David Harvey: We Need a Collective Response to the Collective Dilemma of Coronavirus

The crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity for us to think again about Marx’s idea of human freedom. As David Harvey writes in Jacobin, emergency steps to get through the crisis also show us how we could build a different society that’s not beholden to capital.

A police officer crosses the street in a nearly empty Times Square on March 12, 2020 in New York, United States. David Dee Delgado / Getty

I write this in the midst of the coronavirus crisis in New York City. It is a difficult time to know exactly how to respond to what is happening. Normally in a situation of this kind, we anti-capitalists would be out on the streets, demonstrating and agitating.

Instead, I am in a frustrating position of personal isolation, at a moment when the time calls for collective forms of action. But as Karl Marx famously put it, we cannot make history under circumstances of our own choosing. So we have to figure out how best to make use of the opportunities we do have.

My own circumstances are relatively privileged. I can continue to work, but from home. I have not lost my job, and I still get paid. All I have to do is to hide away from the virus.

My age and gender put me in the vulnerable category, so no contact is advised. This gives me plenty of time to reflect and write, in between Zoom sessions. But rather than dwelling upon the particularities of the situation here in New York, I thought I might offer some reflections on possible alternatives and ask: How does an anti-capitalist think about circumstances of this kind?

Elements of the New Society

I begin with a commentary that Marx makes on what happened in the failed revolutionary movement of the Paris Commune of 1871. Marx writes:

The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce by decree of the people. They know in order to work out their own emancipation and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly trending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realize but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.

Let me make some comments on this passage. First, of course, Marx was somewhat antagonistic to the thinking of the socialist utopians, of which there were many in the 1840s, ’50s and ’60s in France. This was the tradition of Charles Fourier, Henri de Saint-Simon, Étienne Cabet, Louis Auguste Blanqui, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and so on.

Marx felt that the utopian socialists were dreamers, and that they were not practical workers who were going to actually transform the conditions of labor in the here and now. In order to transform conditions here and now, you needed a good grasp on exactly what the nature of capitalist society is about.

But Marx is very clear that the revolutionary project must concentrate on the self-emancipation of the workers. The “self” part of this formulation is important. Any major project to change the world will also require a transformation of the self. So workers would have to change themselves, too. This was very much on Marx’s mind at the time of the Paris Commune.

However, he also notes that capital itself is actually creating the possibilities for transformation, and that through long struggles, it would be possible to “set free” the lineaments of a new society in which the workers could be released from alienated labor. The revolutionary task was to set free the elements of this new society, already existing within the womb of an old collapsing bourgeois social order.

Setting Potential Free

Now, let’s agree that we’re living in a situation of an old, collapsing bourgeois society. Clearly, it’s pregnant with all kinds of ugly things — like racism and xenophobia — that I don’t particularly want to see set free. But Marx is not saying “set free all and everything inside of that old and awful collapsing social order.” What he’s saying is that we need to select those aspects of the collapsing bourgeois society that will contribute to the emancipation of the workers and the working classes.

This poses the question: What are those possibilities, and where are they coming from? Marx does not explain that in his pamphlet on the Commune, but much of his earlier theoretical work had been dedicated to revealing exactly what the constructive possibilities for the working classes might be. One of the places where he does this at great length is in the very large, complex, and unfinished text called the Grundrisse, which Marx wrote in the crisis years of 1857–58.

Some passages in that work shed light on exactly what it is that Marx might have had in mind in his defense of the Paris Commune. The idea of “setting free” relates to an understanding of what was then going on inside a bourgeois, capitalist society. This is what Marx was perpetually struggling to understand.

In the Grundrisse, Marx dwells at length upon the question of technological change and the inherent technological dynamism of capitalism. What he shows is that capitalist society, by definition, is going to be heavily invested in innovation, and heavily invested in the construction of new technological and organizational possibilities. And that is because, as an individual capitalist, if I’m in competition with other capitalists, I will get an excess profit if my technology is superior to that of my rivals. Thus, every individual capitalist has an incentive to search for a more productive technology than those used by other firms with which that capitalist is competing.

