Epidemic Economy: A Left Perspective

Duroyan Fertl

The coronavirus pandemic has triggered a global economic recession whose consequences will continue to be felt for years to come, but what comes next? Will we see greater monopolisation and concentration of market power? What, if anything, have we learned since the last financial crisis in 2009? Can the left take advantage of the crisis to win popular support for a new course, for a more social and sustainable alternative?

On 10 June, the Copenhagen-based Democracy in Europe Organisation (DEO) partnered with the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussels Office to host a debate with economist Dr Karen Helveg Petersen, author of Rent Capitalism: Economic Theory and Global Reality (2017), to look at the challenges and opportunities of the coronavirus crisis from a left-wing perspective. 

In her contribution, Dr Helveg Petersen outlines the uneven impact of the COVID-19 crisis and the increasing concentration of access to wealth and market power, a trend that has continued since the last crisis. The subsequent austerity response and the failure by governments to meet social needs after 2009 led to new openings and breakthroughs, such as Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, the Labour Party under Corbyn, and the Sanders campaign in the United States. 

According to Helveg Petersen, however, this window has mostly closed and these political expressions have been largely exhausted. In recent years, we have seen a return to trade barriers, escalating global tensions between the US, Russia and China, renewed conflict in the Middle East, and a rise in working-class nationalism, while governments have proven unwilling to match their climate words to deeds and the refugee crisis has continued.

The recent COVID crisis has only deepened the contradictions and exacerbated the situation for millions, with a surge in unemployment, bankruptcies, poverty and precarity and increasing public and private debt. As in the last crisis, governments have assumed huge debts on behalf of the private sector, with massive corporate rescue packages transferring trillions from public to private hands. The full health cost of the pandemic also remains unclear.

Helveg Petersen sees in these developments a reinvigoration of the class struggle, primarily from above. In response, she argues for renewed class analysis, international left cooperation and trade union organising. Indeed, she identifies the lack of left-wing political unity and cooperation, theory and analysis, and working-class organisation, as the major weaknesses of the left in Europe and further afield.

Nonetheless, Helveg Petersen sees openings for the left in the crisis – opportunities to tax tech giants and better regulate tax havens, for instance. The massive government social spending during the pandemic could be built upon with political pressure, extending to rolling out a truly green agenda to combat climate change. Helveg Petersen also foresees higher demand for labour in the coming years, potentially strengthening working class demands, but also exposing contradictions around the racist responses to immigration.

Helveg Petersen’s call is for the left to organise better, especially across borders, to bring the fight for change to all possible forums – from parliaments to workplaces and the streets. The left, she insists, must fight where power is concentrated, including at EU level. The left needs a strategy built on an undogmatic view of institutions and how to use them, combined with a healthy understanding of parliamentary accommodationism and the value of strikes and extra-parliamentary pressure.

She also warns against getting too caught up in the details. For example, in the climate struggle, there is a tendency to think in terms of ‘things’ or targets and numbers, which are vulnerable to greenwashing and corporate capture. Is a future of giant corporate wind farms and solar parks really the climate solution we want?

Finally, Helveg Petersen warns that the left needs to move beyond fighting for fixed policies and devise strategies for greater social change. Even mainstream economists are admitting that there is a need for a ‘massive rewiring of the global economy’, but capitalism’s ability to restore itself means any windows for change close as quickly as they open. The left must plan and organise beyond each crisis.

This is the second in a series of eight online debates to be held throughout 2021, addressing the COVID-19 economic crisis and mapping dilemmas, opportunities and strategies for the left. The meetings are a collaboration between the Democracy in Europe Organisation (DEO), the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussels Office and three left-wing parties: Enhedslisten (Denmark), Vänsterpartiet (Sweden) and Die LINKE (Germany).


About the author

Duroyan Fertl is a former political advisor for Sinn Féin and the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) in the European Parliament. He is currently Nordic Countries Coordinator for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Brussels Office.