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Pensions, COVID, and culling the herd

John Bell

November 10, 2023

For the world ruling class COVID was a golden opportunity to cull the herd and get their hands on some of our hard earned gains. 

First, some context.

In the wake of WWII the ruling classes of the industrial nations had a huge and profitable task: rebuilding after the destruction they had unleashed around the world, drawing untapped markets and work forces into their system in the process.

Profits boomed. The economic and imperial powerhouses of North America, Europe and to some extent the USSR could afford to improve living standards of their domestic working classes. They didn’t do it out of the goodness of their hearts. Workers were demanding reforms, so bosses partially granted them, to keep them complacent and even complicit in their imperial expansion.

And one of the reforms we had demanded was the creation of pensions from our bosses and governments – we allowed them to keep a portion of our wages or taxes to invest, and they promised to provide us with a comfortable old age.

For capitalists, raising the pay for auto workers in Detroit could be offset by the exploitation of gold miners in Indonesia, or garment workers in Haiti or Bangla Desh.

But capitalism, obsessed with maximizing profits and with competition in the here and now, is always blinkered by its inability to see the long term. An unintended consequence of rising living standards in the metropolitan centres was rising life expectancy. We were living better, we were encouraged to have more babies and we were living longer.

This strategy worked out pretty well for the bosses, notwithstanding the occasional inter-imperialist war or workers’ rebellion in the developing countries, for about 20 years. Then they realized that the “baby boom” of the 1950s and 60s was going to result in an unprecedented, and “unproductive”, number of elders hitting the system early in the 21st century.

At the same time expansion of global capitalism had more or less reached its limits. Bosses saw their rates of profit trending downward, and began to look back at the deals they had made with us in the boom years and began to look at our healthcare, or education and pensions. They licked their lips.

From the mid-1970s on we have witnessed an insidious campaign, first slow and subtle and then blunt and brutal, to rob of us of our pensions and renege on their deals.

First came the wave of “concession contracts” of the late 70s and early 80s. Auto corporations cried poor, and unions caved in by giving back some of their pension funds, and agreeing to 2-tiered workforces where new hires had far lower wages and pension provisions. And there came whispers from right-wing politicians and think-tank economists that those pensions we were led to expect might not be there when we needed them.

Along with this was a campaign to subtly redefine what pensions were, transforming from our deferred wages into government and corporate largesse. Our deal became their generosity, always an iffy thing. Our rights became “entitlements”.

Anyone who doubts this process should talk to retirees from Hamilton’s Stelco steel corporation. They literally gave their lives, sweat and blood to make their bosses rich and their city boom. Then when the steel industry restructured, downsized and went offshore, those workers were tossed aside. And the bosses used a conniving legal system to claim bankruptcy and steal back those workers’ pensions. (The recent huge win by the UAW strike may signal a turning of the tide.)

We were no longer striking and organizing to win new reforms and better lives. We were in increasingly bitter fights to hold on to what we had won in the past. Corporations lined up eager to buy our hospitals and schools, and our governments were eager to sell them. And bosses hatched plans to snatch back pensions.

The gift of COVID

Of course there was another way to keep our pension money in their pockets: get rid of all those old people. After all, they aren’t worth anything anymore, they aren’t working and their appetite for consumptions is lower.

The obstacle is that people generally like their mums and dads, their grammas and grampas. And of course elders aren’t worthless. They have a wealth of hard earned experience and, most precious of all in a system that fosters forgetfulness, memory.

Enter COVID, an opportunistic virus that struck hardest at the weakest demographics, the chronically ill, the disabled and the elderly. While populations and blindsided governments scrambled for a way to slow the pandemic’s spread, some of the more cold-blooded sections of the ruling class recognized that, amid the confusion, fear and death, lay the answer to their problem.

Not for a second was their concern for humans life and health. Their alpha and omega was to keep the wheels turning and the profits flowing. So we began hearing about the need for a “balanced approach” that would protect the economy. And as COVID’s impact came clearer, we began hearing about “herd immunity” – a thinly veiled argument for a mass eugenic experiment based on “survival of the fittest”. And if the fittest were usually the richest, so much the better.

The response to COVID by Britain and then-PM Boris Johnson provides a case study of the “let it rip” herd immunity strategy. A current public inquiry into Johnson and his Tory government’s handling of the health emergency is hearing word like “mad and dangerous” While the description fits, I believe it soft-pedals the sinister intent behind it.

A glimpse into that intent in Johnson’s reported belief that COVID was “nature’s way of dealing with old people.”

Johnson’s chief scientific advisor at the time, Sir Patrick Vallance, wrote in his diary that Johnson "thinks the whole thing is pathetic and Covid is just nature's way of dealing with old people - and I am not entirely sure I disagree with them".

The diary also notes Johnson was "obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going" and "we should let the old people get it and protect others".

Not that Johnson minded the idea of some young workers dying too. His former chief aide, Lord Lister, confirmed to the inquiry that his boss had ranted, “No more fucking lockdowns—let the bodies pile high in their thousands.”

All this is described as evidence of confusion and indecision. In fact, it is simply the logic of capitalism stripped bare.

A human-focused heath policy would protect the most vulnerable. A capital-focused policy would eliminate the vulnerable and protect more “valuable” workers.

Has the system passed judgement on Johnson for his deliberately murderous policies? He recently was promoted to the advisory board of the International Democracy

 Union, alongside Stephen Harper. The IDU is an influential group of high profile politicians and corporate heads dedicated to fostering ‘free market” absolutism, eliminating pubic services and promoting far-right politics around the globe.

Of the 175,000 COVID deaths under Johnson’s watch in the first 2 pandemic years, 7 out of 10 were elderly. Think of the pensions saved!


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