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What I Have to Say about what Marx Would Have to Say about Capitalism and COVID-19

Casey Forest, Content Editor

August 21, 2020

Where we live is a mess. It’s a convoluted, poorly meshed, dig-until-your-hands-break country. It was a rug ripped out from under those who called it home, and now it is a capitalist petri dish. It’s hard to agree on things here, even with ourselves.

In middle school, a teacher once asked our class what we thought made a successful person. We were so cute – we said things like stability, kindness, helpfulness. Easy question; success was bred into us from the start. It was instinct more than desire. That was before we knew we would probably never be homeowners. And then the teacher asked us to name people we thought were successful. If we were not so stuffed on what was being fed to us, we would have said, my mother. The postman. You, Ms. Newman, for being here on such short salary.

But you can guess what we said. Who was successful, that we knew of? Of course it wasn’t Mom, who budgeted all year for a vacation in a town an hour away. It was Gates. Bezos. J.K. Rowling. It was such a shameless, unknowing sort of flip. To be successful and be seen as successful were two different things. Now I think back on it and feel just as confused as I did then. Succeed, the verb, the closing argument from my parent’s College Speech, was a euphemism for amass wealth. Or, even worse, it meant align your values with the rich on the off chance it works this time.

Welcome to the opinion essay on collective values, capitalism, and the pandemic.


I don’t mean to be overdramatic. But I am not sure how many soft ways there are to say that a capitalist system such as this was not ever meant to survive a global pandemic. My reasoning, simply put, is this: you cannot be valued as a moral person in a system that only values you in your capacity to labor. This has become glaringly obvious in the current climate; attempts to support our personhood rather than our livelihoods as workers have been short-sighted and half baked. “Essential” jobs are those in which the laborer cannot afford to stay home, and their employers are not willing to lose funds over lost hours. Rampant disregard for the safety of healthcare workers – nay, any worker who interacts with others – has proven that those most invested in the system have lost sight of their humanity. Never before has it been so obvious, at least to me, that the face of American kindness and hospitality is very shallow, indeed. On top of it all, if we are not employed, our ability to even get a yearly checkup is jeopardized, let alone get intubated or, god forbid, vaccinated.

Right now, the CDC puts the percentage of infected commercial workers at 7.8%; the same percentage as public health workers 1. The Washington Post writes that in the older population which has aged into Medicare, those who are poor enough to also qualify for Medicaid are four times more likely to contract the virus 2. There is a direct link between class and safety. In a system that only exists because of the existence of these classes, it becomes apparent where the values of this structure lie.

We can see this happening on a smaller scale. Let’s talk about the way the CSU Athletics Department attempted to cover up the COVID-19 symptoms spiking among football players. 3 At the expense of student health (both the players and the rest of the CSU student body), the institution chose to value the labor its student athletes provide – incidentally, the same labor that supports the Department’s $24,000,000 yearly income 4 – over the personhood and bodily safety of the institute’s population. Had the university president not stepped in to address the issue 5, it is not hard to imagine it would have continued well into the school year.

Those of us who embrace their work and identify with it were the ones who protested earlier this summer for their right to go back to work. More common than this, however, was the population of (white) protesters who were fighting for their right to see others return to work—the aestheticians, servers, and other customer service employees. In this demanding sacrifice, I see how the individualistic nature of America’s day-to-day politics has failed us. The labor provided by these people—the haircuts, and meals, and cocktails—is more valuable than their safety. The protestors say, I want them to be able to earn a living. They do not say, I will protect them so they can keep on living.

Which, I suppose, is one way to cope with the knowledge that the pandemic is short-circuiting the country. I can understand them. By seventh grade I was also basing success and personal value and fulfillment on money. I will continue to do this to some degree for as long as I live here – there’s no getting around the fact that it would take drastic life changes to exit the society I criticize. Shit talking and making plans to exit are also another way to process, considering the direction things are going. I hear there are old houses that need fixing in Nova Scotia.

Are we supposed to accept that our moral personhood is on hold during an indefinite pandemic? Can we? Regardless of which party takes or retains office in November, we can rest assured that as long as America is the sort of ‘cutthroat’ capitalist that makes European ‘cuddly’ capitalism look impossibly generous, the pandemic is going to continue to threaten—or expose—how we are valued.


I don’t have any way to properly answer or even address this sort of issue. What I can say is, I think this serves as a call for us to re-address our social contract. If you are outraged, tip the servers who have no choice of staying home. Buy your artist friend’s work, commission the editors, support the locals. In our communities, it is worthwhile to spot who is trying to translate their own personal value into their creations. I can say with confidence that is the sort of business to support.

More than that, though, don’t ever forget to express appreciation and value beyond what others can do for you. Show gratitude that your sister is here, because your sister is here and for no other reason. It’s easy to forget that we don’t owe each other productivity. Thank your local bookstore for closing and keeping themselves safe. Call your friends and your acquaintances and your upstairs neighbors and your coworkers and the postman. I think a lot of times we forget that there are many ways to show that we still value each other for our senses of humor, our passion, our weekly dog playdates. Protest, yes, but also send a letter.

More recently, I enrolled in a women’s studies class which addressed race, sexuality, disparity, ability. We sat in a horseshoe-shaped conglomeration of desks and looked at each other when we talked about how we could possibly help in a climate that felt so inexhaustibly hateful. After the conversations about good trouble, and educating others, and listening, the professor said, take care of yourself. Take care of others. Success can be measured differently. She was quoting Audre Lorde:

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

More Intersectional Notes; Readings on the Subject:

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