COVID-19: International Competition at the Heart of the Current Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has generated a new political and social reality that is not easy to analyse. It is necessary to identify what is at work in the development of the current crisis in order to understand the events that have taken place in recent weeks, the executive and legislative decisions that have followed one another at a frantic pace, and the measures taken around the world by bourgeois governments to counter the pandemic. It is therefore the examination of the economic and political struggle between the various national capitalists and their respective states that enlightens us. In other words, international competition, with the perpetual confrontation between imperialist powers at its centre, deserves our full attention. Let us go back in time in the footsteps of the events that led to the pandemic in order to anticipate what awaits us in the class struggle and what will deserve to be deepened by the revolutionary movement.

The “COVID-19 crisis” can be broken down into four distinct phases, each with a specific centre of gravity:

1. The phase of international competition focused on propaganda, sanctions and political isolation against China and the first infected countries in the winter of 2019-2020;

2. The phase of international competition centred on a wait-and-see attitude and the decisive role played by North America and Europe, culminating in the joint adoption of a unified defensive plan in mid-March 2020;

3. The current phase of international competition focused on combating the destabilization of each country’s national economy and the gap with other countries;

4. The coming phase of international competition centred on economic recovery after a commonly agreed pause, the appropriation of markets by economic adversaries, the mismatch between countries, as well as the second wave of the epidemic and the dual function of the state of health emergency in the class struggle to quell the popular revolt.

More globally, we need to analyze the economy, the foundation of competition within bourgeois society and capitalism.

An overview of events: going beyond national particularities

A proper analysis of the current crisis cannot be limited to sticking to a specific national reality. Nor can an analysis of the global situation be based on national particularities. Rather, one must have an overview of the situation before returning to the national level. The current crisis is an international phenomenon: its origin lies in the relations between nations, in the perpetual confrontations between capitalist states. Between them lies a game of reciprocal actions, an infinite mirror effect that leads to a rise to extremes. In short, the current crisis is inseparable from international competition.

The first cases of infection date back to 17 November 2019 in Wuhan, China. On January 12, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed that the new coronavirus was responsible for a series of serious symptoms now referred to as COVID-19. On January 30, 2020, the WHO declared a global health emergency. On 11 March 2020, WHO declared the spread of COVID-19 a pandemic. In mid-March, Canada, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and the United States declared a state of health emergency. On March 13, 2020, the Government of Quebec joined the movement. This was followed by a series of state measures forming a common program: the virtual closure of airports and borders, a ban on gatherings, preventive and forced quarantine, the confinement of a large part of the population, the halting of economic sectors that were not essential to the reproduction of society, etc. To date, almost half of the planet is under containment.

Contrary to what the Prime Minister of Quebec is trying to get us to believe during his daily press briefings, the state of health emergency did not come about at Quebec’s initiative. Nor is there a way specific to Quebec to manage the pandemic. The series of measures adopted by François Legault is not unique in the current global context. In fact, there are no brilliant individuals who are the authors or instigators of the economic and social program put in place around the world. The bourgeois government here was not at the forefront of what was done elsewhere. Quebec and Canadian measures did not emerge earlier than in the United States or Europe. What is more, in Quebec, as in many other countries, the same public relations campaign promoting government foresight was launched. No state can claim to have led by example. Yet all governments are seizing the opportunity to improve their image. In fact, all the major countries and international states have introduced more or less the same measures at the same time. In fact, we have witnessed a unified movement, the decree of a concerted green light, the joint and cumulative action of all the major imperialist powers in competition with each other. For proof of this, we need only look at the dates of the declarations of states of health emergency around the world:

Hungary (11 March 2020), United States (29 February to 13 March 2020), Florida (29 February 2020), Washington (29 February 2020), California (4 March 2020), Maryland (5 March 2020), Kentucky (6 March 2020), Tennessee (6 March 2020), New York (7 March 2020), Oregon (8 March 2020), Ohio (March 9, 2020), New Jersey (March 9, 2020), Colorado (March 10, 2020), North Carolina (March 10, 2020), Massachusetts (March 10, 2020), Michigan (March 10, 2020), New Mexico (March 11, 2020), Arizona (March 11, 2020), Wisconsin (March 12, 2020), Virginia (March 12, 2020), Kansas (12 March 2020), Louisiana (13 March 2020), Minnesota (13 March 2020), Spain (13 March 2020), Quebec (13 March 2020), Kazakhstan (15 March 2020), Serbia (15 March 2020), Armenia (16 March 2020), Kosovo (17 March 2020), Philippines (17 March 2020), Ontario (17 March 2020), Alberta (17 March 2020), Northern Macedonia (28 March 2020), Portugal (18 March 2020), Luxembourg (18 March 2020), Georgia (21 March 2020), Krygyzstan (21 March 2020), Nova Scotia (22 March 2020), Thailand (25 March 2020), India (25 March 2020), Japan (7 April 2020).

This non-exhaustive list does not even reflect those countries which, without having declared a formal state of emergency, have put in place exceptional legislative measures in line with the common agenda. For example, in France, while the declaration of the state of health emergency did not occur until 24 March, the closure of schools and day-care centres was announced on 12 March 2020, the ban on assembly on 13 March, the closure of non-essential activities and businesses on 14 March 2020, and compulsory confinement on 16 March. In Germany a plan to contain the spread was first put in place at the end of February 2020, followed by the adoption of the protection plan on 13 March 2020: schools and day-care centres were then closed and visits to senior citizens’ centres were banned. On the following 22 March, a nationwide curfew was imposed and a series of other measures worthy of a state of health emergency were announced. The programme is much the same in Russia, where a period without work was announced after the closure of borders, schools and the banning of gatherings. The same is true for the United Kingdom, where “social distancing” measures were put in place before the formal adoption of the Coronavirus Act 2020 and Health Regulation 2020 (Coronavirus Restrictions) at the end of March 2020.

Thus, despite the national peculiarities, we have witnessed a unified movement that has been driven by a single stroke at the international level, although extremely late in relation to the objective situation. The force with which the measures were applied everywhere in March 2020 and the gap between these measures and the life that had gone on in the days before their announcement were astonishing, especially since COVID-19 had been presented as banal and harmless until then. In the first phase of the crisis, every effort was made to argue that the coronavirus was a minor event from which one was immune. With hindsight, this reveals how little was actually done to prevent the pandemic before the March announcements.

The laxity of December 2019 and January-February 2020 is mainly caused by the economic and political competition between the big imperialist countries. For precious weeks, nothing was done: no capitalist power wanted to be the only one to be penalized by taking preventive measures harmful to its national economy. It was all the more dissuasive to do so because the countries were at the end of an economic cycle that was heralding disastrous results. Exacerbated competition in a turbulent economic context led players to rush into “irrational” expectations. No state wanted to suffer heavy losses and a slowdown in its national economy if its competitors were not exposed to the same risks. As long as there was a small glimmer of hope that there was a way out of COVID-19, the threat was negated. The influence of the great imperialist powers and the battle they were waging weighed on the rest of the nations and states, extending the wait-and-see period to much of the globe.

It was through international competition that the material contradictions in the world were expressed, that the economic antagonisms between the great capitalist powers rolled out the red carpet to the real movement that is the coronavirus. The coronavirus has thus been able to spread without great obstacles. Competition created the conditions in which the pandemic grew despite all the warning signals. Once again, the international proletariat and the peoples of the whole world found themselves at the mercy of the interests of capital, which delayed the implementation of all the measures prescribed by science and by the accumulated experiences of the struggle against epidemics throughout history.

The Four Phases of the Current Crisis: The Arena of Economic and Political Struggles between the Capitalist States and the Large International Monopolies

1) Propaganda against China and the first affected countries

The first phase of international competition focuses on the political offensive against the first countries affected by the virus. This phase is marked by a period of defamatory propaganda, sanctions against affected countries and political isolation of these countries. China has necessarily suffered the full brunt of this attack. Countries such as Iran and Italy were also subject to it.