For this reason, technological dynamism is embedded within the heart of a capitalist society. Marx recognized this from the Communist Manifesto (written in 1848) onward. This is one of the prime forces that explains the permanently revolutionary character of capitalism.

It will never rest content with its existing technology. It will constantly seek to improve it, because it will always reward the person, the firm, or the society that has the more advanced technology. The state, nation, or power bloc that possesses the most sophisticated and dynamic technology is the one that is going to lead the pack. So technological dynamism is built into the global structures of capitalism. And that’s been the case since the very beginning.

Technological Innovation

Marx’s perspective on this is both illuminating and interesting. When we imagine the process of technological innovation, we typically think of somebody making something or other and seeking out a technological improvement in whatever it is that they’re making. That is, the technological dynamism is specific to a particular factory, a particular production system, a particular situation.

But it turns out that many technologies actually spill over from one sphere of production to another. They become generic. For instance, computer technology is available to anybody who wants to use it for whatever purpose. Automating technologies are available to all kinds of people and industries.

Marx notices that by the time you get to the 1820s, ’30s, and ’40s in Britain, the invention of new technologies had already become an independent and freestanding business. That is, it’s no longer somebody who’s making textiles or something like that who is interested in the new technology that will increase the productivity of the labor they employ. Instead, entrepreneurs come up with a new technology that can be used all over the place.

The prime initial example of this in Marx’s time was the steam engine. It had all of these different applications, from drainage of water out of the coal mines to making steam engines and building railroads, while also being applied to the power looms in the textile factories. So if you wanted to go into the business of innovation, then engineering and the machine tool industry were good places to start.

Whole economies — such as that which arose around the city of Birmingham, which specialized in machine toolmaking — became oriented to the production of not only new technologies, but also new products. Even in Marx’s time, technological innovation had become a freestanding business in its own right.

Running to Stand Still

In the Grundrisse, Marx explores in detail the question of what happens when technology becomes a business, when innovation creates new markets, rather than functioning as a response to a specific, preexisting market demand for a new technology. New technologies then become a cutting edge of the dynamism of a capitalist society.

The consequences are wide-ranging. One obvious result is that technologies are never static: they’re never settled, and they quickly become obsolete. Catching up with the latest technology can be stressful and costly. Accelerating obsolescence can be disastrous for existing firms.

Nevertheless, whole sectors of society — electronics, pharmaceuticals, bioengineering and the like — are given over to creating innovations for the sake of innovation. Whoever can create the technological innovation that is going to capture the imagination, like the cell phone or the tablet, or have the most varied applications, like the computer chip, is likely to win out. So this idea that technology itself becomes a business becomes absolutely central in Marx’s account of what a capitalist society is about.

This is what differentiates capitalism from all other modes of production. The capacity to innovate has been omnipresent in human history. There were technological changes in ancient China, even under feudalism. But what is unique within a capitalist mode of production is the simple fact that technology becomes a business, with a generic product that is sold to producers and consumers alike.

This is very specific to capitalism. This becomes one of the key drivers of how capitalist society evolves. This is the world we live in, whether we like it or not.

Appendage of the Machine

Marx goes on to point out a very significant corollary of this development. In order for technology to become a business, you need to mobilize new forms of knowledge in certain ways. This entails the application of science and technology as distinctive understandings of the world.

The creation of new technologies on the ground becomes integrated with the rise of science and technology as intellectual and academic disciplines. Marx notices how the application of science and technology, and the creation of new forms of knowledge, become essential for this revolutionary technological innovation.

This defines another aspect of the nature of a capitalist mode of production. Technological dynamism is connected to a dynamism in the production of new scientific and technical knowledge and new, often revolutionary mental conceptions of the world. The fields of science and technology mesh with the production and mobilization of new knowledge and understandings. Eventually, wholly new institutions, like MIT and Cal Tech, had to be founded to facilitate this development.

Marx then goes on to ask: What does this do to the production processes within capitalism, and how does it affect the way in which labor (and the worker) is incorporated into these production processes? In the pre-capitalist era, say the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the laborer generally had control of the means of production — the necessary tools — and became skilled in the utilization of these tools. The skilled laborer became a monopolist of a certain kind of knowledge and certain kind of understanding that, Marx notes, was always considered an art.

