Crises and the case for socialism

by John Quiggin on March 21, 2020

The coronavirus crisis is very different, at least in its origins, from the Global Financial Crisis. Both differ in crucial respects from other crises in living memory, notably including the Great Depression and World War II, as well a string of severe but not catastrophic crises that have affected the global economy and society. But thinking about them all together brings home the point that major crises are quite common events. The crisis of the past took each took between five and ten years to resolve. Even if the current crisis is shorter, we can draw the conclusion that crisis of one kind or another is not an aberration, but a regular occurrence in a complex modern society.

What they have in common is that they result in a need for urgent government action. The greater the capacity and willingness of governments to act to protect society from the economic damage associated with such crises the better, in general, the outcome has been.

The most immediate requirements for dealing with a crisis are * a strong and comprehensive welfare state, protecting everyone against falling into poverty through sickness, old age and unemployment * strong protections for workers, protecting them against arbitrary dismissal, and with a public commitment to restore and maintain full employment These will have to be made up as we go along, plastered over the existing patchwork, then properly integrated into the welfare and industrial relations system In the aftermath, we need a substantially expanded economic role for government, including control over infrastructure and financial enterprises and increased public provision of health, education and other services. All of this will require a substantial increase in the public share of national income, which can only be financed by reducing the share going to high income earners, and particularly the top 1 per cent. In short, we need socialism.



Ray Vinmad 03.21.20 at 6:20 am


I simply thought this important post deserved a comment.

Everything here is exactly right.


nastywoman 03.21.20 at 8:14 am

”In short, we need socialism”.

I prefer to tell the people that WE need:

NOT to fire any workers in such a crisis –
(and gov can make sure that ”the people” keep on receiving their wages and salaries)
AND to have a Health Care System in place where ”the people” are completely taken care of in such a crisis.

AND I like to call that ”The Program of the Greens” – as the word ”socialism” somehow scares some people –
(especially friends and family in the US – as they have a pretty crazy idea about ”socialism”)


Tim Worstall 03.21.20 at 9:17 am

“In the aftermath, we need a substantially expanded economic role for government, including control over infrastructure and financial enterprises and increased public provision of health, education and other services. All of this will require a substantial increase in the public share of national income, which can only be financed by reducing the share going to high income earners, and particularly the top 1 per cent.”

There’s a test we can apply to this. Compared to the UK there are places which do all of that. France, certainly, does much more of it. So, does France do better than the UK while doing so?


Murali 03.21.20 at 9:20 am

Only according to the fox-news definition of socialism. All you need is a larger welfare state. Private ownership of the means of production doesn’t seem implicated.


PhilippeO 03.21.20 at 9:52 am

But crisis also push for Nationalism-Xenophobia and obedience to hierarchy. Fascism also popular during crisis and hardship.

Rather than “Workers of the World, Unite” what happens could be “White Workers of America, obey the Fuhrer, MAGA!”.

Tyler Cowen had different conclusions :


John Quiggin 03.21.20 at 10:34 am

@5 Tyler Cowen says “Repubs are now doing what Democrats have urged for ages, thereby depriving them of their issues”. I guess once the entire economy is nationalised, the progressive left will just have to give up and go home.


Peter T 03.21.20 at 10:39 am

Britain in 1850 was pretty much a night watchman state – government share of national income around 10 per cent, mostly devoted to the military and the welfare of the upper classes (in the case of the British army, the same thing). It was also a land of small businesses and low regulation. All the experience since is that this free-market paradise did not and can not compete with stronger states, nor can it provide education, health services, social security, adequate infrastructure and much more. All modern societies have found this out – many painfully. Those that have not are not modern. This is a matter of empirical record. So the issue now is not whether we need socialism but how much socialism we need. On the record of the last several decades, more than we have.


John Quiggin 03.21.20 at 11:13 am

@Tim W. The really relevant comparison is between the US and other developed countries. If the US does better, that will certainly weaken the case for socialism.


nastywoman 03.21.20 at 11:25 am

”Compared to the UK there are places which do all of that. France, certainly, does much more of it. So, does France do better than the UK while doing so”?

Yes –
but what I always wondered – when Bernie and Liz Warren suggested the policies Prof Quiggin is suggesting for my ”homeland” the US – and there was all of this talk – that such policies are either ”socialistic” -(according to confused Americans) OR – ”Scandinavian” -(as – also – Bernie argued) – while actually – as you hinted – these policies are just ”mainstream” in countries like France -(and/or Germany)
– WHY didn’t we stress the point –
that NO so called ”Conservative” in either France -(or Germany) would be willing to give up –
Job Protection
Payable Health Care –
Sick Pay –
Long Vacations
Free Education
The Amount of Green Deal already existing.

AND so take ”The Conservative Angela Merkel and all of her policies – which are actually ALL of Bernies and Liz Warren and AOC policies as prove that WE the (US) people just want the same as German Conservatives?

Perhaps that would have helped a bit – NOT to scare the people about ”Socialism” anymore?


Tim Worstall 03.21.20 at 11:32 am

“The really relevant comparison is between the US and other developed countries.”

That’s partly what I’m not convinced of. The French state disposes of what, 55, 56% of GDP? The UK of 41%? Expanding the UK state to French levels of government and redistribution would rather depend upon the success of the French model, no?

That difference between the UK and France being, by my eyeballing, a smidgeon larger than the difference between the US and UK. Certainly of roughly the same order of gap.


