COVID-19 and the Vampire of Capitalism

The vampire of capital is stirring and it is demanding more blood. As right-wingers breezily suggest that keeping the economy strong might require human suffering and death, socialists have to use the opportunity to show that the capitalist system itself is a religion of death.
Karl Marx famously described Capital as a vampire that “lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” His metaphor refers directly to that essential commodity needed by Capital — human labor power — but at its most exploitative Capital can drain human life itself. As the United States scrambles to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, government officials, market analysts, bankers and even the President himself are openly flirting with the idea of allowing a percentage of the population — overwhelmingly vulnerable and working class people — to suffer and die so that the U.S. economy can be saved. 

Marx’s metaphor of the vampire could not be more timely. Now that the pandemic threatens corporate profits and economic growth, the vampire of Capital requires more blood to survive. And as the pundit class kicks into high gear, we should seize the opportunity to demonstrate the grotesque logic of capitalism and the ways that the media attempts to manipulate us into accepting anything, even the death of our loved-ones, so that Capital can continue its ceaseless growth.


Manufacturing Consent for Capital


As Capital begins to cry out for the blood of the most vulnerable, we should return to Noam Chomsky’s and Edward Herman’s propaganda model of mass media, which provides a structural explanation of how the media works to further the interests of Capital, rather than the people, especially in times of political and economic crisis. Chomsky and Herman identified five “filters” in the mass media apparatus through which propaganda and biases are generated: the ownership of the media by large corporations, funding through advertising, sourcing from government officials with shared interests, negative responses to those who disagree with the assumptions of the ruling class (flak), and the creation of fear. Chomksy and Herman maintain that every media story must pass through these filters before it makes its way to the public. These filters ensure that the news generally serves the interests of the wealthy and powerful, while stories that are sympathetic with the plight of the marginalized or express dissent from establishment norms rarely make it to the general public.


As the Trump administration pushes to end the soft lockdown, blithely suggesting that workers could return to work in a few weeks, we are witnessing the attempt to manufacture consent for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, or even millions, in order to save the economy from crashing. For Trump the moral philosopher, “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.” For Trump and his die-hard officials, an extended period of social distancing would be worse than allowing more losses in the market. 


The propaganda model of Chomsky and Edwards helps to explain the rapid shift in narrative, especially among conservative pundits. They observed that, in order to protect corporate, capitalist interests, mass media identifies worthy and unworthy victims. Those deemed worthy are humanized and presented sympathetically while the unworthy are treated with little context, humanization, or sympathy. As the Trump administration’s propaganda makes its way into print and onto television screens, Capital has become the worthy victim that must be saved at all costs, while the 1–2% who may die from COVID-19 are presented as the unworthy few who must be sacrificed for the sake of economic growth.


In an appearance on Fox News’s America’s Newsroom Monday, Trump’s economic advisor Larry Kudlow declared that we will have to make some “difficult tradeoffs” because the economic impact of the shutdown is simply too great. While Kudlow did not clarify exactly what the tradeoffs would be, it is apparent that he is referring to the sickness and potential deaths of a percentage of the population. According to Kudlow’s crude calculus, only Capital is worthy of being saved, while human beings are expendable objects to be traded for economic growth. Kudlow’s appearance on America’s Newsroom is an example of Chomsky and Edward’s third filter of mass media, an official source disseminating the party line, an expert without expertise.


Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick took a more direct approach in an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News when he stated that he and other senior citizens should be willing to risk death from COVID-19 in order to save the economy. Carlson asked: “You’re basically saying that this disease could take your life, but that’s not the scariest thing to you. There’s something that would be worse than dying?” In his affirmative reply, Lt. Gov. Patrick revealed his belief that a world without constant economic growth is not a world worth inhabiting. Political commentator Glenn Beck shared a similar sentiment Tuesday, stating that he’d rather die “than kill the country.” In Beck’s opinion, everyone over 50 years of age should risk their health and return to work to save the economy, which would save the country.  


It’s Not Just the Extremists


These extreme examples of sacrificial language —  voiced almost exclusively by the right — have now gone viral and have received swift critique. The naked “zero-sum game” logic of the right naturally strikes ordinary people as appalling, revealing the brutality inherent in conservative ideology. As Peter Kolozi points out in his study of conservatives and capitalism, “[C]onservatism is about the freedom and ability of some people to dominate, control, and extract from others, which capitalist inequality and hierarchy make possible.” This pandemic is simply laying bare the essence of conservatism, which naturalizes unnecessary human toil and suffering to protect the private lives of the rich and powerful.


However, in focusing solely on conservative extremists, it’s easy to miss the fact that the capitalist system has always depended on a zero-sum game that pits capitalist markets against human well-being. As political economist David McNally points out, under capitalism, economic activity is not primarily directed towards satisfying human life and needs. Rather, “a peculiar inversion occurs: a means becomes an end – accumulation of means of production becomes the end to which living labour is subordinated. Capital accumulates wealth not to satisfy needs but in order to accumulate ever more.” As long as this abode of economic liberalism is left intact, political liberalism — even progressive, reformist variants — will always be constrained by the demands and structural pressures of the market.


Thus, even though the first offerings of workers, the immunocompromised, and the elderly to the altar of Wall Street have come from the right, this zero-sum capitalist logic is also gaining purchase  among liberals who proudly position themselves against Republicans. For instance, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been lauded for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and his attempt to model a contrast to Trump’s erratic crisis-management. 


However, in his press conference Monday afternoon, Gov. Cuomo revealed that, in the midst of pandemic, the growth economy is still an unalterable fact of nature. One of Cuomo’s PowerPoint slides revealed the zero-sum logic underlying his decision making. The slide featured a crudely designed scale (actually a see-saw) with “Protect Lives” on one side and “Economic Viability” on the other. For Gov. Cuomo, human life and economic viability are in competition with one another, with death simply a prerequisite for economic success. The question then becomes: how much death is acceptable and inevitable? 


Given capitalism’s structural domination over our political institutions and parties, we should be prepared for increasing concessions to the capitalist class by both conservative and liberal politicians, as well as by their media arms. Just look at the incredible concessions Democratic presidential candidates have already made to the death-dealing private insurance industry.


The Perverse Religion of Capitalism


Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. This must be revised. The COVID-19 pandemic reveals that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine a brief disruption to the flow of capital. The US death-machine typically exports destruction to the rest of the world through endless war, harsh sanctions, and the exploitation of workers. Now, it is threatening to prey on the most vulnerable in our society. The vampire is voracious. And it is demanding more blood. The lives of the unworthy must be sacrificed for the myth of the American dream.


Calls to resume normal economic activity no matter the cost are likely just the beginning of attempts to manufacture consent for mass death, if it is necessary for the economy. While the wealthy like Lt. Gov. Patrick or Glenn Beck claim to be willing sacrifices, the truth is that the poor, workers,, people of color, immigrants — in Jesus’s words, “the least of these” — will bear the brunt, both physically and financially. Meanwhile, the wealthy will find ways to profit off the pandemic.

Eugene McCarraher has argued that capitalism has become the religion of modernity, with its own sacraments and way of life. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the religious element underlying capitalism, a sacrificial religion that offers no real redemption. It requires ceaseless sacrifice and sucks life without return. The love of money truly is the root of all kinds of evil.

Brandon Massey lives in the Chicago suburbs. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies and is working on a PhD in New Testament and Early Christianity.


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