A crisis like no other: social reproduction and the regeneration of capitalist life during the COVID-19 pandemic


Back to work!

As the COVID-19 health crisis deepens, it looks increasingly clear that the short-term collapse in global output is likely to exceed that of any recession in the last 150 years – that is, in the entire history of capitalism. The ILO estimates that the crisis will lead to the destruction of 195 million jobs. Hence, after discussing at length the epidemiology of the COVID-19 pandemic, media attention is now increasingly focused on how to restart the global economic engine. We may still be mourning our dead, but time seems to have come to discuss how we guarantee economic survival that, under capitalism, is based on production and work. Here in the UK, from where I am writing this piece, getting ‘Britain back to work’ is becoming the new mantra for the government, even if its own leader is still recovering from the virus. Similar concerns are debated across the world, as the pandemic has by now clearly turned from a planetary health threat into a planetary economic threat. Yet, getting the world ‘back to workain’t no easy endeavour, whilst maintaining social distancing. Global capitalism is based on social interactions. In fact, its global phase has aimed at erasing social distancing, not just between working people but also between countries, markets, commodities and consumers. But at present, the way in which we are used to regenerate life under capitalism would literally kill us, and this is no small print in explaining the impasse of the COVID-19 crisis. It should be the starting point to analyse it. Ultimately, before turning into a crisis of production, the current pandemic has created a systemic crisis of social reproduction. As argued by Tithi Bhattacharya, the pandemic has shown the centrality of life-making activities for the working of capitalism. Moreover, it has also shown the value of care, as well as the stark ‘care inequalities’ experienced by different communities and individuals across the globe. By all means, this is a reproductive crisis like no other before. Read More »

The Coronavirus and Carceral Capitalism


From a prison cell in 1930, Antonio Gramsci wrote “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old world is dying and the new cannot yet be born; in the interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” The political economic and biological relevance of Gramsci’s words and the conditions under which they were written extend well beyond historical parallel and literary metaphor. A crisis has metastasized from the micro-biological to the political economic. Now, neoliberalism is dying. In the interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms have appeared: social distancing, crisis policing, death camps, and pandemic labor. Of what disease are these symptoms? Not coronavirus. Carceral capitalism. Read More »

Time for a Rethink on the Worth of Work


Most economists are greatly underestimating the economic challenges posed by the Covid19 pandemic. Without a correct understanding of those challenges, the aggressive monetary and fiscal measures many government are now pursuing will fall well short of their goals. They will go down in history as economic Marginot Linesscaled up versions of tools designed to fight past crises.

The pandemic poses new and unique economic challenges. It compromises our ability to engage in productive and commercial activities requiring close contact between groups of peoplethat includes most of the things sustaining a modern economy. Epidemiologists tell us this is needed for several months. Responding in a way that minimises the loss of life and safeguards our long-term productive capacities requires two things: Temporarily shutting down large swaths of the economy, and focusing societys productive resources on the kinds of work needed to fight the pandemic.

Most economists have not yet understood this partly because the scale and scope of what is needed pushes beyond the boundaries conventional economic thinking, and beyond what they generally consider to be legitimate economic questions.

The pandemic requires an unprecedented mobilisation of what feminist economists call care labour: work to care for ourselves, our families, and our communities. Over the next few weeks or months most people need to be focused on a vital job: caring for our collective health and helping save thousands or even millions of lives by staying at home. Many families will have to do this while simultaneously caring for millions of children now out of school, for other loved ones who cannot fully care for themselves, and for those who fall ill but do not require hospitalisation.

We need to allocate resources to enable people to perform this work.Read More »

The Sacrificial Generations of Capitalism

Screenshot 2020-02-11 at 09.28.58In this article I remind readers about the existence of “sacrificial generations” within global capitalist history. By sacrificial generation I mean a group of people at a point in time that experiences suffering with the immanent or intentional effect of changing economic, political or social conditions, which are in turn disproportionately enjoyed by another group of people at a later period in time. I identify four areas in which there systematically exists sacrificial generations:  three stages of capitalist development (state formation, capitalist property rights transition and early industrialization) and a cyclical aspect of capitalism (Polanyian-Marxian cycles). It could also be argued that the future generations which would disproportionately experience the environmental costs of past and present generations’ consumption are “climatic sacrificial generations”, but this will not be explored. Read More »

Premature Deindustrialization and the Defeminization of Labor


In two previous posts on this blog, I’ve discussed the issue of premature deindustrialization and some of its possible consequences. In a recent paper, I, along with co-author Bret Anderson of Southern Oregon University, explored the potential consequences of premature deindustrialization further by examining the possible connections between premature deindustrialization and the defeminization of industrial employment. Premature deindustrialization is a situation in which the shares of manufacturing value added and employment begin to shrink at per-capita income levels much lower than those of the early industrializers, along with manufacturing employment peaking at lower levels. The scarce manufacturing jobs that do remain, however, are likely to be relatively high paying jobs that countries and workers compete for. In our work, we assessed whether premature deindustrialization is a feminizing or defeminizing force in industrial employment. By examining 62 countries from 1990 to 2013, we find that premature deindustrialization is likely to amplify the male bias of industrial upgrading.Read More »

Consequences of Deindustrialization in Brazil and South Africa, and Potential Remedies


In a previous post, I wrote about the global trend of premature deindustrialization; the trend towards lower levels of industrial employment, and a shift away from industrial employment at lower levels of per capita income, and how the effects on human well-being of these trends are not yet clearly understood. An important question in understanding the impact of these changing structural patterns on individuals’ well-being is to whether either a lifting of the living standards of those not in formal employment, or the generation of employment to replace the manufacturing employment, is taking place.

In a recent working paper, I illustrated how combining a household level indicator of well-being with decomposition of change analysis can shed light on these questions by focusing on two specific episodes of growth; South Africa from 1996 to 2007 and Brazil from 1991 to 2010. Using Census data from IPUMS, I created indices of well-being on a scale of 0-100, using indicators such as child survival rate, access to clean water and electricity, and educations levels, culled from census data. Next, each household was assigned to a “type” based on sectoral employment of the household head and urban/rural location, and average household scores were calculated for each type. A decomposition of change analysis was then used to assign improvement in well-being to improvement within the types and shifts in population between these types.Read More »