Tim Worstall 03.21.20 at 11:35 am

Sorry, one other point.

“All of this will require a substantial increase in the public share of national income, which can only be financed by reducing the share going to high income earners, and particularly the top 1 per cent.”

Difficult. The top 1% gain around 14% of UK national income. Even if all were used – and that’s the market number, not what they get after the current taxation system – it still wouldn’t finance the move to the French state. Not on its own it wouldn’t.


Louis N. Proyect 03.21.20 at 12:23 pm

Isn’t it time to retire the word socialism to describe a capitalist welfare state like Sweden? Such bounteous states, which are shedding benefits year by year under the competitive pressure from developing states like S. Korea and China, only existed because the capitalist class faced a powerful trade union movement and the alternative that Soviet-type economies presented. Victorious in the Cold War (Olaf Palme strongly endorsed military ties with the USA), the West’s dream came true. TINA.

So, with capitalism victorious everywhere, the planet is ill-equipped to deal with pandemics. To paraphrase the bible, “He that troubleth the communist house shall inherit the wind.”


Matt 03.21.20 at 12:24 pm

John, somewhat, I think, like 4 above, I’d like you to say more about why this view, as desirable as it may be, is properly “socialism” – right now, that looks a lot like branding, more than substance, but I assume you can say more. To take some comparisons, Alec Nove, in his (great) _The Economics of Feasible Socialism_ argues that any feasible and desirable socialist state would have to have, in addition to parliamentary democracy, an economy with the following mix:
1) state enterprises, centrally controlled and administered – centralized state corporations
2) State owned (or socially owned) enterprises with full autonomy and management responsible to the workforce, – socialized enterprises
3) co-operative enterprises
4) small scale private enterprises, subject to clearly defined limits
5) Individuals (e.g. freelance journalists, plumbers, artists, etc.)
(My reading of Nove’s book is, perhaps, an ironic one – that a desirable and democratic system that is properly “socialist” isn’t actually feasible, though that’s not his official take, at least. In any case, I think he’s done as much as any sympathetic person to show why each of the above has very significant problems.) The big difference is, of course, limiting private ownership to small-scale enterprise (and personal property and dwellings.) Here the difference between “socialism” and other views is pretty clear.

John Roemer, on the other hand (in _A Future for Socialism_) says that what socialists want is equality of opportunity for :
1) Self-realization and welfare,
2) political influence, and
3) social status.
Roemer argues that control of the means of production is purely instrumental towards these goals, to be shaped however best meets the goals.

Your view seems much more aligned with Roemer’s, but, as Roemer himself notes, the difference between his view and “liberal egalitarianism” are slim. (The main one he points out is, to use terms other than his, “self-realization” as he understands it is a particular contentious conception of the good that would be hard to square with certain sorts of liberalism. To my mind, liberalism wins here.) But, why is this a distinct view that should be called “socialism”, then, as opposed to just “liberal egalitarianism”? What’s distinctly “socialist” about this view or approach? So far, I don’t see it.


Hidari 03.21.20 at 12:33 pm


Errr…yes. And very obviously yes, incidentally (

Objective quantitative data consistently shows that the Scandinavian countries are, not to put too fine a point on it, the best places on Planet Earth. By any conceivable objective metric.

The only arguments I have heard against this are that Finland (e.g) is ‘really’ more capitalist than the US because (incomprehensible) reasons.

So….yeah. Incidentally, both the UK and the US are essentially unique amongst the advanced capitalist countries in that average life expectancy is falling (outside of total economic collapse* or war) so a prolonged period of silence from those touting those countries’ economic ‘achievements’ might well be in order.

*Something that both of those countries are now facing, so we may well expect this trend to accelerate even without the effect of the coronavirus.


Dipper 03.21.20 at 1:06 pm

Conservative believe in things such as free markets, low taxation, and minimal regulation because they believe that giving people more freedom to be creative and industrious, and fostering competition and allowing people who succeed under competition to be rewarded, makes for a healthier, more prosperous, society. In contrast excessive state control and removing opportunities for individual prosperity diminishes progress and creates a low-performance nation with excessive state intervention in the lives of individuals.

The fact that during a global pandemic in which in the UK hundreds of thousands of people may have a premature death the government in response takes socialist-like measures to preserve essential services and living standards does not invalidate that belief.

I have a horrible feeling that all the measures the UK government is quite properly taking at this time of crisis such as in effect a Universal basic income, protecting business from going bust, nationalising large parts of industry, are going to demonstrate that these socialistic measures have, in the medium and long term, highly damaging economic consequences.

I would also caution against drawing conclusions about the comparitive benefits of any particular course of action at this stage in the pandemic. It is early days.


Anarcissie 03.21.20 at 4:36 pm

It will be difficult to discuss the case for socialism when so many of you have so many different definitions of it.

I once thought it meant ‘the ownership and control of the means of production by the workers, or by the community in general’, but I have been roundly criticized for that elsewhere by alleged socialists. So I don’t know either.

Maybe someone should talk about not-capitalism instead. Uncapitalism.


eg 03.21.20 at 4:47 pm


I’m with you.

Would those who find the term “socialism” polarizing prefer “functional finance?”


bianca steele 03.21.20 at 5:08 pm

“made up as we go along”

This phrase and the ones surrounding it call, I think, for lots of thought. Maybe more suited to a poem or impressionistic essay than a blog comment. Are we to become Rorty’s ironists? Tofflerian futurists? Or develop “the seven habits of highly effective people” to allow ourselves to break barriers even as we regard them? I’m partial to mid-20th-century liberal pragmatism myself, but not everybody is old-fashioned.

