September 20, 2022

After taking the summer off, the lockdown wars are back. Last week, enthusiasts for Covid restrictions attributed the Queen’s death at the age of 96 to the after-effects of Covid, rather than old age, and argued that this showed the urgency of reintroducing Covid curbs this winter. On the other side, anti-lockdown websites such as the Brownstone Institute and the Daily Sceptic have run a series of features about the return of the lockdown zealots and the ongoing harms that have been caused.

As we make clear in our forthcoming book, we see lockdowns as a social, human and economic catastrophe of enormous proportions, which did very little (if anything) to reduce virus spread and death from Covid-19. We’re grateful to those who have fought hard to define this position, and continue to do so — even though we don’t agree with them on everything.

Perhaps the strangest idea still finding traction today is the notion among many influential lockdown sceptics that draconian Covid restrictions were some kind of socialist plot led by “Marxist” institutions, such as the World Economic Forum and China-sympathisers on the “woke” left. In a recent article, for instance, the San Francisco attorney Michael P. Senger draws links between the Wuhan lockdown and the way in which this was actively promoted in Italy in February 2020 by the Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who thought that the lockdowns “could be used to implement far-Left political reforms across Italy”. Meanwhile, American Institute of Economic Research director Jeffrey Tucker has described how the best way to deal with the overreach of lockdown bureaucrats is to simply abolish the failing institutes and replace them with private corporations.

We agree that Western state institutions have failed in the Covid era — proving to be utterly inefficient, terribly oppressive, or both. Yet it seems clear they failed not because they are state institutions per se, but rather because they have been captured by private corporations and their interests. In fact, the lockdown catastrophe and subsequent mass-vaccination-by-all-means programmes, and associated pharma and tech profiteering, are the clear outcome of decades of deregulation and marketisation advocated by pro-market conservatives. Yes, centre-Left governments, from Blair to Clinton, played an important role in implementing these policies, but no one in their right mind would call Blair or Clinton socialists — if anything, they symbolise the Left’s abandonment of its socialist roots. The same can be said of Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who hails from the anti-socialist, pro-establishment Partito Democratico.

A good example of such policies is the famous practice of the “revolving door”, where there is a cosy relationship between government and business, in which executives from companies enter senior levels of government — and then where senior civil servants move into top corporate jobs on leaving government. This policy has been actively championed by conservative policymakers, who stress how much government has to learn from business models, and believe that bringing executives into senior policy roles can help to trim waste and make government more efficient.

The Covid-19 crisis gave the lie to this claim, showing the dramatic consequences of revolving door politics. For instance, the man called to lead Operation Warp Speed — the US programme created to accelerate the development and manufacturing of Covid vaccines, which provided more than $10 billion of public funding to a handful of pharmaceutical companies such as Moderna, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) — was none other than  Moncef Slaoui, former GlaxoSmithKline executive (running its vaccines programme) and board member of Moderna.

Following his nomination, Slaoui was required to resign from a number of biotech boards funded by Operation Warp Speed, and to sell his Moderna stock, but was allowed to keep his stock in GSK, reported to be worth about $10 million. Meanwhile, in Europe, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, whose husband is medical director of a US biotech company, negotiated its biggest deal yet with Pfizer — for up to 1.8 billion doses — via a series of text messages with the company’s chief.

Or one could mention how the WHO went from being an entirely publicly funded institution to one increasingly dependent on private “philanthropic” institutions — first and foremost, today, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has been accused of “function[ing] as a trojan horse for Western corporations”, and which is increasingly recognised even by mainstream media groups such as Politico as key in market profiteering associated with the pandemic response. Many lockdown critics decry the role of Bill Gates in buying influence in the media, in pharmaceutical investments, and in government, yet few would consider Gates to be a socialist; in fact he’s considered the embodiment of philanthrocapitalism. It’s also rather obvious that Gates’s ability to exert this influence has not come from socialist policies of redistribution, but rather from the upward transfer of wealth which has been promoted by the neoliberal economic agenda of the past decades.

Then there’s the fact that both the FDA and EMA rely heavily on fees and charges levied on the very pharmaceutical companies they are called upon to regulate (respectively for around half and three quarters of their budgets) — a fact which, according to several observers, raises serious issues of conflict of interest. Moreover, both agencies have long been criticised for their revolving door problem. For example, the current executive director of the EMA, Emer Cooke, previously worked for Europe’s largest pharmaceutical lobbying organisation, the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations.