This phase was therefore mainly an offensive that consisted of seizing the opportunity to harm and weaken competitors already struggling with the virus. From November 2019, a huge propaganda campaign against China took shape. Its aim was to present the situation as the result of a problem provoked and then mismanaged by Chinese “despotism”. The angle of attack was to contrast China’s “authoritarian” inclination with liberal democracy as it exists in Europe or the United States. The bourgeois media in Canada have reported extensively on the case of a Chinese doctor who sounded the alarm in the fall and the orchestrated “conspiracy” to bury his voice. In the same vein, there has been an over-emphasis in the media on the purchase of live animals for food consumption in certain markets in China. There was even talk of the “Chinese virus”. Subsequently, the victories recorded in the Chinese sanitary fight were presented as the product of the “dictatorship”. However, the measures implemented in China (for example, the quarantine of Wuhan and a few other cities in the Hubei Region from 23 January 2020) are not fundamentally different from those implemented in North America or Europe in recent weeks. The Chinese capitalist state has nonetheless succeeded in preventing the national spread in what is the world’s largest country in terms of population.

Similarly, the failure of Iran and Italy to deal with the virus was presented as resulting from the weakness of their respective health care systems and other national deficiencies in public utilities. Furthermore, we’ve seen denunciations of Iran’s mass graves all over the place.Would the bourgeois media say the same thing today, now that New York doesn’t know what to do with the bodies? Worse still, the first countries affected suffered political isolation: health and material aid from outside was refused.

Throughout this phase, the virus was presented as a simple flu that could only affect populations with “medieval” facilities, conditions and practices. One need only look at the articles published in January and February 2020 in the various national newspapers to be convinced of this. In Canada, in February, La Presse and Radio-Canada casually argued that seasonal flu was more lethal and damaging than COVID-19.

2) The March 2020 Unified Defensive Movement and the Common Agenda: From Outrageous Slackness to Saving in Extremis

The second phase of international competition is centred on the wait-and-see approach and the birth of the unified defensive movement of March 2020. Following a period of outrageous complacency, a sequence of actions emerged throughout Europe and America. This sequence concluded with the adoption of a common agenda, leading to a global truce.

To illustrate the scenario we witnessed last month, let us take the game in which two participants in a vehicle are speeding towards each other. The one who loses is the one who turns the wheel first to avoid the collision. However, if neither driver intervenes, a fatal accident is guaranteed. In this spirit, the action or inaction of one country is the measure of the action and inaction of another country, and vice versa. It is therefore not possible to take drastic measures alone in one’s corner. The ties that bind the various competitors depend on the movement produced by competition between them and between capital and national states.

The complacency of January-February 2020 is the product of reciprocal actions. There is no reason to doubt that measures have been taken far too late (closure of airports, screening, ordering of medical equipment, etc.). A unified movement was also required for countries to “pause” their economies and thus temporarily close down a considerable number of sectors and industries. Several countries rallied behind risky decisions through international and super-structural organizations: the watchwords launched by the WHO and the UN provided some impetus. However, the impetus for the unified movement came mainly from a common gain marking the conclusion of the January-February 2020 sequence of reciprocal actions. The perpetual confrontation between the capitalist states to win market shares and share the world resulted in a long waltz of economic and political struggle, a never-ending confrontation, an endurance test that pushed the governments to flip a coin with the health and lives of the people in the name of imperialist competition.

It is therefore not surprising that the common programme was introduced too late. The objective situation and the material reality of the coronavirus, however, demanded much earlier and much more effective action. It was therefore an essentially defensive movement that was set up to save the day after too long a wait-and-see period. The problem is that this unified defensive movement, full of gaps and limitations, cannot have any lasting effect outside the existence of a vaccine. The scale of the epidemic is controlled as long as the difficult and expensive economic and social measures are maintained. The current programme will only be effective if all the sick are cured and at the same time the spread is completely contained, i.e. if there are no more new infections. For this scenario to become a reality, the measures currently in place would have to be maintained, or even a major tightening of containment for an indefinite period of time – but certainly much longer than international competition will allow. Otherwise, a second wave of contagion could occur. And at this point in time, there is nothing to suggest that there is a real plan to deal with this second wave, other than the implementation (already well underway) of increasingly repressive public security measures and the emergence of new social norms (a limited prospect, however) that slow down the contagion.

In this context, all countries have come to the brink of disaster. Taking the initiative in the fight against COVID-19 was not an option: the private interests of capital and large national monopolies prevailed. The defensive movement that unfolded before our eyes was ultimately a desperate manoeuvre to prevent the tens of thousands of deaths from turning into hundreds of thousands of deaths, which would harm the “health” of the national economy.

