Let us be clear from the outset: if an argument is to be made for the exceptionality of the coronavirus pandemic in the experience of humankind, it must revolve around the fact that, for a period of between two and three months, there was a global suspension of economic activity on a scale previously unknown and indeed inconceivable even to the most radical or imaginative thinkers on the planet. There have been epidemics and pandemics in the past which doubtless affected trade, and in the last four decades the global or near global transmission of new infectious diseases have necessitated small-term closures of local economies, or some temporary restrictions on certain airline routes. But the flights that were suspended in May 2003 when the SARS outbreak occurred represented a miniscule fraction of global air traffic at the time, and even in February 2020 when only a few countries had suspended flights to and from China, Covid-19 had wrought by far greater economic loss than what the world suffered in 2003. By early May of this year, when global air traffic had been suspended for six weeks or more in most countries, the economic loss was of a magnitude that can only be described as incomprehensible. The singular fact is that no one really thought that it might be possible to shut down global aviation for such a length of time, close manufacturing plants all over the world, shutter shopping malls, empty out streets, cafes and restaurants, and keep billions of people off the streets and in ‘lockdown’ at their homes.
If, in our capitalist economy, homo sapiens is fundamentally homo economicus, what might be the implications of living in a time, and for a protracted period of time, when as human beings we ceased to be primarily economic agents? Some might quarrel with such a description and argue that supermarkets and food stores remained open, and that, in consequence of the shutting down of shopping malls and retail stores, the consumer economy merely shifted online. But any such argument can only be described as at best churlish. From the standpoint of those whose business it is to understand what the implications of the pandemic may be for small shopkeepers, chain clothing stores, department stores, mall owners, and, as in poorer countries, those who make their living as peddlers, owners of open air street stalls, vendors in public markets, and as craftsmen and technicians in dozens of trades, there are some vital questions about whether the livelihoods associated with such enterprises can be sustained in the present pandemic or in future pandemics of this kind. Questions of this kind, however, cannot be addressed only within the ambit of political economy. The future of the shopping mall, as an illustration, may also revolve around whether architecture can be adapted to a form of existence contingent upon the recognition that a coronavirus, or some other pathogen, is hovering round the corner.
The US, with 4.25% of the world’s population, consumes about one fourth of the world’s energy resources. Consumer spending accounts for 70% of the GDP (gross domestic product), but American consumers play a significant role as global consumers taking up, in 2018, a share of 15.2% of the global GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP). Their share of the global GDP has not declined much, being 15.8% in 2014, even as the consuming class in China and to a lesser extent in the other BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa) and other ‘developing’ nations has registered considerable growth. Even in circumstances which are not defined by a cataclysmic event of the magnitude of the pandemic, if the US heads into a deep ‘recession’, the rest of the world is very likely to follow in that direction. To that extent, apart from such considerations as the continuing allure of the greenback, the US remains the lynchpin of the global economic system. It is another matter that to a substantial portion of the world population, even the language of ‘recession’ is alien: it means something to those who have salaried jobs, and even more to that much smaller portion of the population who are invested in the stock market, but the greater majority of the world population lives on very little, often on hand-to-mouth budgets. In any case, for all these reasons and many more, among them the military prowess of the US, the unrivalled place of American universities taken as a whole in global higher education and more importantly, in the worldview of the middle class imaginary, and the cultural capital signified by Hollywood, American popular music, and a host of other phenomena, one can justify first turning to the US in an effort to comprehend some of the issues around political economy that emerge from the pandemic, even as I will advert to Europe, where most nations have registered significantly lower spikes in the ranks of the unemployed than in the US. More than anything else, the US is built on the house of capitalism, peopled by those who worship it, adore it, dream it, flaunt it, sell it, live by it, and kill in its name: America is the world’s most preeminent shrine to capital.