THIS coronavirus is no small problem. Today the FTSE 100 index fell in minutes more than 8 per cent. By the loopy logic of capitalism — which values enterprises not by the contribution they make to the productive economy but by the value which capitalists place on their shares — billions were wiped of their “value.”
Already business commentators are calling it Black Monday. Among their wailing we hear that this is the worst day for confidence in capitalism since the last (2008) crisis of the financial system.
The consequences of that crisis is that we have suffered more than a decade of austerity as our tax money has been used to bail out the banks while wages have stood still and public spending has slumped. Another is that the finance ministers and central banks of the capitalist world have used up almost all the measures in reserve to stimulate economic performance when the inevitable cyclical crises of their system come along.
Oil prices have fallen in the biggest single drop since the 1991 Gulf War. Deutsche Bank fell 12 per cent and French banks, German car manufacturers, oil and mining stocks plummeted. Exxon Mobil and Chevron stocks fell by more than 14 per cent.
It is a global crisis with markets well down in Japan and Australia. Even the normally robust Chinese and Hong Kong indexes registered falls.
Market opinion has it that anxieties over the coronavirus are the key factor influencing the oil crisis as Russia and Saudi Arabia slug it out in an oil price war.
This coronavirus crisis is threatening the self-confidence of people whose sense of their place in the world hangs on the stability of the capitalist system.
With military chiefs and state functionaries falling victim to the virus, even the dumbest politician begins to understand that it is best to let the scientists and medics do the talking and make the policies.
In the dumb politician stakes Britain normally runs a close second to the United States — but our newly minted Chancellor of the Exchequer is displaying a fair measure of ideological flexibility in suggesting that the government’s fiscal rules might be bent to fund a proportionate response to the looming health crisis. This alone shows that austerity was a political choice and not an economic necessity, although for the successive governments of our country the latter usually determines the former.
Italy, where a fortnight ago the coronavirus crisis seemed roughly equivalent to where Britain is today, the infection rate has shot up with a quarter of the country’s population subject to very severe measures to restrict movement and contain infection. The Italian government has appealed to the EU to suspend the Stability Pact to allow a major uptick in public spending to deal with the crisis.
Much attention is on Chinese efforts to deal with the epidemic. Chinese infection levels have stabilised and it is rare that we see such a graphic illustration of how a centralised and planned economy and an effective state apparatus can mobilise its citizenry to such powerful effect.
The credibility of the Johnson government rests on its response to the coronavirus crisis.
Whether a part-privatised and resource-starved NHS has the capacity in the short term to respond sufficiently to the necessary cash infusions and whether the state is able to deploy other measures sufficient to contain the spread of the infection will powerfully influence the fate of this administration.
Whether it does or doesn’t, the question that will stir the minds of millions is whether or not the system itself needs changing and not simply the government.
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