More seriously, it seems to me the second half of the twentieth century saw a lot of serious thought, from socialists themselves, about the limitations of socialism for solving crises. (Those thinkers, entirely correctly, generally directed their criticism at the then liberal-industrial consensus as well.) All that hasn’t suddenly become irrelevant.


DigitalRob 03.21.20 at 5:09 pm

Tim Worstall @3: France’s Macron is facing mounting criticism for cutting spending on public services- including public health – or at least for not reversing cuts agreed to by his most recent predecessors.


Peter Dorman 03.21.20 at 5:28 pm

The intellectual attractiveness of socialism is a factor in its rise or fall, but only secondary.

How will the virus affect the political economy of capitalism/socialism? Hard to say without an analysis of why socialism withered away post-1968, but I can see two competing short-term impacts. First, economic collapse always weakens business. Capital now *needs* government to step in and support it, and only the absence of any political force prepared to drive a hard bargain obscures this. But second, a grim threat like the coronavirus strengthens the herding impulse — deference to authority, adherence to ritual or routines. Maybe, if the crisis persists, the immediate effects will wear off and we can enter a world in which the force of ideas might count for something. I’d give it a year or two at the earliest.


ravedubin 03.21.20 at 5:28 pm

Interesting sociological take at LRB blog. A few excerpts:

What is society? The most notorious answer we’ve been given in the
last forty years was a triumphant negation, uttered by Margaret
Thatcher in an interview with Woman’s Own magazine in 1987: ‘There is
no such thing!…There are individual men and women and there are

The term ‘social’ is ‘the weasel-word par excellence’, Thatcher’s
intellectual inspiration Friedrich Hayek wrote in 1979. ‘Nobody knows what
it actually means.’

With Britain heading towards a shutdown, lasting who knows how long, it
will quickly become evident how difficult it is to sustain society without
everyday sociality. The triumph of the Thatcherite and Hayekian vision
meant that we ended up with a ‘flexible’ economy in which a large number
of people are entirely reliant on the near-term vagaries of the labour
market for their day-to-day survival, with neither savings nor state
guarantees to provide any back-up when that market crashes. Wages, rent,
credit card repayments and everyday consumption are locked into their own
‘just-in-time’ supply chain, which is stressful enough even when it’s up
and running. Having spent decades overhauling the welfare state to promote
a more entrepreneurial, job-seeking, active populace, driven by an often
punitive conditionality, Britain has little to fall back on when the most
urgent need is for everybody to stay at home. The class divide between
rentiers (those who accrue income without having to do very much) and the
rest has immediately grown starker.

As everyone looks around anxiously in search of their ultimate backstop,
we are witnessing a collision between rival ideologies of society.
Communities look desperately to the state, while the state looks hopefully
to communities. Who’s to say how many desperate young men, seeing the
impotence of both, will instead turn furiously to the ‘nation’ as their
last resort?


Tim Worstall 03.21.20 at 5:39 pm

@12: ” Incidentally, both the UK and the US are essentially unique amongst the advanced capitalist countries in that average life expectancy is falling (outside of total economic collapse* or war) so a prolonged period of silence from those touting those countries’ economic ‘achievements’ might well be in order.”

That’s interesting news. UK life expectancy is here:

“There were small increases in male and female life expectancy at birth in the UK between 2013 to 2015 and 2016 to 2018 (0.2% and 0.1% respectively); the size of these increases was substantially smaller than those observed during the first decade of the 21st century. ”

Growth is slowing, but we’ve not got an actual retreat going on.

“Errr…yes. And very obviously yes, incidentally (”

That’s not actually JQ’s argument. Which is, rather, that an economy with that greater government involvement would do better in such a time of crisis as this. Therefore we should have that greater government because of crises.

“The only arguments I have heard against this are that Finland (e.g) is ‘really’ more capitalist than the US because (incomprehensible) reasons.”

The Scandis are markedly more free market – which is not the same as more capitalist – and less interventionist in the private sector economy. With larger welfare states as well.


Hidari 03.21.20 at 7:04 pm


‘The fact that during a global pandemic in which in the UK hundreds of thousands of people may have a premature death the government in response takes socialist-like measures to preserve essential services and living standards does not invalidate that belief. ‘

Errr….not it absolutely does. Some people have been questioning whether the news is really that ‘unusual’ and ‘peculiar’. Perhaps, they say, things have always been this way.

Well I’m an old man and I can tell you that roughly between 1985 (or 1992 if you want…after the first Gulf War) the big issues were whether Oasis or Blur were the best band in the world, and which particular New Labour drone was the most annoying. This was a world in which Bill Clinton’s marital infidelities dominated the front pages for months on end.

Since 9/11 and, especially, since 2008, the wheels have increasingly started to come off the capitalist machine. That doesn’t mean we are going to have a revolution…I’m not that naïve. But it does mean that capitalism is increasingly facing problems caused within the capitalist system which cannot be solved by ‘technocratic’ solutions produced within that same system. Endless imperial/colonial wars, spiralling inequality, increasing absolute poverty (deaths from hunger have been increasing since 2015 worldwide, and both the US and the UK face declining life expectancy) the ‘hollowing out’ of the democratic system by hucksters such as Trump, Johnson, Erdogan and Netanyahu, are all symptoms of an increasingly crisis wracked system. In other words, the Coronovirus lockdown is not a ‘once in a lifetime’ event that will come and go, like a flash flood, leaving no residue. It’s yet another crisis that will seamlessly ‘bleed into’ the next crisis and the next one and the next one, with the slowly ‘loudening’ drum beat of global warimng and the oncoming ecopalypse becoming increasingly audible in the background.