However, by the time you get to the factory system, and even more so by the time you get to the contemporary world, that is no longer the case. The traditional skills of laborers are rendered redundant, because technology and science take over. Technology and science and new forms of knowledge are incorporated into the machine, and the art disappears.

And so Marx, in an astonishing set of passages in the Grundrisse — pages 650 to 710 of the Penguin edition, if you are interested — talks about the way that new technologies and knowledge become embedded in the machine: they’re no longer in the laborer’s brain, and the laborer is pushed to one side to become an appendage of the machine, a mere machine-minder. All of the intelligence and all of the knowledge, which used to belong to the laborers, and which conferred upon them a certain monopoly power vis-à-vis capital, disappear.

The capitalist who once needed the skills of the laborer is now freed from that constraint, and the skill is embodied in the machine. The knowledge produced through science and technology flows into the machine, and the machine becomes “the soul” of capitalist dynamism. That is the situation Marx is describing.

Emancipation of Labor

The dynamism of a capitalist society becomes crucially dependent upon perpetual innovations, driven by the mobilization of science and technology. Marx saw this clearly in his own time. He was writing about all of this in 1858! But right now, of course, we’re in a situation where this issue has become critical and crucial.

The question of artificial intelligence (AI) is the contemporary version of what Marx was talking about. We now need to know to what degree artificial intelligence is being developed through science and technology, and to what degree it is being applied (or likely to be applied) in production. The obvious effect would be to displace the laborer, and in fact disarm and devalue the laborer even further, in terms of the laborer’s capacity for the application of imagination, skill, and expertise within the production process.

This leads Marx to make the following commentary in the Grundrisse. Let me cite it to you, because I think it’s really, really fascinating:

The transformation of the production process from the simple labor process into a scientific process, which subjugates the forces of nature and compels them to work in the service of human needs, appears as a quality of fixed capital in contrast to living labor . . . thus all powers of labor are transposed into powers of capital.

The knowledge and scientific expertise now lies within the machine under the command of the capitalist. The productive power of labor is relocated into the fixed capital, something that is external to labor. The laborer is pushed to one side. So fixed capital becomes the bearer of our collective knowledge and intelligence when it comes to production and consumption.

Further on, Marx homes in on what it is that the collapsing bourgeois order is pregnant with that might redound to the benefit of labor. And it’s this: capital — “quite unintentionally — reduces human labor, expenditure of energy to a minimum. This will redound to the benefit of emancipated labor and is the condition of its emancipation.” In Marx’s view, the rise of something like automation or artificial intelligence creates conditions and possibilities for the emancipation of labor.

Free Development

In the passage I cited from Marx’s pamphlet on the Paris Commune, the issue of the self-emancipation of labor and of the laborer is central. That condition is something that needs to be embraced. But what is it about this condition that makes it so potentially liberatory?

The answer is simple. All of this science and technology is increasing the social productivity of labor. One laborer, looking after all of those machines, can produce a vast number of commodities in a very short order of time. Here again is Marx in the Grundrisse:

To the degree that large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labour time, whose “powerful effectiveness” is itself in turn out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production . . . real wealth manifests itself, rather — and large industry reveals this — in the monstrous disproportion between the labour time applied, and its product.

But then — and here Marx quotes one of the Ricardian socialists writing at that time — he adds the following: “Truly wealthy a nation, when the working day is 6 rather than 12 hours. Wealth is not command over surplus labour time . . . but rather disposable time outside that needed in direct production, for every individual and the whole society.”

It is this that leads capitalism to produce the possibility for “the free development of individualities,” including that of the workers. And, by the way, I’ve said this before, but I’m going to say it again: Marx is always, always emphasizing that it’s the free development of the individual which is the endpoint of what collective action is going to push for. This common idea that Marx is all about collective action and the suppression of individualism is wrong.

It’s the other way around. Marx is in favor of mobilizing collective action in order to gain individual liberty. We’ll come back to that idea in a moment. But it’s the potential for the free development of individualities that is the crucial objective here.