3) The current struggle to preserve the national economy in the face of the destabilization caused by the epidemic during the common truce

This phase of international competition is centred on the struggle of each State to preserve its national economy. All are seeking to be among the least destabilized by the pandemic after the “commonly agreed truce”. This truce pushes national executives to opt for different tactics depending on the cards in their hands and their own economic and political conditions (GDP, industries, financial sectors, debts, position in international relations, etc.). And the differences between states will only increase with the erosion of the unified movement of March 2020.

Special forms of quarantine, breaks in activity, supervision of airports and borders, curfews, patrols, registration, electronic surveillance, prohibition of gatherings, containment and ring-fencing of territories, etc. are emerging. However, the variations do not preclude the tactics from relating to the same unified movement. A state’s political and economic achievements lead to subjective planning and decisions. This leads to variations in the tactics adopted. The objective relations between capitalist states are also at issue. The demarcations are more apparent when we speak of the reorganization of production and the national economy, the adoption of subsidies to private enterprises and other legal forms given to capital. The idea for every capitalist state is to keep its head above water while the others drown.

Let’s keep it this way: the common movement is a temporary pact. In trench warfare, there are truces agreed to by both sides to allow soldiers to fetch the dead and wounded without exposing themselves to enemy fire. The truce that we are now witnessing came about under the specific conditions of COVID-19 because all factions felt they had something to gain from it. It is not a negation of competition; it is a form produced by competition. In this sense, the truce is comparable to alliances or political blocs being formed in the face of common enemies. Competition has therefore not disappeared during the phase that concerns us; competition takes on particular forms. It is shaped by the measures that tend to contain the epidemic and prevent the emergence of conditions that would permanently disrupt the production and circulation of capital.

We are entitled to ask ourselves what the possible consequences of the epidemic will be at the national level. Of course, the consequences will be enormous if the epidemic is no longer combated. But even with the measures put in place so far, the damage to be expected is great:

Damage to the national economy, impediments to the process of production and circulation of capital, weakening of the financial sectors, banks and stock exchanges, indebtedness, deterioration of fundamental industrial sectors;

Very high human losses;

The failure of the health network and other public institutions and utilities (transport, etc.) necessary for the reproduction of economic activity and bourgeois civil society;

The revolt of the masses in a spontaneous, ephemeral and violent form generated by a general deterioration of their living conditions, a revolt prefiguring the emergence of a political crisis;

A gap in relation to the adversaries who have recovered from the pandemic, a national epidemic that continues while a recovery is taking place elsewhere.

What is certain is that the capitalist states cannot stand idly by. That said, an optimization exercise is taking place in parallel with the common agenda: the aim is to achieve at least worst-case scenarios at the lowest possible cost. Optimisation is based on current conditions and forecasts.

Competition gives rise to external forms of intervention: taking over a resource, depriving opponents of it, destabilising them, weakening them, etc. When we see the struggle between States to get their hands on medical equipment, competition is more than obvious. The situation is like a Hollywood blockbuster: a cargo of protective masks is hijacked on the tarmac, cash transactions, a convoy of armed agents to escort the cargo, and so on. In Quebec, Premier François Legault stated with disconcerting flippancy: “[…] it’s true that it’s playing rough in some countries. …but we too are playing by the rules of the game. But we play by the rules of the game too. That means that sometimes you have to come in with cash, you have to have police, people who follow the transport…”. In the same vein, we are seeing targeted export cancellations, negotiations under threat, overtaxation, protectionist customs measures, diplomatic backroom games, and so on.

It is in the fight against the gap in relation to other countries that the two forms produced by international competition, that which is domestic in scope and that which is foreign in scope, come together. To act within the national framework, to adopt containment measures or to release them, one must look at what is happening internationally, one must remain cautious and be in tune with what is being done elsewhere. The material basis of the March 2020 truce is the fight against lagging behind other countries. It had become undeniable that no country in the world would escape the pandemic, and that prolonging the wait-and-see attitude only exacerbated the disaster it had caused. All competitors therefore agreed to similar economic and social constraints. The refusal to participate in the unified movement led to a strong and endlessly predictable epidemic: few wanted to risk being on the ground while all the others were about to get up again. Fighting the gap with other countries is the objective of the current phase and the one to come: all States will seek to be as little destabilized as possible, for as short a time as possible, and to get back on their feet as quickly as possible. More than that, each of them will try to do better than the others.

