“History has brought mankind to that pinnacle on which the total obliteration of mankind is at last a practical possibility,” wrote the radical scholar Norman O Brown.
“At this moment of history the friends of the life instinct must warn that the victory of death is by no means impossible.”
Brown was writing in 1959, and identified the “victory of death” with nuclear war. Now, however, we have been reminded of what our ancestors knew all too well—that death can triumph thanks to disease.
Life against Death, the title of Brown’s book, has been much in my mind these past weeks. But death isn’t abstraction, or a mythical figure, as in The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman’s great film about the 14th century Black Death, which killed a third of Europe’s population.
The death stalking the world is a class death. It has gripped some of the main financial centres of global capitalism—Milan, London, New York. But it takes the poor and the oppressed.
The figures are horrifying. Black and Latino people are twice as likely to die of Covid-19 than white people in New York.
In Chicago, African Americans make up 72 percent of those killed by the disease.
As the owner of a grocery store in New Orleans told the Washington Post newspaper, “Life in this neighbourhood is an underlying condition: hard jobs, long hours, bad pay, no health insurance, no money, bad diet.”
The working poor can’t work from home or find the space to isolate. Many of their jobs have evaporated in the lockdown, leaving them and their families close to starvation.
Britain still has a welfare state of sorts. But the Financial Times newspaper last Saturday quoted the Food Foundation. “Six percent of surveyed adults, the equivalent of three million people, told them that a lack of food had forced someone in their household to go without eating during the past three weeks,” it said.
And it will get worse. The pressure is building on both sides of the Atlantic from big business and right wing politicians to end the lockdowns.
This is despite the fact that, in the absence of a vaccine, relaxing the lockdowns will probably lead to waves of reinfection, and more avoidable deaths.
Fraser Nelson, editor of the right wing magazine The Spectator, put an interesting spin on it. “The deaths caused by Covid-19 are shocking,” he wrote.
“But so, too, are the effects of the lockdown. ‘Our message was supposed to be: keep working, but work from home if possible,’ says one minister. ‘But that message has got lost.’
“The Treasury expected three million claimants for its ‘job retention’ scheme. Nine million are now expected.
“The plan was for about one in five school pupils to stay in class—not just the children of key workers, but those regarded as vulnerable or with special needs.
“Instead, it seems, just 2 percent of pupils turned up.”
So the problem isn’t people ignoring social distancing and partying in the parks. On the contrary, we are being too careful of our and our families’ lives.
Nelson also repeats the nauseating argument that there are “trade-offs” between saving lives through lockdown and the economic damage this will cause.
He cites strongly disputed calculations that the developing recession will cause 150,000 extra deaths.
Even the free market Economist magazine has no time for this. “Detailed research on the health effects of downturns suggests that they are not nearly so negative as you might think, especially when it comes to death,” it says.
“The economic evidence indicates that mortality rises in periods of economic growth and declines during downturns.”
Life against death—life against profits. Never in our lifetimes have we experienced so starkly that capitalism is a death-dealing system.
This has always been true—think of early capitalism’s reliance on the slave trade and child labour.
Now this system has created the conditions for pandemics such as Covid-19 by invading the remaining wild parts of the world and is making working people pay, many with their lives.
This is the fight of our lives—the fight for our lives.