Should we be surprised, then, that Western governments almost entirely funded the development of the vaccines, fast-tracked the approval process, granted manufacturers close-to-full immunity from liability over a whole host of issues, and then allowed the pharma companies to fully own the patents and even set the price of the vaccines? It seems pretty obvious who benefited from this — the corporations themselves — just as it is clear that this is the result of a pro-market agenda, not a socialist one.

Perhaps the clearest evidence for this can be found in the Global South, where the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic response have had a catastrophic impact in low-income countries (LICs). As noted in the first edition of The Covid Consensus, some have said that these were decisions made by sovereign leaders — and that global pressure has had very little to do with this. Yet the truth is that 40 years of structural adjustment and austerity policies — driven by global financial institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF — eroded the ability of state budgets to provide for healthcare and education, leaving LICs and their health agendas to be shaped by philanthropic donors and their non-profit partners.

As the trauma of 2020 and 2021 fades into the reality of the painful consequences of 2022, a broader political reckoning is required. Those of us on the Left who recognise the appalling abdication of social and ethical responsibility which many — but not all — Left-wing politicians and intellectuals showed in the face of Covid must take stock of the reasons why this happened. This is something that many people are still coming to terms with: for us, the appropriation of the Left-wing movement by metropolitan liberals far distant from production chains and everyday realities of the global working class — whether in London, New York, Abidjan or Dhaka — must be a starting point for understanding how this has happened.

On the other hand, a similar reckoning is needed from those on the libertarian Right who have fought these restrictions. These did not emerge from some socialist plot, but rather from decades of policies of deregulation, revolving doors, and the capture of state institutions by corporations. If Left-leaning critics like us need to come to terms with the reasons for this catastrophic response, so must Right-leaning critics of lockdown policies recognise how they have followed directly from policies which many of them have supported for years.

What’s interesting is that the lockdown-cheering leftists and anti-lockdown libertarians actually have more in common than they would like to admit. Both outlooks are ultimately rooted in a fundamentally flawed view of the relationship between state and market. Both groups hold the belief that state-market relations are dichotomic, where the influence of one can only increase at the expense of the other. This is why many on the Left interpreted government activism throughout the pandemic as a welcome “return of the state”, one potentially capable, in their view, of eventually reversing the pro-market project of the past decades; while those on the libertarian Right, which see state interventionism as inherently socialist and anti-market, saw those same government interventions as expressions of creeping “socialism”.

But state-market relations are in fact symbiotic. Simply put, markets — let alone so-called “free markets” — can’t exist without the state. As Karl Polanyi argued, the emergence of so-called laissez-faire under mid-19th-century industrial capitalism entailed a highly active state to “embed” markets in society; to enforce changes in social structure and human thinking that allowed for a competitive capitalist economy. As he put it: “Laissez-faire was planned… [and] enforced by the state.”

This has remained true throughout the various phases of capitalism. If the state’s role under “Keynesianism” was that of mediating between the interests of capital and labour, over the past decades the role of the state has become that of securing the interests of Big Capital at the expense of everyone else. As witnessed during the pandemic, this makes the modern state intrinsically authoritarian. It also makes it inefficient, as it entails the creation of an environment favourable to the privatisation of public assets and services through institutionalised mismanagement. Various terms have been put forward to describe this system — corporatocracy, neo-feudalism, hyper-capitalism — but one thing is clear: it ain’t socialism.

Even more ludicrous is the claim that the World Economic Forum is a “Marxist” organisation. Now, people have been quibbling for the past 150 years about what Marxism is, but what it clearly isn’t is an ideology that aims to hand power over to the world’s most powerful corporations. In fact, the WEF’s Young Global Leaders initiative, responsible for putting several members of the ruling elite into positions of power in business and politics, can be traced back to the US’s Cold War efforts to counter communist influence while ensuring that future global leaders would be amenable to American interests.

So, while libertarians understand (better than leftists) that capitalism today is heavily reliant on “political intervention”, what they don’t seem to understand is that the “free market” they dream of would require an equally interventionist state. Interventionism is quite simply an inescapable fact of advanced modern economies.

The point is whose interests the state should serve. “Less state” won’t make us freer, let alone deliver some mythical “free market” — it will just make the majority of us even more powerless in the face of financial and corporate power, the concentration of which has led to the lockdown catastrophes. What we need is a state that does the exact opposite of its modern incarnation: one that represses Big Capital, while expanding the liberties and rights of individual citizens and workers. If there’s one lesson to be gleaned from the past two and a half years, it’s that we need to reclaim the state, not give up on it.