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Alexandr Sidorov/adobestock.com

COVID-19 as Social Murder

Putting Capitalism on Trial

April 22, 2020

We should call the coronavirus crisis what it is: social murder.

Sure, we should still describe the ongoing spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease that’s caused by the virus, a pandemic. But the spread is uneven. This is becoming especially clear in the United States, one of the global leaders in confirmed COVID-19 cases. The disease is concentrating suffering on people near the bottom of a complex social hierarchy. Capitalism, along with white supremacy and other exploitative and exclusionary systems, are to blame—so too are those who benefit most from these systems.


Charging Social Murder

Friedrich Engels’ notion of “social murder” can help us make sense of the COVID-19 disparities. In his 1845 monograph The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels blamed “society as a responsible whole” for the suffering he witnessed in industrial Manchester. However, he was clear that by society he meant “the ruling power of society, the class which at present holds social and political control… the bourgeoisie.”

This wasn’t manslaughter. It was murder.

Engels’ accusation rested on three claims. First, there were dead and dying bodies near the bottom of the polarized city. It’s hard to make the case for murder without a corpse, and there were many in the proletarian sectors of Manchester. Second, there were reasonable mechanisms that linked high rates of working-class mortality and morbidity to conditions of capitalism. Engels emphasized the unhealthy features of factory production, as well as the injurious aspects of proletarian neighborhoods. Among other things, he linked lung diseases to industrial pollution, typhus to poor housing, and substance abuse to workers’ labor conditions. Third, there was intent, or at least gross negligence. The bourgeoisie of Engels’ time read testimonies of proletarian misery in the newspaper, and it became increasingly difficult for them to deny that the contradictory system they ruled generated this suffering.

We can make the case that capitalists today are guilty of social murder via COVID-19, but in order to do so we need to make a couple of modifications to Engels’ framework. First, we need to account for capitalism’s foundational connections to white supremacy and other oppressive systems. Second, we need to disaggregate the uniform proletarian bloc assumed by Engels. There are important gradations in wage labor that correspond to morbidity and mortality (e.g., inequalities in pay and autonomy). And, of course, we must also make room for the superexploited, the subproletariat, the precariat, and others who are also wounded by capitalism but who may not be integrated into the core of wage labor.

With those modifications in mind, let’s consider how COVID-19 constitutes a form of social murder.


There Are Bodies

The first requirement in charging social murder: locating a concentration of deceased and sick bodies near the bottom of the social hierarchy. If it were really true, as many commentators and public officials liked to casually suggest a few weeks ago, that the coronavirus “doesn’t discriminate,” then the prevalence of COVID-19 would be evenly spread across divisions of labor, race, living conditions, and so on. That’s obviously not the case. Early research suggests the coronavirus disproportionately infects and harms people toward the bottom of economic and racial hierarchies.

Even with high profile cases of COVID-struck movie stars, world leaders, and millionaire cable news anchors, it’s becoming clearer every day that this is a disease like most. It’s heavy and it sinks.

In his 1845 monograph The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels blamed “society as a responsible whole” for the suffering he witnessed in industrial Manchester. However, he was clear that by society he meant “the ruling power of society, the class which at present holds social and political control… the bourgeoisie.”

Many working-class people are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Grocery store employees, logistics workers, transit workers, frontline health care providers, and other essential laborers also seem to be at an especially high risk of COVID-19. The conditions of their work expose them to the virus, not unlike how the conditions of industrial factories exposed the proletariat of Engels’ time to polluted air.

Of course, not all working people face the same risks. Many professionals, who can sell their labor power at higher rates and work jobs with more autonomy, are able to mitigate risks by working from home. But they are likely more vulnerable to COVID-19 than the CEOs and heads of large public agencies who live off the divided labor of their subordinates.

These patterns alone should lead us to suspect social murder. Capital isn’t just dead labor. It’s killing labor. It always has and it always will.

But these strict class comparisons can only reveal so much. The class hierarchy is intertwined with a racial hierarchy—not one of biology, but of life chances. As is now widely reported, CDC hospital data demonstrates that Blacks are more likely than whites to be hospitalized with COVID-19. In Chicago, for example, COVID death is essentially Black death. Nearly three fourths of the people who have died so far from the disease are Black, despite accounting for less than a third of the city’s population.

Engels can’t really help us understand these patterns, but W.E.B. Bois can. Indeed, there are some remarkable similarities between Engels’ examination of health in proletarian Manchester and Du Bois’ examination of health inequalities in The Philadelphia Negro more than five decades later. They both highlighted many of the same diseases and connected them to oppressive social conditions.

However, unlike Engels, who linked suffering to economic exploitation, Du Bois linked suffering to both exploitation and exclusion. The color line lowered working and living conditions for Blacks. White labor benefited from the economic exclusion of their Black counterparts and unabashedly organized to preserve and strengthen the color line across a number of trades in industrial Philadelphia. However, the real beneficiaries were white employers. The color line stunted class struggle and therefore helped lower wages for essentially everyone in the long term. Du Bois famously expanded on this exact point in Black Reconstruction in America.

