalism is not as strong a factor.
There are all kinds of factors affecting which countries go through chaos as opposed to a nuisance but manageable disease. Could you explain your claim that capitalists and neoliberal policy did indeed exacerbate these difficulties in dealing with Covid-19?
RD: Yeah, thanks Michael. So, this is really the core of the book, you know? You know, as you know, we can’t really work for all the writings and publications on the pandemic. But where this book is unique is that it demonstrates – or the main question it asks is – yes, the Covid-19 pandemic was certainly a big shock. It was a major public health emergency.
But why is it that this – what should have been ultimately just a serious public health emergency – why did it turn into such a knockdown political – knockdown economic crisis of capitalism? And I say “economic,” but of course it is an all-pervasive crisis. Because if you think about it, the very weaknesses that I identify are also associated with increasing social inequality, increasing political division and breakdown. And even to a great extent, the cultural disintegration we are facing. With the extent of dis-information coming both from the social media and from the mainstream media.
So, to get back to the main point, what I argue is that what becomes clear after 40 years of applying neoliberalism, is that neoliberalism, which was supposed to solve the problems of capitalism after capitalism entered the 1970s stagflationist period. Neoliberalism was bandied about as this thing that was going to resolve the crisis of capitalism. It would restore capitalism’s productive dynamism.
But in reality, what has happened is that neoliberal – the application of neoliberal policies – has actually weakened capitalism further. So much so, that we have now lived through 40 years of relatively low growth. Forty years in which our productive economies have become considerably weakened through very systematic processes of de-industrialization. Now, to which of course phenomena such as Trump and Brexit have been the result.
So, we have been de-industrializing. Meanwhile, the application of neoliberal policies which have dumbed down our productive economies have actually encouraged the explosion of activity in the financial sphere. And the financial sphere basically is essentially parasitic upon the productive sphere. So, we have a shrinking productive sphere, on which a growing financial sphere is increasingly parasitic.
And we also know, of course, that the financial sphere is also – the explosion of financial activity is also at the root of these intolerable levels of social inequality that we are looking at. So, my point was that the system was already very weakened when the pandemic came along. And so, the pandemic essentially hit an already weakened system.
On top of that, there is one other thing. So, there is an underlying weakness. But you know, you earlier referred to the different reactions of the capitalist classes in responding to crises. So, as we know, for example, the capitalist world went through a deep crisis in the early part of the 20th century. Some people even call it a “30-Years Crisis,” running from 1914 to 1945, including the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, and all of these. And capitalist powers at that time were forced to respond to this crisis in a relatively progressive way.
So, as we know, in the post-Second World War period what has happened. What happened was that capitalist societies, the leading capitalist societies, borrowed from the toolkit of socialism. And they instituted full-employment policies; they instituted the welfare state; they instituted an enormous amount of regulation of industry and capitalism generally.
And finally, they also adopted a very high degree of state ownership, something we tend to forget today. So, this was the policy paradigm which enabled the golden age of growth of capitalism. But, of course the system, in the Western countries remained capitalist.
So, it’s own operation, as you rightly pointed out, I argue along with Marx and Engels that capitalism is not only prone to contradiction and crises, but it is prone to contradiction and crises at many many levels in practically every area of activity. What capitalism needs and demands from society, and often gets from society, is almost impossible. Therefore, trying to achieve that end makes capitalist society get ensnarled in all sorts of contradictions.
So inevitably, this post-war arrangement which left the underlying structure of capitalism in place ran into crisis in the 1970s. And at that point, our government basically said, ‘Look, these old socialistic measures: the welfare state and full-employment policies, et cetera are no longer working. We’re going to throw them out. We are going to give capitalism all the freedom it wants, et cetera, and this is going to restore the productive dynamism of our economies.’
Now, it would have been fine, you know, the neoliberal ideology tends to assume a competitive capitalism. But you are applying a remedy that might have worked in the case of competitive capitalism. I underline “might,” we can discuss that. But they were actually applying it to a capitalism that already become a monopoly capitalism. And so, giving monopoly capital the same freedoms was not going to lead to the restoration of productive dynamism, so instead it has lead to financialization.