Necessary and Unnecessary Labor

All of this is predicated upon “the general reduction of the necessary labor,” that is, the amount of labor that is needed to reproduce the daily life of society. The rising productivity of labor will mean that the basic needs of society can be taken care of very easily. This will then allow abundant disposable time for the potential artistic and scientific development of individuals to be set free.

At first, this will be time for a privileged few, but ultimately, it will create free disposable time for everyone. That is to say, setting free individuals to do what they want is critical, because you can take care of the basic necessities by use of sophisticated technology.

The problem, says Marx, is that capital itself is a “moving contradiction.” It “presses to reduce labor time to a minimum while it posits labor time on the other side as a sole measure and source of wealth.” Hence it diminishes labor time in the necessary form — that is, what is really necessary — to increase it in the superfluous form.

Now, the superfluous form is what Marx calls surplus value. The question is, who is going to capture the surplus? The problem that Marx identifies is not that the surplus is unavailable, but that it is not available to labor. While the tendency “on the one side is to create disposable time,” on the other it is “to convert it into surplus labour” for the benefit of the capitalist class.

It is not actually being applied to the emancipation of the laborer when it could be. It’s being applied to the feathering of the nests of the bourgeoisie, and therefore to the accumulation of wealth through traditional means within the bourgeoisie.

Here’s the central contradiction. “Truly,” Marx says, “the wealth of a nation. How would we understand that? Well,” he says, “you can understand it in terms of the mass of money and all the rest of it that somebody commands.” But for Marx, as we have seen, “a truly wealthy nation is one in which the working day is six rather than twelve hours. Wealth is not command over surplus labor time but rather disposable time outside that needed in direct production for every individual in the whole society.”

That is: the wealth of a society is going to be measured by how much disposable free time we all have, to do whatever the hell we like without any constraints, because our basic needs are met. And Marx’s argument is this: you need to have a collective movement to make sure that kind of society can be constructed. But what gets in the way is, of course, the fact of the dominant class relation, and the exercise of capitalist class power.

Under Lockdown

Now, there’s an interesting echo of all this in our current situation of lockdown and economic collapse as a consequence of the coronavirus. Many of us are in a situation where, individually, we have a lot of disposable time. Most of us are stuck at home.

We can’t go to work; we can’t do things that we normally do. What are we going to do with our time? If we have kids, of course, then we have quite a bit to do. But we’ve arrived at this situation in which we have significant disposable time.

The second thing is that, of course, we are now experiencing mass unemployment. The latest data suggested that, in the United States, something like 26 million people have lost their jobs. Now, normally one would say this is a catastrophe, and, of course, it is a catastrophe, because when you lose your job, you lose the capacity to reproduce your own labor power by going to the supermarket, because you have no money.

Many people have lost their health insurance, and many others are having difficulty accessing unemployment benefits. Housing rights are in jeopardy as rents or mortgage payments fall due. Much of the US population — perhaps as many as 50 percent of all households — have no more than $400 of surplus money in the bank to deal with small emergencies, let alone a full-blown crisis of the sort we are now in.

A New Working Class

These people are likely to be hitting the streets very soon, with starvation staring them and their kids in the face. But let’s look more deeply at the situation.

The workforce that is expected to take care of the mounting numbers of the sick, or to provide the minimal services that allow for the reproduction of daily life, is, as a rule, highly gendered, racialized, and ethnicized. This is the “new working class” that is at the forefront of contemporary capitalism. Its members have to bear two burdens: at one and the same time, they are the workers most at risk of contracting the virus through their jobs, and of being laid off with no financial resources because of the economic retrenchment enforced by the virus.

The contemporary working class in the United States — comprised predominantly of African Americans, Latinos, and waged women — faces an ugly choice: between suffering contamination in the course of caring for people and keeping key forms of provision (such as grocery stores) open, or unemployment with no benefits (like adequate health care).

This workforce has long been socialized to behave as good neoliberal subjects, which means blaming themselves or God if anything goes wrong, but never daring to suggest that capitalism might be the problem. But even good neoliberal subjects can see that there is something wrong with the response to this pandemic, and with the disproportionate burden they must bear of sustaining the reproduction of the social order.