What this shows yet again is that, in the same way as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no ‘free market capitalists’ in a crisis. The first hint of trouble and all the ‘libertarians’ and ‘free marketers’ run as fast as their legs will carry them to suckle on the teat of the State.

And this matters because increasingly, there will be no ‘normal’, in the sense that was used in the 1990s: there will just be a spiralling increase in the level of the crisis as the 21st century lurches towards its bitter end.


Orange Watch 03.21.20 at 7:30 pm


The problem with the simplistic dichotomy you create in your first paragraph is that it ignores the actual mechanism behind what you describe as “removing opportunities for individual prosperity” as “excessive state control”. It’s not. It’s consolidation of capital and economic direction. This happens just as surely under unregulated markets as socialized ones; free markets consolidate into large-scale monopolies rather quickly when infrastructure and logistics allow for it – and modern infrastructure and logistics allow for private consolidation on the scale once reserved for states. The point of competition is not to reward everyone competing, it’s to eliminate all competitors but one, and more often than not in unregulated competition that will be most easily achieve by the largest competitor regardless of the quality of their performance.

Whether what you describe as “opportunities for individual prosperity” is desirable is an entirely different question, but economic class mobility allowing some individuals to begin enjoying dramatically higher standards of living than their co-citizens is no less constrained by free markets than by planned economies.


Anders Widebrant 03.21.20 at 7:53 pm

To me, this pandemic underlines the problem with what we could generously call an obsession with efficiency, although not without noting that it somehow is not applied to profit margins and cash hoards.

This is causing obvious problems, like militaries and hospitals reducing their emergency materiel stores. Less obviously, raising the retirement age effectively reduces our emergency store of labor, making it harder to do things like recruiting back recently retired healthcare professionals into service.


J-D 03.21.20 at 9:05 pm

Conservative believe in … minimal regulation …

No, they really don’t, as is easily demonstrated by comparing conservatives to anarchists, who really do believe in minimal regulation.

Conservatives, just like other people, want to see an end to the regulations they don’t like. But there are other regulations to which they have no objection, and to these they don’t object, sometimes not being aware of their existence, or not recognising that they are, in fact, regulations.

By definition, nobody believes in

excessive state control

The definitional point here is the definition of ‘excessive’. Nobody likes things ‘excessively’ hot or ‘excessively’ cold or ‘excessively’ salty or ‘excessively’ sweet; nobody likes things to be ‘excessive’ because that’s what ‘excessive’ means. Saying ‘that is excessive state control’ can only mean ‘that is a higher degree of state control than I find good’, so saying ‘I am against excessive state control’ can only mean ‘I am against those state controls which I do not find good’. Well, of course I am! but so what?

The number one example (there are others) of a form of state regulation which is not noticed as existing, or else not noticed as being a form of regulation–and which therefore escapes evaluation as potentially excessive regulation–is the law of limited liability. For centuries no such thing existed. Limited liability was created and is maintained by government regulation. Anybody who is serious about reducing government regulation of the economy, as an abstract principle, should be in favour of the complete repeal of all limited liability laws (or else needs a strong specific argument for excepting them, and I don’t know where they’re going to get that from), because those laws do more than any other kind of regulation to shape our present economy. If they were abolished, corporations as we know them would cease to exist (and with them would disappear, among other things, CEOs as we know them and the stockmarket as we know it). Which conservatives favour that? But if they don’t, why not?


Collin Street 03.22.20 at 1:01 am

Opportunities for individual prosperity is I assert a dog-whistle for “I want to be richer than other people are”. Otherwise he’d just say “prosperity”: the individual is important, and the only role that “individual” could play here is to allow for variation and thus for absence in some cases.

[it’s amazing how many right-wing positions are almost designed to empower or protect abusers, by cutting people out from access to alternative sources of authority or protection]


Faustusnotes 03.22.20 at 1:07 am

I would say more than socialism these societies need social trust. It is noteworthy how much better Asia is doing than the west in this current moment, with relatively successful responses in a wide range of different states. One thing a lot of them have in common is a greater degree of social trust. That means a sense of being able to rely on the good judgment and respectful behavior of your neighbours and colleagues, and a certain degree of respect for experts and people who should know what they’re doing. It’s often mistaken for docility by westerners but it makes a big difference. Watching the uk and us fall apart in just a week of pressure is quite edifying. And I think in the absence of social trust you are much more likely to turn to fascism than socialism.

Also education. As if the Iraq debacle doesn’t show just how useless western education systems are, surely this does. Everyone in the west has been raised to have an opinion and defend their right to express it but my god, as ph is showing on the other thread, it would be nice if just occasionally someone would value actually knowing something or getting something correct just once in a blue moon!


Collin Street 03.22.20 at 7:23 am

Saying ‘that is excessive state control’ can only mean ‘that is a higher degree of state control than I find good’, so saying ‘I am against excessive state control’ can only mean ‘I am against those state controls which I do not find good’.


J-D 03.22.20 at 10:06 am

Faustusnotes, why are you reading comments from ph? How can you not know yet that no good ever comes of that?