So, we have weakened our productive structures and we have expanded the prerogatives and freedoms of what is essentially a predatory, speculative, parasitical financial capitalism. And so, these are the people we have privileged, our governments have privileged, for 40 years. You know, year-in and year-out. Even though these policies were not restoring productive dynamism, our governments continued with them.
So, the other thing this book argues, is that if we look at what happened during the pandemic, the responses on the public health front, on the economic front in particular but practically every front, were actually designed not to address the underlying public health crisis or to restore jobs or economy. They were designed primarily to keep in place the incredible power of a small number of increasingly unproductive, speculative, predatory, and financialized corporations. And this is what has made the crisis so serious, because our governments are essentially encouraging the worst elements, the elements that suck up the results and the fruit of the productive labours of whether a small business, or workers, or what have you, instead of engaging in the investment, the investment in production that is required for us.
GR: Yeah, yeah. I think I really see the question that I want to put to you, and it concerns the whole idea of managing human health, because it is increasingly managed by private companies, known as pharmaceutical corporations, “Big Pharma.” You know, these companies which, while they deal in health, are also motivated by private profit-making. And increasingly in this world, there is a tendency to push their prescription treatments, vaccines and so on, where they make money and generic medication is sidelined. There is a whole lot of information about this subject outside of Covid. But the healthcare regulators have it, it is argued, it’s been subject to regulator capture by private companies. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and associated entities have arguably influenced the WHO. And there you’re talking about monopoly capitalism right there, it seems to me.
It is compliance with these institutions, they are heavily influenced by private profit-seekers, that determines the healthcare treatment. Whether you’re a capitalist or not, we all prescribe to it, right? So, doesn’t this faction also play a role in how we deal with and cover —
RD: Absolutely. Yes, in fact. So, one of the major chapters in the book deals with how the leading neoliberal financialized capitalism, then here I focus chiefly on the US and the UK, because they are the leading financialized neoliberal capitalisms. The same would apply to other countries with adjustments and adaptations and so on.
But anyway, if you look at the responses of these countries, undoubtedly they have been governed by the interests, not only of Big Pharma, but generally the plethora of big monopoly corporations that ring around the healthcare sectors, you know, whether it’s hospital management companies, or Big Pharma, or – and other such, you know, testing and all that. And even companies that have nothing to do with this.
So, for example, in the United Kingdom, the entire job of testing and tracing infections was given over to a company that had absolutely no experience with this. You know, merely in order that they would essentially purpote to employ largely untrained people and pay them in largely embezzlement of money, basically. So, there are numerous open questions about the way in which such governments, our governments, have addressed the pandemic.
So, definitely Big Pharma has profited. Amidst all this, the other thing that has happened, of course, is that, you know, you see that, you know, when such a big crisis happens, and so on, you would expect that the Left would be on the forefront of criticizing the horrible way in which our governments managed the crisis.
But, throughout this period of crisis and then subsequently war and so on, we have found the Left either on the backfoot, unable to respond vigorously with determination, with clarity, with purpose, et cetera. And if not on the backfoot, of course in the case of the war, they are openly allying with the imperialist and pro-financial capital actions of our government. And in the place of the Left, in fact what we have seen is something far more dangerous. It is the Right that has been in the forefront of opposing the governments, on the basis of enormous amounts of misinformation, and so on.
And I think the reason for that is also quite interesting. I mean, we can discuss the Left’s failures in a minute. But the reason why the Right has been in the ascendant in many ways, is primarily because it is very clear to a lot of people that our governments were acting – not acting entirely in good faith, and that – the problem – the incredible death rate that we have experienced, the fatalities that we have experienced, have been because of the bad faith in which our governments have dealt with us. Telling us that they are working to save our lives and livelihoods. Meanwhile, in reality, working to benefit Big Pharma, to benefit the medical industrial complex, and so on.
So, when people sense that there is bad faith, they respond to anybody who is going to say, ‘Well, you know, I know the reason for that.’ And that’s why, you know, if the Left has been in the ascendant it’s because of this bad faith on the part of our government. And of course, the failures of the Left.
