Against the grain: The virus and capitalism

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April 30, 2020

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 27, 2020 – May 03, 2020.

In human history, the occurrence of large-scale outbreaks of diseases, including pandemics, has been a common phenomenon. Human beings have been threatened by pandemics on a regular basis. There was the Black Death of 1347 to 1351, the first pandemic of cholera that began in 1917, the Spanish flu of 1918 to 1919, and now the Covid-19 pandemic of 2019 to 2020.

In the current era of late capitalism, we have begun to realise how such an occurrence is making us question the priorities we assign to economic development and market values — such as calculability, efficiency and predictability — that seem to define our lives on a daily basis, even beyond the marketplace.

Indeed, Covid-19 has reminded us that our lives are more important than economic growth. It has also served to reinforce the idea of equality. Human beings may discriminate among each other in terms of race, religion and class, but the virus does not. Neither does the virus recognise national borders, underlining our interconnectedness more than any malicious code of computer virus can.
During lockdown, we realise how the pursuit of luxury is meaningless. We worry more about procuring basic necessities such as food and shelter and are grateful for the possibility of human contact.

The 14th-century Maghribian historical sociologist, Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun (1332 to 1406) — himself a victim of the Black Death, in that both of his parents had lost their lives to this plague — had much to say about the problem of luxury.

In his work called Al-Muqaddimah, an introduction to his historical work on the history of the Arabs and Berbers and other nations, Ibn Khaldun discusses how the economic dimension of the rise and decline of dynasties is important for our understanding of the role of luxury.

In a well-known quote that was cited by, among others, former US president Ronald Reagan, Ibn Khadun says, “It should be known that at the beginning of the dynasty, taxation yields a large revenue from small assessments. At the end of the dynasty, taxation yields a small revenue from large assessments. The reason for this is that when the dynasty follows the ways (sunan) of the religion, it imposes only such taxes as are stipulated by the religious law, such as charity taxes, the land tax and the poll tax.”

The problem arises when the ruling members of the dynasty and their cronies develop a more sophisticated and luxurious lifestyle. This development takes place over some generations. They become immersed in a life of prosperity and luxury. To maintain such a lifestyle, there is an increase in imposts and assessments in order to augment the tax revenue. These finally reach levels that function to decrease or halt productive activities which, in turn, decreases tax revenues. The cycle of increased taxes and declining revenues causes not only a downturn in the production and fiscal cycles of the dynasty but, eventually, its demise. The demand for luxuries carries within it the germs of fragmentation, decay and, ultimately, collapse.

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The pursuit of luxury has been central to the lifestyles of the ruling classes and elite of society throughout history. In modern capitalist societies, luxurious living is made possible and propped up by consumerism. To the extent that consumerism underlies consumer confidence, it is a major driver of economic growth and, therefore, what makes luxurious life possible.

Consumerism is an outlook that exists in a particular economic and social order that emphasises the interminable acquisition of goods and services. In the 20th century, mass production led to overproduction of goods, creating the problem of supply outstripping demand. A strategy was needed to deal with this problem.

This was when planned obsolescence and advertising came in. The former refers to the policy of intentionally designing a product with an artificially limited useful life in order for it to become obsolete within a certain period of time. At the same time, advertising, or sponsored messaging designed to persuade and motivate consumers to “desire” commodities, was deployed more aggressively. Both played a crucial role in manipulating consumer spending, maintaining demand at higher and higher levels, and fuelled consumerism.

In his classic book on consumerism, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen looked at what happened as a result of the emergence of “leisure time” at the beginning of the 20th century, drawing attention to the “activities and spending habits of this leisure class in terms of conspicuous and vicarious consumption and waste”.

What planned obsolescence and advertising have given rise to is the ever-increasing prevalence of consumerism in everyday life. Consumerism had given the most ordinary of people a false sense of their unique place in society. According to historian Gary Cross, “[t]he endless variation of clothing, travel and entertainment provided opportunity for practically everyone to find a personal niche, no matter their race, age, gender or class”.

But consumerism in reality does not lead to happiness and satisfaction in the long run. This point can be made by referring to studies that pose the questions as to whether economic growth leads to increased happiness. Much of the evidence from comparative studies that looks at developed and developing countries suggests that the answer is no.

The current pandemic and resultant lockdown that much of the world is exercising means that more than a billion and a half people around the world are staying home. Some would be reflecting on their pre-lockdown lives as mere consumers, but families are able to spend more time with one another.

At the same time, our ecology is being given a rest from human interference and destruction. For example, there has been a fall in carbon dioxide emissions, the quality of air has improved and noise levels have fallen. Covid-19 has given us a chance to reboot ourselves. But the question now is, will we learn from this experience or go back to our old ways once Covid-19 is no longer a threat?

Syed Farid Alatas is professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore

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