MisterMr 03.22.20 at 10:58 am


My guess is that the habit of wearing face masks even for common cold, that is considered good etiquette in Japan and I assume in other parts of Eastern Asia, helped keeping the contagion down at the beginning, whereas in Europe and also in the USA this habit does not exist so, since 60% of carriers are asymptomatic and there is a long period of incubation anyway, when the various governments realized the problem the contagion was already too diffused.


Hidari 03.22.20 at 2:05 pm

Anyone who believes Dipper’s ramblings that there is some alleged ‘normal’ which we can all go back ‘after all this is over’ need to read the screed by Matt Stoller (who is usually interesting and insightful as long as he stays away from the subject of China and ‘the left’).

‘The aerospace giant of course wants a $60 billion bailout. Financial problems for this corporation predated the crisis, with the mismanagement that led to the 737 Max as well as defense and space products that don’t work (I noted last July a bailout was coming). The corporation paid out $65 billion in stock buybacks and dividends over the last ten years, and it was drawing down credit lines before this crisis hit. It is highly politically connected; the board of the corporation includes Caroline Kennedy, Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein, three Fortune 100 CEOs, a former US Trade Representative, and two Admirals, one of whom is the board’s only engineer. Using the excuse of the coronavirus, Boeing is trying to get the taxpayer to foot the bill for its errors, so it can go back to making more of them.
But that’s not all. Defense contractors want their payments sped up, and I’ve heard they want to widen a giant loophole called ‘other transaction authority’ to get around restrictions on profiteering. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezo want “$5 billion in grants or loans to keep commercial space company employees on the job and launch facilities open.” They also want the IRS to give them cash for R&D tax credits. ‘

Etc. etc. etc.

This is of course the socialism which has always existed in the United States and the socialism which has ensured that it has become the dominant imperial/hegemonic power on the planet: socialism for the rich. And this is not some once in a lifetime ‘crisis’ after which we will all ‘get back to normal’. As the placards state: capitalism IS the crisis, and after this we will have another crisis and then another one and then another. There is no normal to get back to. As David Harvey always points out, capitalism can’t solve the problem, it can only shunt it around.

This is not the system not working. This is the system working, in the interests of those who created the system, and who, therefore, accrue the benefits of the system. How could it be any other way?

And it’s going to go on like this, endlessly, gradually getting worse, every year, every decade, unless we do something about it.


Fake Dave 03.23.20 at 1:39 am

I do think there is a tendency to lump all sorts of anti-capitalism under the relatively respectable banner of “socialism.” Communism and anarchism have such tarnished reputations that even sympathetic leftists are skeptical of anyone who willingly claims those titles. In particular, the old armchair revolutionaries and their propaganda-addled tankie descendants have saddled the far left with a reputation for close-minded authoritarianism and intellectual arrogance that’s very hard to shake. The broad turn toward an ill-defined moderate “Scandanavian” socialism in the post-Mao era doesn’t mean we all actually want to be like Denmark. It’s just a way of reassuring our interlocutors that we care about democracy and good governance more than weaponized ideology.


ravedubin 03.23.20 at 7:58 am

What’s called ‘Communism’ is better labeled ‘Marxism’ as someone like Kowakowlski, in his magisterial study, might have referred to the tendency.

Excerpts from 2 letters, one in 1846, the other in 1936 capture the view of ‘Anarchists’ on Marx and his literary vaporizing which he palmed off as a positivistic “science” (a la Freud):

Let us seek together, if you wish, the laws of society, the manner in
which these laws are realized, the process by which we shall succeed in
which these laws are realized, the process by which we shall succeed in
discovering them; but, for God’s sake, after having demolished all the a
priori dogmatisms, do not let us in our turn dream of indoctrinating the
people; do not let us fall into the contradiction of your compatriot
Martin Luther, who, having overthrown Catholic theology, at once set
about, with excommunication and anathema, the foundation of a Protestant
theology. For the last three centuries Germany has been mainly occupied in
undoing Luther’s shoddy work; do not let us leave humanity with a similar
mess to clear up as a result of our efforts. I applaud with all my heart
your thought of bringing all opinions to light; let us carry on a good and
loyal polemic; let us give the world an example of learned and far-sighted
tolerance, but let us not, merely because we are at the head of a
movement, make ourselves the leaders of a new intolerance, let us not pose
as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic,
the religion of reason. Let us gather together and encourage all protests,
let us brand all exclusiveness, all mysticism; let us never regard a
question as exhausted, and when we have used our last argument, let us
begin again, if need be, with eloquence and irony. On that condition, I
will gladly enter your association. Otherwise–no!