With the color line in mind, we can reasonably suspect social murder when we see reports that the coronavirus is infecting and killing Black and Brown people at alarmingly high rates. The ongoing legacy of racialized exploitation and exclusion shapes life chances up and down the economic hierarchy.

There are even more reasons to suspect social murder. The chronically unhoused and other severely marginalized populations, like the elderly exiled into the hidden confines of understaffed nursing homes, are also at risk.

It’s not like we have a case of missing persons. We have dead and dying bodies. But identifying these bodies is just the first step in charging social murder.


There’s Mechanism

How can we explain the COVID-sparked suffering that concentrates on exploited and excluded populations in the United States? Mainstream epidemiology will likely fail us. In their famous essay, “Social Conditions as Fundamental Causes of Disease,” Bruce Link and Jo Phelan accurately note that modern epidemiologists tend to focus public and scientific attention on “proximate” mechanisms (e.g., risky behaviors) and away from “distal” forces (e.g., resource inequalities).

It’s not like we have a case of missing persons. We have dead and dying bodies. But identifying these bodies is just the first step in charging social murder.

But has the “social determinants of health” discourse been that much better? Most medical sociologists and social epidemiologists do not seem to share the same vision of the “social” that Engels and Du Bois did. In fact, it’s worth noting that Link and Phelan ignored (or perhaps didn’t know about) the contributions of Engels and Du Bois. And while they wrote about inequalities in socioeconomic status and racial health disparities, their 1995 essay offered no meaningful critique of actual fundamental social structures like capitalism and white supremacy. Worse, some, like Michael Marmot, in his 2004 bestseller The Status Syndrome, outright dismissed Marxism as a strawman.

In her 2019 book, Remaking a Life, Celeste Watkins-Hayes ditches the social determinants of health language in favor of a framework that she calls “injuries of inequality.” This is a step in the right direction. Watkins-Hayes doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There’s much to learn from studies of how jobs, neighborhoods, networks, stress, and other mid-range factors can influence health. However, we need to also think about how injurious social systems fundamentally shape these conditions.

Thus, with respect to COVID-19, it’s not enough to emphasize infection, hospitalization, or mortality risks by occupation, income, or wealth. We must break from “socioeconomic status” as a fundamental cause and grapple with COVID-19’s origins in, and spread through, capitalism. Likewise, we need to ditch simple descriptive accounts of “racial disparities” and scrutinize white supremacy as a force that concentrates harm toward the bottom of the racial hierarchy.

It’s important to first note that the pandemic was born through a particular mode of production – through a particular way in which humans transform the world into useful and exchangeable things. While there are reasons to doubt the virus emerged from a Wuhan wet market, it remains the dominant hypothesis and one worth wrestling. Speaking on COVID-19’s emergence in Wuhan, Rob Wallace, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu, draws our attention not only to the public health risks of industrial agriculture but also capital land grabs and deforestation, which increase “interface with, and spillover of, new pathogens.” This might explain how the conditions of a wild food market could have helped transmit the virus to humans (maybe from bats via pangolins), especially considering that many so-called wet markets across the globe include “wild food” that’s actually farmed. That said, we shouldn’t exoticize or overgeneralize the demand for commodified wildlife in mainland China. As Andrew Liu notes, such consumption is generally limited to the wealthy and functions as a new vehicle for class distinction in the Chinese market society.

Of course, capitalism did not just likely invite COVID-19. It more importantly fostered the conditions for its broad and rapid spread. That’s because capitalism connects people through a global flow of capital, an international division of labor, a vast tourist industry, and more. As Kim Moody argues, capitalism’s dependency on lean production and “just-in-time” logistics allowed the virus to flow quickly through major supply chain routes. It is not surprising then that capitalism pushed the virus through high-speed pathways into hundreds of nations across the globe.

No racist travel ban could have prevented it. And, as David Harvey recently pointed out, the neoliberal policies that have ascended with post-Fordist production regimes have “left the public totally exposed and ill-prepared” for pandemics like this one. Decades of austerity for the masses and subsidies for the rich haven’t done much to slow the capitalist-fueled spread of COVID-19. With these forces in mind, it’s not very surprising that the coronavirus hit and spread across the United States in rapid fashion.

Decades of austerity for the masses and subsidies for the rich haven’t done much to slow the capitalist-fueled spread of COVID-19. With these forces in mind, it’s not very surprising that the coronavirus hit and spread across the United States in rapid fashion.

The internal conditions of U.S. capitalism further explain why COVID-19 tends to sink to the bottom of the class hierarchy. Just as the bourgeoisie in nineteenth-century Manchester could retreat to the countryside to inhale clean air, many of today’s wealthy New Yorkers are retreating to avoid the coronavirus. Meanwhile, better protected workers, including relatively well-compensated professionals, can shield themselves from the virus without losing their income by working from home. The people that capitalism depends on most, as well as those who the system directly excludes for the ultimate benefit of capital, are left to bear the brunt of COVID-19.

