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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

Gambling on Misery and Death

Updated: May 31, 2020

A few months ago I read in a twitter feed that we should hold a lottery on whether Boris Johnson dies of coronavirus. It may be that Johnson was indeed a victim of his own conservative government's shamefully slow response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Perhaps this tweet was a moment of 'schadenfreude'--taking pleasure in another's misfortune. Perhaps, it expresses a fugitive or malevolent wish to see hated political enemies 'get their comeuppance'. I admit I shared a moment of schadenfreude when I imagined the hundreds of Trump-supporting white protesters armed with AR-15 rifles who stormed the Michigan Capitol building chanting for the state to end lockdowns, subsequently writhing in agony and gasping for breath as a result of contracting COVID-19.

But the fact is most of us do not wish unnecessary suffering or death on anyone, even if we happen to disagree with, dislike or even despise them--and that includes Boris Johnson and MAGA gun nuts.

The sorrow we experience when we see others suffer or die before their time is natural and normal. It testifies to our basic human capacity for empathy--a condition of possibility for the development of anything like a moral compass. That is not the case with casino capitalist hedge-fund managers and bank fraudsters. The latter rejoice when they are able to turn speculating about death and disease into profit-making bonanzas.

The host on which parasitic neoliberal capitalism feeds is the whole of the biosphere. Like COVID-19 it must attack its host in order to preserve and replicate itself--i.e. continuously profit from human misfortune. It does this by destroying eco-systems, creating mass inequality, preventing regulations that protect the environment, ensuring that there will always be a lack of needed medical supplies in an emergency so that prices can be raised. It welcomes disaster because it is driven by the ideological imperative to deregulate and privatize every aspect of local and national economies--it does this best, as Naomi Klein has documented, when communities and nations are in a state of disoriented shock in the wake of an economic recession or natural disaster or pandemic.

In Sri Lanka, a tsunami destroyed the villages of the local fishing communities. The land they lived on for generations, was sold by the government to private development companies that built resorts for the rich. In New Orleans hundreds of corporations and private military contractors descended upon a devastated region looking for ways to profit from the disaster that was hurricane Katrina. American and Canadian weapons manufacturers and other corporations made billions in the lead up to and after the Iraq war. Iraqi citizens suffered and died by the millions so they could continue to profit.

The point of this sort of disaster economics is to turn the majority of humanity into 'The wretched of the earth', as Frantz Fanon called them. Neoliberal capitalism does this by establishing a cult of individualism, and advocating insatiable greed and self-interest that forces us into a war with our neighbour, that alienates us from each other, that does everything possible to destroy solidarity, friendship and the communal bonds which give us meaning and purpose. It does this by putting people in debt and forcing them to live in crushing poverty, homelessness, hopelessness and often terror.

The present capitalist system creates the fertile ground where predators who prey on despair, suffering and death proliferate and profit from human misery. The last thing pharmaceutical companies want is to make any COVID-19 vaccine affordable or free to all. Amazon would rather have sick workers die (and be replaced) than give employees sick pay. Profit margins must be kept high--that means prices must be raised, quality must be reduced in favour of mass production, wages and benefits must be kept low, and human beings (indeed the natural world) must be viewed as disposable 'commodities'.

We are repulsed at COVID-19 profiteering. Not Wall Street or other stock markets around the world. The latter thrive during a pandemic when they can gamble on medical equipment shortages, when deregulated private corporate tyrannies (as Chomsky aptly describes them) are allowed to increase prices for medical equipment, for vaccines, and for hospital services. That is the system we now live under. A system that profits from betting on misery and death.

There is, however, another more positive possibility that many are beginning to see in light of the COVID-19 pandemic--in a way they could not see when faced with the seemingly more distant threat of climate change. Every once in a while in history we come to a moment of decisive significance--a moment where we clearly see options that were not visible to us before. I think we are at such a moment. We can choose an economics oriented around life. We can choose a politics oriented towards justice and the reasonable redistribution of the wealth and abundance of this planet. We can opt for a future that preserves and protects the environment and restores community, solidarity and dignity to all living things.

What we cannot do is act as if things could go on as before. That would surely be the worst possible outcome in the wake of the present pandemic.

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