4) The coming period of economic recovery and the need to strengthen repressive measures to curb popular protest at the national level

This upcoming phase will focus on economic recovery. It will be marked by a gradual de-confinement, the resumption of economic activity in non-essential sectors, the return in force of productive industries such as construction… in short, a return to normality in terms of the circulation of capital. But for national populations, nothing will be less normal: the threat of a second wave of the epidemic will weigh heavily. People will be faced with unsafe working and social conditions… and extremely repressive measures will await them if they decide to revolt.

Sooner or later, the defensive unified movement of March 2020 and the common truce it brought about will come to an end. In this phase, the competition will become tougher: those who manage to revive their economy as soon as possible will steal the market shares of the others who are lagging behind. It will only take one opponent who rushes into the lion’s den to provoke a general movement. Already, North America and Europe are upset by China’s lead. China’s revival will precipitate the revival of its competitors. The pressure to get back on track as soon as possible will be strong. This infernal dynamic will provoke another rise to extremes: workers will be forced to return to work, but this time in more dangerous conditions than ever before.

International competition will necessarily strengthen the class struggle on a national scale. It is then that the dual function of the measures (public health and public security) will become clear. The disastrous economic situation (recession, stock market collapse, etc.) will become very apparent. The countries that are the most lax in terms of repressive measures will be the most destabilized (riots, spontaneous violent movements), hence the need for capitalist states to immediately put in place a dual-function net that currently serves to contain the pandemic and that will ultimately serve to quell a popular revolt, especially since a second wave of spread is to be expected.

When repression emerges, the revolutionary movement’s analysis of the current crisis will take on a practical dimension. People will realize that we will have returned to the same point as before the declaration of the state of health emergency, with the difference that there will be new social norms resulting from the experience that will have been accumulated. But as well applied as they may be, these norms alone will not be able to curb the virus, which will have the effect of revealing the inadequacies of the bourgeois regime. Also, the quality of life will be lower than before. This will be the material basis for a spontaneous movement of protest and resistance. The health care network will be at the end of its rope. People will be afraid to expose themselves to the virus when they go to work. Households will be impoverished. Essential workers will no longer be praised. The unemployed will have no job prospects. Former recipients of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) will realize harshly that the $2,000 in federal funding will be taxable next spring. Workers will realize how much debt they have. Some capitalists will have gotten rich off the misfortune of others. And international competition will strengthen the class struggle on a national scale.

The material basis of the different phases of international competition in the current crisis

The economy, which is the basis of society, brings together and encompasses the four previous phases. The economic struggle is the material foundation of each of the phases. It is the guiding thread of recent and future events. General economic competition, the stock market crash of 2020 and cyclical economic crises must therefore be included in the analysis of the current crisis. For example, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) lowered oil prices in the run-up to the pandemic, which caused market saturation. It is clear that the real events (the pandemic) are related to the economic laws of capitalism and all this deserves to be finely analysed. The economic basis and cyclical crises of capitalism merge with the real movement (in this case, the coronavirus).

However, contrary to an analysis developed by bankrupt currents, the virus is not a creation to hide the economic crisis. It is not a conspiracy, as imagined by idealistic political tendencies that have sunk into anti-Marxism. In fact, thinking this is as crazy as thinking that the virus was created by a given imperialist like China or the United States.

The virus will serve as a screen for capitalism, that’s a fact, and this, like many other events and phenomena (natural disasters, wars, etc.). The ideologues and capitalist states will be at work to delude us. However, the virus is not an invention and states of health emergencies are not staged. To deny this is to deny imperialism and historical materialism.

There is nothing fundamentally new and surprising in what the pandemic tells us about capitalism. Competition caused the wait-and-see attitude and then the unified movement of March 2020; it has begun to cause the clashes for the preservation of national economies; it will cause the second wave of the spread of COVID-19 and then spur spontaneous popular protest. Competition is at the heart of the current crisis, at the heart of imperialist relations, at the heart of bourgeois society.