Make It New

Collective forms of action are required to get us out of this serious crisis in dealing with COVID-19. We need collective action to control its spread — lockdowns and distancing behaviors, all of those kinds of things. This collective action is necessary to eventually free us up as individuals to live the way we like, because we cannot do what we like right now.

This turns out to be a good metaphor for understanding what capital is about. It means creating a society in which most of us are not free to do what we want, because we are actually taken up with producing wealth for the capitalist class.

What Marx might say is, well, maybe those 26 million unemployed people, if they could actually find some way of getting enough money to support themselves, buy the commodities they need to survive, and rent the house in which they need to live, then why wouldn’t they pursue mass emancipation from alienating work?

In other words, do we want to come out of this crisis by simply saying that there’s 26 million people who need to get back to work, in some of those pretty awful jobs they may have been doing before? Is that how we want to come out of it? Or do we want to ask: Is there some way to organize the production of basic goods and services so that everybody has something to eat, everybody has a decent place to live, and we can put a moratorium on evictions, and everybody can live rent free? Isn’t this moment one where we could actually think seriously about the creation of an alternative society?

If we are tough and sophisticated enough to cope with this virus, then why not take on capital at the same time? Instead of saying we all want to go back to work and get those jobs back and restore everything to the way it was before this crisis started, maybe we should say: Why don’t we come out of this crisis by creating an entirely different kind of social order?

Why don’t we take those elements with which the current collapsing bourgeois society is pregnant — its astonishing science and technology and productive capacity — and liberate them, making use of artificial intelligence and technological change and organizational forms so that we can actually create something radically different than anything that existed before?

Glimpse of an Alternative

After all, in the midst of this emergency, we are already experimenting with alternative systems of all sorts, from the free supply of basic foods to poor neighborhoods and groups, to free medical treatments, alternative access structures through the internet, and so on. In fact, the lineaments of a new socialist society are already being laid bare — which is probably why the right wing and the capitalist class are so anxious to get us back to the status quo ante.

This is a moment of opportunity to think through what an alternative might look like. This is a moment in which the possibility of an alternative actually exists. Instead of just reacting in a knee-jerk manner and saying, “Oh, we’ve got to get those 26 million jobs back immediately,” maybe we should look to expand some of the things that are already going on, such as the organization of collective provision.

This is already happening in the field of health care, but it is also beginning to happen through the socialization of food supply and even cooked meals. In New York City right now, several restaurant systems have remained open, and thanks to donations, they’re actually providing free meals to the mass of the population that has lost its jobs and can’t get around.

Instead of saying, “Well, okay, this is just what we do in an emergency,” why don’t we say, this is the moment when we can start to tell those restaurants, your mission is to feed the population, so that everybody has a decent meal at least once or twice a day.

Socialist Imagination

And we already have elements of that society here: a lot of schools provide school meals, for example. So let’s keep that going, or at least learn the lesson of what might be possible if we cared. Isn’t this a moment where we can use this socialist imagination to construct an alternative society?

This is not utopian. This is saying, all right, look at all those restaurants on the Upper West Side that have closed and are now sitting there, kind of dormant. Let’s get the people back in — they can start producing the food and feed the population on the streets and in the houses, and they can give it to the old people. We need that kind of collective action for all of us to become individually free.

If the 26 million people now unemployed have to go back to work, then maybe it should be for six rather than twelve hours a day, so we can celebrate the rise of a different understanding of what it means to live in the wealthiest country in the world. Maybe this is what might make America truly great (leaving the “again” to rot in the dustbin of history).

This is the point that Marx is making again and again and again: that the root of real individualism and freedom and emancipation, as opposed to the fake one that is constantly preached in bourgeois ideology, is a situation where all of our needs are taken care of through collective action, so that we only have to work six hours a day, and we can use the rest of the time exactly as we please.

In conclusion, isn’t this an interesting moment to really think about the dynamism and the possibilities for construction of an alternative, socialist society? But in order to get onto such an emancipatory path, we first have to emancipate ourselves to see that a new imaginary is possible alongside a new reality.