-Proudhon’s letter to Marx

“I call Marx ‘triple-faced,’ because with his particularly grasping
spirit he laid a claim on exactly three tactics and his originality
no doubt resides in these pan-grasping gests. He encouraged
electoral socialism, the conquest of parliaments, social democracy
and, though he often sneered at it, the People’s State and State
Socialism. He encouraged revolutionary dictatorship. He encouraged
simple confidence and abiding, letting ‘evolution’ do the work,
self-reduction, almost self-evaporation of the capitalists until the
pyramid tumbled over by mathematical laws of his own growth, as if
triangular bodies automatically turned somersaults. He copied the
first tactics from Louis Blanc, the second from Blanqui, whilst the
third correspond to his feeling of being somehow the economic
dictator of the universe, as Hegel had been its spiritual
dictator. His grasping went further. He hated instinctively
libertarian thought and tried to destroy the free thinkers wherever
he met them, from Feuerbach and Max Stirner to Proudhon, Bakunin and
others. But he wished to add the essence of their teaching as spoils
to his other borrowed feathers, and so he relegated at the end of
days, after all dictatorship, the prospect of a Stateless, an
Anarchist world. The Economic Cagliostro hunted thus with all hounds
and ran with all hares, and imposed thus–and his followers after
him–an incredible confusion on socialism which, almost a century
after 1844, has not yet ended. The social-democrats pray by him; the
dictatorial socialists swear by him; the evolutionary socialists sit
still and listen to hear evolution evolve, as others listen to the
growing of the grass; and some very frugal people drink weak tea and
are glad, that at the end of days by Marx’s ipse dixit Anarchy will
at last be permitted to unfold. Marx has been like a blight that
creeps in and kills everything it touches to European socialism, an
immense power for evil, numbing self-thought, insinuating false
confidence, stirring up animosity, hatred, absolute intolerance,
beginning with his own arrogant literary squabbles and leading to
inter-murdering socialism as in Russia, since 1917, which has so
very soon permitted reaction to galvanize the undeveloped strata and
to cultivate the ‘Reinkulturen’ of such authoritarianism, the
Fascists and their followers. There was, in spite of their personal
enmity, some monstrous ‘inter-breeding’ between the two most fatal
men of the 19’th century, Marx and Mazzini, and their issue are
Mussolini and all the others who disgrace this poor 20’th century.”

-Max Nettlau’s letter to a friend during the ascendancy of Stalinism, Nazism, and Fascism


MFB 03.23.20 at 9:12 am

Well, of course if you have a national crisis driven by the stripping of assets from the healthcare system and a general plundering of the poor to stuff the bank accounts of the rich, then that crisis would be best solved by socialism.

Now, how are we going to implement that solution?

Think, think . . .


Hidari 03.23.20 at 12:58 pm

While we, the, ahem, ‘good guys’, sit and talk about precisely how many unicorns everyone will have after the glorious socialist revolution, the right does what it always does: takes a crisis, seizes it (a ‘crisitunity’ as Homer Simpson once said) and uses it to enrich their mates and gut democracy. While the Republicans in the US are pushing through their corporate Coronavirus coup (with few people, Matt Stoller being amongst them, blowing the bugle of alarm), the Tories in the UK are pushing through their mindboggling Coronavirus bill, seizing powers unprecedented outside wartime and (yes, of course) banning all public meetings for 2 years. So you can forget about
all that Extinction Rebellion stuff for a good while.

This is why the Right keeps on winning and the Left keeps on losing.


reason 03.23.20 at 2:12 pm

Mr. Mister,
yes AND perhaps even more importantly, the willingness to do this has resulted in a much greater supply of these masks being available. I couldn’t get a mask if I wanted one (which maybe I will).


Stephen 03.23.20 at 5:57 pm

MFB@35 “ if you have a national crisis driven by the stripping of assets from the healthcare system”. Much virtue in your “if”.

I would be interested to know in which countries you believe there has been stripping of assets from the healthcare system.

China where the crisis began?

US where a very large proportion of GNP goes into the healthcare system? (Not necessarily well distributed, but that’s another matter.)

UK where expenditure on the NHS has increased year on year? (Not as fast as some would wish, but that’s another matter.)

Italy, Spain, France where there are obvious crises?

I hardly like to ask for further details about your claim that there has been “a general plundering of the poor to stuff the bank accounts of the rich”.

As you urged: Think, think.


ravedubin 03.23.20 at 9:44 pm

Hidari @36, sure, while in the name of “left unity” Marxheads (e.g. from jacobinmag) are carrying on their hatchet jobs on anyone else on the Left who takes the name of Marx less than reverently:

This is a good time for cleaning out mental cobwebs, if for no other reason than to go down the dead-end streets of the past as laid out by the “triple-faced” Marx and his acolytes.

A fine read outlining the bankruptcy of that man’s thinking is here:

I particularly liked the chapter on Trotsky (his mental acrobatics are a good index into why Trotskyite sects have always been highly toxic cults, e.g. ).

If anyone knows of availability of the other 2 volumes of Kolakowski’s magnum opus, feel free to share them.


Hidari 03.24.20 at 8:08 am


Yes, just imagine what horrors we would now be experiencing had the UK become a communist dictatorship. I mean, one can imagine a dystopian situation where the Dear Leader goes on TV and announces that from now on, except for essential purposes, everyone is to be confined to their houses. On the infrequent occasions that people manage to get out to the shops they discover that the shelves are stripped bare, and there is talk of bringing in food rationing. All public meetings and protests are banned, and the police have the right to enforce this ban.

Can one imagine such a horror.

We certainly dodged a bullet there, eh?


Hidari 03.24.20 at 8:14 am


You may be right, but I read such articles as these:

in good faith. Perhaps you know more about this than me.

‘The Scandis are markedly more free market – which is not the same as more capitalist – and less interventionist in the private sector economy.’

Yes that’s the argument that I do not understand. Not only do I not know what that sentence means, I have no idea what it could conceivably mean.

I also don’t understand who is being compared with whom here. . You seem to be implying that Finland is ‘more free market’ than the United States? Is that really what you are claiming?


ccc 03.24.20 at 10:45 am

The OP bullet point items are indeed important to have in place for a good crisis response but the post does not cover what to do, and when, to get them in place.

