Yes, Socialism Would Handle the Coronavirus Pandemic Better Than Capitalism

My vision of democratic socialism wouldn’t be Utopia. But here’s the case it would be better than the status quo during both normal times and these times of crisis.

People ride on a subway train on May 22, 2020 in New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

There was a tremendous response to my piece last week about what a viable socialist system could look like, so I wanted to follow up. Obviously, we shouldn’t go too far in the direction of what Karl Marx called “writing recipes for the cookshops of the future.” Trying to provide a complete list of which sectors would be nationalized and which would be cooperatized in a socialist system would be a fool’s errand.

If we’re lucky enough to make it past capitalism, those decisions will result from messy and contingent historical processes and not from the citizens of future socialist societies consulting old Jacobin articles to see what they should do. But we can make some straightforward predictions. And I want to explain some of those predictions in the context of a question I got about whether a socialist system, along the lines of the one I outlined in Jacobin, would have handled the coronavirus pandemic better.

Part of the advantage of expropriating the capitalist class, and thus eliminating the constant pressure from that class to extend markets to all spheres of life, is that it would free up the citizens of socialist societies to make collective decisions about where they’re willing to put up with a little market chaos for the sake of efficiently coordinating production with consumer needs and what sectors need to be taken out of the market entirely. It would be surprising if any such process didn’t lead to the nationalization of the pharmaceutical industry.

It was already obvious before the current crisis that Big Pharma’s imperative for short-term profit leads to a relative neglect of the research most necessary for averting public health catastrophes. The ongoing COVID-19 nightmare is just the latest and most dramatic reminder of that disconnect.

Pharmaceutical companies simply didn’t start devoting the required resources into researching respiratory diseases after SARS and MERS. This isn’t mostly a result of the poor moral character of individual decision-makers. Nor is it obvious that private-sector pharmaceutical co-ops would do better in this regard since these decisions don’t primarily flow from disconnects between the interests of workers and owners. The problem instead is that such a decision wouldn’t have had much short-term monetary return. A nationalized pharmaceutical industry would be far better positioned to take the hit.

Similarly, a United States without a capitalist class would be able to not only create our own NHS but also fund it far more lavishly than the one that already exists in capitalist Britain. This doesn’t mean that there would necessarily be enough hospital beds and ventilators on hand for an unexpected and unprecedented crisis like this one. Scaling up would doubtless sometimes still be necessary. But we wouldn’t have to start anything like this far short of where we need to be if we funded our NHS the way that the Pentagon currently gets funded — with an eye toward being prepared for all sorts of unlikely scenarios.

Similarly, the scaling up itself would be far easier in a country where the commanding heights of the economy were already in public hands — where, for example, General Motors really was “Government Motors.” Nor would any unsolved problems about the logistics of planning be a problem here. Even the far from nimble Soviet system was very good at mass producing tanks and guns, and there’s no reason to think planned sectors would be any worse at mass-producing ventilators.

Even under the current system, the White House could use the Defense Production Act (DPA) to direct GM to start producing ventilators nonstop, but the mere fact that the DPA frames such state planning decisions as deviations from the norm — violations of the normal prerogatives of capital that can only be justified by sufficiently extreme emergencies — would likely make even a far more competent executive than Donald Trump think twice about doing such a thing until the crisis got really bad.

But if GM was Government Motors then elected officials back in January when the crisis seemed to be confined to China could simply say it looks like we might need more ventilators soon and err on the side of safety. After all, no one thinks twice when the Pentagon orders a tank it doesn’t end up using in a war.

How a Market Socialist Private Sector Would Help

There’s every reason to believe that a private sector thoroughly dominated by worker cooperatives would prize the safety of workers more than one dominated by traditional hierarchical firms. Managers who have to worry about being reelected would be far less likely to insist on keeping businesses open under unsafe conditions. (This would be doubly true if co-ops implemented the traditional socialist policy, going back to the Paris Commune, that any official could be recalled by her constituents at any time.)

Of course, doing the right thing and shutting down until it was safe would have economic consequences under just about any imaginable system. There are real trade-offs, and I’m sure that even in a socialist society there would be some debate about when it was safe enough to reopen. But this debate wouldn’t be distorted by the political influence of owners who don’t personally have to take the risks they demand of their employees.

This greater level of caution about worker safety would also rebound to the benefit of consumers. Imagine that a democratic-socialist society enacted shelter-in-place orders structurally identical to the ones that exist right now. Cooperative restaurants would be allowed to stay in operation but only for pickup and delivery. Surely a sick leave policy that had to be approved by a firm’s workforce or their elected representatives would be far more generous than one formulated by managers appointed by unelected owners — or even one that resulted from negotiations between those owners and unions representing the workforce. This would in turn mean that far fewer consumers would get sick because a sick line cook showed up to work.

Moreover, a society unencumbered by a capitalist class would be far more likely to provide its citizens with a generous social safety net. All of this means that even if some individual worker ended up on the losing side of a vote about whether the cooperative business at which she worked should stay open, and in his individual judgment it was too dangerous to go to work, she would face far less financial pressure to show up to work anyway.

Finally, the prospects for “inessential” cooperatives that did shut down because of a public health crisis being able to open their doors at a later date would be better than the prospects for reopening faced by many small capitalist businesses in the current situation. Concentrated economic power always and everywhere translates into concentrated political power. Thus it’s no surprise that much of the bailout fund for small businesses — the Paycheck Protection Program — has actually gone to larger and more politically connected firms. A society free of plutocrats would be vastly more likely to bail out cooperatively owned bars, restaurants, corner grocery stores, and so on.

This vision of socialism wouldn’t be perfect. It would surely reproduce at least some of the problems of the existing system, and we’d still need a strong regulatory state to oversee even a worker-controlled private sector. Such a system would, however, be a vast civilizational improvement over what we have now — especially during this kind of crisis.