So, if I may just simply clarify, the actual contrast I make in my book between a Big Pharma and medical industrial complex-fueled response as we have seen in Western countries, particularly in the US and the UK. The main contrast should be between them and what has happened in China. That is to say, for almost three years, the Chinese government prioritized the saving of lives over anything: livelihoods and everything. And they actually managed to have a – to manage to save both, because they have actually had far greater economic growth, economic dynamism, et cetera. And at the same time, kept debts to an absolutely really, very low level. So, this is what I would – this is the contrast I would like to give. And this is the contrast I actually give in my book.
And this is also supported by all those people who have generally supported a zero-Covid policy. Zero-Covid policy doesn’t mean an unending lockdown. Nor is that what happened in China. China did not have any sort of unending lockdown. China has had a very collaborated policy of reducing and minimizing the number of infections.
The problem is that the rest of the world has not gone along with them. And China, is today changing its approach because it senses that the nature of the threat has changed. And I think this is what we have to keep our eye on. And what I would like to say is that: in China, China did not say, ‘Oh, we have to balance savings of lives versus livelihoods,’ which essentially gives you the opportunity to support the big financial capitalists, and so on, in the name of saving livelihoods. In reality, China prioritized saving lives and it managed to save both lives and actual livelihoods. Not the livelihoods of the Elon Musks and the Jeff Bezos’ of this world. But of ordinary people.
GR: So, on the title of “War,” you point to the current war in Ukraine as an example of the desperation of the US hegemonic states and their allies to maintain hegemony following the pandemic, and the negative effects on the economy. And I’m not sure, though, how it is anymore hawkish than any other time in the past, in the last 30 years. I mean, invading countries in the name of “human rights” is something that they’ve always done. But what’s noticeable —
RD: No, I agree, of course. At one level what the current war, the current conflict over Ukraine, which I see as essentially a proxy war being waged by the United States against Russia, using Ukraine as a proxy. And as many people have pointed out, in a war in which the United States seems set to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian.
Yes, this is in line with the whole post-Cold War, and even generally imperialist – long history of imperialism of fighting wars and subjugating people in the name of giving them civilization and democracy and human rights and white man’s burden, and whatnot. I totally agree there is a great continuity. At the same time, I do think that President Biden has landed the United States, and the world, in fact, into a qualitatively more dangerous situation because this is the first time that he is provoking in a very real way, and waging a war against a nuclear-armed power. A permanent member of the Security Council. And President Biden also seems set to expand the conflict beyond that, as well.
So, to China, which in many ways will prove an even more formidable enemy. And in the context – so, in this context, what we are looking at – so, to me, what’s happening is that the same problems of neoliberal capitalism are involved in the current aggression of the United States. And this is also going to accelerate a trend which we have been seeing all along, — for a long time anyway, for a decade or two, anyway – which is the increasing disillusion of the rest of the world, the non-imperialist parts of the world, the Third World, these countries are increasingly becoming disillusioned and realizing that they have much more to gain from allying with countries like China and today even Russia, than to gain from allying with the West. So essentially, these policies are creating a new bipolar division of the world.
GR: Yeah. Sort of like every, you know, every action taken by the United States is boomeranging back and it’s hitting them —
GR: — harder than Russia is. But —
RD: Exactly, because this is – it’s not making the West any stronger. It’s only making the West weaker and that much more desperate.
GR: Yeah. Let’s look at previous examples of capitalist crises. There were several examples from 1914 – to the period of neoliberalism since the late ‘70s. Could you examine the current crisis and compare it to the 30-Years Crisis, I mean when there was another stock market crash in 1929 leading to the Great Depression. And there were rising hordes of frustrating workers and also fascism on the rise in countries around the world. Today, we also had a stock market crash and a similar making of a recession that could turn into a depression. Could you please point out —
GR: — similarities and also prominent differences between these two areas —
RD: Yes. Absolutely. So, first of all, let me say that, that crisis, like I said earlier, you know, there was a – it was really a pretty big 30-Years Crisis, you know, in which a whole range of – you know, there were two great imperialist wars; there was this big economic depression; and so on. And I would say that, you know, looking back from the vantage point of 2022/2023, after 40 years and more of neoliberalism, I think certain things are becoming very clear.