The color line, which shapes and is shaped by capitalism, further explains how COVID-19 tends to sink to the bottom of the racial hierarchy. The essential occupations that are particularly at risk, like grocery store clerks, claim a relatively high share of Black workers, and so do many of the jobs that come with especially high risks of layoffs during the pandemic. In contrast, those who can work from home during this crisis are more likely to be white. Then there are the “pre-existing conditions” that disproportionately plague Blacks and increase their odds of coronavirus-related death.

Both of these proximate COVID-19 risks – occupational segregation and pre-existing conditions – are attributable to white supremacy. David Williams and Selina Mohammed’s highly influential papers published in Journal of Behavioral Medicine and American Behavioral Scientist help explain why. They build upon, but also challenge, the work of Link and Phelan to illustrate how racism has increased morbidity and mortality for people of color by way of the wealth gap, employment inequalities, mass incarceration, discrimination-induced stress, and more. Returning to Du Bois, it’s not hard to see how “White Imperial Industry” has generated a beastly mixture of institutional and interpersonal racisms that imperfectly protect white people from the risks of COVID-19.

I could go on – and others should – but the mechanisms of social murder are clear enough. We must direct our attention to another question. Is the COVID-19 suffering that’s structured by exploitation and exclusion deliberate?


There’s Intent, Or At Least Gross Negligence

We have bodies, and we have a number of weapons with the filthy fingerprints of capitalism and white supremacy all over them. That’s not even mentioning how patriarchy, with its deep ties to global systems of accumulation and marginalization, has also structured the spread and secondary effects of COVID-19 (e.g., through gendered divisions of care work).

But maybe this is all just a terrible accident. It’s certainly hard to imagine that capitalists wanted this pandemic and the crises it has produced. Engels nevertheless pushes us to consider intent, or at least gross negligence.

The mechanisms outlined above are not accidental. They’re rooted in the necessary conditions of capitalism and white supremacy. And, while we may blame “society” for the emergence and spread of COVID-19, Engels reminds us that those with the most power should bear ultimate responsibility. It’s also unreasonable for those in power to feign ignorance when the structural contradictions they benefit from so clearly generate human misery.

Consider, for example, some of these contradictions across economy, state, and medicine.

First, there is the contradiction in socialized production and capitalist appropriation, which Engels later detailed in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. We can see this in the commodification of food, clothing, health care, general utilities, and more. But at the moment it might be most evident in the commodification of shelter. Across many cities, like Las Vegas, unhoused bodies lie in the shadows of empty hotels. A propertyless mass makes and maintains these hotels, but they’re owned by a property-holding minority and denied to those most in need. Of course, this contradiction is also racialized, with people of color facing amplified exploitation and exclusion in not only labor but also housing.

Clinical interventions center the critique of suffering on the body and away from what Engels describes as “the root of the evil.”

Second, there are the contradictions of the state. From preserving a massive employer-sponsored health insurance regime during a double crisis of sickness and unemployment to focusing recent pandemic relief on property over people, the federal government has scrambled to prevent capitalism’s freefall at the expense of human suffering. As Rev. William J. Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign, put it, the largest economic stimulus package in U.S. history is “evil.” And that’s saying nothing about the contradictions of a carceral state that continues to fumble the dangerous spread of COVID-19 behind bars.

Third, there are the specific contradictions of medicine. Even if hospitals were loaded with adequate labor and equipment, we would still see doctors, nurses, and others struggling to counter the misery produced by COVID-19. As Marxist physician Howard Waitzkin puts it in The Politics of Medical Encounters, medicine under capitalism is deeply ironic: health care workers genuinely want to reduce human suffering, but they lack the tools to do so. Worse, many of their interventions help elicit a sort of Gramscian consent for the very forces that make people sick. That’s partly because clinical interventions center the critique of suffering on the body and away from what Engels describes as “the root of the evil.” Of course, this is also racialized. As explained by Joe Feagin and Zinobia Bennefield, U.S. medical discourse relies on racist language as it tends to emphasize “relatively weak individualistic concepts” (e.g., implicit bias and cultural competence) over stronger “analytical concepts” (e.g., systemic racism and white racial framing). It is not surprising then that the discourse on COVID-19 health risks has been so focused on the weak, and subtly racist, concept of underlying conditions.

These contradictions, as well as many others, are essential for capitalism, white supremacy, and other homicidal structures. So, it shouldn’t be hard to assume that those who most benefit from these systems would not only know about these contradictions but also protect them. Indeed, these contradictions are not hidden. They’re plastered in the media daily, just as the suffering of the English proletariat was printed for all who were literate to read.

In sum, we can accuse modern capital and white power of committing social murder via COVID-19. Of course, social murder happens in other ways and will continue to happen after this pandemic inevitably ends. COVID-19 just makes this offense particularly obvious.

But now what?

Engels said the bourgeoisie could “either continue its rule under the unanswerable charge of murder and in spite of this charge” or it could “abdicate in favour of the laboring-class.” He assumed abdication wouldn’t come easy and he would later expand, with Marx, on methods of class struggle.

The strikes, sick-outs, and worker protests heating up during the pandemic should give us some hope, as should related antiracist organizing. While total abdication may be far away, we should support these efforts. They’re helping put homicidal structures on trial.

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