As pandemic restrictions ease, Canada should replace its capitalist system with a Scandinavian-style alternative

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A streetcar passes through a suburb of Stockholm, Sweden. Image: La Citta Vita/Flickr

As some Canadian provinces (and American states) prepare to relax their pandemic-driven social and economic constraints, many thousands of hitherto housebound citizens are flocking to stores, playgrounds and beaches.

Governments are urging these suddenly mobile people to maintain their self-distancing and keep wearing masks in crowded assemblies. But the enforcement of such restrictions is clearly impossible. Now, free from weeks of home confinement, many -- perhaps even the majority -- will be inclined to gleefully mingle and frolic.

This reduction in anti-virus safety measures, of course, is much too premature, as is the outburst of glee by the pleasure-seekers. With thousands still dying from the pestilence, and millions more infected, COVID-19 is far from being overcome. The provinces and states that are "opening up" their economies because the virus has so far killed relatively few of their citizens are risking a new and deadlier wave in the future.

Looking at the overall situation from a climatic rather than human standpoint, the likelihood of such an ongoing plague has some redeeming features. As is now evident, the sharp reduction in air, water and soil contamination induced by COVID-19 has cleansed the atmosphere and temporarily reduced global-warming oil and gas development.

Also curtailed has been the dominant global economic system, and with it capitalism's further infliction of poverty, inequality, ill-health, greed, pollution and planet-wrecking climate change. These, too, appear to be the outcome of a return to a pandemic-free capitalist economy.

Contemplating a perilous future

Replacing a virus that kills hundreds of thousands of people with a catastrophic business system that impoverishes and kills millions -- and, left unchecked, will eventually destroy most sentient life on the planet -- surely can't be considered a worthwhile prospect.

The pandemic has bankrupted many thousands of small and medium-sized business firms, but the big banks and other large corporations, although their profits have been trimmed, remain as powerful and influential as ever. They patiently await the waning of the coronavirus so they can resume their voracious consumption of Earth's non-renewable resources.

There may well be further waves of COVID-19 before an effective vaccine is discovered, but the cohorts of capitalism will ride them out, as they have the current outburst.

If we had a sane society, the many economic crises triggered by neoliberal capitalism would by now have exposed its devastation and lunacy, and prompted its abandonment. Instead, as Guardian columnist George Monbiot has pointed out, "The greater the failure, the more extreme the ideology becomes. Governments use neoliberal crises as both excuse and opportunity to cut taxes, privatize remaining public services, rip holes in the social safety net, deregulate corporations and re-regulate citizens."

COVID-19 has temporarily interrupted capitalism's reign of terror, but the reprieve is already being impaired. Probably well before the end of this year, the corporations will again be free to run amok -- to pursue economic growth and profits by any means they choose.

Profits at any price

Anything that can be developed, produced and sold for a profit keeps getting produced and sold, regardless of the ruinous long-term consequences. On the other hand, if something is actually needed to enhance public welfare, but would not be profitable, it doesn't get produced.

In such a ruthless capitalist system:

  • Extracting and selling global-warming fossil fuels is profitable.
  • Pillaging non-renewable resources is profitable.
  • Deforestation is profitable.
  • War, and the manufacture of tanks, warships and military hardware is profitable.
  • Offshore tax havens are profitable.
  • Poverty and inequality are profitable, at least for the millionaires and billionaires.
  • Ill-health is profitable for the big pharmaceutical companies.
  • Hooking kids on junk food is profitable.
  • Low wages and unsafe workplaces are profitable.
  • Purchasing politicians is very profitable.

Conversely, anything that would benefit most people, but be unprofitable or less profitable, is seldom undertaken. Reducing the high rates of disease caused by poverty and malnutrition, for example, would lower health-care costs, but would not be nearly as profitable as waiting for people to become ill so they can be treated with expensive and often debilitating drugs.

A grossly inequitable world

This is the pernicious and grossly inequitable world we are now forced to live in. It is a world in which billions of people suffer in abject poverty and squalor. It is a world in which millions are compelled to earn their living as employees of the planet-wrecking business barons. They have no choice if they want to keep feeding their families.

Most of them would much prefer to earn a living that doesn't involve extracting more climate-heating oil, more deforestation, more air and ocean pollution. But a pernicious global economy ruled by autocratic capitalists obsessed with aggrandizing their wealth and power does not offer them such benign and constructive employment.

Workers in the public sector, too, don't like helping their political bosses help the corporate marauders. But all these workers -- and their unions -- are hostages to a destructive international economic system. They see no better alternative than capitalism, and accept its blights of poverty and inequality as unavoidable.

They remain unaware that a much more benign and progressive economic and social form of governance has prevailed in the three Scandinavian countries plus Finland for decades. The citizens of these countries enjoy a fair distribution of income, completely full and free health-care, month-long annual vacations and a substantial guaranteed pension. Their living conditions may not be idyllic, but are far, far superior to those in other countries, including Canada.

Maybe, while waiting for the pandemic to subside, Canadians with an open mind may take a more critical look at the horrific capitalist system that afflicts them in so many ways. They could seriously explore its replacement with the kind of equitable, first-rate economic system that the Norwegians, Swedes, Danes and Finlanders have enjoyed for so long.

Of course, that also entails the replacement of our current decadent capitalist political system with a Scandinavian-style alternative.

Okay, so I'm dreaming in technicolour. But, occasionally, if rarely, some dreams do come true.

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer's apprentice, reporter, columnist and editor of that city's daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist included 14 years as a labour relations columnist for the Toronto Star. He was part of the world of politics between 1959 and 1962, serving as the first provincial leader of the NDP in Newfoundland. He worked closely with Tommy Douglas for some years and helped defend and promote medicare legislation in Saskatchewan. The post originally appeared on Ed's personal blog.

Image: La Citta Vita/Flickr​

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