The most important political action for moving towards those items right now is: bailout conditions.

Matt Bruenig is on the right track in
“How can you bail out a corporation without also bailing out its owners? It is very easy: have the government provide cash to the corporation in exchange for corporate equity. The issuance of this new equity dilutes out the existing shareholders, ensuring that those shareholders ultimately eat the losses of the pandemic shock.”

A bailout situation is also a rift in the otherwise near inpenetrable mainstream political economic hegemonic discourse and morality tales about “makers/takers”, “responsibility”, “welfare queens”, “workfare” and more. Tables turn. Such openings should be maximally utilized. They make it much easier to push the case for strong conditions on bailouts. Bruenig again:

“Bailouts for equity also pass any kind of reasonable fairness test for three reasons. First, these firms are going to go bankrupt without a government cash infusion. So the incumbent shareholders have, in a sense, already lost their money. Second, eating losses from tail risks is precisely what shareholders sign up to do. This is supposed to be why they deserve an investment return in the first place: because they take on this risk. Third, any other investor would require equity in exchange for the kind of investment the government is being asked to make. There is no reason why the public should be suckers.”


Fake Dave 03.24.20 at 9:05 pm

I think Marx is fine to study and learn from. He’s still a core theorist of sociology and economics and had a deep historical impact. What’s weird is when people take a 19th Century theorist and strip him of his 19th Century context. My Sociology profs couldn’t explain/didn’t understand the European age of revolution or the specific politics of the post-Napoleonic hangover (“Metternich and Czar,” etc ). Instead, they kept using ahistorical or anachronistic examples to illustrate Marx’s principles. Marx obviously had a huge impact on the labor movements of the Gilded Age and inter-war period, but post-1917 “Marxism” is entirely its own beast. Lenin was a Marxist the same way Marx was a Hegelian. The intelectual debt was very real, but they were repurposing old ideas to their own ends. You aren’t going to understand Marxian communism by contrasting it with Gilded Age laissez-faire, postwar corporate capitalism, or contemporary post-industrial precarity.

When Marx wrote the Manifesto, slavery was still legal in most of the world, public executions and lynchings for minor property crimes were common, and Europe’s old empires were bankrupt from decades of war. Societies were suffused with violence and much of it was perpetrated in the name of the state. Put modern liberal democrats in that context and there isn’t a nation on Earth that we would recognize as peaceful, free, and democratic. Marx paints in broad strokes, but his disdain with what passed for liberalism in an era of reaction was utterly warranted. The problem is that the analogies to our modern class politics are not nearly as clear cut as the Leninists, the revisionists, or the current internet vanguard seem to think. The whole institutional edifice of the nation state was rebuilt during Marx’s lifetime and several times since. Even Marx might not be a Marxist anymore.


MFB 03.25.20 at 8:38 am

Obviously “Stephen” is a dishonest commentator, but nevertheless:

Essentially all healthcare systems in the Western world have been stripped of all productive assets in order to enrich the criminals gaming the system. This is the only way in which one can account for the incapacity of these systems to respond to the coronavirus epidemic, which is hardly a gigantic crisis by any serious standard.

Naturally, if one is dishonest, then one will talk about the enormous amounts of money spent on these healthcare systems, but this is a product of serving the interests of thieves and gangsters rather than of the general public. The money which has been spent, which was taken out of the public’s pocket on the pretense of improving healthcare, has been given to criminals who call themselves consultants, healthcare managers and the pharmaceutical industry. These criminals are not capable of providing healthcare, but they are capable of lying about their culpability all by themselves and do not really need the Stephens of this world to lie on their behalf.


Tim Worstall 03.25.20 at 3:17 pm

“You seem to be implying that Finland is ‘more free market’ than the United States? Is that really what you are claiming?”


The usual rankings used are from either Heritage or Fraser. These are both something close to classical liberal, or neoliberal even, definitions of freedom and free market.

Finland’s property rights, freedom to trade, less onerous business regulation are ranked above those of the US.

Roughly the same analysis here:|unitedstates&src=country

Given the prejudices of those doing the rankings (neoliberal etc) Finland is regarded as less overall free given size of government (big is bad) and tax burden (high is bad).

Thus the claim that the Scandis – or even only Finland here but the others have very similar rankings – are more free market than the US. With larger welfare states funded by higher tax burdens.

Whether that’s good or bad is a matter of taste. But that’s what the claim itself is.


Stephen 03.25.20 at 3:52 pm

MFB, dear boy (or girl):

You started out by claiming there was a “national crisis driven by the stripping of assets from the healthcare system”. I started by asking you how you thought that applied to China. You have not replied. To give you another chance:

Are you trying to pretend there has not been a national Covid-19 crisis in China?

Or are you trying to claim that the Chinese, governed by their Communist party, have stripped assets from their health system? On what evidence?

Over to you. Being called dishonest by someone who believes that medical consultants are criminals engaged in stripping assets from their health systems does not perceptibly distress me.


tm 03.25.20 at 5:09 pm

Macron recently made some remarkable statements.