So, first of all, I would say that 1914 and the early part of the 20th Century generally can be regarded as sort of the peak of capitalism and capitalist imperialism. Since then, they’ve kind of been on a decline. So, you know, as I narrate in the book, towards the end of that period of crises, as the Second World War was winding to a close, many leading intellectuals actually thought that the world would turn towards socialism because capitalism had kind of exhausted it’s – whatever historical utility it may have had. And in doing so, it had demonstrated the havoc it could cause, the disasters it could cause in the form of imperialist wars, Great Depressions, and so on. So, people felt that the world would move in a socialistic direction.
And then, you had the so-called golden age of capitalism. So, a lot of people, including many Marxists began to say, ‘Ah well, capitalism is alive and well there’s nothing wrong with it,’ et cetera. But in reality, when we look back as I was saying earlier, what enabled the golden age to occur was the fact that the First World countries, the imperialist core, was forced to employ socialistic measures of, you know, full-employment, macro-economic policies, welfare states, state-ownership, great industrial regulation, et cetera, et cetera, progressive taxation and so on. Meanwhile, of course a large part of the world was already socialist and communist and growing at a relatively high rate.
And then, finally Third World countries, newly independent Third World countries were embarked on attempts at national autonomous development. So, it was a really – it was really a configuration which may not have been socialist. I mean, it’s not going to be possible to build socialism in a day. But nevertheless, the world that was leaning in that direction, even though First World countries did not become socialist, they did become social democratic and that’s what enabled the golden age. When the underlying capitalism led to crisis and we applied neoliberalism, we see the true debility of capitalism. It is not capable anymore of productive dynamism, only capable of creating a predatory parasitical financial system that sucks like, you know, a giant vampire squid the earnings based on production of ordinary people.
So, what is very clear, in retrospect, is that today capitalism has exhausted its utility. There is also a difference in the response of government, the response of government in the post-Second World War period which created the welfare, the Keynesian welfare states in Western countries, were necessary and possible. Capitalist states could not do otherwise, because working people were strongly organized.
By contrast, by today even though neoliberalism has been attacking the rights of working people right, left, and centre. In most Western countries, working class organizations and parties are on the backfoot. They are not on the ascendant. They should be, but they are not. And in my book, I have a very long discussion of how to understand this inability of the Western Left.
And I do make a couple of points, but maybe I should just summarize that by saying that basically, what it amounts to is that both intellectually and politically, the Left in the Western imperialist core has kind of made a Faustian bargain with their own governments, in which they support their governments imperialist ventures in return for a few crumbs from the capitalist table.
But today, even the capitalist table doesn’t have much to give. So, working class people are being attacked anyway. They are not able to respond. Large parts of the Left are still engaged in supporting imperialist ventures by claiming to stand up for democracy and for human rights against this or that dictator and authoritarian ruler, and so on.
And the big opportunity, which is to create a Left which unites working people and all the institutions that support them, which may include many socialist states, that unites all these forces against the forces of capitalism which are creating economic crisis, war, et cetera. This opportunity is being missed.
GR: Well Radhika, you know, your book has been praised by the likes of Michael Hudson, as well as Arnold August and other people who have been on the show before. So, it’s really been quite an honour to be able to provide it for our readers. And you can get a free copy, you know, go to —
RD: Yes. Let me emphasize that, you know. I would like to emphasize that this book is available free because a foundation called “Knowledge Unlatched” shows this book to make – one of the few that they will make available free for anybody who wants them. So, you can download a PDF copy for free at the link that Michael is going to give to his show.
GR: Thanks a lot, Radhika. It’s been a pleasure having you on.
RD: Thank you very much, Michael.
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- Royston Sim (January 20, 2023), ‘Covid-19 pandemic far from over, says public health expert on Davos panel’, The Straits Times; https://www.straitstimes.com/world/covid-19-pandemic-far-from-over-says-public-health-expert-on-davos-panel