The covid-19 pandemic has plunged the world into the worst economic crisis in the history of capital. Forty million people lost their jobs overnight in the United States; at the nadir, its gdp shrank by 32 per cent compared to 2019. Swathes of the global economy were decimated, from airports and airlines to taxis, ‘hospitality’ and the entertainments sector. Countries that possessed some degree of monetary sovereignty, notably the us, ran up huge debts largely funded by printing their own money at a frantic pace. The rest of the world—from Brazil to Turkey and Nigeria—had to borrow up to the hilt in us dollars. Private creditors are already on record for trying to extract blood from a stone in interest payments.footnote1 Demand plummeted, as incomes crashed with the lockdowns. Supply chains worldwide were instantaneously disrupted, illustrating inversely the ease with which the virus went global.

The few silver linings were mostly short-lived. Extractivism was put on the back foot—a halt to fracking in the West Texas Permian Basin, for example. Greenhouse-gas emissions fell and air quality improved: it was possible to breathe again in Delhi and Wuhan. Destructive forms of tourism disappeared, but then so did the revenues. The social value of a whole class of workers who provide the labour power to keep minimal services functioning was starkly foregrounded (without any improvement in their pay or conditions). Meanwhile, billionaires and corporations enriched themselves at the overflowing trough of public moneys, notionally provided to support the economy as a whole. The us stock markets also flourished, an artifice of central-bank policies to keep the investor class happy until longer-term accommodations could be worked out.

What might these longer-term changes involve? While recognition is emerging within the ruling bloc that, from its own viewpoint, new measures are urgently required, critical perspectives on what would be needed to go beyond the present form of capitalism are conspicuously lacking. The discontents fueling mass protests before the pandemic—from Santiago to Beirut, Baghdad, Tehran, Paris, Quito, Khartoum and well beyond—have only sharpened in its aftermath. To grasp what lies behind these mass frustrations may offer clues as to where critical energies should best be concentrated.

In part, these discontents can be traced to the neoliberal governing regimes of the past forty years. Under neoliberalism, the state’s goal is to support the growth and profitability of corporate capitalism and ensure the well-being of bondholders, lavishing all manner of favours upon the top 0.1 per cent. After forty years of austerity politics, labour and its institutions have been disempowered, public services have been gutted or privatized, hundreds of millions have been forced into precarious low-wage labour and debt peonage in order to survive, while capitalistic monopolies in energy, pharmaceuticals, communications, finance and education have been given free rein. When the virus struck, the public was for the most part defenceless, and states were unable to respond coherently. The international institutions set in place since 1945 conspicuously failed to provide elementary protections, let alone solutions. The failure to do anything about climate change had already demonstrated the emptiness of this policy box.

A second source of discontent is the failure of the dominant economic model that is supposed to pay us reasonable remuneration in return for putting us to work—to put food on our tables, shirts on our backs, shoes on our feet, phones in our hands and roofs over our heads. Here we need some understanding of how the circulation and accumulation of capital works on a global scale—and in what ways it might be defective in satisfying human wants and needs. Capital is defined as value in motion, which immediately poses the question, where is it moving to? Figure 1 offers a formal representation of the paths of capital circulation, as Marx mapped them.footnote2 The free gifts of nature and of human nature provide two kinds of commodities: the means of production and labour power. In combination, these produce commodities whose value is realized in money form through the operation of effective consumer demand, driven by human wants, needs and desires, or by state and capitalist expenditure.

At the outset, capital appears as money. The capitalist spends the money to buy commodities of equivalent value: labour power, machinery, semi-finished products, energy and raw materials. At this second ‘moment’ in the circulation process, value resides (as does capital) in these various commodities, waiting to be incorporated in production. In the next ‘moment’, workers use their labour power, under the direction of the capitalist, to re-shape the raw materials and semi-finished products to make a new commodity. This labour process preserves and transfers the pre-existing values, of labour power and the means of production, into the new commodity and adds a surplus value to it. Value, then, is a social relation, which operates as an ‘invisible thread’ within the circulation of capital, which takes on different material forms as it circulates.

Value is initially defined as the cumulative ‘socially necessary labour time’—past and present labour—embodied in these new commodities. The surplus value arises because the labour power employed congeals more value in the commodity than is required to pay for the value of the labour power itself, which is fixed by the value of the commodities needed to reproduce the labourer at a given standard of living. The new commodity is then sold in the market, an operation that transforms value back into the money form. But there is now more money than at the beginning. ‘Profit’ is the money name and material representation of surplus value. Capitalists typically seek to maximize their amassed profit, either by raising the rate of exploitation of labour power or hiring more workers to increase production. The total value realized in money form is then distributed to the various factions that have claims upon it: to workers in the form of wages, to industrial producers as profits, to merchant capitalists as a monetary reward for facilitating sales, to bankers as interest on their loans, to landlords as rent and to the state as taxes. The capitalists, driven by competition, then reinvest to make more profit, and the process starts again. Repeated production of surplus value creates, however, a net accumulation of values in the form of compounding growth. The reproduction of capital becomes a never-ending spiral of endlessly expanding accumulation in space and time.