«Il nous faudra demain tirer les leçons du moment que nous traversons, interroger le modèle de développement dans lequel s’est engagé notre monde depuis des décennies et qui dévoile ses failles au grand jour, interroger les faiblesses de nos démocraties. Ce que révèle d’ores et déjà cette pandémie, c’est que la santé gratuite sans condition de revenu, de parcours ou de profession, notre Etat-providence ne sont pas des coûts ou des charges mais des biens précieux, des atouts indispensables quand le destin frappe. Ce que révèle cette pandémie, c’est qu’il est des biens et des services qui doivent être placés en dehors des lois du marché. Déléguer notre alimentation, notre protection, notre capacité à soigner notre cadre de vie au fond à d’autres est une folie.»

They seem to indicate that Macron has realized that his market religion is not viable any more.


bianca steele 03.25.20 at 5:11 pm

Also possibly worth pointing out that the program in the OP isn’t likely what we’ll get, which will be an inadequate gesture towards doing enough of that program that its failings can be blamed, alternately, on individuals’ failures and shortcomings, and on their insistence on persisting in belonging to certain human categories.


ravedubin 03.25.20 at 10:19 pm

Hidari @40, no idea what you’re getting at.

Fakedave @43, It’s an interesting question why Marx attracts such sedulous reading from academics (my own feeling is that he left behind so many “bread crumbs” that work out well for “academic business”). This may be a harmless enough activity (comparable to being, say, a fan of Hegel’s lecture notes, or even the ideas of medieval thinkers, e.g. Nicholas of Cusa, etc.), but I’m afraid like that Marx like Freud–whose baleful influence was only removed after a half century of Sisyphean work by “revisionist” scholars like Frank Cioffi, Fred Crews, etc.–is too close to practical models that are still in operation today for comfort and letting him remain a particularly addictive (as Nietzsche said of Hegel: no cure for Hegelitis) “opium of the intellectuals” is not a bright move at a time when after 2 generations the left might finally be poised to gain some traction in the public mind.

Gabriel Kolko, imho, hit the nail on the head of why the models (“theories”) of Marx and many other thinkers of the 19’th century are better thought of as “anti-patterns” for those who wish to breathe new life into the term ‘Socialism’:

It may be best to let him rest in peace and not waste time and energy defending his writings.


Faustusnotes 03.25.20 at 11:56 pm

What are you talking about mfb? Most health systems haven’t been asset stripped and aren’t in the hands of consultants. This is a big crisis, not “hardly a gigantic crisis” and almost all of the response has nothing to do with the state of the health system – which is why Italy and Spain have failed. It’s an infectious disease and the main necessary response is social.

Anyone who says this isn’t a gigantic crisis is either dishonest or ignorant.


J-D 03.26.20 at 12:19 am

Essentially all healthcare systems in the Western world have been stripped of all productive assets in order to enrich the criminals gaming the system. … The money which has been spent, which was taken out of the public’s pocket on the pretense of improving healthcare, has been given to criminals who call themselves consultants, healthcare managers and the pharmaceutical industry.

A statement something like ‘this healthcare system has been structured to prioritise income for corporate executives in related industries over improved healthcare outcomes’ (or, perhaps, ‘the structure of this healthcare system needlessly diverts money to corporate executives in related industries and so reduces the opportunities to spend that money on improving healthcare outcomes’) is much less susceptible of misinterpretation than a statement something like ‘productive assets have been stripped from this healthcare system’, because it’s not easy to interpet what is mean by ‘productive assets in the healthcare system’.

For example, you can see in this video what some people might think of as ‘productive assets in the healthcare system’:
If you think of those as ‘productive assets in the healthcare system’, then obviously they haven’t been stripped from the healthcare system, they’re still working in that system and being productive there (not least by being in that video).

But that might not be what is meant by ‘productive assets in the healthcare system’. That’s an expression which to some people might conjure up images of high-tech hospital equipment such as heart-lung machines, dialysis machines, MRI scanners, and so on. It might also include a wider range of hospital equipment and supplies, such as surgical instruments, surgical wear, biohazard suits, anesthetics, medications, IV drips, gurneys, and so on. It’s easy to imagine somebody stealing drugs from a hospital pharmacy for recreational use, and I suppose that could be described as ‘stripping productive assets from the healthcare system’. It’s harder to imagine anything similar happening with the full range of things I just described. I can imagine somebody stealing, say, a heart-lung machine or, say, a scalpel from one hospital to take it (or sell it) to another hospital, but in that situation it wouldn’t be stripped from the healthcare system, just moved from one part of it to another.

But that might not be what’s meant by ‘productive assets in the healthcare system’ either. Some people think of money as a productive asset. However, if it’s money that is being referred to by the term ‘productive assets in the healthcare system’, then that’s not the simplest term to use to refer to it. It’s easier to understand the idea of funding being stripped (and/or diverted) from healthcare if it’s referred to as ‘funding’ and not as ‘productive assets’.

But that might not be what’s meant here either. I’m not sure. I’d need more explanation before I could be sure what was meant.


Fake Dave 03.26.20 at 12:57 am

If we’re looking for proof that healthcare systems have been hollowed out, the contrast with SARS is instructive. There are some
differences in infection and mortality rate, but the two viruses are still quite similar. (See here:

A deadly coronavirus with no immunity or vaccine was unleashed in China, quickly began to spread throughout Asia and the world, and was stopped in its tracks by a global containment program. Public health people knew what a close call it was, but the rest of us shook it off and didn’t really think much more about it.

Now that we see how badly it could have gotten, we can better appreciate what went right last time. Xi’s China and Trump’s America look particularly bad in comparison, but the whole post-Great Recession world order has come under indictment. Apparently, “crisis capitalism” only works when the crisis is manufactured.

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